Monday, March 29, 2010

If Not Now, When?


It seems the universe colludes to teach us certain lessons in our lifetime. Sometimes everything culminates at one point to put a difficult theme at center stage.

Last night as I lay in bed, the images of those certain people swam before my closed eyes. Those people who represent the theme in my life story right now. I am being pushed from many different directions to learn what I hold important in my life.

Only my close friends know about me that I am confrontation averse. Why it is so much easier for me to smile and say mmm-hmm than to share my real opinion is a mystery to me. But for the past several years I have noticed with increasing intensity that threshold guardians are popping up, pushing me to stand by or abandon my principals. The universe is getting serious with me and we’re reaching a breaking point, she and I.

It started with the birth of my daughter when my sensitivities and insecurities were the rawest of my whole life. I was like one big exposed nerve and the threshold guardians began to flash the drill. Would I stand firm and strengthen my sense of self, or collapse? Often at first I collapsed.

I remember being at a restaurant with my fussy two month old who would not give in to the sleep she so desperately needed. I had already balked at the many relatives who offered help, insisting that I must be the one to hold her. As I paced the halls at the end of a very long night (I couldn’t just say: “this isn’t working, I’ve gotta go!) an elderly woman approached me. She had had a few and smelled like cigarette smoke. “Can I hold her?” she smiled and reached into my arms to extract my infant baby.

I could have turned away, I could have said quite simply, “no.” But these things seemed impossible. Instead I allowed my finally sleeping baby to be taken by an old stranger. I was angry with myself for days for not standing up in this small and seemingly easy way. What is it about me, I berated myself, that cannot stand up to a total stranger in defense of my baby? What kind of mother am I?

I didn’t learn the lesson that the universe sent that crunchy old threshold guardian to teach me. Instead of absorbing her power or making her an ally, I was defeated by her subversive strength. And the universe stepped up her game.

Over the next three years, friends made unfair accusations; attacked my choices, clerks overcharged me, sold me broken products and subpar food, family members made unreasonable assumptions and created higher and higher expectations until we simply could not live up to them. And I could see the writing on the wall. I was going to be pushed harder and harder by these colluding forces until I learned to say what I mean even if it makes people upset with me. Because that is the real reason we don’t say what me mean isn’t it? We are afraid of people being unhappy with us.

We hired a plumber a few months ago who came and replaced our two toilets. The guy was nice, if his physical appearance left something to be desired. He was huge and his clothes were not as huge as they needed to be. He had long stringy hair and his fingers and nails were filthy. You know: a plumber. He was kind to Twila and let her watch the work he was doing. She was very interested in the process and asked lots of questions.

My husband had mentioned more work that might need to be done and in the days and weeks that followed, the plumber emailed almost daily. Ryan asked if I thought it was odd that at the end of every email he asked how Twila was or asked Ryan to say hi to her for him. I said I thought it was…maybe. Is it?

The plumber was cheap and did good work and Ryan’s brother hired him to do some work on their house. The next time Ryan’s brother came over he had a packaged cheerleader doll that looked like it was from 1984; a bizarre doll with blue and silver legwarmers and stars for eyes. It was for Twila from the plumber.

Less than a week later a pipe burst in the basement of our rental property. We needed a plumber fast. We began searching for someone new but also dropped an email to the plumber. In his immediate response he asked, ‘how did Twila like her doll?’ And our hand has forced. Do we acknowledge the doll that he donated the day after it arrived in our house? Do we tell him it was inappropriate and risk his anger? Do we thank him for it and tacitly say that it’s okay for a strange man to give our three year old gifts? And thus feed the relationship. Suddenly I couldn’t believe it was even a difficult decision. How could I let this questionable situation go on? How could I ever risk the possibility that someone potentially unsafe would again have access to my child? We ended the relationship. And in a small way I stood up; I told the universe who I am.

But the universe is not done with me yet. More conflict has been abounding in my family and I am in my quintessential role: the peacemaker, standing in the middle and telling everyone what they want to hear to try and make peace. And as I lay in bed last night, the images of these threshold guardians swum in my mind. Before my eyes, swam the plumber, the old lady, the publishers, editors, agents, relatives and friends, pushing me to decide. If not now, when will I decide who I am and what I stand for; what is important and what I am working toward?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Things Which Remain


It’s amazing how hopeful spring feels. It’s not that the work day gets shorter or the toddler behavior less challenging, or the to-do list shorter, or the obligations less demanding, but something about the brighter longer days make life circumstances seem not just bearable but enjoyable.

Maybe its knowing that when things get too tense inside, we have the ability to push our kids and ourselves out the back door to play in the grass. Maybe it’s a renewed interest in exercise, that makes me feel so awake and alert. Maybe it’s this long warm March that looks suspiciously like it will merge peacefully with April. Whatever it is, I am feeling positively euphoric lately.

Of course the fact that I have identically duplicated my favorite green tea drink from Tea Garden at home could have something to do with this fresh and enthusiastic outlook on life. Even though this day will be filled with cleaning, including the project I’ve been putting off since we moved into this house eight months ago: scrubbing the bathroom floor. Ug; my least favorite project of all time. I’m a pretty tidy person. I like things to be clean. But when it comes to the bathroom floor, I just can’t quite get there. But alas, the tile floor looks more like a shag carpet and it simply must be done.

But even the prospect of scrubbing dense clusters of lint and hair and old cat vomit stains cannot quell the inner joy that comes from shaking my own green jasmine tea with agave nectar. Even my daughter is obsessed with this delicious tea. It is perhaps the perfect drink.

Part II

After cleaning my bathroom floors, I am served a potent reminder of why I never clean my bathroom floors. Not only is it exhausting to crawl around on hands and knees scrubbing as you go; it is also just really gross. The hot steam from the soapy water served to vaporize the old remains of cat puke (tiddy pook, as my daughter called it when she was two) so that even now after the third scrubbing, the bathroom has the merest odor of stomach acid and bile.

Yesterday the cats opened the refrigerator and helped themselves to the Hawaiian pizza leftovers (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) so I came home to chucks of pineapple and Canadian bacon mixed with stomach bile all over the bathroom floor. And though I do believe that variety is the spice of life, finding people food in one of the six vomits left lovingly around the house is really not what I have in mind.

Sometimes it saddens me that my daughter’s whole life reality has always included having to watch where you walk. One of her first sentences, after ‘Mommy, tiddy pook,’ was ‘I didn’t get it on my foot.’

Fortunately kids are resilient. They manage to survive the horrors of owning pets. Pets remind us as growing children that life is not always kind. When my sister’s male gerbil tore to shreds and ate most of his pregnant female companion, we simply observed the aftermath with interested distaste: well this is an unfortunate way to start the day. We removed the disembodied tale and took turns feeling the silky rope; then set to work planning the funeral.

My childhood is littered with ‘ah-ha’ moments courtesy of our family pets. I learned from my parakeet Safire that a bird cage should not be kept on the radiator in the fall when any given day might be the first day that the heat comes on; I learned from our old black lab mutt mix that dogs will eat anything, even the contents of my brother’s diaper. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about sex and reproduction from our unneutered puppy and fiercely horny cat.

For some reason we keep buying and caring for small animals. Even though they puke on our furniture, claw our clothes and our flesh, depend on us to remove their feces, show us the most carnal and violent sides of nature, and eventually break our hearts; we keep bringing them in.

And now Twila wants a mouse. She is not bothered by our cats the way I am so it shouldn’t surprise me that she doesn’t share my dream of an animal-less house. But I didn’t expect these requests to begin so soon. “A real mouse!” she reminds me.

And maybe my dream of a clean house without the worry and maintenance of pets is not just an unrealistic vision but an unfair one too. I think after bringing home my eleventh stray cat my destiny as a parent who would have to deal with pets, was sealed.

And maybe it’s not so bad. Its spring after all; a time of hope and newness and fresh starts. Why shouldn’t my daughter get the opportunity to experience the humor, joy and sorrow of loving an animal? It’s a facet of life we’re all entitled to experience, I think. So when the puking cats are gone, when Jada is not in diapers and the mouse has run away, and spring is here again after a few more winters, we’ll get a puppy who will drive us crazy, keep us up at night, ruin our furniture and eventually break our hearts. But at least I will still have my shaken green tea with agave nectar.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Blue Paint


Writers block is not something I ever have. It’s like Garrison Keillor once said, “You reach a certain age when you don’t have time to mess around with silly things like writer’s block.” I don’t think I’m of any certain age but the fact remains that I don’t have time to mess around with such things.

I have reached a boiling point of busyness and chaos in my life. At least I hope this is the boiling point and I think it is; unless I am suddenly offered a grant to travel to Africa and write articles for National Geographic, the river of my life has reached an apparent eddy. This is, it seems the place that I will plateau for at least some time. The two kids are here and there likely won’t be more. We are in the house we plan to stay until we are too old for things like gutter cleaning or Minnesota winters. And career wise we are both doing what we will likely do for some time. It can only get less chaotic from here, right?

So there is peace in knowing that this is it; this is the least amount of control I will have over my time and the least amount of sense I will have as to what is happening and what is going to happen. Things can only get more organized and predictable from here. And if I am able to write (in small doses and fragmented thoughts though it is) if I am able to write in this chaos and unpredictability, then surely my productivity can only increase with each passing day—right?

If only I could guarantee that it would. I fear that my productivity and ability to write on command may be more a of a survival instinct at this point. The writer inside me refuses to die so every time there is a short moment to write, my inner writer writes. What else can she do? If she doesn’t write when there is a moment to write then she will cease to exist. But what if, when both my girls are in school and free time stretches before me like a beast’s yawning mouth; my inner writer becomes a diva. What if after all this time of writing on command, she develops stage fright, and needs to be gently coaxed from her trailer in order to perform?

When I am honest with myself, my ability to write when necessary does not always come from a totally creative place. Sometimes my writing is cognitive which is an easier place to access on command. Though I make time for writing, I don’t always make time to be creative. Creativity is what gets cut out of my life for the sake of producing.

Most of the writing I’m doing right now is for my adoption book whose bones are in place and only needs editing and tweaking. I try to make equal time for my novel and short stories but without deadlines to prod me on, they get pushed to the wayside. My little windows into the creativity realm shrink amongst the piles of laundry, deadlines, and hundreds of emails to return.

I have forced myself to enter several short story contests lately so that I have an actual deadline to answer to. Forced creativity; if that’s not an oxymoron…

The Artist’s Way says that an “Artist’s Date” is foundational in every writers life. Taking a weekly time-out to do something purely indulgent and fun is as important as writing itself. SARK preaches living a creatively succulent life that is full of tactile and visual treats. I grew up with these truisms.

My father first introduced me to The Artist’s Way when I was a child and wrote my first book, “Murdered by the Breadknife.” He taught me about the morning pages and other artist’s practices. As a young girl, my cousin Vanessa, also a writer, introduced me to SARK. I remember sitting in her room in Los Angeles, looking at SARK quilts and posters about “Juicy Living” and feeling like my eyes were being opened to something important; that life is meant to be touched and felt and fully experienced and enjoyed. These concepts are so easy to embrace as children. There are no boundaries to the amount of enjoyment a child can take from the simplest of experiences.

My three year old could run her hands through the flour for hours if I didn’t force her to mix in the raw eggs and keep her fingers away for fear of salmonella. Even as I write, Twila is in the next room making painting after painting with my acrylic paints—only two shades of blue on thin paper and she could do it for hours. She has already presented ten pieces in her blue on blue series. She took a twenty minute break to fully coat her left hand in an aqua marine glove. And she couldn’t be happier.

Is it age alone that pulls us from the inherent joy of life’s simplest activities, like rolling in powder-fine dirt on a warm summer day or gooshing our fingers in the wet mud after a spring storm? Or is it something else? Over commitment of our time? Worrying about money? I have to shush my inner Scrooge who tells my daughter that she can’t have any more of my blue paint; my three dollar tube of blue paint. Why do I have to fight the need to tell her not to mix the colors? When does this Scroogie brain washing happen?

The most creative (and least Scroogie) I’ve felt in three years was the week I finally designed the cover for my book. I had made a number of stiff and obnoxious renderings of rivers (scolding and verbally pushing away my three year old the whole time) when I finally saw the absurdity of what I was doing: trying to make art with a spirit of irritation and control. I was telling my daughter to keep her brush away from my painting, as if it might be ruined by her contribution. When I saw the ridiculous in what I was doing, I laughed. I turned my frustration around and decided to have fun with my daughter—even if nothing productive came of it. *Gasp* nothing productive? Are we allowed to do things that don’t advance the to-do list ball?

Suddenly as we painted together, sploshing blue paint around and putting brush strokes on each other’s work, something amazing happened. I stopped making annoying paintings of rivers and together we started making art. We made eight paintings that afternoon, all of which I love and one of which became my book cover.

I guess the lesson that I haven’t quite learned from that experience but am trying hard to learn is that it is vital to my creative survival to slow down (as Twila always reminds me to do) and enjoy life rather than racing crabbily by it. The lesson is to stop or at least slow down long enough to roll in the mud, climb the tree, run our fingers through the flour, and coat our hands in thick blue paint.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lemon Olive Oil Pasta


Fresh, light and flavorful, I threw this together because I was out of marinara and we all liked it so much, I think it will be my new spring side dish standby.

Ingredients:

1. ½ lb pasta (vermicelli, spaghetti or angel hair)

2. Juice from one lemon

3. 2 glugs of good olive oil

4. Garlic salt to taste

Method:

1. Cook pasta according to package directions

2. Strain

3. In the pot, mix oil, lemon juice and garlic salt

4. Warm ingredients while stirring for three minutes

5. Return pasta to pot and stir until pasta is coated.

Enjoy!!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Patterns of Our Lives


What keeps us going, day after day? What motivates us to get out of bed each day and face the same responsibilities; the same challenges as the day before?

Certain aspects of my day have been reminding me of the inevitable monotony of life. Like the conversation I have every single morning with my three year old about not eating her food on the carpet. I always ask her to eat with me at the table and she always makes her case for not missing Martha Speaks and I always relent. So why do I even engage in the conversation?

Each morning as we commence the debate, I am taken back to my host family in Oxford. Each and every night we sat down to dinner, my host mother’s son would wait until his mom was sitting down and beginning to eat her dinner before he would ask her to make him a drink. (In England they mix water with blackcurrant concentrate as a dinner beverage.) As far as I could tell this was a task that ten year old Perry was clearly capable of accomplishing on his own. But instead of suggesting (or insisting) he get his own drink, she would instead rake him over the coals about wanting a drink. “Perry! I just sat down, stupid boy!” (insert cockney accent). ‘Stupid boy’ seemed to be almost a term of endearment the way this woman threw it around. Inevitably, Perry would smile with delight at the expected reaction. She would huff and puff a little longer but would always get up and get him a drink. Each and every night this happened. My roommate and I would eye each other across the table and raise our eyebrows. It was like clockwork. Just as we sat down to eat the yelling match ensued followed by Perry always getting his drink served to him.

Why, I wondered so often, did she not just make him a drink in preparation for dinner beginning. Or why, if she was truly as vexed as she seemed to be getting up and making his drink, did she not refuse? One meal without a drink would probably get Perry up and making a drink for himself. It was almost as if they enjoyed this strange routine of yelling, arguing and pleading.

They say we’re creatures of habit. And I know from personal experience that it is not only good habits we repeat. Sometimes even destructive and harmful habits keep us going. Like drinking too much when we have to work in the morning. Why would any of us do that twice? Going to work hung over and sleep-deprived once should be enough to know we don’t ever want to do it again. But as many of us know, in the months and years following college, we tend to repeat the habit of staying up too late, going out with friends too often; because there is something comforting about the routine of recovery, even though it’s miserable. So why do we repeat habits that make us miserable?

Why do I ask Twila to eat at the table every morning knowing that I will let her eat on the carpet? And worse yet, why do I ask her to be tidy (threatening extradition to the table if she is not) when I know that my three year old cannot, as of yet, eat without leaving remnants of egg and toast all over the rug and leaving greasy finger prints on the coffee table? Am I setting myself and her up for failure? Am I setting unreasonable expectations? Is it worse to set an expectation knowing it will not be met, or to not set one at all?

That seems to be the question of my life lately since being a mother of a toddler and infant is a practice in not meeting expectations. I think it’s the first time in my life where I’ve really not been able to do all that needs doing in a day. Certainly there have been innumerable days where I have not finished everything on my to-do list but it’s been a matter of will not of capability. I am now, in this season of my life, legitimately incapable to doing what needs to be done.

Each day I list in my mind items like sweeping, vacuuming, dishes, laundry, blog post, returning emails, make that appointment for Twila, for Jada, get the oil changed, pay the bills, exercise, read those articles that have been sitting by the bed…and there literally aren’t enough hours in the day, not even if my kids go stay at Grandmas and I check items off my list all day; there is simply not enough time to get it all done. And there is actually something peaceful about accepting this. I used to beat myself up for not getting everything done but now, it’s humanly impossible so I just pick two or three things and get them done and feel really good about it.

And some days it does feel hard to get up knowing that the morning will vanish to feeding everyone and cleaning up from feeding everyone and getting Jada changed, dressed and immediately back down for a nap. And it almost seems futile in its repetition, like I’m not actually accomplishing anything that stays done. Almost everything I do as a mother is temporary. Feeding, playing, dressing, comforting, soothing, cleaning…it all needs to be done again tomorrow. And there is no conclusion to make this experience seem profound or spiritually enlightening except to say that I just keep going, like we all do in our different human capacities. I get up and do the same things again and my goal each day is not to finish everything but to be patient with my daughters and myself and to enjoy the things I do.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Success in the Midst of the Mess


There isn’t enough fish oil in the world to enable my brain to fully juggle all the balls in the air each day. Every morning I hit the ground with ten things that each needs attention right now. I have a hungry infant, a hungry toddler, three hungry cats; I have to pump a bottle even before I feed the baby if I want to be able to pump more than a few thin drips of watery milk. Something about that pump turns my breasts into shriveled, desert-like, dry canteens; even if they were, moments before, luscious, spurting fountains of abundance. And they only grow dryer as the day goes on. Twila needs help cleaning her glasses, help in the bathroom, and needs to be given clothes to put on (lest she dress in three turtle necks and a tutu again). The baby needs to be changed and if there’s time, I really need to put pants on too.

All these things race for priority as the first moments of morning march on. And I must brew my green tea, must have green tea. But even the green tea doesn’t fully sharpen my mind to the extent that I can completely manage all the balls in the air.

But the morning is sunny and dry and we are getting an unusually early warm streak here in Minnesota. We have enjoyed mid-fifties for the last couple of days and that, for March, is very unusual. And today I mail my manuscript to the author Micky Duxbury for review. So life is good.

Even though I can’t see the next ten steps, I can at least see the next two. Some days the most I can hope for is being clear about what the next good thing is. And today I know it’s to get to the post office and mail my manuscript to Ms. Duxbury and schedule a time to talk with her about writing a forward for my book.

Micky Duxbury wrote the important adoption book, Making Room in our Hearts: Keeping Family Ties Through Open Adoption. I made time in the chaos of the weekend to begin reading her book and it is simply lovely.

.

As a birthmother who is a proponent of open adoption, there is almost nothing more gratifying than meeting an adoptive mother who is as fully in support of open adoption as I am. It is refreshing to hear a mom testify that she believes open adoption is truly the healthiest option for her daughter and herself.

For fresh and authentic insight into the importance of open adoption from the adoptive mother’s perspective, please check out Making Room in Our Hearts. Its available for purchase at Tapestry Books.

Having researched many adoption writers, I knew immediately that this author would be the perfect complement to my book, possessing the converse perspective in open adoption. I connected with Ms. Duxbury last week and she was gracious enough to talk with me, sympathizing with how important it is for first time authors to have forwards written by established authors.

This is a big step for me in the publishing process and I am elevated by the success, even in the midst of the spouting milk, the hungry hoards, the dishes waiting to be done, the deadlines and the mess and chaos of life.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Crooked Path


Its humbling when your three year old reminds you of what's important. Twila is constantly asking me to slow down, to just move slowly and I know she’s right. It’s been a stressful few weeks for both of us. Ryan has been traveling a lot and Twila in her sadness of missing him has been testing my patience daily.

Things are moving, slowly and haltingly, but forward along the crooked path. We are nearing publication, fewer and fewer hurdles stand in the way of seeing my book in print now. Currently we are trying to find just the right adoption author to write a forward about openness in adoption. I want to dedicate so much more time to each task than I ultimately am able to. I am doing my best to immerse myself in adoption literature.

In a distant memory I recall sitting for hours at my computer working on college papers, research projects. The only thing that kept me from my work was myself. Remember those days? When you could literally work all day on something if you wanted to, not just in three minute increments throughout a good day when your children are able to entertain themselves with short activities. I remember a time when I could work in silence. I love silence. If I had my way, I wouldn’t even play the radio or a CD when I was working. But these days I work to the sound of Sesame Street. Does it sound like I’m complaining?

Truthfully, my life is good. It is so good I sometimes have a dangerous lack of things to write about. That’s why I’m a fiction writer at my core, because my life doesn’t really have enough drama to keep anyone entertained. My husband is funny and attractive and my baby sleeps a lot. And my three year old is brilliant, hilarious and beautiful. She’s three of course so sometimes she makes me want to rip my hair out, but overall I am amazed at how smart and confident she is becoming. Each day there is another mind blowing question (‘mom, why is water wet?’ ‘when I die will people look at my art and remember me?’) or a new skill like identifying letters and reading short words.

That’s why I was so blown away when she was flagged at a school eye screening recently. They wrote us a referral to an ophthalmologist and I was sure it was a mistake. But we took her in last week anyway.

The people at the Blaine eye clinic were wonderful. When we went in for her first appointment, Ryan was out of town and Jada was in rare form--furious and tired and out of sorts. She screamed and cried. The nurses gave me an empty room to nurse her and then one nurse (an “experienced grandma”) held her while I helped Twila with her exam. The doctor was young and very soft spoken and gentle, reassuring Twila as he went. He made sure to leave the door open so I could hear if Jada needed me and said that he could pause any time if I needed to check on her. I could have just cried I was so grateful.

She had two appointments with a battery of tests including a pupil-dilation. She was so brave and cooperative. The doctor kept saying that she was the best young patient he'd ever had. At the end of the second day, Twila prodded me in loud whispers, “Ask him if I need glasses, ask him if I need glasses!”

I smiled patiently and turned to the doctor, “she’s dyeing to know,” I said.
“Well,” he said turning to look at Twila, “it looks like you need glasses.”

She couldn’t be more excited.

Ryan and I were shocked because we've never noticed her struggling to see and she seems to manage just fine at school too. The doctor said that little kids will focus through their astigmatisms and put a tremendous strain on their eyes.

After yet another round of questions to see what lenses helped her to focus the best, he handed a glass spectacle to Ryan and me and said, "This is her prescription" I couldn't even see through the lens it was so blurred. And he said he is not even fully correcting her or she would be too uncomfortable with the change. Amazing.

During our last appointment Ryan pointed out a quote, stenciled on the wall that I had not seen yet: "Next to life itself, sight is God's greatest gift to humanity. And to this gift, the field of optometry dedicates itself."

Apparently her eyes will improve over time but she will likely always need full time glasses. We ordered her a pair of purple frames that she thought looked like her grandma’s. We also ordered some prescription sunglasses. She has asked me every day if today is the day her glasses will be here.

The whole experience has reminded me that life does not cease to throw surprises our way, even when things are busy and moving fast. Even when I have deadlines to meet and projects to finish, big things, bigger and more important things happen and demand our attention, pulling us off the path we thought we were supposed to be on. Or maybe it is still the original path but it’s just a little more crooked than we expected it to be.