March 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
Every morning when she wakes up, my 95-year-old grandmother says to my mother: “I wonder what temperature it is outside.” My mother always replies with whatever the thermostat reads as she is getting my grandmother dressed, groomed and seated in her wheelchair. But my grandmother doesn’t just ask the question once. She asks it once every two or three minutes. And she asks other questions. “What am I doing here?” “Why can’t I walk?” “Can you take me home now?” She doesn’t remember the stroke last year that paralyzed her left side and made her move in with my parents so they could take care of her. She does not realize she has dementia. And so she plies my mother with the same questions over and over, and my mother patiently and politely answers, every time.
I watch them and I wonder why my mother does it. What is the purpose of answering my grandmother’s ceaseless questions when she forgets the answers before they have left my mother’s lips? I think about this. My mother believes each moment with my grandmother is worth her full presence and participation. But why? Usually the value of a moment comes from the past or the present: Does this moment in some way build on the past or make sense of what preceded it, earning us some kind of reward, or does it fix itself in time so that we can remember the way things—and we—were? If it doesn’t have past or future significance, it is valuable only if we feel good in that moment, because negative emotions or experiences derive value from meaningful context. And if there is nothing we can get in return, does our action or inaction fall into a void of nothingness? Could it be the true test of altruism?
What if my mother ignored the questions? What if she left my grandmother to sit in front of the TV for hours or sleep instead of playing card games with her and reading to her? If my grandmother did not remember these moments, would it matter? I think that we can’t change the basic value of a moment—it’s a building block of time and humanity—but the way we treat it can cheapen and degrade it. If we use criteria like the past and present or some kind of reward to judge value, eventually, our moments will wear out our integrity…and then who will we be? I think we will all get to the end of our lives, like my grandmother, and be faced with just being alive moment by moment. Won’t we want someone else to redeem our moments by participating in them with us, according to an unseen, ungoverned value system?
As a writer, this is a bit tricky. I value my moments only if I can remember them. If I can’t, I can’t write about them so it’s like they have been half lived. And what determines my behavior and attitude in a moment is usually 1) if others are watching, or if 2) I can get something out of it, a reward (honestly!). When I see my mother telling my grandmother what temperature it is for the hundredth time, I know what I have to do: Treat each insignificant moment as being of equal value with all the others in our lives, because what matters is the present, even if no one remembers and no one hears.
February 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
I want to remember everything about my children’s lives. Sometimes I feel frustrated because when I jot down a line in their baby book or press a photo between the pages I feel like I am missing the essence of the moment, or the real reason I chose to record it. I am not giving my children the context—the living, breathing smells, sounds and emotions around the images. I want to curate these moments so they will understand the stories they are living, more than just a cute picture strung together with a lot of other cute pictures to make a timeline of their childhood.
So I stopped to catalog one of my perfectly uneventful afternoons with Reese, and I wrote a little “word portrait” of Jack, a photo that I think captures a little of his exuberant spirit. I’d love to share with you!
:: Reese ::
We arrange ourselves on a quilt on the winter-yellow grass in the backyard, sniffing and basking in the first hint of spring in a long few weeks. I didn’t know it could get and stay this cold in Texas. Reese’s feet are bare, just chubby and pink enough to make me feel old and weathered. This is her first spring. A lithe black cat who has decided to adopt us leaps atop the fence between our house and his, then drops to the ground on white paws and stalks over to us, eager to rub his whiskery face against my arm.
Reese is transfixed as the cat meanders around our blanket, and she rolls and pitches trying to follow him with her eyes, reaching out hands that want to pat his soft fur. The cat is the perfect gentleman, allowing her to investigate his jingling collar and the arch of his twitchy tail.
Then Reese and I are alone again, playing with a basket of toys that make gentle dings and clicks. I live for her smile and how her eyes smile when she does and her cheeks bunch up like poppies. She flops over and her bare feet touch the grass, so prickly and dry, and she seems surprised. She plucks up a crumbling leaf and tastes it before I can grab it away. Her sweetness permeates the air like sunshine and I catch a whiff of her baby shampoo.
Everything is so quiet as we sit here, and the sun has moved away from us so we are completely shaded, yet it still feels warm. I could be doing so many other things right now, and I am impatient because Reese keeps knocking over the basket, but I wonder if someday I will look back on days like this and miss the absolute windlessness and stillness, the leisurely portrait of my daughter and me as I sit cross-legged on the grass.
:: Jack ::
In one of my favorite pictures of him, Jack is popping out of a cardboard box in our living room and you can tell by his expectant face, bursting with a mix of eagerness and pride, that he is ready to be praised for his feat. He is wearing only a diaper, and his torso still bears that baby roundness, that slight indentation at the wrists and elbows, with soft, doughy shoulders. His hair is waxy blond from the sun and springing out in a halo of ringlets that have never met a comb.
In the background you can see the opaque beige walls and dingy carpet of an apartment we lived in when we first moved to Dallas, the apartment above the Indian family whose rich, pungent cooking always floated up to our balcony and made my mouth water. Last summer, I lugged groceries up two flights of stairs to that apartment when I was nine months pregnant, and the heat soaked through my flipflops to scorch the soles of my feet.
Jack has colored on the flaps of the box with red crayon, and the concentric scribbles are evenly spaced, two on each flap. This box is a forgotten moving box that he’s fetched from the closet because he always wants to play inside or on top of something. Nobody appreciates the box except him. It’s a wonderland of opportunity, and it’s free for the taking. In moments he shrieks, “Look, Mom!” and pounces down, gleefully folding his body into the crevices of the box, then fumbles the flaps closed over his head, muttering with frustration when they only hinge halfway. Like a rocket being launched, his bright hair once again pops from the inky shadows of the box as he grabs its sides and beams with joy, and I click the photo. Again and again, I watch the show; it’s fun every time, and alas, the beauty of endless repetition is lost on me. Now that I look at this picture, almost a year later, I see the beauty of his simple diversion, a twinkle of the magic that I know lives in his heart.
November 10, 2012 § 4 Comments
I certainly don’t expect many people to know this, since I currently post at a rate of once in a blue moon, but we are now proud homeowners of a charming brick two-story in McKinney, Texas, voted the No. 2 best city to live in the United States! I know, can you believe it? I certainly can’t. It was a long road getting here, from getting approved for a loan (total shocker!) to learning everything about homebuying and closing and escrow and inspections from scratch, and feeling pretty clueless and intimidated the whole time. But now that we made it through the nightmare of moving and are settled, and everything is unpacked and put away except for our books, it’s our haven of rest, the perfect place to enjoy the absolutely perfect fall weather. The outdoors feel so accessible after being in a second-floor apartment. We can open a door out into our fenced backyard, complete with a flagstone patio and built-in grill, and practically fall into nature. We can also escape the elements if we need to by entering and exiting the house through the garage. No more splashing through a million puddles in the parking lot of our apartment complex and getting soaked up to our shins.
My favorite things about the house are the fireplace, the lovely wood floors and stairs, the bonus room upstairs, the closet under the stairs that will be a secret cave for Jack, the open kitchen, and the entryway that gives you a moment to breathe and take your shoes off before tumbling into the living space. So really, I like almost everything about it. The brown paint is a little more earthy than I would like, so we plan to paint it gray. Our bedroom has a travertine tile floor, so that is chilly and not ideal. But once we paint, get a cozy rug, and I finish my project of sanding and painting a four-poster bed and two small dressers—oh, and find some matchstick blinds—I can’t wait to see what it will look like. I like the pantry too and the many enormous closets. I know it’s my first house, and some people around here might consider it a “starter home,” but to me, it’s a palace. And I am still in the honeymoon stage where I admire everything and keep it very clean and shining. I know that will end soon, but right now, you can eat off the floors (which Jack frequently does).
I struggle with wanting to buy so many new things for the house but knowing that we can’t afford it right away. In my mind, I can see where everything will go and how the sun will filter through those beautiful sheer curtains and I just want it all to be reality. Like I want to purchase all new textiles for the living room. It’s fall, and I want to snuggle up under one of those amazingly soft, fleecy white throws, and put my feet up on a knitted ottoman and have about 10 pillows strewn around me. But I can’t. I have to wait. And that is very hard. I want to buy a new teapot. I want a farmhouse table. I want an eclectic flea market piece for the dining room. And on and on and on.
So being aware of how I focus on the end result, I remind myself to let it be a process, this moving in and making a house my own. I have never before had the liberty to do so, to just let my imagination run wild. What a gift! I feel God’s hand of mercy on us every time I think about the fact that indeed we do own a house. Every little touch we add to it makes it more ours. And one of my spiritual gifts is hospitality, according to a spiritual gifts assessment I did a few years ago. To once again be able to entertain and welcome friends and family into my home and take care of them is a sweet, cherished opportunity. I want to use this house to shelter them and feed them and host Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations galore. So I guess my dreams have really come true. But I should really stay off Pinterest and Houzz and away from Goodwill because even though I am house-crazy, I have two children and a lot of freelance writing to do.
So really, please come visit me.
September 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
Sometimes I give up on ever doing anything consistently. Exercise. Draw. Wake up early. ESPECIALLY write. I just looked, and it’s been over three MONTHS since I last shared with ya’ll. In my defense, these days it’s not the easiest thing to find my computer, a glass of water and a moment of silence to put my feet up on the couch and take a breath. On May 31, I became a mama of two. I have been busy learning to take care of TWO people other than myself, how to be more patient in the face of mayhem than I ever wanted to be, and how to make sure at the end of the day, the house is still standing and my eyes are still open. As friends told me, it doesn’t get easier, but it does become normal. And be encouraged, those of you with one bambino, I still have adult conversations with friends and wear makeup from time to time. I am still me (!) though I don’t look quite like myself (bloodshot eyes, stubbly legs, hair in a haphazard bun from morning to night). But yes, I carry on. Sometimes I read, make dinner or bake. I made banana bread last week and this week, I have promised to make something yummy for our Sunday evening “family dinner” with dear friends.
What is the average day like with two children? Well, it’s somewhat mundane but also action-packed. I began taking the baby out when she was about five days old. I don’t like sitting in the house and neither does Jack, so we asked Reese to adopt our on-the-go lifestyle from the start. As ridiculous as it sounds, the hardest part of my day is getting the baby, the bags and Jack out of the house, down the stairs from our second-story apartment, and across the parking lot to our garage, which unfortunately is at the opposite end of our building. Do you know all the things that can go wrong in the amount of time from when you lock the door behind you to when you pull out of the garage? The short list includes dropped toys, temper tantrums, falling down the stairs, plunging into puddles, drinking water in down spouts, bugs, “towels” in the road, fascination with lawn mowers and sitting down on the steps and refusing to go another inch. Sometimes I’m tempted to crawl back up to the apartment in defeat, but I press on to whatever splash park, bounce house or story time we are off to that day. In my head I check off all the items in my diaper bag and pray that I haven’t forgotten anything vital (I did forget the pacifier the other day, and I turned the car around and headed straight home. I know when I have met my match). When we arrive at our destination, I flex my muscles and heave the double stroller out the back hatch of our SUV, haul the car seat out of the car, lift a solid 35-lb toddler out of his seat, hoist the bags onto my shoulders and push the whole kit and caboodle off to wherever we are going. You would think I would be totally RIPPED out by now. What am I doing wrong?
On the upside of all this fun and craziness…Though I never wanted a daughter because boys just seemed simpler, I am completely, utterly enamored with this tiny creature. She has the biggest eyes that take in the world and the sweetest nature. My days are now punctuated with the most adorable gurgles and coos that you ever heard in your life. While I prayed for Jack to be joyful, I just prayed for this baby to be easy, but I am finding her temperament quite irresistible. Once in a while at night, when both kids are bathed and in pajamas and I’m combing soft, fresh-washed baby hair and detangling matted blond curls, I am blissful. I know I need to enjoy those moments. And I do. I really do.
May 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
When I was in college, I handed a boy I had just started dating a paper to tell him about my depression. We were sitting on a bench under a tree in the twilight, and it seemed to me the best way to debrief him on my “condition.” I had written the paper myself. It was a double-spaced personal experience paper for a writing class. My teacher had told me it was very good and I should try to get it published, but as a new transfer student, I was more worried about just making it through the semester with my grades and relationships intact.
“What is this?” he asked me. He was two years younger than me—a freshman—but I was fleeing a painful breakup and trying new things.
“Just read it,” I said.
So he did read it, patiently, and then turned to me and said, “My mom has depression, so I get it.” He continued with a nice, non-judgmental spiel that I had heard a dozen times before. I nodded politely and tried to acknowledge what he was saying, but the gratitude stuck in my throat like a piece of wax. Isn’t that what I wanted—for him to understand? For him to say, “I get it”? Somehow it fell short of the mark. I felt what I always felt after telling someone about my depression… broken, tarnished, like someone just set me up on a shelf with some other damaged objects, like that’s where I belong. I wanted to take the paper back and pretend like it never happened. So we sat there in silence next to each other and looked at the paint peeling up in little green curlicues from the edge of the bench.
Talking about my depression usually ends up not going the way I want it to. It’s not that I’m ashamed. In my mind, it’s a familiar, even stereotypical label that makes people nod their heads and think they understand when they really don’t. Diving further into the definition seems to bring people close while simultaneously pushing them away. Everyone can recite the symptoms of depression from the TV commercials—sadness, cloudy thinking, negative thoughts, lethargy—but a list of symptoms doesn’t cover it. A diagnosis may bring momentary clarity, but it doesn’t tell you how often my smile feels forced and every laugh is faked for the sake of others, or how today I’m counting the minutes until I can crawl under the covers and be invisible. It doesn’t mention feelings of fear and sadness that are irrationally strong, like monsters that grip me in their claws.
I’ve found it much easier to cover up my depression because it confuses people and make them think I am some kind of Debbie Downer. That is the worst, to be perceived as dark, unstable, needy. It’s also horrifying to tell people how to treat you, as if you’re a rare breed of animal.
My depression is both a placid lake and an ocean. It is quiet on the surface, except in my head where it roars. My depression waits for me around corners and inside doorways. It finds me in bed at night. It takes the form of a very persistent salesman. But I cope with it. I go to counseling. I take medication. However, it’s still hard for me to talk to my husband, family and friends about it. And the challenges I face dealing with my depression as a wife and mother are very different from when I was in college or my early 20s when I lived on my own. I could decide to either reveal or not reveal, choose what I let people see of me. My family sees everything. Living with depression is a process of continuing education, for myself and for them. It’s a road to acceptance that this is a part of my life.
Sometimes as Christians, at a very young age, we learn to hate and fear parts of ourselves. The black and white of “sin” and “righteousness” forms harsh lines to separate the good and bad in our own hearts, partitioning us. I have always seen depression as the bad part of me, to be driven away and feared. But I’m not a dichotomized being. I’m a whole. That’s really the tough part, to make peace with my depression and not make excuses for it or hide it because it’s ugly.
So when I tell people about my depression for the first time or talk about it because I’m struggling and I need them to know, I want to stop looking for a response that will make me feel OK. I don’t want to look to them to assure me that I’m not damaged. I want to see it as part of my continuing work to accept that depression has been with me for 15 years and will probably continue to be with me for the rest of my life. I refuse to hate it because it’s hard or dark. I give up trying to make only the bright, pretty parts of myself visible. I believe there is enough grace available for me to be true to who I am, even if that person is sometimes depressed.
April 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Every morning Jack and I eat big bowls of oatmeal for breakfast. He watches Curious George, and I watch his huge blue eyes stare at the TV and marvel at his sleep-rumpled beauty. Usually I have to remind him to eat or poke the spoon into his mouth a few times. I don’t mind doing that. It’s a bit of a morning ritual. When we come to the end of our bowls, he pushes his toward me and says, “Last bite, Mommy.” That’s my cue to scrape up the last bits of oatmeal stubbornly clinging to the sides and bottom of the cracked yellow bowl for one last, satisfying bite. The last bite is always the best.
These breakfasts got me thinking in my usual wacky, pseudo-philosophical way. Is there more enjoyment to be found in my “bowl of life”? What if I avidly scraped the bowl of life to get the last bit of slightly gooey goodness out? If I could scrape the bowl a little bit more, perhaps I would feel fuller, like when I add a cut-up banana to my oatmeal, or more satisfied, like I had scraped everything nourishing I possibly could out of my glorious, rushed, pull-my-hair-out moments. How would I / could I do that?
I came up with this absolutely random list.
1. Roll the windows down and smell, smell, smell. I decided recently that my all-time favorite smell is fresh-cut grass. I thought surely I must have a more sophisticated schnoz. But no… grass wins every time. If my windows are not down, however, I can’t take in its rich, sunlit pungency. I’m sealing myself off from things that bring me joy. So I need to roll down the window and get windblown and messy so I can smell the world. Which leads me to #2.
2. Stop caring so much about how I look. The only real reason I don’t drive with the windows down is because I don’t like how it turns my hair into stringy ropes. But who cares about having stringy hair if you’re enjoying yourself? And I believe that windows-down driving symbolizes a carefree approach to life and probably means that throughout the course of the day, you are also open to petting random dogs and using woodchips to buy “ice cream” from 2-year-olds and singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” like you mean it, with motions.
3. Embrace the whole human experience. It takes so much courage to open yourself up to life that sometimes I really think I can’t do it. It’s hard for me to embrace being a parent especially—the worry, the humiliation, the nail-biting love. It’s also hard for me to stop fighting the pricks of loneliness and isolation of being human. I get so stuck inside the difficulties of being me, inside my head, feeling like I’m all alone and cannot share the deepest parts of myself. I think that’s just part of life though. No one completely understands us or meets us where we are ALL of the time (except God of course), but occasionally they do, and that feels so good, like a family reunion or a good test grade or just the reassurance you are normal and joined to these people around you with cords that cannot be broken. Bad days, good days and the days when your heart is ripped out are all part of being human and alive, and sometimes all you can do is live through it and cry extra hard or take a nap, and then wake up the next day and not hold anything back.
4. Vacuum more. Suck up all the crumbs from previous breakfasts and just start clean. I just vacuumed and I feel so much better about everything … Weird how a floor can do that.
5. Stop trying to control everything. I recently went out of town to California for the weekend. Before I left, I was certain (more than I admitted to anyone) that my family was going to starve to death or die of dirt or cold or infectious disease during my absence. I wanted very badly to be able to pick out the clothes Jack would wear while I was gone and to personally put his meals in Tupperware containers with labels on them and to regulate the amount of TV he was watching and the sugar he was ingesting. Not that my husband is incapable of parenting our son just as well as I am, if not better … it’s just that I am incapable of letting go. I have myself convinced that everything depends on me, which is both a giant ego trip and a heavy burden. It did get better after I left, was removed from the situation and forced to sit in an airplane and take deep breaths. But it made me realize that I cannot really enjoy things when I’m trying to control the s*%& out of them. And P.S. to self: Life goes on without you, and that is a really good thing.
Like I said, this is a totally random list (thank you, pregnancy brain!) and it may not make sense to anyone else … in fact, I would be surprised if it does. But I hope you find your own ways of scraping the bowl of life and getting out that very last, tasty bite. Bon appetit!
April 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
I was so looking forward to my return to sweets.
Easter Sunday came along on the heels of a very long Lenten fast from sweets, during which I only cheated twice (Doughnut. Whiskey cake. Sigh.). It was actually the Saturday night before Easter and we were BBQing around the pool at a friend’s backyard, and I felt like I was practically across the finish line, so I dipped into a very modest bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. It hurt my tummy, as ice cream always seems to do, but I savored that beloved creamy texture and fudgy globs of goodness nonetheless. Desserts give life such a celebratory aura. They really make a day into an event.
And then, Sunday came. Glory. I started the day with a Cadbury egg. I moved on to strawberry shortcake after Easter lunch. Then at a friend’s house, I ate a chocolate-cherry frosted cupcake, a pear tart with ice cream and an unknown number of jelly beans. That night, I ate another chocolate-cherry cupcake. Also some small milk chocolates and a supersize box of Nerds. Another Cadbury egg.
The morning after, I feel very …. Gluggish. That’s a real, fake word to describe how gluttonous and sluggish and kind of “urgh” I feel right now. I couldn’t wait to reenter the world of sweets, but I don’t much like how I feel after my grand entrance. It’s a little sad, really, to find myself back where I started. After all this deprivation, I hoped I’d have more panache. I hoped I would reap the fruit of my self-control. But I think what I need to go back to is, actually, just fruit. I’m still that little kid whose tongue is raw from eating too many Pixie Stix. It’s not you, sweets … it’s me …
So I’m digging deep in my heart to figure out whether I need to just eat sweets on Sundays. I think that makes the most sense to my sugar-addled brain. That way, Sundays will be a celebration of rest, play and indulgence. Oh, and on my birthday next week, I’ll definitely eat sweets, especially as a friend is taking me to her favorite cupcake shop. So my new informal rule will be Sundays and special occasions. Rules. They are for the weak who desperately need structure in their lives. (Soon I hope to write a rule of life, or pattern of intentional spiritual disciplines, but I haven’t given it enough thought yet.)
Welcome back to whatever you abstained from this Lent. I hope you enjoy it in small doses!