Blog 29: Cut Us and We Bleed Stars

The ultimate horror for parents is to outlive their children. We are designed to release these dazzling spirits from our bodies and care for them as best we can until we disappear over the horizon of our lives. To break this design shatters the world.

When doctors told Stella and her parents of her diagnosis, they were carefully vague. Eric came home bewildered, sat on our bed, and googled ASPS on his phone. Mikah was playing in the bathtub, and I stood in the bathroom doorway watching him while Drew sat on our bed, too, looking at the phone’s small screen. Grace was doing homework downstairs, so she didn’t hear or see Eric as he learned the danger his daughter faced.

No words can describe the explosion. Imagine a Himalayan mountain videoed over the span of a million years as it wears down to sand – then speed that video up so the dissolution occurs in a tenth of a second. Drew held onto his dad as sobs tore through him. Minutes passed. When Eric was able to stand and go upstairs to use his computer to learn more, Drew stayed on the bed, as stricken as he was silent. Only after I had Mikah dried and dressed did Drew collapse into me, making sounds I cannot even name, only hear again and again and again.

So how do we move on from this moment? Seventy-seven days have passed since that late evening, yet every second of it remains as fresh as fruit just sliced, still wet and glistening. Grief, fear, and bewilderment pour out of us without stopping or slowing. Yet, we do keep moving. The kids are attending school. I am teaching. Stella’s parents are driving her to treatments in Burlington. The core force that maintains momentum for us is, of course, Stella: we hope her protocol of chemo, radiation and surgery will halt her cancer’s growth and expect that clinical trials will provide her the cure she needs in the future. Her dad spends most nights on the top floor of our home hunched in front of his monitors, researching the most sustainable treatments, collating relevant studies, trials and journal articles.

Hope can’t cure grief, though. Too much light has left this land. The day after learning of her sister’s cancer, Grace pulled on a purple sweater hand-me-down of Stella’s and wore it for two weeks straight, even in bed at night. Drew has grown excruciatingly grim. He watches his dad with razor-sharp focus, jumping to help at anything, filling wood bins, stacking lumber, and – with almost divine intuition – offering to play cards when Eric seems most at loss. I remember as we painted eggs for Easter, Drew used a white crayon to write on his: “Ward Away Evil” then dipped the egg into blue dye, the color for protection.

Is there any way to taste joy, even when thrown into horror? For answers, I have looked to people in the most terrifying of situations: survivors of Holocaust concentration camps, American veterans, Syrian refugees. They offer stories that parallel the wisdom of Buddhists: let the lens of your attention shift, and you will feel light. Last weekend, Eric built fences around a neglected field to pasture a friend’s three horses, and each day I lean into the one I fancy, a gray roan, my arms around his chest, my nose against his slim neck. That heady scent of horse, such a sweet mix of earth and sky, fills me. Drew goes to Mikah in a similar way. Far too often, Drew comes home from school looking gray, almost ghostly, until his little brother leaps into his arms begging to wrestle. Blood flushes back into Drew’s face as the two boys tackle each other on our king-sized bed, giggling the way kids are meant to. Grace has had a harder time laughing, and her new gravity hurts deeply to witness, but working – whether on homework, soccer, the school play, or graphics with her new ipad – seems to offer her relief. I try to rub away the tightness in her back and shoulders as she snuggles next to me at night.

There is no way to diminish the pain. And we wouldn’t want to. In opening to it fully, experiencing the sensations of it and the emotional tidal waves of it, we are growing as we need to, so we can help Stella in every way possible. A knife has sliced through us all, yet rather than blood pouring forth, I see stars, dozens of them, rising from these new openings in our bodies, climbing into the sky, promising that wishes come true.

Blog 28: Transformation Re-Take

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought I’d finally arrived into the mom I was meant to be. I had three kids, all with wild curly hair like Dad and fearless fiery personalities to match. We lived in a home we built ourselves, ate food we grew outside our door, and ventured for whole weekends into the forest surrounding us. After years of striving and saving, I’d finally allowed myself to step away from my career to focus more on my children’s budding lives, nourishing them, inspiring them, and just enjoying them. For the first time in my life, I felt good about myself, my choices, and my path.

Ha!

“Mom,” my eight year old daughter mused recently, “when I get older, do you think I’ll have a real job, or do you think I’ll be like you and just kind of, you know, hang around?”

Did she really not remember me leaving for work at 5 AM before anyone was awake, the fourteen hour long days, all those papers I waded through over weekends?

Drew, too, is suddenly relishing our time together…well, not so much. The boy who needed my nurturing presence has disappeared. Sometimes when we sit at the table chatting (I mean, when I ask him questions which he reluctantly answers), he jiggles his legs, clearly waiting for the cage door to open so he can leap into his more natural habitat.  At eleven, Drew craves friends, adrenaline-soaked adventures, and games, games, games – board games, role play games, card games, sports games, and video games. Is he happy that I’m available to check homework, watch soccer practice, and help find snow boots in the morning? Sure. But he’d much rather have me drop him off at the game store in town than hanging around asking if he’d like a snack.

?!?%$#@@@

Mikah, my two year old, is still thrilled to see me enter the room, holds onto my legs with both arms if I stand to leave, and will gleefully skip along with me to the grocery store, the woods, the library. Yet soon enough, he also will ask: “What do you do anyway, Mom?”  He, like my two other kids, is going to challenge me to explain what value I have in this world beyond the home.

The most challenging and excruciating aspect of motherhood is that everything you learn to meet your child’s needs – you have to unlearn it, just as you get it together. Master nursing? Now you have to wean! Grow used to wearing your baby? Now get him walking on his own. Finally shed autonomy and learn to adapt to others’ desires over your own aspirations? Now get some gumption, a job and extra cash.

So I’m dealing with this last switcharoo, striving to rebuild the career I adamantly dismantled, this time with three kids in tow – but not by simply returning to what I left. Transformation is never about falling backwards. My children may think they need me only for transportation, a little homework review, and my Visa, but they are wrong. The world they are so keen on entering independently is far more detrimental to their well-being that they can imagine. They may not want me physically by their side overseeing their every encounter, but I need to be far more vigilant than I want them to know. These years at home have been the best of my life. Sadly, they have also revealed to me that our social world is increasingly and insidiously destroying the exact qualities of human experience I stayed home to enjoy.

Every generation believes its own to face the most intense adversities to raising children, but we are at an especially dangerous time. Three areas are simply out of control with their violence, their vehement vitriol, their sickening ways of warping compassion into narcissism. The first, of course, is screen-technology.

Screen media now saturates every aspect of life. Couples can’t even have sex without videotaping each other, then publically posting those tapes as revenge when the relationship sours. Nothing is sacred in the world of the screen. You can run over elderly pedestrians, behead your own pet, and ruin your best friend’s social life – all while sitting in a chair texting, typing, or vocalizing into a microchip. It’s easy, horrific and addictive.

Even Star Wars has gone to the dark side. My partner Eric has taken all our children to every Star Wars movie. We own the entire collection on DVD so the kids can rewatch them, analyze them and do whatever it is people do when they see movies multiple times. Yet, the most recent film Rogue was beyond anything Eric cared for our children to witness. No matter how skilled its plot and special effects, Eric maintained it was not appropriate for children. Drew sobbed many nights, begging his dad to change his mind. Everyone in his class had seen it. Not only was Drew missing out on his favorite movie series, but he also had to suffer feeling left out at school. Of course, I wanted to appease my son’s pain, but Eric was adamant that the film was far too violent and dark for kids. My despair for Drew ignited into rage at the media: Who the fuck makes a Star Wars movie unfit for children?

Paralleling the violence of screen technology are the escalating outbursts in my children’s classrooms. The number of children in state custody in VT has soared in the last three years. Kids are taken out of the arms of heroine addicted moms every week. More and more students require medication just to be functional in the classroom. Districts are breaking budgets trying to afford the necessary paraprofessionals and special education support for students whose behaviors challenge new and veteran teachers alike.

Drew is a rather quiet, intellectual kid, and living seven hours a day in a school rattling with the fallout of our community’s ills hurts. Far too often, he cries at home while relating yet another disturbing episode. His eczema has grown from a tiny rash here or there to red soars all over his body, especially around his neck. I looked up metaphysical causes for eczema in a book by Louise Hay, and it reads: “Violent eruptions, uncontrolled angry outbursts.”

Yep, that about sums up his daily life at school.

It also points to the third destructive force in our lives, our current politics.

On the local, state and federal levels, the name calling, lying, and verbal assaults of our own elected representatives against each other is disgusting the most jaded of our teens. The violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other ravaged areas can be escaped by no one. I turned the news off one day because my tears were flowing too fast for safe driving: “It is not the war, we are used to the war,” a Syrian woman said over the radio in heavily accented English. “It is the hunger in the eyes of my children and the roof that fell on our heads, that is what broke me.”

My point in writing with such negativity about our media, schools, and global politics is to explain why I need to be as vigilant in parenting my older kids as my toddler. With little kids, a parent hovers, making sure these small beings don’t slip downstairs or race from the car across the parking lot. Yet older kids can be wounded just as instantly. The screens in our homes and violence in our communities are as dangerous to them as any open wall socket or gas burner is for a toddler. Our older kids may not appreciate our presence as much as the toddlers, but the rising statistics on teen depression, anxiety and self-destruction prove a parent’s protection is still vital to their well-being and even to their survival.

I am still struggling with how to parent under these circumstances. I want to be with my kids as much as possible. I also want them to be proud of how I contribute to the world we share. In this way, my past call to be a soldier for social causes is resurrecting: my kids need me to get back out into the world championing compassion, generosity and bravery. They need to see me strive for these goals, and they need me to include them in my efforts whenever possible, so they can experience firsthand how to effect beneficial social change. Our time together doesn’t have to lessen so much as evolve.

The one truth that has never changed is my kids’ continued demand that I transform. My job – the one that is constant in this dynamic experience of motherhood – is to heed them.

 

 

 

Blog #27: Volcanic Teenagers

When I turned thirteen, I catapulted into a consciousness of horror and rage. My bubble of happy imaginary play popped, and I stared aghast at the material world surrounding me. How could adults have allowed our world to become such an atrocious mess? It was 1988, and Ronald Reagan was President; homeless families stood on sidewalks block after block holding cardboard signs asking for help. Veterans, too. How could a soldier who lost his legs defending our country be left on a curb shaking a Styrofoam cup? When Reagan bombed Libya, I burst into tears, horrified by the TV images of children injured and surrounded by rubble. Less dramatic, but disturbing in a far-reaching sense, was our country’s endeavors to drill for oil in Antarctica. As I read through various articles documenting damage to the wildlife, I felt such loss, as if this fragile continent were slipping from our world like Atlantis.

One benefit of anger is that – despite it ruining your life – it propels you into action. With my mom’s help, I did some research and set up a schedule. I began to volunteer two afternoons a week for Green Peace and one evening a week for a soup van handing out warm meals to men and women standing at designated street corners. I attended marches, wrote letters, and started up a community service organization at my high school. Rage may have stolen my ability to enjoy the world, but it could not diminish my love for it.

I’m forty-six now, and that teenage girl still waves fists and stomps along sidewalks within me. I don’t ever want to abandon her – or those she champions. Over the last decade, though, since becoming a mother, I’ve felt conflicted. I want my children joyful and carefree, not lost to the gritty emotions and anger I felt back then. I doubt I’d even let my teenaged self near my kids. I don’t teach them about current atrocities; I censor the news. I spend most of my energy taking them to the woods, playgrounds, their grandparents’ homes, birthday parties and sports games. I strive to shield them from the anger I felt and all the demise that incited it.

Helping kids have a good time is fine, but as mine grow older, I have to ask painful questions: Is it okay to cheer them on the soccer field as bombs fall on Aleppo, or another incident of police brutality towards citizens of color hits the news, or a billionaire who doesn’t support the idea of free and public education is nominated for Secretary of Education? This world doesn’t need more angry people, but as I listen to the news these first weeks of 2017, I have to ask, what is the appropriate response to what’s going on right now, other than rage? And how much of this rage do I share with my kids? Are there ways to preserve some of their innocence as they get older exactly as our world darkens?

The morning of Inauguration Day, struggling with these questions, I snuck out of the house a little before dawn to run up the road. The air was still dark, and snow swirled wet and cold against my face. Out of the pre-dawn shadows, a crowd of pretty girls in white dresses appeared before me. Boys in funeral-like attire joined them. I recognized the scene – my high school graduation, that ritual of teens crossing the divide between child and adult. Yet in this vision, the graduates exploded out of their formal attire, more volcano than human, spewing passion, rage, and despair, the very same emotions that, decades ago, flared within me.

Grow up?! Their fiery forms screamed. Venture into the world?! More explosions made their disgust impossible to deny. They didn’t create the mess; why must they inherit it?

I had no answer for these raging teens, but I could understand why I have been so protective of my children. Rage – even when justified – ruins your life. It steals your ability to savor and appreciate your own life, and then it hardens you against the lives of others. Unchecked, it kills.

What can I do to help my kids and other kids hold onto their passions without exploding?  To keep caring and engaging with our world without getting eaten up by anger and giving up?

My run gave me no answers, but the next day – The Woman’s March of January 21 – did. According to reputable news sites, this march was possibly the largest worldwide protest demonstration in history. United was the march’s watchword, and people of all backgrounds, political persuasions and ages joined it, rallying together to fight back against hatred and oppression and to chant about reaching out and helping one another. What struck me the most was how many elderly men and women joined the protest. I’m used to seeing lots of babies in Bjorns at marches, people my age and lots of teenagers, but I didn’t expect so many octogenarians and even nonagenarians, many of them dependent on canes, walkers or other younger marchers to navigate the snow and ice along the sidewalks. The could have stayed at home, warm and dry. They could have watched the march on the news. Instead, they were here, with us, fighting for a world they would soon be leaving. Their presence told me that I – and all my generation, along with our children – were not alone, that our ancestors were by our side, striving like us and with us to create a fair and just society on the wildly splendid globe we shared.

What can I say to volcanic teens and to my own children about the egregious injustices of our world?

You are not alone! We will approach this mess together, we will heal what’s broken together, we will enjoy what’s sweet and golden together, we will celebrate together! I am angry, too, and you are not alone!

All my life, I’ve believed that everyone’s lifetime matters, that every thought, word and action affects the people around you and the way the social world evolves minutes by minute.  As a teen, I held an elderly man’s hand as he coughed blood into a bowl. He had TB, was homeless, and he smelled terrible, and I stood by him and patted his back. Of course, I didn’t change his life, but I feel in a very small but real way my being there mattered. Some days back then I’d feel reluctant to get myself to the homeless shelter where I volunteered, but I always knew I needed to do it. Nowadays, I get the same feeling about volunteering in my kids’ elementary school. It’s a difficult duty in many ways – I need to find someone to watch over my two year old, I lose hours of billable time, my list of undone-items looms!

But really, what’s more important than connecting with a kid? What’s more important than helping where help is needed? Feeling helpless leads to feeling hopeless, and this downward slide is a terrible experience. Adrenalin courses through the body with no release, and the drama of fight or flight ends in collapse. Too quickly, a passionate heart becomes a diseased one, then a dead one.

I choose to live. And I choose to help my children live – to rage, cry, sing, dance, love and fight. I cannot save their innocence, but I can work with them to save the world we share.

Women's March in Montpelier, VT January 21, 2017

Women’s March in Montpelier, VT
January 21, 2017

 

 

Blog #26: Tenderness

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I’m scared for my daughter. She’s eight. Her cheeks are round with toddler-like softness, and she still sleeps inside a circle of two dozen stuffed animals and dolls every night. Yet youth and tenderness seem to be leaving her. I want to rescue her heart like I would a drowning mouse in a pool, scoop my hands under that vulnerable organ, lift it into open air, and find it a safe landing place in the sun for healing.

How do I do that, though? Is any dry land left in this culture, so sunk in sarcasm and apathy?

Everyone wants to defend sarcasm and use it in the most clever and cutting of ways. It’s cool. It’s also what everyone else is doing. As the Arizona Family Institute reports, it saturates most of our current culture, taking over the tone of most sitcoms, cartoons, sports casting, political debate, social media banter, even music itself. Yet I will fight it until I am the last warm-blooded mammal breathing on this earth – totally uncool, florid and impassioned.

I condemn sarcasm for three reasons. First, by definition, sarcasm conveys contempt and scorn. As Richard Chin points out in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine, the Greek root for it, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. It’s an insult used to expose other people’s failures. Those who spend their time trading derisive witticisms are focusing on each other’s underbellies and practicing how to expose and ridicule others’ weaknesses. I’d rather my daughter exercise her ability to notice strengths, to appreciate them and to enhance them.

Secondly, sarcasm is the skill of saying one thing while implying another. If we are all focused on saying what we don’t mean, we are going to lose the ability to express what we do mean. Articulating one’s core values is a tough job. As a college professor in communications, I see firsthand how hard adults have to work to speak and write their own ideas and feelings clearly. Some of my students sweat over four or more drafts of a 500-word essay, just to get a single point of focus right. Speaking can be even harder for them. Many break down in nervous laughter or even tears when standing up to deliver a two-minute oral presentation. We live in a culture where genuine communication is challenging for most and terrifying or even impossible for many.

The worst consequence of sarcasm is smug laziness. I’ve been in school cafeterias when someone accidentally drops a tray full of dishes, and more than half the people in the room laugh, clap, and call out sarcastic jibes. Then they go back to eating. I pray my daughter isn’t one of them. Instead, I want her getting out of her chair, hustling over to the mess and cleaning it up, side by side with whoever else is crouched down on the floor.

Grace is mostly a kind, helpful, hard working girl, but just this year I’ve noticed a trend towards the opposite. A few weekends ago, instead of talking about the colors of the leaves in the trees, the strength of her daddy’s arms, and the fresh fall scent of the air, she remarked about how fun it is to do something new like cutting wood for winter. This week, instead of expressing gratitude for her school’s new bike program or her band instrument, she huffed away with the words “boring.” I worry that her powers of appreciation and imagination are failing to thrive, sickened by the attitudes and tones of our general modern culture.

Mikah, my two year old, has not yet been infected. The kid loves life with unabashed exuberance. He will pick up a day old crust of bread from the floor, pop it in his mouth, and croon, “Delicious!” When I come home after a run, he will wrap his arms around my sweaty neck, kiss my unwashed face three times, and sing, “Beautiful Mommy!” Just last night, after their baths, he took Grace’s hands in his and said, “Dance and sing with Mikah!” I felt so grateful, watching the two of them jump on the bed holding hands singing impromptu tunes, all while laughing, so pure in their delight, so free of  shadows.

How can I preserve a toddler’s zest in all my growing children? Taking a baseball bat to all screen devices and banishing their jaded peers doesn’t seem possible or even effective. Sarcasm, like pollution, creeps in through just about any kind of filter. Talking about it directly also doesn’t guarantee protection. Too many people – in the media and in their lives – hail it as the savviest way of sliding through life. An earnest plea coming from a mom stands little chance against snide jabs from a pack of teens or witticisms from pop stars.

The most repeated solution among experts is to embody what I seek to see. So I am committed more than ever to approach life myself with unbridled passion. I can’t expect my kids to dance at parties, to sing without self-consciousness, to tackle hard school projects and household chores without complaining, and to complement others rather than criticize them if I do not do all these activities myself.

Along with passion, another antidote to sarcasm is empathy. A report from the Arizona Family Institute explains:

“When we use empathy with our children rather than sarcasm, it activates the frontal lobe of the brain where higher thinking and problem solving take place…Parents cannot truly show empathy while being sarcastic simply because empathy is sincere while sarcasm is not.”

Sarcasm blocks our ability to empathize because it avoids and deflects feelings rather than uses those feelings as a way to connect to another human being or animal. As Tyler Huchabee reports in Relevant Magazine, “When things probe open wounds in our hearts, we chase them out with sarcasm. It’s how we keep ourselves from admitting we’re not as tough as we wish to be.”

I’ve watched Gracie tear up at certain moments – maybe she drops a toy that breaks on our tile floor or finds herself encountering a homework assignment that’s not as easy as she’s used to – and her dad tosses out a witticism that makes light of whatever loss she is suffering, and she cracks a smile and rallies. Of course, sarcasm is a blessing for how it can lighten a grave moment and circumvent direct discomfort. The problem is that laughing at one’s losses and moving forward are not the only way to deal with pain and sometimes are not the best way. I don’t want my daughter believing she always has to be tough and move along despite her feelings. Sometimes a person needs to open fully to what hurts, to take in pain with no shield, and to grow from an experience of honest vulnerability. Much more importantly, our culture needs to support children to feel and grow in this authentic way rather than towards callous indifference.

For my part, I will model passion and genuine communication. I will also cultivate activities that nurture tenderness, compassion and imagination in my kids, such as climbing trees and resting in their branches, baking muffins and drawing get-well cards for friends and family, building rockets…and whatever else I can dream up! Still, I am limited – as an individual, as a mom, and as one often dismissed for her earnestness. The fight for tenderness and authenticity has to come from a wider world.

Blog 25: Getting Rough

 

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The pastel pink, powder puff blog I was hoping to write today has “poofed” beyond me. I’m embattled. Be where you are, wise Buddhists advise, and I can try – but this exact moment is turbulent and hurtful.

Eric and I are aggravated. He’s days behind a deadline, and I’ve stacks of papers to grade. Blue moons hang under our eyes. The baby has a cold. Lists of to-do’s loom, ranging from scheduling annual wellness checks for all three kids to cleaning both chimneys to cutting up the annual ten cords of wood.

So far, we’re keeping on. But a darkness is growing between us and around us. My heart beats in panicky rhythms, like I suspect an intruder in the house. Every shadow threatens a knife.

FACT: Couples need to have fun together. If we are working, parenting, and homesteading all our waking hours, a certain zing disappears. In its void, fear and other dark emotions grow like mold.

I know that work can be fun. I love my jobs of teaching and editing. I enjoy most chores. Just a week ago, I played hip hop while dancing with a mop, letting my youngest blow bubbles as we cleaned the kitchen floor. My favorite kind of work is when the whole family joins in, and we chat about books and Ravenmoore craft ideas while rolling up rugs, hanging laundry, and stacking wood.

Sometimes, though, couples need to have a more wild kind of fun, a fun that cannot be yoked to utility. A fun all their own.

FACT: Sometimes, couples cannot have what they need.

For Eric and me right now, our jobs, our kids, and our home leave time for nothing else. And we are cranky. The tiniest of irritations flare up over and over again. Yesterday, when I suggested he share a complement with the dozen or so criticisms he likes to throw my way, his wry response tempted me to hurl an open container of milk at his head – and he drinks raw milk in half gallon glass jars.

We both know we need to create some time for us, just us. Occasionally, we look each other in the eyes, lean forward…and then we’re off again, running in different directions. We are each chasing different dragons in different time zones.

I miss the feeling of my hand in his as we walk along the same path.

Eric and I have suffered together unforgettably. We have shared crises, helped each other through anguished heart-to-hearts, and worked side by side in the sleet and snow. But this current stretch of time might be our toughest challenge yet. We have been together for thirteen years. The home we share is the longest lasting of our whole lives, together or apart. The strenuous nature of our daily schedules shouldn’t threaten what we’ve built together. Unfortunately, neither of us has had any training or experience with sustaining a relationship. We are artists, mavericks, and adventurers, while maintaining a lifetime partnership draws on skills outside of these roles.

I took an extra long run this last Sunday morning. (Thank you, Eric, for handling all four kids on your own for those precious ninety minutes!) I came home with three personal pieces of advice. I’m going to try really hard to follow them.

I.  No Grinding. (That’s no mental grinding.)  I have a tendency to review conversations and events in my head a lot. I can replay a scenario twenty times within a single minute without even trying. For whatever sad psychological reason, I dwell on the least pleasant episodes. If Eric and I have an irritating exchange at breakfast, for example, I will vex and worry over it with such vigor, I will be thoroughly exhausted by noon. The more time we are apart, and the more altercations we have, the more opportunity I have to grind away at all our problems until they are deep as graves between us.

To cure this problem? I just need to stop. As soon as I catch myself reviewing anything negative, I need to release it like a milk weed seed from my hand and replace it with a more helpful thought. My brain is pretty needy, and it continues to reach for the negative, but I am determined to retrain it. I can enjoy an image of Mikah holding onto Eric’s and my hand as we chant “1-2-3-Wee!” up the driveway or replay the evening the whole family cuddled on the blue couch to watch a movie as rain drummed on the roof. The positive will outweigh the negative if I give it more time and space in my head.

II.  Appointments. All of us need help. Sometimes we have to focus on getting it rather than surviving without it. Eric and I are extremely different in certain ways and can disagree vehemently. Additionally, we live in a blended family design involving six people, and everyone cannot always be content. The answer to inevitable disappointment, though, is not avoidance. Certain issues need attention. I’ve seen couples stagger along with unresolved issues dragging behind them like cement blocks at an oxen pull, and it just doesn’t work. Sooner or later, one partner stops pulling, writhes out of the yoke, and stomps off.

For serious conflicts, Eric and I need to set aside a couple hours to figure out solutions together without our kids as an audience. We might even need to make appointments with professionals for one issue or another. People hire carpenters, hairdressers, computer technicians and landscapers: why do they resist hiring help for love? Having professional assistance when navigating the raising of a family and the evolution of a romantic partnership is much more of a priority than one’s hair or lawn!

III.  Higher Dialogue. As Eric and I get older, and our lives grow increasingly complicated, we both need to practice poise. Some days or weeks are just plain over-the-top with chaos, disappointment, and fatigue. Anyone can get worn down – but we need to be more than just anyone. We need to be leaders, kind ones, engaged in a higher dialogue.

In old movies of ships at sea, always the Captain stands solid behind the ship’s steering wheel. When the storm hits, he spreads his legs wide and squints through the rain. The ship tosses to the left and right and sailors slide across the deck howling, yet he stands unwavering. He issues commands: ready the lifeboats, pull in the sails, strap everyone to a mast. Certain weak-minded sailors might want to jump overboard or steal away on a lifeboat, but the Captain maintains faith and makes sure his sailors do, too. He knows that the whole crew is stronger together and will lose no man.

I know this truth, too: Eric and I need our whole crew. Even if our ship capsizes, we will make it to the lifeboats together, and we will find new land together. The family will work together to discover a source of potable water and wild vegetables and share a meal, as we always have. Eric and I are young green sailors no longer: we are captains now, standing side by side. I like to believe we can handle this stormy weather, no matter how long it lasts.

And once the water calms and we enjoy a reprieve, I have no doubt we will set out for open water all over again, hearts brave, impassioned and united.

 

 

 

 

Blog #24: Between Moments

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The hushed sense of liminal time that infants can create around families is fading fast from our family now.  Mikah turned two last month, and we are back to careening downstream with mainstream frenzy into frothy schedules of jobs-school-sports-chores. I love that Mikah walks, eats, and even makes friends on his own.  But my heart twinges when I think back to a year or so ago, when the family felt so still, quiet, and close as we took turns holding our new arrival. We were fulfilled back then – even thrilled – with ventures as far as the river that cut across our land or the apple orchard up the road.

Not so much now. We are less floating stardust as a family, more streamlined meteor. We make plans and pursue them. We squeeze tasks into minutes and soccer games into half hour slots. We can even fit two birthdays into a single afternoon.  Everyone has ambition:  Drew wants to build a three-foot high rocket with two “C” engines, Grace wants to play her clarinet to Beyonce’s latest, and Mikah wants to ride the tractor.  Eric and I, too, have plans – and maybe we’ll get to them, after 9 PM, when we can get all three kids to bed (and if they stay in those beds).

We do still have what I call “between moments,” which offer some of that original timeless feel.  Yesterday around 3 PM, for example, I scooped Mikah from the chair where he’d fallen asleep and walked upstairs with his warm body in my arms to check in with Eric, Drew and Grace who were playing cards. The room was hot, the fan on, Eric’s shirt off. I lay on the hand-me-down couch so Mikah could nurse and watched as Grace jumped up and down in anticipation of winning, and Drew sat perched on the arm of his chair, barefoot and entirely focused, seeking any chance to rally. Eric had a beer in one hand and a fan of cards in the other, happy to be in a chair at last.

I lay back, soaking in everyone’s facial expressions, their acrobatics, their banter. Mikah was warm and lazy against me as he nursed, and I rubbed my hand along his back, enjoying this chance to go nowhere. Eventually, Mikah wiggled to the floor and began to cook with various plastic foods he found in dusty corners, using Eric’s old camping gear and a couple of wooden spoons he must have sneaked from the kitchen. His hair was damp with sweat and curled up at the back of his neck, showing a faint birth mark, one of my favorite places to plant kisses. Each time he brought me a food item, he said, “For My Best Mom Everrrrr!” and I felt joy akin to the original thrill of holding a child for the first time.

Between moments are difficult to capture with words and easy to dismiss as wasted minutes. Yet I need to remind myself that they are essential to this family’s health, perhaps even the glue that holds us together. Surviving a hot afternoon by playing cards; teasing each other with newly learned jokes and riddles; throwing a Frisbee or tennis ball or rice-filled sock in the yard after dinner – these non-productive hours of our lives spent together are antidotes to the parts of the world that uphold transcripts, resumes, mirrors, Facebook pages and property lists as the whole of a person’s value. I don’t want to live with that kind of pressure, and I don’t want my kids suffering in that way either.

What each infant has brought to this home and family is the awareness – perhaps the memory – that the universe is so astoundingly unbounded. As we hold a baby’s fish-like body in our arms and stare into a baby’s Yoda-like eyes, we encounter the unknown and may even feel transported into it – to that place where angels whisper and stars hang out and fate becomes destiny. Passionately, I want to hold onto this magic for all my life, even as my kids’ legs lengthen into tweeny reeds and Eric and I collect snowflakes in our hair.

 

Blog 23: Kindness to Strangers

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And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly…?   Micah 6:8

 

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…  Hebrews 13:2

 

As a young girl, I was enchanted with religious fables, whether from the Bible, Qu’ran, or Buddhist texts. The stories I favored always featured an encounter with a stranger who transformed the main character’s life. I loved the idea that an unknown person from far away lands could be the catalyst of my destiny.

 

In their pure form, spiritual practices teach us to open our hearts to those unlike us. They encourage us to reach out to strangers along the roads we travel, sharing food, shelter, and other basic assistance. Before age ten, I must have read a thousand tales of youths offering the last of their lunch to an elderly man, or maidens doing chores for lonely widows. I believed in these principles of giving, and in my early twenties I traveled to Mother Theresa’s homes in Calcutta hoping to live generosity rather than just read about it.

 

Mother Theresa claimed that she could not rest or feel joy until all beings on earth could also rest and feel joy. Most of us share her compassion, even if we do not fully abide by it. Passing by a homeless man with bleeding sores on his feet, for example, can make our own body feel queasy and achy, whereas greeting that man politely, bathing his feet and wrapping them in bandages can fill us with a sense of wellness. We are hardwired to care for each other – even when we do not know each other.

 

Decades have passed since I spent my days caring for homeless women and leprosy patients. Yet motherhood has reinvigorated my sensitivity towards this subject of giving to others – even strangers – all over again. Trying to steward three children in our chaotic, dangerous society, I feel in need of assistance all the time, and I see more and more parents around me feeling the same way. Lending help to each other is fundamental to our survival and growth – yet we live in an era that cautions against open heartedness. We learn early that strangers can steal from us, molest us, and throw us in a van and kill us. We also learn that some strangers will be offended if we try to help them. We are more scared of offering help to people than abandoning them.

 

I’ll never forget one bitter snowy day last November when my three-month old son blasted a supersonic poop right through his diaper down both his legs just as I was fitting him into his car seat. He was already screaming, and once the poop hit, his outraged cries grew even louder. I considered leaving him in the car seat and dealing with the whole mess at home, but my conscience insisted otherwise. So I lay Mikah down amid a bunch of grocery bags in the back of the car and started to strip him down. By this time, he was flailing arms and legs as well as screaming.

 

“Looks like you could use a little help.”

 

A woman leaned in, close enough that I could hear her over Mikah. Beside her, hip-high, was her daughter standing on tip toes.

 

“What’s the matter, baby? You’re okay, right? Do you like tigers?” The woman held her daughter’s stuffy out to Mikah, who noticed the purple tiger despite his fit. As I mopped at the poop on his goose-pimpled legs, I started to gush about how maybe I shouldn’t have tried to change him, but I didn’t want him sitting in all this poop, but I knew it was cold, on and on. All while I talked, the woman made soft sounds of commiseration. Her daughter started to make clucking sounds at Mikah, who calmed enough for me to finish up.

 

“Thank you,” I sighed at last, lifting Mikah from the car and holding him against my chest. I was sweating and felt teary. We talked a few moments more, despite the sleet and wind. The woman told me she was hoping for another baby soon, and I promised that if I saw her in the parking lot wiping up poop, I would definitely come over with a stuffy and whatever else I could find.

 

How many of us walk by parents dealing with kids’ poop or temper tantrums? How many of us look away when we see a kid in the playground with pee-wet pants or with snot dripping over half his face? When was the last time any of us took a meal to a family dealing with illness or some other hardship?

 

Mother Theresa wrote and spoke a lot about the human need to stop to help when confronted with another’s suffering. She counseled humans against succumbing to the illusion of busy-ness and promised there is always time for love and compassion and generosity and godliness. I give myself a D- for following her advice, but I feel surrounded by people who deserve A’s. The lady in the parking lot was one. I could go on for another thousand examples at least.

 

For the week of my birthday, I served up a giving challenge for my family – myself included. We joined Cammi Walker’s 29 Days of Giving Program. Web-based, this program encourages people to give a gift a day for twenty-nine days. The gift needs to be meaningful but can be as small as a tissue for someone who sneezed or a hug for someone who seems lonely. We invited several friends to join us and recorded our giving through group texts at the end of each day. What surprised me the most was how much we each gave regularly throughout the day; everyone had half a dozen daily gifts to report at least. We seemed not to need an official challenge to do so. What I also noticed, though, was that most of our giving fell within the circles of friends and family. I’m chewing on ways I might lead my family over borders of the familiar.

 

Two months ago, my family saw a documentary, “On the Way to School,” which followed four sets of kids in four different countries getting to school. Two kids in Africa, for example, who looked about six and eight, walked 26 kilometers through a desert one way every single day. Before they left, the grandfather blessed them and prayed that they would not be attacked by elephants. Once they arrived at the school, the teacher blessed them and had the whole school congratulate them on their safe arrival. In India, two brothers of similar ages pushed their older sibling in a wheelchair more than eight kilometers to school, through rivers, sand, and muddy bogs. They did this trek every day.

 

What all of us at the table talked about after the movie was not so much the obvious – Look how hard some kids work to get to school! – but the helpfulness of strangers. For example, the wheelchair the kids in India used was actually a regular chair cobbled to old bicycle wheels. These wheels were so rusted that one bent out of shape and the tread fell off. The kids had to stop in a town to beg for mechanical help. I can still see the old man they asked. He was squatting in the dirt in front of his “shop,” which was a six-by-six foot area in an overcrowded bazar. Not only did he take time to fix this chair that no one in our country would consider using for anything other than scrap; he asked others in the marketplace for tools and materials. The elder sibling, who was crippled from cerebral palsy, would never have gotten to school if his siblings weren’t willing to push him there and if a set of villagers weren’t willing to work on a rusted out wheelchair that was probably going to break down again in a day or two. It took family and strangers to get those kids through their journey safely.

 

During our country’s political debates, I hear so many words championing self-reliance and bad-mouthing handouts. “Don’t give to anyone, especially strangers!” seems to be the current advice. Everyone likes to quote the line about not giving a fish and teaching the skills of fishing instead. Yet a fundamental truth of our humanity is that sometimes we all need a fish–and it would be best grilled, and served on a plate. Ideally, the giver of the fish would have time to sit down, share the meal, and enjoy some human connection.

 

I left Calcutta at age twenty-one. I felt I could help others more effectively if I lived where I could speak the native language and where I had family and friends. I also missed a sense of home. Now, a quarter of a century later, on land I own with family I adore, I am trying to live beyond the warnings of stranger danger and the noises of I-have-so-much-to-do inside my head. I am trying to remember Mother Teresa and the stories I grew up reading: it is okay, it is even good, to give, to help, and to reach into the unknown.

Blog #22: Birthday Reflections

Sarah plays with fire!I turned 46 a few days ago. No party. No fireworks. Just some quiet reflection. The moment was humbling. Eric, the kids and I were spending the day in our woods, up on the northeast corner of our land. We’d lit a fire to cook lunch and were resting from hiking around cliffs and hemlocks. The baby fell asleep, and with a thermos of hot chai, I sat on a moss covered rock in a slant of sun.

Usually on my birthday, I like to review what I’ve accomplished in the previous year and write a list of goals for the following year. This year I couldn’t do that. The tea was sweet and the sun warm enough that I could unzip my jacket. I had time enough to let my mind wander backwards over the last year, but I couldn’t name a single nugget of worldly accomplishment. Even though every day had felt busy (and most nights, too), I saw a year of undoing rather than doing:

  • My full professorship was officially nullified, and I was now an adjunct with no benefits and no guarantee of future work;
  • Everything I’d written had been rejected from every agent and publisher I’d courted;
  • My friendships had thinned and some had dissolved entirely because socializing, for me, included my three kids and whoever would hang out with us;
  • My body was lumpy and soft where it had been athletic and lean;
  • My face had aged from lack of sleep, with wrinkles under my eyes and even on my neck;
  • Adventures and romance with Eric had whittled down to half-hour movie installments before the baby woke up to nurse.

I could go on, but why? This list is disturbing enough. What is equally harsh is how tired I felt. With so little achieved, you’d think I’d be at least rested! Yet I could have laid back in that sunshine on that bed of moss, closed my eyes, and slept through the whole afternoon. Usually, if a person quits a job and has no worries about helping the community, staying fit, or even sleeping, then you’d think he or she is at least having a ton of fun indulging in a thousand pleasures day and night! Hopefully illicit ones! In my case, though, I’d never been more disciplined, rising at 4 AM and often not going to sleep until 10 PM or even midnight (and waking up throughout the night, as well). I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant more than twice or bought a single personal item in a store. I hadn’t even gone out on a date.

What was I doing with all my time?

Mothering, of course.

Since that moment in the sun, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the invisible work of what seems like my year of undoing. I don’t want to give a list of what moms (or all caring parents) do on a daily and nightly basis. Boring! Yet I feel it is critical to document on behalf of all full time caretakers the content of our lives, whether caring for a child, elderly parent, or ailing friend. What sound-bite of an answer can you give to the “What do you do?” question at a cocktail party or on the soccer field? Our society is so resume oriented! When I try to answer honestly, I come up with a few vague descriptions:

  • I love people in ways they can feel;
  • I appreciate the trees as I walk by them;
  • I clean, clean, clean;
  • I listen;
  • I reflect on the day and wonder what I could have done better and try to improve the next day;
  • I support my kids in their dreams, their education, their friendships;
  • I strive to cook healthy meals (and don’t always fail);
  • I take every chance I can to rub Eric’s shoulders and enjoy TLC with him, helping to relieve some of the aches that come with full time labor.

None of these activities feel boring to me. Each feels like directly loving the most important people in my life. For example, though I sometimes groan about packing school lunches every day, I actually enjoy it. I get up early enough to do it alone in the pre-dawn, thinking of each child in a dreamy kind of way while listening to soft music. I enjoy the colors and textures of the food as I peel an orange or slice a green apple. Some days, if I know one child is having a test or has been feeling tired, I stick a piece of chocolate in an envelope with an encouraging note.

No one in a job interview wants to hear about these thirty minutes of my morning. These efforts add nothing to my bank account. Yet to me they feel important. So do the hours I spend with my kids outside every day after school, playing soccer or hiking in the woods, helping them release the “inside-ness” of the school day and breathing in a larger, more wild world. Even sewing up the rip in my daughter’s favorite pair of pants a few nights ago gave me a sense of meaning.

Lots of moms and dads do dozens of helpful caring gestures every day around the intense efforts of full time work. For ten years, I tried to. This last year’s slower pace, though, has offered a different kind of sweetness, and I see a change in my kids because of it. They are more relaxed and confident, which allows them to focus on their own ambitions in a more genuine way. Just two nights ago, for example, I was putting the kids to bed when I noticed my daughter running her left index finger over the pile of Harry Potter books she’s read. She’s almost done with the fifth, which astounds me, given that she’s seven and started reading the series only three weeks ago. I watched her mouth the words to each title, look at each illustrated cover, and then take in a deep breath. I felt her pride, and I also “saw” her mind fathoming this world-renowned story that ran over so many thousands of pages, following a band of kids growing from innocence into adulthood.

My point in sharing this moment is that it almost didn’t happen. I had been about to bark, “Come on, let’s get into bed, it’s eight o’clock already!” Yet thankfully, I was sensitive enough to notice Grace and to stop. Overfull schedules and the fatigue they create don’t always allow for such a pause – in the parent or in the child.

Not only do parents lose out with modern life’s pressure to earn income at the full time level. Grandparents do, too. I was at the college pool with my kids mid-morning a few seasons ago when two elderly women began treading water near us. I listened to them talk about their jobs as cashiers and the difficulties they felt in finding time for family around those jobs. Both confessed they hadn’t started gardens in the last few years. They talked about sore feet and an ailing friend they wished to visit. These women had to be near eighty! Hadn’t they earned time to be with family, friends and their own gardens?

More than quality of life for individuals is lost when all able people are working full time. My grandfather, thanks to a government pension, was able to retire at age seventy. He immediately dedicated himself to raising my sister and me, which allowed my mom some breathing room and the chance to practice her painting. He visited us at least two or three times a week, sometimes for the whole day. He also single-handedly collected clothes from his retirement home and every week drove them downtown to two different homeless shelters, where he handed out high quality coats, sweaters, socks, and anything else he’d been able to collect. Free hours he spent at his community wood shop where he chatted with other hobbyists. He also fed Canadian geese every morning on his daily walk. Clearly, a small portion of the world gained by his “not working.”

I grew up thinking that everybody had to work. “You have to pay your own way.” “You have to earn a living.” “Do you think money grows on trees?” Enough phrases were thrown around and over my head throughout my childhood that the option to do what I’m doing now did not exist, not in my head and not in my life. This axiom, though, perhaps needs more examination. Does everybody really have to work full time? Why? I wonder: if more parents were able to focus on their children, and if more grandparents were around to support those parents, would certain resources be saved and maybe others generated at higher levels? Would delinquency perhaps go down? Prison time? Depression? Maybe the number of youth medicated for ADHD or EBD might lessen? At the very least, more adults would be around to help those children in ways beyond pharmaceuticals, including taking them outside, giving them one-on-one tutoring, trying art or music therapy and more. We’d need fewer government programs to take care of our youth and our elderly. Maybe the harshest consequence would be to the video game industry once the numbers of lonely people went down.

The problem is that given the current economic landscape of our modern life, most people have to earn income, and usually it has to be a full time income. I don’t know how to sustain the life I have now. Parenting nowadays is a lot like playing a musical instrument or gardening or praying in a Zendo. These activities provide health and growth for whoever does them and for whoever is around those who do them, but they cannot sustain a life. They need to exist on the sidelines of a career.

I’m striving to open my mind to possibilities beyond what I lived when my first child was born. Ten years ago, I had neither the courage nor the imagination to conceive of parenting Drew full time, even when he was a seven pound infant. He and I lost out because of that. Now I have a savings and a partner willing to bust his butt so I can be with my current baby Mikah – and Drew and Grace when they are not in school. But our lives are not sustainable. We are living off of savings, which I would not have if I hadn’t worked the last ten years. Figure out that conundrum!

Next year, I hope to visit the exact spot in the woods I enjoyed this last birthday. I bet I can find the same bed of moss. If I time it right, I can even sit in the sun there – if the weather obliges. I have no idea what my mind will see in hindsight, though. Will I have anything to write down that sounds like an accomplishment? Will I be listing as one of my future year goals, “Get a job pronto?” Whatever unfolds, my challenge is not to let financial or social pressures spoil what I have now, which is delicious and un-compromised time with my family.

 

Blog #21: Vibrancy Defeats Time

Liz Angeles and Deja

Meet Superfly Mom, Liz Angeles

I’m 50 years old this year… and a single mom to a five-year-old scrumptious nugget of love and life. Sure, my daughter’s crazy and full of energy.  I guess that’s how it works, because so am I.  Now that she’s five, I’ve recovered from the exhausting toddler years. I’ve suddenly returned to the weight and energy level I had in college. Now I’m at the zenith of my creative career.

I am so grateful I met Liz. She defies the stereotype of the old and tired mom. Her light reaches beyond labels and limits, beyond any sense of age at all.

Liz Angeles was 44 when she became pregnant with her daughter, Deja. She experienced a smooth, albeit exhausting pregnancy, and by age 45 she delivered at home.  In an inflatable tub of warm water—and with the help of her doula and midwives—she delivered Deja in her favorite sanctuary, her own bedroom. She chose not to engage in any interfering medical tests, committing to a sense of her own health rather than to the common fears of “what-ifs.”

Liz lives as she mothers, fearlessly and flamboyantly. She is going to be 51 this summer and is still bursting with creativity and new life. Living as a single mom doesn’t hinder her; it liberates her. Now she is able to focus on her relationship with Deja and her own development. She has always worked as a highly sought-after massage therapist and just now is creating her own business label “BLIZFUL.life.”  

Branding myself as a ‘Wellness Director,’ now I can help clients design their own self-healing regimen with natural health, longevity and beauty solutions—including in-home spa parties or lunchtime office spa escapes—using a variety of modalities that complement my massage practice.

Liz is a prolific artist as well as a writer and healer:  I love to keep my creative juices flowing. When I was a single woman approaching 40, I feared I would have no legacy. I began to paint constantly so I would have something to leave behind when I died.

Liz’s paintings can be seen here:

Deja

(Two-week-old Deja with her painting First Wave depicts the concept of labor pains coming in waves.)

Liz’s first book chronicles her only pregnancy and the birth of her daughter in her personal memoir, 45 and Pregnant: How I Conceived and Delivered Naturally. Published by On the Inside Press in 2014, the book takes readers on Liz’s journey from terror to triumph in three acts.

“Act I: Prelude to a Kid” tells the tale of a ‘would-be’ spinster—divinely led to her ideal breeding partner—swiftly cohabitating and suddenly procreating.  “Act II: Making Womb for a New Mom” delves into details about all of the holistic choices made during pregnancy.  “Act III: New Kid in Town” documents the birth, the nursing, the placenta encapsulation and homemade baby food—all amidst the drama of an inadvertent relationship (and its accompanying teenage girls—who are now madly in love with their new baby sister).  

Since hitting the market, 45 and Pregnant has received loving reviews on Amazon, numerous appreciative responses from her fans on Facebook, and earned Liz her first podcast on iTunes with The Birth Hour. This May, 45 and Pregnant will also be featured on the website for birth professionals, Birth-Institute.com.

Nowadays Liz is editing romance novels and considering her own new future storylines. A performer at heart, Liz had relocated from Las Vegas to the bright lights of Hollywood to pursue acting in 1989.  With her wealth of ‘life experience’ material, Liz is also committed to performing stand up comedy before her 51st birthday this summer—and is even drafting a movie script! As a popular and networked artist in Los Angeles, she will no doubt manifest her goals and be hitting billboards soon.  As her father always told her, “If you throw enough shit against the wall, some of it’s going to stick!”

If you want to get to know Liz better, you can buy her book on Amazon here. Or you can buy it on Barnes and Noble here. You can also visit her Facebook Page or email her directly liz@blizful.life.  She is warm and welcoming—and a gifted healer. During our first phone conversation, she slipped in a few health and beauty tips to help me survive Mikah’s exuberant insomniatic ways. (Thank you, Liz!) Please take some time to connect to this inspiring, fun & funky mama!

(Excerpt from Fun & Fabulous: New Moms 40+ by Sarah Silbert)

Blog #20: Embrace Your Gorilla, Older Moms & Exuberant Babies

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Older moms? I hate that phrase. Those two words linked together clobber my optimism.  “It’s got to be hard caring for a baby…you know, being an older mom.” At least a dozen friends and family members have made this statement to me, some more than once. At forty five, am I so old, doomed to cane and crone-isms rather than funk and fun?

A year and a half ago, when pregnant with Mikah, I read an inspiring quote on the website, “A Child After 40,” by a forty-eight year old mom of three: “I do cartwheels on the sidelines of my kids’ soccer games. I stay up late with them watching music videos. I can dance most women half my age off the floor.”

“HURRAH!” I cheered as I read her post, determined to be like this anonymous woman from Minnesota, spry, witty, and untamed by any amount of years.

Then I birthed Mikah.

I’ve never before encountered a baby like Mikah. I’ve run into some children who seem similar, and they’re either training for the Olympics or headed for juvie. Mikah is an ever-blazing fireball of motion and endeavor. Day and night. Danger delights him: knives, matches, electric outlets, and batteries are his toys of choice. Now that he’s walking and climbing, heights and slick angled surfaces entice him, too. Since he’s been born, I’ve averaged three to five hours of sleep a night, sometimes less.

The first year of Mikah’s life I was able to keep up; adrenaline kicked in and burned high through all four seasons. But as the months roll on into a new year with little change, I’m undeniably running out of energy. Fatigue is the saboteur of fun and funk, and as they fade within me, I do feel old, used-up and scared: What, dear gods, have I done? Are the naysayers right, that I’m too old to care for a baby? OH NO!

Of course, I can’t let this kind of mind-babble get to me. I’ve got to dump the label of “older mom,” which cruelly erodes my confidence. Mikah has more energy and is more daring than any of the other kids in this household combined, and that’s the issue I need to address, not my age. Age, actually, is an asset here. I know better how to let go of plans and ideals rather than to fight the steady eroding of all I thought I needed: sleep, style, and solitude.

I have zero interest in complaining about my son or whining about the challenges of parenthood. What I seek is ways to deal with my life successfully. Mikah is my Jedi Master, pushing me along paths of intense discipline and endurance. I am determined to pass the test.

This last week, as Mikah relentlessly exploded into one vigorous activity after the other, rather than screaming in my head, “Oh my god, oh my god!” I tried to be more of a quiet witness to what was happening with him and our family. Three truths slowly sifted to the surface of our domestic life, and I’d like to share them, in part to keep me aware of them and also, hopefully, to help other moms with exuberant babies.

SurrenderKids come to us to break us. Their job is to shatter whatever self-images we have fashioned of ourselves and force us to live bare of ego. From there, we re-begin the process of self-creation, this time as a “we” rather than an “I.” The process isn’t easy. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, describes it well:

It’s as if you just looked at yourself in the mirror, and you saw a gorilla. The mirror’s there; it’s showing you, and who you see looks bad. You try to angle the mirror so you will look a little better, but no matter what you do, you still look like a gorilla. That’s being nailed by life, the place where you have no choice except to embrace what’s happening or push it away.

Reading Chodron’s books, I recognize the importance of letting life form us. Western civilization is built on the human intent to shape and control ourselves and our surroundings, but parenthood demands another way. Exuberant children undo just about every castle we build. Look at how energetically they push a toy tractor through an elaborately decorated birthday cake or pull an ornament on the Christmas tree so the whole thing comes falling down. Just as easily they can transform a blissful mom sipping tea into a four-legged animal braying, “Don’t drop that cup!”

Exuberant children slam through serenity. They derail scheduled events. They strip of us of our “shoulds,” showing us just how much we can live without. They demand that parents stay on the balls of our feet, ready to spring in one direction, then another. Over and over and over again. The process is physically and mentally exhausting, and exuberant children leave very (VERY!) little time for rest and replenishment.

The idea of surrender is important to remember because it allows us to tell ourselves that it’s okay if we’re tired, disheveled and even unproductive in a GNP kind of way. Parenting is hard, and if we’re really doing it (rather than outsourcing it) then we are going to be undone. And being undone, according to Pema Chodron, is the path to becoming an awakened being. She explains:

The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. It’s gone too far…[But] when we reach our limit, if we aspire to know that place fully – which is to say that we aspire to neither indulge nor repress – a hardness in us will dissolve. We will be softened by the sheer force of whatever energy arises…A wider, more generous, more enlightened person arises.

I’ve experienced this exact opening of self that Chodron describes. Just a few days ago at 2 AM, I staggered downstairs as usual with exuberant Mikah on my hip. As I pulled out the Legos and train tracks, I worried about being tired when teaching class at 9 AM that day. I also vexed about feeling grumpy by the time I picked up my two older kids from school for a scheduled playdate of sledding. Grief, too, stomped into my brain: what if I fell asleep when putting the kids to bed that evening. Eric and I desperately needed to connect; too many days were passing by with us living as roommates rather than romantic lovers, and what if I blew it again?

All these negative thoughts were battering around in my mind, making me tired and grumpy — so why was I even worrying about feeling so later? I was already there. I’d become a perfect example of the hard-edged ego trying to control my world and fight unplanned upset.

Then Mikah gave me a hug. He put his head on my shoulder and his arms around my neck. The smooth warmth of his skin always amazes me. He even gave me a few pats on both shoulders. I enjoyed his embrace for every second it lasted, my worries and complaints melting. How passionately I loved this boy: adoration radiated from every one of my cells. When Mikah pulled away to chase after an electric train, I laughed at how silly I’d been: I’d wake up every hour of the night to enjoy more hugs like that!

Once I surrendered, I felt a lot lighter, even less tired. I played with Mikah another hour, made us a snack, then got us back to bed for at least ninety minutes before dawn. When I stepped into the classroom a few hours later, my students looked as tired as I felt, so rather than lecture, I led them through a series of writing prompts. Some of the words that followed were inspiring, some were angry and full of complaint, all were charged and thought-provoking. I didn’t even have time to feel tired.

The sledding playdate with my kids was also surprisingly refreshing. My daughter Grace chose to help with Mikah and to sled with him on the small hill rather than play on the more dangerous hill with her peers. Mikah was thrilled with her attention and laughed every sled ride down. “He’s not just your baby,” she said to me. “He’s our baby, and I can help.” Such treasure!

More unexpected beauty occurred later that night. Eric was as tired as me, so as soon as the kids went down, we put ourselves to bed, and the magic that followed was sweeter than ever. Of course, Mikah was up and calling for attention an hour later. The freedoms Eric and I enjoyed before he arrived into our lives are gone for now, but surrendering to this loss is what makes us parents. After a last lingering kiss with Eric, I went to my baby, and this time, instead of tromping downstairs to the same old toys with him, I pulled a blanket around us and stepped outside.

The night air was still and the moon full and bright, like an orb. Mikah pointed to it, then clapped his hands. Our awe at the sensual beauty of the night entwined, and we stayed outside for a while, longer than I’d have enjoyed if alone. I realized that when I allow myself to honor the parenting process, I open me more to the delights and miracles of my life as it is. I’m more able to enjoy what matters – love, family, community, and the natural world.

Standards:  This next truth might seem a bit in contrast to the first, but the pendulum always has to swing, and surrendering to your child does not mean spoiling your child. Our job as parents is to listen to our children and also to raise them into healthy, kind and helpful human beings. It’s tricky to live a sane balance between these two directives, but we need to try.

To raise children with high standards requires that you know what yours are. Of course, we are all evolving and eternally revising our life values, but with Mikah I had to get clear and specific right away. My daughter Grace explained this need for definite standards:

We need to make a chart for Mikah so we know what he gets stars for and when he should go into timeout. We’re not doing anything the same, so how’s he going to know what is really good or really bad? He’s going to think he can get away with anything!

Right on, girlfriend! Grace and I made a chart that evening. The left side lists all that earns Mikah applause from the family: saying new words, picking up toys and putting them away, kissing family members, and touching others gently. On the right side are timeout offenses: not picking up toys when asked, not doing something after being asked two times, and biting. Timeout for Mikah consists of putting him in a playpen for one minute.

chart

It’s astounding how well this chart works. When the whole family is abiding by the same standards, with both rewards and consequences, Mikah learns and minds what he’s learning. I plan on Xeroxing the chart for Mikah’s two babysitters. Consistency is as important as kindness when dealing with kids, and I am determined to maintain the first as well as the second with Mikah.

It’s not always easy. It’s especially hard when I’m exhausted or distracted. If Mikah does something on the right side of the chart, no matter how tired or busy I feel, I need to pick him up and put him in his pen. Then I need to make sure he learns his lesson and doesn’t repeat the offensive activity after getting out. What keeps me on track more than anything is the commitment of my older kids. They are rigid disciplinarians! They’re big enough to pick up Mikah and put him in the pen themselves, and they would, if I didn’t follow their orders to “stick to the chart, Mom!” When my other kids aren’t around and it’s up to me alone to uphold standards, I tell myself that I’m working now to avoid working harder later. I’d rather teach manners to a one year old I can pick up than to a teen who can run out the door.

“Can I put Mikah in timeout for being annoying?” I asked Eric after a particularly tough morning. Because Mikah wakes up so early, sometimes 3 or 4 AM, I am sometimes alone with him for several hours pre-dawn. If I’m organized and clear-minded, I can usually come up with useful activities to take up time — mop the kitchen floor, organize Tupperware containers, or bake another batch of granola. Some mornings, though, I’m so freakin’ tired and just want to sip tea, stretch by the fire, and have him play with baby toys. (Imagine!)

These mornings are always disastrous. Mikah will pull my hair to get me to follow him in a certain direction, screech like a tortured monkey, and go after all the no’s in the room – the candle on the table, the knives in the silverware drawer, the matches “hidden” on a particularly high shelf.  This last Sunday, I woke Eric at 6:30 AM, feeling like I’d been alone with a mini manic monster all day.

“Put him in timeout,” Eric said.

“Just because he’s driving me nuts?” It didn’t feel fair, more like an abuse of my large size.

“If you’re about to punch him in the face, it’s for his own safety.”

Eric’s not a morning person, and his words were a bit harsh, but I have come to understand that timeout can be used for exuberant babies when they are being a pain in the butt. I did it just this morning. Mikah was exerting himself in one dangerous direction after another, and after twenty minutes of feeling myself getting more and more irritated, I picked him up, and said, “You need to stop testing me. I love you, and you need to help me get through our chores. We have work to do.” Then I put him in timeout for a minute. He screamed as usual, but he was calmer after I took him out and helped with the chores cheerfully, as if the previous half hour had never happened.

I try not to abuse the timeout pen. I never leave Mikah in it longer than a minute, no matter how much I might yearn to let that minute stretch out. I need to maintain standards for myself as well as for my boy.

S.O.S.  No one, no matter what age, can care for an exuberant baby without lots of help. It may take a village to raise some children, but Mikah needs the entire United Nations plus Michael Franti’s Dreamteam.

Exuberant babies are superhuman, full to bursting with more fuel than any of us ever will get in this lifetime. Eric and I are astounded by Mikah’s relentless energy. We simply cannot explain where it comes from: he is so intensely rigorous, and he rests so little. Even with two fit parents and three older siblings to entertain him, he’s still bounding around like Tigger in the moonlight. How does he do it? It’s not like he’s sneaking naps or shoving cocaine up his nose! He’s just simply…exuberant. And we need to keep up.

But not all the time. More so than ever before, I am asking people for help, and by “help” I often mean, “Will you please take my baby?” I never thought I’d be happy to pass my baby off to others. I spent my whole last decade getting myself in a position to care for my children full time! Yet over the last year I’ve hired two babysitters for Mikah, so that three or four times a week for three hours in the morning he is with other moms and their other kids. I use most of the time to work as an editor, teacher and writer; some of it I use to run and shower. Every second is delicious.

My heart breaks when I think of how many parents have no help. It’s just no fun that way. Leaving your baby at day care is traumatic, but being with your baby on your own week after week can be lonely and exhausting. Over the last two weeks, I’ve outreached to my kids’ midwife, a naturopath, all godparents, a dear friend who’s also a healer, the parents at a local playgroup, and Kimball Library’s children’s librarian. I even strike up conversations with parents at the local playground and grocery store. Every kind word and shared story helps, and I’m reaching everywhere for both.

Perhaps this list makes me sound desperate. I am! Mikah is more than I can parent alone. Add my two other kids plus the household and a new career, and I am often overwhelmed.

But parents don’t get to give up. We need to embrace our gorilla, inside and out, and hope for help from all other animals in the forest. The final stanza of a poem by Meredith Heller called “Chaos” gives exquisite advice:

If Chaos reaches for your hand, take it. She is an excellent tracker and guide. She will lead you safely through your darkest terrain. She will teach you to navigate by feel. She will ask you to face your demons and to let go of everything you identify with until all of your masks fall away and burn, and all that remains is life itself, dancing you like a river.

Chaos is not to be shunned: it’s a gift that strips you of all delusion, revealing what most matters. So dance in it, surrender to it, honor some high standards, and let’s help each other enjoy the party!