Monthly Archives: November 2013

100 Things I’m Thankful For

I started a tradition (with myself, but I’ve had the kids try it, too) about a decade ago, of finding a quiet moment on or before Thanksgiving and dashing off a list of 100 things I’m grateful for.  The list is not intended to be exhaustive or in any particular order.  The items included are whatever come to my mind, no matter how big or small.  I don’t require myself to put down any more than one word; it’s one place I abide by the Zen wisdom that less is more.

It’s meant to:

  • illustrate to myself the abundance (my friend, Susan’s, word) in my life
  • be used as a reference when I’m in a crappy mood

You should try it.  100 items is a random number, but enough to convince us how lucky we are.

DISCLAIMER: This is another instance of the process being more important than the product.  It’s also meant to be private (since when has that stopped me), so it’s tricky to share it; you don’t want to leave anyone or anything out.  But the spirit is just to generate a sense of gratitude, not to be completely comprehensive.  Please forgive me, in advance, and let me know if I’ve inadvertently caused offense.

100 Things I’m Thankful For

  1. my husband, Howie, without whom I wouldn’t have the children or life I so enjoy.
  2. my children
  3. my parents
  4. my siblings
  5. my extended family, both sides
  6. my old friends (gold)
  7. my new friends (silver)
  8. health, both physical and mental (and both relatively speaking)
  9. sex (I’d like to elaborate, but this is a family show)
  10. my education and my teachers (both in school, and out)
  11. sunshine
  12. down-time
  13. coffee
  14. the fact that this post completes Thesis 1!  Woo hoo!
  15. 100% agave tequila
  16. adventure
  17. polar fleece
  18. MPR and The Current 89.3
  19. the little bit of hearing I have left
  20. having someone to call when I’m down
  21. a nice lap pool
  22. Heather and our Total Conditioning class
  23. a good laugh
  24. the smell of my childrens’ heads (yes, still)
  25. the fact that my grown sons live here in town
  26. every, single night they climb safely into their beds, wherever they may be
  27. comfortable shoes–and my orthotics
  28. anyone who reads my work
  29. encouragement, on my work or life in general
  30. a perfectly ripe avocado
  31. the kindness of strangers
  32. every part of my body that doesn’t hurt (and even those that do)
  33. the resilience of the human spirit
  34. money in the bank
  35. relaxing jazz music
  36. the ability to create
  37. Stevie Wonder music, particularly the older stuff
  38. the ability of my body to repair itself
  39. forgiveness
  40. hope
  41. dancing, and anyone who will dance with me
  42. singing, and anyone who will sing with me
  43. comedy and comedians
  44. eye drops
  45. my bike, and biking with my dad
  46. my functioning legs
  47. trust (I trust others, they trust me)
  48. a warm house and a warm bed
  49. ice cream
  50. the fact that you can teach old dogs new tricks
  51. a book you can’t put down
  52. movies that make me laugh, cry, think, change my life
  53. the openness of children
  54. cheese, especially brie
  55. traveling
  56. Aquaphor for lips
  57. joie de vivre
  58. things that change
  59. things that stay the same
  60. a good massage (actually, any massage)
  61. perspective
  62. Isles Buns & Coffee
  63. mango, both fresh and dried
  64. the fact that I never go hungry
  65. the fact that I am in a position to help others
  66. the fact that others are willing to help me
  67. sunrise, sunset
  68. the smell of the ocean
  69. the internet
  70. the city lakes
  71. desire
  72. curiosity
  73. art museums
  74. spandex
  75. hot showers
  76. people who know me well and love me anyway
  77. the way my children say “Love you” every time they leave me
  78. our common humanity
  79. second (and third and fourth…) chances
  80. when you catch a glass right before it drops
  81. feeling useful
  82. purpose
  83. photographs
  84. things that sparkle
  85. people that sparkle
  86. reading glasses
  87. sweatshirts
  88. inspiration
  89. chocolate
  90. The Loft
  91. courage
  92. dumb luck
  93. heart-to-heart talks
  94. my writing group
  95. my book club
  96. good red wine blends
  97. generosity
  98. discovery
  99. a sense of accomplishment
  100. when good enough really feels good enough

There is a website , called 1000AwesomeThings.com, which started as a blog, and has turned into an empire of Awesome.  It is much more brilliant than any list I’ve compiled since I’ve been doing this.  (http://1000awesomethings.com/the-top-1000/).  The ideas articulated by author Neil Pasricha are more specific and unique than anything I come up with, and have landed him on the NewYorkTimes Bestseller list multiple times.  I should be so lucky.

Happy Thanksgiving, and don’t forget to count your blessings, at least up to 100.

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Thanks A Lot

Thanksgiving is a tradition-laden holiday, but this year some claim it will be a one-in-more-than-70,000-years day.  Thanksgiving is also my favorite holiday, for the same reasons I’ve heard countless others express.  And though it’s a time of looking back and looking forward, like holidays are, I will be mindful of the present (not the Hanukkah present, but the present moment) this year since it’s the last year I will have an un-launched child living at home on Thanksgiving.

With so much to be thankful for this Monday before Thanksgivukkah, I seem to have misplaced my holiday spirit. So let’s talk turkey.

First, let’s acknowledge the concurrence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year, if for no other reason than it’s rare.

The secular holiday of Thanksgiving and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah have overlapped before, but it’s unusual.  The more I looked into this overlap, the more conflicting information I found about when it has happened before and when it will happen again.  The best explanation I found is on an orthodox Jewish site called, Chabad.org (http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/2343364/jewish/Chanukah-and-Thanksgiving-A-Brief-History.htm).

The best explanation I found for the claim that it is a once-in-70,000 years event appears on a site called LiveScience (http://www.livescience.com/41434-2013-hanukkah-overlapping-thanksgiving.html).  I believe this specific claim refers to the  overlapping of the first day of Hanukkah with Thanksgiving day.  Since there are eight days of Hanukkah, overlap has occurred before and will again before 70,000 years have elapsed, but not the first day of Hanukkah (leaving either Hanukkah Eve, or days two-through-eight).

Clear as cranberry sauce, right?

The next item for discussion is Thanksgiving itself, and what makes it the perennial favorite holiday of so many.  The reasons I’ve heard most people give are its meaning and that it is an all-inclusive holiday.  We all, as Americans, are united in celebration of this holiday; we’re not divided by our religious differences, but brought together with our families and friends over good, old-fashioned comfort food.

How is this different from, say, the all-inclusive holiday of the Fourth of July?  Well I, for one, am thankful this one doesn’t involve bathing suits.

What elevates Thanksgiving to loftier heights than Independence Day and other commemorations is the meaning behind it.  What is a more humble reason given for a day-off than to spend it being thankful for the abundance with which we are blessed?  Of course we should maintain an attitude of gratitude every day of our lives, but it doesn’t hurt to have one day dedicated to this practice.

I also love the rituals of Thanksgiving.  All holidays are opportunities for ritual, but on Thanksgiving, we can start the day with a parade.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with all its cheesy lip-synced singing performances, gargantuan floating balloons, and goose-fleshed, half-naked line dancers is something I remember watching since I returned home from college for the long weekend (yes, that’s possible; it’s in its 87th year).  The house fills with the aromas of cooking, whether you’re hosting or just contributing to a meal.  I even have a pair of Thanksgiving socks my mother gave me, with cartoon Puritans on each side of the ankle, and when you lift up the cuff, she flashes her undershirt.  Pretty racy for a Puritan.

I realize families can’t always be together on Thanksgiving, that in-laws, illness, work, the cost of traveling or other factors can prevent us from being with the ones we love.  And some families choose unconventional ways of celebrating, like serving the needy, going out to eat, or going to the theater for movie marathons.  This year, it looks like people will have the option of starting their holiday shopping with Black Friday beginning Thursday night, even before pie is served.

Like I said earlier, I am aware that this is the last year I will have a child-in-residence at this house, but I also believe she will be here next year for the parade.  Staying within driving distance will allow her to come home for the holidays, and I’m already excited to welcome her home for that.

But right now, Sophie seems more interested in breaking away than in snuggling up at home.  And her efforts to distance herself from me are what have me licking my wounds at this moment.

Sitting at the dinner table with my family of three-out-of-five last night, I asked my dining companions,

“Who is looking forward to a two-day week?”

Sophie’s answer is what sent me into this tizzy,

“You’re the least busy one of us, so it’s funny that you’re asking that question.”

Though this sounds discounting of me, it compels me to do some unpacking of her statement.

Granted, a person who sits at a computer for hours at a time writing a graduate thesis might look like a person with too much time on their hands.  Somehow, it feels just the opposite to me.  On top of thesis, I am writing another proposal for a class I’d like to teach at The Loft.  They’ve already asked me to consider extending the youth class I taught last summer from an hour-and-a-half to three-hours, making it an “intensive” and something parents of younger kids are apparently clamoring for.

On the one hand, it seems like Sophie’s provocative statement would make me feel the need to defend myself.  And I did begin by telling her that since I got my first job at the age of sixteen, I have only taken five years “off” since that time to spend at home with my kids when they were little (without mentioning that it was her birth that put me over the edge, as far as what I could manage outside this house).  But there are a couple of other issues here that I need to mention, before returning to Sophie.

Issue number one is that as a mother, there is never a perfect balance to strike as far as the use of our time and energy goes.  Most of the time, we are either too-busy or way-too-busy, but sometimes, when things slow down, it may look like we’re not busy enough.  Circumstances in families fluctuate within and between years, so that the one who is delegated to the primary care-taking role in the family will have their energy expenditures fluctuate with the times.

Just “being available” is a tricky balancing act a mother faces when scheduling her own time.  It’s something that, with no more children in this house, I will have to get used to not worrying about.

Another issue is that so many of the tasks of taking care of a house and family are invisible to the naked eye.  Much of what I do has to be done over again day-in and day-out; so much of what I toil at does not stay done.  Or has to be re-done, when things change, which they invariably do.  Every mother knows exactly what I’m talking about, here.

In this regard–and in relation to Thanksgiving–motherhood can feel like (please forgive my unlady-like language) a fucking thankless job.

Not that I am looking for thanks.  More often than not, it is I who am giving thanks  for these children who don’t–and won’t, until they become parents themselves–have a clue how much heart, soul and elbow grease goes into being their mother.

And finally, as I’ve acknowledged before, I do believe that because Sophie and I are so close–another thing I’m thankful for–she’s having to work extra hard to push me away so we can soon fly our separate ways.  I have to admire her strength in creating this space, even though I question her methods.

To you, dear reader, for letting me vent and for reading the vented, I have just one word left: thanks.

Where Were You?

It seems un-American to have been alive on this day 50 years ago and not remember where I was when JFK died; until you realize that I was four-years-old, not yet in school, and that research shows that childhood memories begin between the ages of three and four years of age.  I was right on the cusp of having the ability to look back.

What purpose is served by looking back at our histories, either personal or communal?

In Judaism, the concept of looking back, of yizkor  or “rememberance”, is emphasized.  We have a prayer, a service, and an attitude dedicated to this concept.   Personally, we remember loved ones we have lost, and as a people, we remember the Jews who were lost in the Holocaust.  It is part of our tradition to remember–to never forget–both in order to honor our loved ones and be inspired by their legacies, and to prevent the atrocities of history from being repeated.

In an article called The Purpose of Memory, on the site My Jewish Learning, I found the following explanation of some interest,

…Yizkor…emphasizes the transience of life, our yearning for eternity, and the inspiration provided by the memory of the deceased. The service reminds us that time moves swiftly forward and bids us, “number our days that we may grow wise in heart” (Psalm 90:12).

Memory is a precious gift, for it transforms the discrete moments of our lives and events in history into an unfolding narrative. We become acutely aware of…past…(and) future… we become conscious not only of our own mortality but also of the sacred opportunity that we have in our brief lives to perform acts of sanctification which may improve our lot and the lot of humanity generally.

In a sense, I’m spending this year writing my way through my own observance of yizkor, looking alternately both forward and back.

Today, as a nation, we are looking back, remembering JFK.  I think our culture is fixated on JFK, the youngest president to be elected to office (as opposed to Teddy Roosevelt, who was technically the youngest president, having assumed office after McKinley was assassinated) in part because of his youthful leadership, and his insistence on looking to the future.   As a country, we were going to the moon so not even the sky was the limit.

Last night, as that same moon came out, I ran into a friend of mine at Trader Joe’s.  I asked her how she’s been doing this year as a single-mom experiencing her first year in an empty nest.

“Well, for the first month or so…” and I rudely interrupted her here,

“I know, everyone says the first month is the worst…” and she interrupted me back (this is what good friends do)

“No, I HAD THE TIME OF MY LIFE! I was going out every night, doing whatever I wanted…”

And the conversation took an interesting turn, actually turning me from looking back as I am so fond of doing, to looking forward.

I told her that the part I think I’ve uncovered is the part about feeling old, feeling like once the kids are gone, I begin my steady decline.  She wasn’t buying it,

“What will you be doing?  Pursuing your writing passion?  Spending time with friends?  Biking?  Traveling with Howie?  Are these the things that ‘old’ people do? I don’t think so!”

She went on to give me a glimpse of what lies ahead,

“When they’re gone, you can do whatever you want, without having to check in with some kid!”  And before we hugged goodbye, so I could hurry home to some kid, she challenged me to look ahead and consider the upside, imploring me to,

“Be open to it.  Be open to it.  Just be open to it.”  I guess I should be open to it.

I can’t think of a way of referencing being open to things, as if in a convertible in a motorcade for example, without it being in extremely poor taste.

Jackie survived that tragic openness in Dallas, which claimed the life of her husband.  And she endured other, less talked-about losses.  She lost a pregnancy and two children in her lifetime, and didn’t live long enough to see the loss of a fourth, her handsome son, JFK Jr.  She had a miscarriage in 1955, delivered a stillborn daughter in 1956, had Caroline and John Jr. in 1957 and 1960, respectively, and lost an infant son two days after his birth in August of 1963.  This loss occurred just three months before she lost her beloved husband, 50 years ago today.

Jackie was no stranger to the heartache of losing children, proving no mother is safe from this loss, either real or what’s known as “ambiguous” (the experience of losing someone who’s still, physically, there).  Her unimaginable losses make me thankful, needless to say, that I am fortunate enough to be sending my third child to college, and quickly put all things in perspective.

Jackie also loved literature and writing, and after the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, found purposeful work as a book editor for Viking Press.  Her support of the arts, her grace and strength, and her love of her children–not to mention her fashion sense–are all part of her legacy.

It is impossible to stage a moment of silence, in writing, but that moment on this 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK is approaching as I write this.  Whenever necessary, we should allow ourselves such a moment; not to waste precious moments looking back, but to appreciate the people and times that have changed us–personally and collectively–and remain conscious of all the sacred opportunities that lie ahead.

The question Where Were You? must be coupled with Where Will You Be?

Ready Stance

I’m beginning to get complaints around here.  My deadline for Thesis 1 is ten days away, and the laundry is piling up.  Writing a thesis can be a dangerously all-consuming enterprise.  Some days, I don’t get dressed and I’ve become so accustomed to talking to myself, that I have to check both these tendencies when I do get out in public.

My kids were young enough to have been taking karate when I received my first, printed materials from Hamline’s graduate program.  The fact that I received printed materials, through the U.S. mail, also tells you how long ago I started this process.  The first letter I received was dated February 7, 2002, and began,

“Thank you for your inquiry about Hamline University’s Graduate Liberal Studies program.  The materials you requested are enclosed.”

I brought this packet, along with then-12-year-old Sam, 9-year-old Nate and 5-year-old Sophie, for their karate lessons and looked through it in the tiny, florescent-lit lobby of the karate studio, which was ripe with the smell of vinyl, sweat and bare feet. With “hi-ya’s” as background noise, I read the introductory letter addressed to me,

“Two interrelated degrees, the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies and the Master of Fine Arts in Writing, make Hamline’s GLS a unique graduate program.  This is a place where creative, reflective, and inquisitive people bring together various perspectives and methods as they examine important issues in the arts, sciences and society.”

The enclosed, maroon brochure talked about submitting 20-page writing samples and assembling writing portfolios.  I dreamed of applying to the MFA program, but thought the MALS was the only option within my reach.  I had never done creative writing of more than just a couple pages, and obviously had no clue as to what would qualify as graduate-level writing.  But I clearly remember what I was feeling, because I feel this way now, so often,

No way!  What am I thinking?  I’m way out of my league, here.

But there was another voice inside my head, small but mighty, like my young kids in their karate Gis and colorful belts;

I want this.  I’m willing to go for it.  What’s the worst that can happen?

I was never much of a reader or writer growing up.  I dabbled in both, but was more interested in arts and crafts, taking classes through Golden Valley community ed and the Jewish Community Center in candle-, pottery-, and even puppet-making (using my mother’s old pantyhose), and lessons at the Singer Sewing Center downtown as a kid.  It wasn’t until I approached 40, that I decided to start reading, and out of the enjoyment of reading, came my desire to write.

Desire is the word I associate with this early foray into writing.  One of the pieces I wrote in one of the first half-dozen classes I took through either the Compleat Scholar program at the U of M, or The Loft, compared my newfound attraction to writing to an illicit affair,

“As part of this class, I’m going to ask you to keep a writing journal.  I want you to free-write for 10-minutes a day, no more, no less,” were the instructions given us by our teacher on the first day of my third writing class.  I lived in fear that my husband would come home early and find me enthralled in my daily 10-minute free-write.  He did actually come home once, and I threw my journal and the egg-timer into a drawer, and scurried back to the kitchen, as if I had just taken a brief break from dinner preparations.  I felt so cheap.

In order to become a writer you must become a reader.  The two are inseparable and fuel one another.  I am a very painstakingly slow reader, even though I did try the Evelyn Wood speed reading class as a young person.  I guess Evelyn couldn’t help everybody with her supposedly foolproof method, and I don’t blame her, but the first night of my first graduate class, I was a nervous wreck as the professor walked us through the syllabus.  I turned to the young man next to me, and whispered,

“It says we’re supposed to read The Hero and The Goddess for next week, but it doesn’t say which pages?”

He whispered back,

“That’s because we’re supposed to read the whole thing.” 

And this is how I’ve gotten through the whole program, beginning with MALS program, and ultimately transferring into the MFA program.  Every step of the way, every class, every semester, every year since I started learning to write over a decade ago, I have been feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

I have given up waiting for the fear to dissipate.  I have just adjusted over time to working in a state of perpetual fear.  Three-hour classes, tens-of-thousands of pages of reading and dozens of papers drove me to develop my propensity for an occasional tequila shot, though I do not endorse this as a long-term coping strategy.  But I do know why writers drink.

I’ve been plagued throughout my graduate experience with the insecurity that goes along with being one of the older members in my program, and one of the few with no formal undergraduate training in literature or writing.  Most of my classmates are in their 20’s and 30’s, and the majority have undergraduate degrees in English literature or related majors.  They’ve read–and still retain details of–the classics, the British and Russian novelists, the poets both ancient and modern, and are still reading not only books but anything published on a never-ending progression of electronic devices.

My major, from the last millennium, was in social work.  But what they tell me I’ve got going for me is that I’ve spent several decades amassing life experience and gathering material for what amounts to the entire life span of most of my classmates.  That and my dogged desire.

The deadline for Thesis 1 is December 1st.  The requirement is that we hand in either a book-length manuscript or the option I chose, 80-100 pages.  The first half of this blog now totals somewhere between 100-150 pages.  Whether anyone reads these pages or not used to matter to me–and I still fall on my knees in appreciation of anyone who does–but the process has come to mean as much to me as the product.  The feeling of words flowing, of battle-weary synapses firing, of an aging brain lighting up with new information and ideas like the Christmas tree on Rockefeller Plaza is both grueling and immensely satisfying.

Whatever time and energy this process has taken away from my family and wage-earning responsibilities over the years I hope has been compensated for by returning me to them and to my duties fully-charged and deeply inspired.  They have been patient, respectful, and overwhelming supportive.  I hope I’ve set an example for my children of life-long learning and going after things that seem impossible at the get-go, but are the things that truly get–and keep–you going.

There are no black belts given out for writing.  Writing my thesis has been not a martial art, but a fine art nonetheless, and when I go to defend it, I’ll consider the whole shebang my own form of self-defense.

Exodus

Moses showed up at our house last night, after calling from his car out front to be sure he was in the right place.  He couldn’t read the address in the dark.

I hired our Moses (known in last week’s post as the Amazing Ariel, https://gailmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/hurry-hurry-hurry-step-right-up/) to facilitate Sophie’s exodus from her enslavement in this house and help deliver her to the promised land of college.  The purpose of hiring a guide at this critical juncture in our college decision-making process was to be sure we wouldn’t spend 40 years wandering in a desert of indecision.

Moses, or Ari as he gave us permission to call him, came in wearing not the traditional biblical robe and sandals, but a polo shirt and cords.  He wasn’t carrying a staff, but rather a white legal pad.  His hair qualifies as what my boys call a Jew-fro, and his thick, black mustache and beard are not something he just started growing in observance of Movember; he is not a Mo Bro, unless the “Mo” stands for Moses.

So we called in this modern-day prophet to part the sea of post-secondary education information and help us pass through on dry land.  And I prepared him for the probability that this would be a one-hour escort, under cover of darkness, but hoping he would deliver us into the light.

And with an outstretched arm…not really; I’m recalling this image from the Passover Seder, Ari began,

“Let’s start at a place of agreement between Sophie and her parents, and talk about the factors that will be most important in choosing a school.”

And so it was spoken, and Ari helped us think through the process of making sure Sophie is applying to all the schools that fit the criteria we agree on.

Our commandments are but three:

  • Thou shalt attend a school within the realm of in-state tuition (honor thy father)
  • Thou shalt attend a school within a day’s drive of home (honor thy mother)
  • Thou shalt attend a large school with a fair number of Jewish kids

We felt comfortable disclosing Sophie’s desire to live among our tribe, to the leader of the Hebrews, or in reality, this nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia.

Our simple criteria effectively knocked out all schools in the midwest except the U of M, Madison and KU.  Feel free to let me know if, in our haste, we passed over any better options.

At that point, we could have let Ari go.

But I checked my watch and we were only halfway through our hour.  Ari thought Sophie might want to go through the exercise of using the college search engine to look for about five more schools that might fit her criteria.  The more we thought about it, though, the more we wondered why this was necessary.

She’s already been accepted by KU.  And even if she does get accepted by the U of M, it will undoubtedly be best for her to attend college out of town, and not in the town she’s lived in all her life, so she can spread her wings and enjoy the full-fledged independence she is clearly ready for.

And she is not even applying to Madison, but like Moses, I won’t tolerate watching something–even my unfulfilled desire for her to attend my alma mater–being beaten to death.

When Ari asked Sophie,

“If these criteria weren’t an issue, what would be your first choice of a college?”

Sophie talked about schools like Lewis and Clark, in Oregon (where my brother, who lives there, has been trying to coax her for years like a snake charmer so his kids can live near their beloved cousin, Sophie) and schools she’s heard about, from friends, like the University of Denver, and it felt like watching the Children of Israel bow down to the Golden Calf.  The false god of “the perfect school” is just that; a false promise.

The real promise is that there are any number of schools that would be a fine fit for any kid who is getting ready to start her exodus from the perceived bondage  (but relative safety) of her parents’ home to freedom.

Sophie’s already received her summons from KU, but as with many who receive the call–including Moses–she’s reluctant to answer too quickly.

And in the end, Sophie began talking herself into the idea of attending KU realizing it is probably as fine a choice for her as any.  In the beginning, it might have been a case of, like another famous Jew by the name of Groucho Marx once said to a Hollywood club he had joined,

“Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

As the hour came to an end with Ari, he began saying things like,

“You will find solace in finally being on campus,” sounding a little less like Moses, and a little more like a fortune-cookie fortune.

He spoke about the process he went through himself as a high school senior, “driving himself crazy”, using all types of spread sheets and metrics when he was going through the college application process.  He kept thinking there were schools that would hit that sweet spot encompassing all the criteria he set for himself.  He ended up going to a small school about five hours from where he grew up, and confessed he was happy he was far enough from home to feel away but close enough that he could get home for holidays and such.  That was exactly why I chose Madison.  That simple, in the end.  That’s the real sweet spot.

As the old story goes, I will have to resist the temptation to change my mind when I finally agree to let Sophie go, and consider going in pursuit of her with a large army.  We all remember how that worked out for Pharaoh.

Writer? Narrator? Let’s Not Call the Whole Thing Off

You say tomato, I say to-mah-to

You eat potato and I eat po-tah-to

Tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto

Let’s call the whole thing off

This is a look at the difference in personas, between what we sometimes call the “writer” and the “narrator”.  These differences exist together in the same person; the person who is both writer and narrator, so in that way, these two functions can’t be completely separated.  The writer is the narrator, but at the same time, there are some important differences between the two.

But oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part

And oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart

I will admit upfront that this is an oversimplification of an important part of the writing process, and warn that things may get muddy, as this is not a clean distinction to make.

For starters, when I say “writer” in this context, I am referring to the real person, and therefore, the more private of the two.  The writer lives life each day, making decisions about what to write about and what not to; what to include, and what to leave out.

The narrator, who can only live inside the writer, is the artist-in-residence.  The narrator observes, interprets, analyzes and tries to find the deeper meaning below the surface of everything that happens to the writer.  And the narrator is busy at work, even if the writer isn’t (can’t or won’t write).

Better call the calling-off, off

Oh, let’s call the whole thing off

On the one hand, the narrator is a lovely companion, urging the writer to engage most fully with life, thereby enriching the way the writer moves through the world.  The narrator constantly reminds the writer to pay attention, to notice specific detail, and to open up all 5 senses on the world.

On the other hand, the narrator can be a pain in the ass, pointing out every, little intriguing or noteworthy experience and pestering the writer to get it down on the page.

To make this distinction in a different way, the writer could be said to be of the earth, and the narrator, the contractor of the nicely constructed house on top of it.  The writer does his or her work in the crawl space of this house.  The crawl space is where all the wiring and the drain pipes go, out of sight of the beautiful structure that comes up out of the earthly writer-self.  Is this getting absurd?

Let’s try an example:  This morning, the writer-me had to take Sophie to the hand doctor.  Her wrists have been bothering her when she writes, plays the piano, and works on pottery in her new ceramics class.  The writer-me was hustling around, gathering the paperwork sent earlier in the week by the doctor’s office, grabbing Sophie’s insurance card, making coffee, and at random intervals, calling down to make sure Sophie was getting ready.

The narrator-me was following the writer-me around, pointing things out like, This may be one of the last times you’ll need to take a child to the doctor.  What does it feel like to realize that?  Can you associate this with any other activity–mothering or otherwise–done with Sophie or the boys over the years?  How would you describe the color of the rising sun in the November sky this morning? and so on. 

The writer-me, I, was getting irritated, as the clock ticked 5 and then 10 minutes past the time I knew we should leave.  The writer-me was in charge of calling down to Sophie,

“Soph; are you ready?  We need to leave now.  I mean it.  Traffic could be terrible.”  And then the narrator-me noticed the writer-me thinking about how getting kids out of the house in the morning might well be one thing I won’t miss.  Or will I?

In the exam room at the doctor’s office, the narrator-me observed the interaction between the Nordic-looking, tall, mostly bald with a fine stubble of silver hair, athletically-built orthopedic doctor, who was missing the top section of his own middle finger, and my daughter.  The narrator-me wondered if the missing section of finger was part of the reason this handsome, obviously well-educated, but slightly cool in demeanor doctor decided to become a hand specialist.

The narrator-me seems more serious and respectful than the writer-me (or just plain me).  She respects boundaries more thanI, the (writer-)mom, do.  In the interest of learning more about the “characters” I was observing, both Sophie and the doctor, I listened to their question/answer conversation, instead of chiming in and answering for my kids like I’m wont to do.

“Does anything make it better?” the doctor asked Sophie, followed by “Does anything make it worse?”

“Icing actually makes it worse,” Sophie replied.  I, her mother, did not know that.  “But sometimes, I wear those velcro wrist things my mom gave me.”

“Sometimes, the compression of those braces can make the symptoms worse.” the doctor informed us.  I did not know that, either, obviously.  Look at all you can learn when you button it and observe.

So the narrator keeps the writer hushed, sometimes, in order to pay closer attention; in order to take in the full scene as it unfolds naturally, without the writer interfering and messing things up.  The narrator is better at paying attention, at noticing, at asking questions and listening carefully to the answers, at wondering, being curious and exploring.  The narrator has to pay attention in order to be able to gather enough detail to tell a good and accurate story.

This may seem like a contrived differentiation I’m making.  One could argue that the writer is author and master of the whole process.  Or that it’s all just a matter of semantics.  Or that what I’m calling the “narrator” is just another word for the writer’s “voice”.  But when you bring The Voice into it, we’re all going to flash on Christina, Adam, CeeLo and Blake in their big, red chairs.

What I’m trying to point out is that there exists, in all of us, one part of us that experiences day-to-day life, and another part that witnesses and records it, in part to make stories out of it all.  And the story-making part of us should be acknowledged for a couple of reasons.

One, is that the story-teller in us is always collecting firewood.  And we should live our lives deliberately enough so that we are mindful of gathering enough firewood to ignite our passionate appreciation of our everyday lives.  Call it the narrator or mindfulness or what-have-you, but someone needs to be up in the observation tower of life at all times or we’ll miss too much.

And why is it even important to be aware of the part of us that lives each day, and the part of us looking to make meaning out of the accumulation of our days and years?  Because our story-telling selves turn us from passive recipients of the action on this earth to active livers of life in this beautiful and chaotic world, as we take what is happening to us and tell the stories we choose to tell about it all.

We can take heartbreaking situations and find poignant beauty even in them, if we tell it that way.  We can empower ourselves, through the stories we tell ourselves and others, and climb out from under so many of life’s circumstances, transforming ourselves from victims to victors.  Or if not victors, at least we can get a laugh, a hug or a shoulder to lean or cry on from our audience.

But oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part

And oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart.

 

No Credit for Living

As writers of creative nonfiction (CNF), we behave like a secret society with one important exception; nothing we do is secret.

We don’t greet each other with a secret handshake, and we reference certain, non-secretive phrases when we discuss our craft.  One is “no credit for living”, and another has to do with “the difference between the writer and the narrator”.  Today’s topic is the litmus test known as “no credit for living”; tomorrow’s, writer vs. narrator.

V.S. Pritchett , a  twentieth-century British short-story writer, penned the warning for writers of all genres,

It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.  

As CNF writers, all of our material comes directly from living our own lives.  But having lived something does not a piece of art, make.  Everyone on this planet spends every day living, technically, but just a fraction choose to glean from this daily activity their art supplies.

I have been surprised, lately, when people approach me to comment on personal details about my life.  Until I remember that I’ve been furiously reporting on my life and posting these reports on the highly-non-secretive Facebook, every school day since Labor Day.

Every day since I started this blog-cum-thesis has become a labor day for me, but it has been a labor of–and about–love.

In an essay entitled To Fashion a Text, Annie Dillard, the writer arguably best known for her nonfiction narrative, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, describes the stuff of her own memoir, An American Childhood, as follows,

It’s about waking up.  A child wakes up over and over again, and notices that she’s living.  She dreams along, loving the exuberant life of the senses, in love with beauty and power, oblivious of herself–and then suddenly, bingo, she wakes up and feels herself alive.  She notices her own awareness.  And she notices that she is set down here, mysteriously, in a going world.  The world is full of fascinating information that she can collect and enjoy.  And the world is public; its issues are moral and historical ones.

There’s so much in this Dillard essay that pertains to the mission I have set for myself,  but one more bit in particular,

The rushing of time wakes you: you play along mindless and eternal on the kitchen floor, and time streams in full flood beside you on the floor.  It rages beside you, down its swollen banks, and when it wakes you you’re so startled you fall in.  When you wake up, you notice that you’re here. 

Where’s here?  That’s one of the questions I keep asking myself as I plod along with these posts.  Where am I?  I can add this question to my earlier one, of What am I doing here?  And though these questions are valid, it has been suggested to me that it’s high time I start answering, rather than just asking these questions.  And that’s what I’m trying to do, in writing.

I am, indeed, awake; the dream of motherhood having come and almost gone.  And the rushing of time has become so palpable that I am, in keeping with Dillard’s analogy above, thinking I better start sandbagging my kitchen floor.

But these truths which I hold self-evident, that motherhood is a sweet chapter of life, that time passes more quickly than most of us can wrap our heads around, that change can be both exciting and scary, aren’t the only things I’m after, here.  Heeding another Dillard warning,

You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

For as earnestly as I sit down here every day to figure out what just hit me these past twenty-four years, what’s about to hit me now, and what will happen after that, there have to be some larger life lessons learned.

And there has to be transformation.  Another smart writer, Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, wrote,

Thinking the event is the story is the biggest mistake of student writers…The transformation of the self is the story. 

Noticing one’s own transformation would be like noticing the receding of the polar ice caps.  But apparently, even the polar ice caps are melting faster; they’ ve melted more in last 20 years than in the last 10,000.  Which just supports my theory that things these days actually are moving faster than ever.  Perhaps my personal transformation will be no exception.

I’m not looking for credit just for living through this change in my life from active mother-of-three at home/student writer, to mother-of-three grown-and-flown and writer, dare I say it, writ large.  For gosh sake, parents have been living this transition since the invention of parenthood, and will continue to live it long after I and my children are gone.

Interestingly, Annie Dillard ends To Fashion a Text with a reference, again, to children,

Writing a book is like rearing children…You do it out of love…You go to the baby out of love for that particular baby.  That’s the same way you go to your desk.  There’s nothing freakish about it.  Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature.  It’s what we’re here to do.

We, writers and human beings, get no credit for living.  We only get credit for what we do with our lives.

28th Anniversary

Tomorrow is our 28th wedding anniversary.  Traditionally, there is no gift for the 28th year; it falls between silver (25th) and pearl (30th).  A modern interpretation suggests the orchid as a symbol for 28 years of marriage,

Just as an orchid plant is breathtaking, your twenty-eighth year of marriage can be a breathtaking time of change in your marriage as your children chart their own course in life and the two of you have more time alone together.

As you celebrate your 28th wedding anniversary, reflect on how far the two of you have journeyed together.

There was no mention of children–charting their own course, or otherwise–in relation to other anniversaries.  Why on the 28th?

Reading between those lines, I get,

This abrupt downsizing could knock the wind out of one or both of you, and the journey could have knocked the wind out of your marriage.  But before you do anything rash, consider the fact that you’ve been on this journey and have lived to tell about it, together.

This morning, with Howie out of town on business, I dug around in boxes in the basement until I found a piece of writing I remember tapping out on our Smith Corona typewriter, in our first apartment on Girard Ave. So., on the eve of our wedding festivities.

…Everything starts tomorrow night, beginning with the rehearsal and dinner at aunt Sharon’s…

This one-and-a-quarter page typed historical document is dated November 13th, 1985, and it starts like this,

Reflections on being single.  by Gail Kane

I just got back from Carnegie (note: the Dale Carnegie public speaking class I was taking at the time, paid for by my then employer).  My classmates took me out for what they referred to as my bachelorette party…Now I’m waiting for Howie to get home from his stag…

Bachelorette parties seem to be a bigger deal now than they were 28 years ago.  Mine was a far cry from one I witnessed recently in the tap room at the Lift Bridge brewery where Howie and I were enjoying a flight of beers at the bar while a bride-to-be, wearing a veil and a magenta sash, was surrounded by a wild group of young women cheering her on as she drank out of a large, pink plastic penis.  But I digress.

So–what do I have to say about being single?  Not much.  In fact, it has been a long time since I’ve felt single.  I’ve been in love with Howie for a long time.  It seems only natural to marry him.  I would rather be with him, for any period of time, than anyone else.  Just seeing his face makes me feel secure–at home.  But, like anyone else, I don’t know what the future holds in store for us.  We have our differences.  But I see it as an exciting challenge to learn to live together, despite our differences…I feel in my heart of hearts that in the larger scheme of things, Howie and I were meant to be together, because when you look at it from the outside, for all we’ve been through together and all the times it looked as though we were at an impasse, we push through it, almost as though we realize that it was meant to work out, despite the day-to-day snags.

“For all we’ve been through together”, in a year-and-a-half?  That’s how long we’d been together, from our first date to our wedding day.  To “push through” things and negotiate “day-to-day snags” were things we only thought we knew about, before we had kids.

Maybe the symbol for the 28th year of marriage should be Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, or at the very least, the 70‘s Hasbro toy, the Weeble.    

Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.

…The most important thing to me at this time is my family, of which Howie, my fiancé, will become the most important member.  We will have kids.  I hope 3-4, he says 2-3.  He wants to wait at least 2 years, so a.) we can spend at least 2 years just being married to each other, and getting to know each other better and b.) so we can be in a better position, financially, to be responsible for children.  I say, I’m not getting any younger and would like to have kids while my endurance is still high…

As it turns out, three children was our lucky compromise, and we actually waited four years before we had Sam, our first.  But the part of the letter that sparked unexpected tears for me this morning, was simply,

What will happen to us, God?  Do you have it all planned out?  Will you be looking at us under the chuppah Saturday night?

My tears this morning sprang both from places I can name and places deep in the wordless recesses of my heart.  Twenty-eight years flashed before my eyes.  I wouldn’t trade them, or what they have yielded, for the world.  I cry at the memory of the pain we’ve experienced, and in gratitude for the joy we’ve received.  And I cry in face of the unknown, now that life is about to change so dramatically once again.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from the hopeful, young, single girl of 26 who I was when I wrote that prophetic manifesto 28 years ago,

I don’t know what the future holds in store for us.  We have our differences.  But I see it as an exciting challenge to learn to live together, despite our differences…I feel in my heart of hearts that in the larger scheme of things, Howie and I were meant to be together…

As we begin our 29th year together, we’re going to have to discover, anew, what life holds in store.  This is not the time to look only backward, though looking backward makes us appreciate how far we’ve come together.  Now’s also the time to get excited about what lies ahead.

Let the next great adventure begin.

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation

Erik Erikson’s 7-Stage theory of psychosocial development is one of psychology’s best known models of personality development.  Stage 6, Intimacy vs. Isolation, involves a person’s ability to form close, affectionate, committed relationships and is predicated on success in Stage 5, which is Identity vs. Confusion.

Having written this much, I am reminded of Daniel Day Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot, the true story of Christy Brown, an Irish writer and artist with cerebral palsy who had use of only his left foot to produce his art.  One of the most memorable exchanges in the script occurred when Brown (played by Lewis) asked his companion, Mary Carr, to light his cigarette:

Christy Brown: I need a light.

Mary Carr: Don’t go thinking I’m your mother now, just ‘cause I’m takin’ care of ya.

Christy Brown: I don’t need a [expletive] psychology lesson.  Just get me a [expletive] light.

I don’t want to provide a psychology lesson, either.  But I do want to shine some light on the issue of the intimacy involved in mothering children.  And since the relationship between mother and child is intimate, it effects the identities of both mother and child.

Erickson’s Stage 6 refers to the intimacy sought between consenting adults.  Motherhood involves neither consent (a child has no say in its birth) nor two adults.  Mother/child intimacy grows, like connective tissue, between an unwitting, newly-created person and a woman much older than he or she.  But I am here to argue that it can be among the most intimate relationship(s) a woman can form.  And it is, like I’ve said before, a relationship that serves as a bullet-proof vest around her heart armoring her from a sense of isolation.

In writing, the rule is to fully involve all five senses in order to render or recreate experience as fully as possible.  Motherhood also involves all five senses, and even serves to heighten some of them.  The more a relationship engages all five of our senses, the more deeply we experience that relationship.

I know that my sense of smell, for example, has been heightened to rival that of a Silvertip Grizzly (another mother bear) due to the number of years my nose provided me essential information about my children; everything from the condition of their diapers to whether or not they had a sinus infection.  Gross, maybe, but intimate for sure.

On the most primitive level, I am connected with my children by the smell and feel of their bodies, hair and breath.  When you are in charge of people down to the level of their bodily emissions, you develop a pretty strong connection with them, sensually.

Beyond this corporeal connection, moms are also intimately involved in their children’s lives, first ensuring their physical survival but over the years expanding to incorporate their emotional, intellectual, social and even spiritual growth and health.

As I mentioned, Stage 6 Intimacy vs. Isolation presumes that an individual has successfully resolved the conflicts presented in Step 5, Identity vs. Confusion.  Yet Stage 6 supposedly occurs between the ages of 19-40.  How many people have solidified their identities by the time they’re in their 20’s? And what a coincidence that these are the years most women become mothers.  We become intimate with our partners, which produces our children, and now we’re intimate with the whole gang.

So another aspect of my theory is that women are intimately involved with their children at the same time they are solidifying their own identities.  And they are working with their children to help them form their identities.  Being responsible for this important work can make a woman realize how able and necessary she is.

As mothers, sometimes it feels like we’re living multiple lives at once.  We’re living our own lives, but our intimate involvement in our children’s lives blur the boundaries between us and them, and this way of living while holding other lives so close stretches us.

I have felt stretched to both the depths and the heights of myself through mothering.  I have been taken to the bottom edges of my strength, knowledge and patience, for instance, but I have also been exalted realizing the selfless, generous acts I’ve been capable of through mothering.

Once Sophie leaves, I’m afraid I’ll feel like a person who’s lost 300 pounds, and whose psycho-emotional skin that once contained all these lives now hangs on them like loose drapery.  What will I do with all this stretched-out management ability and compassion?

This post feels like a mess; not for lack of conviction about the points I’m trying to make today, but because I am actually in pursuit of a new theory about what makes leaving this active mothering stage feel so damn frightening, threatening and severing?  Erickson’s theory took him decades to refine.  You can’t expect me to develop mine in one morning.  Psychoanalysis wasn’t built in a day, either.

But this is what is on my mind today.  The fear that once my final (inti)mate flies the coop, that daily intimacy will be gone and a sense of isolation will rush in to fill her vacated spot.  As often as well-meaning folks try to assure me that she will always be in my life–I’m not worried about her leaving my life–she will no longer live in my house.  And truth be told, I don’t want her to live here forever.  I will be thrilled when she takes her developmentally-appropriate flight, but I will feel her absence with my five senses.

As with all fears, these are not rational grapplings.  They are much more slippery, hard to get-a-hold of, emotional opponents I’m wrestling with.  And today I’m not in the mood to be tidy about it.

As far as I’m going to get today is to elaborate on Erickson’s model and claim that, in general, mothers form intimate relationships not only with their partners, but with their children.  They may feel their children’s leaving closer to the bone than their partners do, especially if they’ve been the primary caregivers for the kids.

The enormity of the job of caring for kids, in addition to all the other responsibilities moms have, can reflect a mother’s skill and capacity back to her in a way that makes her feel powerful, alive, complete (and also exhausted, guilty, depleted, self-doubting–but we’ll save the dark side for another post!) and even magical.  I will miss the daily intimacy and the reflection of my fullest self that my kids have provided me during these past, and best (so far) almost 25 years of my life.

If I’ve made a mess here–if I’ve been inconsiderately unsettling and nonsensical– please forgive me.  I would stay and clean up, but I have a proposal to write for a class I would like to teach in the youth program at The Loft this summer. This theorizing I’ve started will have to be continued.  Breaking ground, even inside my head, is a dirty job.

Hurry, Hurry, Hurry, Step Right Up

My email-box has become the electronic equivalent of a carnival midway, barkers heckling Sophie with lines like, “You’re talented, Sophie, and given your talents, I’d really like you to apply to Marquette University–because I’d love to review your application for admission!”

Ladies and gentleman, you won’t believe your eyes, but back in the spring of this year, my inbox started filling up with messages intended for my daughter from colleges who must have gotten her name–and my email address–from her ACT registration form.  Apparently, she made the fateful decision to check the box, “I am interested in learning more about colleges.”

I am only interested in unsubscribing from these raucous email blasts.  Not to be disparaging, but you don’t see Harvard or Yale hawking their wares via email.

It is clear from the messages that these schools have no idea who my daughter is.  Take this one, for instance, from Montana State University,

“You seem like the perfect student for the mix of high-mountain sports and higher academics at Montana State University.”

MSU is reminding Sophie to submit her application for their Leader’s Edge program,

Remember, your Leader’s Edge status provides the following advantages:

  • You don’t have to write an essay!
  • You don’t need to ask your counselor for a recommendation!
  • You’ll learn your admission decision in just two weeks!
  • You’ll receive automatic scholarship consideration (as soon as you forward your test scores to MSU)!
  • Exclusive access to MSU wallpaper for your desktop

Seriously?  Wallpaper for your desktop is an incentive for applying to college?

Some schools’ make it look as easy as playing ring-toss to get into college,

  • You only need a pulse to apply!

But they can be just as deceptive.

Even though Sophie is our third child, she is the first to be going through this process “normally”.  Sam was accepted to KU before his senior year began, as Sophie was, but he decided to stay in town and attend the U of M.  Nate took a semester off before deciding that college was, after all, the right path for him.  I could write a dissertation on the paths taken by our boys, but they are not my focus, here.

My focus is on the process of choosing and getting accepted into a college, which mostly amounts to a process of elimination.

There are the schools that will eliminate Sophie, because her GPA and test scores don’t meet their (unreasonably high, in my opinion) requirements.  Then there are the schools we eliminate because they are too expensive or too far away, meaning visits to the school and trips home require costly plane tickets.  Every family goes through this elimination process, considering factors like a school’s size, majors, tuition (followed by availability of scholarships) and location being the main concerns.

The high school tries to assist with this process, beginning with Senior Parent night in September, but somehow I never found the one-size-fits-all approach to advising students to be very helpful.  I walked away with a stack of handouts, including Online Resources, Steps for Completing a College Application, Financial Aid Websites and a small newspaper entitled A Guide for Minnesota Parents and Students, published by the greatest hucksters of all, the ACT organization.  So this is what they’re doing with the test fees I keep paying.

A blue handout, simply labeled, The College Search claims,

Far too many students start the search process backward; they ask what the school wants from them.  Before looking at schools, it is important to start out with some introspection.  Determining what you are looking for will give you a yardstick by which to measure schools as you look at them…

I’m sure many 17-year-old kids are experts at the suggested introspection and feel comfortable that they know themselves–and the realities of attending college–well enough to choose the perfect match between them and an institution of higher education.

For us, we need a higher education on how to go about finding our higher education.  The search committee of three in this house does not seem to be coming up with any prize-winning insights so far, and the insights some of us come up with find little agreement among the others.

So I did what people do when they hit such an impasse; I hired a consultant.

I got the name of a young college advisor from my hiring-savvy friend, Christine.  This was the point of desperation I had reached after a recent family conversation at dinner about where Sophie is in the process.  As application deadlines draw near, we all agreed to call in The Amazing Ariel.

I spoke with this eloquent young man about his act (not ACT, but related).  He used to work as an admissions advisor at a college, and claims to have insights into the admissions process, as well as the inner-workings of the high school senior’s mind.

“The good thing about me is that I’m 27, so I’m old enough to have sat across the desk from college students, yet I’m young enough to be able to relate to what applying seniors are going through.”

The good thing about this conversation is that I felt hypnotized into believing help is on its way to our home, next Tuesday, for a very affordable fee.  Ariel continued,

“I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give your daughter my number and she can call me if she has any questions.”

I assured him that wouldn’t be necessary.  My friend had endorsed this young professional saying he was not only very helpful, but also adorable.

“If I tell my daughter a cute, Jewish boy is coming to our house to help her think about college, that’s all she’ll need to know.”

This is part of the reason I don’t trust either of us to make the best decisions where college is concerned.  As the email for Minnesota State University, Moorehead read,

Let’s face it: There’s a good reason why you’re planning to attend college. (And no, it isn’t just to meet new people, experience new things and have a great time… although I can promise you’ll do plenty of each!)

I wanted to give The Amazing Ariel fair warning that, as a family, we are not in complete accord about how to move forward in making this important, life decision with Sophie, just in case he witnessed a spontaneous fireworks display at our kitchen table when we meet.

“That’s OK; I would say half my job is being a family therapist.  Parents and kids often disagree on some of these issues.”

So I won’t be surprised or offended if he shows up brandishing a chair in front of him and trailing a whip behind.