Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Tom and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary a few days ago, which has got me reflecting on how marriage has changed my life. There are the little adaptations—like not eating curry so much anymore since Tom doesn’t like it—as well as the seismic changes, like parenthood, which I wouldn’t have tackled alone. In fact it’s hard to separate marriage and motherhood in my mind, since I got pregnant only six months after Tom and I strolled down a grassy aisle in the Endless Mountains, an event that literally feels like a lifetime ago.

At the time of our wedding I was writing a book about discerning a call to marriage as a spiritual path. While I still agree with the ideas in Listen with Your Heart, it now seems absurd to me that I had the gall to write such a book at that point in my life. Admittedly it started out as a book about being single, which I was more qualified to write having had years of experience. However, my relationship with Tom and the book evolved at the same time, so the book I published was different from the one I started. Part of the blessing of that process came from the interviews I did for the book, which often taught me just what I needed to learn at that stage of my own discernment.

Now I have a lot less time to sit around discerning God’s leading. As a multi-tasking mother, I have to discern while I’m making dinner or driving Megan to Irish dance lessons. It’s distracted discernment, to be sure, but it’s the best I can manage, at least until school starts. Now I’m so grateful for two hours of writing time to stitch my reflections together, a scrap of time I took for granted as a single, childless woman.

Being more grateful is one of the ways I’ve changed during the past ten years. Having children, losing a pregnancy and two older relatives, and watching my mother decline have all made me more aware of life’s fragility. I hear about a child who died falling off the peer at the beach last week, and I hug Luke close when he climbs onto my lap, knowing that he’s the kind of kid who likes to climb the fence at the peer. Amid nagging Megan to practice the piano, I notice how tired she looks face down on the couch and stroke her back, remembering for a moment to be grateful for this beautiful little girl. I see Tom teaching Luke to peel garlic for gazpacho, and I remember the serendipity that brought us together and feel gratitude for his gentle presence and these ten years.

I’d like to think marriage has made me a less selfish person, but that might be overstating it. While we were still newlyweds Tom quietly pointed out that I took the last cereal in the box without considering whether he’d like some. (It was true: I hadn’t even thought of him.) I still have to work at this, thinking of my family’s needs along with my own. I’m not one of those women who have gone the other way, who always put their husbands and children before themselves, nor do I want to be one of them, frankly. But I do want to be more gracious than I sometimes am when I don’t get time to exercise or write because other needs come first. I want to recognize my own selfishness and impatience and find that ever shifting balance between caring for myself and caring for others. Maybe I’ll get this down in the next ten years.

A decade from now we could be sending Megan off to college. Luke could have his driver's license, a thought too frightening to contemplate. Tom could be nearing retirement, and I could be the primary breadwinner through the college years, another frightening thought. I only have a moment to wonder if I'll be making money from my writing in ten years; there are too many needs bringing me back to the present (the videos due at the library, my mother's laundry). For now I am just grateful for our anniversary, which reminded me to be grateful, and a few hours to write about it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hurried Woman

Yesterday, during a rushed trip to the library, a book title grabbed my attention: The Hurried Woman Syndrome: A Seven-Step Program to Conquer Fatigue, Control Weight, and Restore Passion to Your Relationship. Although I don’t have time to read all seven steps of any program, I grabbed the book and proceeded to skim bits of it at red lights on our drive downtown. I was annoyed by the time we hit the Art Museum.

I’m sure reading at red lights must be a symptom of Hurried Woman Syndrome. I can certainly relate to the problem of feeling overwhelmed with things to do, and I agree with the author that chronic stress is bad for our health. What annoyed me was the author’s implication that the stresses women face are ours alone to deal with. Sure taking vitamins and exercising is good advice for combating stress, but why are so many of us stressed out to begin with? And why is this a woman’s syndrome? I thought of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars (by my friend Miriam Peskowitz) which frames the stresses parents face as social problems that affect men, women and children, not just matters for us to deal with as individual already guilt-ridden women.

No such feminist perspective from Brent Bost, author of The Hurried Woman Syndrome. In fact when Bost noticed his wife was coming down with the same stress symptoms as many of his patients, did he cut back his twelve- to fourteen-hour workdays as a gynecologist to help her raise their four sons? No. Instead Bost decided to survey other ob-gyns to come up with a solution to what he calls “a significant medical problem.” Although he acknowledges that even mothers who work full time do more parenting, housework and carpooling than their spouses, getting men to carry more of the burden is not one of the seven steps. On the contrary, Bost advises women to “avoid nagging” and “don’t try to change him.”

Skimming Bost’s book got me thinking about the sources of my own stress. I acknowledge that much of it is self-imposed, as he suggests. I really don’t need to read at red lights (and usually don’t). Honestly, I have been trying to slow down since vacation and do feel a bit less harried. However, some of my stress just comes from the reality of having children who argue with each other and snap themselves with bungy cords while I’m on the telephone and ask questions incessantly, especially when I’m trying to make a left turn at a busy intersection. For example, here are just a few of my son’s recent car questions:
Mom, why is pee yellow? Why is it called a highway when some highways aren’t even high? Is that woman (on the radio) named Mary Cantell, or is it Mary Can’t Tell, like you can’t tell anyone that her name is Mary? Mama, is it OK to eat your sweat?

These questions come pretty much non-stop from sunrise until well after sunset. Frankly, I have no idea why pee is yellow. That’s why we need school to start…soon!

And that brings me to the stressors that have a wider social dimension, like the lack of good, flexible childcare (one of the issues Miriam talks about). Camps are over for the summer and school doesn’t start for two more weeks, and I know I’m not the only mother struggling with this.

Another stressor is our country’s lack of a national health care system. Although we are all thrilled that my husband Tom is starting a new job after Labor Day, it turns out that he won’t get health insurance from his new employers for three months, so we are going to have to pay over $1000 a month to stay insured during the interim. (That's not counting the minimum of $80 per month we pay in prescription co-pays or the $50 ER visit we had a few weeks ago. That's just the insurance in case something really bad happens.) I know many parents who work longer hours than they would like just for the health insurance. Solving this problem is not one of Bost’s seven steps either.

In general, Bost’s book brings me back to one of my favorite questions: What do we need the serenity to accept, and what do we need the courage to change? Bost talks about individual change, and many of his suggestions for taking control of our lives are good. For example, I can stop reading at red lights or remind myself that I want to encourage my son's inquisitive nature when he's asking non-stop questions. There are other things I just can't change, however, like the fact that I have young children and an aging mother simultaneously. For those situations, I need grace and serenity. And then there are the things that I can't change myself, but that we as a society could change if we put our collective minds to it. If we really have an epidemic of chronically stressed people (especially parents), it seems to me it's time we put our heads together to see how we might make life easier. Instead of more self-help books, perhaps we could start with childcare for late August.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


For our first few days in Vermont, I found myself inhaling sharply, like a child with asthma, my shoulders at my ears with tension. Then, as if by instinct, I blew out the tension, making the sound our air mattress makes when a child pulls the plug and then flops down on it. This wasn't a planned relaxation exercise, just my body's natural response when it finally got the chance to breathe deeply after days of non-stop stress.

From our tent we could see the Adirondack Mountains folded in misty layers across Lake Champlain. The view itself was healing. We could also see a lot of sky--clear blue during the day, streaked with pink in the evening, star-filled at night. A wide sky puts things in perspective makes one's to-do-list seem smaller, when only a few days before that list had felt like an Anaconda, slowly constricting around me so I could barely breathe or move. Then suddenly the snake was gone, and I could move freely from the tent to the pool to the reading chair under a tree. There was no schedule, no need to rush, no need to do all the cooking since Tom was around to share in that one chore. My mom--my biggest anxiety before leaving town--was fine in our absence, and Tom was offered a new job via cell phone while the rest of us waited at an ice cream stand.

Just when my breathing deepened and I no longer gasped and exhaled so desperately, my daughter asked me, "Mom, why don't you ever relax?" I took another deep breath and tried to explain how pulled I've felt lately between caring for her and her brother, caring for my mother, and keeping up with my own work, not to mention the laundry, the bills, the garden, the dust on the piano keys, etc. I wondered later how it affects her, having a mother who seems to never relax, and wondered what I could do to make our lives less strained. The best answer I can come up with is to keep breathing, to keep looking for the big sky, even as we return to a city where it's hard to see the stars.

When we got home, we had twenty-one phone messages, three of them from Citizens Bank because I accidentally used the wrong check book--the one that goes with the account we only use for the automatic withdrawal of our mortgage payments. The result of that one little mistake was a bounced check, a missed mortgage payment, several fees, and five ominous letters from the bank in the stack of mail that was delivered yesterday afternoon. Also waiting for us was the list of school supplies each child needs, our grocery list, my mother's grocery list, the list of books I have to read before my semester starts September 1, and still the list of errands I didn't get done before we left. The Anaconda is lurking in the garden, which has sprouted an impressive number of weeds in just a week, a reminder that life is never static but always trying to renew itself.

I'm trying to keep in mind the image of the lake in the Adirondacks where we camped for the second half of our vacation with my best friend from college and her family. I remember the smell of dewy fern on an early morning walk and the taste of hot dogs grilled on an open fire. I remember the peaceful drumming of rain on the tent fly and the feel of cool mountain air when you first step out of the tent in the morning. I remember the big sky over Lake Champlain, and I remember to breathe.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


After two days of frantic preparations, we are leaving for our annual trek north to Vermont and the Adirondacks. In addition to cancelling the mail and the newspaper and bringing the goldfish to our neighbor's house for safekeeping, this year I also had a long list of errands to do for my mother to make sure she will be absolutely fine in our absence. I think she will be, but still I felt sad and guilty when we said goodbye last night. She yelled, "I love you all" down the stairs of her apartment, as Megan and Luke raced for the street, something my mother doesn't say that often.

And so we set off with a little remorse and a lot of uncertainty. Tom had hoped to hear about a new job before we left. I had hoped to hear about my book. We need the mountains and the time together to ease our anxious waiting. We definitely need this vacation.

This is all a way of saying I won't be blogging in the next ten days. I hope others are getting a summer rest as well.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Irish Humor

I usually blog about whatever is on my mind, and so far it hasn't been hard to come up with a subject approximately once per week. But this morning, knowing I would be getting my snippet of writing time for this week, I had a paralyzing thought: I should try to be more funny.

I know humor can't be forced. It's just that my posts have been so serious lately. Anyone stumbling onto this blog might not realize that I have a good sense of humor and funny children. They might think I write about death and racism all the time, and not with the wit of Frank McCourt or Chris Rock. Days ago I began a blog post about whether we should ever let our kids win at chess, but it was way too serious and self-important. So I started trying to recall what has happened lately that's been funny, probably for my own mental health as much as for the blog.

First, I asked the kids, my primary source of humorous material. "Yesterday when you were talking on the phone and we kept picking up the other phone," said Megan. "That was funny." Well, maybe to them.

Sometimes their antics seem funnier a few days later, like the moment during Monday's double playdate when Megan yelled out the window, "Uh, Mom, I hate to tell you this, but..." I was out back with the two boys, who were pretending to set dynamite in the ally. The girls were up in the office/tv room, applying nail polish, which I had foolishly assumed was safer than setting dynamite. I raced up the steps and found nail polish spilt on the couch and piles of half red cotton balls circling Megan's friend, who was still sitting on the floor doing her toes. The girls had changed their minds about what colors they wanted, so the air was toxic with the smell of nail polish remover, especially after Megan's friend knocked the open bottle over on the wood floor.

Sometimes the news is a good source of humor, though there's been too much about terrorism lately, which is hard to joke about without offending people. I got offended myself a few weeks ago when I told another parent about the Arabic cultural camp one of Luke's friends was attending, and the parent responded, "Oh, is it a little al-Qaeda training camp?" I got unnecessarily huffy and said, "No, I think this camp is about promoting peace and cultural understanding." The joke was on me a few days later when I dropped Megan off for her first day of Irish Cultural Camp and found each child's packet included the words to a song with the lyrics "Soldiers are we whose lives are pledged to Ireland..." There was also something about guns and the coming fight, though this was the week the IRA was all over the news for finally giving up their guns.

The Irish camp was actually pretty funny, aside from the image of all these little freckled faced girls singing "A Soldier's Song" at their end-of-camp performance. The children wrote their own plays (Megan played an Irish girl whose dog was stolen by Leprechauns.), learned some new dances, and did a lot of art projects involving green glitter. The glitter nearly gave me heart failure the first night of camp when I sat down to comb though Megan's hair. Although we haven't seen any lice in months, I still do a spot check about once a week, just to be completely paranoid about it. When I discovered that Megan's hair was suddenly full of dark specks, I couldn't breathe for several seconds. It was a huge relief to realize that my daughter and my whole house were just infested with green glitter.

I'm glad Megan has taken an interest in Irish culture, especially music and dance. I'm aware of how being the grandchild of Irish immigrants has affected me. Although I left the Catholic church and became a Quaker, I've been told that I have "a Catholic sense of humor," which I suspect has more to do with my Irish family than with the nuns I had at school. The Irish, I think, have a special gift for finding humor in death and tragedy. (See the movie Waking Ned Divine if you want to see how many laughs can be gotten out of a corpse.) One of my favorite stories about my grandfather was that when he died he left six envelopes with ten dollars for each of his pall bearers to play poker at his wake. I remember my own father's funeral and my Uncle John keeping us in stitches with his wild funeral stories, including one about a young man who was having his mother cremated and didn't think he should have to buy an expensive coffin just for the viewing. According to Uncle John, the man put his dead mother seated in the front row of the funeral parlor, to the horror of her friends who chided him for being a disrespectful cheapskate.

I supposed it's the Irish desire to laugh at death that has me looking for humor now, as my mother is dying. My mom has been talking and joking about her own death since I was sixteen when she first told me that she didn't want a viewing, just a pine box with a sheet wrapped around her. Since then she's changed her tune a bit, though she still wants things as simple as possible. Now she says we should only have an open casket if the embalming fluid takes away her wrinkles. Recalling her brother, a blacksmith who died a few years ago, she said yesterday, "Joe is the only person I know who actually looked better in the coffin, I guess because he always looked so bad when he was alive." (His funeral was probably the only time anyone had ever seen him in a clean suit.)

People deal with death differently, and not everyone makes jokes. Two days ago a friend called to tell me that she had to put her very old, very sick dog to sleep. My friend was heartbroken about it and worried about telling my mother, who for over ten years stayed with the dog whenever my friend went away. I knew my mom would be sad, but I also knew that she'd be glad that the dog was finished suffering. I said to my friend, "I'll bet you twenty dollars my mother says, 'I wish someone would put me out of my misery.'" Sure enough, when I told my mother about the dog she said, "Maybe I should go to a veterinarian."

Maybe no one else does, but I think that's funny, and I'm grateful my mother still has her slightly warped Irish sense of humor.

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