I Am a Rock

          I just read Winter’s Bone with my book club.  I watched the movie maybe two years ago and loved it.  It was depressing, bleak and made me never want to find myself in the Ozarks after dark, but it was so well-made that I didn’t mind.  And as usual, the book was even better.  From the first page I was fully engaged, wrapped up in the sad, dark world of backwoods poverty and danger that the book describes in such creative detail.  It made me want to write a great novel.  Maybe someday.  It also made me realize some things about my own life – things I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
          I went to hear the author, Daniel Woodrell, speak about his life and his writing.  During the interview he mentioned that he had been surprised at what a large part of the book’s audience turned out to be sixteen-year-old girls.  They clearly had identified with the main character, Ree Dolly, and the tough choices she faced with such bravery in the book.  As a 37-year-old woman I hadn’t noticed myself particularly identifying with Ree, but as the (awesome) ladies in my book club talked over wine and cocktails, I realized I clearly had.  In a significant way.  A friend posed a question to the group about one of the characters, and I caught my breath, realizing I’d missed a major connection between Ree Dolly and myself as an adolescent.
In the book Ree must take care of her brothers in the absence of her father, who is missing, and her mother, who is present but mentally gone.  My father certainly was never presumed to be killed by meth-cookers, and my mother is alive and well and mentally present in my life, so my connections with the text were not literal.  But there was a time when my mom was very sick, and to deal with the effects of that my dad was at work a lot.  I also had a little brother to “take care of” in certain ways.  Comparing my situation to Ree’s feels silly in light of the danger she faced, and that real girls in the hills of the Ozarks really do face daily.  But it hits a nerve in my soul.  One I didn’t know was still sore.
          When I was in ninth grade my mother was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  She knew something was wrong, having had fevers off and on for years, among a million other symptoms that doctors couldn’t decipher.  But by the time she was diagnosed, the sickness had come on in full force.  She slept most of the time, as I remember it, so was absent for a good deal of my high school years.  This fact hurts her immensely now, as she certainly didn’t want to miss that time, but it’s part of my story, and part of Ree’s, too.  Her mother was escaping the sadness and pain of her life, either by choice or because of her body’s physical reaction to it, by losing her mind.  She was in the house, had to be taken care of, but wasn’t there to mother her daughter.  My mom’s body was escaping it’s own pain, too, by sleeping.  The illness and medicine made her confused; she just wasn’t the same mom I had known as a child.  In Ree’s case, and in mine, the roles switched.  Mother cared for daughter, and missed being cared for herself.
          As a high-schooler I didn’t know how to deal with my mom’s sickness, so I decided to push it down, shut it up, make it go away in my heart.  I would drive around singing Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am A Rock to myself and the air.  “And a rock feels no pain.  And an island never cries.”  I was determined to be strong, not to feel, not to fall apart as my mom had.  But there was more strength inside her sleeping body than I knew.  Unlike the mom in Winter’s Bone, my mom wasn’t gone forever.  Just lying dormant for a time.  After a while, in her own Spring, she would emerge from the cave of her illness and begin living again.
          In the book, Ree takes her mother for a walk and tries to elicit her help in making some decisions that will impact the family and everything they have left, but her mom doesn’t come back to her.  She stays tucked inside the safety of her warped mind, away from decisions and heartache and responsibility.  Whether by choice or circumstance, she is gone.  My mom is not.  It took several years, which surely felt like decades to my mother, for her to come out of the fog and fatigue of her illness, but she did.  And she has slowly gotten better ever since.  Unlike Ree, I got my mother back.  It was rough time for both of us, but the happy ending is that I still have a mother, alive and active in my life, who I talk to nearly daily and who watches my kids for me all the time.  She is their favorite person in the universe.  It’s hard to believe she was ever “absent” at all.
          The other good news is that I don’t try to push down my feelings anymore.  I am not a rock.  Or an island.  I’m a mushy human being who is glad my mom came back to me.  Though it would have been a too-sweet ending to Winter’s Bone,  I wish Ree could say the same.

Contribute a Verse

          We had salmon for dinner last night, which reminded me of puking when I was pregnant the first time, which reminded me of our apartment in South Pasadena, which reminded me of the light rail station a few blocks away, which reminded me of taking the train into Chinatown when Luke was a baby and being asked if I was the nanny, which reminded me of getting a boba in Chinatown in San Francisco, which reminded me of my brother who goes to San Fran for work all the time, which reminded me of Portland, Oregon, where he lives, which reminded me of Josh Garrels, a musician who lives there and makes beautiful music, which reminded me that words can change the world.
          I recently saw a clip from Dead Poet’s Society (one of my favorite movies ever) – the scene where Mr. Keating tells his class to rip out the pages of the lame introduction to poetry in their textbook.  “Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language.  No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  Amen.  As a lover of language, I know that I’m biased toward this idea.  But I also know that words have changed my world, and they have altered human existence, for better or worse.  Hitler used language as a weapon, and it worked.  His vocabulary of hate and fear was powerfully convincing to those who wanted to agree, and acted as a veritable dagger against those he attacked.  Martin Luther King Jr. used his speeches to give a voice to those without one, to break down walls between cultures, to promote peace.  In each case, a single man created a movement that changed the direction of human kind.  With words.
          On a smaller scale, my dad told me he loved me every day as a child.  He called me “Pumpkin” and “Princess,” said I was smart, beautiful and worth loving.  From the beginning of my life he made me feel safe and valued with his words to me; he helped me know I deserved a good man someday.  My mom wrote poems and essays about my brother and me, and I learned to express myself that way, too.  I got my love for the rhythm of language from her.  Received from her pen and her books the gift of poetry.  Learned that you could invent vocabulary from E. E. Cummings, because his book was on our shelf, because my mom’s life was changed by words when she was young.  The language of my childhood mattered.  It made me who I am.
          And then of course there are those who have introduced beauty into the world, simply for beauty’s sake.  Professor Keating describes the importance of what may seem insignificant to some.
                    We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are
                    members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law,
                    business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty,
                    romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
When I need a reminder of love’s steadfast power, I read Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet.  When I look at the clouds or the stars in the sky, I think of Psalm 119 and my heart agrees.  When I want to feel – just feel – deeply, I listen to a Greg Laswell song and let out a sigh of relief.  And when I want to explain my own thoughts and feelings to myself and others, I write.  I gather words, put together phrases, think of synonyms and metaphors and mix them up to make something new in the world.  It’s my small contribution to the human race.  I may not make the dent of Shakespeare or King David, but I’ll continue to “contribute a verse” and let the words speak for themselves.

Want/Don’t Want

          It’s funny how the things you want can change over time, even to the opposite of that which you wanted before.  When I was seven I wished my name was Misty.  How ethereal, I thought, as I flitted around in a ballet skirt; If only I was Misty rather than Jenea, I would be happy.  When I was in junior high I longed for Pepe jeans, the height of awesomeness.  I bought one pair with my own money and wore them every other day – stone washed to almost white, pegged at the ankles.  Oh yes.  In high school it was a new house I thought I needed.  Not an old one with creaky hardwood floors like we had; I wanted carpeting, and a neighborhood in the new part of town where every house looked the same.
          Getting the things I wanted produced varying degrees of happiness for me, but it didn’t last forever.  The Pepe jeans were horrible just a few years later, and Misty would now be on a list of names I would go to the courthouse to change.  As an adult I live in an old house with creaky hardwood floors in the old part of town.  By choice.
          One of the biggest desires I ever had was to be a mother.  As I tried to get pregnant with my first, my obsession increased with each unsuccessful month.  What I ate, my temperature in the morning, which pants Marc wore – each was an essential element in my quest to have a baby.  It was all that mattered.  The day I knew I was with child, my obsession switched to having a healthy one.  The day I gave birth to my son I fell in love so hard I couldn’t imagine ever leaving his side.  A year later my dream was to go to Target alone.
          Having a second baby was a definite urge, too.  I felt a little less sure of having a third, though if I would have known what a sweet and easy child she’d be, there would have been no hesitation.
          But now, if I got pregnant again I would cry.
          I’m not supposed to say that, because there are people who desperately ache for a baby, as I did eight years ago.  And if it were to happen, I’d move past the crying at some point and welcome the new little person into our family with joy.  It would just take some self-pep talks and a lot of caffeine.  I realize the I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it aspect to my changed desires.  Like a spoiled five year old who rejects the ice cream she just ordered because it’s in a cup instead of a cone.  I can almost see my own pouty face and crossed arms.  But it’s the truth.  My body might actually fall to pieces if I grew another person in there, or gave it birth, or woke up every two hours to feed him.  I need a nap just thinking about it.  As sure as I was that I wanted a baby when I was younger, I am sure I don’t want to be pregnant again.
          Much has happened since I was 29, namely having three children and getting older.  I’m in a different stage of life now than I was then, and I’m ready for the change.  I want to focus on rearing the children I have instead of having any more, and I’m excited for new challenges, a re-connection with my brain, a chance to go to the gym more than once a week.  I’m not being fickle, I’m just moving on.  Thankfully I have no misgivings about having my kids the way I would have regretted being named Misty.  And they don’t go out of style as did my jeans.  Over time I may want different shoes or change the way I do my hair, but my children are one part of my life I will always be glad for.  I might need to go to Target alone from time to time, but my heart isn’t going anywhere.

Obile Ravelin’

           I love a good road trip.  We took one each summer when I was a kid.  My parents made it a priority to create memories with my brother and me, and to expose us to different parts of the country.  Driving wasn’t as exciting as flying as a child, but I’m glad now that I learned the art of the road trip from an early age.
Driving makes you look around to see how the landscape shifts as you go.  You notice that the flatlands of western Kansas turn into the low foothills of Colorado, which turn into the jagged, towering Rockies.  That North Dakota is somehow flatter than Kansas and that the Badlands of South Dakota surprise you with color bursting out of the deep canyons. The Northwest is cool, and lush and full of mystery; the seaweed on the coast of Maine is endless and the water is never warm; the sand dunes of northern Indiana are as exciting as the Sahara to a ten year old, and great to slide down in bare feet.
          I learned how to see things on our road trips.  From a plane you see things from above, which is amazing and beautiful, but it’s from a distance.  It’s the Cliff’s Notes of the real thing.  When you have to wait and wait for those mountains to come into view, you really feel the joy of them.  When you know you’ll be crossing the Mississippi in several hours instead of twenty minutes, the rising tension is greater and the river astounds you with it’s width.  You’re a part of the scenery rather than a distant observer.  You and the river, and the sky, and the mountains are in it together.
          We drove from Kansas to the panhandle of Florida this summer for a family vacation.  Two and a half days on the way there, two longer days back.  Surely that sounds horrendous to many people, but to us it was wonderful.  Besides the fact that I’d always rather drive than fly for packing reasons alone, it’s also nice to stop and stretch, to pee when the need arises instead of when the seatbelt light goes off, to hop in and go instead of waiting in line after line.  There’s freedom in a road trip.  A plane ride is all rules and regulations, and large men snoring in the next row.  But Marc and I also like to make our kids see the world around them.  And we like to make them bored.
          Really.  Boredom has it’s benefits.
          I was bored a lot on our vacations as a kid.  Driving through Wyoming is bound to bore a nine-year-old.  But it made me think about things.  About the landscape, the people who might have lived on it as settlers, the animals and buildings and people I saw.  It forced me to play car games with my parents and Boggle with my brother.  Read books.  Look at maps.  Think about life and what it all means.  Give a kid a chance and she’ll have deep thoughts that would put a philosopher to shame.  Being bored spawned thoughts and ideas that would never have happened if I’d had a DVD player or a DS.  Luckily, they didn’t exist.
          There is actually a DVD player in our new minivan.  We didn’t want one, but the best car for the money, with the least amount of miles, happened to have one and we decided we’d compromise.  It was “broken” until our trip to Florida.  “Oh, look at that!  It works!”  Even I knew that a three day trip could use a show or two to break up the monotony.  But the kids missed Montgomery, Alabama while they watched Tangled, and I felt like I was making them idiots.  Turning around and seeing that “I am a zombie.  Whatever crap you show, tv in the ceiling, I’ll watch” look on their faces made me want to make it “break” again.
          When I was little we traveled by car – a red VW station wagon at first, then a brown Chrysler, to be exact.  By the time I was in junior high we had an R.V. we called the Obile Raveler (the M and T had long-since worn off by the time we bought it from a neighbor).  It was old and a little decrepit, but it got us all over the country, with our food and beds and car all in one handy mobile traveling unit.  In spring we would ready it for summer: air it out, clean the counters and bathroom, spray a bajillion ants with bug killer, and air it out again.  Then we’d load it up with our vacation supplies and take off.  A new destination each time.  My brother and I complained about the long hours in the O.R., and the frequent stops at historical markers which my dad had to read out loud, and the pull-overs so my mom could take photos.  Our trips were more discovery than getting from place to place.  It drove me nuts at times as a child, but now I see the value of our slow-motion adventures.
          Driving through western Kansas is best done at night, when you’re wrapped in stars and a pitch black sky, skimming the crust of the earth with nothing to block your view of the heavens.  That’s another thing I learned from my road trips.  Another thing I wouldn’t know if we had traveled a different way.  The Obile Raveler is gone, but the memories of driving it across the country will likely stay with me for the long-haul.  And Marc and I are going to do our best to create the same boredom, force the same self-reflection and daydreaming, and leave the DVD player off for most of our trips.  When the kids are going crazy from the long hours of looking out the window, and driving us crazy too, we can pop in a show.  But for the most part, I’m going old-school with our road trips and making memories that my kids will appreciate one day.  Even if they don’t now.

Little Miss Independent

Written October, 2009
          My daughter is two years old, and she’s been independent from the day she could crawl in her own direction.  Even then, before she could talk, she picked out her own clothes with low grunts at correct choices and loud screams at wrong ones.  She would crawl over to the closet, pointing at a particular sweater, and make clear her passion for fashion.  “Lily do it by self” is a phrase I hear every half hour at least, and it applies to most tasks: taking off her diaper, getting dressed, getting in the bath, getting out of the bath, walking to the car, getting in the car, getting strapped in her car seat, getting out of the car.  You get the idea.  And it has led to many showdowns between her and me when we don’t have time for her to “do it by self.”  At Target, at Wal-mart, in our driveway, in our house, at friends’ homes, in crazy Twister-like positions  in which we’ve found ourselves during a diaper change.  Lily’s independence can wear me out.
          I try to remember that someday her independence will serve her well.  I prayed against fear for my little girl as soon as I knew I had one brewing.  As a child, and an adolescent, and as an early adult, I was full of fear.  I let my fears stop me from doing so many things.  I let them rule my actions for a long time in many ways, and I didn’t want that for my little girl.  I want her to embrace life and meet challenges with the belief that it’s alright to fail, but you have to try to get anywhere at all.  That she is worth it because she’s a human being, with thoughts and feelings just as valid as anyone else’s.  That she was born for a reason.
          I’ve wanted all of this for my daughter, but apparently I didn’t realize I’d be the one dealing with the day-to-day development of a fearless woman.  It seems ironic that I fretted about her courage when she jumps off a jungle gym into nothingness, or when her determination to eat play dough far exceeds her fear of the consequences.  I got what I asked for, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.
          And then the other day she didn’t want to eat by herself.  She is perfectly capable of eating her cereal with a spoon (that was something she knew she could “do by self” before she actually could), but for some reason the other day she decided she couldn’t.  We have now entered a new stage of “ I need help,” and I’m not sure I like it any better.  I was surprised at my reaction to those words.  All those days we went head-to-head over who was the adult, and when she said she needed help eating her cereal I immediately feared (there it is again) she had lost her gumption.  It’s ridiculous, I know, but it reveals how deep down my desire is for Lily to have confidence.  And how, even though it is hard to deal with her growing into that confidence, it’s a noble task worth doing.
          I’m sure this is only a regressive phase – that soon enough she’ll jump headlong back into her independent ways.  It’s in her nature, and I’m glad.  But for now, I’m going to enjoy her need of me, knowing it will be short-lived, and remember that I asked for this.  And pray that my little warrior will use her powers for good someday, and watch what she becomes.

Gearing Up

          I might not typically take much notice of the boys outside the coffee shop I’m in, around eleven years old, eating caramel covered apples and hitting each other with wads of paper.  But today when I saw them I saw my own son and was struck by the fact that soon enough he will be eleven, and then eighteen, and then a full-blown grown-up.  He is only seven and a half, but I know it will come faster than I can believe.
          I get glimpses each day of the man he will someday be peeking through the little boy he is now.  When he rolls his eyes in annoyance, or carries in a bag of groceries for me, or wears boxer briefs instead of his hot wheels undies.  Or when he looks at me with his green-blue eyes and says in all seriousness “I want to go on a date with you.”  We do that sometimes.  Our “dates” can be anything – any activity that only includes us.  Once to a museum, after which we got ice cream, once on a walk, after which we got ice cream, once to the doctor’s office and grocery store.  After which we got ice cream.  He and Marc go on dates too, and it also always involves a treat.  Surely that is part of the draw for Luke.  But he also loves the chance to spend one-on-one time with his mom or dad, getting all the attention, all the head pats, all the hand-holding he wants.  He actually wants to be with us, and it’s great.
          We had a particularly fun summer – mornings together while Lily was in preschool and Mae was asleep.  I made a concerted effort to ignore all the things that “needed” to be done and spend my time on the things that truly needed to be done.  For my son.  I chose making gloop over dusting and doing science experiments about carbon dioxide over vacuuming.  It was awesome.  My house was gross, but my relationship with Luke deepened, and as I’ve heard countless times, in twenty years that’s what will matter.
          Plus, gloop is way more fun than dusting.
          I know that a day is coming when he won’t want to go on a date with his mom.  There will be a phase, and that phase could be long, where he thinks I am lame and uninformed and embarrassing.  I remember those days with my own parents.  I once hid on the floorboard of our brown Chevy at a Sonic, because, horror of horrors, I was there with my parents.  And I knew the car hop.  And he was hot.  My dad proceeded to tell the hot waiter that I was hiding in the bottom of the car and I was forced to emerge, red-faced and scarred for life.  Nice, Dad.  But how embarrassed could I have been to hide like that rather than be seen with my family?  Very, I guess.  I hate to think of Luke feeling that way about us, but it will come.  And it will suck.  And then it will pass.
          Luke started second grade today.  I walked him the two and a half blocks to school, taking in the sunlight, the welcomed cool air after a ridiculously hot summer, the tingling excitement that comes with a first day.  I watched neighborhood kids reunite after two months apart, giggling with nervousness and joy, and I thought of his first day of kindergarten.  We have a picture from that day of him walking, proudly wearing his new astronaut-monkey backpack full of school supplies, his hair combed and clothes unwrinkled, ready to leave me and his early childhood in the past.  That was a hard day.  Today he wore the same backpack, but I noticed on the way that his hair wasn’t combed and realized we’d forgotten to buy glue.  And we weren’t really worried.  So different than that first, first day.  It’s already normal to go back to school.  It’s also normal to get a big kiss from me as he heads in to class, which I know will change soon.
          I’m sure these boys outside the coffee shop wouldn’t welcome a big kiss from their mommy as they joke with their friends.  I can hear the “Geez, Mom” now.  It’s not too far off, this next stage; the eye-rolling is just the beginning.  I will miss his hugs, the fact that he thinks I’m funny, and even the never-ending descriptions of his lego creations.  I will look back longingly at the days of making gloop in summer and going on dates to get ice cream.  I know I will cry over the loss of my baby boy many times.  But it will also be astounding to watch him navigate adolescence, discover himself and the world, and morph into a man.  When I think of the way he fit into the crook of my arm when he was new to the world, and now he reaches my chest when he gives me a hug, my mind is just about blown.  So far I’ve enjoyed each stage, at least in part, and I’m sure that even in adolescence there will be something to appreciate – bits of my sweet boy peeking through the tough exterior of puberty.  Or of his future, mature self emerging.  I can’t say that I’m ready, or ever will be, for Luke to think his mom’s a dope, but I’m gearing up for it.  And if he happens to want to go on dates with me all through puberty, I’ll consider it a bonus and take him out for ice cream.

Long View

     Real Simple Magazine is having an essay contest, asking readers to write about their biggest regrets in life.  This got me thinking about the subject in some depth.  I know that it’s a popular view to believe in “no regrets” – that it is what it is, and you wouldn’t be the person you are now without the mistakes you’ve made in the past.  In and of itself this is true.  However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look back and evaluate.  That you can’t have insight into your past and weigh it against what you know now.
     My biggest regret is made up of a thousand tiny regrets, a thousand tiny choices I made as a child and adolescent, to not try new things, to not try hard enough.  I look back and see the experiences I missed, the things I could have done that would have made me happy, or more well-rounded, or more involved with life.  I missed so many opportunities because I let fear hold me back.  I wish I had stayed with dance as I grew up.  I took ballet for six years, and was about to start pointe.  And then I quit.  I was bored and lazy and didn’t know to try another form.  I wish I had tried out for basketball and volleyball, but out of fear I didn’t.  I refused to take piano lessons as a kid.  My parents tried to tell me I’d regret it, but I was sure they knew nothing.  I, on the other hand, knew that Who’s The Boss reruns were totally essential.  Good thing I listened to me.
     When you’re a kid, you don’t take the long view.  You take the right now view of things.  I looked ahead a day or two and saw the fun I wanted to have, or the boring things I wanted to avoid.  I didn’t want braces because in the short run it would be ugly.  Now I wish I had put up with metal mouth for a year or two to have straight teeth forever.  In the long run, that’s a pretty good deal.  So many little regrets, when added up, equal one big wish-I-woulda.  One big life lesson: take the long view.  I’m not sure I could have done that as a kid, but maybe?
     My seven year old son, Luke, and I share many of the same fears.  Trying new things, especially things that go really fast, is at the top of the list.  We talk about our fears sometimes – what they are and how to tackle them; he knows this is going to be one of his challenges in life.
     Last summer we made a trip to Silver Dollar City.  He was scared to go on the ubiquitous log ride, so I made him a deal.  If he would ride that, I’d ride the biggest roller coaster they had.  And he’d get a treat.  He rode it, saying “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this”  the whole time.  He got Dippin’ Dots for his act of bravery.  I went on Wildfire with five loop-de-loops and got a stomach ache for an hour.  But he saw me taking on something new and scary (I hid the sick feeling afterward) and he later told me he was glad he tried the American Plunge.  “Next time I bet I won’t be as scared of it,” he said with hope in his voice.  We worked on our fear together, as a team.  Because I regret mine and I’d like to help him overcome his.  It’s that simple.  He doesn’t see the long view, but I do now.  I’m trying to give him a glimpse.
     As an adult I decided to try modern dance.  But my body wasn’t as bendy as before.  I’d had a baby, my balance was wonky, and I could only go once a week.  By the time I realized life is short, it was too late.  A professional dancer I would never be, but I enjoyed my class for what it was – a chance to do something I loved while I was still able.  I played basketball as a grown up, too.  On a team of women of all ages with all sorts of reasons for playing.  Again, I wasn’t amazing, but I felt the adrenaline of blocking a shot.  In. Your. Face.
     I had learned my lesson.  I took the long view.
     Regret is a gift.  Wishing you could take back the insult, the lost opportunity, the time you threw up in your shoe after a high school party (I admit nothing) spurs you on to better things.  But you can’t stay there.  It does no good to sit and wallow in the mistakes you’ve made.  Regret is a teacher; It is a useful tool, but it is not a way of living.  The wisdom that it gives brings promise for tomorrow, if you can use it for your good and for others’.  That’s the blessing of regret.  The hope in the middle of the sadness.  So until the long view is no longer possible, I’ll be looking back, taking stock, and being thankful for second chances.