Wednesday, September 03, 2014

tragedy, humility, sauerkraut


A raccoon is on my roof eating Asian pears. It is dark, and everyone is asleep—besides me and the raccoon. Every once and awhile a pear drops with a thud and then I hear a scamper or a dragging sound. In the morning there will be half-eaten Asian pears on the ground. It is also garbage night, which means that every hour or so a car pulls up in front of our house and someone pokes around in the bins at the curb. In Manhattan people did this all the time, pushing grocery carts heaped with black bags of cans and bottles, like a troupe of homeless Santa Clauses moving along the trash-bag piled sidewalk. I recognized the regulars. But I haven't gotten used to it here. Should I stick my head out the door and say hello, as a security measure of sorts? Or—more reasonably—let them delve in peace?

Tomorrow is the first day of school. A cute little school with cute kids and well-dressed parents, the teachers kind and friendly. Everyone speaking French, unsnobbishly. I will drive my children, with their lunchboxes packed with healthy food, in their well-chosen clothes, to their white-and-yellow private French school. And then I will get a latte. Meanwhile the world is in horrible, horrible shape. Iraq! Ukraine! Gaza! Ebola! For a few weeks I refused to register the events in Ferguson, Missouri because there was just no room for them in my head. Sorry, glass full of tragedy already. I am having a hard time reconciling my life with the world at large. I am fretting over the ingredients in the seaweed snack packs, the too-largeness of of kids' yogurts containers, what kinds of grasscloth roller shades to purchase; meanwhile people are being beheaded. Worse things. I suppose this has always been the case? I fret about my little problems while somewhere else people are fleeing for their lives, hiding their children in garbage cans.

I could just cry. Which I do to little end. What can I do? The atrocities of ISIS are beyond my circle of influence, though clearly not beyond my circle of anxiety. A few weeks ago our priest circulated a letter written by the metropolitan entitled A Pastoral Letter Concerning Violence and Extremism in the Middle East. I read the letter, which may be a first for me. OK, I didn't even read it, I skimmed it, but for long enough to find this:
If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility. If we are upset by the violence and destruction in the Middle East, let us direct our energy to bring peace to the conflicts within our own families. If we are horrified by images of human beings injuring and killing one another, let us offer an image of Christ by giving alms to those in need in our own neighborhood.
That's the spirit. I'm not pretending that I come anywhere near this in practice. I can think of a few ways I could have overcome anger in my heart and been more humble in the last few days, heck, the last few hours. But I can take sausage and sauerkraut to my Dad. I can read my children the same book for the fifteenth time. I can sit with my son when his anger overtakes him. I can let my daughter wear pink and purple together. I can be patient when Charles and I have yet another of those conversations where we seem to be talking entirely past each other about the same exact thing for five minutes. I can feed raccoons; I can stop fretting about trash-pickers, grasscloth shades, seaweed snacks. I can be grateful for the good life that's been given to me.

Because it is a good life. And of course, there are some things I can do:

ACRO Mosul Appeal
Samaritan's Purse

Thursday, July 17, 2014

this arrival

It will be a month, tomorrow. A month since we arrived in Portland, Oregon at the end of a long drive across the country. A truly lovely—spectacular even— nineteen-day cross-country road trip. And now we've been nearly a month in our new home.

At first it was all highlights. Having a back yard, sprinklers, grass. Having a dishwasher, a kitchen that could hold more than one person, two sets of stairs, oodles of empty space: a basement, a garage. Two walk-in closets. Antique stores and a farmers market a few blocks away.

But in no time I was bone-tired. Charles headed back to New York, I had two children, long days, and no nanny. The dryer was leaving long slim burns on all our sheets and clothes. We had no wi-fi, no table at which to eat, no blinds on the windows, no routine, lots of boxes to be unpacked and lists of things to buy, and a lawn that needed to be watered and mown. I suddenly needed to sleep. I got cranky, the five-year-old got cranky; I was impatient, the five-year-old began throwing tantrums. My mom and sister appeared in shifts with paint brushes and plants and watering cans and platters of food. They took care of the kids. I learned how to sort and put out the garbage. I had phone conversations with internet people. I interviewed sitters. I watered. I despaired of finding a sitter. I bought things. I returned things. I went to IKEA four times. I made piles by the door of things to be returned (the pile is still growing). This is now.

My father and sister came over for dinner this evening, we ate pizza at our new dining room table. The kids played in their rooms. When our guests left and the kids and Charles went to sleep, and I found myself doing laundry in the basement. Ironing dresses, hemming the cuffs on my son's new taekwondo pants. Maybe I can do this, with lots help of course.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

i am ready for that and weary of this


Tomorrow the movers come. Today Genevieve walked around our mostly-packed apartment and complained, "everything keeps disappearing." Disappearing into brown cardboard boxes that my mother has diligently continued to fill, despite the fact that I don't really want everything packed up. I dislike the transition, not knowing where the fingernail clippers are—or my phone or favorite sweater. I linger about the apartment, soaking in the space I love so much. Dismantling it perhaps a bit too slowly. Each day I've been taking photos from my bedroom window of the locust trees blooming above the Hudson, the Palisades peeking through the foliage. I will miss the trees and the river, the sunsets, and shadowy sunrises, the hawks and gulls. I will miss this little space full of light and peace, even as I won't miss the garbage-laden sidewalks, rushing pedestrians and honking cars, the tiresome culture of competition. 

I am looking forward to getting into our car on Saturday and driving west. Of course, our drive across the country is living in transition as well, but the decisions have mostly been made. Where to go, what to wear, where to sleep. There are many friends to see, and sights to show the children: the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the vast flatness of Kansas, the mountains in Colorado, the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods. And then the drive up 101 to Oregon. I am ready for that, and am I weary of this.

So I am excited (if not still a bit anxious) the movers are coming tomorrow morning. I am looking forward to the responsibility for all these possessions weighing on someone else's shoulders for awhile. And then just be the four of us, a suitcase, and a car. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

the hidden place that heals


Over and over by us torn in two,
the god is the hidden place that heals again.
We are sharp-edged, because we want to know,
but he is always scattered and serene.

—Rainer Maria Rilke
from The Sonnets to Orpheus, XVI
Translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell

•    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

It is Bright Wednesday, or at least the dying nub of Bright Wednesday, and I am finally sitting down to write. All day a cool, steady wind passed through the trees out my window. Each time I looked the sky and river changed color as if trying on different outfits: clouds once low and thin above choppy gray water, another moment green and heavy over gold glitter.

It was a productive day, both children (finally) back in school after a lingering spring break. And I finally began preparing for Genevieve's eye surgery for esotropia next week. By prepare I primarily mean prepare myself—I have already spent plenty of time preparing Genevieve. My habit is to focus on getting through all the unpleasantness and anxieties by clenching in and checking out during the difficult moments. I want to be done with it all and take off her bandages and have her eyes see straight. I want the healing well underway. Just like I want to be done with packing and saying goodbyes and sorting the keeps from the throw-aways. I want to plug through without engaging the uncertainties; pit-pat, all squared away. But I'm learning is that while this method might have worked well for me at one point in my life, and may still function OK at times, it certainly isn't helpful for my three-year-old. (And, surprise, surprise, it isn't great help to me either.)

Fear of engaging the present moment in favor of waiting for a more serene future moment is in essence living in fear. This literally means that my back is tense, my neck and shoulders clench, and my derriere is tucked in. I am trying to keep it all together by walking around stiff as a board. And what's more: no one can keep it all together anyway. Not even God. Isn't that what we learn during Holy Week? Today the Redeemer of the world is slapped on the face. Those lines from Holy Friday always catch in my heart. I have to ask myself, was Jesus walking around stiff as a board for thirty years, dreading his crucifixion? Wanting to get this being human thing over and done with? As I recall, he only allowed himself one night of that.

Over and over by us torn in two / the god is the hidden place that heals again. To be broken and feel my brokenness, to sit with uncertainty and accept it—this is part of the goal. But more importantly I am trying shift my focus away from the things I am dreading. To instead regard the whole situation with curiosity and gentleness. To remember that we are having this surgery now because we have an awesome doctor here, a surgeon who is an expert in this procedure. I can't be sure nothing will go wrong, but that small fear is only a small part of a much larger picture. The vast majority of things in my life, and in Geneveive's life, are going incredibly well. I know that hidden place that heals again, I've been there before. Now I just have to trust and live, breathe, through it. To be there—awake—for both of us.

{ p o e t r y  w e d n e s d a y }

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

this loss speaks no disaster

photo by Mark Guy
O N E   A R T
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •      •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •      •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •      

Maybe the best indicator of maturity is the ability to lose. To walk away, to give up: demands, cities, dreams, rivers, people. I first felt the sting of real loss in my late twenties, a true friend gone—or, more precisely, divorced. It was both disorienting and freeing. I remember clearly the huge weight of it sliding off of me, and there in that open space the pain of missing someone I knew well. After that I could imagine losing other things with more ease. Trying on loss like a hat: this one or that?

But perhaps maturity is the ability to know what is worth keeping. Loss may feel less disastrous over time, but acknowledging the things which cannot be lost may be central to maintaining identity. Nearly three years ago I walked back and forth along a wooded stretch on our street, talking on the phone and crying. Not understanding why I was crying, but knowing that my best friend was in some inexplicable danger and that I could not follow her where she was going. I was surprised that I felt the pain so keenly: my body welled with anger, fear and loss. But I also felt confident we could ride it out; that our friendship would prove resilient, that she was resilient. And I was right.

We are six weeks from our move to Portland, but in significant ways the loss of New York has already happened. Our dear friends moved away a week and a half ago, a grief for us all but particularly the children. I watch as my son processes the absence of his best friend. I remind myself to be patient through the breakdowns and fits of anger, this is his first time losing something important to him. He is also getting ready to lose the city he was born in, his beloved nanny, and all his friends. I, however, am ready to go; this loss speaks no disaster to me. I can imagine our life in Portland down to the smells and the color of the light. The Hudson River may be sublime, but now I see her as a stand-in for the Columbia. The tangley woods of New England, however quaint and storied, lack the deep, wet stillness of a Douglas Fir forest.

Leaving New York is not really a loss, but just the turning of a page. I grew into an adult in this state—I learned how to party, to grieve, to be independent, assertive and beautiful here; I learned how to negotiate, to shovel snow, to parent, and to parallel park here. There is not much chance I will really lose New York when we leave. I will miss her and I will not miss her. There is joy and there is sorrow, they mingle together—it is no disaster.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

in praise of doing nothing


Part of getting older (yes, yes: I have been forty for two months) is not being at the mercy of embarrassment. I'm rarely embarrassed these days. Of course I have my own secret stash of embarrassing stories, moments of total mortification (and my best friend keeps these in a little box in her mind just in case I forget). Maybe getting older means you can play it off more easily. You step away from the embarrassing thing you just said as if confused about where that might have come from. Or perhaps look the person next to you in the eye and burst out laughing. Tools that just didn't occur to me in my youth.

I have a vivid recollection of being severely embarrassed by not-so-embarrassing situations. Once in my twenties I was sitting in a circle of women—wives to be precise—while the group kvetched about the problems of married student life: parking, shopping, laundry. I piped in to bewail the inconsiderateness of people who put tennis shoes in the dryer, particularly late at night. Shoes in the dryer make such a racquet! My apartment was just down the hall from the laundry room! Afterwards it dawned on me that the person who had put the tennis shoes in the dryer was likely sitting in that circle of women. But instead of making a joke about it or walking away and not giving it another thought, I took the high road: I worried about it for days, weeks, months. Heat rising in my cheeks whenever the thought of my words came to me. Did it even occur to me that the person who did put tennis shoes in the dryer—if she was even there—felt embarrassed too? No, I was absorbed in my own deep mortification. Writing this now I cannot fathom being so embarrassed by such a silly thing.

But that said, there are lots of little things I find myself internally a bit embarrassed about. Take, for example, my capacity for doing nothing. I am a champion at sitting and staring at nothing and no one, except maybe the sky or tree shadows on the wall. I think one of the reasons my husband, when I first met him, made me so deeply uncomfortable, was that he never did this. His incessant productivity seemed to seal my suspicion that happy, successful people do not sit and do nothing for long stretches of time.

But now I admit: doing nothing is a productive habit of mine. I cherish doing nothing each morning after the children are at school. I don't talk on the phone, or check email. Sometimes I check Pinterest or Instagram on my iphone, but I don't read anything. On mornings when I attend an exercise class, I speed home to a good dose of nothing. Without any sheepishness or internal guilt dialogues or suspicions that here is proof-that-I'm-a-loser-after-all, I sit. For about an hour or more: nothing. Then I shower, pop some chocolate-covered espresso beans, and make my bed (and the kid's beds, and dishes, laundry, etc).

Doing nothing is how I process. I free my mind from the activities of the day so that I can remember what is important. Sometimes I go over my dreams, sometimes I rehearse conversations I need to have in my head. I think about my design projects in a lazy, undirected way. I pay attention to whatever might be bothering me but hasn't had the time to fully surface. Sometimes I think about my children and how I can better parent them. But nothing is planned, nothing must be thought or not thought about. It's just nothing time. And I need it every day, more—I realize now—than I need coffee. And, embarrassment? I don't have time for that.

Monday, March 17, 2014

old dogs; new tricks

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." I have found this line on my lips more than once in the last few months, spoken to a five-year-old who emphatically insists on his explanation of how things work. I don't know if he grasps what I am saying because the conversation usually takes a sudden turn to identity of Horatio and then Hamlet, and then a reminder that his stuffed tiger is named Horatio.

But the words keep coming to mind. And I suppose they rise to mind as much for me as for him. My Alexander Technique instructor lately has used the word plastique in our work, referring to the neuroplasticity of the brain, its ability to make new pathways in response to changes in behavior or environment. I don't want to think about neuroplasticity, however. I just want it to happen in some quiet way. So that one day I notice things have changed and I can say, Ah! My brain is still so malleable, and then, pleased, go about my day. (I can't imagine myself using the word plastique without sounding ridiculous.)

Which actually happened recently. I was sitting with a friend at lunch and was describing our plans to move to Portland and realized how smoothly things were going. Not with the trip itself, per se, but with us. Charles and I have hardly argued about anything, our ideas about homes and schools and jobs and neighborhoods not so much aligning as forming a conversation in which we know and accept our parts. Yes, I did wake up in the middle of the night worried we hadn't applied to enough schools—and feverishly applied to two more the next morning. And yes, Charles did think I was worrying too much, yet mostly kept a respectful distance. And yes, I did get snappish about some of the neighborhoods where Charles wanted to investigate homes. And I all but stopped listening to the discussions of mortgages, insurance, and property taxes—but not before grasping the outlines of the situation. I cannot be expected to understand all the financial maneuvers, but I have learned that I must continue to ask questions until I can translate the finance-speak into something I understand. Which is to say on the whole things have gone well. Which is to say I have changed—new paths can be learned. Nobody is claiming that it was easy or anything.

So what I'm telling myself is: yes. Old dogs, new tricks. On to the next challenge: my health. I hope to be more systematic and optimistic this time through. I bought a neon, hard-bound, pocket-sized journal with three words on the cover: find your happy. I know, sappy. But it will come in useful as I attempt to make some more changes.