Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Step away; come closer.

While I was in Lancaster with Calvin last weekend, I took notes.

Of course she did! You’re probably saying.  And you might be inclined to ask, Why?

My answer is that it is my way.  It is the practice of a deep thinker, of a writer, to note what’s around her in hopes of it somehow weaving together on the page to form some kind of story that is something.  A story that really tells, really shows.

One of the most important notes I took on this trip was about the importance of breaking routine and providing experiences outside the norm for Angus and I as individuals and together as a couple and family.  It was really fitting when this thought came to me as I navigated the country roads of my childhood because the theme of our past few weeks has been one riddled with stress and anxiety, a battle for inner balance.  We have fallen into a sort of "grind,” a place I vowed a long time ago I would try to avoid.   Angus and I have had many discussions about how our lives have changed since having children.  We have been trying to renegotiate a life that is adventurous while still managing to be stable and predictable for the kids; we have been working hard to create something that fulfills everyone.  We've shared about what experiences we want to have, and while the talk has been great, there’s only so much I can talk about without doing.  The trip I took with Calvin was one of the first steps in our plan to “do,” and while I’m not saying traveling to Eastern PA/Amish country is an outrageous adventure, it did something to jolt me out of my funk and shed light on the fact that anything (well, almost anything) is possible.  I loved the entire, sometimes stressful, process of airport travel and revisiting special places of my past with a 4-year-old’s constant commentary.  It was simple stuff, but it was empowering.  It created a place inside me that felt completely alive and not the least bit like going-through-the-motions.  In moving away from our routine, I grew closer to an awake state of being.  Awake to my surroundings, to each moment, to my hopes and dreams.

Things I once considered unrealistic or ideas to save for later are starting to look possible, and my excitement has grown tremendously.  Some of the experiences on my own list, I’ve spent years talking about but have never scheduled.  Now, I am taking action, and have booked a weekend yoga retreat, signed up for a stand-up paddle board lesson, and bought a kit to learn how to create body henna.  The experiences on Angus’s list, one as simple as making more time for friends, are beginning to take shape, and I notice a visible difference in his mood when he comes home from these outings.  He is connecting in ways outside of work and our family, which is so important and often gets lost in the shuffle of life.  Some of the experiences we want for our family seem crazy to tackle with two kids under five.  We’ve been talked to about the horrors of camping and warned about taking toddlers to Europe.  But we are feeling optimistic and are in the mode of figuring out what we want to do and how to make it happen.  If it’s a time issue, we will wait.  If it’s a money issue, we will save.  But the issues aren’t stopping us from making plans, and even that feels more like true living than the grind.

It is amazing what a small break in the routine can make us realize about our lives and what experiences we want to provide for our families and ourselves.  Aside from the new understandings about what we want, what I love most about breaking the routine is that once you come back to it, it feels better.  It feels right.  Upon returning, I felt completely different – more present and open to receiving the pleasure of the day-to-day with two kids.  (OK, so it didn't last long, but I actually found Kyle's ear-piercing shrieks cute.)  Overall, I found that seeking a little something different helped me appreciate the same. 

The notes I take aren’t earth-shattering and may seem like little bits of insanity to another’s eye, but they matter.  They are little pieces of me, a way to speak the whole truth, to make observations, to document my journey.  They are notes about driving in storms and how the lightening flashed capturing a photograph of white knuckles and wheels on water.  They are summaries of weird recurring dreams where I lose someone or something and beg for its return.  They are jottings of travel bits like “download more to iPad” and “get a new car seat roller – one that doesn’t bruise my leg.”  They are notes about my soul’s connection to the country, to the endless rows of corn, towering trees, and open land.  They are documentations of Calvin’s new phrases like, “What are you laughing about, ladies?”  Woven together they are the song of an experience, a little gem of a ditty that just might change a life. 

Break the routine – you will love that you did.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can't wait to smell the cow shit.

Last weekend at the Farmer’s Market, I saw a necklace on a pretty college girl working at a food stand.  It was a string of random numbers hammered into a metal plate.  It reminded me of a tattoo I saw once on the forearm of a waitress, displaying the same kind of array.  “The numbers are coordinates of my hometown,” the girl explained when I asked.  Her food stand was busy, so I didn’t inquire more, but I stood there wondering what was so special about this place she called home.  And that waitress – she had a permanent reminder of where she came from.  But, why?  I asked myself whether I would ever sport a tattoo or necklace displaying the coordinates of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a place I stopped referring to as “home” many years ago when the mountains embraced me like no place ever had before.  What would drive me to ever want this kind of reminder?  Would it be the fond memories of this place I grew up in?  Or would it be to honor the challenges of being me then, of being in a very different place – mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally – from where I am now?

When we think of our hometowns, we experience a wide spectrum of emotions, don’t we?  I am sure some people want nothing to do with the place they once called home.  And others of us feel something deep and unnamable when we conjure up images of our childhood place(s).  For me, Lancaster evokes a mixture of emotions.  I remember the landscape and being outside a lot.  The smells and the memories.  I see a lot of laughter with family and friends.  I see a place where people knew me then, and that brings a kind of comfort only poetry (if I could ever learn to write it) can describe.  I appreciate where I began and am grateful of the evolution of my self since my days of living there.  I often reflect on the experiences that began to shape me, change me, shift me.  These are all parts of what drives me to return. 

This weekend I am taking Calvin back to Lancaster during my favorite season to be there.  I have hopes for this time in my hometown.  I would like to find the ways in which my current home is inspired by my past one.  I would like to be able to show Calvin where I grew up and expose him to a little bit of the magic.  I fear, however, that maybe I’ve romanticized the details and it won’t appear for us.  Or perhaps the places will be so different that as I introduce Calvin to all of it, I will be introducing myself too.  I have these expectations of what landing at these coordinates will bring us, and I don’t want to be disappointed.  Obviously, at the surface of it all, I won’t be.  I will love to see my mom and Pop-pop and the friends we happen to run into.  I will love the time in a special place and to show Calvin the simplicities of growing up in farm country.  But, I wonder what will rise up for me while I am there.  I wonder whether anything will – of course it will – and when it does, what I will allow it to teach me.

Above all, I am excited to be there with Calvin in this season, for it is the time of humidity and a constant layer of sweat.  Of the bugs that are awake both in the thick mornings and sticky nights.  Of the sweet smells of cow manure and honeysuckle.  The season of rich green lawns and rolling fields of tall corn.  The time of creamy Pine View Dairy ice cream and calves trying to steal off the top scoop.  Of hazy sunsets and driving back roads with the windows down that is like being in a dream.  It is the time of my childhood, of bare feet and neighborhood hide-n-seek and catching lightening bugs until our mothers called us in for bath.  Of lifeguarding and swim meets that ended with the House of Pizza.  Of sitting on the deck, swatting flies, and drinking a cold Yuengling Lager.   It is the season of admiring the flowers and bitching about the neighbor spraying pesticides.  Of walks and hikes and trickling creeks under old railroad tracks and swimming in the pools of family friends who are like family themselves.  It is the time… Of my dad’s most vibrant life and most dreaded death.  Of being young again and telling old stories.  It is a magical season, a season that invites me to call 40.0397° N, 76.3044° W “home.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

A few days ago I was at the dentist getting an old filling replaced.  I’ve never loved the dentist, but I also don’t have a strong aversion like some people do, so I go every 6 months like I’m supposed to.  This time, the dentist showed me a clear mouth guard-like piece of equipment that he’d use to keep my jaw open.  It suctioned and did other fancy things, and he told me to think of it like a snorkel.  I didn’t think much of it until it was taking up every bit of space in my mouth, and I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe.  Or swallow.  Or talk or tell them it was uncomfortable and I wanted it out, out, out, out.  Out!  As my mind raced away from me at an unstoppable pace, an image of my shivering, still-intubated father freshly out of surgery on the stretcher invaded the space of my brain.  It was so sudden that I can’t help but imagine that it was some kind of PTSD-related image, something my brain tucked away in a dark corner but in that moment of panic and association chose to bring forth.  I ripped the mouth guard out shocking the duo hovering above me with their masked faces and abruptly sat up breathing rapidly, shaking, and crying.  Between breaths I tried to explain myself and definitely sounded like a lunatic, but I like to make people feel at ease and work hard to do so.  Even in the midst of a panic attack, I apologized and did my darnedest to justify my behavior.  They were both super cool and understanding and even mentioned that the dental chair can bring up a lot for people (who knew?!).

The first time I ever was able to identify a true panic attack, Angus and I were walking the paths around our neighborhood in midday summer heat.  This was before kids, and we were having some stupid argument when suddenly I stopped mid-step, felt what seemed like my heart threaten to beat out of my chest, my head spin with dizzy light-headedness, and my limbs go tingly and numb.  Assuming next I would pass out, I immediately knelt to the cement and sat down breathing as deeply as I could under the blazing sun and discomfort of what I thought was heat exhaustion or some kind of blood pressure shift.  It wasn’t until later when these episodes started happening more often, and mostly during exercise, that I realized I was having panic attacks and that I had felt them before.  I recalled a morning in Baltimore while driving to work when the same thing happened.  I managed to make it into the front office of the elementary school where I worked and broke down into sobs thinking I was having some kind of heart attack.  In the ER, after a battery of inconclusive tests, the doctor suggested anxiety, and I pushed it from my mind as a possibility.  Anxiety couldn’t cause such an out-of-the-blue physical response, could it?  It wasn’t like I was overly upset in either of these situations.  The full body experience of anxiety was unpredictable, and this started making me more anxious, which in turn obviously sent my body into a tenuous space where the unnerving energy existed close to the surface just asking for a trigger to set it off.

Over the years since that walk there have been many chunks of time and experiences that have thoroughly challenged my ability to cope, to ward off the part of me I know has a tendency to spiral out of control.  Death, injuries, pregnancies, births, postpartum.  Life.  Anxiety manifests itself in different ways in both the positive and negative.  Lately, I’ve been having a lot of anxious dreams, many of which are recurrent in their themes and plots.  I am sure many of you can relate.  Teaching a class of unruly students who refuse to listen.  Waking up to an intruder with a gun standing over the bed ready to shoot.  Losing my spouse or children to any number of tragic situations.  Being chased through a maze of a house knowing the entire time I will be caught.  It is a hefty list, a weighty one.  These dreams deliver me to morning shaken and plagued with the lingering feeling that things are not all right.   

Many of you might judge the inner experience I share as worthy of prescription medication, but I have never gone down that route.  I will if I feel like I need to, but for now my coping strategies are sufficient.  Most of my life isn’t lived in this space, but some of it is.  When life gets stressful, I have a tendency to plan.  Plan a trip.  Plan a date night.  Plan, plan, plan.  But if I really peel down the layers of what is good for me, what can lift me out of the overwhelming spin, it ends up being pretty simple:  Moving my body over the earth or water.  Committing myself to a weekly practice of yoga.  Traveling to new and old places.  Writing and painting.  Cooking.  Spending time with the people I love.  Making time for spirituality.  Talking it out.  Being present.

Besides coping mechanisms, I’ve learned to see the positive in being blessed with a tendency toward anxiety.  Being more introspective and analyzing of life has improved my creative process.  I am a better artist and writer because I get to process the uncomfortable.  I get to write the hard, and that is something special because it touches a deep part of my own soul and hopefully the souls of others.  Also, I’ve realized that worrying makes me more attune to other peoples’ feelings.  It has provided me with an intuitive sense of knowing when someone else is in pain.  I don’t always know what to do or say to make him or her feel better, but I like the way genuine empathy feels.  It opens me to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human and the processes we all go through in spaces of love and loss.  Having anxiety has also made me ask questions, important ones, about life and what it is I truly want.  The awareness I have found in times of unease have often been the most moving.  Opening myself to answering the questions (and different ways of doing so) and being okay with what I discover is an ongoing process that is moving me closer to spending larger periods of time as my authentic self, which is pretty freaking rad. 

One of my best friends and I joke about our anxiety all the time.  We often call each other needing to talk out a spiral or receive assurance that everything will be okay even though we might have potentially, inadvertently, maybe, just maybe done something to hurt someone’s feelings or ruin a chance at a career or scar our kids for life.  It is good to know we are not alone and to help each other stop from slipping into an irrational place that will benefit no one.  Anxiety can be a beast, but it doesn’t always have to be.  If we allow it to – if we allow discomfort to flow through us – we can often discover much more than we ever knew possible.

What have you learned about your self when you open in this way?  Where do you find inner peace?  In perceived weakness, what goodness have you found?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The left one was bigger.

Breastfeeding my children has been by far what I am most proud of in this lifetime so far.  For those of you who don’t know my story, I’ll offer the short version.  With Calvin, nursing was extremely difficult to the point even a very Boulder “breast is best” lactation consultant shook her head and told me she wouldn’t blame me if I quit.  Later, when I stuck with it and came back to visit her when Kyle was a newborn, she told me that I was the worst case she had ever seen then proceeded to snap some photos of my nipple scars with her iPhone camera.  Nothing like scrolling through your camera roll of grandchildren and pretty scenery and coming across those puppies.  (I am all about education though, so of course I let her.)  With Kyle, nursing came easier at first, but then I started to make A LOT of milk.  At first I was received mostly with, “Wow!  You are so lucky!” and porn star boobs, but soon I realized I was not so lucky after all.  My supply was so robust that it choked my baby, clogged my ducts, and sent me spiraling into more breast infections than I’d like to remember.  And when trying to care for both a toddler and newborn, being out of commission isn’t really an option.  The hard of nursing is part of what makes me consider it among my greatest accomplishments.  My personal choice was to do everything I could to nurse through the challenges, and I am both grateful and proud that I was able to.

When it came to weaning Calvin, I didn’t give it much thought. I was working full time and didn’t have a lot of time to think about my emotions amidst the stack of ungraded essays that grew and grew.  But with Kyle weaning has been a whole different experience.  We started weaning a few months ago when my supply seemed to drop and he needed more fluids than I could provide.  Honestly, that step came with relief because it really freed me from being chained to him or the pump at specific times of day.  We were nursing in the morning and at night, and it seemed perfect for a year-old baby and a mama who was rediscovering the joy of happy hours and yoga classes.  I knew that I’d make the 14-month mark our quitting time because my brain just works that way.  Calvin weaned at 14 months, so logically Kyle would too. 

As 14 months drew near, I genuinely started to feel more ready.  I knew that we were near the end, especially because Kyle, given the choice between a bottle and breast, began to whine and point at the bottle adamantly.  He was ready.  This was right.  Before officially weaning, I decided to honor and celebrate my journey breastfeeding by doing some body henna with the same lovely woman who painted my belly during both pregnancies.  My journey with nursing evoked feelings similar to natural birth, a real connection to the earth and the passing of time, and her art expresses this wonderfully.

I nursed Kyle for the final time on a Monday morning, just the two of us in bed together, me adorned in symbolic henna, him with hair a little too long and a urine-soaked diaper.  I didn’t really know it would be the last time, which was probably for the best.

On Tuesday morning when he woke, I asked Angus to give him a bottle.  I said, “I think we’re done.”  And I rolled over in bed and enjoyed the quiet of the morning alone.

Fully awake, some new thoughts took hold.  This is it.  Is this it?  Wow, this is really it, it.  No more babies to nourish.  No more breastfeeding.  28 months on my resume.  Attachments formed.  Bonds established.  This is it.  And then the tears came.  Heavy at first, the shoulder shaking kind, then slowing to a gentle kind of weep.  I wept for the moment each of my babies emerged from my body, were placed upon my chest, and found my breast without much help.  I wept for the middle-of-the-night feedings with Calvin when Angus and I, young, delirious, and so much in love, made up silly nicknames for our firstborn and snacked on trail mix and chocolate covered pretzels.  I wept for the quiet moments with Kyle, when Angus was taking care of Calvin, and getting to fall asleep next to him in bed after nursing time and time again.  I remembered a long nap in a bedroom in Telluride with the windows open to the cool mountain air.  I wept for the complete adoration of being able to look into the eyes of my babies at my breast and for our closeness.  I wept at the closing of one chapter and the opening of another.  I let the fear seep in and let myself feel the purpose in nursing and wonder what it’d be like without it.  And then I smiled.  I laughed as I remembered the size of my left boob was often double the size of my right.  At the pool last summer, I filled out one side of the bathing suit while the other gaped open.  I laughed at the one time I squirted milk from my breast straight into Calvin’s eyeball and how he squealed.  I smiled at the evolution of my modesty.  Privacy with Calvin; who the hell cares with Kyle.  The image of me nursing for the first time in public, my boob a spectacle for many around us enjoying their brunch still makes me giggle.  Gosh, it’s been quite the ride.

And now, we are done nursing.  Kyle is officially weaned at 14 ½ months.  I am no longer lactating.  My breasts have done their job.  They are scarred and squishy, yet I am so grateful.  Here I am on the other side of nourishing two children staring “never again” in the face and moving toward feeling OK about it.  More than OK.  I am moving to a place of honor, remembrance, and excitement for what’s to come.

This morning when Kyle woke up at 7:20 a.m. cooing in his crib, I made a quick bottle of milk and went in to find him.  In the back of my mind I thought maybe he’d glare at the bottle with angst and pull my tank top down to get to my breast.  What are you thinking woman?!  Gimme the goods!  Instead, cradled in my arms, he happily sucked down the bottle of milk holding it with one hand and moving his other hand over my arm, shirt, his own sleep sack –  the “raking” reflex I am in love with.  After the bottle was empty, he sat up on my lap and looked into my eyes.  Instinctively, I took out my right breast and offered it to him and thought, well if he goes for it, I guess we won’t be done.  He looked right at me and shook his little head back-and-forth.  No, mama, he seemed to say.  Thank you, but I’m good.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Jumping the creek.

The destination was unknown, as it always is with adventures.  Trekking through the dry, dusty cornfields that surrounded my childhood neighborhood in neat rows of swirls and lines, our ten-year-old selves passed over land that was meant for a farmer’s boots alone.  I liked walking on the tractor prints, hopping across the raised bubbles of wet dirt on my tiptoes, keeping my hand outstretched to feel the crinkly husks against my fingertips.  We scurried under barbed wire fences and walked past no trespassing signs.  We ran through a pasture where cows stared at us with their beady black eyes and picked through a pile of junk speckled with bullet holes.  But then we came to a creek.  One about 4 feet wide.  I stood back and watched my friends swiftly leap over the gurgling water to land with both feet planted in the long damp grass on the other side. 

“Come on, Ker!” they chanted urging me to jump.  I did that thing where you start to propel your body forward then at the last second hold it back at least two dozen times.  Close to tears, I listened to them tell me how easy it was, and I shook my head vigorously.  I couldn’t.  I wouldn’t.

“I will make a bridge for you with my body.  You can walk across me to the other side,” one of my friends offered generously. 

I agreed without a thought, and so she lay down, outstretched, her hands against one side of the creek bank, her sneakers planted on the other.  And I stepped onto her body.  Onto her back between her shoulder blades, down her spine, onto the squishy flesh of her butt.  And she sank into the cold water, belly first, my feet to follow.  We squealed and scrambled out of the creek in a frenzy, my fear lingering in the air above us, chilling my feet, her body, the entire march back home.

The fear I felt on the creek bank that day as a child was real despite the fact that even if I had jumped, the worst outcome would have been landing in the water like we did anyway.  It was real for me in that moment, a feeling I let paralyze and trick me into sacrificing my friend just to feed it.  That day, after we made it home, I didn’t think much more about the creek and my fear.  And in fact, the next several hikes we did, I managed to somehow avoid jumping whether it was leaning on my friends or walking the long way around to a narrower spot.  I succumbed to the fear and didn’t ask questions and simply moved on.

Over the course of my life, I have collected all kinds of fears.  They are moments, feelings or experiences I store in little capsules, some in my body, others in my heart, many in my mind, a few small but potent ones in my soul.  This year, from 32 to 33, has been quite a pivotal year in my collection process because this year, I have ripped many of my fears from their comfortable resting places.  I’ve shuffled them, tossed them in the air, torn them open, dumped them in front of myself, and waded through the mess.  It is the start of a long piece of work, but I’ve started challenging old and new fears, interrupting patterns to pay attention and ask questions.  By no means have I conquered my fears, but I’ve created a (messy) map toward doing so.

Part of my journey this year has involved saying goodbye to my twenties.  I haven’t been there for a while now, but I was still feeling the spillover of the protective bubble.  In my twenties, I wouldn’t have ever admitted it, but I felt somewhat invincible.  Now, I am faced almost daily with stories that rattle me to the core.  Stories of infant death, school shootings, and abductions.  These are stories that are dangerous for a person like me who spends a lot of time in her head spiraling about this or that.  What I know now is that the protective bubble is an illusion and that pain is something that everyone feels.  And while we may do our best to avoid inner friction and pain at all costs, feeling it, truly allowing it in, may open up moments of clarity about our inner world we would have never known otherwise.  Pain has taught me valuable lessons in living in the present moment, something I struggle with every single day and every single time I am with my phone and kids at the same time.  Instead of fearing it, can we embrace our own pain?  Or the pain of others? 

In opening a painful wound and exploring it, I have learned about one of my deepest fears.  This is a fear of dying from cancer.  Of experiencing what my dad and so many others are forced to.  It has always lurked within, but it resurfaced this year after having a health scare I won’t go into too much detail about.  Within this particular scare, there was a period of “unknown,” as there is with most health-related situations.  Have the tests, wait.  Wait.  Wait some more.  During the waiting time, I found my mind spinning to the worst possible scenario.  It barely even touched on “everything will be just fine” and went straight to “holy shit, I’m dying.”  I stopped eating, writing, sleeping.  I holed up, clung to Angus’s body every chance I got, and prepared for the cruelest possible fate.  And then after the waiting time, I found out answers.  Answers that in no way were even close to what my imagination had conjured up.  And this is when the work began.  There was no way in hell I could live my life how I did in those two weeks.  I had to get some kind of grip on this fear because it threatened to ruin me.

Since, I’ve spent a lot of time with this fear, learning about why it might exist and who and what inspire me stay alive even while dying – a stranger being one of the most powerful examples.  I’ve chosen to talk about it instead of stuff it somewhere deep and let it eat away at me.  I’ve been open about my dad’s experience and understand that his process does not have to be my own.  I’ve been working on trusting my body, the same body that endured two natural childbirths and nourished two children, to understand its vulnerability but also its strength.  I am being proactive with the food I eat and the way I move, but trying not to make these things obsessive weapons against cancer but more a positive way of life.  In the opening and receiving of my own narrative and the stories of others, I have healed in many ways especially in understanding that this fear deserves to be acknowledged but does not warrant a leading role in my life. 

In facing the unknown, by inviting fear to course through my veins, I have grown to understand what fear looks and feels like.  I can recognize it a mile away.  And even when I don’t, when it sneaks up on me and takes hold, I can better negotiate with it.  Instead of moving through my days fearing what my kids will one day say about me, I am generous and loving with them and notice beauty in the simplest of moments.  I try (key word: try) not to beat myself up for having a bad moment or day, for exploding with rage when Calvin pees in the trashcan instead of the toilet.  Rather than letting the darkness of my past haunt me, I write about it or speak it to listening ears, small victories I can revisit and feel proud of.  I fear often that I will be misinterpreted through my writing as “too this” or “too that,” but I keep writing, because it’s what keeps me alive.  Even as simple as in my yoga practice, I’ve let go of some fears.  I’m most definitely not the inversion type, but through the meditative flow, I’ve pushed my body and mind to find new places of growth or fall into child’s pose without judgment.  This year has been about facing fears and getting real with myself, and it’s a massive work in progress.

Angus and I went to dinner on my birthday and talked (uninterrupted) about what this lifetime is for each of us.  “What do you feel your soul has to learn in this life?” we asked each other.  We both agreed that this feels like a significant lifetime.  (Goodness, I hope everyone feels this way.)  But beyond that, for me, this life feels like a passage to something else, a discovery of some kind my soul yearns for.  I have been given so much, and what I choose to do with it all seems significant.  The thing with adventures is that the destination is unknown.  I understand that there will be more barbed wire and warning signs and glaring bystanders and junk to sift through.  And that one day, I will come to another creek, a really wide one with water that rushes fast and loud.  And instead of letting someone else be a bridge or taking the long way around, I will take the leap and cross it myself.  


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My Reflection.

On Sunday night, at Listen to Your Mother Boulder, I spoke my truth.  One of my truths, on stage, in front of 250 people, alongside 11 other brave souls choosing to speak theirs.  What is that feeling that takes hold after hearing your own voice project itself so authentically?  Why is there a desire to deconstruct that moment time and time again with family and close friends?  What is that part of me that wants to relive the heart-pounding seconds before stepping up to the microphone, the deep breath I took before diving in, the applause, and words of appreciation or pride?  I feel a little self-indulgent admitting that, but at the same time, I think it’s only natural to want to savor something so big.  Something so moving.  Something so important.

When people ask me how I felt about the night, I have a million different answers.  I barely remember my four-minute spotlight, and I could feel my entire body shaking as I stood there.  Each time I’d look down at my words on the page, I’d catch a glimpse of the bottom of my dress quivering in tune with my nerves.  I remember hearing one of my best friends laugh in the front row when I delivered a line toward the beginning.  This was grounding.  I remember finding my husband in the audience and feeling his energy of support and pride.  That felt right and uplifting.  I remember being in awe of my co-presenters and their stories; though I’d heard them before in rehearsals, each one was more poignant than ever.  I caught things in each I had never perceived before.  This reminded me of the wonder of writing and how we can experience the same piece in a new way a thousand times over.   I felt nervous to talk to friends afterward and wondered how they’d react to my story.  The praise was nice, and I really tried to stay in each conversation, absorb their words, as normally I shy away from that sort of thing.  Overall, my answer usually takes some version of “amazing” or “crazy” or “grateful.”  I do not elaborate because partly, I do not know.

Most of what I’ve felt in the past few days has been something close to utter exhaustion.  It could be the fact that we hit the town post-show and I downed a shot of tequila and two beers and was out until 12:45 a.m., but I’d like to think I still have some fire inside, the ability to rev and go once in a while and not crash for three full days following.  I’m beginning to realize that my exhaustion may be stemming from releasing something this huge and then diving suddenly back into the grind of normal life.  I’m a processer, people!  A reflector.  A thinker.  A writer.  And until now, I really haven’t had the chance.  I had a lovely talk with my husband who is just as excited as I am, and he allowed me to repeat myself, ask the same questions over and over just to hear his response.  Lying in bed way too late to be awake, high on some kind of chemical our bodies naturally produce, we talked all about it.  I got the rundown on his every thought, feeling, and interaction.  But I still felt confused about my own.

It has only been in the past 24 hours that I feel I’ve grasped almost fully what the experience meant to me.  When you hear my piece in a few months, when they are posted on You Tube, you will hear me talk about my son Calvin and what he’s taught me.  You will hear me talk about motherhood and the journey it constantly is.  You will also hear me admit an extremely personal struggle, one that I haven’t let many people into.  It is very real for me and was an excruciatingly painful time in my life.  It was this part, this process, of releasing something that had settled so deep inside me, to open up about the spillover, about what it’s been like to live current life against the backdrop of “ick” that moved me the most.  Instead of lurking in some file on my computer, some dark corner in my mind, or in some broken place in my heart, it bubbled up out of me, words let out, a truth spoken.  And I was not passive in this process.  My story definitely had its own push, but it would never have been told had I not made the choice to tell it.  I am very proud of this.  And what I’ve determined I’m feeling about this entire experience is a mixture of everything I already mentioned plus this extra little piece that probably has to remain nameless for fear of downplaying it or not giving it justice.  In my past, I did not open up, and therefore, I suffered.  My story then had push too, but I allowed it to overrule.   In small ways leading up to Listen to Your Mother I had conquered, but nothing compares to what it was to write a truth and then speak it aloud to family, friends, and strangers, and soon the ever-expansive Internet.  In the vulnerability, I found such strength.  In the openness, I felt people connect.  In the quivers, I felt something shift and move in a direction that isn’t without “ick” but is much closer to it.  In thanking motherhood for setting me free, I felt even more set free. 

Exhaustion, please, you can lift now.

Thank you for all the emails, texts, cards, calls, and notes of support, and for being one who supports my writing and my most true voice.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Big Bird can be a girl.

Calvin and I are playing Sesame Street Memory, and I turn over two cards.  “Grover, Grover!  Match!”  I declare, collecting my wins.

“No, Mommy,” Calvin says with authority.  “Grover is a boy, so I get that match.  You’re a girl, so you can have the girls.”

I’m slightly confused by this version of the rules, but I’m even more perplexed by Calvin’s knowledge that Grover identifies himself as male.  “How do you know Grover is a boy?” I ask.  You see, we’ve been talking a lot lately in our house about boys and girls and what makes them different, so when Calvin declared the naked but penisless furry monster as boy, I had to investigate further.  (Come to think of it, how do I know the boys from girls?  How does anyone?)  “So how do you know Grover is a boy?”  I ask again as Calvin stacks his Grovers one on top of the other in a neat little tower.

 “I don’t know!” he replies shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.

“Well,” I continue, “is Zoey a girl or a boy?”

“Girl,” Calvin answers proudly.

“How do you know?” I ask, sure that he will say something about the skirt she’s wearing in the picture.

“I don’t know!” he says cheerfully.

We continue on like this through each Sesame Street character, and the only one that (briefly) stumps him is Big Bird.  “A girl…No, a boy!” he decides.  

I tell him at the end of the game that we can play again if I get the boys this time.  He can have the girls.  He nods in agreement; it is a satisfactory plan. 

Calvin has identified himself as a boy for a while now, probably since he turned two.  He understands that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, which he never fails to point out should the visual opportunity present itself.  We’ve been working hard to teach him that he is the owner and boss of his body discussing what that means in different situations.   Something is happening in his little brain, and I find it fascinating and devastating all at once.  He is starting to become more aware of stereotypical gender roles as are his peers.  After wearing a sparkly beaded necklace to school one day, he got in the car and said to Angus, “So-and-so told me that necklaces are only for girls.”  He tilted his head to the side as if to ask Angus, is that really true?  Luckily the teacher heard this exchange and made right this sticky little wrong, and then Angus finished the job.  “Yes, some girls wear necklaces, but a lot of boys wear necklaces too, buddy.  I’d wear that necklace.  It’s awesome.”  Calvin seemed satisfied enough with this response and continues to wear his necklaces when the mood strikes.

It’s been the same with his recent interest (obsession?) with princesses.  After seeing Frozen, his first movie in the theater, he has been singing, imagining, and playing princess non-stop whether at school or at home.  He wants to make his blankies into capes like Elsa’s and even tried to rob my lingerie drawer because he thought the skimpy silk nighties were princess dresses.  (I thought about letting him go for it since they’ve long been replaced by sweatpants and hoodies, but something about seeing my 3 ½ year old saunter around in lacy undergarments didn’t seem appropriate.  We opted for bridesmaids’ dresses instead.)  When at his friend Abi’s house, he always chooses the mermaid costume and wears it with pride.  Recently we went to the Elf and Fairy Tulip Parade our town holds every spring, and upon seeing the sparkly fairy wings and wands, Calvin was mesmerized.  We walked the street, and I caught him eyeing the vendors selling wings in a rainbow of colors and glitter.  Did my son want to have anything to do with being an elf?  Hell, no!  He wanted to be a fairy, so of course, I let him pick out some wings and wear them.  The smile on his face when he showed Angus once we got home was priceless, that big toothy one where his eyes crinkle on the sides because his chubby cheeks squish them.

These are the moments when I feel such surges of love for him and the innocence of childhood.  I am happy that he believes the magic of fairytales and that he’s beginning to understand the power of a story and the role he can play in reenacting it (although at school he’s mostly assigned by his peers to play Olaf the Snowman).  What’s more, is that I am proud of us for allowing him to have free exploration over his imagination.  It can lead only to goodness, this open space we’ve allowed for him walk through, play around in, and come to his own decisions about.  Of course we’re here to guide him as we are with everything, but something about seeing Calvin pick for himself that cape or mermaid costume makes my heart soar.  He might not always choose so freely, but at least he was able to at one point in his life.  There is something to be said for that.  I love that he has the confidence now to be so certain about engaging in make-believe even if it is stereotypically associated with girls.  But at the same time my heart aches for what is coming.  It aches for the “necklaces are only for girls” comments and the day when he may be scared to admit his favorite color as purple.  It aches for the many children in the world, in our own community, grappling with gender identity in an environment that isn’t yet completely supportive of them.  It seems so obvious to let our children be who they are, who they want to be, but why do so many of us struggle?  No one is perfect, that is for sure.  When Calvin was choosing fairy wings, I will admit, I prompted him to pick green instead of pink.  Why?  What is that little piece of us that begs to be heard, when really it just needs to shut the hell up?  I think, as with everything, awareness and openness go a long way.  I am prepared to answer Calvin’s questions, feel good about letting him venture into any territory whether stereotypically “boy” or “girl,” and understand that this parenting thing is a work in progress.  No one will help to create a masterpiece, but what we can aim to help create is a really colorful, original work of art that will feel good about its place in the world. 

We are at the kitchen table making cards for the grandmas for Mother’s Day.  Calvin starts to draw hair on the stick people he’s created.  “Boys have short hair, and girls have long hair, so we need to make Moppy and Ama have long hair.”

“But Moppy has short hair,” I remind him.

He looks puzzled as if the little connectors in his brain are firing this-way-and-that at too rapid of a pace.  “But…” he begins then trails off. 

I give him some time to consider this predicament and then say, “Moppy has short hair, and she’s a girl.”

“Yeah! Yeah, she does!” he agrees wholeheartedly.  He takes his blue marker and swipes a single line over Moppy’s head on the card.  “Girls can have short hair too,” he says feeling his own head.  “But I like my short hair, and I don’t want long hair, OK?”

“OK, buddy,” I say smiling.  “It’s your choice.”