Thursday, March 31, 2011

Expanding Waistline! Good For The Brain?

This news just in! Well, it isn't exactly news and it's not scientific. But each and every one of the following mini-epiphanies I've come to this week started with my own inability to fit into any of my favorite pairs of pants comfortably. It seems I've taken too many liberties with the carpool snacks I provide for the girls and the stash of Theo Chocolate I have in the cupboard. Add to that the crazy schedule I've had over the past few months that makes it difficult to get to yoga regularly, and more often than not in the past week I have found myself almost resorting to lying on my back to zip my jeans up. Not acceptable.

So I have decided to conquer this latest bulge with mindfulness. I am not very mindful about food as I'm putting it into my mouth. I am terrifically conscientious about planning and cooking meals, making sure they are healthy and well-balanced (and gluten-free), but once it comes to the eating stage, all of my thoughtfulness goes out the window. And snacks are my kryptonite. This week, I have resolved to stop and think before anything gets consumed by me. Do I need this? Do I even really want it? Why am I eating right now? Will ten of them necessarily taste ten times as heavenly as one?

Seems that mindfulness regarding food consumption is contagious to other parts of my life. Here is what I've discovered this week so far:

  • The things that my girls do that make me gnash my teeth the most? It turns out that they know those things make me batsh*t crazy. But even more profound is the fact that, when I examine the issue, those are the things I most despise about myself. Hmmm. Ick. Am I trying to change them so I don't have to see them reflecting me back to me?
  • For several months at the end of last year I began wondering whether I was having early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and that's not a joke. Both of my grandmothers had it and it is truly frightening. I was having difficulty recalling things from my short-term memory and took to bringing a notebook with me wherever I went so that I could write down tasks I needed to remember, things I needed at the store, and writing prompts for later. Mostly I talked myself out of panicking, saying that it was normal aging, but I really was worried. Then I went off of my anti-depressants and now, four weeks off of them, my short-term memory is greatly improved. They say writers need to have some angst and while I'm doing fine off of my meds for now, I wonder if they made me a better writer or a worse one. On the meds, I didn't begin every day wondering when the depression was going to smack me upside the head, but I had difficulty recalling simple things. Off the meds, I'm a little more nervous about impending doom, but I can at least keep track of what I wanted to write about.
  • Success (mine, anyway) can only be had one moment at a time. All I have is this, right now. I can beat myself up for the handful of dark chocolate raisins I ate last night without being mindful at all, and use that as an excuse to eat another handful or think poorly of myself. I can worry that there are more in a bag in the pantry and I will surely want them again later. Or I can sit in this moment right now and acknowledge that I don't want them right now. This moment, right here, where I am doing what feels good to me (writing, listening to the clothes tumble around in the dryer, furry dog on my bare feet) is a success.
I don't know if all of this is going to help me fit into my jeans better next week or next month, but I do know that each baby step I take toward living in this moment and being honest with myself about what I'm doing and why can only help.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Building Community

Everyone wants a village. In fact, I'm convinced that it takes a village to raise us all - not just our children. When I tell people about the neighborhood I live in, (six houses, fifteen kids, eight dogs, three miles from downtown, neighbors who are willing to wait for your kids at the bus stop if you're running late...) they turn all shades of envious. We aren't nosy or in each other's faces, but we do know that if someone is hurt or sick or in need of a good book to read, there's always someone willing to share. When Bubba was in the hospital, they brought meals, mowed our 1.5 acre lawn and offered to watch the girls. We carpool from time to time and have communal garage sales and care for each others' pets when someone is out of town. It rocks. And when Bubba and I discuss moving from time to time, I am struck with worry that I might not find this again.

So when I was listening to an interview with Peter Lovenheim, author of the book pictured above, I was glued to my seat. His book chronicles his own attempt to create a tight-knit, invested community in his own neighborhood and the changes that came about for everyone as a result of it. Later in the conversation, the NPR commentator brought in a social anthropologist (forgive me, I forget his name) who pointed out how American communities have changed over time, citing commutes, distance from family, and dual income households as some of the reasons we have grown distant from our neighbors. Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, it is clear to me that most Americans want what I have, but not many of us know how to go about getting it. And beyond desire, it is even more clear to me that we all need this kind of connection in our immediate backyards. Who couldn't raise their families better with support from their neighbors?

One comment made during the program that struck me was regarding women as the social center of the family. The social anthropologist noted that, before women went into the workforce in vast numbers, it was their "job" to connect with neighbors, join the PTA, volunteer for civic organizations and plan social engagements for the family. They were the ones who spent time in the immediate vicinity of the home and had the greatest opportunity to become engaged in the life of their own community. I think that that is still true for most of us. While there are many fathers who volunteer as coaches for their children's sports teams and who join the PTA, it is the women who tend to find ways to get entire families together to socialize or help one another out. Bubba might initiate an invitation to his co-worker's spouse, but it is me who puts together an invitation to dinner at our house. It is me who arranges carpools to sports practices and hears about the cancer diagnosis someone's mother just received. It is the women in our neighborhood who call around and set up meal calendars to help out the family suffering from illness or injury. I might recruit Bubba to help out, but it isn't in him to organize a community effort like that.

I am not saying this to be disrespectful or disregard men's efforts in social engagement. I simply know that, if Bubba were in trouble, he would not reach out to another guy for help with meals or carpools or household chores. He might, maybe, possibly ask his mother (who lives 300 miles away), but he wouldn't think to approach a neighbor. And while he would have no problem helping a neighbor out, he isn't likely to flat-out ask if one of them needs help. Whatever the reasons, I learned long ago that people are more than happy to help when asked. I used to feel 'weak' or 'pathetic' when I couldn't manage my own life every second of every day and it was for that reason that I resisted asking for help. But when I was forced to, I noticed that my neighbors felt better about themselves when they could pitch in. And my kids learned to trust these "strangers" because of their willingness to help out. They also learned to ask if they could help when they saw that someone was in trouble.

It is satisfying to send a check to the Red Cross for relief efforts when some natural disaster happens. But it is so much more rewarding to head over and mow your neighbor's lawn for them when you know that Dad is away on business for two weeks and Mom has her hands full working 40 hours a week and raising three kids. There is no tax deduction for that, but there is the knowledge that you've done something tangible for someone who really needed it and, without keeping score, the next time you could use an extra hand, you know that another neighbor will be there.

Beyond pitching in to help each other out, the trust that is established between neighbors like this leads to fun as well. In the summer, I often look outside to see that an impromptu soccer game has begun on our back lawn and the bucket of sidewalk chalk is splayed across the driveway as a street mural is created throughout the cul-de-sac. On any given summer evening, the girls might be out riding bikes with some of the other kids from the 'hood and I can bring out a bottle of wine and some extra glasses. The next thing you know, there are a few other parents sharing the lawn with me as we catch up on each other's lives and watch our kids goof off.

I'm certain that growing up with this village around them will help my girls to feel connected to their wider community and continue to seek this kind of neighborhood throughout their lives. I know that they will think nothing of asking for help when they need it and offering it when they see someone who could use it. Learning so early on that we are stronger together is one of the best things I can teach my kids. Learning to trust others and know that you have a safety net close by is so valuable.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lifelong Learning

When I was a child, I looked forward to the day when I could stop "learning" and just be secure in my knowledge of, well, everything. For a while during my teenage years I put on a good show that I already knew everything, but to that girl in the mirror I admitted I was frightened that I only had a few years left to learn so much more.

Lucky me! Turns out there is no "all" to know. Fully present in my fourth decade on this planet (yes, I don't turn 40 until October), I often feel as though my learning has accelerated in the past five years. I'm not exactly sure why, or what is to come, but I do know that I am much more open to new experiences and perspectives than I ever have been before in my life. I am genuinely curious about a vast range of things and somewhat frustrated that my brain isn't nearly as absorbent as it was when I was eight or nine or ten.

More than the actual collection of data, though, is the way in which I understand things as an adult. Thanks to the knowledge have gained from a variety of sources about many disparate things, I am often able to put together pieces I wouldn't have in the past.

This realization has come to me recently as both a fascination and a curse. When I completed the rewrite of my manuscript a little over a year ago, I took off my "Writer" badge and replaced it with a "Salesperson" one. I had polished the book thanks to help from an editor and was ready to find an agent and publisher. In the meantime, I've donned the "Writer" badge for other projects - blog posts, essays to submit to various publications and contests, and a new nonfiction book project - but haven't really revisited the first manuscript except to update the introduction to reflect relevant changing political issues.

For the last couple of weeks, I have felt a tugging on the "Salesperson" badge. I have found myself wondering if I ought to look over the manuscript again and give it some more attention. After several agent rejections, I thought maybe there was something they were seeing that I hadn't. Then last week, I spoke with someone who might be able to help me find an agent (it's not what you know, but who you know...) and I found myself describing my project in a much different light for some reason. By the time we hung up, I realized that my personal evolution in the months since I completed the edits might do well to be reflected in my writing. Before submitting the first two chapters, I decided to take a good, hard look at them.

I was appalled. The chapters read like a newspaper story - facts squarely at the forefront, devoid of most emotion, and completely lacking in any communal human, spiritual (not religious) context. I spent most of the weekend rewriting these two chapters to express the deepening knowledge I have come to have about what it means to be a woman, a human being fearful of consequences and repercussions, and how emotional isolation compounds that fear. I know that these chapters are much more powerful and meaningful because of this new perspective and, while I know I have much work ahead of me to weave those threads through the rest of the manuscript, I am grateful to have had this past year or so to stretch my awareness and understanding. Of course, this all leads me to wonder whether twenty years from now I'll pick up my own book somewhere and laugh at the naive almost-40-year-old who wrote it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Reviews

I have two new book reviews up on the Elevate Difference site and will have two more before we're all done there. The founder, Mandy Van Deven, recently took her "dream job" with a nonprofit agency in New York and decided she doesn't have the energy and time it will take to continue to maintain the site as well. If you've been to Elevate Difference, you've seen the terrific book, product, music, and movie reviews posted there, all with an eye toward celebrating uniqueness and differences and raising awareness of women's issues. I am deeply indebted to Mandy, both for creating this site and for taking a chance on me as a reviewer. Review 1 and Review 2

When I left my paying job last summer, I had no idea what was in store for me as a writer, and the regular deadlines I had for book reviews gave me the structure I needed to write every day, not to mention the luxury of two free books a month. I love having the regular editorial feedback and the instant gratification of publishing book reviews online and reading comments from visitors to the site. More than all of those things, though, writing reviews for Elevate Difference gave me permission to call myself a "Writer." Despite spending over five years researching, writing and rewriting my manuscript, without a physical book to present to anyone, I resisted giving myself the title of writer. Seeing my name attached to book reviews opened that door a crack and, shoving my way through it before anyone could cry, "Foul!" I began work on my second book and have started submitting work to magazines and anthologies. I am still seeking an agent for my book-length projects, but Elevate Difference has afforded me validation in my own mind and that is something more valuable than any book deal. Not that I'm going to turn one down if it comes my way, mind you.

I am working on two final reviews for the site and will be sad when they are complete, but I hope you'll come by and check them out along with all of the other great work that exists at Elevate Difference. Thanks for your vision and dedication, Mandy!

Monday, March 07, 2011

March Writing Links

While searching for a place to submit essays, I stumbled across this handy website that produces newsletters for writers listing anthologies seeking submissions and other places to send your work. Needless to say, I signed up at Poets & Writers instantly. And I found an editor looking for submissions similar to the piece I started writing just for the hell of it (well, more because I couldn't keep it in my head for all it's incessant leaping against the inside of my skull). The only problem is that the deadline is next Tuesday which means I'll be working hard to tweak the essay into submission-worthy form before then.

And speaking of freelance writing, for those of you who don't already know of her, Jenny Rough is a terrific writer who blows me away with the trajectory of her writing career thus far. She was an attorney in LA who discovered that she was not spending her days the way she wanted to, and she is way too young to be doing that, so she decided to make a change and jumped into writing with both feet. When I first met her, she admitted (and not even sheepishly) to a room full of writers who were working on book length projects that she had no interest in doing that. She just wanted to freelance. Jenny is a prime example of "ask and you shall receive," because not only does she freelance, she teaches others how to do it, too these days. Check out her blog and her body of work. If you aren't impressed, I've underestimated your need for adrenaline!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Sex Ed

Sex Ed. Ooh, the phrase strikes fear in the hearts of so many for such a variety of reasons. I'll admit that, as the mother of two daughters, I was a little afraid to broach the subject, too, and with Eve being the first of my girls to get any sort of formal sexual education at school, I was curious and a nervous. But, three weeks into the six week program, I have to say that I don't even know why it is called "Sex Ed."

Let me preface this by saying that my own personal experiences with Sex Ed are basically two: mine and Eve's. I have no idea what the curriculum is like at most public schools these days. I only know what I got (an awkward, red-faced teacher whose attempt to educate us was limited to a thirty minute film coupled with two worksheets that basically described male and female reproductive anatomy), and what Eve is getting and the two are not even in the same universe.

Of course, any faithful reader of my blog has read my fawning words of praise for Eve's school here and here, so I suppose none of the following should come as a surprise. But, that being said, I honestly think that even if half of the content given to Eve and her fellow students is presented in public schools today, we ought to rename the class itself and maybe douse that fear strike with a big ol' bucket of water.

While the staff at Eve's school do tackle those big scary concepts of anatomy and development and *gasp* sex, there is so much more involved. Like discussing how we make decisions and why. Like understanding that, in the heat of the moment, we often can't rely on our brains to give us accurate enough information so it's important to build a moral framework that will carry us through. Like learning to accept that our bodies and minds are changing and making friends and staying true to ourselves during those shifts is really, really hard. They ask the girls to think about whether the pediatrician they've seen since the day they were born is someone who they can comfortably talk to about their period and their body image. If not, they want the girls to explore whether they feel like they can talk to their parents or guardians about that and find someone who they can trust and talk to. They talk about peer pressure and nutrition and how they can take care of their bodies and cherish them, no matter the package they come in.

The lessons are also broken down into developmentally appropriate classes so that the eighth graders are getting slightly more sophisticated information than the 5th graders that makes sense to their lives and acknowledges the fact that they are moving on to high school where relationships are vastly different. Last week, the sixth graders wanted to talk about their periods, and the teacher divided the class into groups of three or four and asked the girls to put on skits about having their periods to demonstrate what they already knew, or thought they knew. One group of girls designed a show around a girl who lives with her dad and was mortified to have him take her to the local drugstore to buy tampons. The third member of their group was the nearly-deaf cashier who insisted on hollering, "TAMPONS? I THINK TAMPONS ARE ON AISLE THREE!" in the middle of the store. Another group showcased a young girl who desperately wanted to cancel a sleepover she was going to because she was having her period and was embarrassed to think about throwing away soiled maxi pads in someone else's bathroom or leaking blood onto her pajamas unknowingly. Once she found the courage to confide in her girlfriend, it turns out they were both cycling right then and everyone had a good, hearty laugh.

These girls astound me with their cleverness and honesty. And the staff bring tears to my eyes with their willingness to listen to the concerns these young ladies have. There is an anonymous question box that has served to enlighten everyone simply because nobody has to raise their hand and ask the embarrassing question everyone wants the answer to.

More than anything, though, I am pleased that "Sex Ed" is treated like just another subject at Eve's school. These girls are given information that they need just as much as long division or social studies and encouraged to participate by asking questions and exploring ideas outside of school. Eve asked me the other day, as I was driving her and five of her classmates in the carpool, about my first period. I told her honestly: I was in seventh grade and went to the bathroom during the break between Algebra and PE to discover a lot of blood in my underwear. Nobody had ever talked to me about menstruation, so the blood that showed up after a morning of back cramps told me one of two things - either I had some horrible childhood cancer, or God was smiting me for making doe-eyes at Eric during math class instead of listening to the teacher. Either way, I was going to die, but first I had to stuff half a roll of toilet paper into my pants before heading off to PE. The girls were mortified and they all vowed to bring pads to stash in their lockers the next day in case they started their periods at school.

When I think about the things these girls are learning that have nothing (or at least, very little) to do with actually having sex with anyone, it makes me sad to know that there are families in my neighborhood who purposely keep their own children home on the days Sex Ed is scheduled. I am disheartened that the curriculum is even saddled with that particular name, given that these are tremendously important life skills that are being offered, but that the politicization of sex has frightened so many into thinking that we are, instead, encouraging our children to think about sexual intercourse by teaching them about their bodies. What I see them learning is how to understand and care for their bodies, how to ask questions that are important to them (even if they prompt blushing), and the notion that adults in their lives trust them enough to give them this information that is vital to their well-being.
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