Let’s Be Clear

On holidays like Memorial Day, I feel especially defensive of the people I consider to be heroes.  Standing under a flag at half-staff, listening to a child play Taps, choking back tears, I know exactly who my heroes are.  They are not sports figures; those are idols.  They are not surgeons who correct a heart condition or cancer; those are healers.  They are not people who died in their place of business on 9/11; those were victims.  My definition of a hero is limited to a person who  knowingly risks his/her life and safety with the idea that someone else, or something else, is more important.  They make the ultimate sacrifice – themselves.

I am in awe of the people who fight for my freedom and end up losing their own to loss of life or limb or peace of mind.

I am in awe that in the absence of a draft, our armed forces are stocked with volunteers.

I am in awe that so many have the courage and the calling that I lack.

In quiet moments I reflect on moments that aren’t so quiet – when bombs are bursting and people are dying.  And I feel that I’ll never be worthy to stand beside those who have stood up for me.  There was a time when most of the world – including those who were left behind – made sacrifices during war.  They did without, they worked harder, they mourned repetitively.  These days, war could be just another reality show on t.v.  Life goes on, uninterrupted, for the majority.  For this I am guilty and ashamed.

Yet I wonder, is this what my heroes would want?  For me to stand in my house, safe and sound, feeling bad about myself and sorry for them?  Or would they prefer that I dance in my yard, breathing in the fresh air, forgetting myself, carefree.  Isn’t that what they fight for?  This very freedom?

Today I pause, at least for a moment, to remind myself that this is not, as one woman said, ‘National BBQ Day.’  It is the day we get clear on what, exactly, a hero is.  I may follow that moment with a burger from the grill, a backyard game, and a laugh or two.  And I will enjoy it all in the spirit of the freedom that I did not earn, but that others so generously gave to me.

The Sweetness of Clarity

Today I was blindsided by chaos.  I imagined it would be a mostly ordinary day – kids to school, Mom to work, and husband on a rare business trip.  Silly me.

The drama actually began late last night when teen daughter waged a war against chores and chicken for dinner and all things parent.  Poor husband sought consolation, “Can you believe her?! ”  To which I responded with my go-to justification, “She’s a teenager.”  When rational explanation fails, this single fact makes it all better.  Teenhood is not a permanent condition.  Doors were slammed, lights flicked off, and sleep was welcomed.  Tomorrow would be a new day……A day that began too early.  Midnight to be exact.

Like Cinderella who transformed at the stroke of midnight, dear son turned into a vomiting machine. This, as you fellow parents know, is a game changer.  Instantly, my day went from busy/manageable to crazy/juggling.

As it were, I was scheduled to drive my usually-bus-riding daughter and a friend to school for the Architecture Fair.  SHOOT!   This is the event that husband was supposed to attend to fulfill the ‘at least one parent should show support’ thesis.  But he is away on business which means I should go. But when? How?

The phone rings, breaking up the rapid-fire problem-solving in my head.  It is friend, wondering if we’ve forgotten her or are we just running late?  Scrambling to the car, bagel in one hand, trifold display in the other, we settle into a comfortably illegal pace on the highway when teen daughter exclaims (too hysterically) that the written portion of her project has been forgotten at home.  Would I go back and get it after dropping her off?

I gaze at the Heavens with a ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ look.  Is this level of chaos all in one day really necessary?  Daughter gives further instruction on the location of said paper.  It’s beside the computer which, by the way, “crashed when I was trying to print off another copy.”  Lovely.

I am torn.  Yes or no?  Go out of my way, taking more time than I have, in order to save my daughter?  Or help her to learn responsibility by suffering the consequences?  She was, after all, a beast last night.  She wasted valuable project preparation time with her tirades.  I’m not feeling especially generous toward her.  But there are other factors to consider too: a younger child in tow who needs to be at a different school momentarily, a son who clearly shouldn’t be left alone, a dance carpool commitment (of all weeks!) and oh yes, a job that is expecting me.  My mind is on a spinny ride at the amusement park and I want to get off.

When Chaos arrives like it has today, Clarity eludes me.  She loves a game of Hide and Seek.   Sometimes it’s easy to find Clarity.  She’s like a small child who hides in the same obvious spot every time she plays the game.  Other times she gets sneaky and hides somewhere in next week or next month – so far away that I have to give up searching for her, knowing that eventually she’ll return to me.  So I keep the door unlocked.

Today, Clarity jumps out at me from behind the phone.  Grandpa calls and would LOVE to drive  45 minutes to spend part of the day with a sick child so mother can take care of the rest of the world. Mercy abounds!

This one monumental gesture of kindness lights a spark in me.  My cold and confused heart warms from the gift it has received and it feels like giving too.  It feels like calling work to say that business is never more important than children.  It feels like fetching and delivering the forgotten school report.  It feels like completing the child chores that were left undone last night.  It feels like attending the Architecture Fair to support not only it’s own child, but the others whose parents didn’t hear their hearts today.

My heart is rewarded with immense gratitude in the form of bear hugs when I arrive back at teen daughter’s school.  It is further elated when it returns home from a brief stop at work to find that, without prompting, the dishwasher has been unloaded by the very same teenager.  The heart knows this path.  It gives generously and without expectation and ends up receiving.  The mind is not as smart.  It would have me judging and measuring out gifts, and calculating retribution.  I really should learn to consult my heart first.  It would save me, and my mind, a lot of trouble.

Fifty More Shades of Grey

Yes, reader, I’m one of the millions who has been swooped up by the curiosity storm that is Fifty Shades of Grey. And it has me thinking about, well, lots of things – many of which I dare not share here.  If you’re a self-described prude as my neighbor is, fear not, it’s not what you think.  This is not a shock-jock type of post.  Nor is it a literary review.  There are plenty of other forums exploring this cult-like explosion and what it means.  Which is why I want to ask, ‘What do you mean, what does it mean?

Does the book’s crazy-big popularity have to point to some dire deficit in womankind – or mankind? Do we really have to pull out the holier-than-thou judgment card?  Experts will have you questioning your motives, doubting your core stability, worrying over betraying a secret desire, and making excuses for why you did or did not enjoy the book.  The bottom line is this:  there are as many different acceptable reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey as there are, say, shades of grey.

Which brings me to my story.  It’s a very different story than the one referenced above.  It involves a seven-year old girl, a first-time mother, and a rainy day….

My daughter and I were driving along on the kind of day that makes me want to curl up under covers with a cup of hot tea and warm pajamas.  The rain came and went and threatened to return.  My daughter stared out the window blankly, sharing a similar distaste for the weather – I thought.  “I’m so glad we have color in the world,” she observed.  “I agree!  We need color on a dull day like this,”  I absent-mindedly replied.  Puzzled, my daughter disagreed, “No.  I was thinking how great it is that there are so many different shades of grey – the pavement, the clouds, the puddles….It’s beautiful!” 

‘Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!  I’ve been schooled by a child,’ I thought. (One of many occasions.)  Here I was, lamenting the effect of the sky on my mood and wrongly presuming it was  universal sentiment.  In so doing, I might have conditioned one unprejudiced little girl to fall into the trap of mindlessness.  Thankfully, she dared to contradict an elder with her impartial view of beauty.

It’s been said that the whole world can be seen clearly through the eyes of a child.  Since that momentous day, I’ve made it a point to let my children show me the world, reserving my opinions on most any topic until I’ve heard theirs.  It’s been my experience that their assessments are often more enlightened.  And the teacher becomes the student.

The most important thing I’ve learned from this practice is that I know nothing with certainty.  Well, not nothing exactly.  I do know my name most days.  But seriously, that’s where it ends.  I’ve grown fond of the notion that I am but a child, still, with much to learn.  Some days that means I need to see the world, and me, in a different light.  Which is exactly why I am grateful to both my daughter and to E.L. James for showing me the many, many shades of grey.

Brain Shrinkage

I messed up royally – again.  Before I tell you what I did, I want you to understand why it’s a big deal.

If there’s one quality my mother embodies, it’s dependability, which is closely related to her extreme organizational skills.  I don’t exaggerate when I say that Mom has never lost anything or failed to do what she says she’ll do.  Her linear, and possibly photographic memory is backed up by an elaborate system of note-taking and filing.

Claiming to have inherited her affinity for organization myself would be disingenuous.  But, for what I lack in natural talent, I was trained to make up for in discipline.  I can chart with the best of them.  Or I could, until I had children.

Husband used to rib me about ‘pregnancy brain’ citing research theorizing that women’s brains shrink during pregnancy.  I went to great lengths to disprove the theory by covering up for my all-too-frequent memory lapses, which I secretly feared amounted to permanent brain damage.  As you know from recent blogs, my mind never did fully recover.

I remember clearly the day I decided to surrender to imperfection in the memory/organization departments.   I simply removed the mask of Utter Competence I had rented and declared myself a mere mortal – free to make mistakes andforgive myself without excuses.  That very month, I forgot to invite my daughter’s godmother – on my husband’s side – to a birthday party.  (It’s always worse when you mess up with the in-laws rather than your own kin.)  

My error registered as an immense transgression.  Shock waves shot through the family.  You’d have thought the sun forgot to rise by the way people reacted.

Determining not to let their disappointment scare me back into perfectionist tendencies, I simply said, “Oh, I forgot,’ and prayed really hard that would suffice.  Vaguely, I recalled something I read about ‘giving up perfect.’  The sage warning was, ‘When you stop being perfect, don’t expect it to be a popular decision.’   People were used to my dependability in these matters.  Well, they’d have to adjust because imperfect me was here to stay.

Further proving my committment to imperfection has been easier – and more enjoyable – than I could have imagined.  Aside from the occasional frustration it causes, I rather like imperfect me.  Of course, I do occasionally feel a bite of horror, like today when I was informed that I forgot to acknowledge my mother-in-law’s birthday (two weeks ago!)  Yes, it is my husband’s mother and he forgot too.  But then, men aren’t laden with the same expectations as women in this regard.  Ultimately, I take ownership.  After all, I am the one in charge of the fancy calendar.  How did I miss this?  It’s not like it’s a new entry!

I can’t be sure my mother-in-law forgives me this oversight, but truthfully, it doesn’t matter.  Harsh sounding, I know.  In defense, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my imperfection training, it’s that self-approval is more important than approval from others.  I am sorry for forgetting, but I cannot – will not – revert to perfectionism.  It hurts my head.  I choose, instead, to offer my soggy, over-saturated brain some compassion.  It can only do so much.

Years from now, this too will be forgotten.  It will be replaced by subsequent mistakes and hopefully, some triumphs as well.  I hope the scale will be balanced, so that I will be balanced too.

Stop The Wind

My three year old son and I were playing at the lake.  I watched, amused, as the plan for his boats unfolded.  With an intense look on his face, he set to work on his fleet.  The wind was strong that day, repeatedly interfering with my son’s plans, tipping and scattering boats at the shoreline.

I could see my son’s frustration mounting.  Finally, he turned to me and demanded, “Mom, make the wind stop!”  I chuckled at the notion that my son thought I possessed that kind of power.  The would-be hero in me wanted – really wanted – to have that power.  An image of Deb Dunham, goddess of nature, waved her hand, effortlessly righting every wrong.  The longing to grant my child’s every wish, heal his every hurt, and protect him from every harm is my raw desire – unwise and impractical, yes, but very real.

I recall my baby’s first night at home.  A tiny, innocent, vulnerable little being in a too-big crib, in a too-big room, in a too-big world.  Too big to protect him from.  How would I ever keep him safe?  How would I keep my own heart from breaking when he suffered the inevitable hurt?

It occurred to me that this is the price a parent pays for the purchase of a love this big.  The amount of pain I would endure would be in direct proportion to the amount of love I feel.  And yet, I am willing to take that risk.

As the years go by, I am learning to rely on the natural balance of life as a stabilizer to keep me grounded, reminding me of the benefits of my limitations.  When I can’t be a perfect parent, my children learn tolerance for imperfection.  When I can’t do everything for them, they learn self-sufficiency.  The truth is, it is in not giving children all that they want that they receive all they need.  Rudolph Dreikurs said, “We cannot protect our children from life, therefore, it is essential that we prepare them for it.”

When my children are grown and re-inventing parenthood, I will empathize with their struggle to be everything to everyone.  And I will remind them to be gentle with themselves – for their benefit and mine.  After all, I will still be their mother, and they will still be running around with my heart.

You Aren’t Listening

Once upon a time, there was a family of four – a mother, a father, and two children.  The oldest child had exceeded childhood milestones in many ways.  She was also a quiet, well-behaved child.  But the younger child, Sarah, was very different.  She appeared to be ‘delayed.’  She started to crawl when she should be walking.  When she did learn to walk, she would fall every few steps, often bumping her head.  Sarah tried to communicate, but the few words she knew weren’t the ones she needed, and hardly anyone understood them.  Sarah ‘acted out’ – a lot.  Her family and her teachers became weary.  Frustrated, they would say, “Sarah! You’re not listening to me.”

 Sometimes, at dinner, Sarah would throw tantrums.  Her family played the ‘process of elimination game’ for five frustrating minutes until they had pointed to every possible ‘want.’  At bedtime, Sarah would cry and point and finally, throw herself down, worn out and still unable to communicate.  Sarah’s mother would cry sometimes too.

 Sarah’s loving parents had her evaluated by every specialist they could find.  Explanations were tossed around, each skewed to the specialist’s profession, and none skewed toward Sarah’s benefit.  In a single year, Sarah had hundreds of appointments, assessments and interventions.  All were inconclusive.  “Where is your voice hiding?” the family wondered.

 Finally, at the age of four, Sarah met the person who would change her life – the doctor who discovered that Sarah was deaf, almost.  Sarah was ‘fast tracked’ through the medical system given her late diagnosis of Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct Syndrome (EVA) – an, unstable, inoperable condition.  Any bumps to the head could render Sarah completely deaf.

 Sarah’s parents were told that she should never participate in contact sports.  No kickball games, no monkey bars at recess, no…fun?  Pass the bubble wrap, please.  And the tissues.  Family and friends cried big, ugly tears for this beautiful little girl.  For the difficulties she would endure, and for the frustrations already spent and still to come. 

 One day, not long after Sarah got her very first hearing aids, the tears changed shape.  When Sarah walked outside, she stopped at the top step, wide-eyed and incredulous at the sounds she was hearing.  She  jumped – startled by a crow.  “What’s that?” she asked.  She had never heard a bird before.  When Sarah went to bed, instead of crying, she was able to communicate her fears.  “I need the light.  I’m scared.”  And she lay down peacefully, hearing the comforting words of her parents. Sarah doesn’t act out like she used to.  She stills herself so she can read lips and enunciate the words she is learning.  And she sings. She sings!

 Sarah and her family are preparing for the future.  They are learning sign language.  They are gathering resources and information.  And they are basking in the sound of each other’s voices. 

 One day, in mock posturing, Sarah said to her family, “You’re. Not. LISTENING!”  The same words that had been mistakenly directed at her for years.  With regret for their ignorance, they stopped what they were doing and faced the beautiful little girl with the hearing aids.  “Tell us, Sarah.  What do you want us to hear?”  To which she said nothing.  She stared at them in silence, content that finally, people could hear her.  And she could hear them.

 “All the sounds of the earth are like music.”  – Oscar Hammerstein

Listen well.

Excerpted from an article by Donna Varriale, Sarah’s mother, and my sister

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