Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Black Eye.

The inevitable happened: my son came home with a black eye.

Admittedly, it was a mini black eye, but as he's mini himself at not-yet-5, still in preschool...it was a momentous occasion.

He walked in the door after being with his grammy, my mom, for a few hours after school and I saw the bruising on the bones near his eye immediately.  Here's the nonchalant conversation that ensued:

Me: "Hey, Ben.  What happened to your eye?"
Ben: "Jack hit me."
Me: "Really.  Why?
Ben: "I didn't run fast enough."
Me: "Oh. But you're pretty fast.  Where did this happen?"
Ben: "On the playground."

That was the first of three rounds of conversation about the little black eye on my little boy.  Of course the teacher and I exchanged some long, unemotional, respectful emails over the next few hours.  I met with her the next day to get an update on how the situation was being handled.  Long story short: It seemed like an isolated incident, little boy Jack had gotten a talking-to, and some rough-housing on the playground was over.  I was satisfied.

But the situation left me wondering, as I looked at both of my boys (and my older girl, for that matter): What rules should we have about fighting?  When is it okay, when is it not okay?

So I called my dad, a wise guy who happened to have grown up with two brothers (and two sisters) in an era when fighting was REALLY part of life.  I asked my dad what his parents' rules were about fighting.  At 62, he had no problem remembering:

  1. DO defend yourself if someone picks a fight with you.
  2. DO defend the honor of a family member--especially your mom.
  3. DO stop a bully with a fist if nothing else works.
  4. DO NOT throw the first punch in an unnecessary fight.

It was a funny, memory-filled conversation with my dad, who enjoyed reminiscing about his numerous boyhood fights a whole lot.  Especially the fight held on the church steps with a boy a few years older and bigger than him.  Dad tackled him after the boy said something nasty about my grandma's excessive weight, so the younger version of my father first punched the crap out of a kid as the neighborhood filed out of church and then got a belt whipping by his mother once he got home, because my father sure couldn't tell her why he got into a fight!

Anyway, it was our first black eye.  Surely or sadly or understandably, there will be more. Better be prepared for them, I think, and have some ground rules ready...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Calcutta: Volunteering at Prem Dan

Nearly 20 years ago I stepped off a plane in the crazy beautiful city of Calcutta.  From my journal:

The Mother House is a yellow-ish building that looks simple and actually modern on the street.  It is nondescript but everyone knows what it is, and who lived here.  Simply say “Mother Teresa” to the taxi driver and he’ll know where you want to go.  He’ll take you here through very sensational Calcutta.  I say sensational not like I’m describing a really good book or movie but because Calcutta is a city that bombards your senses.  I am gasping for air within the pollution.  My nose is confused by all these new smells.  The cacophony of taxi horns, men yelling, babies crying, music blaring, and trucks revving floors me.  And the sights: my brain cannot process what I'm seeing fast enough.

I am here to volunteer, to give what I can.

I choose to work at Prem Dan, the home for sick and dying destitutes.  To get there, I wind my way through the back streets of Calcutta, which are surprisingly quieter than the traffic-filled big streets that seem to have the loudest deadlock I've ever heard.  Does a car without a dent exist here?  I doubt it—the cabs should be made of rubber so they bounce off of each other during the inevitable daily (hourly?) fender bender.  Anyway, from the outside Prem Dan looks like a low security prison.  When you walk up to it, you stand even with the tall walls.  From there, you descend a very steep set of stairs down towards the gate, knock loudly to be let in. And then you stroll through the courtyard to where the patients are.  

Once you’re inside it looks less like a prison.  The courtyard is clean and has some flowers, just simple stuff to dress up an otherwise cement landscape.  The paint is old, and exhausted from the heat, humidity, and pollution.  That paint is tired of holding itself to the wall in anything but a dull shade.  

Prem Dan is divided in two: a male ward and a female ward.  As the volunteers enter, men head to the male side and the women go to the female ward.  It’s just another way that we have gone back in time here in Calcutta.

The work here is basic labor.  Every morning each room in each ward is cleared out and scrubbed clean—walls, floors, mattresses, beds.  Each morning, we volunteers throw water on the floor, add some turpentine and swish the stuff around with short, 14-inch brooms.  Crouching down low, butts just inches from the ground, we flick our whisks and push the water around, scraping up anything that remains on the floor from the night before.  This included bodily fluid, dal or rice from breakfast, or medicine that wasn’t taken very well.  We push the water towards the far end of the room.  We’re supposed to wear gloves, but those cheap, plastic gloves have found hands before ours to protect.  Within minutes the old gloves have holes in them and are filled with the nasty water we’re pushing around…there’s no way that wearing them, getting that nastiness trapped in next to our skin, is more sanitary.  After most of the puddles are gone and our thighs are smoked, we move on to wiping down the beds, the plastic mattresses, the walls.  This is repeated each morning; it takes about 45 minutes with a handful of volunteers, sometimes longer if there are new volunteers who are chatty and unhelpful.  Sometimes less if everyone is seasoned and focused.

The inefficiencies are somehow good, and wonderfully un-American.  I realize my own ability to make this situation work without questioning the hierarchy, and I am more cautiously aware than others that the system works for a reason.  Like the army system in which I was steeped for the first chunk of my life, there is a chain of command here that should be respected and, when unquestioned, things run more smoothly.

In those days in Calcutta, when I was barely 20 years old, my slice of life involved the Sisyphean tasks of cleaning the same room again and again, washing the same robes again and again, feeding the same women again and again.  The Sisters of Charity do all of this for years--decades!--with a smile on their face and a lightness in their hearts.  It was an incredible place to start growing up.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Random Act of Kindness, With My Boy

Last week I took my older son, my middle child Ben out to lunch.  His preschool got out a little early, and we had a few hours until we had to return to relieve my sitter who was watching his younger brother.  I told him we were going on a mother-son lunch date; he chose the restaurant.

We had a nice little time, me and Ben, but then had to get back to our car so we wouldn't be late--I was trying to hurry without rushing.  And as we walked into the parking garage towards our car, a little old Asian lady was shuffling up the ramp.  She paused to catch her breath.  She did not look well.

"Are you okay?  Can I help you with anything?" I immediately asked.

In sweetly accented English, while still breathing hard, she explained: She couldn't find her car.  She had walked around a half dozen times and was confused, tired, worried.

"Come with us," I said.  "I'll drive you around until we find your car."

This invitation shocked her, but she gratefully said yes.  She patiently waited alongside my car as Ben climbed into his seat and I pushed the mess that is always in my passenger seat in my whale-of-a-car Suburban.  Ben, normally on the high side of chatty, was wide-eyed and quiet, in disbelief that this woman, a stranger, was about to climb into our car.

But climb in she did.  And we drove around the 3d section of the parking garage, where she swore she parked, looking for her gold Honda.  In between "thank you's" and "I can't understand where my car is" I assured her that we would find her car and she would be on her way soon.

Less than ten minutes later, we solved the mystery.  Her car was not in that garage; she'd been walking around in circles for way too long in the wrong one of three parking garages.  It was in the garage right next to it, in the 3d section that she had remembered.  As she carefully climbed out of my tall car, she thanked me for my kindness.  She was so surprised by it, still.  "I'm so glad I could help," I replied with a smile.

As we drove back into our regular path on this regular day, I looked in my rear view mirror at Ben, my nearly 5 year old.  I knew his head was about to burst with questions and observations.

"Ben," I said, "We just rescued that little old lady from a bad situation.  She needed help, and we could help her.  I know that she is a stranger, and I invited her into our car, but I looked at her and really thought about it and realized that she couldn't hurt us, and that she needed us."

I continued.  "But really, I have a question for you.  When you are old enough to drive, when you are a grown up just like me, and you're going about your busy day and you see a little old lady who can't find her car and she's tired and she's confused and she's a little scared, what will you do?"

Ben smiled.  "Stop and help her."

I think he will.  I really think he will.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

One Word at a Time

My oldest son Ben is an emerging reader.  He has a large number of site words under his figurative belt but is less self-motivated than his big sister.  Whereas Lorelei would sit herself down and try to figure out every word as if it were a fun riddle to solve, Ben must be prompted to read something, and he rarely gets through more than half a book, even though he actually does read that half a book.  That's okay.  He's doing fine as is.

Over the weekend we were playing Discapades, a fun family game that he really loves, and I encouraged him to read the card himself rather than hand it directly to me.  I put my finger under each word, trying to get him to focus on that one word--and only that one word.  He would read it but jump to the next.  Always trying to rush to the next.

"Good, Ben, but one word at a time.  Don't get ahead of yourself!  Just one word at a time."

Much of what comes out of my mouth for my children really needs to boomerang right around and fly back at me with considerable force and hit me upside the head, so that I actually hear it.  These nuggets of wisdom actually did.

I've begun practicing yoga again after off-and-on practicing for most of my adult life.  As a compulsive runner and Crossfitter, I've not made the time to fit anything that won't make me sweat into my schedule.  The fact that I have three small kids--2, 4, and 6--might also have something to do with that.  The yoga that I've begun to practice probably has a cool -asana or -anthana name that I am ignorant of; all I know is that it focuses on breathwork.

As in breathing.  In.  Out.  Sometimes we count.  In 1-2-3-4, out 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.  Just one breath at a time.

I'm amazed at how counting my breath like this can actually clear my mind for a few minutes (let's be realistic--it's not for hours, but I'm amazed and proud to achieve a minute or two).  The worry and the stress and the to-do lists and the what-should-I-do-about-its are put on hold.  They don't disappear.  But the are put on hold.  And that is enough.

I wish I could say that I've incorporated 30 minutes or even just 15 minutes of this quiet meditative breathing into my days.  Nope.  Not yet.  But I do it whenever I can.  At red lights.  While my youngest son insists he sit on my lap to eat.  In carpool.  When my oldest is taking a few minutes trying to figure out what it was she was going to tell me.  In bed.

With this whole focus on breathing thing, I bring myself back to the present moment.  I realize that I can't control the next moment, much as I would like.  And that I can't change the moment that just slipped out of my reach.  Same with the days.  I struggle or soar--usually a combination of the two that resembles a steady trip--through my day, through the many conversations and decisions I am facing that threaten to overwhelm me at any given moment.  When I get to that overwhelming feeling, I can reach inside myself and pause.  That moment--that decision, that conversation, that interaction--will be there when I get back, but for now, I just need to breathe.

One breath at a time.  One word at a time.  One day at a time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On Being Happy in Hawaii

I sat in Grace's kitchen chatting with her, sitting in old chairs, listening to her point out the treasures she found at yard sales over the 50 years she has lived in this simple house on a side street in Erie, Pennsylvania.  Grace is in her 70s now.  Her world revolves around complaining.  Most of her conversations involve complaining.  Her jokes require a complaint or two.  Her compliments are actually given via complaining.  Listening to her takes patience and understanding that her life has been tougher than most.

Grace and I are not particularly close, but our conversation turned to the topic of suicide.  One of her grandsons had just attempted to end his life, and was lying in recovery on an Army post in Texas.  She swore she just didn't understand why he did it--she said this just after explaining how unhappy he was in the Army, and how he did not know what to do.  He did this just after a childhood in a troubled family, during which learning how to tackle challenges in a healthy way probably wasn't a top priority.

Grace said that while she's saddened by her grandson's story, there was a more unbelievable one.  Get THIS, was her tone: another guy in the Army had also attempted suicide, while being stationed in Hawaii.  Sadly, this guy had succeeded.  "How can you be depressed in Hawaii?" Grace muttered and whined, suggesting that once in a beautiful place, one's troubles should surely melt away.

The basic storyline of a man depressed enough to kill himself while living in Hawaii has stayed with me in the months following this strange conversation with my pseudo-grandmother in her yard sale-adorned kitchen.  It makes so much sense to me.  I identified with him.

Here was a man with his own bag of worries, some that he grew up with--say, the inability to admit to weaknesses, the habit of covering up concerns or feelings lest he appear unmanly or ungrateful.  As most adults do, some of his past decisions probably haunted him.  And he's in the Army, an institution that isn't known for its touchy-feely side.

Enter Hawaii.  The sheer fact that he lived in "paradise" might have pushed him over the edge.  Not just because of the distance from his friends and family back on the mainland and the overwhelming expense it would take to see them as frequently as he'd like.  Not just because it was a new place for him and the pressure to fit in and hit the ground running was undoubtedly there.  But because he was in Hawaii.  Isn't everyone happy there?  Aren't you supposed to be worry-free as you lie on the beaches and sunbathe, hike the tropical islands, and drink cocktails?  When you watch women move their hips in grass skirts and bikini tops, doesn't it make you want to live in the moment, not in the past?

The pressure to be happy and grateful is intense.  It can get to you.

I live in a cheery yellow house at the end of a picturesque gravel road, with woods full of tall, looming trees that surround me at all times.  Our house has a wrap-around porch with a wide swing and inviting table.  Two big dogs bark and wag their tale to welcome me.  My husband is handsome and successful, my kids healthy, bright, and beautiful.  I am fit and balanced, with a seemingly carefree smile and easy laugh, good hair and an athletic body.

Yet.  And yet.  The past few years I have tried unsuccessfully to shake a thin but stubborn blanket of sad off of me.  It's not a desperate whirlpool of sad that leads one completely helpless; I remain certain that I can get out from under my sad while in this life of mine.  I don't need to end it, regardless of how complicated and imperfect it might feel.  A part of me agrees with the message that has consistently and constantly been voiced in my ear: "You should be happy."

The desire to be happy and grateful is intense.  The lack of a clear path to it can get to you.