Imperfect Serenity

Atom Site Feed

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wonderful Life

Sunday on our way to Quaker meeting for worship, my eight-year-old son began talking about reincarnation and all the different things we could come back as. His imagination had been sparked by the Indian festival we had been to the day before, which included large posters illustrating the concept of karma. After some speculation on whether it would be good to be an animal and how long a soul had to wait to come back again, Luke said that what he really wanted to do was live this life over. “I’d like to live, and then when I get near the end of my life, take a time machine back to the beginning and live my life over again. I could do it again and again.” I accused him of trying to be immortal, like Voldemort in Harry Potter. “No,” he said, he would be OK with dying eventually. “I just want to try making different choices and see how they work out.”

I was still thinking about Luke’s time-machine idea as I settled into silent worship. What choices would I revisit, I wondered. Would it be the obvious turning points that made a difference, like choice of college or major, or the little things, like in the movie Sliding Doors where missing a train changes a woman’s life? And speaking of movies, can we really evaluate our own lives objectively? In It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey needs an angel to show him how his choices have affected other people, something he could not see on his own. If I were to use a time-machine to test different choices, how could I be sure which outcomes were the best, not just for me, but in the broader sense? Would Martin Luther King, Jr. have chosen the path he did if he had been given the chance to compare it’s ending to a nice quiet pastor’s life?

This line of thinking brought me pretty quickly to the conclusion that I didn’t want to redo any of my choices. I’ve had a sense of God being at work in many of my decisions, even during the times when I wasn’t paying much attention to God. There seems to be something fundamental to my faith about trusting that I’m on the path I’m meant to be on, even if I wander into the woods every once in awhile. I also believe that thinking about other paths too much distracts us from appreciating the view from the path we are on. This was confirmed by an NPR story I heard once that said that people who spend too much time looking at too many options tend to be more dissatisfied after they’ve made a choice because they are still thinking about the other options, whereas people who just make a choice and go with it tend to be more satisfied.

Somewhere during these musings someone in our meeting stood up and gave a message about how God purifies us the way a silversmith purifies silver. (For those unfamiliar with unprogrammed Quaker meeting, we gather in silence to listen for God. If someone feels they have been given a message that they are meant to share, they can stand and speak.) The message, which was similar to this story I just came across, made me think about those times in our lives we might be tempted to avoid but which actually forge us into better people. It confirmed my sense that getting to redo our choices wouldn’t necessarily be a gift.

When I asked Luke if there were any choices he has made so far that he’d like to try changing, he responded that it would be interesting to grow up in a different family, like one with a brother instead of a sister. Later when he and his sister had a fight in the parking lot after meeting, I imagined sibling rivalry as one of the fires God puts us through. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but I have to trust that learning to deal with it is making us all better people.

(For those who remember that I promised not to embarrass my children, I did get their permission for this one.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Be Good

On Sunday a member of my Quaker meeting gave me an article on blogs about motherhood, which made me realize that I have not blogged on that topic for quite awhile. Partly it is the fact that my children have asked me to stop writing embarrassing things about them, thus taking away my best material. But even if they had not asked, the dilemmas of pre-teens are not for public dissemination (at least not until my daughter gets her own page on Facebook, or something), so I’d like to model discretion. Another reason is that motherhood has gradually gotten easier, mostly, so I have not needed the writing therapy so much. I did snap at Luke Wednesday afternoon when he abandoned his homework to sing the Macarena while kicking the metal dog bowl, but most nights we are all generally well behaved.

It’s a tricky business, how we socialize children. Just now, as I was waiting in line at a coffee shop, wondering what I might say about motherhood, I overheard a mother speaking to her daughter, whom I would guess was about one. The girl made a loud exclamation, and her mother said, “Be good. People are watching.” I flinched. My sympathy for all mothers of young children and my memories of my own missteps kept me from asking the questions that popped to mind: “Is there something ‘bad’ about expressing emotion? Does she only need to be ‘good’ when people are watching? Do you live your life in fear of what people will think of you, and are you sure you want to pass that on to your daughter?” Of course I was sympathetic to what she was consciously trying to do. We should teach our children not to scream in coffee shops and to be considerate of other people. It’s all the unconscious junk we pass along in the way we word things that makes me nervous. Just as I was remembering another conversation I recently overheard about how adults treat female and male babies differently, I heard the mother say, “Be a nice girl,” a phrase with connotations that made me flinch again.

Recently my daughter observed that being an adult seemed harder than being a kid. I felt bad that I’ve given her that impression, probably by snapping when people sing the Macarena and kick the dog bowl instead of doing their homework. I admitted that there is a lot more to think about when you are an adult—Are the kids keeping up on their homework? What are we going to have for dinner, especially now that my daughter wants to be a vegetarian but won’t eat beans? What sort of sexist or other messages am I passing on unconsciously? It is enough to wear a person out—but on the other hand, I told her, there are some ways in which being an adult is easier. “For example,” I said, “now that I’m forty-five, I really don’t care if everybody likes me or what they think of my clothes. I know who my friends are, and I don’t worry about every one else.” She took a deep breath and smiled, “Yeah, that would be nice.” And then she added, “You really don’t care how you look.” Thanks for noticing, Honey.

Another mother recently told me that her seventh grade daughter watches her like a hawk these days, asking, “Why did you do that?” to her every move. In some ways it is sweet and touching, this need girls have to learn to be women from their mothers. In another way it is sobering, the weight of it. It’s like living with a little Oversight Committee, designed to challenge you and keep you honest, one that feels entitled to follow you into the bathroom. “Be good,” a voice says in my head. “People are watching.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Several years ago I read a book called The Path: Writing Your Mission Statement for Work and For Life. Author Laurie Beth Jones argues that we will be more likely to fulfill our life’s purpose if we can articulate what it is, so she takes the reader through a series of exercises to help draft a mission statement for life. Though I was somewhat skeptical of this approach when I did it, I have found that it has had a lasting impact. Last night I suddenly realized that I’m living my mission statement in ways I hadn’t realized before.

It feels corny putting it in print, but the purpose I drafted when I was pregnant with Luke was to “help people to trust, God, themselves, and other people.” It was broad because Jones said our purpose should encompass our personal lives and well as our paid and volunteer work. Given that my professional work includes writing and teaching, on a variety of topics, and my volunteer work ranges from Quaker committees to political action, at first it seemed a stretch to find something that could cover all those things as well as motherhood. But then the word “trust” became clear, and I realized that trusting and helping others trust is a key part of what I think my life is about.

From time to time remembering my mission has helped me know whether to say yes or no to a request that has come my way. There are many things you can fit under the umbrella of a trust-building mission—working for a candidate who opposes the politics of fear, stroking the hair of a child who has had a nightmare, writing stories of courage—but not everything does. I’m gradually getting better at weeding out the things that are not my job. Still, I often feel I get sucked into things without a lot of discernment simply because I say yes too quickly. What was exciting last night was the realization, while talking to friends, that some of the volunteer work I am doing is clearly part of this trust-building mission, even though I had not seen it that way before. It gave a sense of wholeness and integration to a life that often seems like one of those acts where the juggler is rotating a knife, a bowling ball, and a flaming stick. It’s good to feel the interconnections.

So I’m thinking this idea of writing a mission statement is something I want to encourage others to try, if it speaks to them. Of course the first step will be trusting that your life has a purpose and trusting your own ability to figure out what it is.

Who Links Here