Monday, December 10, 2012

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

I first heard of this book a few weeks back on an NPR show about books with a sense of place, books that make  you want to go somewhere. As I often do when I listen to shows like this, I made a long list of books I wanted to read.  Why I chose this one? I really can't say. Perhaps I was being a bit smug as I read the reviews.  Some of the reviews expressed frustration that it was slow, that there wasn't much action, that the title of the book was so misleading because he never even saw the snow leopard. The smugness I describe comes from thinking that I hadn't even read the book, but I knew these readers were missing the point. More probably, they weren't ready for the book, and perhaps, definitely even, I was.

There really aren't words for the beautifully descriptive writing that fills this book. I don't think this would have been possible without his scientific/nature background.  He knows so many different plants and flora, and animals. His relationship with light and dark and how that affects every day, every moment is enlightening.  His attention to detail and his ability to communicate what he sees and feels is nothing short of a miracle.  Rather than finish with a feeling of knowing the entire region he traveled around, I felt in touch with very specific steps he took; one step in one thousand. I felt this over and over.

I have rarely loved poetry.  I attribute this to a lack of patience mostly, but in my less confident moments, I can attribute to an unfeeling self or a less than average intellectual capacity for the medium.  Or perhaps never the right teacher.  This is not technically a poetry book.  I would describe it as a poetic memoir.  I had gone through a phase of needing to read fast paced books, and I had read 4 or 5 in a row, very uncommon for me. So I knew I was ready to slow down, and could absorb at least part of what the book had to offer.  I did read it slowly, sometimes only a page or two a night. There were insights, quotes to remember with every reading and I never lost patience with the book.  Often, I start these books but don't have the patience to finish. I put them aside, and eventually pick them up later. As with almost every book I read, I hate it to end.  So I stop reading and start another book, and get really into the next book.  And then I go back and finish, replete with the knowledge that when I am sad the book is over, I have another one already started. Well, I really couldn't do that with this book; I couldn't stand to be away from it long enough to get involved in another book.

Some of the reviews on Goodreads give nothing but quotes. This approach works very well with The Snow Leopard.  I have perused these this morning and will continue to do so. One can turn to practically any page for a good quote, or lesson for living.

There is a lesson, a moment, a connection on literally every page of this book. I can't begin in a quick review to illuminate my learnings. I will settle for an example from the end of the book, since I just finished it last night. Towards the end of his journey, he has several descriptions of, not mood swings exactly, but of being aware, content, able to fully realize his learnings of his physical and mental pilgrimage.  And then the next day, or even the next moment, falling right back into his former thinking and ways - discontent and frustration.  This expression, this truth, was a monumental discovery and validation for me. Often I am so hard on myself for not recognizing or living in a way that I have strived towards, and I spend so much time beating myself up about making these mistakes after I know better.  The next time this happens, I will refer to one of these passages towards the end - I'll finish with one example.

"A change is taking place, some painful growth, as in a snake during the shedding of it's skin-dull, irritable, without appetite, dragging about the stale shreds of a former life, near blinded by the old dead scale on the new eye.  It is difficult to adjust because I do not know who is adjusting; I am no longer that old person, and not yet the new."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dear Soccer Coaches

I have not been able to get Tuesday night out of my mind.  With a couple of days behind me, I am still troubled.
I contacted you about the conflicts with the dance and soccer schedule ahead of time.  Dance is a year long activity that she has been working on since last September. Her recital is June 9, which accounts for 10 total days of conflicts with soccer.  We attempted to work with you and each of her dance teachers to see what the best approach would be.  Your response was:  
I completely understand that all these girls have other commitments, but playing time is based on attendance and effort. 
If she can get to practices by 7:45 that would be great! 
Please let me share with you what Chloe’s day looked like on Tuesday.  She set her alarm and got up at 4:30 am so that she could work on her schoolwork because she knew she had a busy night and wanted to make the effort to get to soccer, per your comment about effort above. We did not know she set her alarm - it was done on her own.  She is in the middle of her yearly exams at school this week.  She has a severe dyslexia, among other learning differences, that makes school and exams much more difficult for her than for her school mates. 
I picked her up at 3:30 to go straight to her tutor, which she has to have for above learning issues.  When I picked her up at 5, I had her dinner ready and she ate part of it in the car while she changed into her dance clothes.  She danced from 5:30- 7:30.  I picked her up at dance, 2 minutes from our house, to drive the 20 minutes up to soccer practice.  (I thought I could get there in 15.)  She ate the rest of her dinner while she changed into her soccer gear and talked about how proud of her the coaches would be because she made such a huge effort to get to practice.  She had me drop her as close as possible, and ran all the way to where you were practicing.  
“YOU ARE REALLY LATE. TAKE A LAP” is the greeting she got  in front of her entire team and parents. 
Chloe is not an over scheduled child.  She does dance and soccer.  That’s it.  It just so happens that there are 10 days in the entire year where the two overlap.  She has looked forward to this soccer season all winter.  She was at the dome for winter training every week since January 2. Each week, she was hoping to meet the new coaches because they kept being told we will get the coaches soon. She has been at all the practices this spring with the exception of one when she was sick - including the ones in the rain when not many girls showed up. 
This is an 11 year old girls team.  It is not college, high school, or even an elite team. She will probably never play in college as you did.  But she will put in more effort than most.  And give more energy than most.  And she started this season with extreme enthusiasm and commitment. 
When the parents were told that we were getting coaches that had never coached before, I WAS NOT one of the parents complaining.  I said, “sometimes it’s good to have the new young ones because they have new ideas and are usually energetic and are not set in their ways.”  I said this understanding that you had plenty of experience as a player, and understanding that you would learn as the season goes. Additionally, I understood that you didn’t have children of your own, and would not have that insight to help guide you. 
And so I write this letter with the utmost respect. The girls are thrilled you are here.  They are excited for a new season. They think it is really cool that you have played so much and really look up to you.  They want to please you, and want to do good for you. You are a role model now. Please try to remember that these girls are eleven and have a lot going on in their lives.  There are school pressures and social pressures, family pressures and extra curricular pressures.  They are absolutely committed and excited to learn what you have to teach them.  If you start to think they aren’t committed or you are frustrated with them, please take a minute to remember the day Chloe had and the effort she put in to get there.
Thank you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Power of No Words

It is said words are power.  Words can do anything, make anything happen. There are so many of them.  How to arrange them, pick them, put them in the right order is always the conundrum. 
Every now and then, people will say the right thing in an impossible situation.  Most of the time, people stumble over their words.  Or use words they know won’t help but are most commonly called upon when one must acknowledge an unfortunate turn of events.    
“I’m sorry,” or “How can I help?” or some other grouping of words that can, in no way, ease the pain or express the depths of our feelings. 
When I was 20, I had my tonsils removed.  I had been sick for a year, and finally the decision was made.  A tonsillectomy on a child is a day or two of being down, but on a 20 year old, with no complications, we were told two weeks.  I laid on my mother’s couch for a week.  Unexpectedly, my Daddy showed up.  He sat in the uncomfortable rocking chair next to the couch as I tried to be polite.  I guess I fell back asleep.  For the next week, my mother either was out or retreated to her bedroom - to give us space I guess. My Daddy rotated between the uncomfortable rocker or under my feet at the end of the couch for the entire week.  
And here’s the catch:  I don’t remember him saying ten words the entire week.  He would show up, ask how I was doing that day and if I needed anything. I never needed anything because my mother was doing all that work. Instead of leaving, he would then read, or watch TV, or nap, or just sit.  All day.  Every day.  Sometime in the afternoon, he would kiss me goodbye, and tell me he would see me in the morning.  
Then I started watching him.  He is not a touchy-feely man or very expressive.  He avoids conflict, probably because he doesn’t have much patience and can be short tempered.  But the way he can sit in silence is an extraordinary gift.  He holds pain for people, if only for short periods of time.  He can sit with the sick or the elderly, and click on a baseball game, and say, “I’ll bet you five bucks the Braves win.”  Even though I would bet he has never watched a complete game in his life, being that watching sports bores him.  In turning on that game and sitting there, he is taking the cancer away or lessening the loss of a loved one for just an afternoon.  He allows people to retreat to a happier place ever so briefly.  He has the rare ability to just BE with them. Few or no words are spoken. 
In the last months of my father’s father’s life, the Alzheimers had made my grandfather paranoid and anxious.  My Daddy drove the hour to his parents house several days a week to do his thing - just be with them. I was with him once and I was sitting in my grandparents now quiet living room with my Daddy and my grandmother and my grandfather.  My grandfather was upset about the kids hiding in the trees in the front yard.  My grandmother kept admonishing him that there were no kids out there.  The kids had been gone for years.  I was in silent shock at seeing this person who used to be my grandfather act like this.  This was the conversation for an indeterminable amount of time.  My Daddy wasn’t saying anything.  He was reading a paper or something regular that shouldn’t have been happening because we should have been trying to do something for my grandparents, something to help both of them.  
Finally, my Daddy got up, folded the paper, and walked outside without saying a word. “What the fuck?” was all my 20 something brain could come up with. “Don’t leave me here with them like this.  I am scared.”  But I was still frozen solid, words failing me.  
So I sat in the living room listening to my grandfather worry about the imaginary kids safety or learning that these kids were scoping out his house to rob him blind in the night. I listened to my grandmother tell him there were no kids - sometimes gently and lovingly, other times exhausted and exasperated. This is how it was with him - we had to tell him things over and over and over. I might as well have not been there - words were failing me.  I didn’t know what to say or do. 
After awhile, my Daddy came back inside.  He told my grandfather that he had talked to the kids and the kid’s parents.  Everything was ok.  They were just playing and there to keep them company.  My grandmother and I just watched in awe as my grandfather finally starting settling down.  
I was so ready to blow out of there at that point.  I was exhausted, frightened and needed to go.  
But my Daddy picked up his book and settled in on the couch, saying nothing. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Take Back My Family - Spring Update

Last summer, I decided to Take Back My Family.  I had an aha moment and decided to make grand, sweeping changes.  We went gung-ho with the changes in the fall.  We cut back on kids activities and many social engagements.  
Those were the biggest things.  We were so tired.  And those big changes enabled us to indulge in things like...washing clothes, cleaning our house, going on date nights.  
Our kids were not as excited about our efforts, and staying home to wash clothes and clean house wasn’t exactly an easy sell.  
Articulating some of our changes is difficult.  Yes, they helped more with the housework.  They took on new responsibilities.  Helping with laundry, cleaning, cooking, and yard work was not something they bragged about to their friends. Taking responsibility for things at home also helped them take responsibility for things at school.  My ADHD son almost always completes his homework and turns it in without reminders, and that wasn’t even one of our goals.  We were only hoping he would get it done, expecting to offer huge support and reminders for him. Just recently, my eleven year old daughter prepared breakfast for our family of five all by herself -- perfectly scrambled eggs, baked cinnamon rolls, and cut up fruit.  We were shuffling them through their activities, then shuffling them at home - eat, bathe, homework, sleep.  They had no sense of personal or family responsibility.  They wanted it more than they knew, even though they couldn’t articulate it. 
They also had more time to play with friends.  We had their friends over most weekends last fall.  We had bonfires most weekends.  They were so dirty.  And tired.  But it was a different kind of tired.  They were not exhausted from constant running.  They were tired from fresh air and playing.  
Another unexpected change is all the talking.  We talk all the time.  ALL.  THE.  TIME.  We talk about friends and social issues at school.  We talk about books and the news.  We talk about ethical dilemmas. We talk about making problems smaller, not bigger. We talk about music, videos, sports, how shells are made.....we have so much more time to talk. 
We eat better.  We eat out more than I’d like.  My younger kids will eat almost any plain vegetable I put in front of them.  For example, broccoli or asparagus or artichokes or brussel sprouts or salad, as long as they aren’t mixed together or, God forbid, have any sort of sauce or dressing.  My older daughter is grumpy if there isn’t a healthy option - like if I order a pizza without a salad.  They will only drink smoothies at home now because I don’t add sugar and now they don’t like the taste of commercial sugar laden smoothies.  Their foods of choice are still chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, pizza, and white pasta though. 

I learned to ask for help.  My husband travels most weeks and I am not working now, so I was everything - mother, chef, tutor, Boy Scout troop leader, Girl Scout troop leader, maid, shopper, costume maker, doctor, nurse.....etc.  I was doing a poor job at everything.  I asked him for help.  And he helped! We are working together now on many things.  
We did not do many of the changes I wanted to do.  We didn’t take weekends away as I wanted.  We didn’t do family yoga.  Our house is still rarely clean, although it is better.  We are still busy with many activities.  We did not drop off the grid completely.  I am still not able to rejoin many of the evening activities that I used to enjoy for myself - book clubs, nights out with friends, service projects - because of the unique learning needs of my kids, and they need me at night.  I have started going out with friends on some weekends and leaving the kids home with Steve.  He enjoys being home after traveling so much during the week and I like getting out.  Win-win. 
It isn’t perfect.  It never will be.  But it is better.  Way better.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Only a Desire for Connection

Lindsey and Bruce posted on introversion.  I celebrate their writings and am thankful to know myself a little bit better today than I did yesterday. 
I am never able to explain most of my inner workings to anyone, including my husband and even myself.  But I can feel these fissures. And I know them viscerally if not intellectually. 
I can not explain to my daughter why watching the Kardashians is such a waste of time.  I can not put into words why I can not stand to watch things like this, or Real Housewives.  When I tell her that I didn’t even watch this crap when I was her age, she responded with “of course you didn’t.” I heard only the words.  I absolutely did not hear, “Please don’t remind me of the embarrassment that I don’t have a mother who is not cool ANYMORE, but I have a mother who never, ever experienced being cool.” 
I have never been able to talk pop culture. I don’t know the names of actors and their movies and their boyfriends of the day.  I don’t know the right brands of clothes or shoes or make up to purchase. When conversation turns to this, I am quiet.  Not only am I bored, but I feel so uncool.  And then I shame myself and ask why I can’t know this stuff.  For God’s sake, it isn’t rocket science.  
Now, I also can’t talk on the other extreme.  I can’t pull poets names out of the air or stream endlessly about philosophers or ancient Greek or polymers or symbiotic relationships.  (It was a stretch just to come up with these words). Or rocket science. 
There are other conversations that are hard for me.  Sports.  I know about the NCAA Basketball tournament in March.  My husband’s family does a pool so I play.  I usually come in dead last.  I pick my teams by where I would most like to visit.  Or places I have been.  I always forget if the New York Giants are a football team or baseball.  I don’t know the difference between an umpire or a referee.  
I also generally don’t talk politics.  I can almost always see both (or several) sides and can be swayed easily.  I don’t trust much of it, and I find that when people want to talk politics, they just want to thrust their beliefs on you, making for a shallow one sided conversation. 
Recently at a cocktail party, I was talking to someone about the lost art of diagramming sentences, and how kids aren’t able to understand how words work together anymore.   How the relationship between a verb and an adverb and a noun and an adjective help make cohesive sentences so that one can better understand and articulate their thoughts and beliefs. 
My friend put her hand on my wrist and looked me in the eye and said, “This is boring me.  I need to get a drink.” 
I laughed because it was funny, and of course I understood this was not an exciting topic to most people.  I did not stand there alone and beat myself up saying, “Why? Why? Why do I do this?”   
What I didn’t do was consider this interaction from an introvert’s point of view. One of the comments on Lindsey’s post declared, “I love being able to connect with others, but not on a superficial level.” 
I don’t remember what led to my diatribe on the structure of sentences, but there was some connection.  It didn’t start with someone saying, “Hey, can you believe that housewife from New York just paid $5,000 for hair extensions?” Even if I don’t like it or am uninterested, I do have enough social skills and awareness not to respond to that remarkable insight by proclaiming the benefits of knowing adverbs intimately. 
Perhaps the conversation was concerning a current 5th grade project or someone said their senior was having a hard time completing his essay for a college entrance application.  I was simply enjoying the people, and making a connection about something that creates passion within me. 
Is wanting to connect on a deeper level solely the domain of the introverted? I doubt it. And I’m not even convinced talking about sentence structure isn’t just a different part of the shallow end.  Just a less crowded part of the shallow end perhaps. 
Being overwhelmed and overstimulated by too many ideas and too many people is most definitely the familiar terroir of my internal landscape.  
I like parties and gatherings and connecting with others.  Often, the anxiety that I feel ahead of time is never felt at the actual event.  But sometimes it is. 
And on those nights, I just excuse myself early, go home and curl up in my bed with Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spring Cleaning and Fairies

We were spring cleaning over the kids second week of spring break. Spring cleaning like we have never done. My youngest daughter is six and I finally was able to give away their little tunnels they used to crawl through and their toddler rocking chair (although not without tears rolling down my face as I cleaned and dusted it for its new owner.)
The only way I can clean like this is to enter a zone, a zone where all I do is focus on the project, fast and furious.  I try my best not to feel anything or take walks down memory lane.  I become as close to a robot as humanly possible. In the middle of my zone, loading pages of artwork into the recycle bin without focusing on the fact that I will NEVER get little art like this again, my 11 year old daughter, who is closer to 12 now, comes in my room with a stack of papers she is ready to toss. 
“Mom, I need to know, once and for all, are fairies real?” 
Out of my zone, thrust back to my life, instantly, unexpectedly, and nowhere to go.  With my hands in the cookie jar, my jaw hit the floor, and I was, maybe for the first time, speechless. 
She was holding all the letters that her own fairy, Fiona, had been writing to her for years.  
With a rare exception, I have hated Fiona all these years. I hated having to be Fiona. When Chloe was in Kindergarden, some evil mother had written to her daughter one night claiming to be a fairy, her own special fairy. In all fairness, I doubt this mother knew how her spark would burden me for years.  But many nights, wiped out from the exhaustion of three young kids, I had to remember to sneak in and write made up stories from Fiona.  I also had to learn how to make fairy dust, and come up with reasons why she didn’t come every night, or why she couldn’t be photographed. 
I now understand these white collar criminals who are finally caught and exposed when they say it all started with just a little shifting of money, and eventually morphed into them stealing billions.  I have experienced the slippery slope. 
Why would another kid get a special fairy and my kid didn’t?  How could I explain that to my five year old? From an early age, they always understood that different families have different rules. Why, oh why, couldn’t I apply this concept in the fairy situation? 
Well, clearly, I didn’t think it through. Of course I didn’t.  All the Kindergarden girls had a special fairy, I had a three year old son, and a year old baby, and a husband that traveled all week.  If I tell her the fairy notes were written by the girls‘ mothers, the other mothers would hate me and then she might figure out the easter bunny, tooth fairy, and Santa Claus were all made up, and holidays would be ruined and their childhood destroyed. So, I scribbled a note after emptying the diaper genie and here I am right where I deserve to be. After years of lying to my daughter, impersonating some invented fairy, in the middle of my almost impossible zone of cleaning, with my jaw on the floor while my daughter grasps all the letters and demands the truth. Now. 
After the initial shock, I did what any self respecting mother who has pretended to be a fairy in our woods for years would do.  I told her if she ripped up those letters and threw them away, that Fiona would be in great danger.  The bad gremlins would know immediately and go after Fiona first and then the rest of the fairies.  All of the fairies would turn on Fiona and she would be cast from the forest and be a  homeless fairy and  spend the rest of her life searching for a place she could call home. 
I didn’t really do that, but in that instant, I thought about it.  I asked if we could talk about it later, and she said there was nothing to talk about.  DID YOU, OR DID YOU NOT, WRITE THESE LETTERS? 
I got my angry voice on and said we needed to table it for later. I instructed her to keep the letters.  
For the letters are magical and not only contain history and knowledge, but  special powers that reveal themselves only when the time is right. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Reminder from my Daughter

Some things that make me laugh are sometimes hard to put into words, but I will try.  When do our children turn into real people, ones that we MIGHT hang out with by choice, because they are funny or enjoyable?  
Sometimes people think my kids are funny because of what I post on facebook or the stories I tell, but those are different because I post most of those as coping mechanisms because thats just how they are. They aren't trying to be funny. 
This morning as we were passing the neighbors house, the for sale sign was lying on the ground. Sally thought this was very dramatic and a very big deal.  I said, "It's not that big of a deal.  It could have not been nailed down hard enough, or it could have loosened with the melting of the snow, or a car could have hit it, or the wind could have blown it down.  No big deal."  
And Chloe muttered, "Or it could have been the Big Bad Wolf coming around blowing it down."  And she gave me a look that, all at once said:  " I could have said this louder and made Sally scared but I am saying it under my breath because I think it's kind of funny and you might too.  And don't worry, Mom, as I enter these teen age years, even though I am not always available and sometimes crabby for no reason, I really love you and we will always be tight.  This stuff is normal, Mom. Don’t worry.  I Love you.”
Yep, I’m pretty sure thats what the look said. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Make it Shine

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn't realize the teacher was saying, 'Make it shine. It's worth it.' Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It's a new vision of something. It means you don't have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!

– Naomi Shihab Nye, writer

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Coming Around Again

Lindsey recently wrote a post about our bodies and how to pass on healthy attitudes about our bodies to our children. A brave and very wise woman responded and shared how she gains weight when things aren’t going well and what to learn from that. 
The last two years have been fraught with changes for me - some external that you might be able to see or I could easily explain.  Most of them internal, some of them I can verbalize, but most of them I can’t. 
For the last few weeks, the stars aligned in a nasty way. I couldn’t shake a cold, I couldn’t finish anything, my husband was traveling a ton, and varied from being crabby and distant when he was home.  Everyone was annoying me and it scared me that I didn’t like anyone or anything anymore.  Everything became a weird dream in which everything was amplified.  My children would never get through needing help with their homework because of their disabilities, my house will never, ever be clean or organized until the kids moved out and then it would get clean and perfect and I would die of lonliness on the spot when I realized they would never be back for good. I could never possibly be a good wife, good mother, good daughter, good friend, and failed miserably at all of these. I was an overweight failure who couldn’t write, couldn’t finish anything, and had no friends and we would never have enough money to pay our bills. 
When I read this post about depression, I ceded that I might be depressed. And maybe I was, but I think it was more, and less than depression.  There were some things that I had been unintentionally stuffing deep down, and it came a time that there was no more room in there to keep it down.  And then I started to pay attention, and this stuffing was actually causing pressure; it became too much of an effort to keep it in.  I could literally feel the tears behind my eyes all the time, but they were stuck there behind my eyes, unable to break through. 
And then, of course, there came a point where it had to release.  I was very scared of the release, of who would be hurt now because I could no longer hold it. Trying to describe it, I keep coming up with gross images that I don’t want associated with this time and piece.  So I think I will go with a child losing a tooth.  At first, it is almost imperceptible, but something is changing.  Then you realize that there will be a change, and you are given time to grapple with it.  There is a huge build up, and  you simply can’t ignore it.  
And then the tooth comes out with lots of blood purging out and leaves an empty hole.  Then you realize that the bleeding has stopped, and there is a nice new open space, making room for new growth. 
And it’s really fun to rub around on that spot, wondering what will come.  Sometimes you may think about the old tooth, or think about the scary feelings associated with losing it.  Or the new space may feel a little vulnerable.  But mostly, it feels open and full of possibilities. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


We cross this bridge every day driving to school.  It is a beautiful view any day you cross it, any season.  Grays Bay is on the right, and the main lake is on the left.  The bridge crosses to a narrow strip of land, where there is barely room for the two lane road to wind through the trees. 
Many days the lake looks very different on each side of the bridge.  The bay could be smooth, while the main lake shows the currents of the wind.  The bay could be showing slight waves, while there are white caps just 30 yards away. Or the bay could be frozen, while the main lake is still open.  
On the particular day I snapped this picture, each side looked the same.  That is, we couldn’t see any water on either side because the fog was so thick. It was a little eery, as there are very few foggy days on this particular bay. We knew the fog was temporary, that we would see our lake and the beautiful views again. We also understood that we couldn’t see everything that we normally see. Yet this fog was very, very real and I had to drive very carefully and focus on what was directly in front of me in order to get to school safely. I had to understand that anything in the periphery was almost certainly a skewed view. 
Growing up near the swamps of Louisiana, I am no stranger to fog.  They even have road signs that remind you that visibility is limited in the fog. But the sun also shines hot and bright down there and the fog rarely lasts. 
Several years ago, we rented a house on an island off the coast of Maine and the fog set in for days.  Having never experienced this, I thought I would go crazy.  We literally hired a boat to take us to the mainland so we could drive inland for the day, and experience clear vision. 
My life has been a bit foggy lately and I really wish I could hire someone to take me out of it.  To remind me of the clarity that I have worked so hard to achieve. So that I can see everything as it is, rather than through the distorting haze of this heavy wet fog. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

On Friends and Myself

I have had so many ideas for books.  For as long as I can remember, well, let’s say high school - ish, I have wanted to write a book, or group of stories, or letters to those who mean so much to me, and how they left their footprint on my life.  I think the original idea was to write letters to these people.  My written words, more than my spoken words, have always been more indicative of how I feel. 
I think the idea morphed into a book once I started losing loved ones, and along with that, the realization there would be no more memories with certain ones, or certain times. I thought the relationship ended there, so I could summarize it, or even complete the story.  But then I realized, for those who have traversed my heart, the story  never ends. 
My memoir started out as a tribute to turning forty.  It started before I realized forty was old, or at least middle aged.  Of course, I had heard others moan about it, but I never felt it, and thought I never would.  A sigh and a chuckle as I write this - maybe thats the beauty of youth. We never think we will. 
Anyway, my memoir started before I had to be sure my legs were crossed before I coughed. I wanted to do something grand to mark the occasion.  Grand to me has often been different than grand to others.  One thing led to another, as things do, and I started focusing my writing and efforts on truly knowing who I was and what I stood for.  I felt it was essential to define myself, to truly know myself, who I had been before marriage and kids, what was still the same and what had changed,  before I decided what I wanted to do next. 
Part of my journey to know myself has been to explore my relationships and friendships. And I have discovered that I would rather try to catch a raccoon with my bare hands than look at this. This has been such an unexpected road block, such a painful process that I know I have only barely started. I start and stop, paralyzed into inaction. I can’t tell you how long it has taken to write this paragraph, because all of a sudden, knowing how much protein was in the white of an egg became paramountly more important, and I had to google that and read several articles on that intense topic. 
I wrote a piece, a good piece, on my first friends, my neighborhood friends. A week or two or a month later, it doesn’t really matter - the next time I sat down to continue, was the first time I encountered this block, this pain.  I couldn’t look at what friends I had at the next stage.  We had moved to a new house, and in the picture in mind, my Dad moved out, then back in, then my mom moved out, and there were other houses to visit and extended time with grandparents - things that clouded my search for friends, among other things.  
The next few years were rife with moves and school changes and emotionally unstable parents, and perhaps I missed a window on how to learn to engage, to trust, to even conceptually understand that people could or would last longer than a few months.  I never had the experiences to learn that people would disappoint and anger me, and that I also would disappoint and anger people, but that relationships can sustain those disturbances.  
I can write those words now, and theoretically understand the concept, but I feel like a fake.  I don’t necessarily believe it. As a matter of fact, I get so scared when I even get the whiff of a negative feeling for any friend. If someone is annoying me, I don’t tell them.  I just put it off as I am tired or not in a good place.  If someone has treated me unfairly, I won’t tell them.  I just tell myself that it’s no big deal. I try to ignore it. I am scared to address the issue, scared it will cause the friendship to end.
In the end, sometimes, I realize now, that I push the friendship to the limits and it has no choice but to end. I keep burying my feelings, the demands of these friends, the disappointments...... and it eventually comes to a head and I dance with my righteous anger of all they have done to me.  And all the while, they never knew a thing, never had an inkling that I felt hurt, mistreated, taken advantage of... because I kept doing whatever they asked, saying it’s no problem, being the one who could take on everyone’s problems. 
And there are other scenarios.  I have put people on pedestals.  I think they are wonderful in every way.  And slowly, I realize they are not who I thought they were - how could they be? No one is perfect. My friend who is so bubbly and outgoing and has so much energy.  The one who organizes tons of gatherings and showed up at my door with flowers when my dog died? When I discovered her darker moods, the razor sharp tongue that could leave me bleeding? I have no tools, no experiences to weather this.  I don’t have the lens to see whether this is something that I can accept and continue the friendship. I certainly can’t talk to her about it.  My walls go up, I will not be hurt, and the door closes.  But, boy, do I miss  her smiles, the connection, the long upbeat conversations.
I won’t even go into the scenarios where I wonder why in the world they would want to be friends with me.  Just wait until they know the real me. This is fodder for my soul. 
I am thrilled that my circles are again widening. Outside of the western suburbs, and on the web.  I am putting no one on pedestals, and proceeding with caution.
I have a long road of self exploration ahead.  Hopefully, at the end of this road, Lindsey’s post about friendships won’t make me feel so lonely, or Christine making wise, thoughtful decisions for herself won’t feel like someone is breaking up with me. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Street Signs

Sometimes I wish people could just wear street signs so everyone could better understand each other.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Process

My favorite days are when I have an open morning and even better if there is nothing on the schedule until picking up the kids from school.  And immensely better if I have worked out before coming to sit for hours. 
I grab my latte and sit with my computer.  Without a plan.  I read blogs, and make lists, switching from window to window, going where my [thoughts] takes me.  If I feel the need to connect, I will make a concerted effort to send emails, or comment on blogs or facebook.  But usually, I will just read, jot notes on pressing things that come to mind, relaxing into a no pressure, reflective, quiet readying for my day period.   
This may not be a quieting of the mind, but it is a slowing, a centering.  Usually, over the period of 30-45 minutes, one of two things occurs.   I land on a topic, or idea, and am able to focus and write for the morning.  Or, I acknowledge that there are too many other things I need to do, and go to town crossing those off the list.  Either way, I work straight through the morning and/or early afternoon and feel wonderful about whatever I have accomplished that day.  I also have energy, confidence and enthusiasm that carry all through the evening with my family.   
Without a doubt, though, the centering time, the time before I know what the day will bring, is the best time of my day.  It is during this time, I hold hope and possibilities and dream as if I have 10 lifetimes ahead of me.
I can write the novel about my grandmother’s life.  My memoir writes and twists and edits itself before my eyes.  I plan trips to D.C. and Africa and Alaska and Mardi Gras and Northern MInnesota.  I am holy, seeking more divinity, feeling God’s will metastisizing through my being. I plan weeks of healthy, wholesome meals that I am positive my family will eat.  Feelings of undying love for my husband prevail, and avenues to keep things alive.  I have beautiful, sweeping gardens that offer solace and retreat to my family.  I envision plans and events for our kids, our school, our community that will generate unabounding excitement.  My house is clean, all the clothes are washed, and all the chores are done.  
Then my cup feels lighter, and knowing my latte is coming to an end, I force myself to choose one thing.  One thing that will make a difference.  This is one of the hardest parts of my day.  I look at all the choices, and know that most will not get done to the degree I desire.  I have to make a strong and concerted effort to focus on what I have done, not what doesn’t get done, or I spiral into inaction.   So I very deliberately take one step forward, and I write, or I plan a meal or two, or I pay some bills and I check in with the tutor.  And I feel good about it.  I remind myself, daily, that I can not do it all.  And what I do is not only enough, but it is good.  
And there will be another day and another latte and another moment when I have all those choices again.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Fifth Dimension

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man.  It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.  It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.  For reality,  you see, is something created by man to dignify his limitations."  - Rod Serling

Monday, January 30, 2012

All Nighter

I ran a huge event on January 12 that went splendidly well.  And then, many said predictably, I got really sick.  I missed some social events that I was actually excited about.  I don’t have as many social events since taking back my family last fall.  I am making huge attempts not to schedule things that aren’t important to me.  I spent a couple of entire days in bed, and parts of other days for over a week.  Just as I was feeling better last Sunday night, when my husband and I had watched one show and were getting prepared for another, just before 10 p.m., my youngest daughter wakes up with the worst stomach virus in the history of the universe.  Without getting too down and dirty with the details, suffice it to say our entire army of cleaning products were used, and we left windows open all night in January in Minnesota to fumigate.  
I pulled an all nighter.  She was sick at least twice an hour, we stopped counting at 10 times around 2 am.  My youngest daughter is tough as nails, especially when it comes to stomach flus.  She spent the better part of her first three years throwing up, and knew to run to the toilet to get sick by the time she was 18 months old.  She is often stoic about stomach viruses, sometimes not even waking me up.  
But this one was different.  The night is somewhat of a blur, but the pattern is clear.  She would writhe in pain, her body straightening and stiffening into a board.  She would cry out sometimes in sharp cries, sometimes whimpering.  I would rub her if she would let me, and she only let me when she had given up hope, when all of her was used up.  

Then, suddenly, she would bolt in the bathroom to be sick.  After about 11, there was nothing left, and she became intimate with the word bile.  All I could do was hold her hair back, rub her back, and watch.  Watch her little abdomen roll uncontrollably, her shoulders following suit, her neck roll just enough to allow her blond head to crush against the back of the toilet. 
Then, the reprieve.  We would lay in bed and wait for the next one.  I would start to doze, and then I would hear something like this:  “Mama, how come I didn’t know the word bile before now?”  
I rolled from my side to my back with a little giggle.  “I’m not sure Sals.  I guess its just not that pretty of a word and it just hasn’t come up before.”  
Quiet. Dark.  With a crack of light from the bathroom, so we can find our way when the next battle comes. 
“Mama? I should have known that word.  My stomach has always been sick.” 
I had made my husband go sleep in the office because he just can’t handle this.  He goes nuts when he can not do anything to make it better.  Her pain becomes his unbearable, unfixable pain that morphs into fear, betrayal, and anger.  
Her questions and insights in the in between times became my anchor for the night.  

“I don’t understand the tuning of a violin.  You tighten the string to tune it, and it gets loose again, usually because of the water in the air.  But why does it just break at some point with no warning?”  
I know it looks like things, or people, just break without warning.  But there is always a warning, a sign, if you pay attention, and if you know what you are doing.  
“Why was I born last? Would I be the same person if was born before Chaucer or Chloe?”  
When we noticed the sky turning from the darkest black, to a little lighter black, she noticed the shift and asked why.  I explained that morning was coming soon.  
“Really? I thought the night was longer than the days in the winter.”
It is, honey.
“Wow.  That night flew by.  You mean we did an all nighter? Yes! I can’t wait to tell Chloe and Chaucer I was the first one to do an all nighter.” 
And as the sun edged its way through our blinds, I held my daughters hand, and we finally slept. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Blessings of a Bad Day

I am smart enough, or evolved enough to ask some questions.  Serious questions like, when I am in tears over everything and every one is upsetting me..... “What time of the month is it?” or like now, when I am sick, “Is everything as bad as it seems, darker than usual, because I am sick and under the weather?”  
I consider it progress that I ask the questions, even if I don’t answer them correctly.  I was really looking forward to this quiet week after the crazy week I had last week.  Honestly, I like both kinds of weeks - busy and full of action, and quiet non scheduled weeks.  I know there is no perfect time, and it is probably better that it happened this week, but being sick has really thrown me off my game.  
I actually love it when I am able to give in to sickness.  Just say, we can’t do it.  Whether its me or my kids, giving in, laying in front of the TV or in bed, canceling obligations, and just getting thorough it.  Although I fight this, I often embrace it when I must.  
But my world is weighing heavy on me now.  Substance abuse problems tearing families apart. Families that are close to us, our children.  Allegations of sexual abuse from families in our school.  Nasty divorces, like you wouldn’t believe.  Parents driving their kids under the influence.  Adults acting like teenage girls.  A suicide in my hometown.  The heavy, heavy weight of teaching my kids to navigate this world and wondering if I can do it. 
Oh yea, and this cold.  Which somehow seems harder than anything.  Yesterday, nothing was going right, you know those days?  Nothing big, but everything little.  I woke up to a very troubling email, on an issue that is constant but sometimes demands more.  I couldn’t write a thing... except a lengthy thank you letter for my event last week.  Being sick, I am even less able to multi task than usual, and spent the better part of the early afternoon dealing with learning issues at school.  Steve called from out of town and he was distressed that his meeting didn’t go well.  Last night, I needed help disciplining my son, who is so, so sweet and kind but has to be held responsible for his actions, or inactions.  I find it almost easier to fight my headstrong daughters than to help my son be responsible.  I didn’t know what to do, so I told him I was taking all of his new fatheads off his wall.  Well, that was a disaster and I ended up being the only one crying as he pulled them off his wall, saying “I’m really sorry, Mom.  Please be careful, Mom.” I wasn’t angry or out of control, I was just trying to find something that might mean something to him.  Also, trying to tune it, I broke my youngest daughter’s beloved violin, which she plays all the time. 
I was in tears when my husband arrived home from out of town exhausted, and he surprised me.  
“Do you want to go out? Take a drive somewhere?  I’ll handle this.”  
“No.  I can’t.  I feel so bad.”
“OK.  I’ll draw you a bath.”  What? Who is this? I vaguely remember this man I dated, then married years ago.
“There is already a kid in my bathtub.  Can’t go there.”  
“OK. Honey.  Just get in bed and read.  I’ll finish with the kids.”  I can’t get in bed to read because my son’s brand new 6 foot fathead is laying on my bed.  I just spent the last 30 minutes unsticking it because it rolled together when I took it off his wall and now I don’t know what to do with it.  
I get up to check on my older daughter who is in the bathtub.  I walk in my bedroom and see that the huge football player fathead is not on my bed anymore, and I quickly see that my youngest daughter has tried to clean my bed off for me, but has gotten caught up in the fat head, which is stuck to itself and her, and she is trying to deal with it without letting me know.  
I burst into tears with a wailing sound and plonk on my bed and hold my pounding head.    My older daughter is calling from the bathtub, “What’s wrong, Mom?”  And my younger daughter is silently trying to fight the sticky fathead herself.  If I were in a different state, I would have taken a picture.  My husband comes in and says, again, that he will fix it.  He tells me to go downstairs and I do.  
I play our old pinball machine with tears streaming down my face.  The tears are from being sick, frustrated, challenged with the day.  They are also from all the heavy things going on in families close to us.  They are fear from what has happened to the life we imagined having, fear of losing the closeness with my husband.  They are also, thankfully, tears of happiness and a little hope.  
One by one, they come down.  Chaucer says he is sorry and brings a picture he has made and offers to play with me.  I tell him that I don’t know what to do with him.  I am so proud of him.  He is such a good, kind, nice boy that I am so proud of.  I know you don’t mean to do the things you do.  I know it is the attention deficit disorder, but you are still responsible for your actions.  Mostly, I hug him and tell him how much I love him and he has tears in his eyes.
Sally comes down with a note apologizing for breaking the ornament and wrecking the fathead.  I kiss her head and say thank you, but I know they were accidents and she was just trying to be helpful and supportive.  
My husband comes down and tells me he beat the fathead and it is back on the wall perfectly.  He says he will take the violin to get fixed.  He is calm, and good with the kids.  He says he has already stepped in and handled some of the issues at school.  I am still crying, not sure why, but probably for all the reasons listed above.  And because it feels like it has been so long since I was supported, and it feels so good to have them caring and helping in a loving manner.  I haven’t felt this in so long.
I took a bath with candles and headed to bed, only to find a sweet letter written by my daughter.  It was folded like a letter addressed to Mama Sweetgirl Countryman.  I started crying again.  Maybe some of the things I do sink in.  Maybe they do matter.  I wrote her letters most every day at camp with these salutations.  Chloe Mama’s Baby Countryman, or Chloe Dancer Extraordinaire Countryman, or Chloe Wild Girl Countryman.  She never said anything about it and I never asked.  And now, six months later, she addresses it to me like that.  She noticed.  
She wrote how much she loved me.  She also said she asked Chaucer if he was upset about the fatheads and he responded, “Yea.  I guess.  But I’m more upset to disappoint Mom and see her upset.”  This fills me because she was taking care of her brother when I wasn’t able to, and it scares me because his heart is so fragile.  
Finally she said, I’m glad you are writing now.  I love having a mother that writes.  It makes me proud.  If you write a kids book, I will be the first to read it.  Dont. Know. How. To. Write. How. This. Makes. Me. Feel.    
I have been working so hard, fighting really to find my place.  I haven’t found it, and times are not always or often easy now.  I miss my children terribly now that they are all gone all day.  Too much around them is work, rather than relationship building.  I struggle to find a new path for myself, and trying to redefine myself puts unexpected pressures on my marriage.  
Now, I find myself thankful for that  horrible day yesterday.  I would not trade it.  I was so depleted that I had to depend on my family.  I had to let them be there for me.  My husband was soft and kind and calm.  My kids were amazing. Oh, what it is to feel.  To feel pain and frustration, and sadness.  And to feel love and support and kindness.  And to know that not everything is wrong in the world. 
Especially our little world.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Dear Husband

Sometimes, I question , as I’m certain you do, if I am the right woman for you.  Your life would have been so different without my complexities.  The terroir of my emotional landscape is as familiar to you as Mars.  You don’t question like I do, and for God’s sake you value keeping the peace over speaking your mind.  My softness often hides inside, under my quills, where the good it does is more elusive.  You might have been served better with the opposite, soft on the outside, quills kept tucked safely away.  I am much more than I do, and this lies in direct conflict to one of your most esteemed values and identifying trait of being a hard worker.  
But, still waters run deep, and in my heart, I know you have a very deep well.  You are my private iceberg.  Only the tip can be seen; the majority of the mass is hidden, undiscovered, unknown, unreachable.  One of your favorite quotes is, “I like a challenge.”  You might say that about me, although I know I am, and our marriage is, harder than you ever thought it would be.  
Many of the things I want from you, I now realize you want from me too.  And I wish, more than anything, that I could give them to you.  I think the reason I want them so badly from you, is that I don’t know how to give them..... to you, to me, to anyone. 
The soft, calm, centered, artistic, playful soul beckons to me from somewhere, and I greedily want it.  I get glimpses of it, and pounce, ravenous for what has been missing for so long.   But, you see, a calm soul can’t live with ravenous, pounce, and greed.  It may not be as elusive as trapping a moonbeam, but the challenge needs more tools than I have right now.  
So, I unabashedly demand it of you. Unbeknownst to me, I am asking you for something I am seeking, perhaps for myself, perhaps for others.  Something I have been exposed to, yet do not know intimately. 
Welcome to my inner journey.  My hidden softness can only be exported through the written word for now.  It can’t be spoken yet; it gets distorted and torn and hardened when I try to speak my truth.  
I know, in the subterfuge of your iceberg, you can comprehend, interpret, listen, feel, at least part of my pilgrimage to my center.  I invite you, to understand my deepest and most private self, through my written word.