Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tonight I Tell My Heart

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”
                                ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist  
A few nights ago, I woke in a panic and sat in the dark, gasping air and trying to remind myself which of my thoughts were real and which were just monsters under the bed threatening me with their imaginary wrath. See, I'm having my tonsils removed tomorrow, and I have a deep and irrational fear of "going under the knife."

When I was in labor with my oldest son, my doctor repeatedly warned me that we were heading for a c-section, but I was adamant that there had to be some way to get that kid out that did not involve me being dissected.  Turns out my doctor knows what she's talking about it, and a few hours later I was being rushed to the OR and sliced open.  I remember begging my husband to keep tapping me on the forehead, the way I had once seen a vet do to our cat during a blood draw, to keep me from focusing on the fact that someone was elbow deep in my own bloody innards just on the other side of that little half curtain they had draped across my chest.

And I had a full blown panic attack when I was being prepped for my second c-section, at the birth of my youngest son, as the anesthesiologist dug his long needle around in my back looking for his target while I was bent awkwardly over my hugely pregnant belly, sucking at the air like I was being drowned.

So, a few nights ago, the bravado with which I had scheduled this tonsillectomy dissolved, and I woke in the middle of the night gasping at my own fragility, terror-stricken that after all I am only just a flimsy bag of flesh too easily punctured, too easily split open and drained dry.  I woke feeling my fist-sized heart echo its rhythm off my the inside of my ribs like the caged bird that it is, beating its frantic call, rattling around in jumbled rebellion against its own planned obsolescence.  It's in those deep black moments of late night terror that reason has no foothold and fears loom like the endless shadows where the darkness overlaps itself and seems to make sinister shapes everywhere I turn my eyes.

I sat awake for many long moments gripped by the fear of pain, by the visceral, gruesome image of how yielding this body is to a tiny sharpened edge of steel.

And then, a quiet spread over me and I half remembered a quote I once read or heard about how pain alone is bearable but it is the fear of pain that causes us to suffer.  I woke the next morning with an uncharacteristic sense of calm, and later that day I tried to find the quote I had remembered in the night.  I never could find that quote, but I found the one above from Paulo Coelho and then a fried reminded me that pain is not the enemy, that pain is a byproduct of healing.

Tonight I am telling my heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.  I'm telling my heart that pain is not the enemy anyway, that when it comes it will be because I am healing.  And I'm telling my heart to quiet its fitful pattering, this rattling against its own cage because we're better off not suffering from the fear of what we can't avoid in the end.

Soon I will be off to bed, once this heart of mine pays attention and quiets down a bit, and tomorrow will be what it will be.  We can't taste tomorrow's breakfast tonight, so it's best to not strap on tomorrow's burdens yet either.  I'll keep telling my heart about all this tonight, and chances are, many nights to come when I forget and start trying on the next day's troubles and getting all mired in that fear of suffering that comes so easy to me.  For tonight, I tell my heart that sweet reminder; I say have peace and be at rest.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Few Things I'm Ready to Retire

I can't decide which one I am more tired of: seeing "news" stories about the physique of famous women or seeing the non-famous women around me seem to be unable to talk about their own bodies without disparaging them. 

Oh, internet, I am just so endlessly tired of it, tired of these stories and articles and interviews that focus on the bodies of female celebrities as if their weight or their shape or how much or little skin they showed last week is in any way news.  Tired of the words we use to describe these bodies we were given, tired of the way we comment on other women's bodies, tired of the way we focus on how these bodies look and not what they can do and how they feel to us, living inside them.

I'm tired of women hunching over because they are ashamed of having large chests.  I'm tired of tall women believing they shouldn't wear heels or larger women believing they can't wear white, or patterns, or belts, or whatever it is this week.  I'm tired of the conversations that go on in women's restrooms as women stand in front of mirrors casting judgement upon their reflections, making small talk of their perceived inadequacies.  I am tired of hearing women make that quiet tsk sound with their tongues when their hair is not obeying or their mascara has run or their reflection in any number of other ways does not match their expectation.

I am so unbelievably tired of this narrow view of beauty that is necessarily exclusionary to large chunks of the population based on whatever trends are in vogue at the moment.

And no, I don't think the answer is to tell the models and actresses to go have a cheeseburger.  I don't think we will fix the problem by swinging the current standard of beauty away from very thin women and towards rounder, thicker women.  I think the answer is to stop believing there is any one way we are supposed to look.  I think the answer is for us all to decide that how we look is already beautiful, for us to learn to recognize the highly individual and masterfully crafted details of each human body, for the pursuit of beauty to be a movement, a challenge to find beauty in all of the countless ways it is expressed.

I think part of the answer is not just to tolerate bodies of different sizes, of different proportions and colors, but to rejoice in them.  And I think part of the answer is to start appreciating the way beauty changes over the natural course of a lifetime, the way it is dewy and stretched smooth in youth, yes, but also the way it is textured and marked by experience with age.  I think we should celebrate the lines on our faces, thanking God for the full lives that have earned those etched souvenirs of our blessed existence.  I will never forget my grandmother telling a story in which someone told her that she should have stayed out of the sun because all that exposure had aged her and she replied, "I would never trade those hours in the sun, all those years of playing and swimming.  I would never trade smooth skin for all those moments."

Ah, that I should live with the same gusto instead of spending my life, as I spent much of my youth, fixating on how I looked at every social event, at every party and trip to the pool and stroll through the grocery store.  That I should embrace the wonder and adventure in my life, that I should throw myself into doing things instead of becoming paralyzed by how terrible I'm afraid I might look doing them. 

And while we are on the subject, I'm ready to retire this whole "us vs. them" way of seeing the world.  Besides being the root behind this obsession with looking a certain way (because we perceive that looking the part will get us the role, that being attractive will save us from rejection), the us vs. them mentality is built into our psyches in what I increasingly believe is a fundamentally destructive way.  We make a (usually) lighthearted spectacle of this with our allegiance to sports teams, but the desire to align ourselves with one group and against another is pervasive throughout the human experience, in many cases showing up in much less benign ways than some raa-raa-sis-boom-bah pom pom waving.

Although I believe the drive to be connected with people, the identification with the group, is more powerful than the desire for "our" team to annihilate "your" team, the competition, when it branches beyond the sports arena, can be and is often deadly.  Especially when "our" team is our country or our religious group.

Somewhere along the line, we have adopted a framework that relies on the friction against the "other" team to build the camaraderie of "our" team.   We have made a way of life out of vilifying anyone perceived as our opponents, and while in many cases this can be harmless, it does create a current of uneasiness that I believe affects us all.  I see us becoming polarized, becoming militant about whether we eat paleo or vegan or just strict organic, see us acting like victims of the obesity wars vs. the beautiful people, see us calling our states by their colors and believing that the very foundations of our government are bound to crumble if the wrong person is elected.  We hole up in our comfortable circles and spend our days lambasting anyone just outside the lines we have drawn for ourselves.

I can't help but wonder what would happen in the world if we spent half as much time thinking about how we are alike as we spend thinking how we are different.  If we put all of that effort now reserved for attaching ourselves to the latest trend or most sought after social group into finding the common bonds we share with all of the people around us, would that free us from the feeling that we need to be or act or look different to be accepted?  Would we all feel more accepted as our mutual humanity was affirmed?  Would we stop attacking and fearing people in the opposite religious group or political party?  Would we stop driving ourselves into debt to live in the right neighborhoods and have the right labels on our shirts?  Would we stop going to doctors with pictures of other people's noses as if we were simply shopping for a face?  Would we suddenly find enough food for the hungry and enough medicine for the sick, no matter who they are or where the live?

Would war end?

Would lonliness?

I don't know, but I would love to find out.

Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License

Friday, May 3, 2013

One for the Rest of Us (An Unlikely Mother's Day Ad)

I spend my lunch hour eating leftover soup resurrected from the back of the freezer.  It was the batch of soup no one liked but me, and really I was mostly claiming to like it out of a selfish defiance because when you don't cook very often and you decide to whip up a batch of soup you can get a little defensive that no one else likes your culinary masterpiece.  So I've eaten roughly 14 bowls of this terribly mediocre soup over the last few months, pulling a portion out of the freezer whenever I think I can stand having another go at it and doctoring it with hot sauce that will give me heartburn later just to make it taste different than the last 12 times I've eaten it.

This is the last bowl of the stuff, and to celebrate I am dropping in the crushed remnants of an almost empty bag of Fritos.  I insist on eating from real dishes even when I am just eating at my desk in front of my computer because I tell myself real dishes feel so much nicer than paper plates and because I can't stop thinking about that documentary I watched about the garbage island floating out in the Pacific Ocean.  In a while, I will have to decide between washing my soup bowl in the tiny kitchen that has been caked with the film of decades of grad student use or washing my bowl in the cleaner but just as unappealing bathroom sink down the hall.

Ah, the glamour of a Friday lunch hour, sitting in my office chair, trying to drown out the ticking industrial clock that reminds me how quickly each second is flying as I steal an hour to write.

~     ~     ~

Today is Field Day at the boys' school, and I am worried whether they were dressed warm enough to spend hours outside in this strange late spring cold snap.  Next week is Lincoln's big pre-kindergarten ARD meeting at his school, and I am debating whether I should take half a day off work to attend in person or beam myself in virtually and participate through FaceTime.  I make a note on my calendar to remind myself to make the boys a dentist appointment this summer.  The writing stalls out, overrun no doubt by the stream of mundane reminders and responsibilities running through my mind, and I take a few minutes to do some Mother's Day shopping online.

~     ~     ~

I know my kids will hear about, will learn and remember the big things I did for them.  Stories of long labor, the love at first sight moments when I cried at their bloody, red-faced arrivals.  The way I insisted that my nurse put me in a wheelchair and take me to see Lincoln in the NICU so soon after my c-section that my legs were still frozen from the anesthesia.  How I made ugly but delicious cakes for their big, themed birthday parties.  The way Christmas was always a big honking deal in our house, and I was always all in on the magic and the whimsy of that season right along with them.  The time when Lincoln was in the children's hospital and I stayed up all night holding him upright because when he laid down, his oxygen saturation would drop and the monitors in his room would start beeping urgently.

I know they will hear about these little family legends, and in hearing them will be reminded that their mother loves them deeply.  But sometimes I wonder if they will ever quite understand how many thousand upon thousand moments of quiet drudgery I survived for them.  I wonder if they will ever know how many torturous hours I spent at boring jobs working to pay for the roof over their heads when all I really wanted was to be home under that roof with them, holding them in my arms.  I wonder if they will know how many plates of leftovers I ate to keep our grocery bill low enough that we could take them to the toy store every now and then.  I wonder if they will ever know how many times I picked up the same pair of their jeans from the floor of the bathroom, threw those jeans in the hamper, sorted them by color and moved them to the washer, how many times I pulled those jeans from the dryer, folded them, put them away, and lifted the same pair of jeans out of the drawer to be worn to school the next morning.

~     ~     ~

The Mother's Day ads tell me to treat mom, to pamper her, to buy her something shiny because she's earned it. They make me cringe, these ads, and I'm not sure if it's because I know the hollowness of trying to repay love with things or if it's because I have never quite felt that those ads were about me, too.  And I know it is only my own sick internalization of the Mommy Wars that leads me to say this, but I have never quite felt mom enough to be eligible for acceptance into the picture painted by those ads.

Because it seems most of the moms I know are people for whom motherhood is their life's work.  Women who do the cooking and cleaning and butt wiping, and often also the teaching and the shopping and the discipline.  Or I see people who, like me, drag themselves to work because it's better for their family, but who, unlike me, have to come home to a second shift of cooking and cleaning with negligible help from their partner.

But I leave for work while the boys are still in their pajamas, knowing their father will get up and feed them breakfast, put them in the clothes I laid out the night before, pack their lunches, and get them to school before the tardy bell rings.  And I am still at work when my husband picks them up from school, cleans out their lunch boxes, and gets them started on homework.  Friends ask me "How did you get your husband to start cooking?" like it is some sort of magic trick they are desperate to recreate in their own overworked kitchens.  At a Women's Retreat this fall, I sat silent at Sunday breakfast, staring at my bacon with a guilty lump in my throat while the other women wondered aloud how their husbands would manage to get the kids to church alone, laughing at how many children would be showing up that morning with mismatched clothes and uncombed hair.

Somewhere along the line, I realize, I bought into the idea that Mother's Day is for those moms, for the incredible women who do so much with so little help. I got this mixed up idea in my head that Mother's Day is not for mothers like me who still cry in the car on the way to work sometimes because it's so hard to leave on the mornings when your family is all tucked under the covers of the big bed, snuggling against the unseasonable cold together.  Somehow I bought into the idea that I'm not enough of a mother because the best thing I can give to my kids right now is a decent, steady job that is sometimes mind numbingly boring, a job that I get up and go to every day even when I want to stay home and crawl into bed with them.  Somehow I decided that it wasn't enough that my boys had an adoring parent to walk them through their weekday routines, that it wasn't enough unless that parent was me.

And yes, believe me, I know that way of thinking is backwards at best and outright disrespectful to my incredible husband at worst.

Today I read the truth of my backwards thinking in the dregs of my soup the way fortune tellers read it in tea leaves left at the bottom of a cup.  I decide on the bathroom to wash my soup bowl because, sadly, the smell in there is better than what's coming out of the sink in that tiny grad student kitchen upstairs.  And there, in the sticky residue of broth, I see my own Mother's Day ad, and it reads something like this:

Even though the sacrifices I make for my children don't always look like the sacrifices made by the moms in the commercials, they are still acts of love, faithfully carried out, done at the expense of my own time and freedom, and they are worthy of recognition and thanks.  I am no less a real mom because I have help, no less a real mom because I work outside the home, no less a real mom because the way I mother doesn't match the way someone else does it.  So, happy early Mother's Day to me.  And to you, you know, if that applies.

{Chances are you may have known all of that already, but I guess I needed to hear it.  And maybe some of you did, too.}

Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.