Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breaking Night: A Readerly Response

I've had this readerly response to Liz Murray's memoir brewing in me for months now. But I'm too busy and burned out from school papers to get all academia on ya. Let me just say I so wanted to pluck the kid-Liz-Murray right out of the Bronx apartment she shared with her drug addicted parents and her sober sister, Lisa.  The story is that Liz's Ma and Daddy spend most of Ma's disability check (Ma is blind and schizophrenic) on cocaine, which means Liz and Lisa go hungry for about 28 days out of the month. Ma and Daddy are so caught up in the cycle of drug binging that nothing is done about their daughters' empty stomachs, or the increasing filth in the apartment, or the water in the bathtub that won't drain for months, eventually turning grimy and foul, or the facts that Liz is not sleeping and that she's ditching school and DHS workers are showing up with increasing frequency at the door.

With no adult supervision and with basic needs unment, kid-Liz-Murray does what any other resourceful kid in her situation would do: she skips school most days and goes out to look for food or money for food. Somehow she averts the clutches of DHS workers long enough to pass each grade through to high school, at which point Ma is so desperate to get out of the drug cycle that she leaves Daddy and moves in with a new boyfriend ("Brick"), but not before revealing to Liz that she (Ma) is HIV positive. Soon after, Liz is taken into custody by child welfare and sent for a time to a "diagnostic residential center" before she is released into Brick's custody. What seems like a fresher start for Liz, Ma, and Lisa takes a rather downward turn as Ma continues to drink heavily and decline from AIDS and Liz lapses into truancy from school. Rather than risk being caught by DHS again, Liz decides to head for the streets where her life takes on a rhythm of uncertainty against the backdrop of friendships with other homeless youth who are also struggling to survive. Sleep comes when she can cajole a friend into letting her stay on a bedroom floor, or else on the subway or when she can find a stair landing in an apartment building somewhere, alone or with friends.  Kid-Liz-Murray's life gets more complicated with a drug dealing boyfriend from whom she finds herself needing to escape, and then Ma actually does die, from AIDS, in the middle of what should have been kid-Liz-Murray's high school career.

In case you haven't guessed it, Breaking Night is a My Horrible Childhood sort of book in the vein of Angela's Ashes or The Glass Castle.  It was almost too awful to read at times, and I found myself shaking from trauma by proxy.  But you haven't seen the subtitle of this book yet: It's this, and it's a doozy: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.  Indeed. This has a happy ending.  So happy, in fact, so redemptive, you'll wonder if Liz Murray has been on Oprah, and in fact, when you Google, you'll see that Murray was the recipent of Oprah's "Chutzpah Award" (did you know this existed?).  We find out from the book jacket that, today, Murray is the founder of Manifest Living, a company that helps grown-ups realize their potential and reach for their dreams.

But how did she get here? Well, kid-Liz-Murray had a revelation one homeless night that her friends would never be able to pay her rent. At that moment she realized she needed to get an education. What ensued was what I'll call a courageous attempt to get herself enrolled in an alternative high school, while homeless. Only two years away from turning 18, Murray managed to complete all her high school credits with high honors in those two years. She won a New York Times Scholarship, received much press, and was accepted to Harvard. Since then, she wrote this thoughtful, well-crafted book, and o yeah, her story was made into a movie on Lifetime.

If this were fiction it'd be an awfully predictable read, all-loose-ends-tied-up sort of read, but I forgive Murray the closure. The story was so riveting, well-written, and awful that, in fact, I sincerely celebrated its redemptive pieces, and wished for her only more happiness. And maybe another Chutzpah Award. Hell, I'd even watch the movie on Lifetime.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Driving the Tinies

At 16, I drove like I didn't have a future, or not one I particularly cared about.  My driving disposition was fancy free, cavalier. I thought nothing of violent accelerations that would catch me up, change me lanes, get me there faster, pass a slower driver. My rattly '79 Toyota Corolla--oh, I named her "Molly" by the way, sweet in an early 90s sort of way. So, Molly's engine might overheat on my way from rural Iowa to more rural Iowa.  I fretted and hoped for the best; staying home never occurred to me as a viable alternative. On cold mornings, such as those of late in Iowa's December, Molly was skeletal, a tin shell, and conducted cold as well as most tin does; I jittered and shivered my way through town and country even if, at the same time, Molly overheated. And car maintenance--I could neither afford it or know what it was. Probably why Molly blew a gasket and I sold her for $75 because I couldn't pay the $600 to have her fixed.

My driving disposition should have changed a long time ago--maybe about the time I got married, or began thinking about having children.  To be honest, it didn't change fully until Tiny arrived.  I think twice about getting in the car with three children in five degree weather--hats, gloves, coats, boots, check? One hundred and fifty-thousand mile maintenance, check? Oil change, check?
Also, the enormity of the act of simply getting on the Interstate with or without children in the car bears down on me.  The fact of three lives depending on me from day to day is enough to wear off any residual cavalier and shine on some sober.  Driving is serious business. I am Someone's Mother.  I am Three Somebodies' Mother. I am a M.A.D.D. and a mother against texting-and-driving, mascara-and-driving, sight-seeing-and-driving. I'm also a mother against sibling-arguements-and-driving because sometimes I use the rear-view mirror to referree the drama in the way, way back of the minivan, only to look up--when? 30 seconds later? I never know--and exhale sharply in relief that the truck before me didn't brake unexpectedly, that the light was still green.

Of course choices on the road always had forever-implications, but I didn't know Oldest and Middle and Tiny before--three lives on the cusp of bloom. And I didn't know what it would be like for my niece to live without my brother, who died because of a car, some alcohol, and the exhilaration of driving too fast. He and she together had a lot more to accomplish in this life before he left it.  I look at my girls: They have Christmas programs to sing in, snowmen to build, easels to cover with paint, dances to tap out, piano lessons to review. They have friendships to forge, books to read, wisdom to search out and wield.  Maybe, too, they have their own Oldests and Middles and Tinies to beget.

I don't drive in fear, but I do drive like a surgeon who knows she must pay careful, uncompromising attention.  Also, like a woman shaped by relief and gratitude that so far none of her miscalculations have cost her or the Tinies anything, not anything at all to speak of.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hold the Applause

I’m not feeling terribly creative in a writerly way these days, but maybe that’s because all my energy is getting used up trying to be a decent sleep-interrupted mother/friend/sister/auntie/teacher/church worker/baker/chauffeur.
The energy is so used up, in fact, that I’ll admit to wanting just a hint of applause for a few small things I’ve given myself to on behalf of the Girls:

1. Oldest requested bread today. Not from a store. The homemade bread I make, weighing out the flour, kneading, letting rise, punching down. I made it tonight, and not only that, I taught her how to make it because someday, I reason, she will be able to make bread herself and I will be eliminated from this process altogether. Teach a girl to fish, right?

2. Middle requested games. I am not a game player by nature. I played a lot of Rummy with my brother and my mom in the winter of 1988. And last December I played a video game. For about a week straight. In the off years I’ve embraced a round or two of Boggle, my passion fading quickly when I realized I was never going to beat the husband at a word game. But this is neither here nor there. Middle is an avid lover of games (card, board, and video) and she’s smart enough now for challenges beyond Dora Candyland, which I could get through without paying a whole lot of attention. Now, she is pulling out games like Blink, Monopoly Junior, and Go Fish, which require not only counting, but rolling, sorting, interrogation, finger dexterity, mental focus, and the necessary referreeing of two siblings arguing over rules. But okay, well, only Blink requires finger dexterity. Tonight—wait for it—tonight I played not one, but one-and-a-half games with Middle. Indeed, I got through Disney Princess Go Fish and moved on to a less-than-rousing 15 minutes of Monopoly Junior, at which point I begged off on account I had so much church work to do and honestly I was sooo tired, and yes, church work seemed way more relaxing than counting out two dollars of paper money to watch imaginary fireworks on Dr. Doolittle Boulevard. Or whatev.

3. Tiny, well, she’s just full of requests, many of them having to do with my being up at midnight, 2, 3, or 4 AM.

4. I lied about all of the girls’ requests being small. This is not small. This is big: I, crazy I, have agreed to a CAROLING PARTY with dessert and hot chocolate at our house afterward. It is my penance for not doing trick-or-treating this year. A month ago, Oldest asked, “Mom, are there any other holidays where kids go door to door?” And I came up with caroling, yes I did.

They get to invite whoever they want. At this point, if the attendance rate is 40% of the invitee list, then we’ll barely be able to fit everyone in our house. And I’ve agreed to keep my mouth shut about all the kids they are not inviting who might feel left out because they aren’t invited. But who am I kidding? If we invited all those kids, we would need to borrow the neighbor’s house to fit them in. This is their party, I promised the girls. But that means we better get crackin’. There are invites to make and address. Song lists to create and print out. And by the way, will any of their little guests be able to read? And by the way, do children even know Christmas songs anymore? This concern led to my one stipulation about the guest list: PARENTS ARE INVITED. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I’m going to be singing Christmas solos for the neighbors while supervising a flock of 20 kids on a dark December night. No, I’m not. So, parents, please mark your calendars (er, if your child is invited).

Well, now, I guess that’s all I really wanted to say, and now that I re-read what I just wrote, I can see that none of this merits applause. In fact, it might merit a smackdown. My children are healthy, wealthy (in a North-American-Middle-Classish sort of way), and wise (as far as 6 and 8 year olds go). We suffer no terminal illnesses, homelessness, or poverty. I am not working double shifts to make ends meet. I'm doing what a lot of middle class Midwestern parents are doing, and our lives are full of privilege and favor not afforded to much of the world (Um, we're having a freaking caroling party). I suffer only from mental boredom, busyness and, it seems, a bit of parental selfishness. (Would it have killed me to finish Monopoly?)

With echoes of Jane Austen's Lady Catherine in my head, I ask that you withhold your compliments, for I deserve no such attention.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Little House on Raven Street

Now that winter is coming, the Little House books are easier for me and the girls to identify with. We can hear the wind roaring around our little house on Raven Street and snow is just around the corner, soon-to-be drifting at our front door. There are no wild panther screams, however. No trips to the barn to milk the cows and feed the horses. We’re feeling rather lucky, lying around on our recliner couch, reading about girls in faraway days in not-so-faraway prairies. Oldest and Middle are recovering from strep throat, and the Tiny and I are holding strong against bacterial infection and fevers. But the Tiny is fussy and congested and everyone wants to be petted and held and snuggled more than usual, including me. In the midst of the snuggling, I’m still trying to get work emails sent, plan budgets and sort through laundry and grocery lists.

In addition to reading the Little House books, we’ve also been watching the TV episodes where the bright, wholesome face of Michael-Landon-as-“Pa” beams the kind of sincerity that makes me squirm uncomfortably. But, between you and me, the husband and I will simultaneously giggle and shed a few tears over the tops of the girls’ heads when Michael Landon is on.

Once, when Laura was chastized by “Ma” for inappropriate behavior, she nodded and chortled brightly, “Well, I reckon you know best, Ma.” I reckon that those words will never be uttered in our house. (Do real seven year olds possess such profound wisdom?) But, now, I guess there are a few truths about the world that the girls have grasped, and Oldest’s questions this week suggested as much. For instance, when I informed the husband about the amount of “drugs” (aka Amoxycillin) needed for her dose, Oldest (overhearing) fired out: “Street drugs or regular drugs?”

And then, when I asked to clarify a statement Oldest made and then paused, taking in her meaning, she felt sure my silence indicated amusement. “Are you going to put that on Facebook?” she wondered aloud.

Indeed, no, I was not scheming to document her words in my Facebook status (although I ususally am). I did write on Facebook in the aftermath of getting lunch warmed up, children fed, and the Tiny soothed later in the day. During all that commotion, my very introverted self had been very locked up in her own head, sifting through the contents of emails, phone calls, and schedules. The Tiny had been crying, so unhappily sitting in her infant seat, so forlorn, that I went in search of something to soothe her. And a few minutes later, after she was suitably soothed, I updated my status in the third person:

“[Heather Truhlar Weber] realized she was trying to juggle too many things today when she found herself trying to insert Tiny's pacifier into the 6-year-old's mouth.”

It was true. Tiny was crying and Middle was chewing on cornbread at the kitchen table when their mother wriggled a rubber Nuk against Middle’s lips and waited for her to part them. Middle looked up at her mother with a look of utter anthropologic curiosity, perhaps surmising the act an unseen-before ritual of mothering. But no, Middle was certain that most reasonable mothers would never have confused the Tiny with the Middle. This was a was a moment to reckon that Middle--not Ma--knew best. And you know, I think there may be a lot more of them.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Happy Birthday to Middle

Dear Middle,

How can it be that you are six years old today?  Your age, slipped in between the ages of Oldest and Tiny, has caught me by breathtaking surprise. You are short enough to look like a preschooler, but oh you possess such verbal skills, the ability to set the record straight, explain the rules, detail an injustice. "Just for you to know," is how you often begin a dialogue with me.  "Just for you to know, I'm leaving my Barbies out while I get a snack and then I"m going right back to playing."  You have a knack for anticipating my responses and you understand how our family works, how I work. You know I'll see those Barbies scattered all over the floor and request their return to the box they are usually stored in.

Rare are the days anymore that you get in bed with me in the morning, throwing an arm around my neck. But, once in a while, you return pajama-footed to what was never a family bed, asking for a sippy cup full of warm milk. And you recline on our pillows, the cup in one hand and a lock of hair twirling between the fingers of your other. I know now that if I repose with you for long, you'll take advantage of the opportunity to ask for a story. If I'm sitting, if I'm lying down--it is story time. Your interests run deep, meaning lately we read the same story over of Sir Lancelot's boyhood and coming-of-knighthood.  Initially, I replaced the more obscure phrases like "courtly arts" with words such as "reading" and "writing," but after our fifth read, as  you've begun to appreciate the scope of the narrative, I returned to its original wording, which now, I can see by watching your face, you grasp unblinkingly.  You laugh at the ridiculousness of Lancelot's arrogance and furrow a brow at the death of his parents because your heart is enlarged enough for indignation, empathy, pathos, and compassion.

Your feelings at times fizz right at the surface--giddy delight or frustrated stubbornness. Most nights you can't remain seated at the dinner table for your excitement over all the stimulus surrounding  you. Tiny, in her little seat, smiles up at you, inviting you to entertain.  Or there is a squirrel at the window, or a picture in the living room  you have drawn and want so very badly to show us.  You are an oft-silent observer of the world, your curiosity revealed in a choice question, a slew of words that suggests prior reflection, like when you eyed my postpartum body the other day and, without judgment and with some nostalgia, asked, "Mom, when are you going to get skinny again?"  And that question is because your world has changed so much in the last year, your own mother has changed before your eyes and produced a tiny human who cries and smiles and spits up and laughs at you.  Sisterhood with the Tiny becomes you. You are a star, the apple of her eye, and you take great delight in falling over with giggles, dance-walking across the room, peek-a-booing until her face erupts with gratitude.

Sisterhood with Oldest looks different, as it should.  You are her mentee in many ways, emulating her drawings and her literature choices--everything but her blue jeans, which you flatly refuse to wear on account they "itch."  But that's okay because you are coming into your own--it's inevitable and subtle right now, but you are differentiating, deciding to play outside because you want to, even if Oldest stays inside to draw.  And there you go, off to jump on the rusted trampoline, off to rake leaves into an awkward pile in the front lawn, off to get the neighbor girl for fort play.

I said you were deep, and this is another reason I know: when something wounds you, either in body or in spirit, you keep silent while the pressure of your pain--and the shame you seem to carry for feeling it-- mounts unto bursting.  And then you sob, five minutes or several hours after the injury. You weep and choke and wheeze because you've held it all in for so very long. Then, I want to race backwards to that moment you remained silent, when  your lip quivered and nobody noticed, and when your eyes grew red with tears yet unsprung. I want to hold you in that place, assure you there is enough comfort to go round, and convince you that wounds are not suffered better in silence. And perhaps I will  yet. That's part of my job, and there is still time.

You're only six,  you know?  (Don't, please, try to grow up too terribly fast.)

So, Miss Middle, I raise a glass of apple juice to toast in your honor, in reverence and celebration of all you are and all you are to become.

[Trumpets blare. Confetti scatters through the air. I lift you high in a great big hug.]

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Falloween Nights

I grew up with a mother who, on Halloween nights, occasionally made us sit in the dark basement while she prayed in tongues and the doorbell rang with trick-or-treaters who wouldn’t be getting any treats from our house. Her idea, I think, was to communicate her disapproval of Halloween by not participating in what she saw as a demonic, devil worshipping ritual. Every year I heard stories of satanic ritual human sacrifice, blood-thirsty covens, and witches casting spells in the deepest night. To combat the forces of evil at work in the world, she prayed in her otherworldly language and kept my brother and me cloaked in the darkened house, as if to protect our spirits from the evil that floated by outside the door. But other years, my mother seemed less threatened, and she adopted a proactive attitude toward the trick-or-treaters. Seeing as how Halloween was a prime opportunity for evangelism, she handed out pencils and stickers on which the words Jesus Loves You smiled up at the recipients.

I have only one memory of trick-or-treating as a child—probably about the age of five, before my mother developed her stance against the holiday. I dressed up as an angel, gold pipe-cleaner halo circled about my head. From there, the years ticked by void of trick-or-treating, and by the time I was 23 and pregnant with Oldest, I felt seriously deprived. I needed to make some magic happen—better late than never—so I dressed up as Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats) and, guitar case in hand, paraded around our neighborhood with friends who were also too old for trick-or-treating.

Aside from the ever surfacing awkwardness of being a pregnant 23-year-old dressed as a pussycat-slash-rock star who finagled free candy from elderly residents in the neighborhood, trick-or-treating was all I hoped it’d be. Candy. Lots of it. Free. Mine.

I have to admit, though, that since then I’ve become rather grinchy about Halloween. I can’t say that I’ve adored the holiday in its total Halloweeny essence (this dislike having nothing to do with the Halloween religious hysteria of my childhood). Pumpkins, yes. Dress up, okay. Candy, not so much (!) anymore since Fair Trade labeling and Food, Inc. And the elaborately designed graveyard markers in my neighbor’s front yard don’t really float my boat. Nor do the mock lynchings in the yard on Friendship Street. And the historic old barn on the Scott Blvd extension, the one that gleams rustic red in the October sun, is desecrated by a petroleum-based 8-foot-in-diameter black-and-blue spider and scarecrow bodies with sunken eye sockets and shriveled-up gray heads. Plastic skeletons are tethered to the split-rail fence and another faux corpse hangs by the head from the peak of the barn’s roof.

When Oldest was in preschool, she was scared by all the songs about witches’ brew and ghosts and boo and monsters. And I wanted to cover her eyes and her ears when we set out from the house anytime between October 1 and mid November.  

I’m a bit standoffish when it comes to most commercialized and holiday-themed lawn décor, and you won’t find an inflatable reindeer/Santa/Easter bunny/leprechaun in my front lawn. Ever. You won’t even find a flag on the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day (not that I don’t value our freedom or our veterans). However, none of those put me in a foul mood the way the sight of that beautiful barn swimming in all that deathly plastic crap does. Call me prudish, innocent, naïve, “too good” (as Jane Austen’s Lizzie calls her sister Jane). I'll take whatever label you want to dole out.  I just can't get behind all that death.

"Happy Halloween!" strangers at the grocery store sing out to my children and Oldest fires right back, "We don't celebrate Halloween" in her precocious, smart, 8-year-old way.  My face flushes and I duck my head away from these strangers who size me up, likely wondering how I could deprive my children of  the likes of the holiday.  I stutter and sometimes explain our alternate activities, what Oldest has begun calling Falloween: a kick-ass treasure hunt with clues and suspense and little gifts along the way, culminating at Grandpa's house for more (and better) gifts, apple cider, and oatmeal cookies. Sometimes we cut apart pumpkins, scooping their inner fibrous centers out onto cookie sheets and roasting the seeds.   Occasionally, the girls look longingly at the trick-or-treaters, but other times they're so busy with the fun of our hunt, giggling at the clues we've rhymed and written up, that they just don't care. 

Hopefully they won't ever feel deprived to the point that impending motherhood will create the need to re-enact childhood lost. If I ever see Middle or Oldest, round-bellied and wearing cat ears on Halloween night, I guess I'll have my answer.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Raven Street Notes # 2


This week, I am thankful for fall weather and leaves and that Oldest and Middle are big enough now to rake and not only rake, but actually get the leaves curbside where the city’s leaf vacuuming machine will suck them up. I’m thankful for the Tiny and how she smiles at me almost every time she sees me anew, and then some, and how she responds to my voice and does this little laughy cry that sounds like heh heh heh heh when she wants to get some milk.

I’m also thankful for good friends—one A.B.G. who spent time with me last night—and good conversations.


This morning, on my way out the door, Oldest sized me up and with a quizzical expression on her face asked, “Did you already get ready for the day?”


I’m wondering if I have some serious work to do in the Department of Appearances, Social.


Two years ago this fall, I was miserable for a good reason. My brother had died. I didn’t know how to put together all the pieces of myself that seemed to have fallen apart. Even though I love fall, I think of Henry at this time of year simply because of the association of seasons, simply because that when, two years ago, the leaves were falling off the silver maples in the front yard, I stood at the window and cried.

There were many people who condoled, sent cards, visited and cried with me. One was a woman in her forties named Ellen. She was Oldest and Middle’s preschool teacher. She had a master’s degree in education yet chose to spend her time with 3- and 4-year-olds making very little money because she loved kids that much. She was smart and she was nurturing. When she heard somehow that Henry had died, she sent me a card and in it she told me how she’d lost one brother in childhood, another to the attacks of on the World Trade Center. She was part of the constellation of brotherless people I was beginning to map out in my life, and she and I struck up more conversation, more emails, and I found comfort in knowing there was a person like Ellen out in the world—someone who’s integrated loss and grief and continued on to parent her own children well, to give back to the community in life-affirming ways. Since then she’s kept tabs on Oldest and Middle, and came to visit when Tiny was born, bearing gifts for all three children.

On Tuesday of this week I got a call that Ellen had died. No one knows why. She didn’t come to the preschool and she didn’t pick up her own daughters, elementary- and high-school-aged, after school. She was found at home, in bed. Today, I went to her memorial service and found it nearly impossible to tolerate the fact that her daughters have lost their amazing, devoted mother. I cried for them and prayed that these little chickies would somehow be strengthened to move and grow into the women they were already on their way to becoming—strong, life-affirming, and joyful—before their mother slipped away.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bidding Adieu to Mrs. Bennett (thoughts on church)

I grew up attending lots and lots of charismaticky church services. By the time I was 8 years old I was used to sitting around with coloring books in hotel all-purpose rooms while grown-ups whooped and hollered under fluorescent lighting during church services. They spoke in tongues, screamed at demons, fell down on the floor, shook, wept, roared, and ran in circles around the building.

On into my teens, I was accustomed to these sorts of manifestations of the faith, yet knew that a church service such as what I've described was the sort of place that would utterly alienate most of my friends. Eventually, even I felt alienated.

It's not that I didn't believe God was present in the midst of all of the ruckus-y parts of charismatic church life. I think God is present everywhere and moves through a multitude of cultural expressions. I believe God can be found in the seemingly foolish, the seemingly unwise. I often found God in the midst of the ruckus, and sometimes I was part of that ruckus. Most importantly, I believed that what mattered most was the content and meaning, not necessarily the form.

But sometimes the ruckus had little discernible meaning behind it. Charismatic culture was often a little too much like Jane Austen's Mrs. Bennett (a la the A&E version of Pride and Predjudice). Mrs. Bennett's family loved her and were loyal, but there was no reasoning with her hysteria. Her children scrambled desperately to cover over the shame of their mother's rudeness, impolitic judgments, and her almost theatrical episodes of "nerves."

This week I went to a conference with a line-up of speakers from all over the world. I was excited to hear one in particular, who always, in my estimation demonstrates great intellect coupled with great faith. But the other speakers, who I had not heard of nor heard speak before, were quite different, and shockingly so. For no discernible good reason, one of them began screaming a prayer that lasted 15 minutes and made the Tiny look quite nervous. While the speaker screamed, he encouraged others to do likewise. Some people in the room seemed excited by all this commotion, energized even. But I just felt tired. There were other instances like this at the conference, too tedious to detail at length. As I backed away slowly from the room full of shouting pastors and other church leaders, I realized how little tolerance I have for Mrs. Bennett these days. I don't want to sit at her bedside and make sense of her hysteria. I don't want to play audience to her drama or find myself in the situation of having to explain or defend her at all.  She makes everything simply too complicated.

But I feel a as if I've experienced a death--the death of a very distant great-aunt. Old Aunt Bennet, who I haven't visited in so very long, has passed on from the accumulated eras of my life.  And I bid her adieu with a heart full of small regrets. I was not successful at making her make sense. Or of making sense of her for myself.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Bucolic Plague (a readerly response)

The answer to why we bought the Beekman could fill the entire paper. Because we wanted a place to get away from the city. Because we wanted to grow our own food. Because the place looks like it belongs on the cover of a magazine, and we wanted a life that looked like the cover of a magazine. Because no one else in the area had the means to take care of such a high-maintenance historic building, and it seemed like a generous task to take on. Because I’m turning forty next year and wanted something to show for it. Because we’re vain, kindhearted, ambitious, shallow, deep, humble, trendy, old-fashioned, rich, poor, proud, and vulnerable. Those are merely the beginning of the reasons we bought the Beekman.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his partner Brent are disenchanted New Yorkers. Purcell, a former-drag- queen-turned-advertising-exec, and Brent, a trained medical doctor who works on staff at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as her resident expert in health and wellness, stumble upon the two-hundred-year-old Beekman Mansion during one of their weekend countryside excursions. Enamored by the mansion’s history and charm and the draw of a country life, the men find themselves suddenly caught between their New York City world and the world of Sharon Springs, where they experiment with raising chickens and goats and start their own vegetable garden. The financial demands of the mansion’s upkeep, however, grow increasingly urgent, and the men find themselves hardly able to keep up with basic farm maintenance, even with the hired help of local Farmer John.

At Christmas time, a stroke of genius inspires the men to gift Martha Stewart with homemade goat’s milk soap, straight from the Beekman farm goats. Martha loves it so much that she invites Brent and the goats on her show, just as the men are feverishly strategizing ways to save themselves from financial ruin. Such exposure ignites a slew of goat milk orders, which provides a slow trickle of revenue to the partners, and spurs them to launch a web site featuring various aspects of farming life, from gardening to recipes to pie baking. It’s not enough, however, and as the recession worsens and both men lose their jobs in the city, the story becomes the struggle to maintain their hold on the mansion and their relationship with one another.

The Bucolic Plague is a charmer that pulled me in with its descriptions of the historic Beekman Crypt; the colorful residents of Sharon Springs; Josh’s attempts at heirloom vegetable gardening; and the insider scoop on Martha Stewart, the comical foil against whom Josh and Brent judge their own domestic and bucolic adventures. And while the author’s given lines of dialogue are the best in every conversation and witty, perhaps, to a suspcious degree, I came to care about the pair and found myself rooting for their success.  If you like memoir with long subtitles (I do!), memoirs that tell you how somebody got from point A to point B (me too), or memoirs that wouldn’t exist without the book advances that funded the author’s point-A-to-point-B experience (sometimes), you’d probably enjoy this book. It’s a little bit The Year of Living Biblically. A little bit Eat, Pray, Love. And it’s definitely Animal, Vegetable, Miracle meets what Kilmer-Purcell calls “farmer drag.”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Egg-Timer Intrusions

Last month I blogged about the book Soul Revolution and the 60-60 experiment. The general idea, an old one, is paying attention to God in our lives. Soul Revolution's method for getting this done is by setting new-fangled devices, a phone/clock/watch, to buzz/beep/vibrate every 60 minutes, reminding us to check in with God, pray, think about how God fits into the present moment whether we are deliriously happy, contented, frustrated, angry, etc, etc.  This week we are beginning a church-wide 60-60 experiment (that's every sixty minutes for sixty days minus sleep time).

I started again yesterday, which happened to be the hardest homeschooling day of my life to date. It started at 4 a.m., when the baby awoke. Then, someone was screaming from about 8:30 in the morning until 5:00 at night.  At one point, I put a child on the front porch to quiet the house. One child got swollen, red eyes from her screaming. They were still red three hours later. One child hated and cried through math. One child threw herself on the floor because I said no TV/clean your room/do your schoolwork. Oldest and Middle walked to school for art class, except they got in a fight on the way, stopped, lost track of time, and didn't show up at school until after art class had started and I had exchanged conversation with the principal, the school secretary, and Grandpa (who went off in search of them). In case you're wondering, they were playing "spy" and fighting about who was going to deliver a secret message they imagined was written on a dirty scrap of paper encountered on the way. (Death. To. Litter.) In the meantime I had messages and phone calls I hardly had time to return from two friends, in crises of marriage, faith, and finances.

In the midst of all of this, my cell phone's egg timer was ringing politely every hour.  Right.  I felt like shouting at the intrustion. God! You've gotta do something here. But I prayed for patience and creativity. I prayed to say the right thing at the right moment to the child whose emotional melt down was begining to wear away at my soul. I texted back one friend: "Pumping milk and waging math battles." There was very little give. 

Until. I found myself in the bathroom with Oldest, who was in desperate need of a bang trim. "It tickles," she cried, as I held the scissors to her forehead.  She scrunched up her eyes, and meowed the most fearful bang-trimming angst I've ever heard. We were in a hurry; her running club started in 15 minutes. "Just hold still!" I pleaded, angling at another portion of her hair. "If you hold still I can do this quickly!" And then I really looked at her face, this silly, scrunched-up, fearful-even-though-I-know-I-shouldn't-be face, and I giggled.  She opened her eyes. "What?"  And I giggled again. And then she giggled. And then I was laughing hard and trying to cut at the same time and she warned sternly, through her giggling, "Mom! Stop! You shouldn't try to cut while you're laughing." So I pulled myself together, relieved that we were okay. 

The day ended at 8 p.m. when I caught the big girls in bed with writing utensils and notebooks well after lights out.  After confiscating them, I threw myself on my bed, turned off the lights, texted one of the friends who I hadn't had time to call during the day, and closed my eyes.

This morning, a new day began. This time, with my dropping a lightbulb on the floor, shards of glass flashing around my bare feet. My husband tried to flip our massive king-sized mattress over in our room. In the process, the headboard that was anchored to the wall came crashing down. And I remembered that yesterday he told me our garbage disposal was broken.   Messy, messy life. In the meantime this egg timer rang in the middle of it all, every hour.

You're here, I keep thinking. Right. Right. Right.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Raven Street Notes #1

The post title is basically my way of saying that there are a bunch of random little tidbits floating around in my head this week, not one long enough to merit a post of its own. I guess that means it was a short-attention-span kind of week.
I’ve lately just realized how very, very tired I am. Weird thing is that for about six months I’ve slept 4 or 5 hours a night. Suddenly, this is not cutting it and I feel exhausted. Because of that, homeschooling is killing me and it’s not the teaching that’s hard. It’s the many fights Oldest and Middle put up about math and flash cards in particular. We can spend a lot of time *talking* about Math and flash cards and not very much time doing them.
Tonight I listened to the beginning of a series of teachings about parenting. The speaker suggested that the way most parents try to control their kids’ behavior is by instilling in them great fear of punishment: Parents mostly parent through various levels of intimidation. (This is not a great strategy, says the speaker.) At first I thought, it’s true. And then, I agree. And then, but how else should we do it? I haven’t gotten to the part of the series where he gives the answer. The speaker said something else—and I agree with this too—that God is not up in heaven trying to control our every move. Instead God gives us all manner of freedom and allow us to use our freedom in the way we see fit. Of course, there are often all sorts of natural consequences that come about from our choices. If we’re paying attention, we’ll learn something from them and repeat or modify our original course the next time around. Maybe this is a little bit how we should be raising our kids—asking them what will you do with your freedom? and How does using your freedom this way affect your relationships with others?

I think I will try out these questions the next time we do flash cards.
Oldest was in desperate need of some new clothes this month. She’s been kinda rag-tag all summer, and I’ve been trying to convince her to hand-down the beloved too-tight, too-short items to Middle. So I picked some stuff up for her tonight that I thought she’d love. She’s drawn to athletic stuff, especially now that she’s joined Girls on the Run. And I have to say I feel a deep welling of relief when I look at my smiling daughter in warm up pants and a sweatshirt. She looks as wholesome as she really is; she's all Mister Roger's Neighborhood without a hint of MTV-music-video.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Selling Jesus

I couldn’t’ help it. The refrain rang in my head like the tale of Paul Revere’s ride: The Mormon’s are coming! The Mormon’s are coming! In all fairness, the two young women in floral nylon skirts and short-sleeved sweaters walking past our house on a warm Saturday in September might have been Protestant Christians or Jehovah’s Witnesses or PETA members (on second thought, PETA probably doesn’t carry small leather-bound books under one arm).

I pulled into our driveway just as they were passing our house and on to the next one. Running inside, I proclaimed, “The Mormon’s went by! –Or Jehovah’s Witnesses!” to my husband. “Did they stop here??”

“No.” He looked puzzled.

“Oh,” I answered, a bit crestfallen, “maybe because we have the sign up on the front door.” Nap Time. Please do not ring bell. (At our house these days, it’s always naptime.)

Usually, I am mildly intoxicated from my encounters with door-to-door proselytizers-of-faith (POFs). There’s something anomalous and quaint about the idea of peddling citizenship in heaven from door to door, the way the girls and I are peddling popcorn balls these days. Not that I’ve ever been close to helping one of these POFs close a deal, so to speak, but I find the theological discussions fascinating (assistant pastor and religion major, here), and it’s nice to rub shoulders out of the blue with others who share concerns about faith and eternity.

Yet, (I speak as one completely ignorant about conversion rates from this type of proselytizing when I say) I don’t imagine it a very fruitful endeavor. In spite of my initial delight in encountering POFs, at some point my enthusiasm turns to dismay when I realize that they want something from me—a conversion, a profession of newly found faith, a commitment to show up at the neighborhood ward on Sunday. I begin to think that they find my shaved head suspect. I can feel their disappointment, maybe a hint of judgment. I let them down easy. I thank them. I reassure them that I pray. I smile encouraglingly and send them on their way.

In selling popcorn balls, part of my discomfort is that we’re asking people to take a risk, to shell out two dollars for a product with no consumer testimonials or FDA approvals attached to it. (For all they know, we’ve shellacked the balls with cat urine and rolled them in a litter box.) We’re asking them to give us something—two dollars—without a guarantee of getting something good in return. It’s the same with the approach taken by some POFs, and it’s the reason I don’t do what those young ladies in the floral nylon skirts were doing. 

I do talk with people about my faith in God. But I’m not into random propositions of salvation. I prefer people get to know Jesus via consumer testimonial or free trial offer rather than door-to-door, sign-on-the-dotted-line sales. My inexpert opinion is that people are more likely to make a move toward faith, toward God, when they have a sense that there’s something good God wants to do for them. With door-to-door sales, however, there's a lot of energy spent on merely leveling the social awkwardness that has arisen between them and a travel-weary, nylon- or suit-clad POF.

If I could, I’d bring some sights and smells and sounds along on our popcorn ball sales trips—a video, perhaps, of marshmallows warming into melted butter; the pop and crunch of yellow corn kernels fluffing into white; and the aroma of caramelized sugars. In the same way, if someone asked me about my faith, I would tell them how God healed me a few years ago of a 17-year-long affair with asthma. About how my eyesight was miraculously restored and I no longer needed the glasses I’d been wearing since tenth grade. I would talk about the love that has lifted off torment from mistakes I've made, and I’d talk about the peace that sometimes—often, even—I am able to tap into during the worst kinds of trouble. Also: the quiet voice I hear as the voice of God that lays so many fears to rest.

But then I’d probably just shut up. And live. And pray for their blessing and their good. And be a good friend. And let them decide what, if anything, they want from me and what, if anything, they need from God.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

God's Popcorn Money

If you follow me on Facebook at all, you’ll know that this weekend Middle and Oldest (with assistance from me) started a popcorn ball sales endeavor. The motivation is to teach them about money, having their own business, accounting for expenses, etc, etc.They each earn a dollar for every ten dollars made. Another dollar goes to me (coffee money!) for my toil in the kitchen, another to charity. What we don’t use to purchase more supplies will go into savings for Christmas gifts for their beloved cousins.
Oldest has been asking me for months if we can take up residence in a stall at the local Farmer's Market, wanting to sell our garden strawberries or her home-mixed olive oil-and-vinegar dressing, requests I've politely discouraged as we lack volume in strawberries and salad dressing materials would cost us a pretty penny, not to mention I don't have an entrepreneurial bone in my body. But we got the idea for popcorn balls from a friend, whose been selling with her children the last couple weeks. Since Iowa City is all Hawkeye-crazy, she tied up their balls in black and gold ribbon and the $2 treats were gone in a flash. (Yes, you read that right—TWO dollars apiece!)

It seemed easy enough, so we began our project on Sunday afternoon with a ribbonless test batch of 8 and a sales tag of $1. Who knew how things would go in our “east side” market? Surprisingly well. For the most part, people seemed to drop everything they were doing at the sight of Middle and Oldest. “Hi, we’re selling popcorn balls,” was all Oldest said, and the ladies and gentlemen answering would reply straightaway with, “Okay. Let me get my wallet.” It gives the adage about taking candy from a baby a whole new twist.

I stood back, at the end of the driveway or on the sidewalk, the parental presence authenticating the girls’ venture, and waved a hello or called a thank you as the transaction wound down. Calm I may have appeared, but I found my heart beating crazily, my breathing shallow; I had a fierce desire to run back to our house and leave the girls on their own. A saleswoman I am not.

And guilty. I felt incredibly guilty. You might be interested to know that up until that first moment, I would not have purchased a $1 popcorn ball from children wandering the neighborhood. What are the ingredients? Who made it? Were refined sugars used? Is it organic? Those would have been my concerns. Maybe if someone came along and said, Hi Lady, we made these popcorn balls in a nut-free kitchen. They are made with organic popcorn and organic butter and sweetened with agave nectar. Then I’d bite.

Well, after a successful first day, we fancied up our product with different ingredients, adding ribbon and special wrapping and changing the price to $2. (I should note that we did use organic popcorn and rbgh-free butter in our recipe.) And shockingly, the girls made 14$ from selling six popcorn balls (if you do the math, you’ll see they got $2 in tips). I did notice some balking at the price (Two dollars? They must be really good popcorn balls!), but that didn’t stop them from purchasing. Every time a customer went off to fetch money, Oldest looked back at me, her eyes wide and eyebrows raised in surprise at the ease in which cash was filling up her little purse.

Easy as it was, $2 felt like way too much to be charging just so they could make some money for xmas presents. Until I remembered that a portion was being donated and maybe we could give more away than we planned.

My husband and I have for the most part always given away %10 percent of our income—either to a church or other organization doing work that helps people or to individuals directly. When we talk to the girls about this we talk about “giving money to God,” which is shorthand for putting our money toward purposes that line up with what we think are God’s values—caring for people, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for those in need, etc. So, when I told the girls I’d put some of the sales cash in an envelope labeled “God’s Popcorn Money,” Middle (appropriately a literalist at 5 years old) asked, “How do we just give the money to God?” And so ensued my breaking-down-of-the-figurative language for the little one, about how we wanted to put the money toward helping people, which led me to recall a blog I’ve been reading recently by a woman named Carrien.

She’s a homeschooling mom of four, living in SoCal with her husband. Together they are raising money and expanding an operation called The Charis Project for a children’s home in Thailand. The kids there are mostly orphaned Burmese children, many of whom have fled their country of origin to escape from the government's attacks on minority ethnic groups.  Many of the chilren's parents and other family members have been murdered during attacks on their villages. Just last week Carrien was asking for donations and/or letter-writers for some of these children, who so desperately need friends.

So, in the middle of our conversation, the girls and I went to the Charis Project web site and read about 11-year-old Saewang*. My voice caught in my throat as I read aloud to the girls about his interest in art, how he wants to be a teacher when he grows up, and how his parents were killed during the conflicts in Burma. Oldest had tears in her eyes, and she decided right then and there where she thought we should send God's popcorn money. Middle and I agreed.

*If you are interested in getting involved or sponsoring one of these children, please check out the web site links above and you'll see how to go about it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Few Quick Takes

I’m reviewing a book for Foreword Reviews called High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. I wonder if this is quite a serendipitous pairing, me and this book. Even though I am not a doctor or lawyer or corporate executive, I think I might be “high octane,” whatever that exactly means (I’m only on page 25). And it makes me think that there are probably a lot of mums out there who aren’t necessarily swimming in the corporate world and yet are managing an AWFUL lot in and outside their homes.

Rejection letter: I got a second rejection on my nonfiction manuscript today. It only took five days short of 4 months to hear back from this press (PLU grads of 2010, please note this is better than the 6 months we talked about at residency). So anyway, I figure I should get another ten more of these at least before anything remotely promising happens. Somebody pinch me. I think I’m starting to feel like a real writer.

In the dead space of my life these days, the ones where no one’s talking and the baby remains focused on nursing, rather than bobbing her head in the direction of anything emiting sound over the decibel level belonging to the buzz of a mosquito, I’ve been thinking about all this stuff I have, and how I don’t really want my life to be weighed down by this many things. At the same time, I don’t want to part with my things because, well, I don’t know why. I think about the second chapter of the book of Acts a lot, about how the believers were “together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” I would like to have so little attachment to my things that selling them for someone else’s good would be easy. But I don’t, and it’s not. So I decided to do something about it. I had a few things people needed, things that would make their lives easier, and I gave those things away or lent them out, sent them off into the world. And I'm trusting that my resources will be replenished when I need them, at just the right time, in just the right way.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Faux Peace

I am a control freak. I try to hide it, but the people I live with know it all too well. Mostly, I reason, I just don’t like messes because they screw around with my inner peace. And messes have to be cleaned up. I hate to clean up. If these people I live with didn’t make messes in the first place, there would be less to clean up and I would have a lot more inner peace.

If you have children and attempt to implement this philosophy, you’ll find that you spend a lot of time telling them to clean up their messes or not to make them at all. You’ll find that instead of focusing on the beautiful, creative, and imaginative work they are doing (say, a painting inspired by the artist Joan Miro), you are noticing first and foremost that they’ve set up their easel over the rug you just washed and that, before setting up the easel, they failed to put away five boxes worth of Barbie dolls, tutus, art supplies, and Legos, all of which, since yesterday’s clean-up, managed to take up residence on said rug.

And, let’s face it, elementary-school-aged kids need a lot of coaching in order to stay tidy. They require constant haranguing, which tends to interrupt their play. Are you really using that sock as your car right now or can we put that in the dirty clothes basket? Really—that copy of Amelia Bedelia lying on the floor is your ‘post office’?

Haranguing also interferes with my inner peace.

I’m doing a lot of self-talk today,  telling myself to sit in the mess and be thankful. Also, to shut my mouth because I don’t want the thing these kids remember most to be my reminding them for the twelve-thousandth time to take off their shoes at the back door. Or that I couldn’t see my daughter’s Miro-inspired masterpiece because I had eyes only for all the Crap Made in China.

On another note, I do have the sense to realize that inner peace so dependent on my surroundings is not anything to write home about and, in fact, isn’t true peace at all. That kinda peace is just an anxiety disorder at a masquerade ball. We live in a world of wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and floods and death and betrayal. That’s real Chaos. Not Barbies on the floor. I know what real peace feels and looks like because I’ve spent some time with it. (We’re friends, you see, but at times I’m not so good at keeping in touch.) I know that real peace, irresistible peace, likes to whisper in the middle of a life falling apart, do not be afraid, and you can’t help but follow its command.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Iowa: You Make Me Smile*

I’m a Midwesterner well-trained in Midwestern social graces. You’re so nice, my spunky friend Kate, from Portland, likes to say. Kate loves me, but she doesn’t necessarily tell me how nice I am as a compliment. In fact, she recently remarked on the understated fury in my graduate thesis: “You Iowa’d it up.” Meaning I was just a little too nice to characters who deserved such rage. While the jury’s out on that, Kate’s comment holds an inherent criticism of our Midwestern modus operandi: we’re so nice we don’t always say what we feel.

Don’t get me wrong. Iowans are wonderful people. When my friends move to the country’s coastal areas, they complain that the people there aren’t friendly, that they do not say hello or move their shopping carts out of someone’s way at the store. They say they miss Iowa and Iowans. And it’s true that we do have our own charming brand of being in the world—a sort of generic Judeo-Christian kindness, easily identified. Of course, not everyone exudes the Iowa aura, and it’s dangerous to generalize about anything these days because there are a million exceptions and outliers. Still, stereotypes exist, at times, for good reason:

You see, Iowa defers to people in line at the post office and asks, “How are you?” when jogging past another exercise enthusiast on the street. Iowa smiles and coos at the children of strangers; she pets unfamiliar canines and asks after names and pedigrees or lack thereof. When sitting in a doctor’s office, Iowa does not balk at a fellow patient presenting her with photographs of grandchildren or instructions on canning tomatoes. Iowa bakes muffins. She brings meals to the sick and post-partum. She goes to church/synagogue/temple/Habitat for Humanity on Sundays. She volunteers, coordinating grass-roots movements, flood clean-up, feeding children, and subsidizing electric bills for low-income families. If Iowa says she’ll be there, she’ll be there. If Iowa says she’ll do it, she will.**

If one is too forward, out of touch with the rules governing social etiquette—perhaps they ask to borrow Iowa’s chapstick, or they do not tuck away the photos after a moment and return to the magazine on their lap—well, Iowa smiles anyway (if a bit discouragingly) and with grace because, for the most part, Iowa enjoys small talk with strangers, and can muster a sincere response to the picture of a dimply child presented for her admiration.

Yet, I think Iowa hates to be on the asking end of lawnmower borrowing (she wouldn’t mind loaning her own). And as far as cars go, Iowa would really rather not lend hers, but feels it’s the right thing to do when she has a friend in need. She’ll worry, Iowa will, about the friend’s driving record but feel impolite asking after it. Instead, she’ll hold her breath and genuflect, praying the vehicle returns to with four doors and a pristine windshield. In the doctor’s office, Iowa dissuades herself from proffering pictures of her own children to random strangers because, well, why would they care? Wouldn’t that just encroach on the time/space/boundaries of said strangers? And while Iowa works so very hard at taking care of everyone else, she can’t always take care of herself.

You see, sometimes the excess rain ruins a harvest or the company lays her off or her father gets sick with cancer and she needs to take time off work to care for him. Then, it’s hard for Iowa to ask for help, for a meal, for a ride. You see, she thinks she should have it together. She grew up on the Protestant work ethic. You work hard and you are kind to others who are down and out, though the reason others are down and out, well, it might have to do with drugs or sex out of wedlock or just plain laziness; there’s usually someplace they went wrong--you can trace their demises back to one-too-many casino trips, a shady business deal, or what they did after the senior high hayrack ride, behind Farmer Lotz’s barn.

When Iowa struggles to care for herself, she doesn’t want the rest of the world wondering where she went wrong. What went wrong. What moral failure led to her current financial predicament or broken marriage. And she certainly doesn’t want people musing aloud, behind her back, which they certainly will do. So she stays silent as long as she can bear it and chins up and buckles down and still helps the neighbors, the poorer, the postpartum and the sick.

Am I too hard on Iowa? I don’t mean to be. I admire her courage, tenacity, and a generous spirit that affirms humanity in its essence. She is a little too judgmental (of herself and others), a little too gossipy, and she stubbornly clings to this Herculean notion that she must brave the fierce and choppy waters of hardship alone, lay a smooth finish on all the rough-and-tumble. Thing is, she really doesn’t have to. Sometimes I just want to wrap an arm around her shoulders and whisper, There there, you can let it out now. Just say what you really feel.

*An Iowa state slogan

**Lutheran pastor Don Thompson describes a Midwestern work ethic in this way: http://www.worldmag.com/articles/17016

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Party at My . . . [the Real Reason I Love] Facebook!

We’ve all met the socially inappropriate party guest in our travels—you know, the kind who doesn’t know when to stop talking or how to have a back-and-forth (non-monologue-esque) sort of exchange with another human being, but seamlessly moves from one self-related topic to the next without so much as a glance at their audience or a pause for breath. I muse at individuals like this and think of them as boundary-less wanderers-into-social-contexts. Usually, I smile along, nod and uh-huh my way through our encounters, rationalizing that they are lonely, learning , and/or a bit narcissistic.

And the more self-aware I grow as a human being, the more I notice my own loneliness, learning-curve, and narcissism (HEY—look at me! I have a BLOG!). And while I’d loathe the day I find myself the socially inappropriate party guest, a boundary-less, discomfort-causer to people I care about and truly want to know, there’s a piece of me that wants to put myself all out there—my thoughts, obsessions, the contents of daydreams and nightmares, the things my children say that I find oh-so-terribly quaint/funny/ironic, the lack of sleep last night, the Tiny’s first smile, the pictures of bath time and birthday parties. Some days this leads me to worry I have the Michael Scott (see The Office) brand of narcissism. Other days I tell myself that I’m an entertainer/writer/wannabe stand-up comic—and don’t they all need an audience?

I’ll admit with reluctance, sincerity, and risk to my oh-so-carefully constructed social persona that this is one of the reasons I love Facebook. It’s the socially appropriate way to be socially inappropriate (of course, there are limits). The ultimate dinner party, Facebook allows you to invite 549 friends to your house and interject over the dinner conversation seemingly random statements such as “Lawnmower broke. Neighbors unhappy,” or produce a picture of yourself in a headscarf with the caption, “For Phil. The Mennonite Look.” While most of your 549 guests will just ignore you, chances are one or five or twelve are gonna LOL or LIKE or comment that you look great in a kerchief, like you’re 18 again, or they’ll praise the good looks of the fruit of your loins, which really means, on some level, they’re saying you look like a supermodel. –Right?

Narcissism aside, I don’t know how I survived having my first child. There was no Facebook. No smart phone with which to tap away at while breastfeeding. I had to—eek—call a friend or—eek—schedule a playdate if I wanted to network socially. FB, myspace, instant chat, tweeting and text messaging get a bad rap from social critics who say we use them too often and in lieu of face-time. I see their point, and I agree. But something has to be better than nothing, and some days the online social networking is all we’ve got in an increasingly work-from-home/work-at-home/work-in-the-tiny-cell-that-is-your-cubicle kind of world.

Social networking=social affirmation: I updated my status. Therefore, I am.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Previews from the Book Shelf

I have more books to read lined up on my shelf than I know what to do with. I'll be lucky if I get through all of them this year, and the shelf is growing steadily fuller with each passing week it seems.  Have you taken a look recently at the titles on your books-to-read pile and thought about what those titles suggest about you, their future reader?  Here are a few of my upcoming reads and why they're on my shelf.

Why? Because I am a sucker for subtitles (this book has two!) like "One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible," "24 Hours of Christian Television," "A Year of Food Life" and "One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia."  I got this book free from Harper because I told them I wanted to review it on my blog; you'll soon be hearing more about the two former Manhattanites.

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street
Why? Again: subtitle.  Also, I'm a sucker for nostalgia and I heard the author on NPR two years ago.  Once it arrived, a year and a half ago, I wasn't quite sure if I could take 379 pages, with index, of nostalgia.  But now that I"m post-MFA, I'll give it a real go.

Hell and Back: The First Death
This is a fantasy/thriller novel my friend, Steve, from church just published. He's a prolific writer and gets novel ideas in a flash and then spends like two days getting all three hundred pages out of his system (or something like that!) before rewriting and editing. He graciously handed me a free copy on Sunday with the words, "Hey. Try fiction."

The Devil's Child.
This is a book of poetry by my faculty mentor in the MFA program, Fleda Brown. Over lunch this summer, she told me that the poems were written out of wrenching interviews with a woman whose childhood was comprised of Satanic ritual abuse, incest, and other forms of domestic violence. I think this might be Fleda's darkest subject.  She did, however, just come out with a lovely book of memoiristic essays this past spring.

The Last Lecture
No subtitles here and I"m worried it'll be too too sad in light of the book's irony: The book is based on the actual last lecture of Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Cargegie Mellon, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer just before he delivered it. I'm worried this book will push down on my psyche, filling me with the wrong sort of worry about how I"m living my life, achieving my childhood dreams, investing in my children's lives and well beings.  But the cowriter was Jeffrey Zaslow, who wrote The Girls From Ames, and that seemed to be written at just the right pitch.

Happy reading, y'all.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm Just Sayin'

When he glanced up again, he noticed at her side a much older lady, as warty and wrinkled as the ugliest toad that ever lived. A strange pair, Gawain thought: one a wretched old hag with an evil eye, a hairy chin and a warty nose, the other a paragon of beauty with a face like an angel. But I must not let my mind think on her any further. You’re in a chapel, Gawain, and she’s another man’s wife.*

It’s been fifteen years since I read anything about King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Still, I love tales of adventure, of conquest and victory, and so do Oldest and Middle. This week, I found myself reading aloud the above adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and was stunned to note that the only female characters in the entire story were either lovely young seductresses or ugly, evil old ladies. In every other scene was the most repetitious description of these women: “the ancient crone,” “the hideous old hag.” As for the “lovely lady.…Her kiss was so inviting, so tantalizingly tender. ‘Oh, Gawain,’ she breathed, ‘forget you are a knight just this once. Forget your chivalry and your honor.'"

“It was lucky for Gawain that she had reminded him at that moment of his knightly virtues. ‘Dear Lady,’ he said, desperately trying to reign himself in. ‘You have a gentle lord as a husband, who has shown me nothing but the greatest hospitality and friendship. I would not and I will not ever cheat him or dishonor him. We can talk of love all you want, lady, but that is all.’”

First, I was trying not to choke while I read this aloud and second, trying to edit the dialogue on the fly, not wanting to risk the girls catching on to the meaning of Gawain "forgetting himself" while in the embraces of this temptress.

Third, I shouldn't be surprised.  The whole evil/ugly/old v. lovely/pretty/young/irresistible female dynamic has been Disney-fied since the middle of the twentieth century.  King Arthur after all is just closer to the origin.  And speaking of origins, in church on Sunday, our pastor was talking, metaphorically, about taking a good path in life. He mentioned this illustration from Proverbs, in which the writer warns his offspring not to be led astray into a path of destruction, toward which the woman in chapter 7 lures him:

"Come, let's drink deep of love till morning; let's enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon. With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk."

There it is, a scene written right into Sir Gawain's story. 

In case the reasons for my distress are not apparent, let me speak clearly:  It's a shame that such timeless ethics (follow a righteous path/don't sleep with other people's wives and husbands) are presented in ways that underscore the stereotype of woman=seductress/tempter/evil/path to destruction, yet I understand that the biblical writer is presenting an ultimate ethic (make good, moral choices; bad things probably will happen when you sleep with someone else's spouse) via example that is nuanced with a cultural-bound world view and aimed at a particular audience of young men. 

I get it.  I'm just thinking of my girls, who are already trying to insert themselves into the biblical narrative, who already ask, "will women be rewarded too?" in response to the Sunday School memory verse that says God will reward each "man" for his righteousness.  These girls will read Proverbs someday, and do a lot of hermeneutical wrangling in order to get at the ultimate ethic, not to mention dismantling the portraiture of their gender so often portrayed in scripture as conniving, immoral, dangerous, and promiscuous.

They're also trying to insert themselves into King Arthur. Into Roman history and battles.  We have two Mycenaean shields in the basement, two Roman signums for battle, two double-headed war axes drying and ready to assemble tomorrow. I'm just sayin', I know that somewhere in their copious minds they are reconciling their love of action and adventure and goodness and ethics with the portrait always before them of the dainty/lovely/tempting/dangerous lady, trying to figure out who they are and who they're going to be.

*Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as told by Michael Morpurgo

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Adjusting to Now

Almost six years ago I had my second baby. I loved her and my first child immensely, as most parents do, and about as soon as she was six months old I was counting down the days till I could spend a large chunk of the week doing anything other than parenting and cooking/cleaning/laundering, etc, etc.  I felt incredibly jealous of the spouse who went to work every day while I stayed home in sweatpants and had no interesting adult conversations.  I chose to do that because we held to an ideology that it would be better for our kids if one of their parents were with them most of the time when they are very young. I held to that ideology just a hairsbreadth more than than I did to the belief that in order to stay sane I needed to be doing something with grown-ups or by myself and my computer for a big chunk of time during the week. (And playdates didn't count. Neither did Tot Time. Mercer Park parents, you know what I'm talking about.)

At about the hour I was going to lose my mind with our current set-up, I got accepted into a graduate program and I went back to school (on the side). I spent about 15 hours every week alone with my computer in an office that was all mine. And I joined the staff of a local church as a very part time assistant pastor. What followed was three years of being incredibly productive in and outside my home. And then I got pregnant--all good. Planned. And then I had my third child. And then I went on leave from my staff position. And then I graduated from my program with an MFA.

So right now, at this very moment, I have come full circle, returned to that static place I was in five years ago. I've carved space out of my life to have a third child, carved space out for the weeks and months of nightly wakings and feeding-on-demand and we-don't-know-why-but-she's-just-crying cries.  And on top of that, I have carved space out of my life to homeschool Oldest and Middle, as I've been doing the last couple years when I wasn't doing school work.

I have no deadlines hanging over my head. No papers to write. No books I have to read. No thesis to proofread. I have no meetings to attend. No mass emails to write and send to church members. No events to plan and organize. No announcements to give on Sunday mornings.

For about a week this was all astoundingly beautiful.

Then I felt bored and anxious.

The problem being that I have no meetings to attend. No administrative kinks to work out. No looked-forward-to emails from my professors (nor the time or energy to respond if I got them).  I should have known that I could not be happy resuming this sort of life indefinitely when my heart started beating harder over a book on biblical hermeneutics yesterday.  Just the name (Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis) probably flooded my brain with enough dopamine for a half-day high.

I don't know exactly what the future holds. I think the now that I'm in might last a bit longer--weeks, maybe months. So, I'm trying to live in this limbo with grace. It really doesn't last that long. Meanwhile, I'm walking my children to art classes, baking bread for their lunches, nursing five hours a day, handling tantrums, teaching math, and day dreaming about all the things I want to say and write and read and the people I will be having those conversations with someday soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Open Road Wasn't Quite Open to All"

This just in the New York times this morning feels particularly relevant after my last post.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Re-reading History (a readerly response to The Help)

I know, I am so late to Kathryn Stockett’s party. The Help, Stockett’s first novel, has been on the New York Times Bestseller’s list for 72 weeks now and I’m just getting to it, after having had it on my reading list for over a year. On top of being late, I’ve also been known to declare that I don’t have a “fiction bone in my body.” Kind of ironic seeing as how I just got an MFA in creative writing (my creative thesis was a non-fiction memoir). But there is fiction that moves me occasionally—and it’s Stockett’s kind.

The Help begins in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi, where “coloreds” and “whites” live on separate sides of towns, shop at separate grocery stores and use separate bathrooms. It’s the era of Jim Crow laws and JFK and the assassination of Medgar Evers and prominent activity of the KKK. In the novel, we encounter race relations on the domestic level, between colored women who work as maids and childcare providers and their white, middle-to-upper class female employers. Through first-person accounts of three different narrators, Stockett enters into what we can imagine is some of the best and worst of racial interactions; she highlights for the reader the paradox of a colored woman so intimately connected to the home of the white woman (an intimacy that can include an almost-maternal bond with the children of the white woman) while, in a million different ways, denigrated by the white racist sensibilities of the time and place.

Over the years, a friend of mine has made reference to an African American domestic worker who would come into her home in the sixties. She lived in the Chicago suburbs, so the racial inequity of the area was not quite the same flavor as Jackson, Mississippi’s (although present nonetheless). Still, as my friend aged, she began to wonder about this woman who left her own family and took a bus or two across town a few days a week to bathe my friend and her siblings, comb their hair, and clean my friend’s house. Stockett, too, had a relationship with an African American domestic worker, and she writes about Demetrie in an epilogue. Here, she draws on a quote from Howell Raines describing the difficulty of describing relationships like these:

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Yet I think Stockett gets the complexity and nuance of this matter across to the reader marvelously, through the accounts of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, as well as Skeeter, a young white college grad who teams up with Aibileen and Minny to push back, at great risk, against the system. Perhaps it is because of Stockett’s success on just this point that her book has been on the best seller list for over a year now.

On a personal note, The Help has caused me to reflect upon the time and place of my birth in our country’s history. I was born in May of 1978, a mere ten years and one month from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But I was not born in the Deep South, and neither of my parents were, either. I was raised first in California’s bay area and then in Iowa. I didn’t hear of lynching or cross burnings or Jim Crow laws until junior high, at least. Still, I was not oblivious to the attitudes and terminology my elders used for people of color (mild, but racist if you looked close enough), terminology that was so different from what I was learning in a post-civil-rights-movement and politically correct educational system in Iowa. To their credit, my parents’ childhoods occurred against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Their worlds were just coming into focus as the movement found its voice in a mainstream conversation. My grandparents were in the prime of their adulthood; their language, attitudes, and stances toward people of color were entrenched and influenced by the generation that went before them.

So even though I don’t come from a line of white supremacists, maybe what I've got is a healthy portion of white guilt. I am so painfully aware, after reading Stockett, of my privilege, of the relative ease of my conduct through the world. I know this is nothing to take to the presses; I am not the first to express this sentiment, nor is it the first or last time I ever will. I know the history of racism in our country is an old story. But don't we need to listen to old stories over and over again, let their truths and lessons wash over us, shape who we are and help us re-determine who we want to be?  

The Help

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Speaking of Paying Attention

I am gearing up for another year of home schooling.

For those of you who don’t know, I have three daughters. Oldest and Middle are in 3rd grade and kindergarten, respectively. The Tiny is only 2.5 months old and this fall will probably be learning about rolling over, without any assistance from me. But all the school planning for the big girls is exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. I’m not sure how I’ll juggle teaching with the presence of the Tiny. (The Tiny does not take regular naps yet and the Tiny has difficulty falling asleep at times.) This summer, with three kiddos in the house all clamoring for my attention at the same time some days, it was tempting to send Oldest and Middle off to entertain themselves. Since the Tiny was born, they’ve been entertaining themselves with lots of video games. Define lots? Often two hours a day. Once, when I was so desperate and sleep-deprived and couldn’t move off my bed, they played for three and a half hours.

Because Spouse was recently diagnosed with ADHD, it’s got me thinking a lot about brain health and the girls’ ability to pay attention to the non-media parts of the world they live in. In July, Iowa State University came out with this study, suggesting that attention problems in the classroom are related to the amount of “screen time” (video games/movies/tv) children have and that in fact, video game playing is a likely factor in the development of ADHD. I was telling Spouse the other day that I think I like our kids better when they aren’t playing video games so often. Ever since they started, Middle seems particularly agitated and has more difficulty sitting still and paying attention at dinner time and other moments during the day. She’s only 5, so this is sort of developmentally normal. Yet, it seems worse than it was before we started letting them play so much. According to this article the brain is “trained” by the sort of stimuli it becomes accustomed to. When stimulated for long periods of time by quick edits, flashy lights and fast, jarring sounds it becomes difficult to pay attention to the quiet, austere print of a book. Dear lord!—maybe this explains why Oldest has claimed disinterest in all the new library books I tossed her way this summer. I don’t believe she’s read a chapter book for three months and this kid used to devour books written at advanced reading levels.

We’ve taken a hard line in the last week, making her read at least the first ten pages of every new book she starts (after that, she’s given them back). But today I took a harder line as I prepped for the coming year’s schooling and wrote her the following letter, which I gave a special place in her home school binder:

Dear [Oldest],

Below is a list of books that I would approve as part of your reading for 3rd grade. Some of these stories you are familiar with, such as Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, but you have not read the books themselves—only seen the movies. Also, most of these books you have already or will come into contact with because they are used for the Writing with Ease books we’ve done together. You expressed interest in many of the excerpts I read aloud to you last year, so I bet you’ll enjoy the books in their entirety. If you are curious to know what a book is about, you can go onto the computer and go to www.amazon.com. This is a book web site. You can type in the particular name of the book in the “search” field and hit “enter.” Then you will see a list of books that might match the book you are searching for. Click on the correct one and you will see a picture of the cover; a paragraph or two will let you know what the book is about. Once you decide you are interested in something, we can either check it out from the library or buy it on Amazon.

I will ask you to read at least one of these books each month and write a very short book report when you are finished.

Happy reading!


So that’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. But I’m curious—did your kids have extra screen time this summer? And do you think the correlation between screen time/attention deficit exists? or not?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paying God Attention (thoughts on Soul Revolution)

Dear Reader,

This is a book review.  This book changed my life.  But first, an aside:

(I confess a predjudice when it comes to mainstream Christian books these days, especially those that appear particularly contemporary.  Along with that adjective sometimes comes what feels like an overabundance of branding and marketing that seem to undermine the rather diverse and organic nature of spirituality and relationships within the church. This branding/marketing phenomenon is often identified by such things as pictures of people with tattoos, ripped jeans, piercings, black-rimmed glasses, and (sadly) the absence of women and people of color as well as all people over the age of fifty-five.  Now, I like tattoos, piercings and ripped jeans, but they have become cliche as a marketing tool, to the extent that North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, produced this video--a parody of themselves and other churches engaged in this type of sub-culture marketing--in which they coin the term "contemporvent," a marriage of relevant and contemporary.)

Now for the important part:  You can't judge a book by its cover.

While the cover of John Burke's Soul Revolution: How Imperfect People Become All God Intended has the markings of a "contemporvent" book (including a close-up of distressed jeans and inner-arm tattoos), its content is rooted in the centuries-old tradition of practicing the awareness of God's presence in our daily lives in the manner of Brother Lawrence and Leanne Payne.  I became enthralled with Burke's description of the "60-60 experiment," a 60-day challenge to check in with God every 60 minutes of the waking day. The experiment presupposes a belief in a God who is all-knowing and everywhere-present and is designed to assist the reader in fostering an ongoing recognition of that abiding force in our lives. By so doing, the theory goes, how we live in the world begins to change and that change is evidenced by our actions, decisions, service and love of God, others, and ourselves.

Burke recommends the reader go so far as to purchase a watch that will beep all day on the hour. If not that, notes up around the house or on the computer would remind one to pause and check in.  While I neither bought a watch nor posted notes, I did do my best to emulate Burke's experiment in my own organicky sort of way.  I began with moments of reflection in the empty spaces throughout my day, taking stock of what was happening around me in my relationships and duties and consciously reminding myself of God's presence in my life.  In particularly good or bad parts of the day, I would wonder what God's "take" on the situation was, and sometimes I would just go ahead and ask him, for the heck of it. I did not hear any audible voices or see any burning bushes in response to my prayers, but often I had the strong impression that God was answering, if not with something concrete, then with something a lot like compassion. I could almost feel him feeling my pain or frustration or longing or joy or delight.

There seemed to be cumulative effects of practicing this sort of awareness. By the end of each day I felt as if I'd had a real, back-and-forth dialogue with God: a prayer uttered in the morning met its consequence in the afternoon.  A question at lunch time found its answer by dinner. And by the end of the week, I felt a new comraderie with God--as if we'd been two pals at summer camp trading whispers back and forth from our bunk beds all week. Probably the most profound moment of this experiment came one day as I was on my way to a rather difficult appointment.  For weeks, we'd been watching lilies in our front yard climb feet in the air, reaching from the bulbs planted in the ground the summer before.  The stems shot up, the buds of the lilies formed yellow and pink, but they were slow to open. Each morning for two weeks I expected to see one of those lilies open and unveiled in full glory, but instead they just shimmered, closed up, ready to explode. 

That's how they looked on my way to this appointment, and as I backed out the driveway I felt as if God drew my attention to those flowers.  See those? I think he said.  See all that potential--how the lilies are on the cusp of bloom? Instantly I knew he wasn't really talking about the lilies but about the difficult situation I was facing, that it was something that had the potential to morph from something desperate to something redemptive and life-affirming. Well, I thought that's what God was saying, anyway, and the impression pierced me so deeply that tears gathered in the corner of my eyes as I backed out my driveway. Yet, I wondered if I was imagining things. Was that really God?   Imagine my shock when, on that same steamy July morning, I returned to the house an hour later, after the appointment, to find the largest lily of the bunch had petaled open into glowing pink radiance.

You can call me crazy and maybe you will. But sometimes it's the little things that make us sure the Divine is right within our reach.  I think Burke is saying, and I whole-heartedly agree, we'll see God when we pay attention.