Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On Living an Authentic Life and Parenting

A few months ago, a certain blogger-author announced she was leaving her husband for the second and final time, just one week before her book on marriage was released. I'm sure her publisher was thrilled with her decision. I debated with a few of my close female friends about the authenticity of her choice (as if we had any right to have an opinion). This author-blogger proclaimed the timing to be less important than being true to herself. I raised the question with my friends: but wasn't it odd that this same author-blogger left her husband the first time the same week her first book came out?

That same week that she left her husband, her good friend, another author, left her husband for a woman. In the sake of honesty, of living an authentic life. And last week the author-blogger mentioned above who left her husband a few months ago just shared with a live audience that she is in a relationship with a woman.

I feel like I'm moving up and down on the wake of these two women's decisions. I feel off balance and affected though the only way I'll meet either one of them is by standing in a long line for hours with fellow fans in order to get five second with her and my book signed (which I did once). The fluidity of the world has me on shifting ground. I have no problem with alternative lifestyles (or do I? I've examined myself because of my reaction to these women's decisions in the past week), and support gay marriage and have taught my children that love matters most, no matter the coupling.

But, speaking of children, here is what is eating at me: How does this change of pace, this "living an authentic life," this changing of direction affect the children in the picture? I'm no child psychologist, but as children grow and change and experiment themselves, what if their foundation--their parents--are still growing and changing and experimenting themselves? What are the lasting effects on children if their foundation is constantly shifting? It's not just changing the gender of one's partner. It's also divorce, which has been around for long enough.

It's not just the children that matter, but I think they matter more. As parents, do we give up some of our own right to live an authentic life when we have children? Or do we have all of the same rights, and we get to make decisions without carefully and deliberately thinking of how those decisions might affect our children now and in the future? Shouldn't we just make a choice and stick to it--whatever that choice is, whatever the consequences of commitment (because, remember, there are moments when any commitment is fraught with discomfort and challenges and hard stuff)?

I'm full of questions this week. I don't know the answers, but my gut says that there are going to be some consequences for our children if we parents don't provide a firmer foundation for our children. There are so many unknowns out there for them--shouldn't we be their Known, their Familiar, their Rock? Or can we be even if we leave our partners once or twice, or fall out of love with a woman and in love with a man?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Things My Daughter Learns From Me

My daughter had a difficult horseback riding lesson last week. As always, the two lessons before affected how she was feeling and riding. Two lessons prior, she had had a break through on getting her horse to canter. Finally, after a year or more of manic trotting before finally being rewarded with a rolling canter, she figured out how hard she needed to kick in order to go from a walk to a canter, bypassing that messy trot. But during the lesson after that, her horse spooked at the canter and took off with her--my daughter got her pony back under control and ended the hour with a laugh, but she was rattled. What spooked the pony, you wonder? Her horrified mother who was walking her innocent puppy.

All of this led to an uncertain, hesitant rider on a lazy pony. This is not a good combination, because the pony instinctively knows that she can avoid the work being asked of her. My daughter sat atop that pony and sorta kinda kicked her. Sorta kinda asked her to canter. She sorta kinda did this again and again and again. The instructor, determined to repeat the success from a week ago, gave the instructions while pony and rider trotted like mad but did not canter: "Walk again. Now canter." Those four words came out over and over and over.

And as the words rolled across the ring, frustration set in. I could see my daughter trying to stay determined, but she wasn't very determined to begin with, because she didn't want the pony to bolt again. It's a hard balance--wanting the horse to go faster, but not too fast. Using a lot of leg, but a little hand, too.

Watching my children fail is one of the hardest parts of parenting. My brain understands that it is important, that she is in good hands with her instructors. I know firsthand how cruel it is to learn that you have to relearn everything when you ride a horse. Or when you relearn stuff in life. I know firsthand how tough transitions are from a walk to a canter. Or transitions in life. But let's face it: failing is painful.

My daughter's instructor chose that moment to do what I just did in the paragraph above--to draw out from what was going on in the ring to the bigger lessons in life. If she didn't know if she wanted to canter, did she know what she wanted to do in life? If she didn't see in her mind what she wanted the pony to do, how could she see in her mind what she wanted to have happen in life? My daughter was already a mess, and this lecture made her wilt. Her shoulders slumped, her hard hat fell down, the tears plopped down on her pony's mane. I recognize the wilting because I know I do it when lectured in my own real life. I don't usually fight back; I look down, get quiet, and work on a wall of resentment. I'm not proud of this, but...it's what I do. And looking at my daughter, I grew mad at myself for teaching her to do the same.

To no one's surprise, the lesson ended in more tears. My daughter and I walked around in silence, cooling out the pony. She dismounted and spat out, through angry and sad and frustrated tears, "Can't I just wait in the car, Mom?"

"No. There are things that need to be done," I said firmly. "Let's do them together."

She cried through all the necessary after-lesson chores. Pick all four hooves. Untack the pony. Put the saddle away in one room, the girth and saddle pad in another room. Curry the pony well. Brush the pony. Rub the spots behind her ears where she sweats the most. Give her one treat. Put on her blanket. Walk her back to her stall. Roll the stall door closed. Clean the bridle. Rub the bit clean with a rag. Put it back on the right hook. Thank your instructor (not sure this one was well done, but...).

The ride back home was quiet until my daughter found her sense of humor again and could chat about things other than ponies and transitions and cantering. But in the quiet, after I finished beating myself up for teaching her to get quiet instead of getting angry, I realized that I did teach her other things. Better things. More useful things.

I know she sees me doing what needs to be done, and never, not once, letting someone down just because I'm sad or lonely or frustrated. I do not wallow or lie comatose in the face of frustration or sad. I keep on keeping on, always moving forward, even during the low times in my life during which life's daily tasks were the only things that propelled me forward, onward, upward.

It's humbling and alarming and wonderful how closely apples fall from the trees in which they grow. I can only hope it's a net positive--that my daughter learns a little more good habits from me than my own bad habits. And let me try and work on those bad habits while she's still in the house to watch me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

For the Joy of It

I've thoroughly enjoyed watching my kids run their cross country races these past few weeks. As a long-time runner myself, it's great fun to watch my kids--and the dozens of others--run their own pace. My three are competitive and want to win; my oldest son darted to the front of the pack in his race, yet smiled wildly at me when he heard me cheering. "Look at me, Mom!" he seemed to say.

I know he was thrilled and proud to win, but he was also just delighted to run fast.

The boys (each race was gender and grade specific) behind him were also happy to run their hearts out, at whatever speed they chose. The crowd cheered the front runners, sure, but they also clapped and yelled for the boys who chose to trot instead of sprint, who laughed with their buddies instead of trying to beat them.

It's all about the joy of running, and how each defined it, and that was a joy to witness.

Also last week, I finished a wonderful new middle grade novel: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan. This book is written from multiple perspectives and in verse; each student writes poetry of all sorts to describe and record his or her feelings about the fact that their school will be torn down at the end of the school year. (Read my full review here.) Because I write middle grade, I read a lot of middle grade, yet I resist the temptation to push all of the ones I love on my daughter. But this one was so very special that I asked Lorelei to read it (well, technically, I asked her to read the first five chapters and she could choose to read on or not).

She read the first five chapters, and then kept going. She loved it almost as much as I did! But her reaction was very different than mine. I blogged about the book, tweeted about how much I loved it, posted and reposted my review on social media.

What did Lorelei do?

"Mom, I'm going to write a collection of poetry all about Sunny (our puppy)!"

And she did. Wonderful, clever, sweet little poems that were, to this writer-mom, extraordinary. A dozen of them! She played with many of the types of poems in the book and applied her own wit and intellect and subject matter and sat for a few hours writing them down then reading them out loud to me.

I told her, "These are so great! I wish that Highlights or some magazine was asking for poetry because you could send them in!"

She just smiled and shrugged, went back to her verses. 

What a lesson, and one that was the same but less clear to me than when I watched my son run: Do things because you love that thing, because it's just so very fun to do. I lose myself in the publishing side of writing, becoming consumed by who to query and getting frustrated by rejections. But I'm going to remember her carefree smile and shrug and try just a little to find more delight in creating stories rather than getting them in front of you, dear reader.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Scrolling for Birth Years

Earlier this morning I forgot my apple ID password. Again. I'm blaming it on the iPhone update, which I was forced to do and now I hate. But, if I'm forced to be honest, it probably has to do with my memory. One of the things I had to do in order for Apple to acknowledge that I am, in fact, me was to ask two security questions and my birth date.

I passed the first two tests (whew!) and got to my birth date. My finger easily found July and I had to let the numbers roll, Vegas-slot-machine-style, to "31." Okay, done.

Then, to the year. I feel like scrolling to "1976" took a while. Like, too long for this newly 40 year old's liking. But I chuckled to myself, knowing that age ain't nothing but a number. It's just amazing to me that kids born in the 2000s are getting driver's licenses this year. And kids born when I graduated from college (1998) can vote in this crazy election. Silly statistics like these blow me away each time I read them.

A few hours later, I sat at my computer, buying two airline tickets. These aren't just any airline tickets to carry any ol' person from Place A to Place B. Nope, these tickets are carrying my mother and her father, my sweet grandfather, from Erie, Pennsylvania, all the way to me in Seattle, Washington. My 94 year old grandfather is flying across the country to attend my children's Grandparents' Day at their new school here in Washington. I'm so excited. I'm a little nervous, too--he is in excellent health for such an old guy, but I know this sort of trip takes a certain amount of courage, and I'm so lucky that he's got that amount (and more, methinks).

I had to enter his birth date into the system to buy his plane ticket. 1922. Man. 1922! I had to shake my head at the fact that, just a few hours earlier, I was blown away by my own birth year. I've got nothing on my Grandpa, and that's a fun thing.

My fingers and toes are crossed that his journey is as quick and easy as possible. I can't wait for him (and my mom!) to get here. The times when four generations of my family can be together, under one roof, sitting at one table, laughing at the same stories is so very limited and, therefore, so very precious.

I bought two airline tickets so that I could have this priceless stuff of memories!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Expenses: Then & Now

I'm so happy I have my old journals from my time in Kolkata, India. Last night as I turned the pages and read some of my over-the-top sentiments about the scenes I was witnessing, about the sweet boy I was falling for, about the bizarre food I was eating and its effects on my stomach, I came across my expenses for the entire trip.

The facts: I wanted to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity after graduating from college, so I took all of the graduation money my family generously gave me, changed it into Traveler's Checks (remember those?) and boarded a plane. (I had fundraised and earned enough money for the plane ticket.) My plan was to stay as long as I could--in the late 1990s, you could buy a plane ticket with a flexible return date, so I'd just schedule the date as I ran out of money.

I ended up staying for six months. Every four or five weeks, I would leave Kolkata to travel. I wanted to see as much of India as possible, and short breaks from the pollution and emotional difficulty of the work were good things. The first month, I took a train north to tea-infused Darjeeling, then took a bus west into Nepal, where I stayed in Katmandu and listened to trekkers tell wild tales. The second month I went to a quiet town on the coast, Puri, and saw where a huge hurricane left its mark. Next I headed to Agra, by way of busy Delhi, to see the unbelievably perfect Taj Mahal. Finally, six weeks before leaving, I took a train to Kerala, perched on the southern tip of India, and stayed with the family of one of the Sisters with whom I had been working. I rang in the New Year in a huge Catholic church, thanking God for last year's blessings and beginning the New Year with prayers and hope.

I lived in cheap hostels and ate at tourist dives, wrote dozens of letters home each month and bought used books in shops along Sudder Street in Kolkata. I drank Kingfisher with the other volunteers, laughing at the craziness of the city and trying to solve the big problems of the city and the world and humanity with my new friends from Germany, Argentina, Mexico, Ireland, and other countries.

How much did all this cost me? $880.

I've been thinking about that amount all day today, as I shopped at Cosco for my family of five (plus one puppy), as I wrote a check out for a new thingamajig we're putting into the garage, as I signed up for a special class at the Crossfit I frequent. It feels like life here in America--my life here in America--costs $880 a day.

Just trying to make sense of this one small figure and how it brought me so much.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Effort

This past week, I received yet another rejection for one of my picture books, my long-time critique partner bailed on me yet again and I realized I need to find another person or group, and my husband's work schedule and my children's sports schedule requires me to miss half a day of a writing conference I was excited about.

There is definitely a part of me that wants to throw my hands up in despair. "Everything's against me! The world doesn't want me to write!" this part of me wants to whimper.

But I can't give in to that part of me. I'll honor it with a little time, some chocolate and wine, and then tuck it away and ignore it like I always do when these feelings crop up.

This time it's a little easier to get on with it and get back to writing, thanks to the example my kids have given me on what effort looks like.

This past Sunday, my children had their first cross-country meet. They are only 5, 7, and 9; the younger two (boys) run 700 meters and the older one (girl) runs a full mile. The two boys think they're pretty awesome and are big smack-talkers...for weeks before this race the two were perfecting the  Usain Bolt-style "dab" they'd do at the end of their race when they won it. When they won their individual races. There was never a doubt in these boys' minds. Big egos indeed, and the two of them together made the other keep on talking. My husband and I warned them that 40 boys would be in each race, that there are lots of speedy little runners in our new home state, and gave them the proverbial "Just give it your best effort and we'll be proud" speech.

The first race of the day: kindergarten boys. Our youngest child strode up to the line, his chest puffed out with pride, his shaky smile trying to look confident, his mind totally focused on what he was about to do. You could see the excitement in his face, but there was no mistaking the sprinkle of fear there, too. The starter blew the whistle, and he was off! He sprinted to the front as fast as he could, and ran down the hill with 39-ish boys close behind, chasing him.

The course wound down into some trees, then along a path before it followed a fairly steep hill up, up, up before the course leveled out to a nice, flat straightaway before the balloon-arch finish line. After I watched him and the other five year old runners disappear into the woods, I walked over to the top of the hill. I waited a bit, then saw other people further down the hill start to clap. I knew the boys were on their way out of the woods and up the hill.

But I was wrong. It wasn't a group of boys. It was one boy. It was MY BOY! His bright neon yellow shorts were moving in rhythm: left, right, left, right. He was in first place! MY BOY was in first place! I yelled like only a crazed mother could. I could tell from his face that he was tired, that gravity and exhaustion and the heat of the day and his ridiculous fast start were pressing on him, trying to convince him to quit running, to walk, if only for a moment.

But he didn't. He charged up that hill as fast as his legs could carry him, then gave a final sprint to the finish line, where my husband and I cried and lifted him up and treated him as if he just beat Usain Bolt in the Olympics. My boy gave no "dab"--he was too tired, too spent. He had given that race every ounce of his effort. He was totally and completely spent.

I was so proud, I thought I might burst!

So today when I'm feeling a bit mopey about my seemingly stagnant writing career, I realize that I have more effort to give, and I'm looking to my son (and my older son who won his race with equal effort and my daughter, who surprised herself in the mile run by finishing in the top ten and was shaking from her big effort) to remind me how to push myself.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My cousin Agnes

My cousin, I'll call her Agnes, traveled across the country to help my family settle into our new digs in Washington State. We did our own cross-country trip, once nearly meeting up with Agnes at the Grand Canyon, except she was visiting the North Rim and we were on the South Rim. We pretended to wave to each other from one side to the other. Turns out she blindly followed her GPS and was on the South Rim!

Though we didn't bump into each other at that National Park, we did follow each others' travels on Instagram. Me with my three kids posed and posted. Agnes with her good friend snapped silly pictures and wrote sillier captions. I was no match for her, and I'm totally okay with that--she's cute and sassy, snarky and self-deprecating in the funniest of ways. She can go from tank top hiker to red lips hot mama so fast it makes my head spin. The fact that she posed in bad cheerleader poses across the country in historic places, national parks, and in front of state signs particularly cracked me up.

We're a decade apart, Agnes and I, but the cousins in our family have always been tight. When Agnes was barely eating solid food, my sister and cousin and I would feed her Sour Patch Kids to watch Agnes scrunch her face and stick out her tongue out of shock for the strange flavor. The three of us would howl with laughter, then hug Agnes tight. Once my sister told her that if she walked on the floor of our great-aunt's musty-smelling, haunted-feeling apartment, the floor would cave in. She cried when that aunt asked her to come sit on her lap, a trip that would require her to walk across the floor. Again, we howled at the joke, but loved Agnes all the more because she believed us.

Still, I hadn't realized how much respect I'd feel for her by the end of our month together. Agnes came up with a simple but powerful saying in her 29th year: say YES! She was a fantastic example to my kids in her approach to new things, of which there were many for my crew. She said YES! to new gyms, YES! to new workouts, YES! to new food, YES! new places to swim (like the cold Puget Sound in our backyard), YES! to new adventures of every and any size. Her enthusiasm for life was as contagious as her laugh, and my kids and I soaked up the time with her, appreciating every minute. Agnes taught us car games and we all experimented with the crazy stuff you can distort yourself into on SnapChat (is that even one word? Clearly I do not have an account!).

There was another side of Agnes that my kids didn't see--the thoughtful, openly confused, but still very hopeful young woman still searching for her home. She and I drank craft beer and local wines each night, watching the sun sink slowly down over the Olympics out our window, talking about how difficult life can be--scratch that. How difficult life IS, regardless of what you're doing and what particular road you're on.

We are both children of divorce; we spoke openly about how difficult it is creating a relationship that lasts when your parents set a poor example of marriage. We both stumbled into wealth, sharing in lifestyles others earned but we play in; we spoke candidly about how awkward this is, how guilty we sometimes feel, how responsible we feel to improve others' lives because we've got it easy--too easy, we both feel. We sat down at that table at dusk but sat chatting until we sat in the pitch dark. I felt so lucky to have her there, in my kitchen. And in my life.

Once, while walking in and out of the cutest shops you can imagine in our new little town in Washington, Agnes pointed to something with her left hand. I caught sight of her wrist. I grabbed it, and gently pointed to the lines I saw on the inside of her arm.

"What's this, A?" I asked, hoping I didn't already know the answer.

But I did.

"Cuttings," she said quietly. Honestly. Bravely.

We both gulped. Tears sprang to my eyes and I didn't know what to say.

"Ten years ago, when I was 19, I remember a friend of mine asking me where I thought I'd be when I was 30. I shrugged and thought to myself, 'I don't know if I'm going to even be alive,' " she quietly admitted to me.

I was completely speechless.

This wonderful woman, this person you should hope above hope becomes your child's teacher some day, didn't care enough to live? My mind was suddenly a tornado of thoughts, and with each added thought my brain was swirling faster and faster. When did she do this to herself? Where was I? Why weren't her other cousins and I there for her? How could someone this wonderful think she was so not wonderful?

"I'm so glad you're here," I said, through tears.

And I am. I can't take back the fact that I didn't know how much she struggled ten years ago, but I will say this: Agnes has one of the best spirits on this Earth. She's full of zest and hope and love and wonderfulness and funny jokes and if I tried really, really hard one day I might be a fraction of how amazing she is. She's still figuring things out, but I am so grateful that I'm a little closer to her and am so humbled by the thought of other people I love dearly not thinking they are worth as much as they are.