Thursday, January 24, 2013

Getting Out of the Way

I reach for him, and he screams, “No! Go ‘way!” He swipes his arm at me, less trying to hit and more trying to wave me away, like swatting at a mosquito buzzing around his ears. I walk away, huffing an angry sigh, trying to play it cool but feeling pierced by the thorny barbs of his new found independence.  The heart in me, the heart of this boy's mother, heaves from the petty rejection.  He's supposed to be my baby, the one who clings to me with a koala grip, always needing me, wanting me, begging for my time and my help and my love.  I wonder if I have waited so long for him to not need me so intensively that I forgot it would ever happen.

Perhaps because the changes are gradual, they should feel welcome when they come. I should feel something like finally he’s doing such-and-such, but instead it’s almost as if the gradual nature of his progression allows me to believe change will never come.

When Lincoln was born, we threw out the progress charts, we threw out the timelines and the comparisons and the expectations. We already chafed at the comparison game some parents love to play, at the way some people would dissect each milestone our oldest hit, as if knowing how many months old he was when he walked or talked or rolled over would give them insight on what kind of person he was going to become. It was off-putting enough with a typical child, a child who in all likelihood would have no problem checking off each of those developmental milestones right on time. But with Lincoln we knew that, though he would get to those milestones eventually, he was just going to have to go his own speed and we were just going to have to be okay with that.

No rush, we said to ourselves.  He'll get there when he gets there.  And anyway, when we pushed him too hard, insisted that he open his mouth for a spoonful of pureed sweet potatoes or tried to leave him sitting on the potty until something came out, he would shut up like a clam.  The harder we pushed, the more he refused to cooperate.

So, we met him where he was.  We kissed his messy hair, wrapped our arms around his tiny frame, and learned how to love without an agenda.  We learned, and relearned nearly every day, that his life is not about our timing, any more than our own lives are about our timing. 

And some days, I admit, it seems just a lovely way to fall into complacency.  It can be easier, when you are raising a child who adheres quite adamantly to his own painstaking schedule, to become a bit laissez faire about finding ways to push him and engage him.  Sure, there are times when I am so tired of still being in the phase of strollers and diapers and sippy cups, but far more often I find myself lamenting that he doesn’t let me hold him like he used to and that he’s so tall now I can hardly justify calling him my little peanut anymore.

And now, the explosion of independence is almost startling.  Lincoln has learned what he does (and what he most certainly does not) need me for.  I feel the apron strings sliced right through, and it aches like a phantom limb.

He has no memory of himself as that clutching little koala, always reaching for me.  He knows, instead, what he can do, where his legs can take him, what his hands can grab.  He knows his independence, his ability, with no thought of how hard earned it's been.  He sees only his own strength.

How, then, can I still be focused on his weakness?

This precarious tightrope of mothering.  I feel I am always falling on one side or the other, always too much or too little, never walking the careful line of just right.  Lincoln tells me to go away, and I want to grab him tighter, squeeze us both back in time, hold on to something that's gone.

Yesterday we watched a nature show together, Linc on one side of me and his older brother on the other, and for a moment I relived those days of their tactile adoration of me, when they craved my touch and lived in my arms.  We watched together as a wolf cub aged on screen, from four weeks to three months in an instant, becoming an unrecognizable thing with one magical fade to black.  At four weeks, a round thing with snub nose, and at three months a lanky adolescent with long snout and longer legs.  And how he ran at three months, all sleek glee and bright eyes.

Of course, I see that in my cubs, too.  The joy they feel at growing into themselves.  They, too, are preparing for the pace of their lives, and in truth I wouldn't deprive them of a moment of that.  I see that in Lincoln, as he finds his words and his footing and his blessed independence.  So, I will remember yet again to love him without agenda, to meet him where he is, even when where he is has moved out from under me.  For what is my job but to prepare the path and then get out of the way?  And watch him run, those long legs pumping.  And be proud.

Joining up with Imperfect Prose Thursdays over at Emily T. Wierenga's site.

Friday, January 18, 2013

After the Solstice

My mother says, “You get that from me,” when I talk about the way the weeks after Christmas always feel somehow cold and dark to me. The strands of cheerful lights have been packed away, and with their absence, the long nights suddenly become just too many hours without light. The cold that seemed a perfect companion for drinking hot chocolate and listening to songs about snow now just seems like a chore as the kids’ coats must be put on and taken off ten times a day, and the yard is a wasteland of brown grass, a brittle landscape that crunches underfoot in the weak light of these January afternoons.

It always feels like we’ve packed up all the color and the cheer, and we are stuck leaning against cold windowpanes, just watching the naked arms of leafless trees for the first signs of spring. The heater groans and shudders to life, spitting out hot, dry air that sucks the moisture out of everything until our lips begin to shed flakes of dead skin like snakes waiting for rebirth into their new shiny bodies.

My mother says she always feels let down this time of year, too, and I can understand why because we’ve spent that season of Advent waiting for our savior, reliving that first celebrity baby watch, groaning with Mary in waiting, waiting for the appearance of our savior. We sang about angels and held up our candles against the darkness of the long nights. And then we packed away the hand carved nativity sets right along with the Santa figurines and the nutcracker ornaments, the songs of Glory to God in the Highest fading slowly as we are left with an empty spot where the tree used to be and the uncomfortable revelation that we’re still waiting for that peace on earth.

Maybe it’s because I love the Christmas season so much that I always feel a bit let down when it’s over. The house seems suddenly colorless without the garland and the red and green and the sparkling lights.

Maybe this year it feels a little worse because the closing of the year is a time of taking stock, and for us this year, taking stock has meant confronting the realization that our plans to expand the family are, in all likelihood, just not going to pan out.

And maybe it’s because I can’t seem to get myself out of Newton, Connecticut. Most of the time, I don’t follow the news very closely because I have this problem with identifying too strongly with the stories. I have trouble separating myself from the violence and the sadness and the anger. But I could not stop myself from following the story about Sandy Hook, from crying into my hands at the horror of it, from looking at my own first grader and holding him tight against me as if my arms could rip him out of this angry place and transport him somewhere these things don't happen.

Yes, maybe it's because peace on earth feels even farther away this year. Because I am tired of staring out the window, my forehead pressed to the cold glass, waiting for something to sweep away the bleak landscape of life in a broken place.

During the holidays, we get the glossy version of the promise, perhaps.  Good little girls and boys get presents, and bad ones get coal.  But no one really gets coal, do they?  We hang strands of twinkling lights to insulate us against the approach of winter, and we wrap the flimsy, plastic objects of our affection in shiny paper to camouflage the truth of their disposable nature. We follow the first celebrity baby watch, getting wrapped up in the gifts he's going to receive and the important visitors he's going to entertain.  We forget that once the baby comes, we are right back to waiting.  Waiting for him to crawl, to speak, to walk, to grow into his intended role.

I suppose it seemed suddenly dark in Bethlehem, too, once the light of the angels faded from the sky.

And so I am here, in the part of the year that suddenly seems cold and dark.  I watch out my window for signs of green growth on the bare arms of the Crepe Myrtle trees in the backyard, for the daylight hours to begin to linger, stretching the day longer and longer.  In truth, we have passed the winter solstice, and now the winter's defeat begins, inch by tedious inch.  Soon, unseen life will begin to pulse in knots of thirsty roots beneath the dirt of our dreary yard.  Soon, the heater will have a much needed break from coughing itself into action and will start to think ahead to its long hibernation.

Meanwhile we'll still be waiting, wandering with eyes upturned, shocked awake with every reminder that there's no peace on earth, not yet, but still watching for it.  Still expecting the promise. Hopeful even in our devastation.   Like the bare arms of trees just waiting to bloom, rattled by the bitter January wind but not broken. Bent and stripped and weary, but with our arms stretched high, reaching for the sun, bent but never broken.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Running Away and Coming Home

I don't know why I felt compelled to do it, but I ran all the way to the church building that afternoon. I didn’t realize until I doubled back through the empty parking lot that maybe I just needed to see the building and feel as if I had been there myself.

Nico had been up half the night, writhing from the pain of a stomach ache that hit him suddenly at bedtime on Saturday evening. I admit that I suspected the whole thing was exaggerated, not entirely fabricated but heartily embellished at the very least. I admit that I expected him to have a miraculous recovery as soon as the rest of the family drove off to church and left us in our pajamas, with the most exciting prospect for our morning being the pile of dirty dishes left over from breakfast.

So, when that boy happily started rifling through his craft cabinet and piling art supplies on the table before I even had a chance to wipe the morning’s crumbs off it, I started making a series of sounds that could only be described as harrumphs. A quiet soundtrack for the opening of my own little pity party.

I started cooking when I realized I was too irritated to sit around watching reruns of Law and Order. Tortilla soup for lunch and a casserole for later in the week and a chocolate cake because did I mention I was having a bit of a pity party? I banged pots around that poor kitchen for two hours, talking myself into a frenzy, telling the flour bin how I never get to go anywhere or do anything, and how I really could have used a morning at church because I’d been doing my level best to fall apart all week. And all the while, Nico hummed happily at the table, drawing and cutting with his little blue safety scissors and pulling out pieces of tape three times too long.

By the time Sam came in the door, I was whipping a batch of chocolate buttercream in the mixer and muttering to myself and swiping at angry tears with the back of my hand.

What’s so ridiculous about that whole silly tantrum is that every single Sunday I think of twenty reasons why I can’t possibly go to church. Always, in the back of my mind, I am contemplating taking some time off from organized religion. Always, I am trepidatious about dropping my kids off in their classrooms. Always I am waiting for someone there to find me out, to learn that I am a scandalous, angry, doubtful, feminist, bleeding heart liberal fool who must be escorted from the building by a couple of indignant ushers and left to wait in the car like a scolded child. Or, perhaps worse, I am always waiting for that ENOUGH moment when I find myself stomping down the aisle after one too many sermons on Colossians 3.

Every week, I have to talk myself through the same old fears that kept me out of church for over a decade, and every week I think that maybe I’ll take some time off soon, bow out of my volunteer ministry post, sleep in late the next Sunday and then maybe take the family out to brunch. Every week, I hem and haw and pretend I am not committed to being a part of this community we’ve joined, but then I can’t deny that when I’m kept from it, I miss it. This week, I missed it enough to wind myself into a full-fledged tizzy as I slung diced vegetables and cocoa powder all over the kitchen counters.

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in my thirties, it’s that when I’m in a mood that foul, the only thing for me is to get out and run. If you knew me at any other point in my life, you would understand how ridiculous it sounds for this girl to anticipate going for a run, but glory hallelujah there is one healthy habit that age has developed in me. So, I laced up my shoes and leashed up the dog and hit the pavement.

Most of my runs are limited by a fairly rigid combination of full-time-working-mom-of-two time restrictions and asthmatic-who-hates-her-inhaler speed and distance restrictions. Those restrictions became pretty unimportant as soon as I realized that I am running for me, and I don’t have to go anyone else’s speed or match anyone else’s mileage. Still, on Sunday, I knew I needed to generate one hell of an attitude adjustment, and I decided to run until I could come home with a smile on my face.

I took the long path around the edge of the neighborhood, and then instead of turning around at my usual spot to head home, I just kept going. I didn’t realize until I was almost there that I was running to church. I ran along the sidewalk, past the big stone sign at the second entrance, down the driveway and through the parking lot. And for some reason, as soon as I saw that big, empty building, the tightness in my chest began to ease. I thought of how Nico used to say, “Oh there’s Nico’s church!” when he caught sight of the building, and just as quickly I realized it had been some five years since our first baby was in the habit of making that pronouncement.

Though it’s hard to believe, the way time moves so fast these days, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in the house we're in now. And I have never, at least in my conscious memory, been at one church as long as we’ve been at this one. For a kid who moved a lot, it feels both nice and also somehow strange to sink my roots into a place.

On the way home, it felt as if I’d actually been to church, not just run through the parking lot. The morning’s anger had been burned out of me, and all that was left was the rhythm of movement and the cool air finding the beads of sweat on my neck. I looked around at my neighborhood, the one I've run through so many times and yet still see as a surprise, as if I'm seeing it for the first time.

And I had to wonder if this was just another instance of comparison thinking and plotting where I am now against where I thought I would be. I look at our neighborhood in the suburbs as if I were a stranger to it because I can't let go of the idea that we are supposed to live in some funky Austin neighborhood where everyone paints their house bright colors and puts Obama signs in their front yards. I hesitate to call myself a runner because I have to slow to a walk when I lose my breath.  I pretend I am only just noncommittally checking out this church and not five years into membership with kids who have rotated through half the classrooms in the building.  "Oh there's my church," my son used to say, claiming that place as a trusted landmark on the map of his two year old life.  But I, with three decades more experience under my belt, am still blinking in surprise every time I pull into the parking lot.

And yet, I'm out there in my worn out, discount running shoes, seeking the place that I've gone every week for half a decade to ask the hard questions about faith and prayer and hope and peace and life and death and just about everything in between.  Sure, they are probably as ready to break up with me as I am with them some days.  But they just keep opening their doors to me, and I keep opening my doors to them, and I guess there's something to it because when I am used up and broken down and throwing a real jewel of a pity party, it's there my feet lead me.  So that day, I came home after going to church, even though I missed church, and I put my shoes under the bar stools in the kitchen, where I always put my shoes though it drives Sam crazy, and I was thinking how running can be like worship and how silence is sometimes the best prayer and how it's the hanging your hat part that makes it home. 

[Image Credit]

Friday, January 4, 2013

Yesterday's Confetti

The ornaments and lights are packed up for another year, and now the ads that litter my mailbox have moved on from garland and electronics to treadmills and workout clothes.  Right about now, the faithful few at the gym will be grumbling about the January crowds and reminding themselves that they will have their gym back in a month or so, once everyone starts burning out on their New Year's resolution.  Everyone selling weight loss is pumping out their latest commercial ten times a day, with those glorious before and after photos floating across the screen like airy promises.

I'm a new start kind of a gal at heart, a list making, project planning kind of person who has always loved the hopeful energy of the new year.  I love hearing and reading what everyone wants to accomplish with this new year, from the One Word posts to the elaborate, numbered lists.  I love the fact that we challenge ourselves, that we get a little reboot every January to start fresh.  I love the idea of people sitting down and asking themselves how can I do better this year?

But sometimes, as I've gotten older and seen more years begin and end, I've started to wonder if these resolutions are turning into just another thing to add to the weight of guilt we carry.  There is a difference between wanting to do more and feeling that you aren't enough, and sometimes I think I hear in the ubiquitous mentions of how previous years' resolutions were woefully unfinished the quiet little echo of maybe I will be enough this year.

Maybe that's not you, maybe that's not where you are.  But that feeling of not being enough has driven more of my own New Year's resolutions than I would like to admit.  Especially all those lose weight/get healthy/work out resolutions, and let me tell you I had one of those every single year until I gave up dieting a few years back.

A couple days ago, I read this article in the New York Times called "Our Absurd Fear of Fat."  The article outlines a recent study showing that "all adults categorized as overweight and most of those categorized as obese have a lower mortality risk than so-called normal-weight individuals."  This research, which comes from a review of almost a hundred large epidemiological studies that covered nearly three million people, goes quite a long way to unravel the good old myth that we all need to be skinny because it's fundamentally unhealthy to be "overweight."

Now, this is not the first time I've heard this kind of research.  (If it is for you, you should check out the book Health at Every Size or start by reading through the excerpts on the website).  But, even though this news was not exactly news to me, as I was reading it I couldn't help but think:

Because I finally understood something about the resolutions I had made for so many years.  Whether or not they worked (because some years they did work), they were always grounded in this feeling that I was not enough.  I was falling short, I was flawed, but if I tried hard enough then maybe I would be enough.  Maybe that year I would finally measure up.

And the great thing about that article was that I was finally forced to admit that all the dieting frenzy, all the this-year-I'm-gonna-do-it! excitement, was not about being healthy.  It was about wanting to be good enough, about believing that I had to count every single calorie that went into my mouth because if I didn't it meant that I was failing at this whole having a human body thing I'd been entrusted with.  Because I had been told that my body was supposed to be skinny and if it wasn't, that was only because I wasn't trying hard enough.

It wasn't about being healthy and living longer.  It was about being a people pleaser, about wanting people to like the way I looked.

The last time I made a New Year's resolution was when I decided to get off that hamster wheel.  It's something I don't talk about much because I don't feel like much of a poster child in this area.  No surprise (especially if you know anything about how dieting wrecks your metabolism), I gained weight once I stopped counting and measuring and being afraid to go to dinner parties because I didn't know how many grams of fat were in anything at the table.  Though I'm working on it, I still haven't been able to shake the idea that I'm supposed to be thin, maybe not this generation's ideal of sunken cheek thin but at least the kind of thin that I have felt for much of my life that I am not. And since I don't feel like I'm the best ambassador for letting go of the thin ideal, I often keep my mouth closed about it. 

But as I think about all the January gym frenzy, as I see articles with titles like "Ten Foods to Keep Your Resolution on Track" and ads that promise "30 Days to a New You! [results not guaranteed]," I can't help but wonder how many others are out there, feeling like I did for so many years. How many people are building their promise of a new year on the quicksand of I'm not good enough?  It feels like sure salvation, promising to become someone better in the next year.  But how easily we shatter when we start to burn out on our resolutions and the sinister whisper begins in our head, telling us we really aren't good enough, just like we always feared.

And maybe for you it's not "getting in shape."  Maybe you've got that one all figured out, but for you it's conquering your Pinterest inspired ambitions or finally getting organized or paying off debt.  It doesn't really matter what the monster is, just that it's built on the idea that you need to work your way to being good enough in that area.

See, it's invigorating to think that you will become someone new this year, that you will shed the old weaknesses that have been dogging you for years.  It's less fun to wake up in March and realize you are still the same old not good enough person you were back in January.  Confetti sure is fun to throw, but no one wants to be stuck picking it out of the carpet for the next two weeks. And I don't want to wake up in a few months, still picking the confetti of another botched resolution out of my hair.

So, if you're like me and you have a habit of thinking you are going to remake yourself this year, if you have that hard to quit habit of perfectionism or if you have gotten caught up in some unrealistic ideals that you could never reach no matter how far you twist and stretch and contort yourself, well then I have a suggestion.  Maybe you could join me in making a kind of anti-resolution.  Maybe you could decide that instead of trying to change the way you are, you will work on changing the way you think about the way you are.

Instead of trying to lose weight, you will work on seeing yourself as beautiful (or handsome, of course) right now, as you are.  Instead of trying to become Martha Stewart, you will work on enjoying the home you have already made.  Instead of learning a new skill, you will focus on appreciating and using the skills you already have.  Instead of reading twenty books you are supposed to like, you will read books you already enjoy, happily and without judgement.

Spend a year rewriting the script of sinister whispering that starts in your head when that not enough feeling kicks in.  Take a year to appreciate who you already are.  Go ahead, give it a try.  If it doesn't work, you can always try the same old thing next year.

[Image Credit]