Never Say Never

In my pre-child years, I had a long list of things I swore I would never do when became a mother:

  1. Yell
  2. Scream
  3. Cry in the bathroom
  4. Threaten
  5. Bribe with candy
  6. Power walk
  7. Drive to school in my pajamas while drinking coffee from a regular (not travel) mug.
  8. Wear a bathing suit with a skirt.
  9. Swim Mommy Stroke Style (wearing sunglasses and/or visor)
  10. Lick my fingers to wipe dirt or peanut butter or whatever mystery substance is crusted to my kid’s face.
  11. Extract a booger with my bare hands.
  12. Extract a poop with my bare hands.
  13. Catch vomit in my bare hands.
  14. Pop a zit that is not mine.
  15. Go on a house tour wearing sock booties.
  16. Wear clothes based purely on warmth
  17. Not wear certain clothes because it requires complicated undergarments
  18. Sing loudly to Hall and Oates while grocery shopping
  19. Sing loudly to Foreigner while waiting in line at CVS
  20. Sing loudly (and do the harmonies) to The Cranberries while waiting in the school car line.
  21. Use masking tape and/or staples to hem a Halloween costume

Then there were the things I swore I would never say when I became a mother:

  1. “Watch your mouth.”
  2. “Because I said so.”
  3. “March!”
  4. “I don’t like your tone.”
  5. “Who do you think you are talking to?”
  6. “If I have to ask you to _____ one more time…”
  7. “Excuse me?”
  8. “Pardon me?”
  9. “I am sorry, what did you just say?”
  10. Inappropriate
  11. “Wait until Dad gets home”
  12. “Dad will not be happy about this.”
  13. “Do I need to call your father?”
  14. “Is that really necessary?”
  15. “Am I talking to myself?”
  16. “Is anyone listening?”
  17. “HELLO?”

Now that I actually am a mother, of course I do and say all of these things.  If I were to dissect these lists, I would find some come out of habit, or memory, or a learned behavior/response I picked up along the way. Others are just byproducts of being overwhelmed, cranky and chronically sleep deprived.

But I think even more interesting than these assimilated maternal behaviors are the ones that seem to come out of left field. I am talking about your own personal stamp on motherhood. The way that you are as a mom that makes you unique, because you didn’t learn it from your own mom or read it in a parenting book – it’s just you being you with your kids, in the moment.

My personal parental calling card is humor. Humor at all costs. If I can possibly diffuse a situation by making my kids laugh, I will do pretty much anything.
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Anything.

Let me tell you a story.

It was about 5:00 on Tuesday – a gorgeous afternoon, hot but breezy. I knew I should be making dinner but I REALLY DID NOT WANT TO. Phoebe was playing with her dolls and Emma was doing homework so I snuck out to the hammock with my book. I read a few pages but mostly listened to the sound of the leaves in the tree above me, rustling like a crinoline petticoat.

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I was there a whole three minutes when Emma flopped into the hammock with the Pottery Barn catalog. I am not sure if she was tired or hot or both, but she was in a mood. The following conversation ensued:

“I can’t find my Anne Frank book so now I have to read this dumb Pottery Barn catalog.”

“Anne Frank is on the playroom bookshelf.”

“No she’s not.”

“Yes, she is. Did you look?”

“Yes, and she’s not there.”

“I put Anne Frank on the playroom shelf this morning.”

“Ugh! Mom. No you didn’t. I’ll just read about jute rugs and hurricane lamps. Because they are so educational.”

Now I guess this is the part where I should offer to retrieve Anne Frank, but there was no way I was giving up my spot on the hammock I decided that would be parental enabling. So I went back to my book.

Emma signed deeply.

She thumbed through the pages. She muttered under her breath. Then, she started to press her feet into my thigh, hard. Then harder. She was in a full-on leg press when I said: “Can you stop doing that?”

“Ugh, Mom can’t you just go get Anne Frank? I don’t feel like reading this stupid Pottery Barn catalog! Look at this Octopus Embroidered Lumbar Pillow – it’s freaky!” She ripped out a page and tossed into the air.

I could feel myself getting annoyed. Really annoyed. I wanted to say, “I just want five minutes in the hammock. You are ruining my hammock time. You are kicking my leg and I don’t like it. I cleaned up all your books today and you are too lazy to get the book off the shelf right in front of your face.”

But I bit my tongue.

I needed to break up the tension. I looked underneath the hammock and saw that our dog Zoe was now eating the discarded Pottery Barn page. “Zoe thinks the octopus pillow is hideous enough to eat.”

Emma cracked a smile but fought it hard: “Mom! Just go get Anne Frank.”

I opened the catalog. “And looks at all these anchor pillows. I mean, coastal can be overdone, people.” I ripped out the page and threw it to Zoe, who proceeded to rip it apart with her teeth. Emma was now covering her mouth with her hand – I almost had her. “And THIS! I mean, c’mon. Why is this rug $2,000? Does it fly? Is it a magic sisal-seagrass blend carpet?” I ripped out the page and then in half. I threw half the page to Zoe, and the other half….I stuffed in my mouth. Yes I did. And yes I did think about how many germs are on the pages of that catalogue. I am that desperate dedicated to getting a laugh.

Emma’s eyes got huge for a moment, and then she cracked up. She may have even squealed with delight. We ripped out page after page and stuffed them in our mouths. We gnawed, gnashed, and ripped the poor Pottery Barn catalog to shreds. Zoe just sat there staring. These people are bat shit crazy.

In the end I did go retrieve Anne Frank from the playroom shelf. I did this in part because I am also very lazy and understand the joy of someone getting you something you could absolutely get yourself.

I also fear that my hammock days with Emma -now on the cusp of tweenhood – are numbered. So I will do what it takes to keep her in there with me.

And plus, while Anne Frank is a bit heavy for a hammock read, how do you say no when your kid is requesting Holocaust literature? Sometimes the life lessons need to be carefully weighed.

We settled back in to our corners of the hammock. Emma’s formerly antsy legs now rested heavy next to mine, our limbs a tangle of knobby knees and freckles. I closed my eyes and breathed in this moment of perfect harmony: the breeze, the gentle rock of the hammock, the sound of the leaves, the warm weight of her legs on mine.

“Anne’s sister Margot is a little uptight,” Emma said.

WIth my eyes still closed, I replied: “Living in an annex may have that affect on people.”

“True,” she said, then paused. “You’re pretty funny, Mom.”

“Thanks, Honey.”

Motherhood is full of could, woulds, and shoulds; the things you never wanted to do but do anyway, or all the things you thought you would do but didn’t. But then there are the completely unexpected moments with your kids that you never could have imagined or categorized…because they are less about doing or not doing and more about just being yourself.

Easter

Painted in Waterlogue If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then -for me anyway -a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world work are buried, yet my new ones are not yet operational. There’s a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.

-Mary Karr, Lit

Easter has never been my favorite. The big creepy bunny breaking into your home, the Cadbury Eggs with their mystery yokes, the church filled with incense that inevitably makes someone pass out, Charlton Heston as Moses…I find it all a bit overwhelming.

My daughters go to a Catholic school. On the last day before spring break, the upper grades performed the Passion Play for the younger ones. Phoebe climbed into the car after school, buckled her seat belt and announced: “The Passion Play is very disturbing. I am so not into Resurrections.”

Apparently Easter is not her favorite, either.

This year, we spent spring break with my parents in Florida, which was a welcome change of scenery for all of us. It’s been a long year. It felt miraculous to get on a plane in a sea of grayness, and then three hours later step into the sunshine; a technicolor world filled with blue skies and palm trees, the warm air thick with the scent of hibiscus and honeysuckle. Like stepping out of Kansas into Oz.

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On Easter Sunday we go to church. Phoebe is antsy – climbing all over me, making funny faces at the people behind us trying to get a laugh. I can’t really blame her. I am antsy, too. I try to distract myself with people watching: little girls in pastel dresses and Easter hats, the choir of senior citizens dressed in Tommy Bahamas and golf pants, the ushers in white blazers tending to the poor guy who just passed out thanks to the incense.

Phoebe climbs in my lap and stage whispers into my ear: “How do you feel about Resurrections? Because I am SO NOT INTO THEM.” Then she goes back to stacking missalettes. I guess it is a rhetorical question. But I sit and think about it.

I believe in resurrection, in needing to die in order to live. I believe there is always an opportunity to begin again, if you are brave and curious. I believe in do-overs. I believe in second chances, third chances, 5,000 chances – however many chances you need, I will give them to you. Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me a hundred times…I don’t care. I would rather be foolish than unforgiving.

After church, we all pile into my dad’s car and inch our way through the sea of senior citizens in Cadillacs. Phil reads from the church bulletin: “Wow, two married couples renewed their vows in this church yesterday. Both have been married 75 years.”

The word Resurrection comes from the Latin resurgere: to rise again. I think of the couples married three quarters of a century and wonder how many times they had to die and rise again, to forgive, to create something new from the ashes, to find their way back to joy. Marriage is, in a way, it’s own easter. It is nails and crosses and suffering; it is betrayal and sacrifice and pain that can feel suffocating, almost unbearable.

But then, somehow, you both survive. You escape your tomb of anger and can breathe again. You share a laugh about something – a deep belly laugh that makes your eyes water. You can’t remember the last time you laughed like that; it feels like a lifetime ago. Then, as you both wipe away the tears, you stop and look at each other in disbelief. Holy shit. We are still here. We are going to make it. It is nothing short of miraculous.

After church we go to the pool. I watch Phil play for hours with the girls. He makes up crazy games with tennis balls and plastic cups; he lets them dive off his shoulders. I want to grow old with this man. The thought sneaks up on me, startles me even. I do not typically let myself think that way. I am hardwired for disappointment, for impending doom. Don’t count your chickens and all that. To imagine growing old with someone is a jinx, I have always reasoned. That kind of optimism will get you run over by a Septa bus.

Phil does a handstand in the pool. I decide to let go of my fatalistic superstitions. In the spirit of Easter, I will let that habit die. So I look around the pool, a veritable AARP convention, and wonder which old couple Phil and I will turn out to be.

Will we read silently in straight back chairs, me immersed in a large-print library book and Phil with his nose in the Wall Street Journal? Will he sit on the edge of my lounge chair while I rub sunscreen on his spotty, barnacled back? Will we share a chicken salad sandwich under the umbrella, or float around on pool noodles – Phil wearing cataract sunglasses and me in a visor the size of a toilet seat?

My fantasy is interrupted when a soaking wet Emma plops down in the chair next to me. I ask her, “What do you think I will look like when I am old?”

She tilts her head and shakes water out of her ear. “I don’t know,” she says. “But promise you won’t wear one of those visors.”

Noted.

The last morning of vacation, Phil and I wake up around 5:30 and drive to the beach for an early morning walk and swim. We walk to the edge of the fishing pier and people watch. An old man fishes off the corner of the pier patiently waiting for a bite; his wife sits at his side doing the crossword. I wonder if they do this everyday, if this is their routine.

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We leave the pier and comb the beach for treasures. Phil discovers a starfish tangled up in the seaweed.

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I find a lightening whelk whose inhabitant has fled it’s home. It is a sinistral shell, meaning the opening is on the left instead of the right. I know it is a lightening whelk because of the vibrant stripes that line the shell like bolts of lightening.

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I wonder if this bad luck, I think to myself, a shell opening to the left. The downward spirals probably symbolize death or your life going in the wrong direction or something. Phil and I are both left-handed. I used to think this was bad luck, too, that our kids were destined to be freaks. But they turned out ok (and right-handed), so I let that one go.

We strip down to our bathing suits and dive into the placid blue-green Gulf of Mexico.

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We float around for a while, I even indulge Phil in some ocean PDA, as the beach is mostly deserted at this early hour. I climb out of the water and notice an older couple sitting under an umbrella in beach chairs that face the sea. They sit side by side, sipping coffee from a red thermos. They keep their eyes on the horizon, but speak to each other in quiet morning voices.

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There we are, I think. That is us.

That is the couple we will be, because that is the couple we already are.

Maybe marriage is a lightening whelk. As you get old, saggy and wise together, you shed the baggage that requires too much energy to carry. Like the whelk, you spiral counterclockwise, descending, returning, back to who you really are, to who you were both born to be.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

 

 

Remembering

It’s terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a Holy thing.

-Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

Last Friday was my Aunt Terry’s birthday. She died over three years ago – it will be four years in October. I can not wrap my brain around that fact.

I remember the last time I saw her in such detail: It is October 7, 2011 in a hotel in Jersey City, at my cousin Beth’s wedding. Emma is the flower girl and I am a bridesmaid; my dress is beautiful, a deep purple, or aubergine.

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Aunt Terry has cancer. This is new information, yet to be fully digested by those who love her. But her oncologist has a plan, she is going to be ok, because she has to be. She dances at the wedding, and in my mind this means she will beat this. She is little but mighty.

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The morning after the wedding I pack our suitcases before heading down to brunch. Phil is in the shower and Emma is watching cartoons. I want to see Aunt Terry alone, before we all have to put our brunch faces on. I want to go down the hall and tap on her door, I want to climb in bed with her and smell her perfume. We will do the post-party recap; I will be a clown and make her laugh.

But what if she is not feeling well, what if Gary (her husband) is in the shower, what if I am too old to climb in bed with her, what if what if what if. So I don’t go.

I didn’t go. I wanted to take care of her in some small way but I didn’t.

Aunt Terry was the one who took care of everyone else. The summer I turned 16 I was full of teenage angst; my parents and I could not breathe the same air without fighting over it were not seeing eye to eye. It was suggested (by whom I can’t remember) that I go hang out at Aunt Terry’s for a week or three. She taught me how to mow the lawn (which I still love to do) and parallel park (which I don’t).

We sat in her kitchen one night, dipping pretzels in ice cream when she asked: “Why are you so sad, Honey?”

It was the perfect thing to say.

At the wedding brunch I sit with Aunt Terry for a while, then we all gather our stuff to leave. Phil loads the car while I check out. Aunt Terry and Gary are standing behind me. As Gary returns the key cards I turn to her and say: “I am going to come see you in Virginia, I can help. We can lay in bed and watch Modern Family for eight hours straight, ok?”

I wrap my arms around her but she seems so delicate, I am afraid of upsetting the chemo port in her chest. We say I love you and I walk the few steps to the escalator. I can see Phil and Emma through the glass window, waiting in the car below.

The image of Aunt Terry standing in the hotel lobby as I step onto the escalator is burned on my brain. I can see the light coming in the windows, creating patterns on the carpet. The cylindrical shape of the vase perched on the desk. The flowers are autumnal – yellow and orange. Gary runs his fingers through his hair; he is distracted, he wears his fear on his face. Aunt Terry leans into him, letting his body support her, and a feeling comes over me that is difficult to name – an unshakeable chill, my heart sinking into my stomach like a stone.

I wonder if a part of my brain knew this was the last time I would ever see her. That in three weeks, she would be gone. I wonder if my brain bypassed my magical thinking and said, You will want to remember this.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about memory – why we remember some things but not others. Sometimes it feels so random, even bizarre, the things that stick in my crawl: the outfit I wore on the first day of 7th grade, the distinct grape smell of Aussie Sprunch Hairspray, the notes and fingerings required to play “Louie Louie” on the mellophone.

I remember bits and pieces of both my daughters’ births, but they are fuzzy, like pieces of a dream. Yet I distinctly remember Emma coming to the hospital to meet Phoebe for the first time. She was wearing a white shirt with green and yellow butterflies. My mom had put a green bow in her hair, along with a bunch of bobby pins “to keep it in place.”

As she stood peering into the bassinet, her face a mixture of curiosity and skepticism, I remember thinking: Emma looks enormous. Like Alice in Wonderland kind of huge. I turned to Phil and before I could even speak he leaned over and whispered, “Yeah she looks 12 feet tall. It’s freaking me out.”

Maybe it’s the things that feel out of place that stick. The mind’s way of making sense of a new reality, turning it over and upside down like a Rubik’s Cube. Maybe those are the things that float around until the brain finds the right compartment to place it in. But for some things, there is no compartment. So the brain gives up, and the memory just keeps on floating in and out of the consciousness.

This is not a scientific theory. It is a Jessie Theory (which is decidedly un-scientific).

I just finished reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. In the essay entitled “Memory and Imagination,” she writes:

We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time, but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging onto. And, of course, often we cleave to things because they posses heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms.

Pain has strong arms.

There is a planet of regret that accompanies my final memory of Aunt Terry. It can be all-consuming, suffocating – crushing all other thoughts of her with its hugeness. But now, almost four years later, I am beginning to feel a shift – a making way, making room for other memories to surface.

Aunt Terry made PB & J on white bread with peanut butter on both sides so it sealed in the grape jelly, preventing sogginess. Her iced tea was perfectly sweet. She loved to play games -Spoons, Jenga, Outburst- and she played to win. She liked to dance, anywhere, anytime. We both snort when we laugh. She taught me how to tie the perfect bow for a Christmas wreath. She could eat just one cookie. She laughed at my jokes. I would do anything to make her laugh. I miss the sound of her voice saying my name.

In her memoir The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke writes about grief:

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

As time marches on, I pray that more memories will continue to bubble to the surface. That I will learn to grow around what I didn’t do, or what didn’t happen, of what wasn’t. I want to grow with tall branches toward the light of what did happen. Of what was.

The All-Stars

“Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice–perfecting their shooting, dribbling, and passing and running plays over and over again–and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court. . . . spontaneity isn’t random.”
― Malcolm Gladwell

Emma wanted to play basketball this year, but the team of third graders from her school was already full. Allison, the mom of Emma’s friend Lola, called me back in October.

“If we put together a basketball team, do you think Phil would want to coach?”

“Hmm…probably. Hang on, let me ask.” I pressed the phone into my shirt, and turned to Phil, who was separating the recycling.

“Would you want to coach Emma in basketball if Allison can get a team together?”

He took a break from crushing seltzer cans for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

And the All-Stars were born.

The team was comprised of thirteen girls, many of whom had never played basketball before. It’s possible some of them had never actually seen a basketball before. Phil came home from the first Sunday night practice gnawing on the back of his hand – his version of nail biting.

“How did it go? I asked as I served up pancakes dinner.

He cracked open an Amstel Light and took a long swallow. “I have my work cut out for me.”

That week, he spent hours printing out basketball drills. When he walked in the door from practice on Sunday night, I asked, “How did it go?”

Insert hand, begin gnawing. “Maybe they are not quite ready for drills yet.”

The All-Stars lost their first game. “Hey you win some, you lose some, right?” I said over hot dogs dinner. Emma glared. Phil gnawed.

Then they lost their second game. “Hey, you guys are new to this, you’re still meshing as team, you’ll get there!” I said over scrambled eggs dinner. Emma rolled her eyes. Phil gnawed.

They lost their third game. “Well, it’s official!” Emma announced when they walked in the door. “We stink.” She tried to toss her basketball shoes in the shoe basket but missed. She growled. Phil gnawed. I made cheese sandwiches dinner. Quietly.

But then something began to shift. Not the losing part- that remained consistent. It was the talking about the losing that went away. There was a shift in energy after Sunday night practices. We had lively conversations over hot dogs dinner about how they had improved that week. “No one even layed down on the court until the very end!” Emma reported with pride.

Phil ditched the drills and instead developed his own lessons based on what he was seeing in front of him. Each week they tackled a new skill:

  • How to Not Hide in the Corner
  • Shooting In Front of the Basket, Not Behind the Basket
  • Overcoming Your Fear of the Ball
  • Only Pass to Your Teammates
  • What Color Shirt Are You Wearing
  • Passing to People With the Same Color Shirt
  • How to Tie Your Shoe Mid-Game in Under Five Minutes

By their eighth loss, Phil had stopped gnawing on his hand, and Emma had become almost philosophical about the whole thing.

“You know Mom,” she said one day while eating her after school snack, “the other third grade team is undefeated. And we are like, totally defeated. But that team played together last year, so…it’s not a super fair comparison.”

I poured her a glass of milk. “Did Dad tell you that?”

“Uh-huh,” she said with a mouthful of Goldfish. She took a gulp of milk, then added, “Dad doesn’t talk much about winning. He just wants us to build our skills. He doesn’t care if we win, he just cares if we improve. Oh and I can’t call him Dad when we talk about basketball. It’s Coach Braun.”

I smiled. “Got it. Sounds like Coach Braun is pretty good at this.”

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and pulled her books out of her backpack. “Yeah. The best thing about him is that he never says stuff like: ‘it’s not about winning it’s just about having fun’ or whatever. Because duh. Winning is kind of the point. He says we will win when we are ready to win.”

“Hmmm. And do you think you are ready to win?”

She paused, pencil case in hand. “Maybe. I mean, Lola scored last week. And most of us know the names of the positions now: Guard, Point Guard, Wing, Down Low…so…maybe.” And with that, she started her homework.

Sunday was the last game of the season for the All-Stars. The game started at 2:00, and by then the wintry mix that had been falling all morning had turned to ice. But the game was still on, so we bundled up and headed over the to gym. The parking lot was a skating rink.

“Do you think people will show up?” I asked, shuffling my feet across the ice.

“Let’s hope so,” Phil said. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

At 2:00, the other team had twelve players, the All-Stars only had four. Allison and I huddled by the door. One more person, one more person, please please please….

“It’s Sabine!” Allison shouted. “Sabine is here!”

With a burst of icy air the gym door swung open and in stumbled Sabine and family, a bundle of wet boots and flying scarves. Game on.

The girls played with an intensity I had never seen. Even though the other team was wearing shirts of a similar hue, no one passed to an opposing player. They hadn’t quite mastered the shoe tying thing, so Phil called a time-out for lace management.

Emma scored for the first time. I cried. Lola scored. Allison and I held hands. I couldn’t believe these were the same girls. No one huddled in the corner. No one covered her face when the ball was passed. No one took a nap. They ran, they passed, they shot, they scored. The All-Stars had risen from the dead. It was a freaking Easter miracle.

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The final buzzer sounded like Handel’s Messiah. 9-0, All-Stars.

What happened next is fuzzy. There was a lot of jumping. And hugging. Then some jumping together while hugging. Videos were taken of the jumping and hugging. I’m not sure what the kids were doing.

Slowly we collected ourselves and skated our way through the parking lot, high-fiving our way to our respective vehicles. When we got in the car Emma said, “Hey do you think we made the other team feel bad for cheering so loud? I feel kind of bad about that.”

Oh shit, I thought. She’s totally right.

But Phil was on it. “No worries, Buddy. I explained to their coach it was our first win. He totally understood. Besides they beat us earlier in the season, so they know what it’s like to win.”

Emma sat back in her seat, relieved. “Yeah, now I know why people like to win. It feels really good to win.”

I looked over at my husband in his Betterball t-shirt, his hair covered with ice, eyes fixed on the road. I reached over, rested my hand on his leg and thought, I know exactly what she means. 

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Mork Calling Orson

In an attempt to pull myself out of my writing slump, I recently re-read Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. There is a chapter called “The Ordinary and Extraordinary,” and in it Goldberg describes a trip she took to the Hopi land in Arizona to see the snake dances.  The snake dance festival is a ritual for the Hopi, and Goldberg describes the event as extraordinary….miraculous, even.

As I am reading this I am thinking: Ok….so there is a serious lack of Hopi dances in the suburbs of Philly.  So what do I write about?  Phoebe’s Friday afternoon tap and ballet?

But then Goldberg writes:

It’s not that we need to go to the Hopi mesas to see greatness; we need to view what we already have in a different way. If we see their lives and festivals as fantastic and our lives as ordinary, we come to writing with a sense of poverty.  We must remember that everything is ordinary and extraordinary.  It is our minds that either open or close.

I read this over and over, because I loved the idea of it – that something in my life could be seen as miraculous or extraordinary.

But I struggled with really believing it.

The truth is, ever since Phoebe started kindergarten I’ve been feeling a little…lost. Irrelevant. The what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life kind of feeling. I tried to fight it by being proactive. I committed myself to writing more, and volunteered to be Phoebe’s class mom.

But while I think about writing constantly, the actual act of writing seems to get lost somewhere between grocery shopping, laundry and car-line.

And as for the class mom gig – well, I suck at it.  I can barely organize events for my own two kids, much less 13 of them. This week I sent out an email to the other parents about the Valentine’s Day Ice Cream Social, and it took me two days. I re-read it ten times: checking and re-checking the email addresses, adding and deleting exclamation points.  How many smiley faces is too many?  It’s kindergarten, there should be smiley faces, right?  I am still recovering from dropping all the orange juice in the parking lot the morning of the Boo Breakfast. Right before I slammed the trunk of the car on Emma’s head.

My daily life as something extraordinary? Uh…I don’t think so. Except on the days I change the sheets on the top bunk bed. Completing that task without self-injury is nothing short of miraculous.

The minutia of motherhood aside, my inner writer was committed to the task of finding the extraordinary in my seemingly mundane life. But I needed a different angle, another point of entry, a different perspective. I needed to put myself in the shoes of a distant observer. But how?

I brainstormed:

I could pretend to be a stranger from another country, sent to observe a typical day in the life of an American stay at home mom…or better yet…

I could pretend to be an alien from another planet, sent to Earth to observe the behavior of an average, run-of-the-mill Earthling.

That’s a great idea!

Wait a minute…

That’s Mork and Mindy.

So I did what any wannabe writer committed to the art of procrastination would do: I downloaded the entire first season of Mork and Mindy.

I watched Mork and Mindy as a little kid, but all I remembered from it was Nanu-Nanu, Mork’s awesome striped vest, and Jonathan Winters hatching from an egg.

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Mork was sent from the planet Ork to observe the emotional behavior of Earthlings. His mission was not to feel emotion, but observe emotion. But at the end of each episode, when Mork reports his weekly findings back to Orson (the leader of Ork), it becomes clear that Mork is not just watching life, he is living life. He becomes immersed in it. And he is super hot for Mindy.

Mork notices that Earthlings tend to immerse themselves in the business -and busyness- of life rather than life itself.  And what is life itself?

Virginia Woolf wrote about the  state of “non-being” that threatens to dominate our lives. We go through the motions of life, distracted, not fully present – embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.”

I spend a lot of time tangled up in the cotton wool. Why? Because so many things make me sad: dead leaves blowing in the wind, bare winter trees, most Johnny Cash songs, rain in January.  So I sit parked in car line glued to my phone rather than admire the statue of beautiful Mary standing outside my window, because Mary statues make me feel weepy (I’m not as loving as Mary! Mary would never drop the F-bomb in the Whole Foods Parking lot with Jesus in the car!). Also, I don’t want to be the Mom That Cries in Car Line.

But as Anne Lamott points out: “The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief (or sadness, or loneliness) will give you.”

Life is determined to rid me of my black and white thinking.

For the last week or so, I have tried to become a Mork in my own life: innocent, observant and open to simply noticing. Some findings:

IMG_6079Ducks like to ice skate on frozen ponds.

IMG_6075Emma holds Phoebe’s hand when she thinks I am not looking.

IMG_6115Bare trees make room for pink skies.

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Our shadow-selves have longer legs than Gisele Bundchen’s regular legs.

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Maybe I am not as irrelevant as I thought.

Some of these extraordinarily ordinary moments made me a little weepy, but feelings of melancholy were overshadowed by intense gratitude. For just being alive. Being alive is an extraordinary thing. Even when you are dropping orange juice and giving your kid a concussion before school. Even when you feel lost or stuck or like a general waste of space, it helps to stop and look around. Because the world is trying to show you that you are exactly where you need to be.

This is Jessie, signing off, until next week. Or maybe until after the Valentine’s Day Ice Cream Social. Nanu, Nanu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cleaning Your Psychic Grout

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I know I am about a year late to the party, but I recently figured out how to access Netflix on the smarter-than-me Smart TV and discovered Orange is the New Black. And I keep on discovering it. For hours. Hours and hours past my bedtime.

If you haven’t watched the show, it’s a prison-dramedy series on Netflix based loosely on a memoir of the same title. While the character of Piper Chapman is the protagonist of the story, it is truly an ensemble show. Each episode delves deeper into the lives of the other female inmates. Flashbacks reveal each character’s backstory and the reason for her incarceration.

The show takes the notion of what is good and bad and turns it on its ear. Every character is complicated and deeply flawed: a hero and a villain, a victim and a criminal, the wounder and the wounded. Every woman has a story, and that story is slowly revealed, scattered throughout the season like puzzle pieces. When I have enough pieces of a woman’s story together to give it some kind of comprehensive shape, she is no longer just an inmate, she is a woman who made a mistake.  A catastrophic mistake.

The show makes me think a lot about mistakes. Wrong turns.  Bad choices.  Hasty decisions.  Impulsivity.

When I was 17, I got a tattoo of a butterfly on my foot because I felt like it.  I didn’t plan it or design it.  It’s just what I decided to do that day. It’s a stupid tattoo.

Phoebe asks me over and over and over, “Mom, why did you get a butterfly on your foot that will never fly away?”

I’ll give her a few bullshit responses about  how I was “expressing myself,” but only one answer ends her interrogation:

“Because I was a knuckle head.” She nods and then walks away, satisfied.

A tattoo is a fairly harmless -albeit impulsive- mistake.  The only consequence (other than getting grounded for two weeks) is the annoyance of having to explain it and the endless quest for sandals that will conceal it.  No one died from hepatitis or contracted HIV from a dirty tattoo needle.  Mom.  Told you so.

But since becoming a mother, I am less forgiving of my mistakes. The stakes are higher, the pressure to do the right thing is more intense. In the past year alone I have made some questionable choices.  I want to put these decisions under a microscope, dissect them, pull them apart. Why? Because I don’t want a repeat performance.

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I want to put all my mistakes in a sand sieve, then sift through all the excuses and surface emotions until I find the fear. The fear that drives me to act, or more likely, react.  The fear that clouds my judgment and tells my brain to JUST MAKE A DECISION, YOU IDIOT before my heart has had a chance to weigh in.

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This lady lives in my head. And while this card makes me laugh, I know it’s not that simple.  Playing the stupid card is a cop-out – an excuse to not get to the fears and feelings behind the choices. Replaying the video tape of my mistakes is not a pretty process. It brings me face to face with the ugly parts of myself I would rather keep hidden.

One of my favorite characters on Orange is the New Black is Suzanne, aka. “Crazy Eyes.” Well, in Season 1, anyway.  She kind of goes off the rails in Season 2.

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In Season 1 there is a great bathroom scene between Piper and Crazy Eyes: Piper has been put on custodial duty as a punishment, but Suzanne is mopping the floor by choice. When Piper asks her why, she responds:

Sometimes the feelings inside me get messy like dirt. And I like to clean things. Pretend the dirt is the feelings. This floor is my mind. That is called coping.

My grandmother taught me that the only way to clean a bathroom floor was on your hands and knees.  You need to come face to face with the gunk in your grout and show it who’s boss. Chipping away to the core of your mistakes is like cleaning your psychic grout.  You get down on your hands and knees with a toothbrush and scrub away all that grime that has covered up who you really are and what you really want. Some of it is other people’s filth, some of it is your own.  But it’s your tile, baby.  Ain’t no body gonna clean it for you.  (That was my bad-ass prison voice).

This past year taught me how little I know about anything, including myself.  When I clean my psychic grout without judgement, I am consistently surprised by what I find underneath. When I examine a past mistake and discover the reason behind it, I get back a part of myself that I gave away.

I didn’t get a tattoo “because I felt like it.” I got a tattoo because back in the day -before I began to contort myself into a people-pleasing rule follower -I was a bit of a rebel.  Especially for someone in the marching band.  Maybe the butterfly on my foot symbolizes my (slightly trashy) attempt to spread my own wings.

We can’t run from our choices. But we can’t define ourselves by them either. We can build a prison with avoidance and excuses, but a lack or forgiveness does the same thing. There is power in owning and understanding our mistakes. Then, there is freedom and redemption in releasing them.  Unchaining ourselves from old stories we tell about ourselves, and cleaning the slate for a new story to be written.

 

 

 

Gather Ye Scrooges, Grinches and Fan-Pukers

I haven’t been here in a while. I have been experiencing some resistance to writing this blog, and I am not exactly sure why.

Well, that’s not totally true. Part of the reason is that I feel like a cranky elf who has been shot out of a Christmas cannon in the middle of Macy’s. The blinking lights, the aggressive shoppers, the store windows filled with freaky lounge-act puppets….

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My brain feels like the Spin Art toy I had as a kid – the one where the paper spins around while you squirt it with different paints to create a beautiful kaleidoscope of color. I was an overly-aggressive squirter and my spin art usually ended up looking like dog poo.

It just all feels too much this year.

I know, I know. Bah humbug, right? Believe me, that only thing worse than my Grinch-like attitude is the guilt I experience as a result. This Christmas season reminds me of a party my roommates and I had in college. We had a brand new apartment on west campus, and threw an awesome party in our shiny new place. Everyone was having a great time until one of the party-goers – let’s call him Mike because that’s his name – projectile puked into a standing, oscillating fan. He was a human puke sprinkler, showering the world with his bad choices.

This year, I feel like a Christmas Party Foul. I fan-puke on merriness and cheer.

I decided that If I couldn’t find my game face, maybe I should take myself out of the game. The first thing to go was the cards.  I couldn’t seem to find the energy for it. The cheerful slogans seemed to be mocking me.  But not doing a holiday card seemed so….scandalous.  I tested the idea out on my friend Kat:

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Great. It was decided. No cards.

But then I started thinking about it…what if the card boycott scarred my kids for life? What if this was their absolute favorite holiday tradition and I was fan-puking on it? By not doing a card, would they forever see me as the mother who simply could not “hold on to the magic,” or be “merry and bright?

Emma was helping me with the photo calendar we give my parents every year when I gently broached the topic with her.

“Hey Em, I am debating not doing a card this year.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know…we never got around to taking a picture.”

“Whatever Mom, it doesn’t need to be like a Vogue cover.”

“Yeah, I know…maybe…they are just kind of expensive. I thought maybe we could give the money to a good cause instead.”

She thought about this. “How about Max? We could donate to the hospital so the doctors might figure out how to make cancer medicines that only kill the bad cells and not the good ones.”

An old friend of mine has a 3 year old son with metastatic retinoblastoma. He has been at CHOP since September, and Emma I have been following their blog charting his progress and many challenges.

“Wow, Em. That is an amazing idea. That is exactly what we will do.”

“Ok, cool. Can I go play the IPad?”

“Sure, Buddy.”

I made the donation to neuro-oncology department at CHOP, and then finished up the calendar. But as I scrolled through the photos of my two healthy girls, I thought of 3 year old Mighty Max going through what no child should have to endure, and thought….

How can I not share these beautiful faces with the world?

So, I made a card.  And it felt good.

Sometimes I think our resistance to resistance is what really sinks the ship. We feel like we need to be or feel certain way, and then when we don’t, we wonder, what the hell is wrong with me? When the only thing wrong with you is thinking there is something wrong with you.

Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at. Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to. -Pema Chodron

I was at a yoga teacher training last Saturday, and I taught a 30 minute class for the other trainees. It was the first time I had taught in a while, and I was nervous about getting feedback. But the comments on my teaching style brought tears to my eyes:

“I felt like you were really present and yourself.”

“You are loving but not in a creepy way.”

“You are warm and welcoming.”

Huh. Who knew? Maybe I am not 100% Grinch, after all. Not the yoga percent, anyway. So that’s something.

The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves. Yes it’s never too late or too early to practice loving-kindness. -Pema Chodron

Maybe this Christmas season, the best gift we can give ourselves is a little compassion. Send the cards, don’t send the cards.  Bake the cookies, buy the cookies, eat the cookies, screw the cookies all together. What if you can’t go wrong?

What if anything you choose to do is the perfect choice?

What if we stopped labeling choices as good or bad?

What if all choices were just….choices?

What you choose might surprise you.

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