Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Fun Mom

Yesterday on the playground after school, a girl in Luke’s First Grade came up to me and said, “Luke’s so silly. He’s like my personal entertainment.” A nearby girl concurred, and Luke responded by falling to the ground and rolling in the wood chips. The girls laughed, but I was annoyed because I was trying to get him off the playground and into the car. Later Megan told me that I have no sense of humor.

Her comment brought me back to last Sunday when we had a lovely dinner with a family from Tom’s church. The mother told me that when her three children are misbehaving she often tells them, “I want to be a fun mom. And I’m not getting to be a fun mom.” I reminded Megan of this line last night. “I want to be a fun mom, too,” I said, surprised to find tears coming to my eyes. “I don’t like nagging and yelling at people.” Before the words were even out of my mouth, Megan reached up and hugged me with a little “Oh Mom” smile.

She responds much better to my sadness than to my anger. For a moment she seemed genuinely sympathetic to my plight as the person who has to keep everyone else on schedule when they’re not necessarily cooperating. Then, knowing full well it was already bed time, she sucked each spoonful of vanilla ice cream as slowly as possible in an attempt to make a long ice cream point on the end of the spoon.

We’ve been hectic all week, what with Megan having an Irish dance performance and extra practice, Luke having his first baseball game, and Tom and I each having night time meetings. We’ve become the family I didn’t want us to be, and the result is that everyone is tired in the morning and moving slowly, except for me who’s rushing from child to child, reminding them to brush their teeth and such. It really does help when I remember to laugh. Monday morning I couldn’t help it when Luke started asking about the gift certificate he had received for his birthday. He wanted to spend it while Megan was at her Irish dance rehearsal, but he couldn’t get the words out of his mouth.

“Where’s my gift fortisicate?”
Tom laughed, “Your what?”
“My gist forsitercate?”
Luke started giggling.
“My gift fortistercate!”
He collapsed on the floor in laughter, still not dressed or ready for school, but that time I couldn’t help laughing.

Occasionally we laugh at Luke when he doesn’t want us to, and I have to beware of this because, despite his Jim Carey personality, he really is a very sensitive boy. Last night after dressing for his first baseball game, he came to me and said very quietly, “Mom, I’m a little worried about my first baseball game. What if I don’t catch the ball? Cause I’m not a very good catcher. Or what if I catch it, and I don’t know who to throw it to?” He looked like he might cry.

“It’s OK, Luke,” I said. “You know all the grown up baseball players, even the all stars we were talking about at dinner? None of them were very good catchers when they were seven. But you know how they got good?”

He shook his head.
“They just played. And eventually they got good.”
He smiled and went to find his glove.

As a mother, I sometimes feel like a seven-old-catcher, so afraid of dropping the ball, I forget to enjoy the game. I want to be a fun mom, too.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Conscious vs. Unconscious

I’m reading all this academic literature about how deluded white Americans are. What I’m finding most interesting are the studies that show a gap between what people say they believe and how they actually behave on tests that measure unconscious assumptions. In daily life, this manifests as the white woman who says she doesn’t have any stereotypes about black people, but who unconsciously grips her purse tighter when she passes a black man on the street, or the white employer who says he wants a diverse workplace, but whose body language toward a black job applicant is subtly less welcoming. According to psychologists, this is the most common type of white American. Those who are openly racist and those who are truly not racist are both minorities.

I’ve been thinking about what this type of unconsciousness means economically and politically for people of color, but also what it means spiritually for whites. Every author I’ve read so far points out that people tend to cling to their delusions, making up reasons for their behavior so they don’t have to face their unconscious motivations. It makes me wonder how often this applies to other areas of our lives, as well. What are the self delusions I cling to, and what harm do they cause?

For example, I’ve been dragging my heels about getting my mom’s name engraved on the headstone that already bears her maiden name. Decades ago, my grandmother purchased six plots together, and now they are all full (My grandparents, three of their children, and one son-in-law). But the headstone is still half empty because my cousin never got around to adding his parents’ names after they died, years ago. Before she died, my mother instructed me to have her sister and brother-in-law added to the headstone when her name was added (She made a point of wanting her brother-in-law to be listed last since he was not really part of the family). In the winter, when I was working on my mother’s affairs full time, the funeral director told me they usually don’t engrave headstones at the cemetery in winter; they wait until spring, so I put the chore off. Well, now my tulips are blooming, the clematis buds are poised to open, and the fern are unfurling. Still, every day I postpone calling the gravestone company. Is this simply laziness on my part, or evidence of some unconscious issue? Maybe engraving her name seems too permanent. Or maybe I have some unresolved anger, and procrastinating on the headstone is a relatively harmless way of acting passive aggressive. If that’s the case, I wonder what it means that my cousin still hasn’t added his father’s name after ten years.

We humans are so complicated, our true motivations often mysterious. I recently watched a friend muck up a situation because of some passive aggressive behavior that I’m pretty sure was unconscious. It reminds me that Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhists talk about mindfulness as a peace issue. As Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step,”We are afraid to bring into our conscious mind the feelings of pain that are buried in us, because they will make us suffer.” He suggests we take up practices like mindful breathing that help us to acknowledge our painful feelings and accept them. Only when we pay attention to our thoughts and actions can we stop ourselves from hurting others accidentally and sow seeds of peace instead.

In the situation with the friend, my first impulse was to figure out how to make him more self aware, just as my first impulse after reading the studies on racism was to go around educating other white people. But then there’s that old line in scripture about removing the plank from your own eye first, a line I suspect Buddhists would agree with. As Gandhi and others have pointed out, transforming ourselves and transforming the world go hand in hand.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Getting Older

Today is Luke’s birthday, finally. After weeks of anticipation, he is seven. His ambivalence about it continued right up to last night. After Megan asked me to buy her deodorant and sunscreen—so she can “feel older”—Luke observed, “Megan wants to get older, but I don’t.”

I can’t say I blame him. Two weeks ago I had a doctor’s visit and walked out with four referrals and two prescriptions. I don’t have anything tragic or life threatening, except aging, which come to think of it will eventually become life threatening. For the time being, aging just means a growing list of inconveniences: bad knees, a heel spur, heart burn, trouble losing weight, that sort of thing. I tried to explain to Luke that I like being in my forties now, even though I miss my thirty-year-old body, but he didn’t buy it. He wants all that life has to offer simultaneously: nursing in his mother’s arms, climbing on a jungle gym, and being a strong adult (preferably a jedi). It seems unfair to him that you have to give up one phase to take on another. He’s got a point.

Still, Luke’s complaints remind me of a piece I read recently by 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, where he explains why he increasingly values women over 40. Here are just a few of Rooney’s observations on “Why Older Chicks Rule:”
If a woman over 40 doesn’t want to watch the game, she doesn’t sit around whining about it. She does something she wants to do. And, it’s usually something more interesting.

A woman over 40 knows herself well enough to be assured in who she is, what she is, what she wants and from whom. Few women past the age of 40 give a hoot what you might think about her or what she’s doing.

Women over 40 are dignified. They seldom have a screaming match with you at the opera or in the middle of an expensive restaurant. Of course, if you deserve it, they won’t hesitate to shoot you, if they think they can get away with it.

You get the drift. I think he’s right that there is a freedom women feel as they age, even if they don’t actually shoot anyone. Ironically, I think Megan feels that freedom now, at nine, in a way she might not when she hits adolescence and actually needs deodorant. I look at my daughter, who seems to be growing up so fast, and at my son, who still longs to be a baby, and I want them to just appreciate where they are in life, to live the stage their in. It’s advice I could give myself, as well.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mixed Blessings

This morning I noticed Megan scratching her head at the breakfast table. Those of you who have dealt with head lice won’t judge me for sighing in relief when I heard that Luke had banged her in the head.

It’s one of those good-news-bad-news days. I finally finished our taxes last night, and the good news is that we’re getting money back. The bad news is that I absolutely can not find my W-2, which I had as of 10:30pm last night. My theory that it had fallen behind the desk was not born out this morning when I tore the whole desk and filing cabinet apart looking for it and only found mounds of dust. I finally stopped looking to bring the kids to school, but couldn’t find my keys, which are usually on the desk right by the front door. Fortunately Tom was still home and gave me his keys. Good thing I don’t really believe in ghosts or I’d blame my mother.

There are also lots of things interrupting my writing this week, and although many of them are good, I don’t feel I’ve recaptured the writing momentum I had before spring break. This may be partly because I’ve started doing more research than writing, testing the idea of writing a book about how children learn about race. So far I’m fascinated by the data and the debates. For example, one theory put forth in the 1950s that has echoed and been debated since is that there is a correlation between mothers with authoritarian parenting styles and children with ethnic or racial prejudice. One argument is that children learn prejudice from their parents, and authoritarian parents are just more likely than permissive parents to be racist. The other argument is that something about being repressed in the home makes children more likely to put down others outside of it. This view postulates that a child of an authoritarian mother might become racist, even if the mother herself was not racist. The article I read yesterday, however, couldn’t prove this theory because they couldn’t find enough non-racist authoritarian mothers to be statistically significant.

In any case, there seems to be ample evidence that many white children learn prejudice by the age of six, though they also quickly learn that publicly admitting their prejudice is not acceptable. This is part of what intrigues me about the topic: What happens to children, and to our society for that matter, when there is a gap between what children learn and what they are allowed to say? In many ways, it’s probably a gap between our conscious beliefs and our unconscious beliefs. This seems to raise many spiritual questions, though I’m not sure yet if this book will talk explicitly about spirituality.

Of course all the research, whatever the argument, seems to blame the mothers, but I guess that’s par for the course. We have tremendous power to influence our children’s lives. It can be a mixed blessing.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Taxing Time

I’m going to do my taxes today. Or at least I’ll start them. I’ve been meaning to all week. Usually I have them done by now, but there has been too much going on this year—Mom’s taxes, among other things.

One of the first questions I need to answer for my own taxes is whether or not to file as a business in 2005. I have taken deductions as a writer for at least a decade. But since the sale of my first book in 1998, most of my income has come from teaching and leading workshops. If you add up the cost of my printer ink and paper (not to mention all the other things you can deduct) my writing has been a money-losing proposition. According to the IRS, a business can lose money for only a certain number of years before you have to face the facts and admit that you don’t have a business; you have a “hobby.”

Did Emily Dickinson have a hobby? Did Vincent Van Gough? OK, so I’m taking this personally. Part of the problem is that I actually wracked up more than usual writing expenses last year. In addition to all the copies of my manuscript I made and mailed, I also bought a new lap top, being confident that I’d sell the book and be able to deduct the computer. But that was before my mom got sick and I took time off writing to care for her. Last year I was more of a caretaker than a business woman. On the other hand, it galls me to give up all those juicy tax deductions just when I really am ready to pursue the business end of my art. It brings up all the old issues about valuing my craft whether or not it makes money.

The other thing about tax time is that it coincides with Luke’s birthday, which is always a bit of a trial. It’s not just Luke’s impatient excitement and his endless speculation about what he’ll get. It’s not just the incessant prattling about who will come and what they’ll do and what kind of piñata we should make. There’s also the fear that runs below the excitement, Luke’s fear of getting older.

Every year since he was turning three, Luke has had a mini life crisis during the weeks before his birthday. The first time it was tied to the fact that he was still nursing once per day, and I had told him that his third birthday was the cut off. We made a big deal out of his first party in the hopes that it would assuage his despair. Instead he swung between excitement and dread, a pattern he’s repeated every year since.

This year, it started over spring break. Out of the blue, Luke started crying, saying he missed his friends Jacob and Jonathan from FGC, which was nine months ago. I was surprised that these feelings had come back so strongly, but I just held him until he calmed down. Over the next week he repeated the pattern, bursting into tears while I was cooking dinner or trying to get everyone to bed. Finally, I put it together with the timing and said, “You know Luke, I’m remembering that every year you seem to have a hard time for a few weeks before your birthday. Do you think that has anything to do with this?”

His lip trembled for a moment before he burst into tears again, nodding vigorously. “I don’t want to turn seven,” he wailed. “I miss being a baby.” This seems to be the crux of it, and there’s no convincing him that there are advantages to getting older. He is strangely unimpressed with the fact that he wasn’t allowed to watch Star Wars as a baby. The fact that he can now run and climb and read and do all kinds of things that he couldn’t do as a baby doesn’t matter. There’s something elemental in his crying. It seems to be about the fact that life changes, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

My mother used to always say that the two certainties in life are death and taxes. I’d add a third: change. All three have their challenges.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Softball started on Saturday. Since Luke will be seven in less than two weeks, he’s now in the older group of players. This apparently means they get more expensive uniforms and play something more like real games, as opposed to last year in the Instructional League, where kids hit the ball off a T, and parents hoped they ran in the right direction.

The parents in our neighborhood Instructional League are not too intense, at least not compared to stories you hear of crazy shouting sports parents. We have a friend who is a well respected soccer coach, and his wife says it’s all true, those stories about competitive parents screaming at the top of their lungs. Last year her husband the coach had to sit them down and have a talk.

There was a story about such parents this morning on our local NPR affiliate. Psychologist Dan Gottlieb was discussing the way parents project their insecurities onto their children, pushing them to win at all costs. The sport becomes so consuming, both in terms of time and money, that other activities have to be sacrificed. I’m aware in our own circle of how hard it is for families to have dinner together when children are being shuffled from activity to activity. Some elementary school teams have practice three or four times per week.

The radio piece pointed out that many kids ultimately quit team sports, saying that it is no longer fun, presumably because of the intensity of the competition. As a girl who loved playing hockey and lacrosse in high school, but who was never very good, I feel for those kids who just want to play. In fact with childhood obesity on the rise, there’s a strong case to be made for just letting them run around the field, even if they are running in the wrong direction.

What struck me about the radio piece this morning was the different values we have regarding competition. Dr. Gottlieb concluded by saying “average is not a four letter word,” but to many in our society, it is. Just the other day I was looking at a book by a conservative (sorry, can’t remember the name) about the ways liberals are screwing up the United States. One chapter was about sports teams that give out trophies to everyone, whether they win or not. The author was outraged that adults would reward participation, not just winning. To him, winning really was the most important thing.

I think it comes down to a question of what kind of society we want to create. Is being #1 what we value most? If so, then competition is what we should teach our children. But what if cooperation and compassion are our core values? Then let’s emphasize teamwork and give trophies to everyone.

The conservative writer was not wrong to pick trophies as a symbolic issue. Although it sounds like a stretch, I think the debate about trophies has global implications. Now that the United States is the only remaining Superpower, we have to rethink what being #1 means. Is holding onto our military and economic dominance the most important value of our country? If so, I fear we’re in for more wars over resources and regional dominance. But what if we value human teamwork and compassion? Then we’ll have to start paying attention to the two billion people on earth who live on less than two dollars per day, whether their economies are competitive or not. We’ll have to start paying attention to the twenty thousand people per day who die of hunger and poverty related problems. If every kid in softball deserves a trophy, doesn’t every kid on earth deserve a meal?

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