Tuesday, October 27, 2015

May I Abide

The light is coming in slant-ways though my window now, a sure and telltale sign that we are deep into October these days.  It's that funny angle of light that has always bothered Sam about fall, but I love it precisely because it is such a visual indicator of the change of the seasons.  October just looks different, finally, from the relentlessness summer sun beating down on us.

Our youngest, the baby we spent so much time waiting and dreaming and praying for, is hardly a baby anymore.  She has amassed a growing vocabulary of charming, high-pitched demands, most of which center on where she wants to go or what she wants to be fed.  She's a pragmatic little thing, it seems, and as pretty a tiny terrorist as you will ever meet.  She stands in the kitchen, all ruffles and honey-colored curls and doe eyes, saying, "Up! Up!" It seems like a suggestion, but make no mistake, if you ignore that suggestion, she will arch her back and throw herself headfirst onto the hard tile floor.  Every dainty, bird-like chirp she makes seems like a sweet song until you realize that each one is an ultimatum: give me what I want or I will obliterate your plans for a peaceful evening.

It's funny how quickly you forget that chasing after a toddler is exhausting.  And time consuming.  And frustrating.  Every night it feels like I go to bed having accomplished half of what I intended to get done that evening.  Weekends, I have spent so much of the week missing her, I just sit on the floor and read her books one after another.  Monday comes, and I am back to the workday grind wondering how those two days just seemed to evaporate right out from under me.

I keep wondering why I thought it would get easier after the newborn days had passed.  I keep wondering why I thought I would get to actually sleep after the first year.  Why I ever thought adding a third child wouldn't really be that much of a transition because it was just one more set of teeth to brush, one more pair of shoes to go searching for every time we need to leave the house, one more jacket to stuff little arms into.  We were already doing all of those things, after all; it wasn't going to change the dynamics much to add one more little person to the daily food/clothe/clean/keep alive assembly line.

I keep telling Sam I don't have time to get everything done.  Not even the superwoman kind of everything Pinterest thinks we should all be getting done.  I mean, just anything more than staying afloat kind of get everything done.  See, the sweetest little comet has just smashed into our lives and laid waste to our sleep and our schedules and our plans.

- - - - 

I've always been a sap for before and after pictures: makeovers, weight loss, home renovations, you name it.  For years it was because I pinned my hopes on that particularly fractured way of thinking that says when this-certain-thing-I-want happens, then I'll be happy.  When I weigh less or when I make more.  When I get a bigger place or earn my degree or run a marathon or get published.  There was never a sense that I could be happy right there, where I was, but only that happiness would come rushing in once I fixed the parts of my life that felt sub-par.  I couldn't wait to get to the after part of my own before and after transformation.

It took reaching a lot of goals and still feeling dissatisfied to realize happiness wasn't waiting over the next hill.  And the more I thought it was, the more I was missing the happiness I was already smack dab in the middle of.

- - - -

Three years ago, I was pregnant and then I wasn't, and though the ordeal itself only lasted a few months from start to finish, it infected me with a sickness that would not leave me until the moment I finally met the baby girl I had so desperately wanted. Looking back, I can say that I was depressed and anxious for at least two years following our first miscarriage.  But putting it in those clinical terms doesn't quite explain what I was really experiencing on a daily basis.  It was as if I lost myself.  All of the parts were still there, and I kept putting one foot in front of another, but I wasn't in there anymore.

Who knows why this loss hit me so hard.  Pregnancy loss is so widespread that I know there are many women who navigate it with much more resilience and maturity than I did.  For me, though, it was the proverbial straw-on-camel's-back in a long stream of disappointments that were teaching me ever so slowly to stop looking over the next hill for my newest fix of feel-good.  I had already been in the process of letting go of my obsession with before and after thinking.  I had already been stripped of (or so it felt) the strangely comforting idea that once I lost weight, everything else in my life would all come together.  Likewise, I had been let down by so many other magical milestones that I'd spent years believing would cure me of some portion of my sadness and angst: getting married, becoming a mother, buying a house, getting a degree, writing a book, getting a "real" job.

All of those milestones arrived, one by one over the course of several years, without the confetti spray of insta-happiness.  But this thing of wanting one more baby, it felt different than all those other things that didn't cure me.  This one, I knew, would actually do the trick.  If I could only hold a baby in my arms one more time, I would finally feel whole.  I was sure of it.

Except that I was left wanting it for so long, growing more and more sure that it would never happen, grieving and wishing and fretting, until I finally had to admit to myself that a baby wasn't going to save me any more than all of the other things I tried over the years.  Finally, I had to admit to my silly, stubborn self that this pattern was a problem, this before and after thinking, this habit of tying my sense of well-being to a vision of myself or my life that was constantly, consistently better than I was at the moment.

And in one of those moments of supreme irony, the moment I admitted to myself that the problem was not that I needed another baby but that I always needed something, the moment I swallowed that particular jagged little pill, I found out I was expecting.

- - - -

So here we are raising this beautiful little monster, who gobbles up our time and our flexibility and our ability to function without three cups of coffee in the morning.  And when I look at her, ordering me to lift her up or read her a book, I can see already how quickly she is becoming not the baby I dreamed of but the toddler who will become the girl who will become the woman who will move out and leave me one day.  If I'm not careful, if I fall right back into that habit of constantly looking for the next round of thing-that-I-don't-have-but-will-make-me-super-happy-when-I-get-it, all I will see of her is how fast she's speeding away from the newborn I craved.  All I will see is how long her legs are getting and how much she's losing her baby fat and how far we are getting from the moment when we rejoiced at her arrival.  All I will see is that having another baby didn't fix everything after all, and instead of learning to rejoice in the strange newness that is already inherent in every day we've got together, I will turn my gaze to the horizon, looking for the next thing to make me feel better.

Here we are raising this beautiful little monster, and her two amazing and confounding older brothers, facing down the methodical tick-tock progression of these busy days, days where we never get enough done.  And at the end of those days, when it has taken three tries to get this daughter of ours to fall asleep, when it's only Tuesday and I'm dead on my feet, when the bills are piled up on the counter and the dishes are piled up in the sink, may I stop and look at the mess of a life I am lucky enough to live.  May I take it all in, just as it is, and may that be enough.  May I learn the meditation of letting right now be exactly where I'm supposed to be.  May I breathe in this season of raising young children, and tomorrow, may I breathe in that season as my rightful moment in time, too.

May I abide the relentless summer sun, and may I abide the slanty fall sun, each in their turn.  May I be here, now, today.  Everyday.  For all of the days that I am a mother to little ones, to teenagers, to adults who are parents themselves.  May I let enough be enough, because most people looking in at my life would think, I have no doubt, that I have enough wonderful things to make any reasonable person happy many times over.  May I be a reasonable person happy with her own wonderful lot as much and as often as I can. May I live the days of my life with careful attention for as long as I have days to live, and may I grow to love the journey as much as I have always longed for the destination.

Friday, September 4, 2015

In the Shadow of the Tower

Outside my office window, an army of cranes is constructing a slowly expanding hull of concrete and iron.  Their long arms swing and dip like gawky birds, a set of angular skeletons building another angular skeleton.  Behind them, giant downy puffs of clouds soften the cranes' starkly geometric presence.

One day that building will be a medical school, and people will stream through its halls learning how to cut open bodies to save them, how to use poison to save people from cancer, how to re-break legs to allow them to heal properly.  One day, in rooms that today I can look straight through and see the clouds behind, men and women in white coats will work themselves until they can hardly stand, until they are sick and exhausted and probably second-guessing their stupid choice to become a doctor in the first place.  One day lives will be saved, and lives will be lost, in the building being pieced together by robotic arms on the horizon just outside my office window.

And below those industrious cranes, between their work and mine, a few dozen people lounge at the pool outside the campus gym.  Professors swim laps with plastic caps over their hair.  Lifeguards sit in tall chairs and stare, all wearing the standard uniform of red swimsuits and bored expressions.  Young women who still have the bodies of teenagers adjust their bikinis, leaning back in reclining chairs and holding their stomachs in.  A group of rowdy undergrads laugh and splash like the children they still seem to me. 

Today, the talk in the office revolves around Texas’ new campus carry law.  What areas are exempt, and do those exemptions make anyone safer?  How do we balance obeying the law and protecting those kids splashing in the pool outside our windows?  And Lord knows we don’t all agree on whether the law will change anything about how safe we all are, or are not, here working in academia.  And Lord knows those us of who work in the shadow of the tower where the first mass campus murder in America was committed come in and out of awareness of the fact that we come to work everyday to the kind of place where people like to bring their rage and their bullets and their desperation.  We know it, we remember it, then we forget it again so we can keep coming here and doing our small part in helping another generation of kids get an education.  We can’t hold both truths at once, not all of the time: the truth that colleges and schools seem to attract the murderous interest of some of the most evil people our society has produced, and the truth that colleges and schools exist to pump learning and art and research into that same society.

I guess it’s the same with any dichotomy; you can’t keep both sides in your head all the time.  You know the inherent dangers of driving your car, yet you climb in it anyway.  You think about the radio station and the traffic, and only when someone veers out of their lane and threatens to crash right into you, do you feel a knot in your stomach as you think how you might have died just then.  If that jerk driver had come one foot closer, or if you’d been distracted and unable slam on your brakes in time, you might have been just another life sacrificed to the rush hour pavement.

It’s the way of survival, I guess.  Because how can we get up in the morning and face a day full of meetings and spreadsheets without driving from our minds the fact that Syrian refugees are erupting from their war-torn homeland only to learn there are more ways to die than becoming a casualty of war?

But sometimes the brush of death comes close enough, the other car just inches from colliding with you, and you wake with a start to the ugly truths you’ve been keeping at bay most of the days of your life. 

Right on the other side of campus, the cranes toil at their everyday art, carrying tiny far-away humans who hang at impossible heights to build something big and strong and useful for the world.  Today, that building looks almost as if its been shot through, itself.  Just a carcass of what it will be. Chances are someday the doctors who study there will have to pull a bullet out of a child, or a not-quite-child, and in that moment it won’t really matter what the law said about the gun used to cut through the body of their young patient.  Registered or unregistered, legally or illegally obtained, it will still have left a hole in the lives of everyone who knows that child.  The details of where the gun was fired will matter much less than where the impact hit, and the doctors will be left to work their everyday magic of trying to save one more life.

The fluffy clouds hang over the work of the cranes, and over the not-quite-kids splashing in the pool.  The sky today is strikingly beautiful, picturesque and playful, urging me to look up and out, away from the list of rooms I’m putting together, rooms that just might qualify as gun-free zones once the campus carry law goes into effect.  It’s probably an exercise in futility, anyway.  It’s likely none of these rooms will qualify as exclusionary zones, and even if they did, who’s to say it would do anything to deter a would-be murderer from just stepping inside, taking aim, and waking up another swathe of the country for one, brief moment.

No one can live in these dark truths all the time, so I put away my list.  Make a run to the water fountain.  Look out the window.  Pray to go back to sleep.