Archive for October, 2012

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A Tent for Two: Alllll Aboard.

October 29, 2012

 

My great-aunt Daphne was a lovely, dignified spirit.  My great-uncle Jack had a boisterous laugh and a twinkle in his eyes.  They float through my childhood memories as friendly apparitions – popping up in my recollections of family reunions, car trips, and holiday celebrations.

But what I really remember about Jack and Daphne was the behavior of my grandparents following his burial.  The summers are hot and arid in the Northeast corner of Oregon, and this is not a good combination when you are grieving and waiting.

waiting.

waiting for the train.

Waiting for Amtrak’s Empire Builder to come steaming across the country from the East.  Waiting, for over nine hours in a station that has no conductor, no ticket agent, no up-to-date information board, no walls.  It did have gnarled old church pew seats, a pair of old people well-versed in their contempt for one another, and me.

A young widow with three children, my Nana had re-married rather quickly.  But not heartlessly.  There had, at one time, been love.  And maybe she and Joe still did love one another.  But on that day, it didn’t show.

 What I witnessed started slowly, then built steam.  It wasn’t about anything big or tragic.  No one had gambled away a life’s savings.  No one had been having a 30-year affair.  They were irate over toothpaste tubes and toilet seats and coffee cup rings.  They were mad about the minutia of life.

I had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that once we boarded and were fed, cooled, sitting on cushions and surrounded by strangers, it would stop.  It did not.  I thought, if I offered to switch seats so Joe could sit across the aisle, it would stop.  It did not.  The volleys simply continued to be lobbed right over my head and I felt a bit like a chair umpire at a particularly vicious tennis match.

It was past midnight by the time the taxi from Portland’s Union Station dropped us at their front door.  I stepped inside only long enough to call my parents.  Despite the hour, despite being a fairly new driver, I was headed home.  Now.  I would be there before the clock struck three, but not by much.

On the lonely dark drive, swirling thoughts kept me company.  My Nana had a huge heart.  She laughed and danced and was the life of the party.  She was generous and kind.  Except to Joe.  What happened?  Perhaps they forgot that they once had been giddy in love.  Perhaps instead of practicing forgiveness, redemption or understanding, they defaulted to the track that took them to the place of the arguments, distrust and judgment.  And over time, the ruts got too deep.

Perhaps they forgot they had a choice.

But what if we remember?

Remember to breathe.  Remember to choose the slow, local train of compassion instead of the express to self-righteousville.  Remember that when we hear the ghostly whisper of ‘here we go again’, we in fact have a choice, every time, to not go there at all.

How do we remember?

The method doesn’t matter.  Use humor.  Try empathy.  Hit an internal mute button.  Blow your nose, go to the bathroom, get a drink.  Of water.  Do whatever it takes not to travel down the same line, but instead jump the tracks.

The La Grande Union Pacific Depot no longer services passenger trains.  I assume our sojourn on their benches was not the reason, but one never knows.  What I do know is that sometimes we forget to treat the person we most love with love.  So practice love.  And keep me posted.

 

 

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the sound of silence

October 25, 2012

This morning at breakfast Eleanor announced that she has seven super powers, and she wanted to list them for me.  The first was reading.  To be honest I missed whether or not she listed the next six because I was overwhelmed by the wash of relief.  A feeling that do-overs are possible, that Mulligans can make a difference.  Let me explain the back-story so you can appreciate the sense of parental redemption.  To get to it, though, we first have to visit the back-back story, the one that begins in my childhood.

Once Upon a Time, I was an Indian Princess.

No.  Seriously.  I was.  The reason that I bring this up (despite the unenlightened name and stereo-typed activities that took place back in the late 1970’s) is that there is one moment from that elementary school experience that has shaped me enduringly enough that it impacts my parenting all these years later.

In our YMCA father-daughter group we sat in circles.  We sang songs.  We made crafts.  We built pinewood derby cars.  We went camping.  The trip happened in the late spring. In the Pacific Northwest.  It’s not hard to imagine that the whole time was spent huddled in soaked tents watching the rain relentless pour from the skies.  I think it was the final straw for my Dad, turning our first year of Indian Princesses into our last.

But despite the rain, or rather, because of it, the camping trip was pivotal for me, too.  But in an entirely different way.  You see, at the end of our year together, the fathers handed out awards to each young princess.  Now it may well be that these awards were decided upon with haste and desperation, the leaders trying to come up with something, anything really, that even remotely matched each little girl.  All I know was that I was awarded ‘Best Camper in The Rain’.  And I’ve doggedly held on to that title ever since.  Somehow it made me feel plucky, spirited, adventurous, optimistic.  It was a label that stuck.  A label that became part of my self-definition.  There have been times over the years when, instead of groaning or whining or pouting I’ve said to myself ‘but I can do this!  Because I am the Best Camper in the Rain!’  Even if I were saying it half in jest, I was thinking of it none-the-less, and it changed my choices.  And it has made me incredibly aware of the labels we give others.  Especially our children.  So I was flabbergasted when I realized a few months ago I had made a labeling mistake.  It wasn’t the misuse of a moniker, but its inverse.  The implicit label left by silence.

Cole has always been a voracious reader.  Up to this point Eleanor, by contrast, has been indifferent to books.  She would listen or read, but she didn’t embrace it, there wasn’t a zest for it.  I didn’t push it, I didn’t force it.  I didn’t want to create a comparison between the two children in which she came up lacking.  Instead of focusing on the written word, we had emphasized math as her superpower.  She was MathGirl.  Don’t get me wrong, she isn’t doing calculus, trigonometry or even long division.  But as parents of a daughter we wanted to try and coat her in armor that protected her against the pervasive societal messages about girls’ abilities in math (and science and technology and engineering …but I digress).

But late this summer it finally dawned on me that maybe she didn’t see herself as a great reader, a lover of books, because we never gave her the feedback that she was.  Eleanor has no way to create a relative comparison to Cole – with a five-year age gap he is currently better at everything.  I became suspicious.  Is she not gravitating to reading because we aren’t reinforcing it the same way we did for Cole?

And so, a stealthy propaganda campaign began.  I thought it would take a herculean effort to change course.  I was wrong again.  It only took one small moment.  In the first week of school, as she sat reading a new library book, I quietly whispered  ‘Eleanor.  Look!  Look at the back cover of your book – it says this is for readers ages 8-11.’  Then I leaned over conspiratorially and continued ‘Do you know what that means?’ Her eyes lit up, the grin from her six year-old cheeks reached up to her ears as she shouted  ‘I am Reading Girl!’

The subtle alchemy of parenting is sometimes more potent than we imagine.  For Eleanor, books have become a source of magic.  Maybe it’s coincidental, maybe it’s developmental, maybe it’s more.  There is a fine line to be walked.  We don’t want to Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah every moment of our child’s life, never allowing the space for them to grow their inner voice.  Conversely, we need to be aware that when we are silent we are perhaps muting their potential.  There is a gentle middle ground to inhabit when we come into awareness.  What messages are we sending?  Which labels are being received?

Eleanor has seven super powers.  One of them is reading.  As for the other six?  I’ll keep you posted.

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A Tent for Two

October 18, 2012

There is a French bakery in my tiny little town called The Bread Peddler.  It is amazing and delicious and I swear it has the best almond croissants this side of the 2 degrees east longitude center of Paris.  This fall my friend Lisa and I have begun a delightful tradition of meeting once a month for breakfast.  (we’ve met twice now.  Doesn’t that count as tradition?)  Last month she asked if I was going to start writing about couples.  Relationships.  Partners.  I said sure…And I’ve been mulling it ever since.  Tuesday we met again, and while sitting at ‘our’ table a few minutes before she arrived, I remembered my promise.

And so I introduce to you ‘A Tent For Two’.  Yes, yes, this whole thing is getting ungainly.  I need to organize regular blog posts / indigo-orange / two martini lunches (that’s what I am going to call the irreverent ones, I think) / a tent for two in some reasonable way.  I don’t know yet what that way will be.  We’ll get there.  Or, conversely, if you are incredibly organized and have time on your hands, please, send me a suggestion or two.  Or eight.  Or come help me sort out my attic storage.

A Tent for Two will be the place for reflections on couple-dom.  Kids or no kids; dogs or cats or exotic pets; married or cohabitating; gay or lesbian or straight; young or old; in friendship or romance; currently with or currently without someone —  it does not matter.  (although, I must admit, I am partial to the dog people).

Why a Tent for Two?  Because it calls to mind the image of a simple space, a simple place.  Where the excesses are stripped away and it is just us and our beloved.   …And a couple of pairs of stinky socks, and well-worn hiking boots.  And a warm down parka.  And possibly a rain tarp.  And, ok, whatever else is essential to you.  But when we are in a tent the monochromatic fabric creates an uninteresting background, so our focus is on the foreground.  On the person sitting next to us.  In a tent you can hear their breathing, count the lines of laughter at their eyes or see a brow furrowed in thought.  In a tent there is only one room.  You have to be with the one you love.  And a tent is surrounded by open space.  Whether you’d pick mountains or meadows, deserts or city parks, the outside space is one of your choosing.  And so, Tent for Two will have more questions than answers.  More openings than endings.

Today’s Tent for Two is inspired by my interactions with my daughter.  (see?  Keeping all of these categories separate is going to be a nightmare.)  At age six and a half, Eleanor is sure of herself and her ideas.  She is confident in expressing them.  And sometimes, sometimes her tone of voice when she says “Mom, you are embarrassing me” or “Mom, you are stressing me out” or “Mom, quit telling me what to do!” is not, shall we say, full of delight.  No, her tone is harsh and cold and even contemptuous.  Yet I am very willing to say to her “Darling daughter that I love, your tone of voice hurts my feelings.”  I don’t even hesitate to help her understand that the method is just as important as the message.  But I don’t think I’ve ever said that to my husband.  Or any other adult.  And while I am sure that I think of it as helping her learn and grow, it is also true that I am not threatened by acknowledging my small flesh wound.  So why am I hesitant, even unwilling, to expose that vulnerability to a beloved?

Being with the one we love, truly, fully being with them, is scary.  Inviting them into our inner living room means letting down barriers and releasing floodgates and all sorts of mixed metaphors around being completely open.

So as your day unfolds, look for the places of self-censorship.  What do you stop yourself from saying?  Why?  Would it help your partner to understand you if you said it aloud?  (of course with a gentle tone of voice…)  What do you think about the possible journey of A Tent For Two?  Let me know.  Keep me posted.

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My Cyndi Lauper Moment

October 11, 2012

[Remember a while back I mentioned there would be some posts with a lighter tone?  A slightly irreverent bent?  A more casual approach?  Well, instead of prefacing each one that way, I’ve decided on a name for them.  But that is for another post.  For now, here’s another sample of the name-yet-to-be-revealed posts.]

I grew up in the 70’s listening to the LP of Free To Be You and Me.  I loved every track on the record.  Ok- full disclosure- nearly every track.  ‘Girl Land’, I have to admit, creeped me out.  Still does to this day.  Interestingly, every woman with whom I attended Wellesley also loved that record.  It could be a coincidence.  It could be that every little girl in America listened to it.  Or it could be something more statistically significant about the environs of childhood and our proclivity to choose an all women’s college.  But I digress.  Back to FTBY&M.  My most favorite track was the story of Atalanta.  I think I need to write about that.  Yet another post.  But the one I’m finally meandering my way to mentioning was the one about the babies called ‘boy meets girl’.  You know, just after they are born and the stereotypes of what boys/girls men/women like and are like.  Then there is the great diaper reveal and things are not what they seemed.  The babies and their true identities are exposed for all to see.

This morning I am feeling exposed.

Because the thing about life lessons is that they sneak up on you and pounce with no warning.  Could they stand at a polite distance, shift their feet, fiddle with their keys, discreetly clear their throats?  Yes, but I guess then we wouldn’t pay as much attention.  Or, rather, our attention wouldn’t be fully grabbed and forcibly focused in quite the same way.  And they never arrive clearly labeled.  What’s up with that?  No blinking neon saying ‘Now you need to learn forgiveness’.  Or gratitude.  Or self-reliance.  Or whatever skill, characteristic or trait the Universe thinks it is time for you to figure out.

Sigh.

Mine arrived yesterday via a middle school exercise titled ‘Revealing Your True Colors’ (cue Ms. Lauper).  It was the copy of a photocopy of a mimeograph originally copyrighted in 1990.  That, my friends, is a full decade before the current crop of middle-schoolers was even born.  The language is simple, straightforward.  The process is slightly repetitive, all the better to actually catch a middle school personality in a rare moment of clarity.  No matter.  It still kicked me in the teeth.

Here’s the gist.  There were four steps to the process, but our story ends after step two.*  Apparently, you get the point a little faster as an adult.  Or maybe slower, since clearly I didn’t figure this out in middle school when, apparently, I should have.

Step One.  Visualize Yourself.  Put the following colors in order of preference:  orange, green, blue, gold.  Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.  Blue, green, gold, orange.  (for the record, the words you then learn that are associated with each one:  blue = harmonious, green = curious, gold = responsible, orange = adventurous.  Yes, yes, you can see that orange is appropriately the last on my list.  By the end it was revealed that my True Color order was blue, gold, green, orange…)

Step Two:  Read About Yourself.  Really?  What is a 4”x6” piece of paper with words in font size 18 actually going to reveal to me that I don’t already know?  The top third of the page says “I am warm, compassionate, communicative, feeling.  I want to find ways to make my life count”.  Yup, yup.  That’s me alright.  No surprises.  Then there is a section beginning “at school” followed by “with friends and family”.  Yes, yes, ouch, and yes.  All true.  All things I know to be self-evident.  We are now down to the final third of the page.  Given the large print, there is only room for 3 lines.  That’s okay, because you don’t need a lot of space to land a direct hit.  The nice part?  “I am extremely imaginative” the true part? “I respond to encouragement rather than to competition” (thus my hate/love relationship with playing games of any sort).  And now, the fatal blow.  “I react with great sensitivity to discord or rejection”.  I can hear your silence.  I can see you rolling your eyes.  I can watch the thought bubble pop up above your head.  Some who know me are saying ‘DUH’.  Others are saying ‘well, it might take her a moment, but she comes around and sees the value’.  Both are true.  But the word that actually caught me in this was great.  I knew I was sensitive.  But greatly sensitive?  Beyond regularly sensitive?  Huh.  Hadn’t thought about it that way.

Eleanor has a greatly sensitive nose.  She smells things those of us who are mere mortals cannot begin to detect.  It is, in many ways, the primary way she interprets the world.  This is the girl who will pick up a new shirt, put it to her nose, inhale, and say ‘Oh!  A shirt from Target!’.  Really.  Truly.  Accurate 100% of the time.

Cole has a greatly sensitive response to emotional undercurrents.  His behavior is a barometer of family stress.  When he was little time-outs were a disaster.  There was too much happening for him emotionally.  Time-outs amped everything out to the stratosphere instead of providing a space to calm down.  We had to abandon the technique- it did the opposite of its intended purpose.

I, apparently, am greatly sensitive.  And with just a slight bit of introspection, I can tell you that I am especially greatly sensitive to words.  Give me the smaller piece of cake?  No big deal.  Spend one less hour with me than someone else?  It happens.  But words are the way that I interpret the world.  Want to butter me up?  Send a card with a great quote.  Want to have me swoon with joy?  Give me a book.  Want to win my heart forever?  Write me love poetry.  Words are my language.

And this is all well and good until, well, it isn’t.  Our strengths are our challenges.  Our powers are our liabilities.  And when I hear the words of others, I listen to them with great exquisiteness.  The problem is, they most likely didn’t intend it.

When we lived in Boulder, Cole was a toddler obsessed with big, yellow construction equipment.  We would pack up and walk downtown to a city block that was being newly constructed from the ground up.  There were cranes and dump trucks and excavators and backhoes.  Or was it backhoes and excavators?  Because, really, I mixed them up on a regular basis.  I was interested in them for Cole’s sake, but I didn’t catalog the differences and store them in my brain because they weren’t meaningful to me.  But Cole knew the difference.  Because to him, it mattered.  Greatly.

All of this to say I am overly sensitive to words.  I am hearing a difference between chestnut, hazel, chocolate-colored, coffee-colored, cocoa-colored, nut-brown, brunette, sepia, mahogany, umber, and burnt sienna that may or may not be intended.  Sometimes brown is simply brown.  And now that I see it, I need to ask.  I may not like the answer (because I am greatly sensitive to discord), but I need to initiate the conversation to find out.  But first, I need to issue an apology.  If I have incorrectly heard or misinterpreted your words, or found exactness when the intent was the gist, I am sorry.  I am truly, completely, greatly sorry.  I will practice listening for gestalt.  I will try.  Let me know how I’m doing.  Will you keep me posted?

* If your primary color is Green, and the curiosity is killing you, send me a message and I’ll send along the True Colors in its entirety.  To all the other Blues out there.  Word.  I know your pain.  To the Golds.  We are simpatico.  To the Oranges.  Dude.  We live on different planets.  But I’d love to vacation there sometime.

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indigo-orange: magic

October 10, 2012

‘Words are…our most inexhaustible source of magic’

~Albus Dumbledore

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