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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhythm Is a Dancer

Summer snuck up on me.

Maybe because last year in Massachusetts – after a winter of blizzard like conditions – the kids got out of school about 15 minutes before the 4th of July parade came rolling down the street.

But we ended this academic year in a Catholic school outside of Philly, and on June 2, it was all over. “That’s a wrap!”

Huh?  Already?

Transitions are not my thing.  This is because I tend to be rigid a creature of habit.  I enjoy spontaneity but only if it’s a little bit planned.  Spontaneity for the whimsically challenged.

Unfortunately, summer requires us to change our plans, to adapt them, to adjust to a different schedule.  This makes me incredibly anxious.  So I self-soothe by binge-planning; stuffing the calendar with random activities to overcompensate for my lack of an actual plan.

You know when you are at a wedding and the DJ blends one song into another, with no pause in between?

You are out on the dance floor.  You’ve just had half a vodka tonic and about 1.5 minutes into Billie Jean you start to feel like you are finding your groove, like your arms and legs actually CAN move simultaneously in a non-seizure like fashion.  You have found the rhythm.  Then, suddenly, Billie Jean morphs into Thriller.  Your little hip shimmy-jazz hands routine no longer fits the song.  You stand there, frozen. You have lost the rhythm. You completely blank on the Thriller zombie dance.  Where’s my vodka tonic?

My transition from school to summer was kind of like that.

Our first day of summer vacation was a disaster.  I started with the best of intentions, aka, a binge planning session.  I planned trip to a playground with a giant xylophone and self-cooling misty sprinklers built into the monkey bars.  I brought snacks, sunscreen, bug spray.  This lasted an hour at best.

“We’re hungry, we’re bored, we’re hot!”

On the car ride home I told them about my childhood summers of being dropped off at a dusty field where I was forced to play dodge ball for eight hours.  This fell on deaf ears because this parental strategy has failed for hundreds of years.

Craft projects made them frustrated.  Outdoor games made them hot.  “She’s touching me without touching me!  She’s making a vampire face! MOOMMMMMM!!!!”

After I caught Phoebe in the bathroom drawing a mural on her butt with a green Sharpie marker, I put on Peppa Pig, tapped my box of wine, and gave myself a time-out on the front porch.

It dawned on my that the kids were also struggling to find their rhythm; that they too were trying to find away to seamlessly transition from Billie Jean to Thriller.

Rhythm (rith-uhm) n.

1. Movement or variation characterized by the regular recurrence or alteration of different quantities or conditions.

Movement…alteration….different conditions.  All words that suggest ease and comfort with transition; an awareness to the ever-changing cadence of life, a tuning-in to the substrative hum of nature.  In the words of the German eurodance dance group Snap!:

Rhythm is a dancer; it’s a soul companion

You can feel it everywhere

Lift your hands and voices, free your mind and join us

You can feel it everywhere.

If Rhythm is a Dancer, then I am Elaine Benes.

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Sitting on the porch with my glass of Pinot Grigio, I listened to the sounds of summer: the whizz of kids flying by on bikes, the buzz of a fly circling my head, the swish of the leaves in an unexpected breeze.  Summer is the music.  But as a mother, I am the conductor.  It is my job to ease my kids into summer, to help them move from one song into another.

These things are easy to remember when I am sitting alone on the porch with a glass of wine. But I needed a mantra to ground me when someone Sharpies her butt.  And what words could be more poetic than those of hip-hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock:

Cause I’m cool, calm just like a breeze.

I repeated these words to myself on Sunday as we drove home from a Father’s Day celebration at a beer garden in Philly.

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We had a great time, but I could feel myself getting sleepy…lazy.  Phil said, “Let’s take the scenic route.”

I could feel my mind start to do it’s thing: We have no food.  We still need to get Emma a tennis racquet for camp.  Do the girls have clean underwear?  I started scrolling through my phone calendar, obsessing about dates in the distant future that had no relevance to the present moment. I could feel the thrashing suffocation in my body, like an elephant trying to take off a sweater. Then, I remembered:

Cause I’m cool, calm just like a breeze.

I looked up from my frantic phone-finger gymnastics and gazed out the window.  We were driving down a narrow road perpendicular to the Schuykill River.  People sat in lawn chairs around fire pits and barbecues, talking and laughing while kids played tag.  One man strummed a guitar.  Hanging from the trees were the biggest wind chimes I have ever seen.

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“Where are we?  Are we still in Philadelphia?”

Phil smiled.  “Yup.  Like I said, this is the scenic route.”

“MOM!” That lady is on a HORSE!”

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As we stopped to take this kind urban equestrian’s photo, I decided to leave the laundry and meal planning for…whenever.

To find my summer rhythm, I need to let go of the metronome; the steady tic-toc that sets the pace for the school year.  Summer is not the time for things to run like clockwork. Sure, we all need some structure to our day, especially kids.  But summer is the time for taking the long way home, for reading novels, for eating waffles and ice cream for dinner and playing board games on the front porch.

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Summer is about lemonade stands and lightening bugs and running through sprinklers.

IMG_2174This weekend marks the summer solstice, which means “sun standing still.”  I love this. Because in between the inevitable bouts of whining and fighting, I catch glimpses of my two little suns standing still – relaxed and present, moving to their own rhythm, basking in their own light.

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