Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’

What an (awful, terrible, rotten) mother I am

August 18th, 2008    -    22 Comments


“Mom, are you ever going to grow your hair out again?” she asks for the trillionth time, while I am sitting at the kitchen table trimming her nails for the billionth time. This after one of those long, full exhausting Sundays of overdue chores that quite nearly empties me out. (Quite nearly.)

“No,” I snip in reply. (I am a Buddhist priest and what length of hair I still have tells you everything about the ego I’ve yet to let go.)

She looks away and says nothing, and I feel the temperature climb up my spine to a rolling boil.

“Why would I?” I erupt. “I’m just a slave around here!” (Did I say that? Or was it my mother, or her mother, or the ancient mother of all mothers?)

It’s quiet as I finish up her hands and feet, then she skips up the hallway to her room.

“Here, I want you to have this,” she says when she returns, holding out a folded bill. It’s $10 from her savings.

I shake my head in remorse.

“It’s for helping us,” and here she pauses to find the words, “to live.”

(Leaving me to repay the favor.)

A time and place for unicorns

August 13th, 2008    -    19 Comments

“The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison.” –The Unicorn and the Lake

That my daughter, for all her outsized dreams, could be satisfied with only a bedspread for this birthday is something I regard as fabulous. One look and you might not share my opinion of it, but I am a selfless saint, or so it helps we sinners to encourage ourselves daily.

Yesterday I asked her if she wanted to change out her old quilt for the new one, and we did. Off came the patchwork spread that had cushioned her across that first fearsome transition to the big bed. Fadeworn and soft. Off too the menagerie of stuffed animals, the easier for her to swoon at the sight of her new beloved.

“And what about Fay?” I asked. Fay is a three-foot-long stuffed pink unicorn, perhaps the most fabulous gift ever bestowed on a four-year-old, as big as she was when an infatuated little friend named Noah hauled it in to the birthday party five years ago. I was faintly disturbed by its sheer heft, the volume of space it dislocated on the bed. But Georgia adored it and she named it herself: Fay, which was my mother’s middle name, although my mother had died even before Georgia turned two. Did she understand?

“What about Fay?” I’d asked. And she proceeded to tell me a new and fabulous story, of how Fay should now be on the floor, behind the chair, by the turtle tank, for when Daddy needed to kneel down, and protect his knees, and such like that, her tone earnest and good.

I understood.

I understood completely.

There is a time and place for unicorns named Fay, that mysteriously gentle phantasm, the transition between first and last, then and now, hello and goodbye.

I miss my baby. I miss my mommy too.

I release them both into the wild.

We don’t ever have anybody spend the night

June 26th, 2008    -    11 Comments


I lapped up the Vanity Fair piece on Angelina Jolie a week or so ago on a beach read, aroused by all the things she tells us she would do and never do, all the kisses she would never tell, how she lives a life of such abundant self selection, the names, the nationalities, the dominions, the husbands and the other women’s husbands, the ideologies and armbands, the provocations, the missions, the flights, the media chase and the white-knuckle escapes that always trigger the chase. Malibu, France, Prague, New Orleans and bitty Smithville, Texas, the whole world falls in full occupation to the nannies and tutors, the Gulfstream refugees that camp and decamp, the multicultural staff, the Vietnamese nanny, and the sweet Congolese Belgian lady and the girl from the States who is so good at art programs, the bodyguarded birthday parties and black Mercedes Happy Meals, the appetites, the sex, the lips, the body art, the tease always the tease of radical normal, the normal so normal that it proves the high-priced architecture, the elaborate construction and reconstruction, the punch list and the circus foreman who keeps the colossus standing, and then she says something about where she draws the line on hired help, something that echoes back a whole week later to this morning, while I’m chopping fruit and feeding the dog in my stinky sweats and I hear her say,

“We don’t ever have anybody spend the night.”

The school for citizens has created one more

June 25th, 2008    -    13 Comments


This is where our short saga of school choice ends but of course it hasn’t ended. This is where the bus stops, but it hasn’t really stopped. This is America, where we are each equally endowed with the audacity to keep going – to build a country and then rebuild it again. This is the conclusion to my essay from “The Maternal is Political”, which is available for personal inscription and indelible gratitude (for coming out on a lonely Saturday night) right here.

The night my husband and I made our school choice, it wasn’t even a choice. We looked at the letters from the fine private schools inviting our daughter inside. We knew their curriculum was excellent, but it no longer seemed good enough. We knew what they offered was valuable, but it no longer seemed worth it. Still smarting from our disillusionment with our own government, we resolved to live, really live, the values that were no longer so self-evident. We would save our money and invest our daughter in democracy. The bus, after all, was hers.

We would need to be attentive and involved, but we would be doing that no matter where she went to school. We would need to enrich her education with extras, but this way, we still had enough in every paycheck to afford them. We would need to trust people of all stripes and believe in the ability of each person to reach the stars.

We would need to be brave, but we could: We were born in the home of the brave.

On the first day of kindergarten, my daughter’s teacher stood before an array of beautiful faces. She spoke loudly to reach the pack of teary parents spectating at the back of the room.

“Our job is to create citizens,” she declared, and turned to face the flag.

That morning, I placed my hand over my heart and spoke the old pledge with newfound allegiance. The school for citizens had created one more.

* * *

Saturday, June 28, 5 p.m.
Vroman’s Bookstore
695 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena
Reading and signing with Mona Gable, Gayle Brandeis, Shari MacDonald Strong and me.

Drive far, come early, sit close and laugh often.
And if not, at least listen to me tell you again why motherhood is your writing practice.

The wheels of the bus

June 23rd, 2008    -    16 Comments


Yes, I still want you to listen to the podcast on motherhood and writing. But in the meantime, here is one more installment of my essay entitled “My Bus” from the new anthology, “The Maternal is Political.” I’ll be joining a trio of writers more accomplished than me at a reading and signing of the book this Saturday at 5 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Here’s how to find the first and second excerpts of the essay online.

It is understandable that in our colossal engine of American enterprise, every aspect of life has been reduced to a sales transaction. Everything is a product, every product is a brand, and every brand is a shiny bauble of marketing assembled by campaigners more clever than we.

So it was uncomfortably obvious to us, while my husband and I toured private schools, that we were the customers, and we were there to be sold something. We were being sold an educational philosophy. We were being sold a community. We were being sold social values. We were being sold security. We were being sold success. We were being sold a different kind of world, fabricated out of kids who looked alike and parents who thought alike. We were being sold on the most ambitious and fearful part of ourselves. It seemed phony and even un-American.

Of course, it wasn’t un-American in the least. It was the dark and corruptible soul of America. We whispered to one another as we paraded the pristine hallways, “Where are the schools like the ones we went to?” We might as well have been asking, “Where is the country like the one we grew up in?”

In our newly cynical view, all the assurances of product excellence and consumer protection seemed disingenuous when applied to education. We were aimless and unconvinced as the decision deadline approached.

Then our daughter took the wheel.

After three years of schlepping 16 miles roundtrip to a fancy preschool, pushing on even farther to the rarely accomplished playdate, and routinely crossing multiple city limits to attend a birthday party, my daughter staged a mini-revolt. “Where are my friends?” she wailed on one particularly woeful weekend, stuck in the wonkish company of dear old mom and dad. Looking up, we saw her point. We had gone hunting for her brilliant future, and we’d overlooked her front yard. We’d been chasing her birthright and had ignored her birthplace. This was where she lived. This was her world. This was where she wanted to belong. Where were her friends? We scheduled a visit to the public school down the block.

There, in the porticoed walls of an 80-year-old building, on a rolling lawn under leafy grandfather trees, amok with hundreds of ordinary urchins, awash with the inimitable aromas of dirt, disinfectant, and cafeteria lunch was the school like the schools we remembered. The hallways were a little scruffy. The classrooms were bustling. The teachers were educators. The parents were participants. The kids were just neighborhood kids. The money was scarce, but the opportunity was wide open and free.

We were reminded, once again, that this was the best our country could offer. It was the best our country had ever offered. And we had turned out okay.

Early and often

June 2nd, 2008    -    8 Comments


More of my excerpt from the new anthology, The Maternal is Political. Go back here to read the first installment.

I was not, I thought, unduly anxious about my daughter’s educational prospects. I was not among those employing literacy tutors for my three-year-old. I did not use an Excel spreadsheet to track the application process to private kindergartens. I did not angle playdates with the grandchildren of private-school directors. I did not donate a wad of money to the schools at the top of my wish list. I did not even make a list. I simply believed that one day, when the luminous sheen of my daughter’s wonderfulness was made known, something fantastic would happen.

“Who’s John Kerry?” she asked one day, seemingly out of the blue. It was not out of the blue, but rather right out of the red, white, and blue bumper sticker on the SUV in the preschool parking lot. She pointed to it and revealed that, while I wasn’t looking, she had begun to read. It seemed early, the reading, and early too, the electioneering, although I happily took both signs as foretelling a fabulous outcome.

I had been crushed by the presidential election of 2000. Heartbroken, enraged, and then quietly, insistently, optimistic again. Four years was unimaginable, but four more was entirely impossible. Not with truth on our side. Not with smart money. Not with the Internet. And so I found myself doing what I’d never done before, not in my more than twenty years of informed and, sometimes, impassioned voting. I took the phone calls. I made the phone calls. I sent tens of dollars. I sent hundreds of dollars. I walked the precinct. I wore the button. I slapped on the bumper sticker, then saw the stickers everywhere, and not just in the parking lot of our high-priced, progressive preschool. Democratic values were alive and never wealthier, it seemed. The republic would be saved.

We took our daughter to the polls on election day of 2004. And what seemed to matter most going in—truthfulness, courage, effort, and ideals—mattered nothing in the end. One measly vote in one dinky town in one irrelevant state didn’t count for much. The republic was not only broken, it was no longer ours to fix.

“Have we ever voted for someone who won?” My daughter’s response reflected her brief life history of losing, 0 for 2, in presidential contests, but the dejection was universal. We had come to the irretrievable end of hope. And the loss, we realized, was truly hers.

***
To continue reading. To continue listening. To be continued.

Big gulp

May 29th, 2008    -    10 Comments


I’m looking out the window
for my baby to come home
because today she left without me
while I stayed behind and mopped up:
the floor, the walls, the ceiling,
the stickiness of me

I’m looking out the window
for my baby to come home
because today I spilled over,
supersized with my own wonderfulness
when I asked, “Want some Coke?”
(Which I never do, you see, since Mommy says it makes kids stop growing
and that settles that.)
I poured this one-time specialness over ice in a cup,
toasting my good-motherness,
our happy-togetherness,
handed it to her
and instantly it spilled,
emptied over homework and folder,
onto table and chair,
soaking the Crate and Barrel rug.

The poison rose in me like foam over a tumbler
streaming down the sides
puddling on the counter
my long tongue lashing out the blame
lathering the shame
my arms and legs erupting
in a crazy-lady dance
saving wet pages
wet carpet
letting her wet face dry by itself.

How awful, how inane, over a pause that refreshes?
Sugar water and dye.
I’ve had my pause. I’ve died.

I’m sick and sad and sorry to be
looking out the window
for my baby to come home
Standing alone
where I can catch the first gleam
It’s what moms do
we do it forever
even before we are moms.

The waiting is worth it.

* * *

For Denise. In fullness. Of time.

My bus

May 28th, 2008    -    6 Comments


School’s out for many of you. But for some, it’s always just beginning.

I always knew where it would lead.

As we cruised down the street on the morning commute to nursery school, my two-year-old would pipe up from the back seat whenever the yellow bus rumbled into view.

“My bus, my bus!”

“That’s right,” I would carefully rejoin, “A bus,” affirming the noun, but not yet the pronoun, not the possession, not the slightest quiver of possibility that the public school just down the street would one day be hers. Years before the question of schools could reasonably be raised, I already felt the fluttering clutch of resistance to her baby-talk claim.

Which school for my daughter? I waffled. Haven’t a clue, I’d think. Never given it a thought, I’d shrug, although I’d given plenty of thought to how brilliant her future would be. How bountiful her birthright. How predestined her success. Although my husband and I were public school progeny, those were different times in different places with different kinds of parents, we thought. Our parents had neither the privilege nor the need for a choice.

Our school district was as underfunded as any and especially ill-favored by those with a chance of escaping it. Decades earlier, forced busing had decimated enrollments. As incomes and property values rose, the middle class that had once populated neighborhood schools was nowhere to be found. Sixty-three private schools educated more than one-third of all children in the district. Competition for admission was severe; tuitions were stratospheric. But for parents like us, parents who could pinch and scrimp their way to having a choice, there seemed to be no other choice.

This was the state of education in our country. This was the state of our country, in which the newly elite lived in fear of being left behind with the mass of others we had falsely promised to never leave behind. This was the road the yellow bus traveled twice a day: hauling mostly Hispanic kids to and from the apartment buildings that rimmed the industrial fringe of our suburb; collecting them on the littered streets at frosty dawns and delivering them to our quaint hometown school in our million-dollar neighborhood, made empty by a herd of us heading the other way.

***
To continue reading. To continue listening. To be continued.

Every day is Mother’s Day

May 11th, 2008    -    9 Comments


Celebrate your life.

Must run to settle the fistfight in the kitchen between my fans.

Objects may be closer than they appear

May 8th, 2008    -    19 Comments


I’ve had it up to here with all your whining, whining, whining.

I didn’t sleep last night and you need to go to bed right now.

I want you to listen to how everything you say starts with “I want.”

I wish you wouldn’t always be wishing for something else.

I have to do everything around here and nobody gives me a break.

Don’t make me say this one more time.

Just be quiet!

Something about my mother

April 13th, 2008    -    33 Comments

She was standing on my front porch, right where I would find her. I rushed up and hugged her. I was so happy, although she was dead. Her body was like ash in my arms, crumbling and decayed. She was dead, but I was not afraid or repulsed. She took me up, like in a flying dream, but not a flying dream. We flew into space, into the vast darkness and pulsing light. I felt celestial wind in my face. It was exhilarating.

I asked, “Is there a heaven?”

She said yes.

“What’s it like?”

Like this, she said, like this.

***

My mother died on April 13, 2001. Seven years, and this is how I remember her.

It was an attribute of her deep Christianity and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the small hours before Good Friday, the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them.

***

Not too long ago I chanced upon a telling of what has become a bit of family lore, that my mother, a devoted Lutheran and good churchgoer, had never known that I was Buddhist. She would not have stood for that, the reasoning goes among my relatives, who have mistaken the strength of her faith for hardness.

What is true for me, what I remember, is what my mother said when I told her of my first encounter with my Buddhist teacher and the peace that I had found. What she said then, 15 years ago, was what today I recognize as the ultimate sanction a mother can give.

“Now I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

***

It’s not that she was flawless. She did a lot of things I know she wished she hadn’t, a few things I wished she hadn’t, and some of them, like marry my difficult dad, she did more than once.

Still, none of that stays.

What stays is something else, something that is replenished with every recollection, with every blink and heartbeat.

When my father died four years after mom, he had just begun to keep company with a sturdy and decent woman. I told her of my dream about my mom and she made it real.

“When you can remember it,” she said, “it’s not a dream. It’s a visit.”

***

My mom brought me right back home, to the front door, and then she said something.

“There’s only one thing I want you to do.”

What is it, I asked. I would have done anything she said. I was filled with immense joy and thankfulness.

“Love Jesus,” my mother said.

I will, I said. I will.

Only later, upon waking, did I wonder. And then I stopped wondering.

***

I am sorry.

I am sorry that I am too often clever, unkind, rude, and critical. Too snide and quick. Sometimes when I am like this it causes others to hurt. Even when it inflicts no outright pain, it causes confusion, and that is the most chronic and enduring pain of all. So for your sake, for my mother’s, and for all of us, I’m sorry.

I offer this reparation not because I am a Buddhist. Not because I was raised a Christian. I say this because I am my mother’s daughter. Being my mother’s daughter is the only way I can know who she might have been, and the only way you can know her is through me. This is how I keep her alive. This is how I keep peace. By loving as she asked me, as she showed me, as Jesus loved.

There are many names, but only one love.

Rest in peace, Mom. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.

***
Artice Patschke Tate
June 20, 1933 – April 13, 2001

No one you know

April 10th, 2008    -    20 Comments


Children need to believe that the world is an interesting and safe place. Without it, they cannot grow and explore. When we rear our children to fear other adults we truncate their growth. Human development occurs within the context of real relationships. We learn from whom we love.

–Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other

I scarcely gave the circumstances of my daughter’s life much thought before she was born, occupied as I was with my wished-for baby as the imagined end of the process. But soon, I faced up to the obvious. Here on this earth she would be mostly alone, without the company of kin. [Insert tears here.]

Not only were my husband and I older parents and she an only child, my parents were older and soon to be gone, my sisters older and far away, my nieces decades older and also far away, my husband’s parents farther away and his nieces way farther still.

But as soon as I mustered the gumption to roll a stroller down the hill into our two-bit town, I saw relievedly how it would go. With every coo, grin and bat of her lash, my baby drew people to her, perfect strangers, who filled her eyes and ears with the marvel and music of love. I saw her future instantly: She would draw people to her, and she would never be alone. She would always be loved and her life would always be full and new, if I could keep mustering the gumption to leave the house.

And this makes known my third and final ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity.

Ingredient Number 3: A Stranger

It is difficult to trust people, I know. It is difficult to trust teachers, I know. It is difficult to trust other places and even other children, I know. But when we don’t, when we burrow and hide, when we reverse and recoil, when we bind ourselves too tight to our better judgment, creativity curdles. Full and thriving, life doesn’t just depend on the new; life is the new. Life is, by definition, strange. It is always enhanced by the kindness of strangers.

But now I can see that strangers are not always strangers, rather just people with new and unfamiliar gifts. The strangers who will serve and inspire your children may well be the same-old friends, family and neighbors; those with high recommendations and faultless referrals; or they may be the untried and unknown; the teacher you most dread in the school you’re dead set against; and the troublesome kid in the back row. We cannot know or second-guess which strangeness will spark creation’s promise, only that it will. Life is forever new and unfolding; endless and – get this – good.

The stranger my daughter needs most is very often me, when I emerge from my shadowy house of fear and follow her into the bright light of an unknown world where we frolic and swirl to the marvel and music of love. That could be today. It could be any day. Anyone stopping me? Anyone stopping you?

If you still doubt the pervasive and positive influence of strangers, consider this: No one you really know was involved in the writing of this post. Or the reading.

***

Find out even less when you read the first two installments of this three-part peculiarity on creativity: paper and story. Or go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Rock paper sawdust

April 7th, 2008    -    8 Comments


The other weekend my daughter implored my husband to help “her” build a trundle dollbed for her “sisters”. She was about to take possession of yet another doll, a doll she didn’t need and had nowhere to put but that “she” had duly earned. More about that later.

My husband, being the creative type that he is, “helped” her draw up plans and set up shop in the garage. When I came in a few hours later, Georgia was “working” on the construction from behind the walls of a corrugated “house” loosely assembled with the 24 empty cookie cases we have laying around. Less about that later. Mounds of sawdust had been swept into a landscape. She’d laid a “carpet” of rag towels and discarded sheets, and she was curled up in her cozy make-believe, casually supervising the ongoing carpentry. And she wouldn’t come out. All day, she wouldn’t come out. She was in bliss. And I thought to myself,

Oh my, I have made this childhood thing far more complicated than it ever needed to be.

Thus I was inspired to offer the first ingredient in my personal program to cultivate childhood creativity:

Ingredient Number 1: Paper

One of the things I feel so self-satisfied about is the investment I’ve made in drawing pads for Georgia over the years. (Target should feel good about that too, but the last time I checked, they weren’t yet satisfied with the sum total of my purchases.) A surviving remnant of my daughter’s preschool days is the crate of writing and drawing supplies that resides by our dining room table. It ends up collecting a lot more than writing supplies, but I cull it at least once a year and feel self-satisfied about that too. Here are kept the rubber stamps, stickers and pens, the paper and glue sticks, the maze and puzzle books, the crayons and colored pencils we still use every day, and a veritable landfill of Happy Meal toys.

Georgia is a terrific reader and writer, as I’m annoyingly quick to boast, and I like to think that I contributed cleverly to her early literacy.

But now I see that a piece of paper – the fundamental building block of my personal program of creativity – doesn’t have to be a piece of paper. It can be a box. Or a rock. Or an old towel or sheet. It can be sawdust. It can be string. It can be just anything.

Just anything is the one thing that I consistently withheld from my daughter in her formative years. I never wanted her to use just anything, and I seldom allow it still.

Let’s say I’m a creative work in progress.

***
I’m making a mound of sawdust out of creativity this week. Here’s what got me started.

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