Imperfect Serenity

Atom Site Feed

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Welcome, Welcome

When you run into people in July, they usually ask, "How's your summer going?" I'm not quite sure how to answer this. Should I mention that my computer, my phone, my car, and my watch all went on the fritz about a week and a half ago? Should I share that my daughter's asthma seems to be flaring up because I took her off Advair, intending to find a homeopath for her, but never getting around to it? Should I say, "Fine. The kids are having fun at camp." Or should I share that we enrolled my mother in a hospice program last week?

If it's a good friend, I tell them about my mother. Most people get a tragic look when they hear the word "hospice," and I think it's those reactions, as much as anything else, that has gotten me more in touch with my sadness. My mother's condition hasn't actually worsened. She's still living on her own, able to fix her meals and make her bed, though with greater effort. All that's changed is that she's gotten clearer about not wanting to take antibiotics every day for the rest of her life or go to the hospital every time she gets a cough. What's also changed is that we now have a team of people ready to help her, and me. My mother seems relieved and said the other day, "I think everything is going to work out." She's dreaming a lot about people who she's known who have died.

A few days ago I was catching up with a friend, telling her about my mother, about how the children are complaining that "visiting Grandma is boring," and about how Tom has had a lot of extra meetings lately, in addition to his job interviews. My friend asked what I was doing to nurture myself, and I answered, "Writing."

"You're the only writer I know who is really clear about that," she responded, a comment that surprised me since my friend is a former editor who must know many writers. It is so clear to me that writing nurtures me, whether or not the work is ever published. Perhaps I assume this is true for everyone.

I woke up in a bit of a panic this morning, realizing that after this week of camp I won't have any scheduled writing time until school starts in seven weeks. And then I'll be teaching a new course that is already taking a lot of preparation. I'm sure I'll squeeze in a few writing hours in August, but it will be stolen time. Then I remember all the chores that need to be done this week--fixing the computer and the car, meeting with the hospice social worker, finding that homeopath--and I think of the quickie prayer we learned in the workshop I attended a few weeks ago. When things are tense and you want to invite God's presence into the situation, you can say, "Welcome, welcome, welcome." The theory is that the Divine is always present, but we need to consent to that presence, become open to it. So far, I have usually said, "Welcome, welcome, welcome," with my teeth somewhat clenched, but that feels so ridiculous that it usually makes me smile at myself. There's something in it that changes my perspective, widening the frame I'm looking through so my problems don't seems so big.

I think fixing the computer can wait another week. Instead I'll welcome the few hours I have left to write and try to be open to whatever August brings. But I'll need many reminders.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Pool Politics

I was unlocking the padlock on our community garden when a car halted near the gate. There were a few young men, and one shouted out to me: "I've never understood how you can call it a 'community garden' and then put a lock on it." His tone was belligerent, possibly alcohol induced, since the garden is across from two bars and surrounded by neighbors who wanted a parking lot there instead of a garden. Still, I took the bait and tried to explain that "community" didn't mean "public" and that he was welcome to join the garden for ten dollars and some labor on work days. Although I thought I was being quite civil, the man in the passenger seat yelled "Yuppy bitch!" at me, and the car sped off. As my husband watered the raspberries, I wondered whether it was picking fresh basil that made us yuppies, or the fact that there was a lock on the garden. It seemed unlikely it was just the ten dollar membership fee.

In the two weeks since this happened, I've wondered more about the difference between "public" and "community," especially as the high temperatures have made it good swimming weather. When we just want a quick dip, we go to the nearby city-run pool. However, when we want to spend the afternoon splashing with friends, we have to pay a guest fee. See, almost every family we know belongs to a private pool or country club.

The private clubs have some notable advantages. Most offer baby pools, a godsend to mothers of children shorter than three feet, the shallowest end of the public pool. This advantage cannot be underestimated, especially if you have multiple children and weak nerves. If I could have afforded a private pool when my children were smaller, I would probably have done it since going to the three-foot pool with a baby and a toddler was so stressful. That's when I got into the habit of visiting my friends at their pools. Managing young children is easier with friends around anyway, and I worked out that a summer of occasional guest fees was actually cheaper than pool membership. Since then, my children have gotten taller and our finances have eased so that the private/public pool choice presents something of a dilemma for us.

Most private pools have large locker rooms; one even has a steam room. Although there is a country club where the changing room is not much nicer than the public pool's, you can get a gin and tonic at the club snack bar, which makes up for a lot. There's no snack bar at the public pool, though that may actually be an advantage since it eliminates the whining for snacks. In terms of how clean or crowded the water is, I haven't noted any real difference. If anything, the public pool is less crowded, though there are no lap lanes for adults and no lounge chairs in the shade. Frankly, the most striking difference between the pools is the one no one ever mentions: at the private pools almost everyone is white, while at the public pool almost everyone is black.

This stark segregation is my biggest reservation about joining a private pool. I like the fact that my children experience being in the racial minority when we go to the public pool. I like that they are not afraid to walk though a crowd of African American boys sitting on their bikes in the lot next door. I don't want them to think that an all white world is normal in this diverse city. I also don't want them to develop the sense of entitlement that I associate with belonging to private clubs, though frankly it may be too late for that. When my son Luke said he wanted to join the group lesson offered for free every evening at the public pool, his older sister said with disdain, "I would like private swim lessons." To be fair to her, this may have come from self-consciousness as much as snobbery.

I wonder how much the private swim club phenomenon stems from snobbery and how much from the simple habit of going with the communal flow. A few friends have told me that they didn't even know there were public pools. They just joined the pool all their friends belonged to. And that's the source of the dilemma for me: I want to be where my friends are too. Although their pools are not "public" there is much more of a "community" in those settings where mothers share snacks and sunscreen and offer to watch each other's children. I think back to my encounter at the garden gate and wonder if it's possible to build community without having members and non-members. This is an uncomfortable thought, since I don't want to be part of any groups that are exclusionary, though in reality I am. The garden, for one, has a lock to keep out the people who throw beer bottles near our fence. I don't feel bad about our lock since our ten dollar a year fee is not prohibitive, and we are a more racially diverse group than either kind of pool. We do, however, discriminate against those who use pesticides, defining ourselves as an organic community garden. Most communities have something that defines them, though it may be interests or beliefs rather than race or class.

Even though I think our gardening community is pretty open and welcoming, it's clear that the white working class families that live across from the garden resent our presence. I don't think it was an accident that I was called a "yuppy bitch," as opposed to some other insult. Our membership probably is more middle class than the garden's immediate neighbors, and the man's anger towards me was a reminder of the class divisions we often don't think about.

I was prompted to think and talk about class at the Quaker conference I attended a few weeks ago when I went to an evening workshop on the subject. The facilitator, George Lakey, asked participants to get into a line from one end of the room to the other in order of our social class at the age of twelve. We had to ask each other questions like, "Did your parents go to college?" or "Did your go to a private pool?" in order to decide who went where in the line. The evening got me in touch with my own mixed feelings about my upbringing. My parents hadn't gone to college and never owned a home, which put me at the bottom end of the line. However, I went to private school and took horseback riding lessons, which made the people near me in line ask, "What are you doing down here?"

The gift of that upbringing is that I feel comfortable at either the public or the private pools. The problem is that I feel uncomfortable choosing between the two.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A Good Cry

We left Friends General Conference Gathering on Saturday morning and drove three hours north before stopping for a break near a shady Virginia picnic bench. As I stepped out of the car, my six-year-old son walked into my arms, his face red and contorted. Luke was sobbing so hard I thought he must have closed the car door on his finger, but when he finally pulled his face out of my shoulder, he wailed, “I don’t want to leave FGC. I miss my friends.” Then he kept crying, on and off for the rest of the day.

Luke’s crying stirred many emotions in me: compassion for my son who was clearly heartbroken that his two new friends live hours away, recognition that I would also miss the sense of community we had enjoyed for a week, but also gratitude that my boy still knows how to cry. I felt strangely proud of him for loving other boys so fiercely.

When Luke was two he had a difficult time being separated from me. Actually “difficult” is a polite understatement. Separation tortured him. Eventually he got used to playdates where I would leave, but when I tried putting him in day care one morning per week so I could write, he cried so much I decided to pull him out after seven weeks. What bothered me even more than his crying was the attitude of the staff, who seemed to be giving him the not-so-subtle message that he needed to bury his emotions. I understood they had to deal with a building full of children needing attention, but felt their reaction was too harsh, as if a two-year-old’s attachment to his mother was dysfunctional. I wanted Luke to learn to be independent, but when he was ready and not at the expense of his emotional life. A year later, he was ready and had a happy two years at a nursery school where he was lovingly helped on the days he was sad to say goodbye to me.

According to Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, boys are encouraged to separate from their mothers earlier than girls and are taught to stifle their emotions when the separation is painful. Author William Pollack argues that this forced disconnection, from their families and ultimately from themselves, does lasting harm to boys who then grow into emotionally disconnected men. He points out that anger is a more acceptable emotion in males than sadness, so many males translate their hurt and grief into anger.

Pollack’s analysis came back to me this week, first watching Luke process his grief over losing two new friends, then coming home to a cacophony of honking horns in our neighborhood. Evidently a local teen was killed by a hit and run a few weeks ago, and the responsible car was found in our neighborhood. The car’s owner has refused to give a statement to police, so there is now a nightly protest in front of her large house. Teens stand in the middle of a busy street with signs that say “Honk for justice.” Drivers oblige, and the crowd screams. This goes on until ten or eleven every night, a constant blare of noise that sounds more like a tail gate party than an expression of grief or outrage.

A part of me sympathizes with the protesters’ sense of outrage that someone who can afford a good lawyer might get away with killing a teenager and driving off. A part of me is happy to see young people protesting something, taking action for what they feel is right. However, I have also felt disturbed by this protest all week, and not just because the noise is keeping my daughter awake past her bed time. Aside from the legal issues of due process and harassment, there is something about the emotional tone of the rally that seems… dangerous, for lack of a better word, like the participants’ grief has been transformed into righteous glee at their power to disrupt. There is something about the sound of this mob that makes me think of the many countries where violent mobs have started civil wars, even though this group has done nothing violent to my knowledge.

This group of noise-makers has the cloak of grief and the cause of injustice, and I don’t dare presume to tell them that they might all be better off if they just went home and had a good cry for their friend who died so tragically. I don’t say this, but I think it. I wonder if they are in touch with their real feelings or conscious of the effect their actions are having on others. And then I think of the victim's parents. I can't even imagine how deep their grief must go, and as I find my compassion, I wonder if the honking gives them any solace.

I received an e-mail this morning from a friend who described feeling cleansed by a good cry, the way a good rain clears the air. This is a friend who has shared before how getting in touch with her emotions is an important part of her spiritual journey, how it helps her to be in touch with her true self, and as a result, God. It reminds me of the crying I did at the FGC Gathering, in my workshop and alone, as I started really facing my mother’s inevitable death for the first time. It reminds me to continue to stay in touch with my emotions as we move back into the hectic routines of home life, instead of swallowing them with a few pounds of chocolate. I know grief isn't something that can be washed away with a few tears. It's a journey, but one I want to walk consciously.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


I'm now in Virginia at a gathering of Quakers from all over North America and beyond. Internet access has turned out to be rather hard to come by, so one of my spiritual practices for the week is to let go of the desire to check my e-mail frequently. Obviously blogging has been neglected as well.

My main spiritual work, however, is to let go of bigger issues and my desire to know their outcomes. My mother is out of the hospital, but still losing weight. She says she now weighs sixty-eight pounds and is forcing herself to eat. Despite her frailty, she is still able to live alone, although maybe not for long. The physical therapists at the hospital said she was doing too well in therapy to stay--she can get in and out of the tub herself and pass all their tests for self-sufficiency. But her primary doctor, listening to her lungs and looking at her shrinking body, was reluctant to let her go. My mom for her part is reluctant to go back to the hospital ever again and is talking about refusing antibiotics if she gets another lung infection.

In the meantime, my husband has resigned his job, and is looking for a new one, while I am waiting to hear from publishers who are reading my book. I felt "led" (to use the Quaker lingo for when we feel called to do something) to write this book, which is about how motherhood has been a spiritual journey for me. I mailed it off to my agent full of trust and hope, figuring that if I felt led to write it, some publisher would feel led to publish it. I still believe that, but it's now been over two months, and I'm starting to wonder if I should be praying about this or something.

So here I am at Gathering in a workshop to learn about prayer. We started with Centering Prayer (based on the ideas of Thomas Keating), where the idea is to just show up and consent to God's presence. We're not asking for anything in particular, not even advice. Tomorrow we are moving on to petition and intercession, where we ask for help, for ourselves or others. I confess to being conflicted about this type of prayer, especially now when so much of my life is in flux. For example, I'm temped to pray to sell my book soon, but what if I did and my mother needed my presence just when my publisher needed my revisions? I have a sense that I just need to be open to whatever is coming without trying to manipulate the timing. It's the lesson I keep needing to learn over and over again--letting go.

I remember an image that came to me twelve years ago at Pendle Hill, and it's an image I've heard others share as well. It's a picture of an open hand, ungrasping what it has held, but open to receive something new. I have a sense that I'm in that kind of time where I'm called to let go--of my mother, my book, my desire for certainty--and be open to whatever is coming next.

Who Links Here