Leaf

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It’s convenient to use a fall analogy since the weather is in the 40s and the trees are slowly thinning out. I thought we would see the bud of this season when we took a family trip to NYC in September, but the weather was like Georgia’s. What wasn’t the same, however, is how we felt together afterwards.

Deciding to take the kids to New York was the beginning of a shift.  A gem came at just the right time. I had a few rough patches with kids’ stages over the summer, and that feels farther away now. I feel connected to their growth again rather than enduring a change or stage. I can see now that the change was as gradual as our 1-hour train ride from Midtown to Coney Island, starting off in a windowless packed subway with everyone heading in different directions, to slowing down and seeing the sunlight stream in near the Island, people thinning out, women talking with their moms while tending to a stroller, and space literally widening up.

I feel more confident in us now that we’ve briskly walked 18-thousand steps a day together, shared Central Park on tandem bikes together, walked through memorials at night together, run into cabs together, watched a Broadway show together, and watched the sunset over the Statue of Liberty together. These large iconic pillars marked for us the possibility of experiencing new things, leaving us with an exhaustion at the end of the day was fulfilling to all. In contrast to a trip we took last year, this one felt like we could fly to France or anywhere right then and set roots. I’ve casually referred to the shift as the post-NY afterglow as it marked my hope in the future. I can’t help but connect New York’s archetypal, everlasting promise for newness with the sense of renewed family it gave me.

I was proud to discuss NYC with my Adventure Writing class. This unique group of 12 young women is a surprise. Every day when 35 students clear out of one class and 12 students fill up just 1/3 of the desks in my room, the air changes. It’s with this class I took a walking tour of the Atlanta BeltLine a few weeks ago and ended our trip with sampling food from around the world at Ponce City Market.  They chose this day trip to represent some of the units we’ve loosely covered in class—from nature and place, to the pursuit of happiness and journeys, to travel and culinary adventures. They were thrilled to be part of a vibe they consider or taste from time to time. Just seeing them ordering coffee in Inman Park or running through the skateboard park and graffiti walls was enough for me to remember that bursting, youthful desire to be part of the city’s current.

This class got to choose any book to read in our latest unit, and after searching the Internet and listening to each other they decided:  Eat Pray Love. How interesting it has been to hear them criticize Gilbert’s thinking. Some girls quickly decided they “just don’t like her.” It was a month journey to get them to figure out why. While one student criticized Gilbert’s lens, another student confessed that she recognized she, too, thinks like Gilbert, and this quality inherently annoyed her. I related my experience watching Girls. I would grind my teeth while watching that show, and I had to take a break from it; it depicted 20s in way-too-close filters. Awhile back I had to stand up to my criticism of myself and watch the final season, an intelligent definition of being a woman and growing up and away.

Then, when we watched the film Eat Pray Love, a very different experience than reading the book, they spent more time talking about annoying camera angles and its visual portrayal of a lackluster journey than about the protagonist. The film was released when these students were 8 or 9 years old, and since then, they have been inundated with wanderlust images, signs that say “Be Happy,” and stories of people leaving everything in search of something. This audience has already heard or seen about all that. What may have felt enjoyable to the 28-year old in 2010 was irritating to the 17-year olds in 2018. One student fixated on camera angles and abrupt transitions, something I was not expecting we’d end up talking about. But I realized, too, that we are currently in a visual-stimulation carnival, which will push us to seek newer ways to depict reality.

One reality that the educational world is facing is  fostering mental health and sense of well being. One of my best friends introduced me to Social, Emotional, and Ethical Learning (SEE) Curriculum, an educational project that The Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University is growing. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Emory University Presidential Distinguished Professor, says, With modern science’s focus on the material, little attention seems to be given to the workings of the mind. And yet, so many of the problems we face today arise because of our disturbing emotions. I believe by learning more about inner science and how to tackle our emotions, we can ensure that individuals, families, and all of humanity will be happier and more at peace.” I’ve been privileged to have the first two chapters of the new curricula, and I’ve been trying to implement mini-lessons in connection with state curriculum.

In an adapted lesson, I asked students to stand up to agree or sit down to disagree (or sit on the desk if neutral) to varying prompts like “everyone wants happiness” and “I know exactly what I need to do to make me happy,” for example. I was thrown back as a teacher at the kids’ wisdom and willingness to explore. No one stood up for these two prompts. Yet almost everyone stood up to this: “My wish for happiness motivates most of my actions.” When we debriefed, it was clear that while most of them don’t know what they need to make them happy, all of them agreed that happiness motivates them.

The biggest takeaway was the second day. After they checked in with their bodies through a series of prompts SEE provided, they wrote on a post-it note responses to these four prompts:

“When I was younger, I thought happiness was _______, but now I think happiness is____.”

“Sometimes, I ______ because I think i will make me happy. Instead, it makes me ____.”

“What truly makes me happy is ______.”

“Something I want to learn about happiness is ____.”

They stuck their notes on a quadrant on the board and walked around to read responses. Their notes were simple, direct, and honest. They reminded me of how much more in touch they are to their ideas than I was at their age. After reading the group’s ideas, they had a conversation. The debrief was the most curious; here is what they said:

“Things that make us happy are not things we experience here at school.”

“Most unhappiness is related to some type of consumption (too much food, alcohol, drugs, etc…)”

“Happiness is a contradiction, it’s simple and yet so hard to make sense of.”

“Happiness is a multifaceted idea.”

“Happiness comes from simple things.”

“Happiness is intangible.”

“There is no one definition of happiness.”

They seemed enlightened at their own ideas, and they quickly owned up to what this first draft of discovery felt like.

I did this activity alongside them, and perhaps it also connected why something like NYC was so important. My happiness is contingent upon my family’s state of being. As a mother, I think about this line I heard on NPR the other day: “A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child.” But beyond that, my exhilaration in life is contingent upon productivity, possibility, patterns, fresh experiences, and seeing how people express their lives.

And as I type these sentences, I want to add so much more about this term that we see often on coffee mugs and t-shirts; “happy,” a term that can have a stressful underbelly for some students who are trying really hard to just “be fine” for now. Yet, at the end of the day, our discussion illustrates our mythical pursuit of happiness, how critical we may be of people trying to find it, its complicated construction, and, at last, the achingly beautiful realizations derived from our common pursuit of it.

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The Brew

When you write in space like this, it’s easy to repeat memories. I thought of this one today, and it’s likely I’ve said it here before. I was thinking of when around 10 years ago my friend Susie told me I sounded like I was ready to have a kid. I hadn’t been talking about kids, just about general place in life.

I guess that settled stage of life I was chatting about happens to us from time to time about different things. It kind of feels like you’re waiting in a long line for something you decided you needed. Maybe you’re leaning your weight at the hip and scrolling through your phone, spacing out with one thought leading to the other.  Then you look up a minute later and have somewhat forgotten that you were waiting in line, and it’s time to move up. It takes a couple seconds to tune back in to the subtle sounds around you and the reason you’re waiting there. By now, a gap has formed between you and the rest of the line.

Been thinking about that gap, about dutifully waiting somewhere, getting comfortable with other pleasures to make the time pass fine, and then finding yourself wondering about that space–the gap–that has been made between you and the destination.  I’ve been aware of that gap and tuning in to figure out what to do about it.  The last few months have had this interesting study behind it all, and behind this study is a sweet comforting world, which always inspires–even in the thick of daily grind ups and downs–a rekindling for reading, writing, and new.

The English teacher in me sometimes feels on this blog (ugh, what a terrible word) like a writing adulteress–teaching drafting and writing with precision in an AP class only to default personally on the lighter way here because its easier, more creative, more immediate. So I asked myself these two questions this morning : what are you trying to say? how do you plan on saying it?

But in a writing space like this, the answer tends to be murky: the space is a mixture of what my former student coined in her own writing once, a diary entry, a letter, and an essay.  I concede, and therefore, if the top of this little expression was some mental context, here is one for the diary-letter-essay meat of the post.

Dear Diary-Letter-Essay,

I’ve recently watched the intelligent, emotive film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name twice in whole and a few other times in sought-after gulps, then read his  novel once and then back at it again and again in sought-after gulps (you know when you’re searching for the feeling an author got just right and want to connect with again), and it has made me close my eyes and think back and back and back. That thinking makes me wonder about memories, and it challenges how much I can think back on details if I concentrate really hard.

I’ve been closing my eyes each night and welcoming a new memory, whichever one I can zoom in on. The look of remembering recently has two faces: I have to tilt my head and notice my ear (the way one looks when he hears something in the other room and can’t figure out what it is). Or I whisper inside to the memories excitedly, “go ahead and appear, honey; I’m ready” right before I close my eyes at night.

I thought about balmy days in Toronto and the scent of vanilla candles; I’ve thought about the way the stairs felt on the walk up to Kal’s old apartment and the chipped paint around the doorway; I thought about the quiet sound and cool air in the town home before anyone spent free time on phones. I called up the sound of stroller wheels on asphalt when everyone else was at work and felt my green terrycloth jacket on my skin. Stuff like that.

In this brew of tuning in to the gap and finding my safe haven, I’ve connected to a literary bubble I’ve crafted up. Between my writer-admiration crush on Andre Aciman, whose articles (try this or this or any) are thought-provoking, the vivid cinema of Luca Guadagnino’s Italy, teaching Adventure Writing, and coming up on my one year anniversary of looking up at the enormous Chilean sky, I am in a beautiful mental state, ripe for literary bad behavior.

Just because I write here and there doesn’t qualify me as a writer, yet Amy Tan’s line caught me a few days ago: “It’s a luxury being a writer because all you ever think about is life.” I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about life, coming up with mental one-liners about some notion of experience. The lazier approach to writing (or pre-writing), really, is to drench myself in others’ writing, and an even lazier approach to writing is to listen to their writing.

I’ve been listening to The New Yorker Podcast series where writers and artists read from The New Yorker archives. In around 40 minutes, you get to hear brilliant writing and forget you’re driving at all. Tessa Hadley’s reading and discussion of John Updike’s 1996 “The New York Girl” took me on a few rides, raising my craving to be a student in a graduate classroom again, reading and listening, thinking so hard about sentences that I’d give myself a headache well worth the Advil. There is a line I will remember in “The New York Girl” where Updike writes: “Early thirties is a time for fresh calculations.” Yes, yes, that’s right for me. That line confirms for me that writers sneak in their wisdoms any chance they can get.

We have our dreamy literary lands, and then maybe there can be parts of real world that match up, meeting each other like frayed strands at the edge of a sweater. I had to make a choice about something I’ve wanted a long time and an experience, an idea that came up in marital conversation. At the time, I was in the middle of the travel portion of our unit, mixed deep with Anthony Bourdain, Japan, and the spirit of adventure.

I thought about it for a few days, and I kept seeing this image of the kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. So the choice became taking the kids to New York. I could see their world becoming part of my world up there, an exciting notion of being able to experience something together that was once carved in my memory as a single woman, etched as a newlywed, repurposed as a student, but not experienced with a family.

I’m looking at the “the gap” like a woman in a rocking chair, and I’m enjoying feeling like a student twice a day on my ride to work. I’m eternally crushing on wordsmiths and stories that extract uncanny patience out of writers and create worlds where we can park and view and test our own senses. My world seems a little brighter with NYC on the horizon, and hasn’t that always been the case? Its promise for everlasting experience, a new book tucked away for the journey, and some hope or newness to reflect on; isn’t that the brew that should always tempt and color a September?

Endurance

I reached to the back of the medicine cabinet tonight to grab my ziplock bag of really old, really stale Virginia Slims and my funky Bic lighter. I haven’t allowed myself to have a casual light for awhile. The once-a-blue-moon act doesn’t really pair well with morning exercise, so my rebellious refuge hasn’t worked with my staunch commitment. Seems pretty metaphorical, leaving a borrowed itch by itself while I work on something else. But despite a positive day as teacher, the challenging night as a mother needed an innocuous antidote.

A couple years ago, I wrote a story I was really proud of. I told myself I’d work and work and turn this story into a novel. The writing had moments of glory, some sentences actually saying what they meant, but in retrospect, the piece needs a lot of work. The story centers around two characters who are dear to my heart, Ellie and Paul. In the years I’ve been removed from the piece, when I try to think about it again, I see Ellie casually walking around her house, one that befriended her intimately; she saunters from inside the home to outside the home, sometimes sitting on the porch and looking out while she smokes, sometimes packing or unpacking the stuff in the kitchen. I feel Ellie is casually stuck there, just waiting on me to write her out of it.

Tonight, I sat on my porch and watched the cursive smoke and had this funny, clearly obvious thought: I, too, live in this house that saved me, sit here on this porch and look up. My view is shorter and green; hers is expansive and blue, but I laughed to myself at how this character I made up, like me, is still figuring shit out.

I was only able to understand my best friend’s love of this callous habit because I understood what it gave her: smoking demands quiet, providing a solitary act of thinking, as if the smoke builds a wall around you and gives you this selfish space to just think in solitude for a a few minutes.  It’s not for nothing that I am like a teenager with this motif in stories.

After putting the kids to bed, I had some space to myself to think. I think I’ve been in a parenting slump lately. My son is in a mom-heartbreaking phase that makes me feel far from him, and my daughter has entered a new one that makes me want to hold her close. To equalize each day to ensure some sanity and safety, I’ve carved even more inside me and been left many evenings with this empty pit in my throat. Some summer days chipped hard at my patience. And yet there were warm pool days, a beach vacation, fishing, and ziplining. Each night I go to bed hoping tomorrow I’ll be better equipped to handle the minute, the fickle, and the aggressive, and a few hours after the sun rises, it’s a challenge again. But meals happen, playdates ensue, clothes getting washed and folded, little love notes slipping into new lunch boxes, new school clothes being bought with care.

I heard on a show recently that our heart, despite what we think it can handle, continuously expands for the people we love. I believe that in the same way that I know I have two legs and two arms, a natural truth despite its fragility. What scares me recently, though, is the long haul. I’ve said here before that in your 30s, your life isn’t celebrated in 4-year increments–high school, college, masters, engagement, marriage, baby, and baby, etc. Most women in my age bracket with kids around my kids’ age, if they are willing to say it out loud, can find themselves–on really tired days–asking themselves the following: how do I do this for the long haul? Of course I recognize the pattern that once this stage is gone, you miss it, coloring it with some regret and a pushing it a shade or two more inside the lines. Maybe the challenge is how to both sustain yourself and raise good kids. A friend and veteran parent said it easy and true:  it’s hard to raise good kids. But some days it’s a challenging blessing to look up at the work that is just beginning.

At my gym, trainers have what they call endurance days. Those are the days you may find yourself on the treadmill for 23 minutes going up and down, slow and fast, up and down, but you can’t stop running no matter what. Like exercise, I think parenting endurance is being either built or tested like a muscle ripping and repairing, ripping and repairing.

I’ve been in an honest slump, too. I posted on Instagram one day about how I bought myself roses. I made a light comment about how I deserved them for staying calm after my headstrong son threw stuff at me while I was driving. It’s not like me to post something bad about my kids for many reasons, but it was true–those flowers were gorgeous and well-deserved. That truth caused some controversy with my family, my parents not liking my expression, my open-minded brother expressing over brunch that he didn’t really like it and that it was outside my norm. In truth, I had felt guilty after posting it, even reading the supportive comments with more care than usual just to see if I overstepped. But when we talked, I saw something else grow harder inside: the part whose sweat on endurance parenting has left little room for a truth that isn’t mine. I recognized that defensive feeling creep up fast. What good does it do to even myself if I only post pics of manicured me and not “I survived today” moments?

I walked around the store a few days ago without my kids, a rare summer moment. Moms warding off kids’ questions in a late-July haze, staring  forward, probably trying desperately to remember why they were there in the first place, while pushing the cart, kids’ fingers dragging them along. One exasperated mom telling her kid, “We are leaving right now if you ask me that question again!” I see texts of my working-mom friends who are battling, too; divided in desire and ability.

Tomorrow morning my growing kids will step on the bus and start new school years. The summer went fast, so a few days ago, I started a list of things we did this summer because I know we did good things with good humans even through my parenting slump. When I look at the list in the light of a few red embers, I see two truths, one unrelated and one related: 1) money has less effect on my long-term happiness than I thought it could; 2) how much we do, and how much I give out as a parent will be taken as a reel, not so much a picture with its rectangular, finite edges. It will pull, and pull, and it will create something whose editors, my children, will have full authority (and hopefully grace) as they cut the footage together.

For any of you out there in a version of this place, I hope the slump fades gently as new routines start back up. I think I’ll cling on to the honesty despite the challenges, getting stronger in mind and body, and maybe I’ll even get to the day where I can write my Ellie off that porch.

Sitting on the plane after landing. Unedited. A cut and paste note to myself.

It’s almost immediate. I’m on the plane to Ohio, and I’m reading Mary Oliver’s Felicity. I want to have all her words and let them spread over me. Or gulp them. Anything. I’m smiling at the poems. Clever, true, open. Unpretentious. Natural and wistful. Whimsical. Nostalgic. Yellow.

I can’t remember which teacher long ago said you always have to read a poem twice, that rule I say to my students as casually as, “the sink is over there.” The person viewing casually over my shoulder is probably wondering what’s taking so long to read a few lines.

I want to take three of her books and spread a blanket on the ground under our oak trees at home. I want to call Layla out to me so we can read poems together. She would love that. Why don’t we do that? Why let the baggage I’ve packed weigh down so heavily that we can’t travel anywhere? Time is running out; she won’t way to lay there with me for another 15 years, and by then she’ll have to schedule me in.

Samira, please remember to take an hour to do this. The house is a vacuum. This imagination is not. Do more of the latter than the former. Making a home is more about the mess, about the grass blades decorating kitchen floor when you come in, not the grass blades you have to wipe up later.

Samira, wake up. Be inside it more. Carve deeper; go past what needs doing and do what you actually want to feel.

I’m in your rip current, Mary. Can you tell?

Breaking the dam

This post doesn’t capture all of my June, but it is the June in which we lost a really interesting human being. There is half of a warm summer that I’ve experienced with family and friends. I’ve been quiet online. My last Instagram post was mid may. My last post here was around the same time. Days have been full, and I’ve had lots to say involving other more positive inspirations, but writing it all down was only ever on the horizon, somehow out of reach in the 9 pm setting sun.  I had to break the dam with this post.

I wanted to title this post Anthony Bourdain.

On the day he died, I squinted up at my phone in the blazing heat and impulsively ordered three of his books. I knew I was overpaying for them since I was not alone in my impulse. Two of the books were already sold out and would take some time getting to me. I didn’t care. I’d never read his books anyway, so how could I complain about that.  Amidst sounds of kids splashing in the outdoor pool, I reacted to news of his suicide by buying his stories.

I google his name daily to see what else is out there. I know that sounds crazy.  If you haven’t  seen Anderson Cooper’s tribute to Bourdain, you should see it; it says what needs saying about Bourdain’s personality. One of my favorite parts is when Bourdain says rather simply that he won’t miss that magic that comes from eating a meal even though he knows he may be sick from what he’s eating. “What’s the worse that can happen? A course of antibiotics? What do you get in return? I think a lot.”

The thing is, I’m just one of many who thought him to be a gifted and fair storyteller. I’m not special in finding his voice or eyes or abandon or appreciation attractive. I hardly knew I liked him as much as I’ve considered lately. Like you, I thought of inviting him over to our home for dinner and how that would be. Until recently I really didn’t know anything of his past except for his allusions to it in a Part’s Unknown trip to Morocco, let’s say, or in some dusty closet when a celebrity’s name comes up. In fact, when some pedestrian culinary conversation would sprout, I’d add excitedly that I love his shows, or I love when he visited Iran, etc… I even spent some of a year saying, “Anthony took me to (insert country) last night” or “I went to (insert city) yesterday for free” after travel-lusting via Netflix each night.

And yet I have carried Kitchen Confidential in my bag every day since it came in the mail a week after his death. Like so many books I stroll with, I didn’t underline a single worthy sentence–not even ones that made me laugh out of context, not even the ones that instantly made me walk into a culture and a time about which I had no idea. The only evidence I have of my engagement is the curled up cover, random Safari pages of names he drops that I’ve googled, and the glance of the mechanic.

If I’ve learned anything from my recent reading, it’s that wrestling with the burden of telling your truth is heavy. Writers use figurative language and their sensibility to artfully present a truth, and the artful part can be a crafty achievement when you are protecting parts of the truth. In  Kitchen Confidential, he calls out names, restaurants, people, and details candidly. I don’t know if I could ever tell a story this way. His abandon is my opposite yet totally enthralling.

What is empowering, however, is the permission he grants himself in the later publication of the same title.  For example, Kitchen Confidential was published  in 2000. In the updated 2007 version, his first line in the Preface is, “Things are different now.” In the Afterword, the first line is, “Times have changed since much of the action described in this book took place.” He acknowledges changes without really apologizing for them. I think as humans we can all take a lesson in that: what people may say about us or how we may feel about people will likely change. To remain the same or to feel we’re at the apex of thought is already downhill.

Reading his work pulls my face to the real burden the introverted, principle-lined, talented, and often tortured human’s face (the very torture that perhaps makes them endearingly empathetic). Andrew Zimmerman, who is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, got me thinking in his recent interview after his friend’s death.

Teaching high school has meant the last few years has seen too many mental health issues, too many heartbreaking suicides. I think I bottled all that up until hearing about his, this man who never knew me. What I struggle with the most is feeling that if he got to the other end of the moment where he gave up, he would regret it. This man who said almost 18 years ago that the world of the kitchen made the most sense to him; being in the real world was the hardest. That type of desperation haunts me, looping in my mind. Maybe what pulls at my heart so much is that I know with certainty that nothing is more seductive than learning something new from someone in conversation. He brought that to us, and I’m moved by his talent and our loss.

Most of Kitchen Confidential shares his experience of how a successful kitchen should be run, but near the end of the book, he recounts an example that defies his earlier claims. He admits it. Clearly. That is the meat of what I love about that book: his words are human, and even in our very distant worlds, he offers truths that help the way I see.

This wasn’t meant to be an unnecessary book review. While I don’t write about current events, I guess this just made its way here. I didn’t feel I could write about a recent hike or about house epiphanies until this made its way out.  I’m equally perplexed by how much his story has been on my mind. In grad school, I wrote a 20-page paper once about an Egyptian author who committed suicide after writing his first novel. Maybe I grapple with what else these artists had to give or what they endured that made their stories distinctive. I suppose this post is my memory of how I’m thinking about this storyteller, and about how I was taken by surprise, not at my admiration of him or my interest in his works, but by my reaction to his story.

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If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.

 

On memories

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Julian Barnes writes a book with an alluring cover—gray backdrop, wooden table, and an egg sitting in the middle. This is the edition of the The Sense of an Ending that I was most attracted to. It took longer to wait for the book to arrive in the mail than to read it, still stretching it out as much as possible so I didn’t gobble it up in one bite. Nuances of life and how they’re planted into our mind from the author is my audible reading exhale. Outside of his elegant farming, Barnes’ story is life’s commentary with a clever delivery, reframing the way we look at our own life history. Like every great novel, it makes us think of how we make decisions. He exposes how we remember things, the associations that filter and create the images we use to validate or explain our present.

If I could paint an image of what memory feels like to me, it would be of a man walking upward as if climbing stairs, and underneath his feet there are blurry, colorful chunks eroding into a midnight backdrop. Friends and family harbor some of those chunks for you, but mostly we’re at the mercy of what we remember and what surfaces when we need it. Above all of that is the present us that reads the past us. Ten years ago, I asked my mother in law what she would have loved to do if it was possible for her, and she said she would have loved to sing. I asked her the same question a few weeks ago, and she said she would have loved to study the culinary arts. Maybe it was the mood surrounding the question at different times, maybe it was her life events that changed her dreamy answers. But what I know for sure is the power of a question and the gravity of our experiences that help create the answer.

I was the first of my friends to start a family. I don’t remember clear ways in which I expressed those first years of motherhood. I don’t think I would have even called it that then. When my friends called me or visited me, I was too young to know how I wanted to present myself as a mom. I hadn’t even put those words in my mind not to mention the next big question: what kind of mom do you want to be? Thinking of asking that question didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t on social media then, so there wasn’t this extra effort of “this is the kind of mother I’m being” to be showcased. I probably went through it like I do most of everything else: do my best for the responsibilities of the occasion and then wonder how I feel about all of it later. I look back at old photos and get a sense of the weight of the years as we figured out our life in a bad economy; I see a young woman who took care of her kids with whatever natural instinct she had. I guess I let the experiences guide the way.

My best friend is 35 and expecting her first baby. She has heard me talk about my life consistently since I can remember. This includes any unfiltered detail over the years about having kids and husband. No one else around me was pregnant or even trying to be, and so I must have enjoyed talking openly. In what feels like beautiful contrast, she is having a mindful pregnancy; she has reflected a lot about what kind of parent she wants to be. She’s had friends all around her who have strewn their stories over her like a night’s sky while she helped them connect the lines. She’s facing her new life with intention. I know life isn’t as easy as that, but I also love that she has this creative template as a foundation. Whereas I just wanted to manage it all and do whatever Layla needed in those early years, I feel she has this adult vantage point that has its own weight of gold.

In thinking of memories, though, I am so curious which of my own memories bust out as she vents to me in a few months. I imagine that all the beauty she sees may add filter to my own pictures; I imagine how her experiences will shape how I feel about the kind of mother I am when I see—beyond where she can see in her own life—what kind of mother she evolves into.  And I wonder how my answers to any of her questions will make me pause, think, and maybe even change based on the couch I’m sitting on, the mood I’m in.

My sister in law just had a baby. When they came to visit us, I saw the baby bottles. I saw her doing things I used to do and doing things I never did. I enjoyed watching her and remembering how the days of a 2-month old are in 2-hour rotations. I see that rinse and repeat as a blessing now. A new parent needs some predictability, and there you have it with feed, burp, cuddle, nap, and change.  Now, my circumstances are no longer there; it’s somewhere between soccer practice and making intentional nudges. But on this Mother’s Day, I want to reap this fruit: my experience is making me stronger. 

In I’ve Been Thinking, Maria Shriver says

“I’ve come to realize that we all mother in our own way, and I’ve come to trust myself in this job.”

Maybe that’s the best thing to frame my last 8 years and hopefully the next 8 or the next 80 to come.  If I gather the net of my experiences and the ways in which my kids have repurposed and reminagined my life, I can see that I’ve come to believe in myself as their mother. And when the time comes when play areas turn into middle school plays which turn into high school games and then into college graduations, maybe I’ll recall her lines here, too:

“I have faith. Faith in myself and in my kids. I know this new era of my life is going to be more unscripted and more wide open. That’s both scary and exhilarating. The days will no longer revolve around school schedules. The days will become mine to imagine, mine to create.”

That sentiment of a very different stage in life does two things to me:  it gives me immense gratitude that my children still make me paintings and want me near them all the time; that they are so not there yet. Also, though, it gives me perspective to see that motherhood has its stages. We have our growing pains as we take in their lives inside us and expand and “flow down in always widening rings of being” (Rumi).

I didn’t intend to end that thought with his words, but he said it best. And shouldn’t we always remember that we’re all in widening rings of being?

My kids just burst out of my bedroom for the countless time with loud grievances, one accusing the other and then overlapping in vehement self defense. I put my hands in the air and said, I know what needs to happen now. I smiled with my hands still up in the air. They paused and waited for me to get upset at the umpteenth interruption. Instead, I gave up and said, “Go outside and turn the sprinkler on and go run around. You don’t even have to change your clothes.” They looked at each other, started laughing, and ran together out of the front door.

Didn’t know those were going to be the words coming out of my mouth then either. But shouldn’t we be certain that we’re capable of more than we thought?

 

_______________

Happy Mother’s Day to every human who has helped a child or a mother make memories that are worth remembering.

Unplanish

IMG_2067Thursday I came home from work thinking the night was going to look a certain way. I took off my work shoes that got gradually uncomfortable by the day’s end. I settled on a cotton camisole and ditched the work blouse. The weather was breezy and inspiring, reminding me of the quiet gardens I’d visited last week. I even started writing and continued to write while sitting on the bleachers at Layla’s soccer practice.  Even though I scrapped the writing without feeling much attachment, I was pleased with myself for making use of the time.

Productivity despite the angst of fat that elongates its side satisfies me. If I’m given a blank slate of time, I want to do most items on my list before I treat myself with 1/8 left on that slate. Maybe its because I suspect what I do in that time will sprinkle over the week and maybe make it smoother.  Pretty sure there is a tiny, overworked secretary in my head punch-typing and prioritizing a list of things. Time management is perplexing, isn’t it? Just the two words next to each other are funny. Managing your time indicates that you’re the boss. When the bird of this thought–“hey, you’re kind of the boss of this sometimes”–catches my eye, I feel a little free.

What I’m noticing though is that the larger your family, the more initiatives you have; the more I suspect my family needs, the more I want to push to make it happen. The more I set goals for my creative temperament, the more I have to push to make it happen. For example, that I didn’t say no to taking the kids roller skating on Saturday when I should have been working on writing the rest of the online course was totally in my control. That I write this now instead of resting in the bed and watching this guilty pleasure is a decision I’m making. Maybe its because satisfying an initiative, it is worth it to me.

Knowing that I’m the one making these choices puts me back in the boss’ seat.

My friend Katie recommended two movies lately. I watched them both in a cramped up week that should have been restful but had a different purpose.  One is about a couple traveling a continent on a renovated school bus. Their youth and simple plot line is worth the scenery and the acknowledgment that another way exists. In the spirit of self-knowledge, she also highly recommended  InnSaei: The Power of Intuition, and it quickly became a conversation piece among some friends.

Much of the argument–“of connecting within in today’s world of distraction and stress”–is like a warm mug of yoga, Mary Oliver, and this Ted Talk by Benjamin Grant about the brain effects of seeing Earth from space.

Our busy lives are making it harder to get out there and sharpen or revive whats inside. I feel we’re fighting for it back, but sometimes it seems we’re standing on thick ice as it cracks, severing us away from what it once was.

One speaker in the documentary says with confidence the following:

“The noise of the external world is muting the sound of the internal world.”

I think just as the noise of the external world messes with our intuition, the schedule that feeds the noise messes with something important that Alicia Keys summed up today in a post: “Destroy the idea that you have to be constantly working or grinding to be successful. Embrace the concept that rest, recovery, and reflection are essential parts of the progress towards a successful and ultimately happy life.”

Bless long summers for they should be mandatory for all, and I’m so thankful my profession respects this. My friend was just joking with me on Saturday. She said lovingly, “Try not to do too much shit today.” She challenged me to a weekend where the only plan is an unplan. Last year I blocked off Wednesday evenings just for family, and it was a successful step that evolved healthily. It’s now from a steady, equanimous place on the heels of a beautifully incongruent weekend of hot sun and cold rain where I’m intrigued by her challenge: I blocked out a weekend in May (okay, that wasn’t easy) to challenge myself to say absolutely no to the external and heck yes to the internal.

I’ll leave the parameters undefined and lazy– just as it should be.

Want to take an unplan challenge?

 

Sunshine Blogger

Sunshine Blogger Award

Last night I went to bed really excited that my friend Katie nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger recognition! I love reading her blog Mama the Reader, and I’m so appreciative of her kind words. According to super-inspirational Katie, who was the first person I knew who created and maintained a blog (now 8 years!), here are the rules:

“choose a fellow blogger who inspires positivity and creativity in the online community. Then send them some questions and be sure to answer the ones sent to you. It’s a fun way to honor a fellow writer and to introduce readers to new spaces.” 

Here were Katie’s questions to me. Answering these was wonderfully reflective.

  • Why did you start blogging?

I didn’t realize how badly I needed to write until I became a 30-year old juggler—not just the normal life stuff. I was juggling the weight of a rip current I needed to reach for with all the things preventing me from it.  I knew there were all these kernels just dropping into my life, and I felt this innate pull to make something out of them. Also, I was truly shocked at how fast I was forgetting what happened a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. My best friend does what she does best and made me feel I could actually do it. Also, I knew if there was this imagined audience who held me accountable, I wouldn’t make too many more excuses. I sat with my laptop on a round glass dining room table and typed until the words Memory Box Mom seemed close enough to what I wanted to do.

  •         Why do you keep doing it? Why you keep coming back to it with so many other social media forms?

One of the first things I wrote on the blog was a reference to my birth experience with Layla. I admitted I wrote my experience without any creative merits in mind. I just had to confess that just 9 months of being a mom shook my life up in all kinds of ways. My favorite admission on that post was when I wrote casually, “I’m starting to understand now.” Having a place where I can hold myself accountable to that very idea is precisely why I keep coming back here. Well, that and the truly kind friends and followers who take the time to say something nice about something I’ve written that they’ve liked (what better encouragement is out there?). I want to continue this idea of “starting to understand.” This space is a curled index finger bending like a drifting underwater creature making me stop and watch.  It makes me write notes in my phone. It makes me sit on the blue chair in my office and turn on my computer.

Facebook is around long enough now that my students feel like it’s an outdated source. They call it the social media for moms. My friends (Katie, you remember this, right?) created an account for me once maybe 10 years ago, and I closed it a few weeks later. So I’ve really never been on Facebook, which is still the king of social media despite it being middle aged. I come back to my blog because it’s oddly a private space. It yield just enough support to encourage me, and it yields just enough control to keep my hands near the heat.

  •         How has blogging changed for you since you began? Has your site somehow taken a different shape than you expected?

Getting this recognition made my reader stats jump for a minute. Always exciting! Every time that happens, I feel two-fold. I want to jump up, and then I want to sort of hide under the table. And usually after that happens, I poke my head up and visit my site and read it with someone else’s perspective. I try to be merciful on myself when I have to fix a grammatical error and republish, or when I desperately want to clarify something. In fact, this post didn’t go through well the first time, I’ve spent some time holding my breath and fixing it up.

These questions had me thinking. I went my “This Mom” description and changed it a little to be more truthful. The writing–along with the writer–has changed. Reflecting on point A helps me with point D. That’s how blogging has changed for me and how the site has taken a different shape: My experiences are changing, and so am I.  Sometimes I just want to change the name of the site to Woman in her 30s or something like that!

Blogging also makes me want to change the word blogging. I still have associations with blogging that are commercial. Here’s what cream I use; buy it. Here’s what I do for my kids that you should, too; buy it. I know something more than you do; read it. Writers want to be read. Essays are the perhaps the product we are offering, but these essays we share with the public are birthed with slow-grown wisdom and are presented with some fragility–like a two palms carrying a bird’s nest, and that makes it impossible to associate it with the other type of blogging. The theatre is the same, but the play is different.

  •         Do you envision a certain audience when you write?

I hope that readers feel like we’re sitting on a soft couch drinking Persian tea in a mug with some quote like “trust thyself” or with some tribal Anthropologie swirl. Maybe when we walked into the cozy room with a tall willowy window, we took our boots off and we’ve revealed that our socks are mismatched. Maybe you’ve got a bare foot propped up under you, and we’re talking about your marriage. Either way, we’re reaching for the sugar cubes and laughing at ourselves with love in our hearts. This image of camaraderie is what precedes any other space for me.

  •         Do you have a favorite post of yours?

Gosh, this is hard. I asked for help on this one (thanks again, Andrea). I started this blog in March 2014, so Memory Lane is close to my heart.  I got some thicker skin and remember it was important to me to be as real as I could in the stressful making-life-work-moment with family photos. Last year’s Unrounded thoughts on the way things line up is moving closer to this woman in her 30s sweater I’ve grown into. The magic of an impractical adventure will always be up there in Chile I and Chile II. And I guess that brings me back to my current headspace. I also love anything to do with my cousin Parissa.

  •         What’s your best writing advice?

I have a beautiful wedding video that I cringe to watch sometimes. I see my 23-year old self posing for the video in some shots. I see myself knowing that the camera is on me, and I’m giving it what it wants. As cliché as this may sound since the word journey is used all the time, but the journey that writing has taken me on is the process: to reflect on when I was posing and to emerge first with the truth as much as I can. Writing preserves. Your fiction and non-fiction all carry your DNA and your observations. The way the light reflects in your living room and the way the stranger crunches on peanuts are equal sources of inspiration.

Write those observations down. When you’ve noticed something you know is something (the kernel?) but don’t know what yet, just write it down. It doesn’t have to be on an expensive leather journal. It can be something you buy from the check-out line at Tj Maxx. It’s that for me sometimes, but it’s mostly on the notepad on my phone.  Joan Didion writes her late husband told her “the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write.”

A former student asked me recently about writing. She was interested in “how cathartic it must be to write.” My response was surprisingly pessimistic. I remember fantasizing about writing and thinking about how it feels. I told her, though, that the product of writing is usually worth the strain. Finding the time to write and fending off what Pastiloff calls your “inner asshole” are challenging. Blog writing (really, any writing) helps with those two things. The factors that prevented me from starting one earlier—what about privacy? who is even going to read it? there are so many other bloggers already; and how can I keep up with one in this busy life?—became the very reasons to start blogging. I began blogging so I wouldn’t forget memories I find significant. My purpose is somewhat the same now, but what blogging has done for me is that it’s allowed me to see how much I’ve changed. That’s not an easy process.

My best writing advice is to be okay with change. Find your solace with your own little audience. You’ll find your message while eking out the words, and that’s—for me, anyway—the cathartic part. Don’t not write.

  •         Describe your ideal day? Is writing part of the equation?

Thinking about this question had me going up and down for things that usually make me feel productive and peaceful in a day. I can’t say my ideal day is my most exciting day. If I piecemeal versions of a long summer day and a Sunday together, this is my ideal day:

It’s warm outside, and I’ve done something outside for my body because of it. The beds are made and the house is clean. The 7:30 pm amber light is coming through. I’m looking at the artwork the kids made after we bought supplies together to mark their vision. I look outside and see a small mess from where they made something out of mud and where I didn’t say no but said yes instead. I have quiet space to think about something, and then I write down this line that I’ve read that doesn’t really have to do with anything, but I know it’s going to apply somewhere. Allende says “Curry was invented in India, not Norway. It was in pursuit of spices that pirates, adventurers, traders, and conquistadors traveled to the East…” The mystery and effects of spices, their “secret properties” are similar to…. I trail off. I’m okay with that for now. An hour later, the kids are in bed and Kal is reading fiction (okay, this is getting fantasy now) in an actual book with paper. My friend calls and says, I’m picking you up in five minutes. I don’t ask where or how. I pull my hair back and slide on flip flops. I return home with an invigorated heart, and I love things a little deeper. I call Andrea and tell her all about it. She tells me to write it down, and I do. No one asks for a single thing more than my presence.

So my ideal day has clean floors, productivity, gratified children, some writing thoughts, a little spontaneity, then a little solitude.

____________

I nominate Azita Houshiar because she is an accessible, humble, and influential media presence who shifts minds gently using food as unifying ingredient. Also, I nominate Danielle because she’s a young and interesting person who is recently finding her blog voice. She brought sunshine into my world through her leap of faith in herself recently, and I think these questions can help her as she figures out her blogging world.

If you’re interested, ladies, here are some questions for you:

  1. Why did you start blogging?
  2. What inspires you to come back to the screen?
  3. How has your writing changed you?
  4. How do you think it affects other people?
  5. What advice would you give to yourself?
  6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a writing project or blog?
  7. Do you envision a certain audience when you write?
  8. Do you have a favorite post of yours?
  9. Describe your ideal day.
  10. What parts of your life or your interests do you hope you may explore through writing one day?

What if parenting had more to do with our own joy?

Yesterday, I was in the kitchen making soup for my mother in law who is in town. Age seems to have hit her hard these days, and she has a lot of ailments coming at her weakened body. Layla saw me using the hand blender and wanted to get on a stool and blend, too. Such started our moment in the kitchen, our hands hovering above a steamy pot. 

We’d just gotten back from soccer games in the healing Saturday sun, so our energy was invigorated. While in the kitchen, I decided additionally to make mulukhia stew, a traditional middle eastern dish that looks like a one-pot wonder but somehow–in the way of Persian or Arabic cooking– takes a silly-long time to make. While I fried pita chips, Layla wanted to bake pita triangles in the oven with a recipe she got from her class. The kitchen island exploded with olive oil, seasoning, bowls, aluminum foil, cutting boards, and measuring spoons.

As usual in the kitchen, I had some music playing. Humming  “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music to the kids is nothing new to them. I’ve dropped in these staple American nodes of my upbringing over the years. My friends joke that I haven’t seen any Star Wars anything, but I know a good bit of our 90s MTV allusions.  The kids always like when I get to the part “when the dog bites, when the bees sting…” I decided to play the soundtrack while we busied ourselves in the kitchen.

Somewhere between the foil and the oil, I looked up and laughed to myself. Here was I, this Persian-American (or is it American-Persian?) cooking her Palestinian mother-in-law’s recipe in my Georgian kitchen with my Arabic-Persian-American daughter who just asked for a set of Baby-Sitters Club books, singing along to an iconic American classic soundtrack from a time when my mom sprinkled a little bit of pop culture on me. So we set up our own new stew.

While the sun was up, I loved this idea. Despite all the multculturalisms and the swirl of how life works in my head, the sun set and the yellow of the day turned its trade. I started thinking about what’s been on my mind the last few months: do we want to give our kids a formulaic upbringing?

On some level, maybe the best outcome could be from the ones who can give kids a traditional, safe upbringing nestled in the suburbs with school events on the calendar that we all attend; little birthday parties and seasonal celebrations; high school sporting events and bigger houses. On another level, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this from a teacher’s stance and have almost been a part of this current, too. We moved up in homes and went to good high schools and carved out the most meaning of what we had. I suppose its from the vantage point of having lived some of this that makes me want to give the kids even more of some of that American life that wasn’t on the menu for me–more freedom, more school events, more sports, more options. But most importantly, something about this pattern feels, well, like a pattern. In the life so many of my peers are living now, it feels the options we earnestly give our children and the careers we try to build simultaneously make life a little harder than I thought it would.

Last year taught me to cancel more and keep more time. I’ve recognized that planning too much even for myself only creates anxiety; it only creates the feeling that there is no more time. I can’t throw away the calendar, but I can fill it up less. This year feels like it’s asking for more of that, too. I had a conversation with friends where I admitted to wondering what a year “off” felt like. One year with nothing but time, options for more spontaneity before time runs out and the kids’ lives get faster than ours. A year of “no extra” unless spontaneous. 

If I’m truly honest, I think I’m feeling this way more for myself as a parent. I wonder when people take their kids out of school for a year if this is less for the children and more for the parents. An opportunity to live differently and change up the formula.

When I sat atop two beautiful lagoons in Chile, I met a family from Scotland. The family of four was driving through South America. The mom and I talked, and she said she was home schooling the kids this year. As her girls circled around her leg, I found out that her kids were about the same age as my own. She told me that her youngest’s birthday was the following week. “Wow, what a cool way to spend your birthday!” I exclaimed. The mom, almost in a whisper, said that her girl is actually really upset about it. She wants to be at home with her friends and have a party with cupcakes. Despite the mountains in the background, all the little girl wanted was that bite of traditional; what the mom wanted for her and even for herself was something new. And perhaps behind all of this was a set of parents who just wanted to feel what life would be like if it was different for a little while, parents who maybe wanted to enjoy parenthood with their kids instead of finding time for parenthood in the midst of so much life minutia. But, alas, there is no right way, is there?

I don’t know of anyone in my life now who isn’t just doing his or her best to make real sense and meaning. In fact, we were discussing the kids yesterday because of some new challenges, and I brought up that tangential story about the family in Chile. When I was done, Kal said, “So do you want to pack up and do something like that?” I kind of looked away and told him the story is less about doing that and more about this realization that at this stage in the kids’ lives, we as parents have this power to do something different (just knowing we have it makes me wonder what we’ll do with it). In a few years, it won’t be as simple. And Inshallah a few years after that, it won’t be an option because their lives will be more theirs than it is ours. It’s a moment of recognition that my kids’ life is also an experience for us as parents now.

I can’t say I want to slow it all down.  Everything has its own time. I can say that I want to feel it differently. I want to look back and know that I felt, recognized, reflected, and changed parenthood for them and with them. I’m opening up this idea that there are only so many years where parents can have equal parts joy and equal parts effort.  Maybe, just maybe, part of the formula is weighing our own joy in parenting and our life experience just as much as we weigh what brings our kids joy in their life experience. Wouldn’t it be something to elevate–this idea that being a parent is just as relevant if not more than being a child. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they both weighed and counted the same. And wouldn’t it be even that much more interesting if they both eclipse.

summer, where are you?

IMG_0466Maybe it was while I waited for the urgent care doctor who would tell me I have the highly contagious, infamous flu, or maybe it was between feverish blurs underneath three blankets in bed when I scrolled through my Instagram on Wednesday and liked these lines of writing advice by author Janet Fitch: “If somebody’s afraid of spiders, you put them in a room full of spiders.” I’ve been scared of this season’s crazy flu for my kids, and I’ve been scared of missing any of the tight work deadlines set for last week and the next few, and then–figuratively–I brought home the spiders; the enemy crawled into my house, and all I could do was abandon dates and time.

Fitch’s advice is to remind us that writers create beloved characters and then have to do awful things to them in order to see what they’re made of, to thicken the plot, to produce indirect characterization, and so on. In Allende’s In The Midst of Winter, one character who dedicates his life to avoiding anxiety is in a few chapters later forced to help dispose of a stranger’s dead body. The way the flu has been knocking people off their feet, hospitalizing them, and even killing them this year, makes me feel(fear) like having kids diagnosed with the flu is like signing their death warrant. And our story has been the same for months; my kids can’t catch a break this winter. They are constantly sick, each cough in bed sounding like the creaking floors in the hallway, each sneeze causing whiplash reactions, each stomach ache interrogated, and we are so weary.

So, if I’m this exasperated character in this story, I admit I handled the spiders in the most predictable way:  I’ve walked around the house wearing a surgical mask. Quarantined myself to the bedroom, putting an invisible fortified line from this threshold to the rest of the house. I’ve wiped and sprayed everything a million times. Sprayed Lysol everywhere. Used Hibiclens to wash my hands. Washed all towels. Cancelled all plans (well, I couldn’t even move until Friday). When the kids were away at school, its own cesspool, I opened the doors to the cold wind and tried to air out the house.  I begged the sunlight to kill the germs. I’ve abstained from hugging and most of my mommy comforts.  As a result, I’ve let them get drunk on TV.

Yesterday was the first day I felt more like myself, so what do I do? Wash all flu-ish things, pick up the house before getting too winded, get everyone drinking elderberry syrup, order the kids new pajamas online, throw away toothbrushes, and buy On Guard and other DoTerra oils. I got Kal to get some homeopathic fortification including turnips (a Persian remedy favorite). My kids have had so many colds and setbacks this winter, I just couldn’t stomach the idea of even one more sickness. Somehow, I feel if I have enough might, I can keep my flu away from the kids.

But this is all exhausting.

And probably futile.

And probably not enough to thwart fate or little Billy’s innocent cough at school that could get them sick anyway. Last week, Layla’s class only had 8 students left in it. 

It’s been pouring rain all morning here, that type where if you run to your car without an umbrella, your shirt will be stuck to you. I want rain to do what it does in books–ceremoniously commiserate with the day, nestle us in for reflection, wash away the sins, offer a rebirth–all of it. I’m thinking today is the day I can inch back to normal. Step out from under the fear and just say I’ll handle whatever comes. If they get sick (again), they get sick. We’ll deal. Just let it go. Man, do I want to be that person. 

I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll be rubbing feet with essential oils and stuffing mouths with Sambucus gummies as this winter season is fraying my ends, steering this girl to some hippie roots. For now, while immune systems are weak and winter is still here, this working mom would really, truly prefer the less cool lens: to write the spiders and not live them. I’d really like to focus more on that.