Must run to settle the fistfight in the kitchen between my fans.
Must run to settle the fistfight in the kitchen between my fans.
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!
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
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.
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.
There is a lot of show and tell about creativity these days. I understand the interest. Not so much now, when I can see and delight in my daughter for how colorful she already is, but in the earlier days of child-rearing when I was certain that someone other than me – a specially trained music teacher, art teacher, or storyteller – could do more to prime my daughter’s creative instincts than I could. I sought out those uniquely qualified people, I entrusted the both of us to their able hands, and my daughter and I got out of the house and enjoyed ourselves immensely. These activities were creative exercises, but they were not at all necessary to cultivating creativity.
I was doing it backwards. I thought of creativity as one of a myriad attributes to be managed; an aptitude to instill. Now I see creativity much differently. All children are creative and all adults are creative because life is creation itself. Spontaneous, dynamic, unpredictable, inexplicable and rich with inherent and inscrutable meaning. Creativity doesn’t always look like what we think it should look like, though.
The feeling that we lack creativity has given rise to a naturalistic movement – which could soon dwarf even Martha Stewart – giving us lush pictorials on creativity. Everything in displays of this kind defy my imagination: handmade, homemade, artistic, ingenious, and productive beyond human comprehension, or so it seems to me. After absorbing these images, soaking in a simmer of envy, disbelief and despair, I often feel my inspiration evaporate, more certain than ever that I am creatively disabled and DNA impoverished. I am, to be sure, no elephant among artists.
And not so with Ginger Carlson, author of a new book called Child of Wonder. Ginger is an education consultant, teacher, speaker and mother who contacted me a little while ago and offered to send me her book. I instantly agreed for reasons of universal karmic indebtedness. Having plowed this tough turf myself makes me eager to pay back the kindness of strangers. Ginger’s work is full of practical, encouraging, well-researched pedagogy and sane advice for nurturing creativity in your children and yourself. And get this: not one of these ideas requires that I sew, knit, embroider or quilt; grow my own leeks; gather fresh gooseberries; keep small farm animals; make my own curtains; distress my own hardwoods; or hold a paintbrush in my nostril. Those are all clever and worthy ideas but they are ideas that I’m not likely to use today unless I twist them into a switch and beat myself back into my cozy snail shell.
Ginger covers many of the same bases but without an outcome-orientation. In other words, her take on creativity isn’t about how it looks, but about how it acts. Her approach to being creative is more than crafts. To wit, some of the unintentional Zen wisdom I gleaned from her pages:
“Let your child be alone.”
“Don’t ignore the wind.”
“Move your eyebrows.”
“Collect paper clips.”
“Don’t underestimate snails.”
“Question your agenda.”
“Say yes more often.”
In short, I liked Ginger’s use of the everyday and everywhere, the breadth of material and resources, which touch on all the ways we fear we will fail our children’s natural curiosity.
What I liked most about the book is that Ginger asked me to read it. I, for one, recognize that single act as a creative leap of the boldest kind.
And that gave me the creative opportunity to say yes.
Furthermore, she has inspired me to inch along all next week talking about creativity, during which I will make almost no apparent progress and few will call it pretty, least of all me.
To all ye perpetrators of holiday deception laboring with the weight of your well-meant betrayal, the fear of future reckoning, this is how the veil is pierced: with a cottony soft tail and whisker kiss:
Mommy, will you remind the Easter Bunny to come?
How gingerly, how tenderly she asks so as not to shatter the dyed green eggshell of my illusion.
Neither parents, nor parents’ secrets, are much mystery to their kin. And this truth-in-common is what we celebrate, indeed, what we should celebrate, every day.
I’m betting the place is hopping tonight.
My daughter came home from Spanish class one day last week and plastered signs all over the house. Seeing them everywhere has really shed some light on things.
Over at my friend Shawn’s new review blog, The Chunky Purse, she talks about a Spanish-immersion DVD set for teaching language to young children, and it sounds pretty neat. Eight years ago, we didn’t have that, we had something else.
One of Georgia’s first words was “awa” for water. Whether she was speaking Spanish or speaking English, who can tell. We congratulated ourselves for the clever good fortune of having a babysitter who could not only put Georgia down for a nap, but speak Spanish while she did it.
How we all wish we could lock-in these predispositions. We see the astonishing development of our babies and toddlers – their seemingly effortless learning – and what we might overlook is the amount of practice they put in. From where I sit now I view it all a bit differently than I did then.
Every day from birth to age one or so they practice mobility. Every day from age one to two and beyond they practice language. Without maintaining that level of constant practice, nothing gets very far off the rug.
So last night my husband stuck his head into the office where I was filling out the Scholastic Book order form and all such things I like to do in my spare time said, “Did you get Georgia some different floss sticks?” Then she wandered in holding up the offending specimen and said:
Mommy, these are really hard to use.
I whipped my head around to look at the both of them and said YES I GOT SOME DIFFERENT ONES BECAUSE I DIDN’T MAKE A SPECIAL TRIP TO TARGET.
The thing is, I’m conscientiously avoiding Target for incidentals since they usually extract $200 or more from me before I leave. I’ve written about the peculiar devotion I have for flossing, and my wicked bliss to see my daughter favorably habituated toward dental hygiene because of our early introduction of candy-colored flossing sticks, but criminy guys, HOW ABOUT TRANSITIONING TO SOME NEW FLOSS STICKS BECAUSE I DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TIME TO MAKE SPECIAL TRIPS TO ALL THESE SPECIAL PLACES FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED THINGS LIKE SPECIAL FLOSS STICKS THAT THEY DON’T SELL AT THE GROCERY STORE.
And Georgia looks at me and says:
Mommy, these are really easy to use.
Mommy, I’m OK with it.
These four words, I’m OK with it, which jarred so offensively on first hearing, sounding so preternaturally teen, can be useful when the mother in question buys an overpriced jacket from a mall retailer with disturbingly oversexed girl’s clothing, washes it once in cold and extracts its shrunken form from the dryer’s delicate cycle, then shrewdly purchases an oversized and durable black nylon replacement which is worn to the weekly “Totally Girly” after-school club where daughter cultivates self-confidence through the liberal application of nail polish, then arrives home with a streak of non-soluble color down the front of her new jacket, an adornment that proves resistant to her mother’s gasps and shrieks as well as to heavy dosing in acetone, detergent and full-blown maternal hysteria, unleashing a noxious cloud of fear, shame, sobbing and mutual post-traumatic regret.
I’m OK with it. Honest. The alternative is too savage for anyone to bear.
“If you really understand the condition of emptiness that underlies all phenomenal existence, you will be content no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing. This contentment itself is to be Buddha. The real meaning of attaining enlightenment is to attain this state of mind.” – Yasutani Roshi
This is Not to Be Forgotten Week on the Road, where we share Some Things Said.
Mommy, do you know how hard it is to live with two giants?
Instantly I recall recurring childhood nightmares of being chased by a colossus. Dark, haunted, heart-pounding doom and with no escape.
I will lighten my step! I will lighten it right now. I will shrink back in size! I’ve shrunk already.
No tender bones will be ground to make this bread.
This is Not to Be Forgotten Week on the Road, where we share Some Things Said.
Perhaps you have children. Remember when you were trying to conceive, and you thought it was only about getting pregnant? Or how about when you were pregnant, and it was only about having a baby? Then the baby was born and all your expectations were obliterated in the first week of terror and chaos. But I only wanted a baby, you might have inwardly wailed, as if you could straighten out a terribly mixed-up order. What you got was a life, a whole new wonderful awful horrible miserable magnificent life – yours– that you could never have imagined before.
We never quite arrive at the outcome that we have in mind, because nothing is quite what we think it is. It is so much more, and it keeps going!
Before too long we forget about the outcome and focus instead on tending the baby before us with compassionate care, and without expecting any result or gain. (I’m raising a daughter. We’re both happy I don’t think I’m raising a pianist.)
The book you’re thinking about? It’s not about the book. There might well be a book that surfaces some day, a couple hundred pages pressed between two cardboard ends, but writing a book isn’t about a book. The book is a word for your life, the vast, unknowable dynamic process of turns and trips and thumps, that transforms you as you go along, as you go along becoming more of yourself. Somewhere along this road, somewhere well after you begin and before you end, you might finally be born as a storyteller and a writer; you might arrive at an authentic voice, an enlivened heart. You might finally see, in the very light of your day and in the words on your screen, that you have something to say. And that only you could say it.
But if you think you know that before you start out, I will say with unwavering emphasis: You are wrong. It’s true that mechanistic and unartful things get written that way: by the book. And there are probably 99,000 mechanistic and unartful books published every year. But that’s not what you aim to write, do you? Leave that to the experts!
You stand before a stove with a soup pot and a spoon. What will you put in? Everything you’ve got. How will it taste? You’ll find out as you go along. How will you know what’s next? You’ll know it when you see it. How long will it take? Long past the time you get hungry but before you’re dead. How do I start? You already have.
If you happen to have read this far and you aren’t writing a book, know for a fact that you are. Everyone is writing a book. And the book is called your life. You are the writer and you are the reader, and – no flipping to the last page first! – you don’t know how it will end.
This week we’re talking about writing. Send me your questions, and we’ll turn them into something you can swallow.