Imperfect Serenity

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Being an Artist

Yesterday I attended an elegant brunch on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at a literary club where Mark Twain was honored in his day. Our gathering celebrated the birthday and recent success of my friend Elizabeth Kostova, whose Dracula novel The Historian has made a huge splash in the publishing world. Aside from enjoying the mimosas, the interesting company, and the reunion performance of the Slavic Chorus Elizabeth belonged to at Yale, I got something else out of the day: a reminder to write.

I have this experience periodically when I get together with productive writer friends. Hearing their joy in their work reminds me not to neglect my own. It’s not that I always need reminders. I have felt led to write for nearly twelve years, and I’ve slugged along pretty faithfully, squeezing in writing time, but always balancing it with teaching, motherhood, and now daughterhood. By the standards of many wanna-be writers I know, I’ve been productive. But while the toasts to Elizabeth reminded me how hard she worked on this book—staying up until midnight, getting up at 5 every morning—they also reminded me that I could be spending more time on my own writing, not just trying to sell and promote my work, which is what I’ve been doing lately.

When I heard that Elizabeth had sold her first novel for an unprecedented $2 million dollars, I was so excited for her I started telling everyone I thought might be interested. Several people responded by asking, “Aren’t you jealous? I am.” At first I was surprised by this. Envy isn’t one of the seven deadly sins that gives me trouble (gluttony and pride are more my issues). I felt nothing but joy for Elizabeth, except perhaps a little concern about the added pressure her new fame would bring her. I know that at this moment in my life—with my mom in the hospital and likely to need me more in the next few months—I’m not quite ready for Fox news, Good Morning America, and the rollercoaster of publicity activities Elizabeth is riding at the moment.

If I envy Elizabeth anything, it’s her passion for writing. Long before Diane Sawyer was knocking at her door, she claimed the title “artist” with a clarity I still don’t have, not because I don’t value my art, but because I feel pulled by too many different identities. Sitting in the club that honored Mark Twain, talking with the Slavic singers and other artists at my brunch table, helped to rekindle my own flame and made me long to get home to my lap top in the way one of the Slavic singers said she yearned to sing some more.

After the brunch, I headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to walk off the mimosas before driving back to Philadelphia. The last few times I've been to the Met I was watching my children, rather than the art. This time it was a pleasure to walk freely, to follow what caught my eye and take the time to read the small signs that give context to the work. After the African masks and chairs, I sought out pieces from Eastern Europe—an area I'm learning more about from Elizabeth's novel—and found intricate Byzantine icons carved out of ivory. Then I walked back to my car via Central Park, passing Irish musicians, with acordian and boran, and then a jazz band set up along the path. I felt part of a large community of artists, reaching back through history and around the globe. The African wood carvers, the Byzantine icon makers, the musicians in the park, the bestselling novelist, and I are all connected through the same deep human impulse to create. It's an impulse I want to honor, along with my obligations to my family.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Piano Lessons

Yesterday my children had their last piano lessons of the school year. They both started in September—my son with the Suzuki method of instruction and my daughter with traditional, which has worked out well for me since they have lessons at the same time from different teachers at the music school. Because they learn different pieces, there has been little competition between them, though my daughter (who is eight) often wants to learn the pieces of her six-year-old brother.

I’ve tried not to compare the two of them, though it’s been hard not to notice Luke’s good ear. After learning a piece, he likes to transpose it to another key, and the other day, he worked out how to play the theme song to Veggie Tales and then taught it to Megan. Throughout the year his teacher has told me how well he’s doing, despite the fact that he likes to make silly faces at the teacher during his lesson. My daughter’s teacher, in contrast, has been less effusive. Throughout the year she’s said that Megan has been doing well, but she’s said it in a curt I-don’t-want-to-exaggerate kind of way.

My first frustration came about a month ago when Megan’s teacher asked to speak to me after class. She said she was concerned about Megan’s schedule, that Megan says she plays and watches TV and does homework every day but doesn’t always practice piano. The teacher emphasized that she will advance more quickly if she really practices every day. I felt judged by her tone and became a bit defensive, I must say, retorting that Megan did practice nearly every day, we don’t watch that much TV, and homework does come before practice. Since then we’ve tried harder to get in daily piano practice, as we have done through most of the school year, though last month it was in addition to the daily lice checks, which along with the fanatical housekeeping took about two hours a day of my time. I didn’t feel like sharing the lice story with the piano teacher and also didn’t have time to explain to her that the hour per day I let the children watch TV is an hour I count on to answer phone calls, pay bills, and generally catch my breath. I suspect she tapped into my guilt about this, but I also felt misunderstood.

Yesterday at Luke’s last lesson, his teacher gushed over what a great year he has had. He has learned more than you’re average first year Suzuki student, has a great ear, and did well at the recital his teacher hosted last week. The teacher printed up a page of Luke’s accomplishments with an “A+” sticker on it. Then I snuck out of Luke’s lesson and waited in the hall for Megan’s teacher to find out if she had any special assignments over the summer. While I was waiting, another mother said, “Oh, I didn’t see you at the recital last week.” Apparently Megan’s teacher also had a recital, and Megan wasn’t invited to perform. I was glad we hadn’t known this when Luke performed since we all assumed that his teacher just did something that Megan’s teacher didn’t. I felt a bit embarrassed with the other mother, who seemed shocked that Megan wasn’t invited.

When Megan left her lesson, her teacher shrugged, as if in disappointment and said, “Well, see if you can find some time to practice over the summer.” Megan seemed fine, but I felt hurt for her, especially after having seen the praise that Luke’s teacher had lavished on him. I found myself bothered by the incident and wondered if I have gotten my own ego too caught up in my children’s accomplishments. I recalled a month ago when Megan did Irish dance in the school talent show. Many of the teachers came up and lavished me with praise for her hit performance. I swelled with pride even as I told the Headmaster, “I’m not the one who danced.”

There is some danger here, I sense, of feeling too invested or identified with how my children perform. I want to encourage them to discover their talents, to learn to work hard, but also to enjoy their activities. I don’t want piano to become a dry obligation for Megan, which is why I’ve tried to make practice fun. I want her to do her best without ever fearing that her best isn’t good enough.

Having grown up without siblings, I don’t know when competition between brothers and sisters fosters a healthy work ethic and when it fosters unhealthy competitiveness. In hindsight I wonder about my decision to keep the children’s mid-year piano report cards from them. Again Luke’s was much more effusive than Megan’s, and I was afraid she would be discouraged that her younger brother was getting higher marks than her. Now I wonder what my motive for this was. Am I protecting Megan’s feelings too much because I’m identifying too much with her? It’s possible that the piano report cards would discourage her, but it is also possible that they would motivate her to practice more.

Part of me wants to write Megan’s teacher a long letter about the head lice and how my mother is in the hospital and how she should really be nicer to me and my daughter. But a bigger part of me realizes that I still haven’t reached a place where I don’t care what others think of me. I have to work on this, to let go of my own desire to always be the best student.

In the meantime, I’ve realized that I wanted to learn piano along with my children, but I’ve gotten a little behind in my own practicing. I suspect that if I start playing the piano myself this summer, it will accomplish two things: It will let me put my ambitions into my own development, rather than pushing my children. At the same time, it will probably get them to practice more because I have noticed, for good or for ill, they both like to compete with me.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Blog Lessons

The children get out of school for the summer tomorrow morning, and camp doesn’t start for three and a half weeks. In the meantime, my mother is still in the hospital (but doing better), and my husband wants to go away for at least some of his vacation next week, assuming my mom is stable. I still hope to post here about once per week, but I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance. So it seems like a good time to take my friend Phil’s suggestion and tell people how to subscribe to this blog (or any blog you follow), so that anyone interested can be notified when I post something new without having to check back incessantly. Here’s Phil’s advice:
Here's a link to the blog subscription tool I use:
You set up a (free) account using your e-mail address and a password, and then you can subscribe to any blog that offers an RSS, XML or Atom feed. (I think you just right-click on the feed icon on the site, copy the link, and paste it into Bloglines' subscription form. But you can experiment.)

Phil has offered me lots of technical and moral support for this enterprise (and was my very first subscriber), for which I’m grateful.

I can tell from my “ID counter” that there are people visiting this blog, but I’m not quite sure who you are or if you’ll ever return, which raises the question again of why I’m doing this, especially if not many are commenting. I think I need to keep asking this question, to make sure this is where I should be putting my energy. The original motivation (publicizing my book) is irrelevant or at least premature right now since I still haven’t heard from the publishers who are reading it. So the question is whether I’m being drawn to write here by ego or by something else. I admit that there is an ego hook, seeing my words posted without the usual query letters and wait. But there is also something exciting that I’m finding on other blogs, at least the good ones. Here are a few observations about the blog world I’ve been exploring:

1. Quakers are talking to each other across our theological and geographic divisions, which I find very heartening.
2. Christians are debating pacificism and economic policy, as well as other issues, also across theological and geographic divisions.
3. An astounding number of mothers are dealing with the isolation and mind-numbing repetition of motherhood by recording the activities of their children in great detail.
4. From the bits I’ve read so far, the mothers seem to be more supportive of each other’s struggles than many of the Christians.

Perhaps I’ve just landed on some contentious sites, but the religious ones often seem to be about winning arguments. I can’t help noticing that the theological debates seem to be dominated by men, though it’s sometimes hard to tell because of the use of pseudonyms. I have to say Quakers do seems to be an exception here, both in gender balance and in the use of real names. We’re such a small community, we probably all know each other, or will some day, which might help to keep the discussions civil.

Generally, I sense the potential for real learning and good in this forum when people use it to clarify their own ideas and explore their own motivations. At the same time, there is the potential for real harm from people who anonymously use their words as weapons, who engage in debate to win an argument, rather than to learn something.

I’ve been reminded lately of the importance of becoming aware of my own motivations. Recently I’ve observed people acting in ways that seem unconscious, which reminds me that we all can be unconscious of our true motives. I need to keep thinking about how to make this blog a place where I learn about myself, and where others might learn something, rather than just a new way to feed my ego. One Quaker site I visited (that I can’t seem to find now) had a list of “queries before you post.” (Quakers often use questions to help us reflect on what we’re doing.) This is an interesting idea, one I should perhaps adopt myself.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

At the Hospital

I checked my eighty-two year old mother into a hospital yesterday. She’s been slowly losing weight, and the doctors haven’t found a cause, other than her lungs, which have been lousy for some time. Now that she’s down to seventy pounds, they want to admit her for more tests, even though they’ve been doing tests for months. As we were waiting for them to assign her a bed, I reminded her that the children and I are scheduled to go to a big Quaker gathering at the beginning of July, providing she’s well enough for us to leave town.

“What are you going to learn there?” she asked with what I heard as a critical tone.

“I’m taking a workshop on prayer,” I responded. “And the children will have different activities.” I kept my tone even and waited for a reaction. My mother has never understood my decision to leave the Roman Catholic church and become a Quaker. The practice of worshipping in silence seems strange to her, as does the idea of spending a week at a workshop on prayer. Although she has faithfully attended mass her whole life, it’s been out of habit and superstition rather than devotion. She says she’s remained a Catholic to hedge her bets, “just in case the nuns were right.”

“How do Quakers pray?” she asked. “They don’t say anything, like the Hail Mary.”

“Silently,” I answered, unsure how to explain what I do for an hour every Sunday.

“So they just talk to God,” she concluded. “Do they tell him how mean he is?”

There it was, I thought, the theological abyss between us. My mother is not sure she believes in God, but if she does, he’s male and mean, deaf ears to complain to. For me, prayer is more about trying to listen to God, a God that is neither male nor female and generous rather than stingy. I don’t actually know what I’m doing in prayer; I think I’m meditating more than anything, trying to empty my restless mind. I’m definitely not telling God how mean he is, and I feel sad that this is how my mother conceives of prayer.

“Have you been praying more lately?” I asked, knowing she has been thinking a lot about death.

“No,” she said. “I can’t concentrate.” Then she added that she wanted to get death over with. I’m not sure what to do with this other than to listen. My mother is a practical woman, and she appreciates practical expressions of love. So I check her mail and do her banking and her laundry. And I try to assure her that she’s not a “pain in the ass,” as she puts it, which is part of why she wants to get dying over with. Dragging it out just seems inconsiderate to her, like guests who linger too long after dinner.

Meanwhile I’m trying to prepare myself for whatever unfolds, which might be a quick death or, more likely, a slow one. (None of us expect her to recover her old independence.) This is calling me to let go of my need to make plans. Already we’ve cancelled our trip to Wisconsin this Saturday, and the rest of the summer feels unpredictable. I didn’t mention to my mom that the Quaker conference costs over a thousand dollars, which we’ll lose if we cancel at the last minute. Instead I’m trying to trust that all will work out, which brings me back to our differing concepts of prayer. Instead of complaining to God about the inconvenience of having a dying mother or asking God to work some miracles for us, I feel like what I need to do is be still and listen so I’ll know what to do at each turn in the road. Right now, what I need to do is be present to her and willing to hear whatever she needs to say.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Not Me

My eight-year-old daughter was cranky when I picked her up from school yesterday. As usual, it took a few hours before the real reason emerged. It seems that two of her best friends are teaching her “how to act cool,” and yesterday’s lesson involved swishing her shoulders provocatively when she walked.

“I just can’t do that, Mom,” Megan explained. “It just isn’t me.” The fact that boys might see her only exacerbated her main dilemma—how to be true to her self when her friends wanted her to be someone else.

I know adults who have spent years trying to figure out who they really are after being raised to hide their true selves. It takes many weekend retreats or years of therapy, work that can be an important part of spiritual and personal growth. The question for me as a parent, however, is how to raise children who know who they are from the start, who don’t have to work so hard to find themselves in their forties. Part of me wants to protect my daughter, to shield her from fashion magazines and second graders who give cool lessons. Another part of me thinks she might as well learn to stand up from herself in second grade since she’s going to have to do it for the rest of her life anyway.

“So what did you say to them, Honey?” I asked.
“I said, ‘No way. That’s just not me,’” she reported, her body language stiff and determined. “I don’t mind them giving me lessons in how to be cool. That’s my choice,” she emphasized, knowing that I don’t approve of the coolness lessons. “But some things I just won’t do. That’s not me,” she repeated, “but it’s hard for me to say, ‘No’ to my friends."

This has come up before, the idea that she’s willing to change somewhat for her friends, but within limits. Since I haven’t been able to debunk the notion of “cool,” I’m trying to help her know where her limit is and how to defend it. For a moment my mind flashes forward to adolescence and the dilemmas she might face in a few years—a horny boy whose affection she wants to win, friends who want her to try drugs—or in the years beyond, perhaps a boss who wants her to cook the accounting books. After all, there were many people involved in Watergate and only one Deep Throat, which makes me wonder what gives some people the courage to speak up. I remember Tim O’Brien’s point in The Things They Carried, that he might have had the courage to resist the draft in 1968 if he’d practiced being courageous as a child.

Teaching my daughter to know her limits and to defend them feels like an expression of both my feminism and my faith. Girls are especially at risk for losing their voices in the face of people telling them how to dress and walk, so it feels decidedly political to teach her to say, “No.” It’s also very Quaker, the idea of speaking our truth. Knowing what that truth is requires paying attention to our inner life, listening to something inside us, rather than all the external pressures.

In addition to listening to children, I think giving them “down time” nurtures this—time when they’re not doing homework, practicing piano, or watching TV. But I’m aware how little down time my children have right now, with all the end-of-the-school-year events and, still, the lice and daily nit-picking (see “Head Lice”). I’m trying to use the nit-picking as a bonding experience, an intimate time to talk with my daughter. “I know it’s hard to say, ‘No’ to your friends,” I tell her. “But I’m proud of you for knowing who you are. If they are good friends, they’ll accept that.”

Do other parents have ideas they want to share about how they’ve tried to nurture their child’s sense of self? I'd welcome your thoughts here.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Geldof, Wallis, and Me

Three converging activities have got me reflecting on how to practice the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity and Equality as a middle class parent: 1) we’re cleaning out our basement; 2) Bob Geldof is planning another rock extravaganza to help the poor in Africa; and 3) I’m reading God’s Politics by Jim Wallis.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, makes a compelling case that relieving global poverty is a moral issue that people of faith should be addressing with more urgency. He also offers some shocking statistics:
Today some eight hundred million people around the world are malnourished. According to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, 30,500 children die every day in the developing world from hunger and preventable diseases. Almost three billion people, nearly half the world’s population, live on less than $2 a day, 1.2 billion of them on less than $1 a day (285).

Significantly reducing these numbers would cost less than the Iraq war and would do more for our long term security. Wallis makes these kinds of connections and frames them as religious issues. He also talks about realistic solutions, such as changing trade policies to make the playing field fairer for poor countries.

Enter Bob Geldof, who twenty years ago organized Live Aid, which coincidently one of my students skewered in a paper this semester as an irrelevant ego trip for rock stars. Just as I was finishing Wallis’ chapter on global poverty, Geldof announced that Philadelphia will be one of the hosts for a new rock event to help Africa: Live 8, a reference to the summit of eight rich countries that make the trade policies that Wallis criticizes.

I was heartened to hear that Live 8 will focus more on justice than on charity, which could make it more relevant than Live Aid ultimately was. It seems that there is a growing movement of people interested in systemic change. Starbucks now has a Fair Trade coffee blend. Bono’s wife is reportedly starting a line of Fair Trade designer clothing. Obviously neither will be selling at Walmart anytime soon, but Live 8 could conceivably raise consciousness about the connection between trade and global poverty, which could be more helpful than just raising money.

And then there is the connection to my basement, which probably contains more toys than the entire African village where I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I know clearing out my basement is not going to end world poverty. In fact, some would argue that our consumption provides jobs in “developing” countries, though I’m haunted by the words of the eighteenth century Quaker abolitionist John Woolman who wrote: "May we look upon our treasure, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try to discover whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions."

Woolman was talking about slavery. His own journey led him to give up selling, wearing, or eating anything produced by slaves. Perhaps people of faith today could embrace his example and try (as much as possible) to only buy products where the workers were paid fairly. Instead of class warfare, which Republicans charge whenever people raise economic injustice, we could advocate class solidarity as a moral issue.

Aside from the idea of helping others, there seems to be something spiritually toxic for us in having so much more than we need. My children don’t appreciate each of their possessions the way my students in Botswana appreciated something as simple as a new pencil. My struggle is partly about nurturing my children’s sense of gratitude when they are given so much (mostly by people other than us), but it’s also about making time and space for what’s most important. If I took all the time I spend picking up toys, or asking the children to do it, and spent those hours advocating for global poverty reduction, wouldn’t that be a better use of my time?

In the meantime, I’m trying to use our spring cleaning as a consciousness raising opportunity, to get the children to think about which of their possessions they value most and to consider sharing the rest with those who have less. It’s not as sexy as Live 8, but it’s a start.

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