Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, November 25, 2005


I’ve tried to make sure my children don’t grow up with what I call “the Lincoln Memorial image of God.” We’ve talked about how God is not a man or a woman, and God is not white or black. This came up again the other night at dinner, and Luke responded, “Do you mean God is like Michael Jackson?”

I need all the laughs Luke provides these days since watching my mom decline is so sad and exhausting. She’s been talking about God as well, but her image of the Divine is not as funny as Luke’s.

For the past week my mom has been complaining that she doesn’t understand people who say that God talks to them since He never talks to her. She seems to be a bit hurt about this, like a girl who hasn’t been asked to the prom yet. Yesterday when I asked her what she’d want God to say to her, she answered, “I’ll pick you up tonight.”

She and I both have to work on letting go and waiting. I’ve been anxious this week about the fact that I haven’t had any time to write or exercise, and mom is still resisting hiring more help. I haven’t been able to find some important papers that she says she gave me, and I haven’t been able to relax about our up-in-the air Christmas plans. My own view of God is of one who can comfort us in such times. I guess I could use a divine message myself. In the meantime, I get to laugh every time that Michael Jackson Christmas carol comes on the radio.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Writing Moms

Anyone interested in exploring first-person writing about motherhood might be interested in what my friends Miriam Peskowitz and Andi Buchanan are up to. They got a nice article in the Philadelphia Inquirer the other day about their MotherTalk gathering. You can link to it from either of their blogs.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Flat Tire

Yesterday morning we were running late. Tom had to leave early for a meeting, so I was trying to herd the proverbial cats and make their lunch, and write an e-mail, and get dressed myself in time to catch a train to work. So of course it was the day Megan couldn’t find anything to wear, and Luke couldn’t stop himself from distracting her until I yelled at him, at which point he cried and called me a meanie. We finally got in the car at 8:00 which is pretty much the last minute we can leave and still make it to school before they start giving out tardy notes. So when the car finally started rolling and I heard a dull grinding sound, I tried to ignore it for several seconds. By the end of the block, however, I accepted we had a flat tire and pulled over.

Luke started crying: “Mamma, I’m scared! What’s going to happen?!” You’d think the car had burst into flames. I assured him that a flat tire was not dangerous and that we would just have to find another way to school. (My friend Miriam rescued us. Thank goodness I finally succumbed to a cell phone.) When I got home from class I changed the tire, which I admit took me awhile since I haven’t changed a tire in many years and had to check the owner’s manual to make sure I was putting the jack in the right spot. Still, it wasn’t too hard. But here’s the kicker: when Luke saw me after school he asked, “Is the tire fixed?” And when he heard I had changed it, he said, “You changed it yourself? Without Daddy’s help?” I’m not sure if his expression registered admiration or skepticism. When I put my hands on my hips indignantly, he laughed.

So today I’m thinking about gender stereotypes and wishing I had taught both the kids how to change a flat, even though neither of them will be getting the car keys any time soon. Still, it’s sooner than I realize. Last night Megan asked (with an expression of disgust) if she would really grow body hair someday. I said yes, but don’t worry, it won’t be for about ten more years. Then I realized that wasn’t true. She’s almost nine. In ten years she’ll probably be a freshman in college and, if she’s succumbed to peer pressure, will already be shaving her body hair. Yikes.

After they both went to bed, I turned on the TV for a minute and saw the preview of a show about an anorexic ten-year-old. That wasn’t the bed time relaxation I needed, so I turned off the anxiety box and lit my candle for the day. What came to mind was a strong urge to appreciate the age the children are right now, old enough to reason with but young enough to play around with. I thought of how silly they were yesterday after school, and what a flat tire I often am, easily irritated by their silliness, unable to roll with it. So when Luke climbed into my bed this morning and started pretending that his fingers were rats, I pretended to be a hungry snake while he giggled, wide-eyed. The rest of the morning went much smoother than yesterday so we were actually at school by 8:00.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Designer Life

The concept of the genetically engineered “designer baby” has been in the news lately. Somehow it came up at dinner, and I asked the kids what they thought of the idea that parents could choose what kind of qualities their children would have before they were born. Megan reacted immediately: “They shouldn’t be able to change their baby because their baby has something different from any other baby in the world. They should just be happy about what’s special about that baby.”

Pretty good answer for an eight-year-old. It made me think about what’s special about my own children and what I would have missed if I had been able to design a child that matched me like a fine accessory. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a daughter who takes twenty minutes to order chicken fingers in a restaurant, though the daughter I’ve got is teaching me patience. I wouldn’t have chosen a son who climbs every high stone wall he passes, though the son I’ve got is teaching me trust. I wouldn’t have chosen siblings who fight, but mediating their disputes is teaching me (slowly) to be more peaceful myself.

I believe that we’re meant to learn something from the experiences we’re given. Even if you don’t believe the “meant to” part, I’d argue we’re at least given the chance to learn something, whether we take it or not. But this is the sort of spiritual idea that can either be helpful or hurtful, depending on how it’s expressed. For example, it’s one thing for a sick person to say, “My illness was really a gift.” It’s another thing to tell a sick person they should be grateful for the learning opportunity they’ve received. I’ve heard this sort of preachiness from the semi-spiritual, and I don’t want to fall into it myself. Still, I can’t help wondering if my mother is learning anything about herself through these final weeks of her life, even though she's never been a very self-reflective person. If I were to suggest that there might be some kind of spiritual growth to be found in her suffering, I’m sure my mother would roll her eyes and say, “You can have it!” And who could blame her.

It’s much safer for me to ask what I’m meant to learn from my mother’s time of suffering, which has also been difficult for me, though obviously only indirectly. The quick answer is that I’m not sure what I’m learning, though there seems to be something at work on me.

In the past few weeks, at least three people have asked me, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” The most dramatic of these conversations happened on the train where I ran into a woman whom I had met once at a Quaker gathering. We remembered each other, and within seconds she had uncovered the central preoccupation of my life right now: my mother’s illness. After I reported what I’m doing to take care of myself, she suggested that I light a candle for one minute a day to help keep me in touch with my own inner Light (a Quaker term for the divine within). I said that was a good idea and that I could even do more than a minute a day. “No,” she said. “Just start with a minute. That focused practice can be very powerful.”

Of course I forgot to do it. More accurately, I remembered but just didn’t do it, until one day when I was walking past a local yoga center and decided to step into what used to be the bookstore. Now there is a shrine with Hindu symbols and an oil lamp burning. There was no one else in sight, and the space felt unusually quiet and peaceful, so I sat in front of the small flame and breathed. Then, after a few minutes, I got up and went on with my day, but with a little more focus.

I’d like to say I’ve remembered the candle every day since then, but the truth is I’ve skipped it most days, until this morning, when I woke up with a strong sense that I should take up this practice. I breathed deeply and remembered how tight my breathing was at the beginning of vacation this summer. I remembered how preoccupied my mind has been lately with my South Africa class, even during Quaker meeting for worship on Sunday. I remembered how for years I had half an hour of silence every morning and how, when Megan’s birth disrupted this practice, I told myself I’d get back to it when she was a little older. Well, now she’s older.

It’s not that I’m learning some surprising new insight about life and death, some pithy line I could sell to Hallmark. It’s just that I’m remembering the ancient bits of wisdom I’ve heard so many times: Show up. Be present. Breathe. Light a candle. Be grateful for the life I’ve been given, and see what it has to teach me.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Lice Link

After Megan got lice last spring, I wrote a tounge and cheek list called "Ten Things I've Learned About Head Lice" which is now available online. Hope you don't need this advice, but feel free to forward it to someone who does.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


I fear Megan is the kind of person who assumes that the glass is half empty. She also tends to believe that her brother’s glass is half full and responds with a high-pitched, “No fair!” to anything good that comes his way. Yesterday morning, when he sleepily rolled out of bed and staggered into my arms for a hug, Megan’s complaint was close behind. I explained that if she wanted a hug she could climb out of bed and get one. Instead she started the first argument of the day at 6:32 am.

One of my mantras is “Make a request, not a complaint.” For example, “I’m thirsty!” is a complaint. “May I please have a drink of water is a request.” The latter gets better results, in my experience, though it’s hard to remember that sometimes. Complaining is satisfactory in its own unhealthy way, kind of like eating too many potato chips. Slowly I think I’m training my kids to ask for what they want, though they still make the obligatory whiny complaint first. What’s harder is getting them past the petty sibling jealousy. Having grown up as an only child, I just don’t understand what’s so painful about seeing your bother get a hug when you can have as many hugs as you want. (“I don’t remember my mother ever hugging me,” I told them in frustration when they started demanding alternating hugs.)

Their relationship is a bit of a mystery to me, I must confess. Sometimes they are rivals, sometimes coconspirators or playmates. Sometimes I’m not sure what they’re up to, like the other day when Luke started asking if Santa Clause was real. I asked what he thought, and he said, “No, because we don’t have a chimney for Santa to come down. And if he came in through the door, he would track snow on the floor.” Forget that Santa is supposed to bring a gift to every kid in the whole world in one night in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer; it was the chimney that tipped Luke off.

I don’t believe in lying to children, but I don’t like to steal the magic either, so I’ve never told them about Santa one way or another. I just let them pick up the story from the culture and work it out for themselves. In Kindergarten Luke was telling other kids that Santa wasn’t real (to the disappointment of at least one mother), but now he seemed unsure. I didn’t know if he wanted confirmation of his theory or the chance to believe the myth again. Before I figured out what to say, however, Megan jumped in with other possible explanations for how Santa might have gotten in to our house. They had a very serious discussion of the possibilities, but Luke seemed unconvinced. When he was out of earshot, I asked, “Megan, do you believe in Santa, or do you just want Luke to believe?”

“I just want him to believe,” she responded. I was reminded how sophisticated she’s getting when, an hour after Luke asked about Santa, Megan asked, “Who is Dick Cheney? And what is the CIA?”

I guess the questions don’t get any easier as they get older.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


It’s Thursday, and I haven’t written all week because my mother has needed more help. It’s hard to watch her getting weaker while still clinging to her independence the way she clings to the refrigerator edge when walking in the kitchen. It’s also hard to know what to do when she is being stubborn about accepting more help. Last week she told me she was ready to hire a nurse’s aid to come at dinner. After I spent a long time on the phone with the agency recommended by the hospice social worker, set up a meeting, arranged my schedule, then rescheduled the meeting on my mom’s request, after all that, she decided she didn’t like their brochure and didn’t want to meet with them at all. I said I would look around at different agencies. After several more phone calls, I learned that the most frequently recommended agency was the one whose brochure mom didn’t like. Frankly, I think she just doesn’t like the idea of needing help.

Teaching a class on South Africa this term has got me reflecting on cultural differences, such as the various ways people look at help. For example, in Botswana (where I was in the Peace Corps) people never hesitated to ask for help. If a Motswana was cooking dinner and realized she was out of onions, she asked her neighbor for an onion. In contrast, most of the westerners I knew in Botswana would put on their sun hats and walk a mile in the scorching heat to the village store. When I finally caught on and started relying on my African neighbors, they were delighted. Asking for help was a way to invite relationship, and relationship is more highly valued in African culture than independence. Although there is no distinction in the Tswana language between borrowing and lending, it seemed the times I borrowed something from a neighbor did more to build our relationship than the times I lent something. Especially as a white person in southern Africa, I needed to be willing to make myself vulnerable in order to build relationships.

This is part of what makes me sad about my mom, the difference between us—the fact that I value relationships and emotions more than she does. Other than me, my husband, and our children, she doesn’t want friends of family to visit her, even though they will probably feel bad that they never got the chance to say goodbye. “Why bother?” is her answer to anything that seems sentimental to her.

In one way, I admire her strength and spunk. I doubt a body as weak as hers could keep going it alone if it didn’t have such a strong will driving it. On the other hand, I wish for her sake she could rest, relax, and stop working so hard. I wish she could trust. It’s also something I wish for my daughter, who I think is like my mom in certain ways.

Yesterday, when I got frustrated at my mother’s change of heart about the nurse’s aid, she said, “You just aren’t as patient with me as you are with the kids.” That’s probably true, though as my husband pointed out, one hopes one’s parent will act like a grown up, not a child. To me, the whole struggle brings up the difficult negotiations between mothers and daughters and the ways we disappoint each other.

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