Leaf

b9998a30-626a-4801-9f6a-76b14deafb50

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.

IMG_8656

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.

On memories

IMG_3250

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.

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.

Quiet

Quiet feels so good right now.

For the last 72 hours, there’s been a lot of good noise–Persian-festival noise, cousin- reuniting noise, sibling-rivalry noise, and parenting-head noise.

IMG_8768But right now, Zade is sitting underneath a fort he made in his room. Layla is watching t.v. I put them in separate rooms because I think they need a break from their own noise just like I do.

I picked up the house that was overturned, putting back decorative letters and returning items back to the pantry and such. The house did its duty and now needs some rest while the sun goes down, getting hotter each hour as it makes its grand departure.

I am doing this now and sitting here. The warm sun is softening the moment. 

IMG_8812

My shoulders eek up and tense around the blades and my mind goes a little blurry in the presence of my kids’ arguments. They were so happy playing with their cousins just hours ago, but they argued with each other at every other increment; they can be so bad to each other in the middle of so much good, so many significant memories. I try not to worry that their small age difference (hence, maturity) is hurtful to them when we truly hoped it would be the opposite.

To top off the hours of back and forth, sometimes the steadfast oscillation throttling my own parenting voice, I decided to blast Shakira so loud no one could think above it. Unfortunately, it only worked for a few minutes until they had a climactic exchange in the car.

IMG_8789

We saw Boss Baby last night, and the film involves an only child who has to grapple with having a new brother. A few minutes from home,  Zade, seeing how something sounds to him, told Layla that he wants a little brother instead of her as a sister. And Layla, the mothering sister with quirks and big feelings of her own, sank even more into sibling fatigue.

IMG_8801

She had a day of some well-deserved no’s mixed in with some brother meanness, especially when he made a show of not letting her into his fort. She looked so grown staring back at him in her long, patterned skirt and denim top. Pain hurts more when you’re older.

So now they are in their own spaces. I tell my kids, “I need 20 minutes by myself,” and though it takes ten minutes of interruptions to get it through sometimes, a version of what I need gets across. At this moment, in this time, it feels like the breeze through a hammock. Returning back to me is my place of peace.

Before posting this message, I walked back into the house to check on the kids. To my surprise, at the center of the living room, Layla has made a huge fort of her own, even bigger and better than the one her brother excluded her from this morning. On the seat of the chairs that pillar the tent, she has lined up provisions: paper plates, utensils, a box of cheese crackers, gatorade, and cookies. A propped-up device and cascading sheets seclude her and offer her some time of her own. She let her ankle come out from the wall sheet as she said with satisfaction, “I love this fort I made.”

If I didn’t do anything else right today while hoping to squeeze the most love out of moments with family, at least I’m seeing something I think my kids will grow up knowing, something I think my patterns show clearly: you’ve got to have some quiet time, some space away from all of it. It’s unapologetic time that all of us–kids and adults–need to face the current.

Sometimes you just need a fort of your own. 

Natural Links

nature-walk-2A tide of dried leaves on an expanse is similar to waves folding back and forth. My student observed the similarity between the sound of ocean waves and wind on leaves when we went on a nature walk during my literary magazine class. We started with a few minutes of stillness and meditation, and ventured into a free-walk where each person was encouraged to walk alone and observe. Students, now calmer, brought the same stillness back with them and wrote something new or wrote through something else that moved them. Nature walks aren’t new additions to pedagogy, and not everyone ventured openly into the woods, but the big picture worked well. For me it was refreshing and reminded me of how important it is to breathe fresh and be still.

nature-walk-pic

I experienced frantic energy last week. The presidential election drama made it worse. In fact, it sent me straight to the polls to vote early on Thursday. After a day of work minutia, I met a 2.5 hour line straight to my civic duty. I lucked out though. My unexpected line mate was an older woman with a yoga t-shirt (we joked about how the leaf logo on it looked like marijuana). She is was a teacher of young kids and mother of a musician. It was a perfect fit. We talked freely and shared ponds of our life stories, even so far as sharing some challenges we’ve had lately. Then, we voted and said our good-byes–the way one does when you’ve met someone at the airport because your flight was delayed and wonder-hope if your paths will cross again. I finished a hairline away from missing a guest speaker I’d wanted to hear who was presenting at a private school nearby.

Dr. Madeline Levine who is known mostly for texts like the Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well engaged the audience in “An Evening with Madeline Levine.” I walked in and slid to the back of the room as the MC introduced her. Another boon came my way when I saw my friend and concert buddy sitting at the edge of a bench. She had her notepad out like many other parents and took notes diligently. The talk was fascinating—about emotional distress in young adults from relatively good homes, the constant pre-college push, the ways children can be categorized to help us understand them, etc.  I nodded a lot and made some mental notes. Two takeaways stood out mainly because they are very personal.

She states that often when we’re scolding our children, our reaction can be very personal. While the catalyst—an argument, a bad grade, a lapse in judgement—is valid, our reaction can be smeared with our own issues. She used an example of her reaction to one of her son’s grades dropping after taking a final exam. She went off on him and recognized 6 therapy sessions later that he was the same age she was when she recognized she had to fend for herself, family on welfare and future looking bleak. She needed him to thwart and appreciate. It made me think of the times I am short with my kids. It’s not that they aren’t doing something wrong, but if I analyze why I may snap, it’s because of things unrelated to them—work exhaustion, my concave fear of embarrassment, or my longing for some introverted quiet.

With other talk points, she offers that parents should sift through her message through their own moral codes. However, one message was perfect. Levine ended the night with a simple PowerPoint slide. Since people ask her what her definition of success is, she constructed this (squint a bit; the message is worth it):

levines-success

I read it twice. It was a long day, so I was already positioned to be emotional. Before I could realize it, I felt tears in my eyes. Not for my own children, but for my parents. Not according to a salary scale, but in accordance with this definition, my parents raised me to do well in life. They never criticized me or made me feel that I should choose any career path that didn’t fulfill me. My father was the one who steered me off law and into teaching. My mother was the one who always said I was the best at literature. I think my parents believed so hard that I was special, that despite my squirming out from under it, maybe I started to believe it–at least through their eyes. Power of parents, seriously, since so much of it was out of love and not out of data. My mom never went to college, and my parents just did their best to survive in a new place and then to assimilate while protecting their kids. And in that process—without guide books or guest speakers—raised me to a place where I can say that I feel connected to Dr. Levine’s message.

I called my mom as soon as I got in the car and thanked her for shaping me so my soul could grow and my eyes could see. She cried and said it’s easy to take for granted the fruits of their labors but that she appreciated our childhood and did the best she could.

initials.jpg

The kids waited up for me and fell asleep a few minutes after I came home. While they closed their eyes and slumped over on the couch, I relayed all this to Kal. I’m sure I had smeared eye makeup and my hair was probably wilted on the side after a long day, but he listened. We came to the resolution that there’s so much we can’t predict, but we’re trying our best and will try to remember the pressure we put on ourselves to be active, open parents even at this young stage.

kids-going-crazy

Let our kids get messier than we did– we hope–and give us the wisdom to remember that mud is good.

Flow

pc7

Today one of my best friends, D, had her second baby. She sent us a picture of her second little girl, bundled dry and clean, held up by a nurse. Baby girl looks like she is certain of the camera in front of her. I wish I could share it with you here, but if I remember my own commitment to privacy the first few months my kids were born, I know it’s not my picture to post. My mom described the image just right: you can’t help but see it and not laugh a little because there she is, a new baby girl all surprisingly alert and with the perks of a smile saying, “I’m here, guys.”

The ripple effect of hearing the news of a new baby inspires conversations along many households. My parents probably said something to each other like, “Remember when these girls were just kids sleeping over at our house? Laughing in the basement? Now they have two kids.” D, dressed in a blue hospital gown, still looks like that young girl in my memory. Maybe it’s because I didn’t consider my mom as a woman in her 30s the way I am today that I’m still in awe of my childhood icons being real adults.

In another household, maybe someone wonders if or when this type of moment will be one of her own memories or if there are other joys that are waiting to be born. In my household, though, the news created electricity as my kids stared eagerly into my phone. They loved seeing the baby held by their cousin, who Zade said with marvel is “not a baby anymore. She’s a kid now, Mama!” Their reaction brought to surface sincere memories of when Zade was born.

pc4

For example, D sent me a picture of herself right before getting to the hospital. I could tell she’d been crying; her adorable chin looked like it housed small rain drops beneath the skin. She said simply, “I’m excited but also feel bad. I can’t explain it…lots to process.”

If you’re lucky enough to have the chance to say bye to your first child before you leave for the hospital, you know that feeling. You know in your head that you’re doing something good for the family, that she won’t be alone in her life, that you’ll be back in a few days with memories. And yet you may fear you’re choosing something else over your child or that something so big is happening, and she is innocently left out of it; or even worse, you wonder if you’d been worrying about the wrong thing all along and that maybe things won’t turn out right.

When I left Layla to deliver Zade, I felt a hollow carve up inside, like when you swallow water too fast and there’s a bubble trying to force its way down. Like so many mother guilts, it’s not logical, but it is an ache you don’t forget.

And life goes on after those hospital days. It did for us, and now the kids are approaching birthdays. Layla will be 7 soon; she’d barely turned 2 when her brother was born.

Before my maternity leave was up in the winter, we went to Rosemary Beach. We snuggled in a green and white carriage house, all of us in one king size bed, the smell of steak still coming through the cool cracks. Beach winters are the best kept secret.

pc8.jpg

Last week we went to Panama City, which is close to Rosemary. Needing a family trip in the worst way, we rented a huge minivan and drove toward a tropical depression that was incredibly merciful to us.

pc1

On the only rainy day we had at the beach, we took a day trip back to Rosemary and visited our usual spots: the park at the town’s peripheral, the nooks between each unique, designer home, and a coastal book shop (it’s one of my favorites and never disappoints). The kids looked like kids and like grown people at the same time.

Seeing them up against the scale of memory, the scale of the swing Zade looked like a giant potato in a few years ago, made Kal and I start talking in tongues of the future. That type of talk where you plan and say God willing, where you try to face realities of what could be while also chanting why you’re so appreciative of what is.

Time is moving us forwards in whichever way it wants. Seems like I’m swinging backwards here in this post. I’ll keep that momentum going and end back to the first day at the beach.

After nearly 2 weeks that tested the Murphy’s law adage,  we thought we’d barely make it on our last-minute trip. We were so sick the night before our departure that we couldn’t pack or clean the house in preparation. Instead, we did all that in the morning and didn’t leave until the afternoon on the next day. Finally, we arrived to Florida at familiar surroundings. We dropped our stuff in the condo and went down to the beach. The kids who’d begged for the beach the whole summer were short of shrieking with joy when they felt sand.

pc5

Even though we’ve done many things as a family, this year felt different. As Kal drove, I crossed my legs out in front of me above the dashboard and looked out the window over familiar bridges, familiar long-leaf pines, familiar road stops, familiar faded homes. I told Kal that we used to sit in the back seat with my parents driving at one point in our lives, yet here we are in the front seat, making our way. I handed kids their snacks; he put gas in the car.

pc6

In this life of constant work and rotation, I’m grateful beyond measure for what the new brings and what the familiar holds. I can say with certainty that I’m curious about how things will look against today’s scales, markers that show us so much during the rippling ebb and flow of our lives.

 

 

Spikes


Seems to me on the days when the grind gets the hardest, I experience everything in spikes.

I drove to work this morning with one hand on the wheel and the other hand inside of a box of Oatmeal Squares. Cereal was all I could grab on my way out of the house. It was mercy I even managed that before I wobbled to my car with Layla’s breakfast, slippery water bottles—one tucked under my arm and the other balanced on a plate, two backpacks, and my make-up bag. It was 6:45 and I couldn’t squash my defeat. It’s so early, but I’m still so late, I thought dejectedly.

I tried so hard not to be—begging Layla the night before to sleep early and wake up without constant nudging; putting everyone’s clothes out and packing lunches; making dinner and ensuring enough for leftovers the next day; doing work for an hour after everyone else was asleep. Preparing. I tried to get it all done, but it wasn’t enough.

In fact, the last few weeks have piled on top of each other so much so that I have been glued to each monkey bar—aware of the metal lines to come but also only able to reach out so far.  Tasks are getting done, and lists keep piling up. Judging from people around me, it very well could be just that time in September.

Last night after everything was undone and done (maybe not even in that order), I had a hoarse throat and a weight on my chest. I was upset at how the kids bickered on and off all night, causing spikes of tension that hit me the way it feels when you stop abruptly after running fast, your body all confused and breathless.

My body couldn’t handle a single more argument. By the final time I told Layla to stop coming out of her room, that enough was enough, especially since I’d read the story and fixed the light and fed that last snack, I had nothing left to give. And then just as I had quieted, I saw her run out of her room. I was afraid that if I nagged or yelled one more time, I’d unravel. Instead, I sat angry, transfixed on why I couldn’t just let it go. She’s being a kid. I’m a working mom. This is how it is. You know this. Just put on Downton Abbey and screw doing the dishes.

Thirty minutes later, I found her asleep on the guest bed. I walked towards it to carry her to her own room, but a feeling spiked up on me. I sat on the edge of an ottoman in my living room instead and just cried.  So many women are familiar with that good-cry-in-the-shower moment, only this time I was just sitting in a quiet room, grateful for some relief.

So that was last night. And my Oatmeal Square morning was this morning. The rest of today brought me to a better place. It’s the last official day of summer, so maybe there’s something to that.

Vox hands-in pic.jpg

My student editors made smart calls; my classes are liking The Crucible.  I found my groove, so I felt the power to walk into the house with blinders on. We hung out in Layla’s room and loomed bracelets. Kal did his own thing while we held onto the moment.

Zade asleep 2.jpg

At bedtime, I told Zade stories about when he was a baby. His new orange and black bracelet glowed against his blue LED night light, causing curiosity and joy—so sweet on his face. I leaned against his little stomach and laughed genuinely with him. Parents’ emotions are insanity. I am so tired, but I want to wake him up and relive how he laughed, an extended laugh that pleasantly surprises me when coming from a child.

This morning I was certain this post would be only about how the struggle catches up with us some days. But then just a few hours ago, I put the kids, skin shiny from a bath, to bed and felt tired, yes, but also better. A spike of affection and appreciation replaced what I felt 24 hours before.

layla-asleep

So, I’ll leave you with this last anecdote if nothing but for my own memory:

My kids’ exuberance to see me come home from work is is really touching. They’re naturally loving greeters until it becomes a competition between who can run for the hug the fastest or hang on my neck the longest. Usually, my arms are filled with the same things I loaded my car up with in the morning, so the greeting becomes an awkward mashup of good intentions, the necessities, joy, and disappointment.

I decided two weeks ago that I’d walk into the house with only my car keys in hand. Arms open and able to reduce my own frustration with trying to make the scene what I want, I am able to give them what they need from the second I walk in. I gave up telling them to hang on and adjust. I just added a couple trips to the car. Something so simple solved one small element of the evening for me.

Tonight, I’m grateful to not end the night sitting on the edge of an ottoman. Those nights happen, and that’s life. But I’ll keep searching within for small adjustments that can help end the evening with an LED glow,  some time to write, and a little more peace.

out of the blue

d. zade jumpingEach day when Layla plays on my phone before we arrive at her school, she gets sneaky. She sets up a timer along with a few alarm notifications so that when I’m least expecting it, the alarm will go off. Sometimes I see the countdown timer on the lock screen once I get to work. I could easily disable her little alarms and dismantle her plans, but I don’t. When I’m submerged at work and Layla’s alarms go off, I think of her sitting in the back of the car, stealthily clicking on random times that she can scare her mom. She’s probably spiked with excitement anticipating my surprise and having a laugh to herself. The notifications make me think of her thinking of me, which in turn makes me think of her. I’m given something unexpected even though one could argue I should really expect it by now.

After ten years of teaching, I should expect the stress of the end of the school year, but it punches me hard in the shoulder every year. At work we are all really just trying to make it to the end of the semester. We’re trying to grip to the camaraderie and the horizon, yet we’re all a little more quick to get irritated than usual. A retiree at our school who transferred from a middle school to a high school said humorously in a speech to his fellow teachers that he has “no idea how you do it. I don’t know how you’re not all dead.”

In general, for all of us counting down to an end date usually means a stressful mixture of desire and tasks. All of a sudden, the tasks you’ll normally just do because you’re a productive human bloat into this burdensome stone that you want to throw through a window.  In my case, all good habits have been thrown out the window. Honestly, I’m eating a stale bag of cool ranch Doritos as I type this, not because I’m hungry, just because I’m rebelling. At Norah’s birthday party this morning, I ate a giant dressed-up waffle and then topped it off with a huge donut. The Whole 30 I finished in April and the running I’ve done to de-stress have been buried in the backyard until maybe after Memorial Day.

d. zade

I have done some recent digging though, another unexpected source of joy. Last week Kal and I went full force on the landscaping the front lawn. I thought I’d be able to just dig a hole in soft soil, but that fantasy swiped up fast.  Our ground here is filled with the previous owner’s memories. I dug up shells, garden fossils encased in cement, tarp, stones, brick edges, and clay pot chunks.

d. rocks

It was painful.  I took a few selfies in disbelief as I mixed manure and soil or repeatedly jumped on the shovel’s edge to get the plant’s new hole “twice the size of the pot.” I helped plant hydrangeas and salvias, and I whispered little prayers that I’d see them bloom again next year as I put them in the ground.

d. selfie

 

d. garden

I took in the view of our new plants surrounding the house just before I drove off to visit friends for dinner last night. I sat across the table from two ladies who heard about my receiving the TOTY award and wanted to celebrate. These are successful women who had no friend-obligation to celebrate me at all as our relationships are new, but they did something so kind for me anyway. Best of all, I had engaging conversation with a friend who asked me questions and made me remember stories that haven’t been relevant for some time, forcing me out of the grit of the heavy Friday. The unexpected energy of easy-moving conversation transformed a long day into a sweet one.

dino eraser.jpg

A surprise can be so beautiful.  We all have things to do and lives to manage. When something clears up on its own to dazzle me, I’m so grateful. Last week at the kids’ Haflatuna performance, I found Zade’s dinosaur eraser dug deep in my front pocket; I have no idea how it got there. I thought of this eraser, a symbol of his age, as I said bye to him yesterday at his school. My friends at work helped me steal away an hour from work so I could see Zade sing in a school event. When I had to leave early to get back, he didn’t cling on to my leg or cry for me to stay like he usually does. He hugged me maturely and got back to his friends.  My little man’s blooming in his own way.

d. zade smiling

The unexpected moments are a motif for the simple beauty that’s out there waiting for us to see it. Even my drive home from the birthday party today had a rural charm that has become such an interest to me. It’s what I needed as a pleasant backdrop my kids’ intense sibling bickering so I could have something to hold on to in the hard moment.

d. view

I’ve noticed that my plants look the happiest when the sun is going down; the marigolds’ heads stand taller, and the azaleas arch gracefully. If this crazy month can equate to a whole day, I’m looking forward to the 8:30-pm moment when there’s still just enough light to catch the view, but the rest of the day is behind me, leaving me unburdened and free to appreciate the night.

 

Rain Outside Myself

I’m sitting on the living room sofa, sinking beyond its 11-year lifetime with us. The kids are bathed but not in bed.

Less than an hour ago, the kids and I came home from a track by the house. It’s a simple track, not intimidating, enough trees and breeze to drift off some stress. I’ve enjoyed running there so much that each time I load the kids in the car to get there, I nearly forget the constant bickering that scratches at our experience. The kids bike, fall, argue, play, make up, roll, skin, laugh, stall, and bicker. There’s a lot of this lately–gratifying mixed with grating. I’ll breathe, then pause and appreciate, deal with some crisis, and then try again to get into the zone.None of this buoyancy is uncommon to any parents I know; I suppose it’s all relative.

I think I’ve noticed a pattern with me. When I’m overwhelmed in one area of my life, I work exceptionally hard and practically invent minutia to do (I did the paperwork to set up annual memberships not due until August instead of grading 70 research papers clumped on my desk), but my physical exhaustion does not shut down my wandering, amorous mind.

My mind amps up and gets dreamy, almost tortuously so. I try to find a match for the longing in a book, show, or good conversation. I’m trying to spill out the angst on other forms of writing late at night so I can do something productive with this feeling, a recognizable restlessness mixed with a surprising ennui given the time of year and a busy calendar.

I read an article today called “Its Raining All Over the Universe” where Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor and author, talks about waking up one morning to the sound of rain. He is “suddenly struck by the realization that Earth is not the only world that knows rain. There is rain falling in many other places in the cosmos…Venus, Titan, Saturn…And all these rains matter.”

Frank concludes that “across the galaxy, on countless worlds, there will be rain. It will fall across as many windswept plains as you can imagine.” Frank says the rains matter; they help show us that despite our notion of conflicts, we “don’t really understand what is happening to us at all…we are part of something much larger than ourselves, and our ideas about ourselves.”

Initially, I wanted to read this article because it was about the solar system, a system I feel belongs to my best friend Andrea since she’s been obsessed with the moon’s world as long as I can remember. I’m sharing it here because Frank sees something like rain and uses it as a unifying element, one that can flay our vision of ourselves and recognize something bigger.

I’ve been occupied in my own head space even if I’m physically moving and reacting and doing; I have been retreating above the neck as a cozy yet squirming defense.

I like being inspired to see beyond that.

I haven’t turned on any lights since we came home. The green outside has befriended the windows and given it less work to do, but there is a pale glow coming through, silencing the room in this moment. I’m going to go sit outside and look up, and then I’m going to release some of the build up of thoughts to the sky above and let its truth advise the rest of my evening.