For three years, I’ve been in and out of triage: bought a house, had another kid, got a job. Whether it was up till 3 a.m. painting the rental in my third trimester or up at 11, 12, 2, and 4:30 with a puking baby, my default mode has been On. And not that nice bright, incandescent on. More of a twitchy, anxious flicker.
So I haven’t quite known how to handle the space that has come with, well, stability.
I’ve been having lulls that last longer than 5 minutes, and I’m not feeling routinely on the verge of cracked out. Bonus!
Trouble is, I’ve built up a life based on a bunch of cracked out habits like nightly TV binges, drinking too much and staring at the wall anytime the kids are occupied or sleeping.
It’s left me bored and sometimes depressed inside a life that’s pretty darn ok. Death by birdbath.
I’ve been in a small-child-induced coma.
But not today! Because see? I’m sitting here on a bench at the Y after my dance class and writing this instead of staring into space for the 10 minutes before I have to go pick up Cal.
Turns out there’s more space in my life. And what requires empty space in order to exist? Ideas. Creative Impulses.
What if the boredom and even depression whose butts I’m all proud of kicking are actually a source of aliveness?
A sign of creativity yet to come.
What if the crumbs that collected on my sweatshirt as I binge watched 6 episodes of Transparent actually incubated the creative burst I’m having right now?
Well, kids, if that’s the case, I think we have a game-changer on our hands.
When in their midst, it is near impossible to feel the value of boredom or depression. But here I am, close on their heels, with ideas and vitality bursting out of my ears.
Every living thing has a dormant phase before it blossoms.
And apparently, so do I.
*This simile (and occult inspiration) brought to you by Jessa Crispin in her new, kick ass book, The Creative Tarot. It’s brought tarot cards to life for me, and I’m not looking back.
If you’ve ever read a board book to a toddler, you may have encountered this one:
After 5 pages, or maybe the the thirteenth time it’s toddled up to your lap, you start omitting large swaths of story. Why would anyone in their right mind put this damn many words in a board book? It’s like performing an interpretive dance for a telephone pole. When it’s over, you’re exhausted and quite certain it missed the point.
Or maybe you’ve read this one:It cajoles you into making embarrassing sounds or singing strange little songs and when all is said and done, you feel like an idiot.
And of course, there’s this old classic:
It may not make you sing, quack or read until you’re blue in the face, but this damn book is misery in disguise. It insults, it bores. It can turn a warm, soft, snuggle fest into Dissociation-ville USA.
Fear not, you listless, embarrassed board book reader. There is hope.
Between you and me, books don’t even matter yet.
For the first couple years, most humans tend to be into things like light and faces and fresh air and anything that happens to be on the ground. So if you just hang out near your kid and go outside once in a while, you’re probably good.
If you want to get all fancy by throwing a board book into the mix, then it might as well be something you find highly amusing. Or something that will entertain your kid while you go have a cocktail.
These are “teeming picture books,” meaning that they have full-spread detailed pictures on every page. And a few characters who continue their story from page to page. Delightfully, unlike their Richard Scary counterparts, they have No Words.
That means you can create a whole elaborate narrative if you feel like it (?!) or you can do absolutely nothing while your small, pudgy friend “does some reading.”
If you’ve stayed with me this far, then my favorite board book will come as no surprise.
Ever find yourself fantasizing about what you might write someday, if you just had the space or time?
If you answered a remote yes to this question, and you happen to live in the Bay Area, then I have a gift to give you.
My friend Susie Meserve, who also happens to be a riveting writer, is co-teaching a writing and movement workshop in Oakland on March 19th.
In this three-hour workshop, through movement, meditation, writing prompts, and group discussion, we’ll explore how creativity gets trapped in the body–and learn how to release it.
If you happen to feel like I did when I read that, (“Ummm. Yes, please.”) then you should sign the eff up!
Here’s more details to whet your appetite in flyer form:
And if you really wanna go, but just can’t swing the $75 right now, keep reading.
A very kind and very anonymous benefactor has offered to sponsor one writer who would like to attend, but can’t afford it.
How are we going to find this lucky writer?
I’m so glad you asked. All you have to do is write a brief comment below explaining what really gets you revved up about going to this workshop. We’ll choose one winner who will get to attend for free, and two others who will get $15 off.
It’s that simple.
So get on the horn, start making plans, stacking the particular house of cards required for you to get away on a Saturday afternoon, and share this with your friends!
And if money is an issue, than comment it up! We’ll sift through your comments and pick 3 winners on Monday night.
If one more effing person apologizes after sharing a sad, difficult, upsetting part of their lives with me, I’m going to scream. And my shriek will leave a tiny crack in the shell of robotic positive thinking that our happiness-obsessed culture shrouds us with.
It’s winter. Trees are bare, skies are cold and dark, the world around us is not bursting forth. And yet.
And yet. We expect the eternal fruits of summer from ourselves. Regardless of season or circumstance, we should keep our chins up, find inspiration and, my personal favorite, be grateful.
Gratitude can blow me.
Here’s why: it’s become the well-meaning friend who just doesn’t get it. She’s trying to help, for sure, but here’s how good old Gratitude misses the mark: She’s only makes it worse if you use her to avoid difficult feelings.
Which is how A LOT of people like to use her these days.
It’s the polite and sunny way to end a particular kind of conversation.
I’m so sorry about your favorite grandmother who is dying. At least you can be grateful for the time she had.
Yeah. Thanks. Sorry for bringing up the whole dying grandmother thing. I don’t mean to be such a downer.
Why are sadness, grief, anger, fear, or disappointment so disturbing to us that we literally apologize for sharing them? We wish we hadn’t done it. Sullied the moment, spoiled the conversation.
It’s hard to hang out with pain that we can’t instantly fix.
And yet. And yet.
Hanging out with it, with a person in grief, with a bitter sadness, can actually be sublime. There’s a deep sense of wholeness that comes from letting the dark winter simply exist, without trying to jack it up on silver-linings of gratitude.
That’s why I feel–wait for it–grateful when a neighbor admits in a casual conversation over the fence that her cancer came back. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I know this is really heavy.”
Quite the contrary. Sharing your heavy reality creates more room for my particular mess.
So please. Bring on the downers. What stray puppydog facts and feelings of yours get smothered by the eternally sunny, productive and happy waters we’re all swimming in?
Make my comments box your own personal repository for whatever downer you’re sitting on.
The song “Swing Low” is currently on the nap and bedtime rotation for me and Cal. Every time I get to the second verse — you know, “…looked over Jordan and what did I see?” — Cal pulls back from our snuggle and looks at me earnestly and says, “Angels?”
It’s happened a good handful of times now, so when he did the exact same thing during my encore breakfast performance today, I had to indulge myself.
You see, angels don’t come up too much in our everyday conversation, so I was intrigued about his connection with the word.
“Do you know about angels?” I asked him.
He replied with a definitive nod.
“What are angels like?”
“They’re loud,” he said, with professorial certainty.
“What else do you know about angels?”
“They fly into the trees.”
I was starting to get a little breathless at this point. I had been pitched into one of those moments that people talk about, when their child tells them about their own birth, or a past life or some otherworldly, spiritual vision.
He swooped his finger up and down, “They fly like this, Momma.” I just sat, quite stunned, watching Cal demonstrate for me the swooshy sound effects and flight patterns of angels.
“They’re loud and they go fffffaaaaaaast.”
I fell right down off of my cloud of dreams with my magical, spiritual oracle baby.
The Blue Angels.
That, of all things, was the reference. When I sing “Swing Low” to my son before bed, he pictures the fighter jets that screamed over his head when he was with his dad and brother at Fleet Week.
I may have been particularly open to the existence of angels since one had recently appeared to my mind’s eye as I was meditating on a dear friend. She was facing a particularly pivotal and much sought after job interview, so I was trying to empty my busy brain of everything but my love and hope for her and blammo. I saw an angel.
I was surprised with the vision, since she’s been after this damn job for years. Y E A R S. I’ve supported her through the whole tumultuous pursuit, littered with false hopes, and crushing rejections. I was ready for this interview to wind up like all the rest. A curt “Thanks but no thanks.”
Well, wouldn’t you know it. This time–The Angel Time–she got it. The long sought after job is hers. She effing did it.
We went on a hike this very morning, right after the conversation that wound up Blue Angels.
As we circled the glassy, golden lake, she confessed that she was up half the night with crushing anxiety. Does she really want it after all? After all this time and toil, is this really the job for her?
One of the scariest thoughts she had on her sleepless night was whether the anxiety is a sign. That there’s something wrong. That her gut is issuing a warning: it’s going to end up one big disaster, and she traded her perfectly good and stable life for a catastrophe. She should have kept her ambition in check and appreciated the good life while she had it.
Before I could even speak, I was laughing it off. Of course it’s not a sign. Just the typical feeling you’d have, being a thinking, breathing, sensitive woman sitting on the verge of huge life change.
But wasn’t I right there with her in spirit, envisioning the routine unions that my 2 year old had with angels, waving bye bye with his doughy hands as they flew off into the trees, loudly, as angels are wont to do?
I find myself desperate at times to find the magical thread tying things together. Ye olde “everything happens for a reason” or “sign from the universe.”
But what if it’s equally comforting, even more so, that regular, old, normal life has its own strange magic:
That a squadron of jets weave their power and might into a timeless, spiritual ballad. (I mean, who wouldn’t want a band of Blue Angels commin’ for to carry them home?)
That anxiety and fear are the body’s way of reminding us that birth is also a kind of death–any transition into a new phase of life means the loss of the way it once was.
That we all get to decide for ourselves if we think angels exist. And how loud, or not, they might be.
I’m bored at the park but I go anyway, because the boys want to. And I sit there on the bench and feel a little less alive.
I want to read my book, but I wash the dishes instead, because it’ll be that much sweeter to crack the book open with the clean dishes steaming in the rack. But then Cal wakes up and the book sits still. And I feel a little less satisfied.
Reading this, I was reminded of how compressed life gets, under the routine requirements, obligations, appointments, demands.
It may just be the path of least resistance to turn our aliveness down under such circumstances, under the weight of many tasks that we wouldn’t willingly choose, but that relentlessly nudge for our attention.
There is always space to be found.
Like in the atoms I was explaining to Jo before bed.
There’s more space inside an atom than stuff. And we’re made up of atoms. So that means we’re made up of more space than stuff. Our bodies, this table, my shoes, that lamp, they’re all mostly space. Isn’t that crazy?!
It’s the smallest choice to read instead of wash. To pause and let the sun breeze over my cheeks before buckling a boy into his car seat. To ignore the robotic pull of dinner prep at 6 on a Tuesday and instead sip on champagne and watch the boys whiz by on their scooters.
Some pretty mind blowing stuff went down for me in September that I’m only just beginning to articulate. I went to this rad women and kids communing with nature power weekend with Jo. We ate and sang and played and learned and gathered around the fire together. And once Jo got his bearings, and he and a friend were absorbed in scratching at the dirt with sticks, I took a class about energetic boundaries. Which is to say that for a couple of hours one morning, I sat in a circle of women on the ground near a big fallen tree I wish I knew the name of, and listened to this woman share her wisdom about the ways we habitually do and ideally can choose to create boundaries that protect or reveal ourselves.
I still don’t understand exactly what it was about that class that changed things for me, but it did.
Here’s the best I’ve got:
It helped me understand the fundamental way I align myself with other people. In short, I’ve got some pretty loosey goosey boundaries. And I always track the people around me. I take in what I think their needs and feelings are. I’m like an octopus with hyper extended tentacles, constantly scanning in all directions for what my people are feeling, thinking, wanting.
It. Is. Exhausting.
And obliterating. Cause where do my thoughts and needs and feelings come in, given the OCD tentacles? Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you. My needs and feelings are stifled at the bottom of the heap. They play second (or third or fourth) fiddle. Those suckers languish deep inside the proverbial haystack.
But somehow, in a circle of women sitting on the ground of a crisp fall morning, I gathered my tentacles in. I chose to create some boundaries. Now I look more like this.
I deliberately chose to disengage with the endless stream of
Jo is happy and absorbed (sigh of relief) . Cal wants water and needs to put his pants on. Where are his pants? . That guy on the sidewalk seems really desperate . AJ is still mad at me after last night, but I don’t want to say I’m sorry . Jamie wishes I visited her more . Cybil called me three days ago and I haven’t gotten back to her . Ryan seems pissed, is it something I did? . This person wants . This person needs . This . Person . Feels . . .
Reeling in the tentacles made me lighter, buoyant even.
I started to float.
I could see and hear and feel things that hadn’t gotten in for a long time because there was so much noise and obstruction, and so little of my attention left over.
Here’s what I saw:
Everything is a game.
Every relationship, project, chore, obligation.
Some games have higher stakes than others, but at the core, there is a lightness, a playfulness in the atmosphere around all the heavy stuff.
The playfulness is this: in every game, you get to choose your move. Every time. And you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then the other people get to choose their moves. Now it’s back to you. And the game plays on.
For years and years, I’ve gotten stuck trying to play other people’s moves for them, while my piece languishes in one damn square not very far from START.
That hyper focus outwards, on other people, has been crippling. It’s been deafening.
It has weighed me down, drowned me out, and left me listless on the couch because I’ve quite literally forgotten myself.
It was part of the reason for my post-partum depression with both kids–in that first year, rarely was I able to see and act on my own feelings and needs in the snow-storm of everyone else’s.
Well, I found my way out of that bullshit.
I have a new sense for where I end and everyone else begins.
And I wanna play.
For now, while I’m still learning these new moves, and how to keep my own needs and feelings at the core, I try to keep the tentacles for me. I use that super scanning empathetic power on myself first, because then I know the most key intelligence about the game: where I’m starting from. If I don’t know that, I can’t really play.
If you’ve tried to find kids’ media that is gentle but edgy enough, that respects a kid’s need for safety and curiosity about danger, then you know you’re in for an epic and unsatisfying quest.
We’ve waded through all sorts of “kids” movies. Some left Jo huddled in the corner of the couch with hands clapped over his ears (Cars), others that had great moments (and songs!) but required tons of challenging explanations and fastforwarding through scary parts (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). We came really close with the Herbie the Love Bug movies, but there was some sexism in those that pissed me off.
So it was a profound relief to discover My Neighbor Totoro. Jo and I were both completely transfixed and delighted. The main character girls are curious, vulnerable, angry, kind and determined as hell. Totoro naps in a huge, soft cuddly heap, and carries the girls, safe in his tufts of fur, as he flies on a spinning top in the night sky and bellows a fierce, resonant roar.
We reveled in this story — it doesn’t dumb down intrigue and fear at the expense of delight, and spins characters out of wonder–six-legged Catbus with furry interior, anyone?
Now I’ll tell you why we’re all damn lucky. The studio (Studio Ghibli) and director (Miyazaki, who has quite possibly the most sparkly but respectable elderly man face ever) that made Totoro was pretty prolific, so there’s also Ponyo, which is Jonah’s favorite. And why wouldn’t it be? A five-year-old boy named Sosuke lives on a house that teeters over the ocean, where he gets to go and play by himself. He makes friends with a goldfish-turned-girl and names her Ponyo.
Among other things, they float on top of their world–which is flooded by the ocean and all of its creatures–in a toy boat that uses a candle as its motor. And voila! Another gender-norm-bending, tender-hearted, just-spooky-enough adventure.
This is the first time I’ve had a quiet house and an alert brain at the same time in nearly 2 months. Our family has plunged into several bold new frontiers. Among them, two parents with new part-time schedules(!!!), Cal starting a playgroup, and Jo (and me) staring wide-eyed at his new public school.
The dust is starting to settle. And I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself, because amid it all, I triumphed over my mounting fear and worry about kindergarten.
My particular fears and worries are these: that public school (and many private schools too) focus too much on academics and not enough on social, emotional and creative development; that this focus on academics seeps into our kids and snuffs out their sparkles of play and wildness and self-direction.
While we’re at it, you should also know that the idea of public school–a place where any and every child can go to learn, be safe, cared for, and nurtured–makes my heart swoon with the chorus of a thousand hyped-up songbirds. Those songbirds know when and why to pipe down though, since they know what I do–the public school system in our country is tragically uneven, rolling weighted dice to determine which kids happen to get more safety, teachers and resources, and which kids get precious little.
With these worries and fears and smart songbirds, I sent Jo to kindergarten every day for the past 6 weeks. He would come home mostly happy and tired and would lose it over the smallest things, and I would sniff him all over to try to find clues about what was happening at school and whether it was fine or terrible.
My triumph started on the day of our first big Kindergarten tragedy. Jo woke at 6:30 and climbed into bed with me, saying “I don’t like my school. And the only thing that will fix it is home school.” Eek. You know too well the dark corners of my thoughts, little boy.
After a good long bout of listening to his worries “My teacher is too serious, Mom,” we made it to school. Jo burst into tears as we neared the door and buried his face in my neck. I just kept saying “Dad and I know this is a good place for you, and I believe in you,” while trying to hold back tears.
Once I got out of the building, I had a good cry and was already planning the parents I was going to call to launch an elementary homeschool co-op and FAST.
Instead, I ran into an experienced mom who I trust (Thank God for Those), and she reminded me essentially, “Hard doesn’t have to be bad.” Ding ding ding. In other words, this is a hard transition for Jo and me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the school or the teacher is bad. It might just mean that kindergarten is really different than co-op, play-based preschool and getting used to the new system is hard sometimes. My job as a mother isn’t to remove the difficult things from his life, it’s to help him navigate, to help him keep going.*
*Taking on this job assumes that I have sussed out the particular Difficult Thing and decided that it’s ultimately worthwhile. If not, then we don’t give a rip about that Difficult Thing and move on to something else.
After my talk with the Experienced Mom, I knew that my particular crisis of confidence was stemming from the fact that I didn’t know enough about The Difficult Thing. My only experiences of the school day and Jo’s teacher were for a half hour on welcome back to school night and a minute or two at pick up and drop off.
My not-knowing was resulting in wibbly-wobbly confidence, and that was making things even harder for Jo, who is very good at his job: to constantly scan my slightest emotional cue for whether everything is okay. As he read me on that crying dropoff morning, I was ready to run for the hills.
The only way to know if running for those hills was smart or stupid was to get more information.
I set up a meeting with Jo’s teacher the next day.
The results of the meeting:
I think Jo’s teacher is doing his absolute superninjapower best to help our kids feel safe and heard and inspired. He told me the specific times of day that Jo can find him if he needs to talk or get some snuggles (not that he can’t get that throughout the day, but there are particular times when he’s more available).
This small detail was such a eureka for me, since at Jo’s preschool, there was always a grown up available for whatever social or emotional tangle came up, and now Jo is in a classroom with one teacher responsible for a whole swarm of kids. It’s felt so good to explain this to Jo and know that he has a plan for how he can access his safe grownup at school.
My biggest Eureka! of all: When Jonah would occasionally complain about there not being enough “fun time” at school and his “too serious” teacher, he was voicing my exact worries in 6-year-old terms. What I forgot myself is what I’ve been talking with Jo about this week: serious can be awesome.
Remember when you were learning to ride a bike, how serious you would get? And what came out of that? YOU CAN RIDE A BIKE. That serious was awesome! Remember how hard it was at preschool at first, when you didn’t know how to join games? And then what came out of that hard time? YOU GOT ALL YOUR PRESCHOOL FRIENDS. That hard was awesome!
In the end, I found out that the Difficult Thing is okay. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good, and I can work with it.
I can feel my confidence. I found my kindergarten mojo. And I know Jo can feel it too.
Yesterday at dinner when I asked him how school was, he gave me a big, earnest thumbs up and said “My class is awesome.”
Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.
It’s not like this fixed every issue I have with an unfairly distributed school system that emphasizes academics at the expense of emotional and creative and social intelligence. But it has calmed my fears about whether Jo’s teacher was really there to take care of him, and reminded me that my job as a parent (and Jo’s job as a kid) is changing. He’s getting older, more capable, more responsible. And, as he should, he’s being presented with bigger and (gasp!) more serious challenges.
My job is to listen to Jo, address any problems I see that need to be corrected and then shine my confidence about the school we’ve chosen. This is a good place. Your teacher has your back. Some things in your life are getting more serious, because some things about growing up are serious, and that can be totally awesome.
The celebration of this day feels more significant than any other in my life. It lurched me awake at 5am this morning with memories of that exact time on this day in retrospect. It moved me to get out of my bed in my sleeping house and re-write this post I wrote 3 years ago today.
The anniversary of my birth of Jo is about returning. Every year, I circle back to the same day from farther away. Every year, I remember the same but different. Today, I remember 5am on 09/09/09. It’s not written down in the birth log that our doula wrote for us, and I can feel it more vividly than the moments we caught on video.
It was the hour we drove to the hospital. The hour that the momentum I had built over 19 hours of labor came crashing down into anger. I pissed off the triage nurse by declining a routine but optional vaginal exam. She shot me glances when I would moan with my contractions that said, “Jesus. This one is an entitled drama queen.” And so began my visit in triage–that bed in an open hallway–that lasted hours instead of minutes.
My blooming anger all but stopped my contractions, and just before we were finally admitted to a labor and delivery room, I literally peed on the floor in protest. Squatting down to the toilet was so painful that I chose to stand. The pee ran down my legs into a pool on the floor, and I barked at AJ not to clean it up. If the women who work in this place where mothers go to have babies were not going to respect me, then I wasn’t going to put myself through ripping pain to respect them.
This is the unsung triumph of my first birth: I pissed on their linoleum floor on purpose, without a lick of shame or regret.
As I set off into my 6th year as Jo’s mother, let me grow that mother stronger. The one who knew the moment when politeness and compliance weren’t useful tools anymore. The one who easily sank into her formidable, animal self.
My experience of labor and birth has expanded my emotional territory in all directions. There are sublime moments of rightness beyond knowing, and despair that can sweep me out to the furthest reaches of myself. I never knew I was so big until I started becoming a mother.
No wonder I wake when I could be sleeping to remember it.