I’ve had to take a time out from my self-absorbed melancholy to focus on a sick child this week. My daughter brought home a virus with a high fever, from that bastion of bacteria and snot, her elementary school. No longer newbies to the high fever (see my March post), 105 has become the new 102 in our household. We’re calmer and once she cleared the strep test, we were able to settle in to wait this out.
There is a silver lining to having my daughter at home during this bout with illness. Yesterday afternoon, she and I sat out in the sun on the deck eating strawberry popsicles and pointing out butterflies to each other (and at least one stink bug). Talking and laughing, we were having one of those magical moments in time that I wish I could freeze forever in my mind. It would be cataloged in my memory along with the mental movie of her as a four-year-old, flying back and forth on our backyard swing set, singing at the top of her lungs – the embodiment of happiness. I knew in that very second that I should not forget this picture, that I should commit it to memory. Someday, when I am on my way out and she is out in the world, I will flip through these savored, kept memories and taste that joy again.
Our moments have been far and few between lately. My daughter is coming into her own as I have been struggling to retain what is my own. She has, in all my efficiency, become something on a “to-do” list to take care of, along with grandma, the cats, my job, my marriage. I’ve been spread pretty thin and have started missing some of the joy that is there, waiting for me to take it in. If only I were forced to stay still and quiet for stroking a fevered forehead. If only I would listen with true, not habitual, compassion and concern. If only I would quickly shuffle through my priorities and come up holding only the truly important ones.
Today we poured through art books, talking about the different painting styles. I’ve never been drawn to visual arts, but I’ve caught her enthusiasm to learn more and we’ve begun planning a summer of museum-hopping. Even if I wouldn’t wish for illness, it reminds me to make room in our lives for those moments to happen. Unlike the “list”which I go through with grim determination, I come away from these brief interludes energized and hopeful. My daughter is an amazing, resilient person. I can’t imagine how many moments I have missed when I was busy multitasking. What will her memories be of me? I can do better. Life is short and time with your child, even shorter. I’ll still enjoy taking her back to school when she has recovered from this virus. I really enjoy showering without someone yelling dramatically through the door, “Mom, the cat threw up!” But that’s an entirely different kind of moment.
I’ve spent much of the last few weeks working in my garden. The timing for hard labor and solitary weeding and planting is perfect. I’ve been fending off a depression that has lingered on longer than usual- perhaps the remainder of an impotent winter – little snow and mild temperatures. It feels more like mid-summer rather than spring and I lack a sense of time or purpose.
By happenstance I began to read The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers. The book is based on a PBS series of interviews Mr. Moyers did with well-known poets. When I skimmed through his conversation with the poet Jane Kenyon, her words immediately resonated with me. She suffered from depression and spoke of how gardening and being outdoors helped. Aha. This I can understand. She went on to say “When you get to be my age and you’ve lived with depression for a number of years, you begin to have a context for believing that you will feel better at some point.” I have a context for my depression and I know that I come out of it eventually, so advice from well-meaning friends falls flat and serves to isolate me further. I feel like I have to state categorically that they do not need to call a crisis line on my behalf. I’ve lived with it for so long that I no longer view it as a natural enemy, an illness to be cured. On the spectrum of mental disorders in my family, I inherited the sugarless, low fat, decaffeinated, gluten free variety. It’s bland and serves a purpose in my life now.
For me, depression is a signpost to review where I’m at and to acknowledge that I may have gotten off track a bit. It warns me that I need time to take myself out of my life and mull it over. It’s an indicator that I’ve allowed my internal reserves to become depleted. It means I’ve talked too much, helped too much, and said “yes” too often. It also means that I’ve allowed my unrealistic expectations for myself and others to run rampant throughout my psyche. It’s the indicator to hit the “Pause” button and that’s the challenge. In a world where kids need to be dropped off at school, legal tender must be earned and people and cats must be toted to vet, dentist or doctor appointments, there is no “Pause” button. I become increasingly hostile and maybe a little desperate to step away for a moment or two or three.
And that brings me back to my garden. I get sweaty and covered in dirt, hum manically to myself, occasionally forget and talk out loud to my plants. My knees ache and I can feel the sun searing the back of my neck to medium rare. A smell of thyme or lilacs drifts by and the robins chirp excitedly as I clear the weeds and expose dirt with easy access to worms. Bumblebees dart and hover over bright purple flowers, butterflies flutter surprisingly close and an occasional dragonfly darts by on its commando mission. A whispered, fleeting thought occurs to me.”This is happiness”. If I say it out loud, will someone tell me that I should make a career of it? If I say it out loud, will someone tell me how they can’t stand getting dirty or the heat or the bugs? If I say it out loud, will I be giving away my not-so-secret hideout, my rehab center, my psychotropic drug? How I wish I could capture those feelings for times when I cannot be digging in the dirt, for those moments when I’ve driving from one errand to the next and feel trapped and frustrated and melancholic. If only to have the “inward eye” of William Wordsworth in the poem, “I wandered lonely as cloud”:
I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Only time will evaporate the dark cloud in my head and bring me willingly back into the world. Until then, I must be patient, work the soil and see what grows.
I drive a hybrid Prius and unlike many ecologically-conscious people, I am constantly filled with guilt. There is a disappointing lack of self-righteousness that should have accompanied the warranty. A friend described her Prius driving experience as “Zen-like”, saying she enjoyed the quiet gradual accelerating and braking. Replace “gradual” with “on a dime” and “hairpin” and well, that’s my driving technique. Add in “the joy of startling pedestrians who can’t hear your car” and taking off from a stoplight using the “Power” mode button and I’m the world’s worst Prius driver. I like to augment the quiet of the Prius with window rattling music and occasionally rouse myself to make rude gestures at drivers with cell phones glued to their ears. Can you hear me now? Yes, I care about the environment. And yes, I still drive like I’m in my ’72 Monte Carlo, in high school.
Freud divided the human psyche into three parts. There’s the “id” as the instinctual part of the thought process, driven by pleasure, seeking to avoid tension. You know – the fun part. And then there’s the “ego”, the planner, the realistic but wanting to please portion of your psyche. And finally, the “super-ego”, or every disapproving teacher, relative or friend you have ever had. In your head. I’m not sold on Freud, but I like the visualization of absolute chaos that takes place every day in the human brain. Every day Id suggests pizza for breakfast, while Ego sweetly offers pancakes, in the hopes that the shape will placate. Just when Id settles down for a short stack and syrup, Super-ego stomps in and insists that Id have a grapefruit and bran. Id delightfully digs into the pancakes while Super-Ego passive aggressively harrumphs. Poor Ego keeps trying to serve multigrain English muffins in an attempt to keep everyone happy. And that’s your brain at breakfast. Now take it for a drive and see which one takes the wheel.
I’m getting old enough now to see that my inconsistencies, my dichotomous beliefs, my irrational and completely contradictory behaviors are exactly what make me human. I grew up in an “all or nothing” environment which made it much harder for me to accept that I wasn’t a complete and utter failure because I held so many opposing beliefs. I believe in the pursuit of peace on earth, but spent four years running around with an M16 in a Kevlar helmet (I was in the Army, not just randomly doing this). I believe in the idea of community, but find myself avoiding groups of more than three people. I think you should know your neighbors, but only between the hours of say 5 and 6pm and then I’d like them to mind their own business. I totally embrace making ecologically sound choices, but lord, those cloth diapers were a nightmare and sometimes I want a friggin’ grape out of season.
It takes a long time to appreciate and embrace the absurdities in one’s own head. There are a lot of things I don’t like about myself. I wish I were more consistent and logical. It’s a struggle to come to terms with shades of gray and to accept that you are not going to get things right every time. And it really, truly is okay. Sometimes Id likes to drive even though Ego bought the car and Super-Ego is white-knuckling the door handle while shrieking. I probably should pull over until all the arguing stops.
Today, on April Fool’s Day, I celebrate my 12th year of being married. No joke. I could not have imagined this life for myself – one of comfort and challenge and complexity. Up until my early thirties, marriage was nowhere in my imagination. I’d seen few successful partnerships in my family and many of the friends who sucked my finances dry by getting married in their early twenties, were on their second marriages. Marriage seemed like an expensive series of registries and rituals that involved ugly dresses. While I understood the “to do” list that got you into a marriage, I had no understanding of the purpose or intent once you arrived at your destination.
It turns out, for me, it’s much more powerful and understated than anything I could imagine. I am a better person with him than I was on my own. We’re not halves of a whole or codependent or anything that makes us less of an individual, but we complement each other and ever so gently push each other towards our better selves. We bicker on occasion about how to get things done – our unfinished kitchen has been an ongoing “discussion” for about five years. He is all about process and I am about results. We can work ourselves up into a heated argument about the best way to even talk about a project. He has to say “Let me finish my sentence” all too often and I have to hold back my impatient “well, get on with it then”.
There are days when I feel overwhelmed and he will walk in the door and I immediately feel like everything is okay. As I’ve grown more thoughtful about marriage, I’ve gotten better at saying that out loud. I’m much more pragmatic and less romantically-inclined these days, and so much that passes for romance sounds false and scripted. But when I can naturally and reflexively tell him that he just made my day better, I start to feel like I get it. Our attention spans are a little shorter these days. It’s easy to go to the next new shiny thing or person. Sometimes you have to stick around and dig in and get to the good stuff. I’ve gotten to a lot of the good stuff – seeing what a great father my husband is, growing and learning and being together as a family.
In order to marry in my husband’s faith, we had to meet with the Pastor for a counseling session. She told us a joke about a wife who complains to her husband “You never tell me you love me.” He says “I told you 50 years ago that I loved you and nothing’s changed.” I laughed, but am so grateful that everything does change. My proclamation of love from 12 years ago does not resemble the love I feel these days. It has become richer with shared memories and simple daily kindnesses. And I celebrate that with gratitude.
It’s 11pm and I’m sitting vigil over a sick child. Sitting with me is my friend Primal Fear and my other pal, Unfettered Access to Googled Medical Information. As a rule, our child is fortunately healthy. Which makes us freak out just a little bit when she gets sick. It is a reminder of the fallibility of the human body and it reminds us of our powerlessness as parents.
On NPR, I heard an interview with Pamela Druckerman about her book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Once again, my defensive parenting hackles are raised because it sounds like just another Why American Parents Suck Treatise. To be fair, I’ve not yet read the book. I’ll be sure to add it to my list of Books I’ll Read About Parenting When I’m Not Too Busy Parenting. Of course, that’s one of the author’s points – that we spend too much time being parents instead of balanced people like, apparently, the French. When your kid is running a 104° F fever though, all leisurely parenting advice goes out the window and we become as feral and protective of our young as any other living creature.
I had a child well into my thirties. My fears and anxieties were already well-developed, cultivated and accepted. Then I had a baby and my familiar catalog of neuroses promptly went out of print, only to be replaced by a revised and updated Wow, Now I Might Screw Up Somebody Else’s Life catalog of fears. When it comes to a child’s health, it becomes less about whether or not they’ve been signed up for too many lessons and more about, are they breathing? It’s a quick distillation of parental responsibilities and biological anxieties. I can’t even allow myself to go to the “what if” place in the middle of illness, because the possibilities seem endless and overwhelming. I’m forced to be present and focused on the problem at hand.
At about 2am, she sits up in bed and begins expressing deep concerns about getting some eggs in her Angry Birds game. I tell her she’s dreaming but she says defiantly that it’s real. I ask her, in my sleep deprived state, if the fever has boiled her brain. Not a proud parenting moment, but at the time, it seemed funny. She lays back down in defeat and falls asleep. I check every half hour. Is she breathing? How high is the fever now? It’s one of the few times I toss off all my intellectual beliefs and pray to a master puppeteer, in the hopes that the random nature of bacteria is actually under someone’s control. I know rationally that I should be praying to the bottle of antibiotics and to my daughter, whose body is fighting off this infection. But I’m no longer rational. I’m missing some serious sleep, which is apparently important, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – although I don’t trust any pyramid that doesn’t include caffeine and chocolate.
By 6am, she’s slept peacefully for 4 hours. I wake up from my uneven slumber and look in on her. She’s rosy cheeked, long lashes closed, mouth open in a quiet snore. I slump against the doorway in relief. The night shift is over.
It’s an angry world out there and my own temperament is not helping. I can launch into a rant quick as a flash regarding politics, why there doesn’t need to be a television everywhere I go, why my child needs to practice piano and why stores don’t sell age-appropriate clothing. I read an article this morning that included comments by Rush Limbaugh regarding congressional testimony by a woman from Georgetown. I was, as always, immediately incensed and thought of not very flattering names I’d like to hurl at Mr. Limbaugh. I don’t really know his parentage or whether he just has low metabolism, so it would reflect my own ignorance and I’m guessing, not bother him a whit.
If you spend any time reading the online comments under news stories, it seems the world is an angry, misanthropic place full of really scary people bubbling with rage. It’s a skewed view, so I must take a break from reading news, and talk to friends and family to remind myself not everyone is a sociopath. Not everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame at the expense of human dignity and kindness.
Raising a child brings on a level of consciousness that is hard to live with at times. After telling my child that you sometimes have to ignore other people’s rude behavior, an hour later I’m spewing a string of curse words in the car because the driver ahead didn’t use his or her turn signal. Thanks to parenting, I’m aware of how unhelpful it is as I am doing it. I’m assuming awareness is the first step to learning not to rage at every little thing, or it’s just an exercise in self-flagellation.
These days, I’m trying to talk myself out of full rants. Maybe the driver was distracted because they were worried about losing their job, had a fight with a spouse, or were up all night with a sick child. Maybe the person talking loudly on their cell phone about their colonoscopy suffers from hearing loss. Maybe, just maybe, dishes will still get clean if they’re stacked haphazardly in the dishwasher. Maybe my child really can’t hear me when I ask for the 500th time for toys to be picked up. Reflexive thoughts are like muscle memory, if you practice changing your habitual thoughts, you develop a new habit. I know I am not necessarily motivated by the betterment of the world in my daily life. I am, however, motivated by not wanting to feel like an out-of-control festering ball of rage. That simmering anger has to be fed, either by habit or intent. And I’m the one responsible for that.
The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, writes “Making friends with yourself is making friends with other people too, because when you come to have this kind of honesty, gentleness and goodheartedness, combined with clarity about yourself, there’s no obstacle to feeling loving kindness for others as well.” This is the beauty of practicing kindness towards others – it makes you better at being kind to yourself. Frankly, I don’t care which process comes first. Sometimes it is simply easier to start with others rather than yourself. I realize that this defies the “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others” instruction. Like any other practice, mental or physical, you have to lower your expectations for some down days. If a down day means you focus on being kinder to others, that’s a win, my friend.
I picked up my new pair of glasses today. The fitting is where I find out that the friendly team at the optician’s office has convinced me that I look fabulous….wearing what now appear to be Groucho Marx glasses. I can see that my white fortysomething friends are all wearing the same style. They must have a special collection for middle-aged white ladies called Delusional. We’re old, we’re pale, we’re overweight, but glasses that give us a Frida Kahlo unibrow might just help.
I’ve worn glasses since the 1st grade and they’re critical to my existence. I suffered through tortoise shell framed circles of submarine glass, 1980’s plate glass that covered half my face, wire frames, plastic frames, blue, red and green frames, not to mention flip down and clip on sunglasses (almost too cool to mention). When I select frames, it’s a crap shoot. I see a big, blurry face with the vague outline of glasses. I have to rely on the optician and wandering office staff to tell me what looks good. This year, looking like a 1950’s accountant is apparently hip.
The idea that the things we wear and own are an expression of self always strikes me as being very strange. The comedian, Jim Gaffigan, talks about glasses in his standup routine. When the optician asks him what he wants his glasses to say about him, he says “How bout I got a big one?” It’s an amazing marketing ploy, convincing us that our choices can completely relay to others our sense of style and self and um…virility. If true, my glasses and clothes speak the truth: I can’t really tell what’s attractive on me and I don’t care enough to try beyond an initial effort. Sales people and hair cutters and opticians designed my look. And they weren’t working as a team.
What I find attractive and appealing has changed so much over the years. I don’t know if it’s the magic of rationalization or the wisdom of age. My standards of beauty now sound like standards for the Westminster dog show – bright eyes, a lustrous coat, good teeth, a bounce in the step. It’s not sexy, flash-in-the-pan beauty – it’s thoughtful, longlasting beauty. It’s the kind of beauty that radiates from being engaged, from laughing a lot, from introspection and being comfortable with choices made. Eyebrow pluckers and chronic dieters everywhere might suggest that I’ve given up. There’s a ring of truth to that. It’s exhausting trying to meet someone else’s definition of beauty. Even when they pick out your glasses, style your hair and choose your clothes.
Mondays used to be a good day to start a new plan. I’d be more organized. I’d be kinder to my child. I’d pack wonderful lunches for my family. I’d buzz through my emails and work tasks. I’d get in a 3 mile run and some weight training right off the bat.
By Tuesday, I’m slumped at my desk, stuffing my face with blue chips and spicy cheese and watching Daily Show reruns. I’m screening my calls, piling dishes in the kitchen and trying desperately to find some real sense of purpose, besides doing the things I “should” be doing.
I’m nothing if not a firm believer in every day being a beginning. I used to fall off the perfectionist wagon and stay off for weeks on end. Now, like eating healthy and exercising, I only let myself go a day or two before I drag my sorry ass back into the life I think I should be living. This is a hard road to travel, this constant battle between good intentions and my baser instincts of sloth and neglectfulness.
I know women, women I admire greatly, for whom this battle seems nonexistent. Their baser instincts involve home cooking and a bustling career and genuine kindness and warmth. I also have friends who seem to have lost the battle and have come to terms with their own limitations – also admirable, as long as you don’t want to sit anywhere when you visit them or meet at a specific time.
By Wednesday, I begin to rally the troops again. I write out the “to do” list, knock out the big tasks that will get me noticed if they’re not done. I do a halfhearted workout at the Y, easily distracted by the grunting weight lifter next to me. I’m afraid he’s going to go into cardiac arrest and I’ll have to remember lifesaving skills from Girl Scouts. I leave the weight room and my workout behind. On Thursday, I rinse and repeat.
I don’t thank any deities when it’s Friday. The highlight of the day is meeting with my trainer and I always get a boost of positivity from our conversation/exercise hour. When I return home, I must reconcile my week. I bend it and rationalize it until it just looks like a much needed slow down. I write my list for the next week. I plan a hard workout over the weekend. I chastise myself for all the things I didn’t do. And by Monday, I have a new plan.
This has been my mode of operation for the last 20 years, a weird ebb and flow of high productivity and complete and utter disinterest in being busy. Maybe it’s reaching middle age that has caused this cycle to become unbearable. It’s demoralizing and exhausting – these quickly abandoned goals and shifting finish lines. I have decided to make some changes that will limit the “shoulds” in my life so that I can choose how I spend my time and energy. Oh yeah – mama’s got a brand new plan.
I started this blog approximately a week ago. To wrap up my week of writing about fitness activities, I was planning on an entry about swimming. It’s my day for a swim lesson at the Y. The immediacy of the experience makes it easier to write about, but there is a drawback to being scheduled after the kid lessons. If someone has an “accident”, the pool gets cleared for two hours and my lesson gets cancelled. This, of course, happens after I’ve wrestled myself into a swimsuit, showered and stood shivering poolside waiting for my lesson to begin. So to the kid who made boom boom in the pool today, you owe me a lesson or a noodle or maybe both.
When it comes to writing, I’m inexperienced and with blogging, a tad naive. After visiting other blogs, I really began to feel that I’m in too deep, in over my head, swimming upstream…..drowning in cliches. I have a friend, an experienced writer, who immediately replied that all my feelings about writing were typical beginner thoughts. Well, they’re my thoughts and I’m a beginner at this, so let’s avoid stating the obvious. And what does she mean, saying that beginning writers are always so oversensitive?
The lovely thing about writing a blog is that there are so many blogs, any bilge you might put out gets washed away pretty quickly. Especially when you haven’t developed a readership. One of my technophobe friends said nervously, “Won’t it be out there forever?” Uh. If I’m lucky. There’s a life preserver I cling to frequently called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes. It’s a bible of writing neuroses and how to work beyond your fears and just dive in. I’ve had it on my desk all week and flip it open randomly to learn what some famous, crazy writer has done to make themselves write. It’s very reassuring.
Learning how to swim is a pretty decent metaphor for this whole writing process. I kind of know how to swim and I can keep myself afloat, but I’m not going to be a triathlete any time soon. I’m taking classes to learn the different strokes, get comfortable in a suit, build up stamina so that being a triathlete just might be an option someday. That sums up any activity I’ve embarked upon in the last few years – I want options. I want to make sure that as I age, as I watch my child grow into an adult, as I ponder retirement from paid work, I have choices and have learned more about potential than limitations. If I fall off a boat, I want more than my doggy paddle skills to rely on.
I have a personal trainer. Every working class sensibility in my body cringes and I hear echoes of my mother saying how very “Hollywood” it sounds. Three years ago, my husband, daughter and I signed up for a family membership at the Y and I decided to meet with a trainer. In a wonderful, random luck of the draw, I met someone who brought not only her fitness expertise to the table, but also her life coaching skills. These days, I consider her a friend and mentor and a great resource when it comes to helping me create a fuller, balanced life.
It sometimes feels like a confession when I tell people I meet with a trainer. I still feel the need to rationalize and justify it. My embarrassment is more about where I came from, than where I’m going. I come from a long line of “do-it-yourself-ers” that would rather eat their sneakers than ask for help on anything. I’ve learned that doing everything yourself means that you are damned tired and probably taking an esteem beating because you’re in that insane cycle of repeating behavior, but expecting different results.
This is where an outsider, an expert and a trainer comes in, asking questions that never even occurred to you. What does fitness look like for you? How do you want your body to feel and move in the world? My first reaction was “oh crap, not this touchy-feely stuff”. Try answering those questions, though, and it changes your goals and focus from weight loss and being in shape to “I want to feel strong when I move. I want to have confidence in my balance and coordination. I want to be attractive for my husband. I want to be able to have stamina to play with my child.” It changes your goals from “blah, blah, blah” to “this is what I want in my life.”
Since meeting with a trainer once a week for 3 years, I’ve trained in Taekwondo and competed in tournaments, shortened my running times, survived numerous spinning and pilates classes, tried rock climbing, started adult swim lessons (more on that tomorrow) and been rehabbed through a variety of injuries. My workout guide has been there to keep me on the path I want to be on, to remind me that self-care isn’t selfish and to teach me safe ways to train my body. And that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.