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 #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.