Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005


I was half asleep when my six-year-old Luke climbed into bed with me this morning. When I finally stopped pretending to be asleep and cracked my eyes to look at him, Luke announced, “There are watches you can set back in time, but there are no watches that you can set back to the time of castles.” Apparently he had been pondering this and was just waiting for me to wake up so he could tell me. Later at breakfast, he added that you couldn’t set watches back to the time of dinosaurs either.

The idea of setting back time is appealing. This summer when my lap top got fried by lightening I spoke to Hewlett Packard technicians in India who guided me through various unsuccessful attempts to save my hard drive. One involved setting the computer clock back to the day before the lightening to see if the computer could restore itself to its previous state.

“Wow,” I said to the technician. Could we set it to before George Bush became president?”
“No,” said the technician dryly. “You purchased your computer since then.”
After an awkward pause I explained that I was joking.
“I know,” he answered in an unwavering technician tone. (I’m going to guess that Hewlett Packard doesn’t encourage transcontinental political discussions).

Unsuccessful jokes aside, it is tempting to image rewriting history. The Philadelphia Inquirer tried it a few weeks ago with a series of articles called “What if we had not invaded Iraq?” I was tempted to write my own piece called “What if we had not invaded Iraq the first time?” since the first Gulf War was the event that ignited al-Qaeda’s campaign against the United States. Arguably if we had addressed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait diplomatically instead of putting 500 US troops in Saudi Arabia, September 11 and its aftermath would never have happened. It could have been a good article, but with two kids, a sick mother, and a job, speculating on diplomatic roads not taken didn’t seem to be the best use of my time.

It’s also not that helpful to imagine the roads not taken in my own life, though I have been doing some of that lately. This semester I’m teaching a course on South African history, which I studied in graduate school sixteen years ago. Remembering facts I had forgotten, finding old papers I wrote back when I thought I might want to be a professional historian, hearing a few days ago that an old friend from the Peace Corps happened to meet an old friend from graduate school on a plane to Johannesburg have all led me back to the crossroad where I turned away from South Africa and academia. I don’t regret for a minute the life I chose, but I can’t help being curious: What would my life have been like if I had been in South Africa, rather than Maryland, when Mandela was released? Would I still have become a Quaker? Would I have ever found Tom or had Megan and Luke? You could make yourself crazy with such questions.

On the car ride home from school yesterday, Megan said out of the blue, “Thinking about what you’re going to be when you grow up is a total waste of time because it’s so far from now, you can’t really know.” Boy, I wish I had realized that when I was eight. I’ve wasted way too many hours imagining the future or reliving the past. As Luke observed, we can change the clocks, but we can’t really change the time. We’re always living in the present, so we might as well accept it.

Friday, September 23, 2005


At a committee meeting the other night I said, “I need help” with surprising emotion. Although I was speaking in relation to the work of the committee, I later realized that my plea for help went much deeper. My mother is slipping steadily, but slowly. There is no way to predict how much help she will need, when, or for how long, and I find that uncertainty stressful. In the meantime, I am spending way too much time on the Apartheid course I am teaching at the University of the Arts this fall. As a result, I’m only getting a few hours per week to write, less than I’ve had since Luke was in nursery school. When I have written, it’s been for the blog, which is fun, but different than working on a larger project, like a book. Now I’m uncertain if I should carve out time for my other writing, or relax my carving muscles and just focus on family and teaching. Trying to do too much makes me stressed, but giving up writing makes me cranky and fat.

When all these issues bubbled to the surface after the committee meeting, I realized I was due for some discernment. It’s been awhile since I’ve asked, “What am I being called to do now?” even though much of my writing is about the importance of asking this question. Somehow I’ve forgotten to squeeze it in between helping Megan with her homework and monitoring Luke’s piano practice. So Wednesday I spent most of the day alone. Instead of bringing my lap top to the coffee shop, I worked at home and then took a walk along the Wissahickon Creek in the afternoon. I didn’t have any epiphanies, no clear set of instructions from on High, but I did breathe a little deeper again and feel more in touch with my sadness about my mother, who now at 64 pounds, personifies the cliché “skin and bones.”

This morning I heard that a friend—another mother of two—just got hit by a car. She was on her bike and is now in the hospital with a broken pelvis and collar bone. It’s a reminder to take each day as it comes. Despite my desire to know how the next months will unfold, I can’t. I can’t and shouldn’t expect to. So instead of asking what I’m called to do and wanting a two-year plan made clear to me, I’m thinking I should ask the question one day at a time. This morning, I felt led to come back to the coffee shop where I write most of my blog posts. This afternoon I’ll visit my mom. After that, who knows.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


On Sunday I learned there’s a beautiful house for sale on one of my favorite streets in Philadelphia, and that started a whole chain of thought about whether we need a bigger house, whether now is a good time to buy (when our current house has tripled in value, but the prospective house’s neighborhood hasn’t gone up as much), or a bad time (because of my mother’s illness and my total lack of time).

My husband Tom wants to renovate our current house to be a model of renewable energy, which I’m all for, except that it doesn’t solve the problem of having enough space either in our house or in the back yard. In truth, I care more about the yard. I’ve put a lot of labor and impatiens into our tiny garden, but we rarely use it, partly because it is across the alley from our house. This odd arrangement (which is not that uncommon for Philadelphia rowhouses) means that if I send a kid to set the outdoor table, s/he could get hit by a car on the way. This concerns me. Luke, on the other hand, is concerned that if we move we might leave behind some of the Legos he has sprinkled around the house.

Aside from the alley, it comes down to this question: how much is enough? We have three bedrooms and one bath, more than most families on earth, more than I grew up with, and certainly more than the people from New Orleans who are currently crowded into shelters. And yet I look around and wonder where we’ll put my desk and all my books when the children outgrow sharing a room, as they’re bound to do in a culture where a brother and sister typically each have their own room. I wonder where I’ll put the furniture I’ll inevitably inherit from my mother, some of which belonged to my grandmother and would be hard to part with.

It’s not actually a problem of too little space, but a problem of too much stuff. With this in mind, I started rearranging the living room furniture yesterday morning, as Tom was getting ready for his first day at his new job. In the end I decided we should just get rid of the desk that collects all the clutter in the hope that piles of mail and train schedules won’t materialize somewhere else. I threw out a ragged rug, started a pile of books we could get rid of, and chucked the baskets of toys that had been in the living room into the basement, which is now flooded with toys that can’t be sump pumped away.

I wrote at the beginning of the summer about clearing out the basement, but I’m afraid we’ve rearranged more clutter than we’ve cleared. The main obstacle is Luke who sobbed when I threw the rug away and can hardly stand the thought of parting with his old, unused toys. I’m not sure what to do about this. Bribe him? Do it when he’s not around? Hold onto the stuff until he’s emotionally mature enough to be generous? Move to Botswana and live in a mud hut for a few years? (I confess I threaten this occasionally.)

I remember a passage from The Barn at the End of the World by Mary Rose O’Reilly, who describes herself as “a Quaker, Buddhist shepherd.” Mary Rose recalls driving with a friend and his son when the boy asked for a new toy. Mary Rose was a little disapproving when her friend obliged, wanting to teach her own children material simplicity and limits. But her friend explained that he wanted to teach his son abundance so the boy would grow up trusting that he would always have enough.

I remember that story when I feel I’m failing at simplicity. I also remember that we mostly teach by example, which is why I started collecting the books I haven’t read in twenty years to give away or sell. I still haven’t completely let go of the idea of buying a bigger house, but it’s clear that our family as a whole is not ready for that right now. Whether I need to let go of the idea altogether and commit to renovating our current house or just wait until “way opens” (to use Quaker jargon) isn’t clear yet, but I trust that it will become clear. Hopefully my basement will too.

Friday, September 02, 2005


This morning I began thinking of clichés to describe my recent mindset: “hanging on by a thread” and “at the end of my rope” came to mind. I fancied myself dangling from some psychological precipice, summoning all my might just to avoid falling into a rage because I can’t get time to write until the children go back to school in 120 hours, not that I’m counting.

Mostly the day was fine, not nearly as tragic as the clichés I had been rehearsing. More like treading water. Then, during an afternoon drive, Luke’s playdate taught him how to inhale buggers into the back of your nose so they can slide down your throat. “That way you can eat your buggers without tasting them,” explained Luke’s friend. (This is actually helpful advice since Luke currently eats his buggers the old-fashioned way, which annoys his sister and mortifies his mother.) Luke’s friend then advised him that when you feel a fart coming, you should run and try to sit on your sister.

With this type of conversation running in the backseat, I stopped to make a bank deposit for my mother at the drive through window. The checks flew up the tube, but nothing came back for an unusually long time, as the cars lined up behind me. I was too tired to get annoyed, so I zoned out, emptied my mind in a sort of accidental Zen way. And then what came into my relatively empty mind was a sudden feeling of compassion for the people of New Orleans, many of whom had to hold onto ropes literally to be rescued from their rooftops. My self-pity at not having time to write suddenly felt infantile.

This morning I had seen some footage of the desperate crowds searching for food and water. After street scenes full of African Americans, the report focused on a group of white tourists and three dogs who were sharing food and water on a rooftop. They were clearly terrified of the locals below and had barricaded the door. One woman sobbed that she just wanted to go home. (Being from Scotland, she still had a home to go to.) The report was sympathetic to the tourists’ plight, but in his closing remark the reporter noted, “And they don’t even realize that they’re better off than most people here.”

When I remembered that line in the afternoon, I felt humbled by my own whining and wondered how I would be doing after three or four days without water or food, like many of those stranded, with no way to find out if my loved ones were safe, with no home to return to. I wondered what I’d do if I had to choose between evacuating my children and leaving my mother alone. I wondered if I would barricade the door like the tourists, like most of the remaining white people, if the impression I’ve gathered from the news is accurate.

And then I started to wonder how my children would do and if my parenting style—which I hope teaches them to express their emotions and their creativity—would also prepare them for hardship. On our afternoon car ride home, both my children complained that the chips I had brought were stale. Later Megan got a paper cut, and you’d think she’d lost a finger.

Stories of my grandparents make it clear that they were much tougher than I am in their parenting. For example, when my mother learned that her father had died, she began crying, but her own mother reproached her: “Why are you crying? You had a good father. If your father had been a bum, then you’d have something to cry about.” That was their attitude about everything: deal with it. Things could be worse. I also remember the scene from the film Ray when, as a boy, Ray Charles was losing his sight, and his mother wouldn’t help him find something. She knew that a blind black boy was going to need to be tough to make it in this world, so she helped him by not helping him.

I tend to think that “toughening them up” is bad for children’s long term emotional health. I tend to think that listening to their feelings is important, even if the paper cut is too small to see. But looking at the pictures of New Orleans, I wonder if I should say, “Deal with it” to my children a bit more often. Between global warming and global terrorism, what are the chances that my children will have to face a major disaster at some point? Is it fair to assume that their lives will be as cushioned as mine has been so far? Most parents in most human societies have taught their children to survive. How privileged we are to spend so much energy teaching them to play piano.

For me, teaching my children to survive doesn’t mean teaching them how to lock themselves away with a loaded gun, like the white man on tonight’s evening news who said that it was “survival of the fittest” (apparently assuming that having a weapon and a standing house made him somehow more “fit” than his neighbors). For me, teaching survival means teaching my children to deal with adversity with patience instead of fear, with intelligence instead of panic. I don’t have a clue how to do this, except to take them camping in bad weather and try not to let them get too spoiled the rest of the time. It probably wouldn’t hurt to keep working on my own patience, to model “non-attachment” for them, to use the Buddhist term, which of course means I need to keep working on those things myself.

In the meantime, we can all work on openning our hearts to the people of New Orleans.

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