Saturday, January 30, 2010

Of all the things I've lost ...

OK, I admit it. I miss my paycheck the most.

It would be much more professionally savvy, I know, to talk about how much I miss working. (I can feel you cringing from here, mom.) The intellectual stimulation. The adult companionship. Career advancement and feelings of accomplishment. All good stuff.

I don't miss any of that. Not yet, anyway. And since I didn't take this time off so I could mindlessly follow my children around and catch up on what's been happening with Oprah these days, I don't imagine I will for a while. I have eight years of unread books and journals, unwritten poems, and unthunk thoughts to catch up on.

What I don't have ... is direct deposit. And I am of two minds about it.

It's like this. Every year at Christmas, I start off the season with the noblest of intentions. I wax poetic about family, the true spirit of the season. I expound the virtues of simplicity and generosity. Our family is so blessed, I lovingly note with tears of gratitude, we don't need anything more than each other.

Then, because I do not learn, I walk into Toys R Us.

I don't know what happens in there, people. I have my suspicions that they somehow erase your memory with that scanner thing at checkout, while distracting you with a mind-boggling number of requests for personal information and credit card offers.

The next thing I know, I am standing at the exit. Two hours have passed, I am holding a receipt totaling twice the gross national product of a small country, and I am weeping inconsolably because unless my children get a full-size walking, talking robotic dinosaur baby for Christmas, they will be social outcasts forever.

In a similar vein, I can tell you at length (and likely have) why this sabbatical is worth any amount of lost income. No amount of personal sacrifice is too great for what I will gain in sanity.

But when it comes to the kids making sacrifices? That's tougher. I have, with much effort, finally reached the point where I can justify doing things for myself. But I am not yet in a place where I think it's OK for my kids to suffer in the least in order to do so.

As a result, my ability to say no to "extras" like gymnastics, karate, piano lessons, and the occasional cheerleading clinic (please note that if you do not have an 8-year-old girl who has just been offered the opportunity to have lunch with a CHEERLEADER! In her UNIFORM! you are forbidden to judge me for this) has not yet caught up with the reality of our steadily-dwindling savings account.

On the other hand, money can't buy quality parenting, right? You can't overestimate the value of your kids waking up in the morning to a home-cooked breakfast, a stimulating family discussion, and creative lunches complete with love-notes on hand-stamped stationery.

Or ... what I do. Set out cereal, point the kids to the spoon drawer, throw a PB&J in a paper sack, and wait for them to go to school so I can write about them. Priceless, right?

Hey -- it's a sabbatical, not a personality transplant.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

School is in session. Always.

Today I feel moody and irritable. And by "today," I mean "often." And by "often," I mean "pretty much all winter."

Before I had kids, I coped with this seasonal moodiness by taking to my bed when it hit the hardest. I would get up and go to work, but otherwise I'd curl up with a pint of Ben & Jerry's, avoid any unnecessary social interaction, and wait for it to pass.

Now that I have kids, I don't have that luxury (such as it was). So instead I ... take natural supplements. Take not-so-natural supplements. Exercise. Rest. Eat well. Eat chocolate. Cancel social engagements. Get up and go to social engagements I'd rather cancel. Etc. That sounds random, perhaps, but it's actually a fairly scientific system derived from years of personal trial-and-error, not to mention the input of more than a few professionals of various disciplines. Often, it works.

But not always. And while you are most likely reading this from a safe distance, my family gets the privilege of experiencing my ups and downs first-hand.

My daughter is getting old enough to understand that it's not always her. Sometimes it's me. She will, on occasion, suggest that I go put on my Disney Grumpy sweatshirt. (Or, as we in this house call it, "fair warning.") On a particularly rough morning last week, she actually said: "It probably would have been a good idea to count to five before that last sentence came out of your mouth." And she was right.

Which made me think, again, wouldn't it be great if my kids learned only from what I say, and not what I do? Because it turns out they are always watching and listening, even when I think they're not. And especially when I wish they weren't.

Here are some of the lessons I fear my kids are learning from me:

  • Sometimes, it only takes a little nudge to push someone over the edge. (Wheeeeeeeee!)

  • You don't have to listen the first time, because the other person will say it again. And if it's important, she'll say it louder.

  • Some of the words mommy says at home do not go over well at school.

  • Coffee is magic.

  • Just because someone exercises and eats well while you're watching, doesn't mean there will be any pie left when you wake up in the morning.

  • Sometimes the person who loves you most lets you down, then puts herself in a time-out, and you are the only one around who can pick you back up.

  • On the other hand, if I were the perfect mother I sometimes wish I could be, my kids would miss out on some other important lessons. Things that I have probably said a million times, but that are so much more powerful when they are modeled. Things like:

  • Crying is OK.

  • Time-outs aren't just for kids.

  • When you screw up, you say you're sorry (but don't expect it to fix everything).

  • You get out of bed and do your best every day, no matter what.

  • My kids and I have a little running joke. When one of them is recounting a mistake they made, or worrying about their performance in some activity or other, I ask: "Do you have to be perfect?"

    "No!" they say.

    "Is anybody perfect?"

    "No! Nobody's perfect," my angels respond.

    "But wait! Mommy's perfect, right?"

    At this, they dissolve into giggles. Oh, the hilarity that ensues!

    Maybe that's the best lesson of all.

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    Playing favorites

    The other day a friend asked about my kids. After listening to at least 15 minutes of stories about the latest school issues and behavior challenges, she asked, "Don't you have a son, as well?"

    Ouch. It's not the first time this has happened, either. Parents, co-workers, friends ... all have asked pointedly at some time or another, "And how's N___?"

    To some degree, I can laugh it off (if a tad uncomfortably) with a crack about second-child syndrome. That's just how it goes, right?

    When A___ was a baby, each night after work the three of us would spend a magical hour together snuggling on the bed, reconnecting after the long day apart. I have vivid memories of her giggling between us as we sang "Monkeys on the Bed." Or maybe it's not memories. Maybe it's all the photos I took and lovingly arranged by developmental stage. Or those hours of video catalogued on the shelf.

    And then there were the classes! I was a Northern-Virginia-lifetime-overachiever-first-time-mom, after all. Those classes were invented for people like me. Preschool Picassos. Mommy & Me Yoga. Pacis & Pottery. Womb Ballet. Science for Sippy Cups. Thai & Tummy Time. And, of course, Water Babies. (Well, not babies, really. They had to be at least 6 months old. Teaching a baby younger than that to swim would just be ridiculous.)

    When N___ was born, things were different. We had a toddler to care for now, in addition to an infant, and our toddler was not the easygoing type who suffered occasional changes in routine, low blood sugar, or loss of sleep in silence. There seemed to be no time for leisurely snuggling. It was as if each night we stepped out of our cars and directly onto a conveyor belt of dinner, baths, and bedtime.

    And those Mommy & Me classes? Um, I think N___ watched a few of those from his stroller. While his sister participated in them, I mean. I can't be sure, though. I certainly don't have many pictures ... and the ones I do have are in a box somewhere, waiting to be put into albums that I'm planning to buy and fill just as soon as I get some spare time.

    But I have to admit, it's also a personality thing. Difficult though she may be at times, I "get" A___. I get how she learns. I relate to how she plays. I am fascinated and -- yes -- entertained by her complex dramatic scenarios.

    It seems I have to work a little harder to find things N___ and I both enjoy doing. After 5 years, for example, I still do not understand why tackling is a form of entertainment. Or grasp the rules of the let's-pick-up-a-random-object-and-pretend-it's-a-gun game. (Some would say I'm overcomplicating that one, but there must be something I'm missing, right?) My attention span for driving miniature die-cast cars in circles is approximately 8.3 seconds. And try as I might, I can't make sense of his precocious attraction to bad guys. (The bad-boy fascination didn't hit me until around age 13.)

    Hey -- it's not all my fault, here. When offered the chance, N___ does not seem the least bit enthusiastic about spending a quality hour with me, a few flashcards, and a good phonics workbook. And when his dad signed N___ up for tee-ball and then conveniently took a job that prevented him from attending any of the practices -- where apparently the parents (dads) were expected to help, by doing ridiculous things like explaining how to stand at bat and fielding balls without hitting any 4-year-olds in the head -- well, it's hard to say which of us dreaded practice days more.

    And yet, lately I've been wondering if N___ being the yin to A___'s yang is not so much reality as it is convenience. Or habit. Sure, the surface differences are there: A___ walked at 18 months; N___ came out of the womb crawling. A___ couldn't wait to learn letters and words, while N is more interested in creating with Legos. A___ commands the spotlight; N___ seems content to play a supporting role.

    But I also realize that the differences are at least in part a reflection of my own selective attention. It's been easy to find myself more excited about whatever A___ is going through at the moment, because we're going through it all for the first time together. N___ may be the second in our family to hit those milestones, but he's hitting them in his own incredible way. His unique journey also warrants -- and rewards -- my attention.

    In other words, his dramatic scenarios may be filled with characters I've never heard of, like Silver Surfer and Wolverine, but it turns out they are every bit as complex and entertaining as A___'s princess tales. And what that boy can build with Legos? Amazing!

    I just have to remember to show up, slow down, and really pay attention. To who he is -- not who I thought he'd be, or how I want him to be, or all the ways he is (or is not) different from his sister.

    So excuse me for a bit while I put down the phonics workbook, grab a Hot Wheels car or two, and spend some more time playing with my son. Next time you ask, I hope I'll have a better answer to the question: "How's N___?"

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    Sometimes, you get what you need

    Yesterday, in addition to calling me lazy for asking her to clean her room, A___ declared that I treat her like a servant.

    A number of possible responses ran through my mind, including:

    -- That's it! All versions of 'Cinderella' are banned from the house FOREVER.
    -- I don't think the word 'servant' means what you think it means.
    -- Pull up a chair, kiddo. Now seems like a perfect time for that long lecture I've been meaning to give you about orphans, child labor in third-world countries and, speaking of labor, the 18 hours that I spent LAZILY bringing your disrespectful self into this world. WITHOUT an epidural.

    Upon further consideration, though, I decided she's right about one thing: It is time for a change. Just not the one she's hoping for.

    When my husband and I were both working, I'll admit we didn't always do exactly what was best in raising our children. (Even when we had an inkling of what was actually best, which is a pretty small percentage of the time.)

    I'm not saying it's like this in every dual-income family. I know lots of families where both parents work full time, the house is always spotless and organized, the children are unfailingly polite and respectful, PTA meetings are attended, cookies are baked from scratch, and the mother regularly prepares entire meals in which each course reflects a whimsical holiday theme. (OK, I really only know one family like that. And I will find their weakness. I will! But I'm sure your family is doing just fine.)

    Us? We were TIRED. A whole lot of the time. When keeping track of two different children's snack days feels more challenging than your college differential equations class on a hangover ... when you're lucky if your kid wears shoes to daycare, let alone having two complete sets of dry, appropriately sized, LABELED clothing in his cubby ... Let's just say it's hard to resist the siren call of the Path of Least Resistance.

    Because let's face it. That path is all downhill, people! It's one long, lovely coast down a floral-scented, tree-lined avenue. Which is fantastic ... until you have to backtrack. And unfortunately you always have to backtrack eventually. (Maybe not you, cookie-baking, holiday-theming PTA mom. But the rest of us.)

    For example: When your kids are 3 years old, it obviously requires less energy to pick up their toys on any given night than to make them to do it themselves. (If the previous statement does not seem obvious to you, you've clearly never met a 3-year-old. And you might as well stop reading now.)

    Nevertheless, there will come a time when you've had enough. They're old enough to pick up their own toys, you'll say with adorably naive enthusiasm! If your kids are anything like mine, they might even go along with you for a day or two, just for the novelty. But sooner or later they will ... let's call it "disagree." And if your kids are anything like mine, they will disagree loudly. While you're staying in a hotel with thin walls and a CPS worker in the next room. Or when your mother-in-law is visiting.

    That's when you turn around and face the long, uphill climb back from the Path of Least Resistance. And that path you're headed toward? The one you pretended not to see as you made a break for the easy route? That dark, bumpy, washed-out, uphill-both-ways, avalanche-prone, sorry-excuse-for-a-road? Yeah, that one's called parenting.

    So ... despite the fact that we were both working and TIRED (did I mention tired?), my husband and I had up to this point managed many of the basics: dressing, bathing, teeth brushing. Routines had been established! Logical consequences were in place! We were feeling pretty darn good about ourselves, some days, when the stars aligned and no one threw us any curve balls, threw a tantrum, or just plain threw up.

    But getting the kids to do chores? Meaning, help out around the house above and beyond taking minimal (and I do mean minimal) care of their own hygiene? Sure, we fully intended to get around to that. Building responsibility, being part of the family, and all that. The whole identifying-age-appropriate-jobs-teaching-new-skills-creating-schedules-and-routines-coming-up-with-fitting-consequences-for-noncompliance-enforcing-consequences-coming-up-with-new-consequences-when-the-old-ones-stop-working thing? Oh, we were all for it. It just wasn't ever the right time.

    Yesterday, A___'s indignant response to being asked to pick up HER OWN ROOM appeared on the side of my path like a big, flashing, neon sign that read, "Welcome to the Right Time." This was, after all, part of the reason I left my job. So that I would have more time to keep the family on track. It's a luxury I intend to take full advantage of while I can.

    Yes, A___ is about to discover that even with a stay-at-home mom hanging around, "You can't always get what you want." (That yelling you hear? It's coming from our house. It'll die down in a week or two.)

    And when I'm done with that, I might just bake some cookies. From scratch! But I'm still not going to the PTA meetings.

    Draw your own conclusions

    I'm not saying it's a gender thing. Maybe it's just my kids. But my girl & boy definitely have different communication styles. Case in point ...

    This note from my daughter was waiting for me when I got into bed last night:

    Dear Mommy,

    I won't live here. I packed my things.

    I am leaving tomorrow. I love you.


    This is the first thing my son said to me this morning:

    "Hey, Mommy! Guess what got stuck in my pants!"

    On an unrelated topic ... when questioned this morning about why she was leaving, A___ said it was because I am "lazy" and never help her clean up her room. This was followed shortly by:

    A___: Oops! I peed on the floor a little bit!

    Me: Well, clean it up.

    A___: See?! Lazy.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    Wherein the author drops a not-so-subtle hint

    In response to feedback from a couple of people, I have opened up the Comments feature to all users. This should make it easier to leave a comment without having a Google account.

    It also means you can comment anonymously, although it will be easier to carry on a conversation with you if you leave your name. Unless I don't know you, and you've happened on this blog by mistake, and you just want to say something ugly. Then I'll delete it. Quickly. Because I don't have a job, and I spend a lot of time here right now. (Ha! Take that, imaginary, anonymously mean commenter!)

    In other words ... comment, people! Yes, I would do this even if nobody were reading it, but hearing that someone is reading it once in a while makes it a whole lot more fun.

    If you try to comment and it's still not working for you, please let me know that, too. Not that I will probably do anything about it -- when I fell upon the radio button that allows anonymous comments, I pretty much hit the ceiling of my Blogger knowledge. But it would still be nice to hear from you. :)

    Stage 3

    My journey through any illness can be broken down into three stages.

    Stage 1: Repeat after me. I am not getting sick. I am not getting sick. I am not ...

    If you don't give a virus any attention, I figure, it'll get discouraged and wander off. Think of it as that creepy guy at the party who's hanging around the edge of your conversation, just waiting for an opening. If you acknowledge him, you may not be able to shake him the rest of the night. You'll be stuck nodding politely as he enthuses about his comic book collection, while that cute guy you've been trailing all evening goes off with the hussy in the low-cut dress.

    So instead, you find something of great interest on the other side of the room. You suddenly remember you promised the hostess you'd help out in the kitchen. You drink your wine (a little faster), laugh at your friends' jokes (a little louder), and generally try to look like you're far too busy to be interrupted.

    Of course, hangers-on don't become hangers-on by picking up on subtle social cues. Which brings us to ...

    Stage 2: Respectfully disagree.

    It used to drive me crazy that my husband would, upon his first sniffle, take to his bed like a ground squirrel at the first sign of winter. I viewed his immediate and unconditional surrender as a sign of weakness, at best. At worst it seemed to indicate a propensity to shirk responsibility that did not bode well for the rest of our lives together. Not that I judge.

    I, on the other hand, had Important Work to do. "If the universe didn't intend for us to power through a few shivers and body aches, why did she give us Dayquil?" I would ask my husband, with all the moral superiority I could muster. (Which admittedly wasn't a lot, since I was usually recovering from a dizzy spell induced by some strenuous activity such as walking from the bed to the shower or bending over to pull on panty hose.)

    But those factsheets weren't going to edit themselves! Does poor grammar take the day off, just because you have a little fever? When you are the only thing standing between helpless citizens and a brochure full of comma splices, do you lie around resting and drinking tea? No, sir. You get up and do your job, mister.

    My husband, fully recovered after another 24-hour marathon sleep fest, would just shake his head. Because he knew sooner or later, I would arrive at ...

    Stage 3: Surrender.

    It used to take a long time to get here. In my twenties, it wasn't uncommon for me to spend days on end getting up, going to work, feeling awful, infecting others, fainting on the subway, and developing nasty secondary infections before I would finally admit that maybe a day of rest wasn't such a bad idea.

    When I took one, I was pleased to discover that a day of rest is in fact a fantastic idea. Yes, there's something humbling about admitting that the number of tasks you, and you alone, can complete is much smaller than you ever imagined. That those tasks will wait. And that you are, for the most part, a small cog in a much larger wheel that keeps right on turning, with or without you. But the freedom? Priceless.

    When I became a parent, I had to learn this lesson all over again. In no other role are we as essential or irreplaceable than as mommy or daddy. And yes: should my children need an automobile lifted off their tiny bodies or to be rescued from a burning building, no mere number on the thermometer will keep me from springing into action.

    But letting daddy take them to school, even if he won't do my daughter's ponytail just right? Allowing them an extra hour of TV in order to allow myself an extra hour of rest? Canned soup for dinner three nights in a row? Totally do-able. Better yet, I've realized that taking a day or two off won't turn me into that lazy shirker I so irrationally fear becoming.

    Today, I'm in Stage 3 of my latest bug. I've cancelled all of my appointments, dropped the kids off at school, and made a date with HBO.

    With a little rest, I'll be back to saving the world from comma splices in no time.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    The List

    My daughter A___ woke up this morning and presented me with a detailed schedule for her day, in 5- to 20-minute intervals. It begins ...

    7:45 Wake up
    8:00 Eat breakfast
    8:20 Get up dolls
    8:25 Get dressed
    8:35 Get into tent for work
    9:00 Go out for fresh air
    9:10 Eat lunch

    ... And later ...

    2:30 Work in tent
    2:35 Sing to mommy
    2:40 Do a puzzle
    2:45 Sit and read
    3:00 Watch N___ play
    3:10 Watch mommy make dinner
    3:30 Take time alone
    3:35 See the puppy play
    3:40 Sing to daddy
    3:45 Work in my journal
    4:00 Use the bathroom
    4:10 Read Berenstain Bears
    4:20 Work
    4:30 Play a game
    4:35 Play Tinkerbell
    4:40 Eat dinner
    5:00 Eat more dinner
    5:30 Eat candy!


    Oh, boy. I thought. This spells trouble.

    Because it was soon apparent (if not surprising) that she intended to stick to this schedule. Right down to the 10 minutes she spent outside in the 40-something-degree "fresh air" in her T-shirt, followed by the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she proceeded to make for her 9 AM "lunch."

    Any and all questions about her behavior were met with a shrug. "It's on the list." In other words, this entirely arbitrary collection of activities with times attached had taken on a life of its own. It had Authority. It was The List.

    Now, I understand that my kid likes schedules. They help her feel in control, in a world that regularly assaults her senses and nervous system without warning. But she can also be a tad ... putting it nicely ... rigid.

    So my husband and I exchanged our hang-on-it's-going-to-be-a-bumpy-ride look once again, as we gently informed A___ that our plans for the day diverged from The List. Then we hunkered down to ride out the tantrum that inevitably followed, all the while shaking our heads over her inflexibility. Where does she get it?

    Less than an hour later, and without a hint of irony, I was crying in frustration because I had a cold and lacked the strength to get through the list of PT exercises I had planned for today.

    Looking back, it's funny. And it's not.

    Why do I do this to myself? Why does my list -- usually filled with things that I want but do not need to do (we're not talking about fetching water from the well, here) -- take on such authority? How many of my days have I mapped out in 10-minute intervals? Where's the line between productive and ... well ... crazy?

    Ultimately, the problem isn't in making a list. Lists and schedules help us feel in control in a world that often throws curve balls without warning.

    The problem comes when my "arbitrary collection of activities with times attached" becomes My List. When I hand over my authority to a piece of paper, and toss in a bit of morality for good measure. As I cross things off the List, I am good. Insofar as I don't cross things off that day's List, I fail.

    Today, like most days, the universe gently informed me that her plans diverged from My List. Then she patiently rode out the tantrum that inevitably followed.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Giving up the ghost

    After all that good, solid rationalization ... I turned the job down anyway.

    Even now, the reasonable part of my brain is raising a ruckus. (OK, that part of my brain isn't really the ruckus-raising type. But it's definitely grimacing uncomfortably!) See, it believes there are only two good reasons to turn down work that doesn't involve trafficking in 13 year olds. (1) I already have some work, thanks, or (2) Gee, I'd love to, but I have so much of this dang money I couldn't possibly manage any more.

    We all know #1 isn't true, and let me assure you, #2 isn't either. So what's the deal?

    For years, I have done what can best be described as ghostwriting. We don't call it that in my industry, but that's what it amounts to: taking what someone else wants to say, and helping them say it more clearly and effectively.

    I've been told I have a knack for this. At my best, I can rework a piece of writing so that the original author says "Yes -- that's exactly what I meant," even if they didn't know exactly what they meant until they read my version.

    The trick to this is to be, like a ghost, invisible. What matters is the content, or whatever version of the content the intended audience needs to read. Your own thoughts and opinions? They don't enter in. Your voice doesn't exist. Those things all stay safely locked up behind the attic door. They may rattle their chains once in a while late at night, but they keep pretty quiet during the daylight hours.

    Let me be clear -- there's nothing inherently wrong with what I've been doing. It's good work, challenging work, necessary work ... and I may very well return to it one day. But at some point, locking yourself up in that attic becomes a habit.

    For now, I'm tired of speaking in someone else's voice and limiting my thoughts to what some imagined reader wants to hear. In the last few weeks I have begun, for better or worse, to let loose the ghosts.

    And you know what? I've got some ideas up there, people! Trunks full of 'em! They're a little wrinkled and musty, but they're there. I suspect there may even be a voice lurking somewhere among these cobwebs. I intend to throw open the attic windows, let the light in, and root out what's been hiding all this time.

    So hold my calls, please. This may take awhile.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Wherein my daughter BRINGS IT

    It's the hour between when my daughter gets home from school and when we leave to pick up her brother. She has climbed up next to me on the couch. Tweens are like wild animals that way. They'll sometimes get close, but only when you're not trying. Now we are lying lengthwise, side-by-side, both looking up at the ceiling. Her head rests in the crook of my arm.

    "Um ... Mommy?"


    "You don't know this, but ..."

    I have come to love conversations that begin this way. You never know what's coming next, but it's never dull. You don't know this, but I'm actually a mermaid. You don't know this, but yesterday Daddy said a bad word. You don't know this, but I really do have a sister. (OK, I admit that last one was a tad unnerving.)

    "I went snow camping with Daddy."

    Considered, but rejected: "Um ... kiddo? You have the cold tolerance of a 12-cent goldfish. Last time we went sledding, you lasted 34 seconds. I assure you, you have never been snow camping."

    Out loud: "You did? When?"

    "Oh, it was a long time ago, like when I was 5. I remember it was Christmas Eve, and when I woke up there were presents all around."

    At this point, she sneaks a look sideways at me, to see if I'm really buying this. I see the hint of the grin. I am careful not to react.

    Give me your best, little girl. It is ON.

    "Christmas Eve, huh? Was I there, too?"

    "Nope. It was just me and Daddy. Our tent was made out of snow and we even had a living room and made a real TV out of snow and it WORKED."

    Nice. But don't forget you got that poker face from me.

    "Seems like I would remember not being with you at Christmas. Where was I?"

    "I'm pretty sure you were in Winthrop."

    Winthrop?! Where the hell ...?

    "So everything was made out of snow? That's cool. How did you stay warm?"

    The grin is getting bigger. She doesn't even hesitate before saying with authority: "Loose clothing that dries quickly."

    God help us when she is old enough to REALLY have something to lie about.

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    Welcome to my life.

    The universe is having itself a good chuckle about my plans.

    November and December were consumed by kids' birthday parties, a family vacation, and the holidays. But January was going to mark the beginning of my 'official' sabbatical. Six blissful months of Me Time. No work -- just long, quiet hours of reflection, meditation, writing ... focus.

    I was also going to Get Organized. File those stacks of bills and papers. Print and arrange into albums the last two years of photos. Sort the kids' toys into neatly labeled bins. Alphabetize the pantry. (You know, the basics.)

    So last Monday the kids finally went back to school, the house was finally quiet ... and I got a job offer. It's not a permanent, full-time job, but it's not a small job either. I'm thinking about taking it, in part because the birthdays, vacation, and holidays all turned out to be a little more expensive than anticipated. Money? Money sounds real good.

    I tend to fantasize about my life being organized into neatly labeled bins. Time With the Kids. Time to Write. Time to Be Sad. Time to Laugh. I have this theory that I'm at my best when I can focus on one thing at a time.

    Maybe that works if you live alone.

    My life -- like my house -- is a bit messier. Ideas for writing come when the family needs dinner. The kids make me laugh in the midst of an otherwise depressing day. Thinking time gets (ahem) interrupted.

    So what if this sabbatical isn't, as I had envisioned it, a time-limited, neatly-wrapped-with-a-bow-at-both-ends 'break' from my life? A time when the world just stops, and waits for me to get caught up? What if this is my life?

    True, I'm not working a steady job at the moment. But the family will still get sick. The phone will still ring. I will still be jotting down notes for the blog on the back of a grocery list while watching piano lessons, or racing home from the gym to get the dog to the vet. And apparently, opportunities will pop up before I am ready for them.

    It reminds me of why I rarely bother to organize the kids' toys. I can get some of them grouped into bins, sure -- Legos, doll clothes, cars -- but in the end I'm left with a bunch of stuff that belongs in two places at once (Lego cars), and other stuff that defies labels altogether (pretty much anything that comes in a Happy Meal box). Oh -- and while I'm organizing the toys in one room? The kids are building a fort with my Tupperware in another.

    One of my new favorite writers, Brad Warner, writes in Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, "It's a common romantic dream to want to live completely free from other people. But it never really happens. You can meditate for nine years in your cave, but someone's still gotta bring you sandwiches."

    I choose these people. I choose this messy, disorganized life. Even if I'm usually the one who ends up bringing the sandwiches.

    Friday, January 8, 2010

    Therefore I am

    I'm now a week into this blog, and it's giving me some angst. So yeah ... we're pretty much right on schedule.

    The blog is definitely inspiring me to write more, and to write things beyond my comfort zone. (Perhaps beyond yours, too, but that's not my intention. Just a bonus.) Still, I have moments where I question whether it's distracting me from the more important work, the serious work, the "real" writing I am "supposed" to be doing.

    See, when I decided to quit my job, I told everybody I was taking a sabbatical to Write A Book. Of Poetry, with a capital P thankyouverymuch. That felt weighty and important, and much more focused than saying I was quitting because I was tired, or bored, or needed to "find myself." (None of which was true, of course. Especially if you happen to be a potential future employer. I really am very focused and not at all the flighty type. I swear! Please stop reading now and check my references.)

    Yes, I planned to do other things as well, like parent my kids more effectively for example. But capital-P-Poetry was my Real Work. But the truth is that since leaving my job, I haven't been inspired to write much of that. And what I have written? Well ... most of it just isn't very good.

    Which was making me feel like a capital-F-Failure.

    Then I realized: I've done it again. I've gone and made something I do a stand-in for Who I Am.

    Funny things happen when I do that. I might, purely hypothetically, get so obsessive about running that I push too hard and injure my knee. (Repeatedly.) I might worry so much about how my parenting looks to others that I stop paying attention to what my kids actually need. I might start spending a lot more time shopping for the perfect Laughing Buddha statue and a lot less time sitting on the cushion. (Where is that cushion, anyway?) Or, I might put so much pressure on myself to produce capital-P-Poetry that I stop writing altogether.

    There are all kinds of reasons why defining yourself by what you do is a bad idea, but the bottom line is that it's just plain inaccurate. And as Buddha said, inaccuracy creates suffering. (I might be taking some liberties with the Pali there, but I'm pretty sure he'd agree with me in spirit.)

    I am the sum of all I have experienced, of everything I think, feel, and do. As such, I am changing every minute. Every new thought, feeling, and experience creates a new version of what I call "me," with the potential to think, feel, and experience new and unprecedented things. To expect otherwise (of myself or others) is to set myself up for certain disappointment.

    So. Right now, I am ... not a Blogger ... but blogging. In a minute, I will be throwing a toy for the dog. In an hour, I will be having lunch with a friend. Tonight, I will be parenting my kids with the fullest attention I can muster.

    I hope that soon I'll be writing a poem. But until then, I'm giving myself a capital-B-Break

    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    Wherein the author discovers that honesty is not always the best policy

    So I was sitting in my physical therapist's office the other day, waiting for him to come in, when I discovered a frightening-looking rash on my calves. We're not talking about a slight flush. Not a subtle, even surface of tiny red bumps. A splotchy, angry, toddler-who-just-had-a-tantrum-face RASH.

    Maybe he won't notice, I thought hopefully. He probably won't notice ... why on earth would my PT, in the course of working on my knee (which is, I realize in retrospect, in rather close proximity to my calves) notice my calves? Maybe it's not as bad as I ...

    "What the hell happened to your legs?!"

    OK. It is every bit as bad as I think.

    Because he said this immediately upon entering the room, without looking at my face, without so much as a hello, as if his eyes were powerless to resist the gravitational pull of so much splotchy awfulness.

    At this point in the story I should confess, I have a problem with compulsive honesty. (Actually, that's not true. It just sounds better than "I am generally unable to come up with a convincing lie under pressure." See?!)

    So I laughed nervously and gave him the only explanation I could think of. The truth. "Funny story, actually! I realized about 10 minutes before I was supposed to see you! That I hadn't shaved my legs!" (I have found that lots of verbal exclamation points can sometimes convince a person that a story is funny when, in fact, it is not.)

    "And I didn't really have time to do it properly! But I couldn't come without shaving, I mean, that would just be awkward, am I right?" (At this point, he was looking like he understood awkward. I took this as a sign that I was making headway. Onward with the exclamation points!)

    "So I did a ... um ... well, kind of a quick job, I guess! And look what happened!"

    He wasn't smiling. In fact, he looked concerned. "I'm going to get you some Aveeno or something." This was bad.

    "No, no! I'm fine! Really! It'll go away in ... um ... a while!" Trying to project absolute confidence in my imminent freedom-from-rash-ness.

    "OK ..." He looked unconvinced, but finally met my eyes briefly and looked at my chart. This was progress. Maybe we could move on.

    Then he said: "I was just going to ask if you'd gotten into some stinging nettles or something."


    Yes. That would be an entirely plausible and far less embarrassing explanation.

    Let's go with yours.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    On slowing down

    It may surprise you to learn that I can be a wee bit competitive. (Shall I give you a moment to recover from the shock before we move on?)

    Last January I started running, determined finally to finish that 5K I've been talking about for the last 5 years or so. And in March, I did it -- but did I stop there? No ...

    Because by then, I had induced a friend to start running, too. And then it became a thing. On the one hand, it was a great motivator to have a running partner. On the other hand, I admit becoming a little obsessed with keeping up with my far-more-athletically-inclined buddy. If she ran 3 miles, I wanted to run 4. If she ran 6 mph, I wanted to ... well ... I definitely wanted to try to keep up, because I am not very fast.

    At the height of this, on 4th of July last year, I decided to run a 5-mile course on my 4-mile (at best) legs ... and to the surprise of no one but myself, I injured my knee.

    But I acted quickly! I iced! I rested! I elevated! I compressed! For at least 3 days! And then I ran again. And ... yep ... it hurt again.

    You are, I am sure, catching on to this pattern much more quickly than I did. Because I kept it up for months.

    Until finally and reluctantly, I admitted my way wasn't working and went to see a physical therapist. Because sometimes, I'm learning, you just gotta turn it over to the experts.

    Early last year, I had a trainer who was all about the quads. We did lots of big, impressive exercises at the gym -- like jumping up on benches and down from benches and moving a lot of heavy weights around -- and my quads got bigger and stronger, and for a while I could run better. But it turns out those impressively large quads (if you like that sort of thing) were getting out of control. They were running around grabbing work from the littler muscles just to prove how strong they were. Until they ended up doing far more than they were designed to do, trying to control things they had no business controlling, and eventually ... ouch.

    So now I am back at the gym. But this time my PT is finding all of these little, weak muscles I didn't realize I needed, and he's assigning me lots of tiny, unimpressive exercises (seriously? they look like I'm not moving at all, and they are so hard!) to SLOWLY make them stronger. In the meantime, we have cut my mileage WAY back, starting at 1 mile and building from there -- but in a balanced way this time, and one that will with any luck take me further in the long ... well ... run.

    Is it frustrating? You bet. Does it hack off my competitive self? To no end. Am I going to be a stronger, better runner for it in the end? I believe I will.

    And it occurs to me that I have created some other overdeveloped "muscles" in my adult life. My Crossing-Things-Off-Lists muscle would make those big boys at the gym weep with admiration. Judgment? Self-criticism? If they were biceps, I'd be kissing them in the mirror and exhorting passers-by to "check out these guns!"

    And yes, those muscles were getting me through the day. I was functioning at work, keeping things together at home, no one the wiser, until ... ouch.

    This sabbatical is about cutting back my mileage in more ways than one. It's about doing less, and doing it all a little more slowly. At the end of most days, what I've accomplished is nothing close to what I'm used to.

    Is it frustrating sometimes? You bet. Does my competitive self need to take a time out every so often? Absolutely.

    The payoff, I hope, will come in finding and strengthening those less-developed muscles (like acceptance, patience, having fun ...) that were getting pushed aside by the bigger, stronger ones. To create more balance for whatever lies ahead.

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    Thanks for asking

    What's it like raising a kid with Sensory Processing Disorder? It's ...

    Wishing you had soundproof walls every time your kid needs her toenails clipped. Then deciding she can live with obscenely long toenails for one more day, because you don't have the energy to fight about it.

    Putting aside every sentence that begins, "You are getting too old to ..."

    Understanding that no amount of love OR logic is going to help when (a) your kid needs to pee so badly she is screaming in pain, (b) airplane bathrooms are noisy and smelly, (c) you're somewhere over Kansas on a coast-to-coast flight, and (d) FAA rules governing emergency landings are woefully lacking in this area.

    It's seriously questioning your right to operate a blender in your own home. But having an air-tight excuse for why you don't vacuum as often as you should.

    Asking yourself 100 times a day whether this is one of those times you should give in or hold your ground. And once you decide, accepting that your child can't focus on what you're saying anyway, because (a) she's already too far into a meltdown, (b) the fireplace just made a funny noise only dogs and your kid can hear, or (c) there's something in the toaster.

    It's learning to be flexible before you can teach your kid how to be flexible. And learning to ask for what your kid needs before you've finished learning how to ask for what you need.

    Realizing no amount of pleading or threats will make your kid cooperate/fake it/behave just this once because a meltdown at that moment would be inconvenient or embarrassing for you. And finally "getting" that you don't have the luxury of worrying what anyone around you thinks of your parenting.

    It's understanding that you don't have to understand everything, but you will inevitably spend a lot of time explaining things you don't understand to others.

    It's making your daughter apologize for punching the inflexible, self-important dentist who won't find a way to let her plug her ears while he takes an x-ray. Even though you want to punch him, too.

    It's smiling politely when another well-meaning friend recommends yet another parenting book, because telling people "Strategies that work with 'normal' kids don't usually work with mine" just sounds like an excuse, even to you.

    It's being dog-tired of making excuses.

    What's it like? On a good day, it feels like teaching your kid to swim with one arm tied behind her back. On a bad day, it feels like watching your kid drown, with both of your arms tied behind your back.

    In other words, it's a lot like raising any other kid. Only maybe a little more so.

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Dear Apple

    It's me, Jill. One of the last people on earth who does not own an iPhone.

    Yes, I am aware they do lots of amazing things, with eleventeen thousand new applications launched daily. Some of the apps are admittedly mind-boggling. I do not pretend to understand why bumping two phones together appears to transfer data from one to the other, or how a phone can clap-on-clap-off my lights.

    But if you want my business, you will have to do better. Here are some of the apps that, if available, could sway me (and perhaps a few other moms) to the dark side:

    1. Logical consequence assigner. I'm completely prepared for my kid to have his bike stolen because he left it outside, or for my daughter to be cold when she refuses to wear her coat. But I need a quick reference for those trickier situations: repeatedly squeezing the dog's head, for example, or refusing to get in the car to go somewhere she doesn't want to go anyway.

    2. Possession arrow for siblings. Does a college basketball referee have to make a decision every time two kids are fighting over a ball? Neither should I. (A similar application for parents to use in the event of diaper blowouts and night terrors would be appreciated.)

    3. Date generator. Automatically syncs your calendar with that of your spouse and babysitter and identifies the single time slot in the next 3 months when all of you are free.

    4. "How likely is this babysitter to steal my prescription meds?" Self-explanatory. A tip for the programmers, though: A tendency to play imaginary baseball with the children should be a red flag. Dating a musician also weighs against.

    5. "Watch this!" Allows the parent to observe whatever underwhelming trick is being performed and respond with appropriate expressions of wonder, while simultaneously completing the task that almost certainly requires said parent's immediate and full attention (e.g., operating a motor vehicle).

    6. Sex predictor. Computes the statistical likelihood of marital relations in the next 24 hours based on a few simple inputs. Because who really has time to shave her legs if it's not absolutely necessary?

    7. "What was I just saying?" Again, self-explanatory. If anyone can find where all of my lost thoughts have gone for the last 8 years, surely your engineers can.

    Get to work, Apple! You come out with these, and we have a deal.

    Saturday, January 2, 2010

    Cleaning House

    Every year around this time, we go through the kids' toys. It's unbelievable how much junk they have accumulated in their short lives.

    Yes, they are blessed with plenty of great stuff. But so much of what spills from the closets and litters their bedroom floors is just junk--cheap plastic figurines from fast food restaurants, useless trinkets from the obligatory birthday party goodie bags, stray pieces from games and puzzles we threw out last winter ... you know, junk. And then there's all the stuff that used to be good--those once-loved, well-used, toys now abandoned because they have simply been outgrown.

    What's amazing to me is that as the kids get older, it gets harder and harder to convince them to part with things. At 3 and 4, they were generous, even cavalier with their belongings. Sometimes I would secretly rescue a toy they'd casually tossed into the giveaway box. Now at 5 and 8, they are more cautious. This year, we had to reassure them, repeatedly, that we would not force them to let go of anything they loved, or that they still needed.

    I can relate.

    Cleaning house can be scary. It's hard to let go of what we used to love or need, or what we are just used to having around, even if it doesn't now (and maybe never did) bring us any joy.

    On the other hand, when we can do it, getting rid of the clutter brings a certain freedom. In discarding what we don't need, we often discover some treasures we didn't realize we had, or thought we'd lost long ago. These, we can dust off and put back on a more spacious shelf, where they can be accessed that much more readily.

    In 2010, there's definitely some "junk" I'm ready to get rid of. My cupboards are overflowing with it. Maybe I thought I needed it once. In most cases, it never gave me any joy. In any case, at this point ... it's just getting in my way.

    Self-doubt, for example. The persistent low rumble of self-criticism. The habit of comparing myself to others. The compulsive need to turn sideways every time I pass a mirror, to see if my belly is showing. A lingering dissatisfaction with my eyebrows. In other words ... Vanity. Perfectionism. Fear.

    In doing so, I hope to make room for the things I need much more of in my life. Those that do serve me well but that so often get lost amidst the junk. Things like courage and playfulness. Love and generosity. Creativity. Acceptance. Integrity.

    So how about you? What's hanging around, tripping you up? What are you still clinging to that you've long outgrown? What gems are there, waiting to be found?

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    Help Wanted

    A couple of months ago, I quit my job.

    There were all kinds of reasons not to do this. It's a bad economy, and mine was a good job: it paid well, the people were nice, it was flexible for my family. Oh -- and I didn't have another one lined up.

    It's not that I didn't think about getting another job; I did. I looked around every so often, as one does. I browsed Craig's List. Searched Monster. But nothing in my field really seemed to "fit." Mostly I just wasn't interested. Or I was sure they wouldn't be interested in me. That there were several thousand people more qualified for the position than I.

    For a while I considered dropping everything and choosing a new career path altogether. But after all these years of schooling, did I really have it in me to go back to square one, head back to school, start again at the bottom? Wasn't it easier just to stay in a profession where I had already achieved a measure of success? Where I could rest on my laurels, such as they were?

    Assuming, then, that no better job awaited me, I pressed on. Yet as the weeks and months passed, it became more and more apparent to me (if not, it seemed, to anyone else), that I was faking it. Phoning it in. I needed a change.

    In an 1864 campaign speech, Abraham Lincoln popularized the notion that it is unwise to "swap horses in midstream." He was referring, of course, to the Civil War that was tearing the country apart, and making a case for his continued leadership to see the country through its present crisis.

    I recognize that my middle-class job dissatisfaction doesn't meet most people's definition of a "crisis," midlife or otherwise. But I reached a point in the last year or so when I realized: the horse I rode in on doesn't have the chops to take me where I want to go next. The fear that has guided so many of my life decisions up to this point--fear of offending someone, of being wrong, of making a mistake, of not making, doing, or being "enough" ... that fear, like a horse with a bit in its teeth, was running wild. And I was just along for the ride.

    So I humbly beg to disagree with Lincoln in this one respect. Sometimes a change of horses is precisely what is called for.

    And as luck would have it, I've stumbled upon the perfect job. Sure, I have the typical first-day jitters. It's a new position--there's no manual, no set procedures to follow. I'll probably make more than a few mistakes along the way. On the other hand, there's no supervisor to please, no 3-month probationary period, and no "measurable goals" to meet. And as it turns out, there's not a soul better qualified for the role than me.

    It's the job of being myself. Let it begin.