Contribute a Verse

          We had salmon for dinner last night, which reminded me of puking when I was pregnant the first time, which reminded me of our apartment in South Pasadena, which reminded me of the light rail station a few blocks away, which reminded me of taking the train into Chinatown when Luke was a baby and being asked if I was the nanny, which reminded me of getting a boba in Chinatown in San Francisco, which reminded me of my brother who goes to San Fran for work all the time, which reminded me of Portland, Oregon, where he lives, which reminded me of Josh Garrels, a musician who lives there and makes beautiful music, which reminded me that words can change the world.
          I recently saw a clip from Dead Poet’s Society (one of my favorite movies ever) – the scene where Mr. Keating tells his class to rip out the pages of the lame introduction to poetry in their textbook.  “Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language.  No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  Amen.  As a lover of language, I know that I’m biased toward this idea.  But I also know that words have changed my world, and they have altered human existence, for better or worse.  Hitler used language as a weapon, and it worked.  His vocabulary of hate and fear was powerfully convincing to those who wanted to agree, and acted as a veritable dagger against those he attacked.  Martin Luther King Jr. used his speeches to give a voice to those without one, to break down walls between cultures, to promote peace.  In each case, a single man created a movement that changed the direction of human kind.  With words.
          On a smaller scale, my dad told me he loved me every day as a child.  He called me “Pumpkin” and “Princess,” said I was smart, beautiful and worth loving.  From the beginning of my life he made me feel safe and valued with his words to me; he helped me know I deserved a good man someday.  My mom wrote poems and essays about my brother and me, and I learned to express myself that way, too.  I got my love for the rhythm of language from her.  Received from her pen and her books the gift of poetry.  Learned that you could invent vocabulary from E. E. Cummings, because his book was on our shelf, because my mom’s life was changed by words when she was young.  The language of my childhood mattered.  It made me who I am.
          And then of course there are those who have introduced beauty into the world, simply for beauty’s sake.  Professor Keating describes the importance of what may seem insignificant to some.
                    We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are
                    members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law,
                    business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty,
                    romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
When I need a reminder of love’s steadfast power, I read Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet.  When I look at the clouds or the stars in the sky, I think of Psalm 119 and my heart agrees.  When I want to feel – just feel – deeply, I listen to a Greg Laswell song and let out a sigh of relief.  And when I want to explain my own thoughts and feelings to myself and others, I write.  I gather words, put together phrases, think of synonyms and metaphors and mix them up to make something new in the world.  It’s my small contribution to the human race.  I may not make the dent of Shakespeare or King David, but I’ll continue to “contribute a verse” and let the words speak for themselves.

Happily Ever After

          Marriage is hard.  It is, as the (brilliant) 80’s movie Parenthood demonstrates, like a roller coaster ride.  You change over time, as does your spouse, as does every human being.  And you’re both faulted.  Two faulted, changing people can’t expect a smooth ride, and we shouldn’t want that either.  As the grandma says in Parenthood, “Some went on the merry go round.  But that just goes around.  Nothing.  I like the roller coaster.  You get more out of it.”  I actually hate roller coasters, so maybe I’m not naturally prepped well for the ups and downs of marriage, but I do agree that a merry-go-round would get boring after a while.  I might just choose the coaster in the kiddie section.
          Marc and I had a rough time in our marriage a few years back.  The low point was probably me getting out of the car during a fight, yelling at him to leave me alone.  And him actually, physically leaving me alone by driving away.  This came after months of frequent arguing, over things we seemingly couldn’t get past, about which we weren’t going to change our opinions.  It was a hard, discouraging time.  Neither of us could understand how the other was feeling, so we visited a counselor to help us see things differently.  To get us outside our own heads, above our own situation and give us the bird’s eye view.  Our disagreements, which up close looked huge, seemed small and manageable from far away.  Easily fixed with some work and an attitude change.
          That’s often the case in marriage.  By nature, it is a difficult thing – two people joining their lives, promising to stand by one another through whatever goes down, not having a clue how hard that is to live out.  Even when people say being married is hard, you don’t know how hard until you do it.  Until your spouse has hit the one nerve that seems connected to all the others and it feels like your life is falling apart.  Just as reading the entire collection of parenting books from Amazon can’t prepare you for the reality of a tiny person in your arms.  But that’s the part that makes it exciting.  The roller coaster instead of the merry-go-round.  And that’s what makes it worthwhile.
          In his essay On Marriage, Robert Louis Stevenson writes of the difference between hope and faith.  Hope is the feeling a young person has before he marries, and faith is the long-married person’s view of marriage and his spouse.
               Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon the knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of
               circumstance and the frailty of human resolution…In the first, he expects an angel for a wife; in the
               last, he knows that she is like himself – erring, thoughtless, and untrue; but like himself also, filled
               with a struggling radiancy of better things…
          I was full of hope when I married, which is inevitable.  One would normally think of hope as a good thing, but in this case it’s hope in something, someone, bound to fail.  Who won’t measure up to your expectations because he or she can’t.  By nature your spouse will let you down, in big or small ways.  The experience of living through the disappointment, and getting past it, is what produces the faith to carry on, as long as you see that the same faults are true of you.
          This essay sounds like a downer on marriage, as does Louis Stevenson’s for the first couple of pages, but I promise neither is so.  In his new (and excellent) book on marriage, Tim Keller references a study in which it was found that “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce reported being happily married five years later”.  You can look up the parameters of the study if you like (http://www.americanvalues.org/html/does_divorce_make_people_happy.html), but I think it makes sense even without any empirical data.  Given a little time, you can work through, or as the study points out, outlast, many issues in marriage.  Three years after Marc and I had our rough spell, we are more in love than when we got hitched thirteen years ago.  It’s odd to think that we ever had such raging fights.  We worked hard, changed some of our behaviors, learned to love one another better.  And we forgave a lot of crap.  That’s the key – not hoping for perfection, but expecting to forgive and be forgiven.  A lot.  Then you can get on to the business of enjoying each other, too.
          Louis Stevenson says it beautifully…
                    …for the faults of married people continually spur up each of them, hour by hour, to do better
                    and to meet and love upon a higher ground.  And ever, between the failures, there will come
                    glimpses of kind virtues to encourage and console.
          Marital bliss may be possible for a time, but it can’t be expected forever.  The good news is it gets better, or it can.  I know our roller coaster will dip again, but it’s also bound to go back up.  In the meantime I’m enjoying the heights with the man I married.

Want/Don’t Want

          It’s funny how the things you want can change over time, even to the opposite of that which you wanted before.  When I was seven I wished my name was Misty.  How ethereal, I thought, as I flitted around in a ballet skirt; If only I was Misty rather than Jenea, I would be happy.  When I was in junior high I longed for Pepe jeans, the height of awesomeness.  I bought one pair with my own money and wore them every other day – stone washed to almost white, pegged at the ankles.  Oh yes.  In high school it was a new house I thought I needed.  Not an old one with creaky hardwood floors like we had; I wanted carpeting, and a neighborhood in the new part of town where every house looked the same.
          Getting the things I wanted produced varying degrees of happiness for me, but it didn’t last forever.  The Pepe jeans were horrible just a few years later, and Misty would now be on a list of names I would go to the courthouse to change.  As an adult I live in an old house with creaky hardwood floors in the old part of town.  By choice.
          One of the biggest desires I ever had was to be a mother.  As I tried to get pregnant with my first, my obsession increased with each unsuccessful month.  What I ate, my temperature in the morning, which pants Marc wore – each was an essential element in my quest to have a baby.  It was all that mattered.  The day I knew I was with child, my obsession switched to having a healthy one.  The day I gave birth to my son I fell in love so hard I couldn’t imagine ever leaving his side.  A year later my dream was to go to Target alone.
          Having a second baby was a definite urge, too.  I felt a little less sure of having a third, though if I would have known what a sweet and easy child she’d be, there would have been no hesitation.
          But now, if I got pregnant again I would cry.
          I’m not supposed to say that, because there are people who desperately ache for a baby, as I did eight years ago.  And if it were to happen, I’d move past the crying at some point and welcome the new little person into our family with joy.  It would just take some self-pep talks and a lot of caffeine.  I realize the I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it aspect to my changed desires.  Like a spoiled five year old who rejects the ice cream she just ordered because it’s in a cup instead of a cone.  I can almost see my own pouty face and crossed arms.  But it’s the truth.  My body might actually fall to pieces if I grew another person in there, or gave it birth, or woke up every two hours to feed him.  I need a nap just thinking about it.  As sure as I was that I wanted a baby when I was younger, I am sure I don’t want to be pregnant again.
          Much has happened since I was 29, namely having three children and getting older.  I’m in a different stage of life now than I was then, and I’m ready for the change.  I want to focus on rearing the children I have instead of having any more, and I’m excited for new challenges, a re-connection with my brain, a chance to go to the gym more than once a week.  I’m not being fickle, I’m just moving on.  Thankfully I have no misgivings about having my kids the way I would have regretted being named Misty.  And they don’t go out of style as did my jeans.  Over time I may want different shoes or change the way I do my hair, but my children are one part of my life I will always be glad for.  I might need to go to Target alone from time to time, but my heart isn’t going anywhere.

From the Outside In

          My first couple of years living in L.A. I found I had nothing to say.  It was hard for me to write in that city.  Part of it was due to my surroundings – buildings all around don’t start the creative juices flowing in me.  Views have always been a part of writing for me.  Being able to see a long way off, especially if the scenery is green and lush and sweeping, has always prompted words.  Certain trees, or stretches of the sky, or images in a photo have jump-started many stories and essays and poems in my brain.  Finding  the meaningful in the beautiful motivates me.  Mid-century architecture, in pastel, doesn’t.
          It also takes a while – years – for a person to know a place enough to write about it.  “Write what you know” is common writing advice, and I didn’t know L.A. enough my first several years there to say anything worthwhile.  It’s a complicated city; It takes a while to absorb.  I also struggled with liking it at first – that didn’t help.  I moved to Los Angeles a new bride, to a teaching job I wasn’t trained for, to a city my husband had already lived in for two years.  From Kansas.  It was culture shock, marriage shock, career shock and lack-of-friends shock all at once.  In a apartment in Alhambra with decades-old shag carpeting and no phone.  It seems like it should have been fodder for a lot of good writing, but instead it left me speechless – quietly taking in all the new, all the different, trying to understand my changed life.  There was no room left in my brain for processing.  For overflowing.
          Four or five years in to my time in L.A. I enrolled in a writing class through UCLA Extension.  It was the first time since college that I felt a twinge of being able to throw some words down on paper that weren’t inner ramblings.  It felt great.  I wrote some decent sentences in my classes there, but more importantly, I wrote.  Pieces with structure and craft involved.  I remember driving home from class one night, which I went to in the evening after a full day of work, feeling more alive and awake than I had in years.  And more connected to my city and the people in it than ever.  I had something to say for the first time in a long time.  Hallelujah.
          A couple of years later, when I had my first child – my son – my heart broke open with all sorts of new feelings and met yearnings – longings I didn’t know the depth of until they were realized in my baby boy.  I knew I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t know what a primal need would be met in having a child.  That it would open up another valve and pump new blood into my life.  That it would answer an unanswerable question in my soul.  I spilled over with things to say, things to write, about becoming a mother.  The floodgates opened.  I wrote a love letter of sorts to my son about nursing him – the labor of love that it was.  It is probably horribly written – cheesy beyond forgiveness – but I still can’t see past the utter passion I felt at the time.  It still makes me cry.
          I’m beginning to be able to write in any kind of room these days, with any kind of view.  Even at a desk in the basement, with the computer and dirty laundry looking back at me.  Sitting in my dining room full of windows, looking into my back yard with kids’ toys, a swing set, bushes I’ve neglected trimming and the silly-looking pear tree I planted when we bought our house is my new writing spot of choice.  I could write there for hours.  I’m not sure why I don’t need sweeping views anymore.  Figuring that one out will be another essay some years down the road, I assume.  I wonder, though, if it has something to do with settling into myself.  Having three children made me take a step back and see myself differently, from a different angle.  From a more distant view, I suppose.  I was filled up by giving myself to my kids, and I witnessed that happen.  I still like sitting on top of a hill and seeing what thoughts pop into my head.  It’s magic for me.  But the empty screen and a few things to say are enough these days.  My family is my muse.  For now, watching them from the outside in is as good a view as any.

Obile Ravelin’

           I love a good road trip.  We took one each summer when I was a kid.  My parents made it a priority to create memories with my brother and me, and to expose us to different parts of the country.  Driving wasn’t as exciting as flying as a child, but I’m glad now that I learned the art of the road trip from an early age.
Driving makes you look around to see how the landscape shifts as you go.  You notice that the flatlands of western Kansas turn into the low foothills of Colorado, which turn into the jagged, towering Rockies.  That North Dakota is somehow flatter than Kansas and that the Badlands of South Dakota surprise you with color bursting out of the deep canyons. The Northwest is cool, and lush and full of mystery; the seaweed on the coast of Maine is endless and the water is never warm; the sand dunes of northern Indiana are as exciting as the Sahara to a ten year old, and great to slide down in bare feet.
          I learned how to see things on our road trips.  From a plane you see things from above, which is amazing and beautiful, but it’s from a distance.  It’s the Cliff’s Notes of the real thing.  When you have to wait and wait for those mountains to come into view, you really feel the joy of them.  When you know you’ll be crossing the Mississippi in several hours instead of twenty minutes, the rising tension is greater and the river astounds you with it’s width.  You’re a part of the scenery rather than a distant observer.  You and the river, and the sky, and the mountains are in it together.
          We drove from Kansas to the panhandle of Florida this summer for a family vacation.  Two and a half days on the way there, two longer days back.  Surely that sounds horrendous to many people, but to us it was wonderful.  Besides the fact that I’d always rather drive than fly for packing reasons alone, it’s also nice to stop and stretch, to pee when the need arises instead of when the seatbelt light goes off, to hop in and go instead of waiting in line after line.  There’s freedom in a road trip.  A plane ride is all rules and regulations, and large men snoring in the next row.  But Marc and I also like to make our kids see the world around them.  And we like to make them bored.
          Really.  Boredom has it’s benefits.
          I was bored a lot on our vacations as a kid.  Driving through Wyoming is bound to bore a nine-year-old.  But it made me think about things.  About the landscape, the people who might have lived on it as settlers, the animals and buildings and people I saw.  It forced me to play car games with my parents and Boggle with my brother.  Read books.  Look at maps.  Think about life and what it all means.  Give a kid a chance and she’ll have deep thoughts that would put a philosopher to shame.  Being bored spawned thoughts and ideas that would never have happened if I’d had a DVD player or a DS.  Luckily, they didn’t exist.
          There is actually a DVD player in our new minivan.  We didn’t want one, but the best car for the money, with the least amount of miles, happened to have one and we decided we’d compromise.  It was “broken” until our trip to Florida.  “Oh, look at that!  It works!”  Even I knew that a three day trip could use a show or two to break up the monotony.  But the kids missed Montgomery, Alabama while they watched Tangled, and I felt like I was making them idiots.  Turning around and seeing that “I am a zombie.  Whatever crap you show, tv in the ceiling, I’ll watch” look on their faces made me want to make it “break” again.
          When I was little we traveled by car – a red VW station wagon at first, then a brown Chrysler, to be exact.  By the time I was in junior high we had an R.V. we called the Obile Raveler (the M and T had long-since worn off by the time we bought it from a neighbor).  It was old and a little decrepit, but it got us all over the country, with our food and beds and car all in one handy mobile traveling unit.  In spring we would ready it for summer: air it out, clean the counters and bathroom, spray a bajillion ants with bug killer, and air it out again.  Then we’d load it up with our vacation supplies and take off.  A new destination each time.  My brother and I complained about the long hours in the O.R., and the frequent stops at historical markers which my dad had to read out loud, and the pull-overs so my mom could take photos.  Our trips were more discovery than getting from place to place.  It drove me nuts at times as a child, but now I see the value of our slow-motion adventures.
          Driving through western Kansas is best done at night, when you’re wrapped in stars and a pitch black sky, skimming the crust of the earth with nothing to block your view of the heavens.  That’s another thing I learned from my road trips.  Another thing I wouldn’t know if we had traveled a different way.  The Obile Raveler is gone, but the memories of driving it across the country will likely stay with me for the long-haul.  And Marc and I are going to do our best to create the same boredom, force the same self-reflection and daydreaming, and leave the DVD player off for most of our trips.  When the kids are going crazy from the long hours of looking out the window, and driving us crazy too, we can pop in a show.  But for the most part, I’m going old-school with our road trips and making memories that my kids will appreciate one day.  Even if they don’t now.

Little Miss Independent

Written October, 2009
          My daughter is two years old, and she’s been independent from the day she could crawl in her own direction.  Even then, before she could talk, she picked out her own clothes with low grunts at correct choices and loud screams at wrong ones.  She would crawl over to the closet, pointing at a particular sweater, and make clear her passion for fashion.  “Lily do it by self” is a phrase I hear every half hour at least, and it applies to most tasks: taking off her diaper, getting dressed, getting in the bath, getting out of the bath, walking to the car, getting in the car, getting strapped in her car seat, getting out of the car.  You get the idea.  And it has led to many showdowns between her and me when we don’t have time for her to “do it by self.”  At Target, at Wal-mart, in our driveway, in our house, at friends’ homes, in crazy Twister-like positions  in which we’ve found ourselves during a diaper change.  Lily’s independence can wear me out.
          I try to remember that someday her independence will serve her well.  I prayed against fear for my little girl as soon as I knew I had one brewing.  As a child, and an adolescent, and as an early adult, I was full of fear.  I let my fears stop me from doing so many things.  I let them rule my actions for a long time in many ways, and I didn’t want that for my little girl.  I want her to embrace life and meet challenges with the belief that it’s alright to fail, but you have to try to get anywhere at all.  That she is worth it because she’s a human being, with thoughts and feelings just as valid as anyone else’s.  That she was born for a reason.
          I’ve wanted all of this for my daughter, but apparently I didn’t realize I’d be the one dealing with the day-to-day development of a fearless woman.  It seems ironic that I fretted about her courage when she jumps off a jungle gym into nothingness, or when her determination to eat play dough far exceeds her fear of the consequences.  I got what I asked for, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.
          And then the other day she didn’t want to eat by herself.  She is perfectly capable of eating her cereal with a spoon (that was something she knew she could “do by self” before she actually could), but for some reason the other day she decided she couldn’t.  We have now entered a new stage of “ I need help,” and I’m not sure I like it any better.  I was surprised at my reaction to those words.  All those days we went head-to-head over who was the adult, and when she said she needed help eating her cereal I immediately feared (there it is again) she had lost her gumption.  It’s ridiculous, I know, but it reveals how deep down my desire is for Lily to have confidence.  And how, even though it is hard to deal with her growing into that confidence, it’s a noble task worth doing.
          I’m sure this is only a regressive phase – that soon enough she’ll jump headlong back into her independent ways.  It’s in her nature, and I’m glad.  But for now, I’m going to enjoy her need of me, knowing it will be short-lived, and remember that I asked for this.  And pray that my little warrior will use her powers for good someday, and watch what she becomes.

Gearing Up

          I might not typically take much notice of the boys outside the coffee shop I’m in, around eleven years old, eating caramel covered apples and hitting each other with wads of paper.  But today when I saw them I saw my own son and was struck by the fact that soon enough he will be eleven, and then eighteen, and then a full-blown grown-up.  He is only seven and a half, but I know it will come faster than I can believe.
          I get glimpses each day of the man he will someday be peeking through the little boy he is now.  When he rolls his eyes in annoyance, or carries in a bag of groceries for me, or wears boxer briefs instead of his hot wheels undies.  Or when he looks at me with his green-blue eyes and says in all seriousness “I want to go on a date with you.”  We do that sometimes.  Our “dates” can be anything – any activity that only includes us.  Once to a museum, after which we got ice cream, once on a walk, after which we got ice cream, once to the doctor’s office and grocery store.  After which we got ice cream.  He and Marc go on dates too, and it also always involves a treat.  Surely that is part of the draw for Luke.  But he also loves the chance to spend one-on-one time with his mom or dad, getting all the attention, all the head pats, all the hand-holding he wants.  He actually wants to be with us, and it’s great.
          We had a particularly fun summer – mornings together while Lily was in preschool and Mae was asleep.  I made a concerted effort to ignore all the things that “needed” to be done and spend my time on the things that truly needed to be done.  For my son.  I chose making gloop over dusting and doing science experiments about carbon dioxide over vacuuming.  It was awesome.  My house was gross, but my relationship with Luke deepened, and as I’ve heard countless times, in twenty years that’s what will matter.
          Plus, gloop is way more fun than dusting.
          I know that a day is coming when he won’t want to go on a date with his mom.  There will be a phase, and that phase could be long, where he thinks I am lame and uninformed and embarrassing.  I remember those days with my own parents.  I once hid on the floorboard of our brown Chevy at a Sonic, because, horror of horrors, I was there with my parents.  And I knew the car hop.  And he was hot.  My dad proceeded to tell the hot waiter that I was hiding in the bottom of the car and I was forced to emerge, red-faced and scarred for life.  Nice, Dad.  But how embarrassed could I have been to hide like that rather than be seen with my family?  Very, I guess.  I hate to think of Luke feeling that way about us, but it will come.  And it will suck.  And then it will pass.
          Luke started second grade today.  I walked him the two and a half blocks to school, taking in the sunlight, the welcomed cool air after a ridiculously hot summer, the tingling excitement that comes with a first day.  I watched neighborhood kids reunite after two months apart, giggling with nervousness and joy, and I thought of his first day of kindergarten.  We have a picture from that day of him walking, proudly wearing his new astronaut-monkey backpack full of school supplies, his hair combed and clothes unwrinkled, ready to leave me and his early childhood in the past.  That was a hard day.  Today he wore the same backpack, but I noticed on the way that his hair wasn’t combed and realized we’d forgotten to buy glue.  And we weren’t really worried.  So different than that first, first day.  It’s already normal to go back to school.  It’s also normal to get a big kiss from me as he heads in to class, which I know will change soon.
          I’m sure these boys outside the coffee shop wouldn’t welcome a big kiss from their mommy as they joke with their friends.  I can hear the “Geez, Mom” now.  It’s not too far off, this next stage; the eye-rolling is just the beginning.  I will miss his hugs, the fact that he thinks I’m funny, and even the never-ending descriptions of his lego creations.  I will look back longingly at the days of making gloop in summer and going on dates to get ice cream.  I know I will cry over the loss of my baby boy many times.  But it will also be astounding to watch him navigate adolescence, discover himself and the world, and morph into a man.  When I think of the way he fit into the crook of my arm when he was new to the world, and now he reaches my chest when he gives me a hug, my mind is just about blown.  So far I’ve enjoyed each stage, at least in part, and I’m sure that even in adolescence there will be something to appreciate – bits of my sweet boy peeking through the tough exterior of puberty.  Or of his future, mature self emerging.  I can’t say that I’m ready, or ever will be, for Luke to think his mom’s a dope, but I’m gearing up for it.  And if he happens to want to go on dates with me all through puberty, I’ll consider it a bonus and take him out for ice cream.

Blank Page

          A blank page staring back at me is a gift or a curse, depending on the moment.  Depending on whether I have anything to say.  On a day filled with inspiration, it’s clean and new and ready to be filled with crisp black letters, lined up evenly, contained in a set space, but limited only by my overflowing brain.  It’s hope and promise and all that’s good in the world.  But on a day void of ideas my point of view flips – a blank page is  endless and plain.  Not lovely in-and-of itself, but wanting.  Lonely and desolate.
          Really, a blank page isn’t good or bad or anything but blank.  It’s all about perspective, like everything else in the world.  I tell my kids this all the time.  Luke complains about dinner, we point to the photos on the wall from Marc’s trip to Africa – the kids with yellow eyes from malnutrition and liver disease.  Lily whines for every item in the toy store, and we point out the kids outside the homeless shelter on our way home.
          But even more, I have to remind myself about changing my own perspective.
          During the school year, evenings are rough.  Making dinner, feeding the baby, monitoring homework and piano practice, throwing the kids in the bath and running in to wash a bit of them from time to time, putting the baby to bed, all the while being yelled at (my children are so excited about all things in life that they yell everything they say) by two voices at once to “watch this” and that “he’s copying me” and “she hit me in the face with a car”, and asking me scientific questions about spiders and black holes or correcting me on which Disney princess wears yellow.  Was that sentence long and exhausting to read?  Exactly.
           But on a good day I can see these things differently.  On a day where I’ve woken up with a decent amount of sleep, or I’ve had a bit of a break, or God has graced me with inexplicable patience and energy, I can see the flip side of life with three kids.  Yes, I’m making dinner, but I am doing so with quinoa from South America that I have simply purchased at Costco for a reasonable price, instead of digging up potatoes in my field and cooking them over a fire I made from sticks.  Boo-hoo.  On a good day I can see that the baby I’m feeding is so patient and sweet and dimpled, she is the easiest part of my day, and she will only be this way for a moment.  My son rocks at math and is tending to his super-brain in the dining room.  We can afford piano lessons.  Bathtime – well, I guess the upside is we have running water.  My children’s minds teem with creative questions and ideas – everything is new and exciting and full of promise, as it should be.
           I’ve taught my kids a phrase that we recite when one of us is being ungrateful, which is most days.  “Let’s have an ‘attitude of gratitude,’ guys.”  I heard it on the radio once and loved it.  It rhymes, which kids like and makes it easy to remember, and it sums up the frame of mind we need.  I remind them of it from time to time, but I also need to remind myself.  This crazy life is a gift.  Crazy means it’s full.  Of people we love, and things to do, and the resources with which to do them.  If I am sitting down writing a blog, if you are sitting down reading a blog, I can assume we are in a mutual state of having been fed, sheltered and blessed with an internet connection.  We are not  suffering from starvation, or dying from the record-breaking temperatures, or being sold into the sex trade.  We may have our problems, but there’s always something worse.  Always something to be grateful for.  Always others to worry about more than ourselves.
           I started this post the other day with a blank page, and a blank mind to match.  I had nothing to say, except the bit about blank pages, because that’s how I felt.  During my three hours of writing time I put my head down a lot, checked email, updated my shopping cart on Amazon, and I ended up with one paragraph and two sentences.  Not a success.  But today I have some ideas rolling around up top and my blank page has changed.  It is full.  Whether it was a mood swing, an energy burst, or the yummy bubble tea I’m currently drinking, something shifted my perspective of this empty page to a space full of potential, waiting to spill over with words.  I’m grateful for that.  Sometimes it takes more than a couple days to see a situation in a different light.  Some things are just plain hard and you need serious effort, and prayer and caffeine to be able to change your point of view.  To see how anyone else has it worse.  Those days do come.  But the rest of the time we can keep on truckin’, looking at the flip side, having an attitude of gratitude and teaching our kids to do the same.

Helpless

         Helplessness feels terrible.  Like flailing arms and legs, smacking against  anything close by and bruising the skin without knowing how to stop.  Watching coverage of the Waldo Canyon fires this summer was heart-breaking.  I have many friends in Colorado Springs, and I worried for their homes, as well as their lives, as the flames jumped Queens Canyon and shot down the mountain.  Witnessing devastation on such a large scale, when it’s impossible to help, hurts the heart.
          Feeling helpless yourself is awful, too.  I had an abscessed tooth in the fall and I felt more helpless than any time I can remember since being a kid..  There was no way to breathe through the pain as I had done in childbirth.  No way to get away from it at all.  It was in my head, throbbing and constant and exponentially worsening every twenty minutes.  Waiting until morning when the dentist’s office opened was torture, and it shook my nerves to feel so fragile.  But that’s still not the worst.
          The worst kind of helpless is for someone you love. Someone right in front of you, close enough to touch but who feels miles away when you can’t do anything to help the pain.  My four-year-old daughter Lily had mono last winter, and along with it, hives which recurred for two and a half months.  Not every day, but most, and it was a sad thing to watch.  I remember once lying with her in the middle of the night while she cried inconsolably from the itching.  I had woken up to her cries and gone to see what was wrong.  It was too dark to see the state of her skin, and I didn’t want to wake up my son who shares her room, so I got a flashlight to assess the damage.  When I shone the light on her little leg I gasped at the sight.  Big, red welts all over.  As I moved the light across her body – to her other leg, her arms, her neck and face, her feet – every bit was covered in itchy blotches.  She looked diseased.  My heart broke for her and I wanted to cry, too.
          I ran downstairs and looked up home remedies for hives online.  There wasn’t much.  A cool washcloth, Benadryl (which hadn’t helped before), some herbs I didn’t have.  I tried the washcloth, but cold and wet on top of itchy was not what she wanted; she only cried harder.  As she tossed and flailed her arms and legs around I recognized the same feeling within myself.  Knowing that there was nothing I could do to help, no remedy available that I could administer, made my heart flail.  My mind raced, grasping for some way to make it better.  My little girl who during the day can make me crazy with the number of times I have to ask her to put on her shoes, who causes me to employ deep breathing just to get through her tantrums, who’s favorite word is “actually,” meaning she has changed her mind about what she wants for lunch once again – this little being had my heart.  The sight of her pain rocked me.  It wasn’t life-threatening and really only had immediate consequences – no long-term problems would occur from this bout of hives – but knowing I couldn’t do a thing to help my baby girl made me ache.
          And it was good for me.
          We need to feel helpless sometimes.  It makes us humble.  Makes us realize our smallness in the wide universe.  Gets rid of our western self-centeredness.  It frees us up from trying to control everything and gives us open hands, even pleading ones – for help.  From clenched fist to open palm.  This is a lesson I have to be reminded of repeatedly, as I’m a fist-clencher by nature.  Which is why when Lily had hives and I couldn’t fix them it was good for my soul.
          Even the mom, the one in charge, the one with band-aids, and wipes, and snacks in her purse at all times, couldn’t make this one better.  It hurt, as many good-for-the-soul things do.  Pain is unavoidable in this experience we call being human.  It’s just part of the deal.  It’s our job to give it breathing room to do its thing and move on.
          That’s hard for me; I want to push pain away, to block it out, to hold on tight to my delusion of control.  But when there’s nothing to be done, helplessness is healing.  It didn’t make the hives go away (zinc pills and acupressure did that) but it made my clenched fists open up and I focused on holding my little girl, stroking her face, letting her pain breathe until it moved on.  We were helpless together, just as it should be.