Thursday, December 20, 2012

What I've Always Wanted for Christmas

To be a published author.  On paper. And now, a mere five days before the day itself, I have proof that I am!

Several months ago the lovely, wise Michelle alerted me to a call for submissions she thought would be 'right up my alley.' It was.  Cherry Bomb Books was putting together an anthology in response to what the media was calling the "War on Women" in the United States.  I submitted an idea, the editor decided to run with it, and the last few months have been a whirlwind of writing, re-writing, editing, more re-writing, and more editing.  Kim Wyatt has my undying gratitude for her masterful ideas and the way she pulled more out of my words than I ever could have alone, and I can't wait for people to read this book.  Follow the link to Cherry Bomb's site to learn more and preorder the book.  It will be released on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 22, 2013, and I am so proud to be included in this list of magnificent writers.

Eve and Lola saw the cover art and raised their eyebrows, read the title and promptly said, "We can't talk about this to Grandpa!" and giggled.  I agree it's provocative, but that's the point, isn't it?  More to the point, however, is the myriad of perspectives from a terrific group of women 40 years after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, despite the battles that have been fought over it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

That's the Way We Roll: Holiday Version

It is our first Christmas in the new house and so far, it has been a lot of fun to figure out how exactly we will do things differently this year.  Where is the best place for the Christmas tree? Where will everyone sleep when they come? Which bathroom gets the holiday towels, or should we put them in the kitchen?

Some things don't change, like the girls putting on Santa hats and Christmas music while they decorate the tree together, Bubba and I popping in to stuff something yummy into one mouth or another and hang a favorite ornament.  Others had to change; we have no lights on the outside of the house this year because this 100-year old gem doesn't have an electrical outlet outside.  We mixed a few things up by going to the Nutcracker for the first time in years to see four of Eve's classmates dance and by getting our shopping done early so we could have time to prepare for the arrival of Bubba's entire family this year.

But what won't ever change is the odd little things that make us who we are.  You know, those unexpected events that you just can't plan for or that make you laugh when you realize how others must see them.

For example...

Every year around Halloween, Eve and Lola begin deciding what they'll make for everyone for Christmas.  I started this tradition when they were toddlers with salt dough ornaments that they painted and gave to grandparents and aunts and uncles.  As they aged, the girls had fun exchanging homemade gifts with their cousins, too, and every year we work to come up with something that will be fun and meaningful without being useless.  Just in case any relatives happen to read this before December 25, I won't reveal what Lola chose to make for everyone, but Eve, well, since we had to come up with Plan B, I can say that she wanted to make dark chocolate almond biscotti for her gifts this year.  We amassed all of the ingredients and spent hours on Sunday making our own gluten-free flour blend, toasting almonds, and mixing the dough.  I have never made biscotti before and didn't realize it is a two-step process, where you bake the loaves of dough once, cool them, slice them and then bake them again until they are crisp and crunchy.  The house smelled divine.

We finally finished late Sunday evening and couldn't package the treats until they were cool, so we set them aside until morning.  Monday morning was a mad dash to get to school on time and I nearly came home and tucked each biscotti into its own gift bag but decided Eve would probably really enjoy doing that herself, decorating each one with ribbons and labeling them appropriately.  I ran around the house, cleaning up and making lists and when I left to get the girls from school the biscotti still sat in neat rows on the cookie sheet near the stove.  When I came home the pan was overturned, the kitchen floor was coated in a fine dust of crumbs and the dog lay under the kitchen table moaning, his whiskers sprinkled with evidence.  He had eaten them all.  Off of the kitchen counter.  In the 20 minutes I was gone.

Predictably, Eve was furious at the loss of hours of hard work and panicky that we wouldn't have time, between basketball practice and homework this week, to make more.  I was disgusted with the dog and myself for not packing them all up safely, and more than a little worried that the dog had ingested a lot of chocolate.  Beyond being incredibly thirsty all night, he didn't seem to show any outward signs of illness, and I figured we would be lucky if he just ended up with a serious case of constipation.

Tuesday morning I took him for a walk after dropping the kids at school and was rewarded with, well, chocolate biscotti.  Not only was he not constipated, but he filled three bags with poop that was dark, dark brown and studded with almonds.  Slightly different shape, same look.  If I hadn't known better....

So this morning I headed out to the UPS store to mail the goodies the girls made to family members we won't see this year.  I had everything divided in to three groups that just needed boxes and packaging.  As the clerk began typing in the addresses one by one, he remarked that each of the destinations was within a short distance of the others with two being in the same town.

"Too bad these people aren't all getting together for the holidays, and you could just send it all in one box and save yourself some money."

"Nope," was my reply. "They all know each other, but..."  my voice trailed off as I realized the irony.

As the groups of gifts were lined up, they were going to

a.  my dad's first wife (my mom),
b.  my dad's second wife,
c.  my dad's third wife.

With a line of people behind me, I pointed that out to the clerk who laughed and admitted he'd never heard that before.

Oh, well. We're quirky like that.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Messy Kind of Gratitude

On Friday I was inconsolable for much of the day, my grief only giving way to let flashes of anger and indignance in as I posted sharp calls for gun control and increased funding for mental health on my Facebook page.  Mostly, though, I sobbed.

At some point, I knew I had to turn off the radio and move forward, however slowly, and so when I picked Eve and Lola up from school, I decided I was done for a bit.  We talked about the Newtown school shooting until Lola plugged her ears and begged us to stop and then we all huddled together in a shaky hug and agreed to let it sit for a while.

The weekend was full of affection and family time.  We didn't turn on the news at all - radio or TV - and instead went to see The Hobbit and baked holiday treats to share with family.  I checked Facebook and my email very sparingly and only once or twice asked myself whether I was avoiding something I ought to be paying attention to.  I didn't answer myself.

Despite a friend's suggestion to watch President Obama's speech at the interfaith service held on Sunday, I skipped it.  I am not sure whether I was afraid it would crack me wide open again or if there was something else at work but this morning I feel as though I know how I can best frame all of this for myself.  At least for now.

I started a gratitude practice about a year ago in an effort to ward off depression.  When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most challenging time for me.  I often woke up with only one eye at a time so I could gauge whether that semi truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I put my feet on the floor.  A friend suggested that before I open my eyes, I start a list of things for which I am truly grateful. A sort of shield against that truck hurtling my way.  I figured it couldn't hurt.

In the beginning it was hard to come up with a list. Not because I don't have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an innate tendency to qualify them.  As soon as I think of one, I either compare it to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and my friend's aren't, which effectively soils the gratitude, or it feels trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills.  Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting - either for more 'pure' things like love (which feel too nebulous to me to be grateful for sometimes), or for deep, profound items on my list.  I am nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated to keep the depression at bay, and so, pathetic as my lists could be sometimes, I kept going. I hoped that maybe tomorrow I would come up with something beyond my kids, my husband, and my health to be grateful for.

I have, to be sure, developed my understanding of gratitude over the past year, but this morning I came to a much greater sense of how to incorporate it into my life.  Since I began this practice, I have seen gratitude as a balance sheet, a yin and yang where the black never bleeds into the white.  Where the two sides are separate and I can choose to exist in either one world or the other at any given time.  Where even if I saw something on that ugly side of the page that felt overwhelming like the Newtown shooting I could quickly jump to the other side and say to myself, "My kids are healthy and safe at their school right now. I am so grateful for that."

This morning things got a little muddy.  Because the fact is, I do exist in both of those realities simultaneously and I don't want to compare the two things.  I came to realize that I can be knee-deep in the muck that is my sadness and grief about the events of last Friday and still find beauty in the world.  The two things simply are.  One does not cancel the other out.  One does not mitigate the effects of the other.  One does not explain or deny the other. They both simply are.  And I can be in both at the same time and have both utter desolation and an appreciation for the gifts I experience without judging.

When my father was dying and we both knew it,  we were devastated.  We could sit together and acknowledge that we wouldn't likely have much time left together and still find joy in silly things like stories about my girls' antics or watching a football game.  It wasn't about forgetting or denying that he was dying, it was about recognizing that and allowing it and sitting with it as we found love and companionship.

I think, too, it is about acknowledging my particular place.  That I can be a force for love and light in the world when I remember to do so. And that there will be times I am fully flawed and I spew anger or create chaos, but that both the dark and the light exist within me, not in discrete spaces sealed off from each other, but swirled together in a vast, cosmic mud puddle where I will sometimes squish into the muck and other times splash with joy.  And I am but a small reflection of the world in which I reside that also contains both of these elements.  In this way, choosing to honor those things for which I am grateful is not a denial or refusal to look at the things I find painful or ugly, but an acceptance that they are as real and as valid as the other.  Today, that makes the beauty a little messier, but no less wonderful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

News Flash: I Don't Have All the Answers. No, Really, I Don't

I finished my Christmas shopping yesterday.  And before you stop reading and curse me, letting phrases like, "F*&^ you!" and "well, la tee dah" fly, I want to take you on a thought journey.  Please. Indulge me.

It all began with an afternoon latte and a friend who was talking about a business class she once took. Never mind that the entire notion of her taking a business class shook me nearly out of my seat - she was a theater arts major with a beautiful singing voice and I have known her for more than half our lives. I didn't have the presence of mind to stop her narrative to ask, WTF? You? Took a business class?  She is a fast talker - my father used to call those of us who love to talk 'motormouth' - and she blithely continued on before I could stop her. Good thing. Because she started talking about something called manageable chunks. Not prioritizing or triaging or anything that places importance on one set of tasks or ideas over another, but manageable chunks. And it occurred to me that this is a vanilla enough phrase that it can mean many things to many different people.  And that is precisely why I liked it.

You see, for me, editing my latest book review was not manageable yesterday. Neither was phoning my naturopath's bookkeeper and then the insurance company and then the administrator of my HSA to talk about why my deductible has not yet been met even though it is nearly the end of the year.  Even less manageable for me would have been sitting down to crunch numbers on the landscape project Bubba and I are toying with doing.  Manageable? Shopping. Driving to some cute local stores to look at stocking stuffers and purchase a book or two to round out my holiday gift lists.  Coming home and hauling all of the wrapping paper and ribbons out of storage and staging a Santa's elves helper area for the girls to fully immerse themselves in - that was manageable. Yesterday. I'm not saying it would be next Tuesday.  Or any other day. But yesterday, that was the one piece of my To-Do List that I felt I could tackle with the mindset, energy and ability I had.

And then, as the girls and I sat swapping scissors for tape for ribbon and doing our best to make all of the packages pretty despite the black fur that was sticking to everything (we were wrapping in front of the fireplace which is where the dog and the cat do most of their lounging), I saw it on the news.  A lone, masked man entered a busy shopping mall in Portland, Oregon yesterday and began shooting randomly, killing two people and wounding a 15-year old girl before killing himself.  I have been in that mall many times.  My sister used to work there.  My friend Carrie took her son to see Santa there 24 hours prior to this horrible incident.  I was struck still.  No thoughts, very little breath, no movement.  No emotion, even, for a moment in the beginning.  And then I was sad and then grateful that more people weren't injured. And then I wondered who this poor man was and why he felt as though he had to do something like this. And then I was still again because I have no answers. And that is where I stayed (mentally) until now.

Logically, I know I don't have all the answers. Viscerally, I disagree entirely.  Logically, I don't even want to have all the answers. God forbid someone call me up one day and say, "Kari? Good, you're there. I'm taking a break for a bit and I need you to mind the Universe until I come back, okay? Thanks."  I would wet myself.  I would stutter and sputter and perhaps vomit.  Because that, my friends, is a lot of responsibility.

But sometimes I fantasize that whomever that person is that is in charge will call and ask me for one piece of the puzzle.  That I can eloquently and articulately present my argument for, say, organic foods or holistic health care or safer environmental practices and leave them saying, "Damn! You're good! Of course we will implement that right away. We are so glad we asked you. Can we keep your number in case we have other questions?"

Often I rail at the powers-that-be who must surely possess the wisdom that I have and, yet, are not doing a damn thing about it to change some of the major things that bother me: poverty, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses, to name a few.

And before you think you know where I'm going with this (manageable chunks) I will throw you for a bit of a loop.  Because it occurred to me that every moment of every day there are things being done.  Things that I don't even know about or understand and didn't set in motion.  And while they may not entirely cancel out or eradicate the things that make me gnash my teeth in anger or frustration, they constitute motion.  It occurred to me that, even as I notice a new crack in my index finger - a result of the eczema I deal with every year at this time - my body is working to repair some other damage or create some new cell somewhere else that I can't see.  So maybe I can give my finger a leg up by slathering some cream on it and trying to keep it out of hot water and mitigate some of the work my body has to do so it can use it elsewhere.

I am surely part of the solution, but only part.  And I can only operate within the boundaries of what I know as Truth (remember this post?) and do the rest of the Universe the enormous favor of not challenging every damn little thing it says or does.  Because I don't have all the answers. And I can't see the whole picture, but I do know that everywhere, simultaneously, throughout this vast wondrous place we live in, healing is happening at the same time as harm.  And I believe with a very strong conviction that as long as I stick to my manageable chunks, progress is being made.

Ironically, admitting that I don't have the answers is a little, teensy bit freeing.  While the Teacher's Pet in me is right now kicking my shins furiously and sticking out her tongue, it is a huge load off to accept the fact that perhaps I don't have to go out there and fix things all the time.  And it is an even bigger revelation that part of the reason I have avoided certain people and situations in my life is because I felt as though I was expected to provide some solution that I honestly did not have in me.  While I generally chalked those avoidances up to less enlightened things like, "She's a total freaking mess and it's not my responsibility" or simply, "He's an ass," it turns out that what I was really avoiding was the fear of acknowledging the simple truth that I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO IN THIS INSTANCE.  Once I face that fear and shove it out of the way, there is room for compassion - both for myself in all my ignorance and for the other person who must be feeling really shitty right now.  Having spent most of my life trying to convince everyone that I was mature/intelligent/capable enough to handle anything, it's a little bit of a turnaround to suddenly realize I'm not any of those things.  I suspect it will take practice. Lots of practice.  And faith that somewhere, someone has a few of the answers I don't have and still others have their particular pieces of the puzzle, and me? I have my manageable chunks and my not-so-manageable chunks and I have a few answers. Just not all of 'em.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Birthday Melancholy

Eve stayed up later than usual last night.  After I went upstairs to kiss her goodnight, I came back down to the family room, settled on the couch and began my nightly ritual of scanning the on-screen guide to see if there was anything on TV that I could stand to watch.

There wasn't.

Just as I was pressing the power button, I heard the stairs squeak and Eve's head peered around the corner.  She sat on the opposite end of the couch from me and looked all around my face, avoiding my eyes.  At first I thought she was afraid of getting in trouble for coming back downstairs, but it didn't take me long to figure out what was really going on.

It was the last night she would ever be twelve.
The last night before becoming a teenager.
There was no going back.

Eve is generally fairly stoic, at least when it comes to uncomfortable emotion.  She is perfectly happy to  show her support or enthusiasm for something and feels free to express her excitement in most every situation. What she doesn't do easily is talk about things that bother her or cry in front of anyone.

I waited.

She talked a little about something that made her mad that day and said she wished I didn't just assume I knew how she would react.  And then it came,

"...just because I'm older. Just because I'm a teenager now, doesn't mean I don't care about that stuff anymore."

I put my hand on the blanket beside me, welcoming her to come sit with me.

"Why?" It was more wary than questioning.

"Because I want to give you a hug. I'm sorry you are unhappy and I will do my best to ask you for your input each and every time, no matter what your age from now on."

She booted the cat off the couch and snuggled into my side, her hip in the curve of my waist, her head tucked into the side of my neck.

And I told her a story.  About being pregnant with her and knowing that I had all the answers. I decided that my kid wasn't going to be a "binky baby," that she would be exclusively breastfed and that she would always, always sleep in her own bed.  And I knew with certainty that if I just started out this way and never wavered, it would be a piece of cake.

Turns out cake doesn't agree with me (unless it's gluten free).

By day 3, I was tired of spending my days with my pinky finger stuck in her mouth as she sucked to self-soothe. I picked the shortest route to Target and bought a dozen pacifiers, stuck one in each car and in every room of the house, and tethered one to the frontpack I carried her in.  Finally, peace and a non-soggy finger!

Eve and I were the world's worst breastfeeding duo. I had inverted nipples and enough milk to feed a small African country and she had a gag reflex that rivaled any I've ever seen.  She was starving, I was bleeding and pumping off three or more ounces every couple of hours just to get her to latch on.  It was miserable.  We did finally figure it out, but it took six weeks for me to feel comfortable leaving the house when I thought I might have to nurse her in public because it was such an intricate dance.

And the sleeping.  Well, that was the hardest part.  On paper, it sounded like the right thing to do.  We had a bassinet in our room for her, but it was winter and she was cold in there. Plus, I carried her around all day long in the front pack, so she was used to being nestled up right against a human while she slept.  And the thing is, I loved it.  I loved going through my day sniffing her soft downy head and taking every opportunity to reach down and stroke her chubby little cheek.

We would put her to bed in her bassinet and within 30 minutes she would howl.  I knew that I would be feeding her at least twice in the night anyway, and it was so much easier to bring her back to my bed, nurse her and fall asleep than it was to finish feeding her and get out of bed to put her back.  And even back then, Bubba traveled a lot for work, so having her next to me in bed was lovely and comforting.

Eve was never a snuggler. Bubba's dad was frustrated that she wouldn't just climb into his lap for a story as a toddler. She wanted to sit next to him and turn the pages, but not on him.  She didn't like other people besides Bubba and me picking her up, even as an infant.  She gave great hugs, but didn't cuddle like some kids.  But when we were asleep, she would curl right into me for a little while and sigh. It was absolute Heaven.

As I look at her now, turning 13 today, I know she is filled with excitement and trepidation. I know she can't wait to have some of the trappings of teenager-dom, but she is feeling a little melancholy about growing up.  I am, too.  I am so proud of her and the person she is becoming and I miss rolling over and seeing her dark hair splayed out across the pillow on the other side of the bed.  I feel so lucky that she sat with me on the couch last night and let me play with her hair and tell her a story of how much I cherish the sweet times we had together.

Happy birthday, my girl! You are my treasure.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

My Latest Book Review and Other Books I Read for the Fun of It

I just finished reading Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, for BookPleasures. You can find my review here. It is a quick read, but frightening in the way psychological thrillers can be - that is, if you're prone to being a tad bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to your own mental health.

I have also read several other good books lately that I thought I'd pass along in case anyone is looking for something to give to themselves this holiday season.  I generally read more than one book at a time, one on my iPad, one from the library, and one I couldn't resist buying from the used bookstore.  In addition to that, there are always magazines lying around in different places, propped open to various pages, that I can pick up and peruse when I only have 15 minutes or so before dashing off to do something.  My favorite magazines are The Sun and Natural Health, but my new favorite is a literary magazine out of Portland, Oregon called Stealing Time. It is geared towards all things parenting and may be a new place for all you writers out there to send submissions. It is truly fantastic, with poetry and photographs and essays both fictional and non-fiction.  

The books I have read most recently on my iPad, in no particular order, are:
  •  Louise Erdrich's "The Round House" (she is a wonder, this one - I love everything she writes), 
  • Alex Mitchell's "All Gone" - a memoir about her mother's memory loss/dementia and how the author copes by cooking up memories of her childhood dishes. I enjoyed this one, but am glad I didn't spend the money for the hard copy because it was such a quick read.
  • Karen Thompson Walker's "The Age of Miracles" - I am sad that this one is on my iPad because I know both of my girls would LOVE this book, but they have Kindles, so I may need to buy it again for them.  The premise is incredibly unique and the story was fascinating, especially to someone who tends to get lost in philosophical reverie. I didn't even know it was supposed to be a teen book until after I read it. Loved this one!
  • Amanda Coplin's "The Orchardist" - this one felt like a Pacific Northwest, caucasian "Roots" in a way. It was epic, spanned generations, and completely sucked me in with the imagery and the fact that I live not far from where it was set.  Tremendous read. 
  • M.L. Stedman's "The Light Between Oceans" - this book made me cry in a good way. Again, the premise was unique and made me think well beyond the pages of the book. Loved it.
  • Darcy Lockman's " Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist" - a memoir of Lockman's residence in a Brooklyn psych hospital. Well-written, quick read. Mostly it made me sad about the state of our healthcare system (especially as it relates to mental illness) and how we train our physicians. 
  • Sarina Berman's "Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World" - Amazing story! Amazing. I devoured this book and was so sad when it was over. One of my favorite works of fiction this year.
  • Laura Moriarty's "The Chaperone" - fun, light read that I would recommend for summer vacation.
  • John Irving's "In One Person" - I had to work to finish this one.  Actually, it was the first third of the book that was work. The rest was pleasurable, but I only kept reading it because I heard Irving interviewed on a local public radio station and I find him so fascinating.  Ultimately, I enjoyed it, but felt like it could have used some editing. (Look at me - novice writer saying that about John Irving! Ha! Who do I think I am?)
  • Liz Moore's "Heft" - My friend Carrie raved about this book, and I trust her taste, so I downloaded it. What a beautiful story! Another favorite fictional work, for sure.
  • Tupelo Hassman's "girlchild" - I think I wrote about this book earlier this year, but I have to say it again - I think it's brilliant.
  • Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" - this one made me grieve so much for the folks fighting wars all over the planet. It also made me wish they could all unburden themselves of their stories and see them in a different light.
I just gifted myself Anne Lamott's new book "Help Thanks Wow" and Brene Brown's newest, "Daring Greatly." I can't wait to start them, but first I have a teen fiction book to review that I have to finish because Eve read the back the other day and is chomping at the bit to read it when I'm done.  

Happy reading!
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