This past week I had the opportunity to talk to a young man of my acquaintance about his life and where he would like to be in comparison to where he is now. During that conversation I said “You are larger than the space you have been living in.” The words came out of my mouth because in the moment I felt the truth of them. But the phrase keeps wandering back through my thoughts in a way that asks me to pay attention to it, not just in relation to this young man, but also in relation to myself.
Unless we are in a period of active self-discovery and self-definition (or re-definition,) we dwell inside a set of invisible rules for ourselves. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have them. If we are happy in our lives and self-identity then we wear the rules like comfortable clothes that don’t restrict our motion. However the one constant in life is change. Who we are at twenty is different than who we are at thirty, forty, or fifty. We grow and shift, so if we are not conscious about changing our personal rule-set we can find ourselves constrained, trapped.
I came face to face with some of my unrealized personal boundaries yesterday. This same young man with whom I had the conversation got me and my entire crew of kids to go with him to an air sports gym which features professional grade trampolines, air bags, trapezes, a climbing wall, and giant foam pits. Once there, he demonstrated his considerable expertise in using trampolines to defy gravity doing flips and tricks twenty to thirty feet in the air. After which, he patiently and kindly helped my crew work on backward summersalt/flips right next to the surface of the trampolines. It was a joy to watch.
For decades I spent my outing time as a lifeguard and safety monitor. In a place like this gym, it was my task to know where my children were and whether they were following the safety rules. I had to be alert and not distracted, which meant sitting off to the side and watching while the kids played. “We go places and mom sits to the side and watches” became one of the hidden expectations of our lives. So much so that one day when I got on a bike and took a turn around our cul de sac, my kids were astonished. They gaped at me in as much disbelief as if I’d been a fish using a bicycle. I remember the feeling of having them gape at me and wondering if I’d failed somehow by becoming so boring. When they were babies I wanted to be the cool mom, the one who still did cartwheels and ran around with her kids. But somehow I’d become a spectator mom instead.
My kids are all adults now, or nearly so. They don’t need my supervision. Which meant on our trip to the gym, I wore jumping clothes fully intending to use the equipment. Yet the first moment I got on a trampoline, I could feel the eyes of my kids on me. Except it wasn’t really their eyes that were the problem. It was my own mind. I was watching me. With every bounce I hit thoughts about being too old for this, about what if I get hurt, about looking ridiculous, about doing things wrong, about being sore for days. During one of the breaks between jumping, I listened to my young aerialist friend talk about how he went about learning things. One of the critical things to learn is that you get hurt when you attempt to abort a trick part way through. I witnessed that happening around me. People would run up to an obstacle they intended to leap over and I could see the moment when their brain said “that’s really big, we can’t do that” The thought caused a fraction of a pause that changed their trajectory into a collision instead of soaring over. It is the fear of getting hurt that causes people to get hurt.
I pondered all of this as I gained confidence in bouncing. I got better at feeling the flows of the leaps. I landed more surely. I was better able to correct errant motions. I felt all of this in my body and I remembered being a younger person, who did things for joy of motion and impulse instead of pausing for a mental calculation of cost/benefit/social consequences. The ability to analyze and make considered decisions is one of the gifts of age. I have a lot more experience with life and consequences which helps me to be wise in my choices. However that weight of experience can also slow us down as we age. I could feel the weight of it in my head, telling me to be cautious both physically and socially. I had a constant awareness of risk, not just of physical injury, but also the risk of looking ridiculous attempting tricks and failing at them. Except the only way to learn to do things is to first fail at them ridiculously.
The gym had a climbing wall over a foam pit. I knew I wanted to try climbing it. So I waited for a moment when my people were all distracted with their own activities and I headed over to the wall. It seemed a good balance between avoiding outside commentary on my capabilities and not letting fear of commentary prevent me from doing the thing I wanted to try. To my surprise, the grips felt natural under my hands and feet. I traversed sideways across the wall, not daring to go high. Then I tested falling into the foam pit. After a rest, I tried the wall again and climbed all the way to the top. I liked the way climbing felt in my arms and legs. I liked the moment of apogee at the top of a trampoline bounce. I liked stepping outside of my usual sedentary activities. I liked leaving my usual observer mode to be a participant.
There was a moment after nearly two hours of play when I sat on the floor with three of my adult children and our friend. All of us were tired but happy. I was aware of an internal tension. I don’t feel old. I remember being young and energetic. I remember dancing to music in public and splashing in fountains even though I wasn’t supposed to. I remember running just for the joy of it. Yet there I sat with three adult humans that I’d raised from small. My mind couldn’t quite compute how I got from youthful me, to that spot on the floor with my people around me. Somehow in that moment I was both teenage me and middle age mom me. And I realized that I can be both, so long as I’m willing to collide with my hidden self rules and, through that collision, alter them. I can still be the mom who is active and participates instead of watching. I haven’t run out of time. All it takes is a willingness to be ridiculous.
Sitting here on my couch the morning after, my arms and shoulders are sore. Yet when I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still feel apogee in my core and the grips of the climbing wall in my hands. I can take up a different space than the one I’ve been living in simply by going back to that gym again. I can change my creative existence by being willing to write bravely and risk rejection. I can change the patterns of my family by welcoming new people into the house and by altering our physical spaces. Sometimes we are trapped by situations outside our control, but more often we are trapped by our own unwillingness to take a leap and risk change. I’m going to try to be more conscious of the boundaries in the life I have and the changes I need to make in order to get a life I want more.
I’ve written my fair share of Mother’s Day posts that talk about the emotional complexities of this celebratory day. I’ve gotten philosophical about mothering and pondered how I came to terms with being a mother. Some years I posted nothing about it at all. Those were the years where I was doing my best to dodge the holiday and try to forget it was a thing.
So I think it only fair to acknowledge the actual happiness of this year. It seems like Mother’s Day acts as a magnifying glass, amplifying and bringing into focus how I’m feeling about my life and my parenting failures or successes. The good mother’s days are the ones where my kids are thriving and/or demonstrate that they learned some of the lessons I worked so hard to teach. Because if they’re growing, then all the sacrifices of time and emotional effort are redeemed. If they are faltering all my self doubt comes into sharp focus. I know that Mother’s Day isn’t supposed to be a score card. I know I should not use my children’s lives as a measure for my success. I work at not doing those things, but the self doubts creep in, especially during the hard years.
On the joyful years, like this one, I’m not feeling self-congratulatory. What I’m feeling is grateful. I have four amazing children with bright futures ahead and they’re finally stepping forward into those futures. I have Howard, who sneaks out of the house to buy a flowers and an assortment of fancy cheeses because he loves me. I have my mom whom I’ll get to visit in two weeks and who I’ll call tomorrow. I have a yard full of plants that are blooming and about to bloom. I have writer friends who nurture my creative efforts. I have so much in my life that is beautiful and good. Mother’s Day seems as good as any for me to pause and fully feel grateful for all the things I have.
If you are among those who are having a difficult day today, I offer this hope: I’ve had a lot of difficult Mother’s Days, and this year I’m not. Perhaps in your future you’ll also have a day where you feel nothing but happy and grateful.
Today one of my kids had a panic attack at school and he stayed at school instead of coming home. Then after school, he went to a friend’s house, which he hasn’t done in several years. Another of my kids voluntarily left the house to go for a walk in the sunshine. A third had a meeting with a potential mentor and left the meeting excited about possibilities. The fourth spent most of the day head-down in creative projects, calmly working to get them all done.
All of it happened without fanfare. They are growing and it is beautiful to see.
Last December I started sending out a monthly letter to the people on my newsletter mailing list. In the letter I give a progress report on my writing, information about upcoming appearances, and I write a long-form letter which is longer than most blog posts. In that letter I try to draw together and connect the thoughts I’m having that month. Some of them have been about being courageous, others about mental health or community building. If you’ve been a reader of this blog for a while, then the letter is like the times when I’m thinking and writing deeply about a topic. I’ve posted last month’s letter below. If letters like that are something you’d like to receive by mail, you can sign up for my Newsletter by clicking this link or the link in the right hand sidebar.
I’ll be sending out my next letter this week, so now is a great time to sign up.
Today I am tired. Some of that is physical because I was up in the middle of the night with one of my kids. Even more is emotional because when I’m awakened in the middle of the night by my 18 year old, the help needed requires more emotional heavy lifting than a snack and a snuggle. (Though snacks and snuggles were a piece of the resolution.) Mostly what they needed was a witness to their struggle and someone nearby to serve as an accountability check while they did small adulting things like washing bedding. Even small adulting steps are potent in taking back life from depression. When they came to wake me, depression was winning. Two hours later it had been pushed back and we could sleep again.
I once had a therapist tell me that feeling powerless is heavily linked to depression. That feels true to me. So true in fact, that when I feel down, one of my automatic responses is to clean or organize or dive into a project. I attempt to take control of my surroundings. Even if my area of control has very little to do with the source of my depression, I still feel better. This coping strategy is presenting me with some challenges as my children reach adulthood. I care deeply about their happiness and futures, but increasingly it is out of my power to make meaningful changes in their outcomes. They are the ones who need to claim control and take actions. No amount of hustle from me gives power to them. They have to claim it for themselves. At most, they need me to witness, watch the outcome without affecting it. Being a witness feels powerless… so my kitchen has been cleaner than usual lately. And I’m making great progress on some remodeling projects.
The challenge ahead of me is learning to be at peace with being powerless. The world is filled with things I can’t control, so I’m exploring the idea that powerlessness does not inevitably lead to depression. That for some types of powerlessness the answer is learning how to take power back while other types of powerlessness need to be answered with acceptance. That thought reminds me strongly of the 1936 sermon by Reinhold Niebahr where he said “give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” This statement was later reworded and adapted as the Serenity Prayer for use in twelve step recovery programs. Insight to know the difference is the sticking point really. I feel like if I could just handle that part everything else would be easier.
With this goal in mind, I bought two books by Pema Chodron. I saw the titles and immediately thought “I want that.” The books are Comfortable with Uncertainty and Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. I’ve barely had time to crack the spines, so I’m only beginning to absorb what they may have to teach me. The first treasure I’ve found is an image of walking toward the stormy future with heart open to embrace the possibilities as well as feel the impact of the disappointments. “Insight to know the one from the other” isn’t me carefully studying each powerless moment so I can weigh and judge it as Things I can Control and Things I Can’t Control. That tight focus, with intent to judge, is part of the problem. It keeps me focused on the blocked path and whether I can get around the block or have to accept it. Wisdom is found in seeing wider. If I move forward with a broader perspective, I’ll be more likely to see that there are paths all around me and only some of them are blocked. A heart ready to accept powerlessness, that I am not in control, means being more willing to venture down the alternates. Particularly if I’m willing to venture to see the value of the path itself and not merely trying to use it as a detour to get around the block.
To bring this out of the realm of theory, I will grieve less over the struggles of my children when I recognize that being stopped, blocked, depressed is not an ending. It is an opportunity to take a different path and grow a different way. Depression means that something should change. We get trapped in it when we’re afraid of change or unwilling to let go of the familiar (but depression-causing) habits and coping strategies. Sometimes the depression-causing circumstances are outside of our control. (Like me watching my adult children flailing their way toward self sufficiency.) I can’t change the circumstance, but I can change my reaction to it. And I can look around me to see what opportunities are available that I’ve been missing.
My child had a better day because the distress from last night has motivated them to make changes. That would not have happened in the same way if I’d tried to fix, mend, rescue, meddle. I had to step back and give them more space to fail and suffer distress, and then learn from it and recover. This stepping back also gives me more space. Instead of filling that space with worry and grief, I will turn it to good use. I have a novel to write and many of the things I am learning about depression, growth, and powerlessness belong in that novel. It will be interesting to see how working on the concepts in fictional form alters my thinking on the topics. I’m sure my views will evolve yet again.
For today, I’m feeling calm and far less emotionally tired than I was when I began writing this letter. Which says to me that looking wider has already helped me. May it help you too.
It is raining this evening and it feels like the sky is matching my heart a bit. Just two days ago I was reveling in blooms and speaking philosophically about how growth comes in cycles. Today is one of the days when I have to step up and believe my fine words when the hard things have shown up again. As I knew they would. They always do. But they will also get better again. As they do.
Even as I’m feeling like the weather matches my emotional landscape, I am also enjoying the sound of the rain as it hits the roof. There is something soothing about being sheltered and warm while listening to the water fall. I can look out my window and watch it accumulate in puddles and flow along the gutters. Rain lands on my flowers and nourishes them so that their next blooming will also be beautiful. Life requires rain. Growth requires hard days.
And truthfully, this day isn’t so hard, not compared to others that I’ve gone through. This one is just a little blue and tired. I can sit with that and trust tomorrow will be better.
My garden of spring bulbs is exceptionally beautiful this year.
I keep wandering outside to just walk along the bed and admire them. The thing is, I haven’t planted any bulbs for years. Common gardening practice is to plant bulbs in the fall, tear them out in the spring, plant annuals for the summer, then tear them out in the fall to plant bulbs for next spring. The reasoning behind this is that tulip bulbs don’t thrive year to year. If you leave them in the ground you get a giant tulip the first year, a smaller one the following year, and by the third year you may not get a tulip at all, just leaves.
Yet here in my garden, my tulips are multiplying. In this spot I planted three bulbs several years ago.
The truth is, I don’t have the patience to rip everything out twice per year. I need my plants to thrive with only sporadic attention from me. I also know that I’m far more likely to give that attention in the spring when I’m craving flowers and green things after the winter, rather than in fall when I’ve spent all summer feeling guilty about the gardening I meant to do, but didn’t. So in the spring, I buy granulated bulb food. I scatter it across the garden beds when the bulbs first begin coming up, which encourages them to grow large. Then I scatter it again as the blooms are fading so that the bulbs have extra nutrition as they’re stocking away energy for the next year. The only other thing I do with regularity is make sure the bulbs get water in the spring even before the sprinkler system is turned on.
I’ve been following this process for about three years now, and all my spring bulbs are thriving. But it took a while for that to happen. This is the thing about bulbs, you hide them in the ground months before you see anything that looks like growth. Then they bloom and are gone. But if I feed them, they hide away for an entire year to re-emerge again.
This spring my children are also blooming. It has been a long series of seasons full of dormancy, hiding, and darkness. Yet this year, all of the quiet tending and feeding has given them the resources they need to roll out green leaves and even a few tentative blooms. I know that the future may hold more struggles, but the growth they are doing now gives them strength to grow even more.
To be a gardener is to feed, weed, and tend with no guarantee that the plant will thrive. I can work to create optimal conditions for my plants, but it is their own internal process that drive the growth. Parenting teens and young adults is much the same. I’ve done a lot of throwing nutrients around and then waiting. Waiting can be hard and discouraging, but in spring I am reminded that many things grow again after looking dead for a season or two.
Week five was the eventful week, we got the cupboards onto the wall. Because of the way we wanted the cupboards arranged and where the wall studs were placed, we started by putting up planks and then mounted the cupboards to the planks.
Milo was very interested in this process and helped out by inspecting things. Also by pretending to be a gargoyle.
Here are the cabinets completely mounted. Not yet installed: the knobs on the cupboards and more hooks for hanging jackets underneath the cupboards.
Things slowed down quite a lot in weeks 6 & 7. We were kind of taking a breather between projects. Also there were a lot of family events and business tasks which needed our attention. However we did order the final piece that will help complete the entry area: a bench.
We ordered it unfinished so that we could make it match the cabinets. We intend to cut it shorter so that it is a low bench intended to allow people to easily sit and put on their shoes. Loose shoes will live underneath the bench since I’m a person who kicks off her shoes when entering the house. (Howard is a shoes-on person.)
The next phase of the project will be building a pantry wall across from the cooking area. It will be on this big blank wall.
We’ve drawn up a rough plan for what we want to do. There will still be some shuffling around of cupboards, but this is the general idea.
Bit by bit we’ll get this done. Current focus, shuffling funds around to enable us to pay for the next purchase of cupboards.
Life has been busy and I haven’t had a lot of time free for thinking. I’ve been spending time assisting one of my kids through college orientation and registration along with the cloud of related adulting tasks. Another child acquired a boyfriend, which is a first for any of my kids and so it has sparked a lot of conversations while we all adjust. (We all like the boyfriend, so that is good.) A third child made a course shift in his life plan for the future (equivalent to changing majors), a good one, but needed help processing the decision. The fourth kid once again needs help rescuing classes from failure, and larger help figuring out why he shuts down so completely that he ends up not doing simple tasks that would keep him on track. I acquired a writing support group that looks like it will be amazing for me, but it means new friendships to build foundations for, and that takes thought. Also, because of the new group, I’ve been diving back into work on my middle grade novel, which takes lots of brain time. Several friends had need of support, so I put time and emotion into that. And I was knocked flat by flu for several days.
The vast majority of Things Going On have been good things, but it has me falling behind on business tasks and blogging. Here are the things I haven’t blogged yet, but mean to:
Our bus day. During spring break I declared a Bus Day. I’ve got a kid who intends to live at home while attending college, but doesn’t have a driver’s license. They need a way to transport themselves to school. So we did a family outing where the whole point was to ride the public transit system. I picked a destination in the next town over. (The Good Move Cafe in downtown Provo, which was a delight.) Then we walked ourselves to the nearest bus stop and rode until we got there. It was a fun adventure during which we all learned that local public transit is safe, clean, and more convenient than we expected. We’ll likely have multiple more bus riding adventures to acclimate college-bound kid to the whole system long before the first day of classes in August. This is how we break down the barriers into tiny little steps so that anxiety doesn’t make college crash and burn.
Long Slow Remodel weeks 5 and 6. The cupboards are on the wall. They have been for nearly two weeks now. We love them. There are still finishing touches to put up, but the remodel is beginning to shift into it’s next phase. I want to write it all up with pictures.
Between me and focused blogging are:
a dentist appointment to get some teeth filled, one of which has developed a sharp pain at food temperature differentials.
The very last bit of shipping for the Kickstarter on Schlock Books 14 & 15. Thirty-six packages and it is done.
A day trip (using public transit) up to Salt Lake City for FanX. I’m on one panel Friday afternoon and I’m taking college-bound kid with me for public transit experience and for cosplay squee.
Relatives in town and staying at my house for a family event.
Attending the family event.
A pile of smaller To Do items, appointments to keep, appointments to make, etc.
Once again, the list is full of good things. Life is mostly good. The harder bits seem spaced further apart and don’t seem to sink quite as deep as they used to.
And now that I’ve written all of that down, perhaps I’ve emptied my brain enough that I can go back to sleep. Being awake thinking about all the things is not my favorite activity for 2:30 am.
I’m lost in the middle of Spring Break week and every day feels like Saturday, but there is a lot of work I’m supposed to be doing for business things. Also I think we’ve reached peak disruption with the front room cupboard project, so everything feels messy and out of control. Some years I use spring break as practice for summer schedule. This year not so much. Oh well. Tomorrow is outing day. We’ll see how that goes.
This week most of the progress happened in Howard’s office where this space:
Was turned into this space:
We called these our “test cupboards” we were learning the process of finishing the cupboards and experimenting with hanging them. That way we made most of our mistakes on cupboards that will not be on public display the moment people enter the house.
With Howard’s cupboards looking spiffy, I turned our garage into a full workshop and worked on the front room cupboards.
As of today, the boxes for the cupboards were ready, so we stacked them in the front room to help us visualize how it would go. Milo helped inspect. Picture this arrangement about four to five feet higher up on the wall with shelves in the gaps between cupboards.
Stacking and visualizing turned out to be really smart. We identified a problem. The spacing of those upright cupboards is such that it is impossible to attach all of them to studs simultaneously. We came up with a plan where we’re using planks behind the cupboards as additional support and to create a sort of framing structure. We also realized that our intended height would make most of the cupboards hard to access. but hanging the cupboards lower would cause a problem hanging some of our long coats on hooks below the cupboards. That was when we came up with this arrangement, which we like way better. The upright gap will still have shelves. The open bottom gap will house coats.
So now I’ve got planks to stain, side panels to stain and doors to finish varnishing. Oh, and there is crown molding that I also need to stain. The good news is that I enjoy painting stain and varnish on wood. So the project is being fun.