Month: March 2011


The week just past felt tired and tangled. I can’t say precisely why it was so. Perhaps it had so much potential energy. Many events were poised to collapse into various forms of emotional crisis. People were on the edge of sick. The meeting with the school counselor might have been difficult. Business emails had the potential to create friction or unpleasantness. Then, of course, was the creeping sense of failure at all the things I feel I ought to be doing, but don’t have time to actually accomplish.

We’re on the final sprint toward book completion. Howard finished writing the bonus story for Emperor Pius Dei. I ran test prints for cover colors. I also pounded through the layout to make sure that the images were properly cropped and placed. After spending months in limbo, we’re dashing toward finishing the project. This is good since we’re up against a hard deadline. In April there will be no time to spare. Howard will be hard pressed just to keep up with the buffer while attending multiple conventions. I like the sense of motion. It is much better than limbo.

In the midst of the emotional potential energy and the Schlock book forward momentum, some piece of my brain decided that I urgently needed to complete the layout for my 2010 One Cobble book. Each year I take all my blog entries and dump them into a pdf file so Lulu can print it into a book. This year I decided not to use the done-in-an-hour method of years past. I used my book layout tools to make something pretty. It took 16 hours of work, 8 of which I did last week. My back and shoulders are gnarled little knots from all the focused computer mousing time. I got it done. The file is submitted and I expect the book to arrive next week. It felt really good to complete a project over which I had total control of all aspects.

So many pieces of my life are dependent upon the work and reactions of others. This is a necessary and important part of life, yet sometimes instead of feeling supported by my web of communities, I feel tangled in them. I want the Schlock book done, but must wait for our colorist to finish with files. I want to settle my kids’ schedules for the next school year, but have to wait for school personnel and appointments. Sometimes the urge to just cut myself free is strong. I want to hide.

On Friday night I had a scheduled social event. My feelings about going were mixed. I missed the friends I had not seen in over a month. I also knew that my kids were not in particularly settled emotional states. Kiki was in the midst of her oil painting project. It was going well, but still had the potential to go poorly. Link had been grouchy all week. Patch was sick, Gleek full of energy, and Howard had a prior commitment. The obvious and responsible choice was to stay at home. I was needed to provide stability and calmness. Also I thought I needed introverted time so that I could untangle my thoughts and emotions. But then Kiki and Link told me I should go. I went and discovered that sometimes, even for an introvert, a social event can be invigorating. Some friends fill me up instead of draining me. When I left the house I’d been dreading Saturday. By the time I came home, I was looking forward to it.

The answer to my tangle was not to cut myself free, it was to find kindred spirits who were part of my web. It was my own struggling causing the tangles. I was part of a web, not caught in a snare. I had a similar experience on Saturday. I still need more days where I have nothing scheduled, but so many of the things I’m scheduled for are wonderful things. Now if I could just get the Schlock book and my revision done I think I might be so light of heart I would float down the street.

Anxiety and Oil Paint

I woke up this morning in hard-core problem solving mode. This means that I am impatient with emotional reactions. I just want to brush emotion aside and pick the most likely path to success. Kiki has an art project this week. She decided to use oil paint for the project despite the fact that she has never used oil paints before. She doesn’t know how they work. I don’t know how they work other than the fact that they are harder to clean up and they take a long time to dry. She base coated a board yesterday and it was still tacky this morning, despite having sat in front of a warm air source last night. I desperately wanted to say “I told you so” and make her use water color instead. She went off to school with all her oil painting supplies and the board.

My problem solving mode was triggered by anxiety. For me anxious thoughts often break loose from their specific causes. It becomes a free-floating feeling that seeks to attach itself to whatever passes by. There are many responses to anxiety. One of them is to pull back, to play it safe. This reduces anxiety by staying comfortably in a place where risk is minimized. The response I prefer is to stare the Anxiety down. I’ll look it in the eyes and say to myself “I see you, but I’m going to go do this thing I want to do anyway. I’ll curl into a ball and cry later.” Yes I do have to curl and cry, but by that time I’ve already accomplished something.

I really wanted Kiki to play it safe with this art project. I wanted her to switch to water-color which is familiar and predictable. My head is a-swirl with many anxious thoughts and I wanted to reduce the count by one. A Kiki art-related meltdown is guaranteed to rearrange my day. The teacher doesn’t care what medium is used for the project. I care that my daughter learns the things she needs, and she needs to learn oil paint at some point, but it could be a different week. I would love for it to be a different week. Except, Kiki wants to face down her fears and meet this challenge now. And so I let her, even though it makes me anxious.

Repetition and Patterns

I have several projects in process right now. I’m working on my book of essays, which has me combing through blog entries from 2007 and 2008. I’m working on creating family photo books and I’m two years behind, so the project has me reading through blog entries from 2009 to pull the family-related ones to be matched with pictures. Each year I pull all the blog entries and use a Print on Demand service to create a blog book which goes on my shelf. For the 2010 book I decided I wanted to make it pretty with actual layout. So I’ve been glancing over the 2010 blog entries as I put them in place. Then of course there is my ongoing blogging.

Most of my projects spend lots of time idle. This is why the family photo book is so far behind. In the past couple of weeks each of my projects has had a turn being in the front of my attention. It is very retrospective. As I read through these snatches of my life and the lives of my kids, I remember things I would have otherwise forgotten. I find hidden treasures of thought. I just wish more of them stuck. All too often I read entries written a year or more apart where I come to a nearly identical epiphany. Just a couple of days ago I wrote a post about how I can’t fix everything and I shouldn’t expect myself to. I came to a similar realization last March too. I keep over scheduling myself and struggling to clear spaces in my schedule. I get stressed. I get anxious. I’m excited about events. I stay home from events for the benefit of the kids. Around and around I go tromping over landscape which looks remarkably similar.

Last night I was inclined to be discouraged with myself for needing to learn the same lessons over and over again. I would like to just learn the lesson and move on. The thing is, I do. The fact that I have to come to the same epiphanies is not because I forget, but rather because I need to recognize the new iteration of a particular problem. Life is cyclical. I should expect to cycle through patterns of thought in response to the patterns of my year. For what ever reason, early March appears to be the time of year when I need to remember that I am not responsible for solving all the troubles in the world. September is a month when I plan, organize, and take control of many things. In Fall I shoulder my burdens. In Spring I learn to put them down again. Winter I hunker down and survive. In Summer I run fast and be busy. Not a bad pattern really.

The patterns do shift from year to year. I can see that bit by bit I’m finding more balance. I also am more understanding of my past failures. When I read the lists of things which all happened more or less simultaneously, I am amazed that we survived intact. We’ll probably stay pretty close to variations on these themes while I’ve got all my kids home and in school. The future will hold different patterns. It will be interesting to see what they are when I get there. For now I’m content to repeat the current patterns. They have far more good in them than bad.

Obstacles, Accommodations, and Finding Solutions

“I’m sorry Gleek has been having a hard time at church. What can I do to help her?” The person on the other end of the phone was Gleek’s primary teacher. I had no answer to give her. I had no answer for the primary president either when she called. All the attention was triggered by Gleek breaking down into tears because she did not want to sit in a chair at church. She wanted to sit on the floor. In her classroom they let her, but in the large group meeting it created problems. Other kids wanted to know why Gleek was on the floor, and could they sit on the floor too. Keeping control of children in large groups requires more adherence to standards of behavior. It is necessary. Gleek threw a fit and ended up laying on the floor in the hallway crying. They came for me and I sat on the floor next to her. I coaxed the story out of her, hoping that the shape of the story would suggest a solution. It didn’t. After two weeks of illness in our family, during which I managed two birthday celebrations, guests in the house, and a baptism, the problem solving centers of my brain simply would not engage. I sat next to my girl and wept because she was having a hard time and I had no idea how to help.

The choices we make define who we are. Our family is religious. We believe church is important. Sunday is given over to church. We pray daily. We make time for these things no matter how busy our lives get, because Howard and I both believe that to be spiritually centered is the best way to chart a course through the stormy waters of life. We believe that there is a harbor waiting if we can only steer ourselves there. It is the duty of parents to teach values and beliefs to children. It is my duty to teach my children to value church attendance as a weekly appointment during which we refresh our spiritual connections. The structures of church are not always easy. Not for me. Not for Howard. Not for the kids. But when we manage to find a balance between appeasing our quirks and not distracting from the purposes of the meetings, the spiritual communication is invaluable. I needed Gleek to be able to love church despite the requirement to sit on a chair. Gleek did love church, she loved the calm feeling she got there. It was just for some reason the chairs had become intolerable in between one week and the next. I had to find a balance between accommodation and requirement.

Howard draws in church. This is not typical behavior, particularly not for an adult. People are supposed to sit quietly in church. I was taught that by age 12 it was time to stop bringing activities to church and instead focus on the lessons. I expected to teach my kids the same. Link sits and listens. All the others draw. Gleek and Patch bring small toys and play quiet games. I allow it, because they do listen. They learn things even while their hands are busy. I figure if they are being able to learn and no one else is being distracted, everyone wins. The trouble arrives when one of the kids’ hands-busy choices creates a distraction for others.

Gleek packs a bag for church. It is not a little bag. Today I weighed it and the thing was 10 lbs. It contained two scripture picture books, three notebooks, a sketch pad, an expandable file, a pencil case full of colored pencils, a box of colored pencils, a pencil sharpener, six mechanical pencils, two sharpie markers, three lip glosses, two nail files, two pens, a pair of scissors, and five tiny stuffed animals. She is well-armed against the possibility of boredom. I know that her bag-o-things has caused distraction problems in her class. Every week I try to get her to cut back, leave things at home. She fights me. She needs these things. I look in her eyes and know that her over-packing is one of the tools she uses to help keep her hyper behaviors in line. Her strategy works. I just worry that it will cause problems for others. Oh, and she also complains about carrying her bag and begs me to carry it for her.

Accommodation is a word familiar to any parent whose child has needed extra help at school. It means extra time on tests, or someone to write for you. It is supposed to be just a little leg up over the unimportant obstacles so that the important learning can occur. I see the value of it. I participate in it. Time and again I sit down to write the words Link tells me because he has trouble thinking out sentences and writing them in one fluid motion. I write for him and the assignment gets done. Obstacle surmounted. Yet I wonder if the seemingly unimportant obstacles are critical. The process of flowing ideas into writing will not become easier except through practice. He needs the struggle and practice. He also needs to not feel so overwhelmed that he stops trying. I’m not at all sure on any given day that my decisions to help or to not help are the right ones.

“We missed Kiki on Wednesday.” This is from Kiki’s youth group leader. Kiki has been skipping many of the church youth activities. I never missed activities when I was her age. Going was expected. Kiki ought to be going to learn, to have fun, and to support the efforts of the people who put the activities together. In the last three months she has missed far more often than she has gone. Then I come face to face with this woman, who misses Kiki and worries about her. This woman is my friend and a good person. I have to explain why Kiki missed yet again. My excuses feel thin. Kiki was swamped. She was sick. She had homework. These things are all true. They are why I condoned Kiki skipping. I let her stay home to sleep, to have quiet, to rest, to get work done. Yet I wonder if the real reason was because making her go would require an argument. Perhaps all of my logical reasons are simply covers for the fact that I was tired. I spend myself on work, house, food, and family. Eventually I run out. Often it is before all the Good Parent things are done.

When I find moments of calm I see so clearly all the things I could/should be doing for my children. Sometimes I weigh these things against the business work I do and ponder if the kids would be better off with a mother who did not work. My mind whispers that perhaps then I would be able to accomplish all the things on the Good Parent list. Except the Good Parent list is infinitely expandable and constantly changing. Making good use of the resources at hand is more important than scrambling to acquire different resources.

Sometimes the answer is the one that I don’t want. Sometimes the right thing to do is not to help a child over an obstacle, but instead to increase the child’s motivation to clear it themselves. I have to say “No video games until the essay is done.” I have to say “I know you’re tired. Go anyway.” I have to say “If you can’t manage to sit on a chair at church, I’ll have to make you practice chair sitting at home.” I have to be the bad guy. Then my children search my face to see if I could possibly mean it. They get angry with me. Then their anger carries them right over the obstacle. The essay is done in record time. The youth activity is attended and enjoyed. Church is enjoyed despite the horror of having to sit in a chair. They’re off and running to the next thing. Sometimes I rejoice with them. Others I sit, weary, because being mean uses far more emotional energy than being nice.

So the chair issue, the absences, and the essay are solved. Or at least begun to be solved. This leaves the bag of things at church, the not practicing clarinet, the reading requirements, Math homework, history homework, Japanese study, German study, house chores, Scout merit badges, Cub Scout patches, and dozens of other daily challenges. I must guide my children through. I must decide when to help, when to goad, and when to stand aside. There is no guidebook for any of it.

Fortunately I am not alone. I spoke with Gleek’s teacher again on a day when I was less tired. We have a plan now, not just for chairs, but for many things. Three of the girls from Kiki’s youth group have vowed to come and shanghai her if she doesn’t show up for activities. I’ll call Link’s English teacher tomorrow. I may not have a guidebook, but there are people out there who know the territory. I have help. I am endlessly grateful for all of this help, although I sometimes fear that I will be judged for needing it. My mind fills up with all the awful thoughts that I imagine people are thinking about my decisions. Worrying about what the folks on the bench behind me think of my row of drawing children is not productive, but sometimes my brain goes there. This is the same part of my brain which believes in a Good Parent list. Periodically I have to call it out and really listen to what it has to say. The arguments get really flimsy when they are spoken aloud in the middle of my consciousness rather than muttered in the dark corners of my mind.

I wish I had neat conclusions or solutions. Sometimes the only closure provided is determination to keep going because the journey matters.

When Disaster Strikes Far Away

Half way around the world people’s lives have been permanently altered. My life is normal except for extra chatter on twitter, facebook, and news sites. My heart goes out to the Japanese people, but my hands are too far away to help them. The temptation is to glue myself to my computer, watching every update as it rolls in. I did this on September 11, 2001. I did it for Katrina. I’ve since learned how unhelpful such behavior is to anyone. It is important for me to be generally informed, but up-to-the minute updates only create urgency and stress in my mind and body. Images of disaster cause a physiological reaction, my body prepares to respond to imminent danger. There is no danger for me. The danger is half a world away. I am left in a hyper-reactive state during which my brain retains information more fully. By hyper-focusing on disaster news, I can create in myself a traumatized state. I can trigger the same in my children if they follow my lead. I think the world has a sufficient load of trauma today. No need for me to add to it unnecessarily.

Two days ago Kiki was host to a Japanese exchange student. This girl went with Kiki to every class. They talked, laughed, exchanged email addresses, and discovered that they share the exact same birthday. The exchange student was due to return home to Tokyo tomorrow, she will now be staying in the US for another week as she waits for the chaos to calm down at home. Her family and friends were in the middle of the mess. Kiki’s Japanese class spent most of their class time today watching video and talking about the earthquake and tsunami. Then, of course, they talked about how Utah is located on a large fault which is geologically overdue for a big quake. Kiki was a bit shaky and scared when I picked her up from school. My calmness reassured her instead of adding to her stress.

I spent some time today looking up the current status of other disaster zones. Christchurch, New Zealand has just begun to repair. Haiti still needs help. New Orleans is still far from where it was before Katrina. But in all these places new stories emerge, stories of strength and overcoming adversity. It is easy to forget in the deluge of stunning video that there are places which have been through as bad or worse and have begun to recover. So I scan the news lightly every couple of hours. I make donations to disaster relief organizations who have the hands, experience, and personnel to deal with the emergency. Then I take my hands and find something to do in my own neighborhood which will add to the good things in the world.

Things done, but not the things I expected

I meant to spend this week catching up on business chores and making significant progress on work projects. Instead the week has been one of reconnecting to my local communities. Also I finally made good on the promise I made to myself that as soon as the weather was nice I would tend my garden. This year my spring bulbs will have a fighting chance to be lovely instead of struggling to survive beneath a mat of dead foliage.

Now if I can only find focused time to spend on the work projects…

Change, Fixing, and Growth

The only person you can change is yourself.

I don’t know who first said the words to me, probably my parents, and they probably said them many times before the concept finally sunk into my developing brain, but I know I had internalized it by my late teens. If I wanted my life to change, or a relationship to change, or something to be fixed, the course of action which was most likely to succeed was for me to change. It is good advice and side-steps worlds of frustration. 20 years later I’ve finally accepted that the rule might have a corollary. Sometimes me changing is not the right answer to a particular problem.

All of my children are facing personal challenges right now. The point of childhood is to face challenges and learn from them, so this is not unusual. Gleek is struggling to work through some interpersonal difficulties in her church class. Link has a two page paper he does not want to write and chores he does not like doing. Patch has several friends moving away. Kiki feels overwhelmed by her homework load. There are more–life rarely parcels out challenges one per person–but these are the ones at the forefront today. My default solution is to change me. I could talk to Gleek’s teacher and make requests which would ease her experience. I could organize Kiki’s tasks for her and become the dictator of her schedule. I could sit Link down and babysit him through every word. I could arrange for Patch’s days to be filled with activities so that he won’t have time to feel sad. Four months ago this type of thing is exactly what I regularly did for my kids. I twisted my energies and time into the necessary needs. Sometimes parents must contort themselves for the benefit of their kids, but I did it so much that I became tied in knots.

Reading Naomi Remen’s book My Grandfather’s Blessings helped me untangle some of those knots. Particularly this quotation:

Seeing yourself as a fixer may cause you to see brokenness everywhere, to sit in judgment on life itself. When we fix others, we may not see their hidden wholeness or trust the integrity of the life in them. Fixers trust their own expertise. When we serve, we see the unborn wholeness in others; we collaborate with it and strengthen it…Over the long run, fixing and helping are draining but service is renewing. When you serve, your work itself will sustain you, renew you, and bless you, often over many years.

Sometimes the troubles of my children are not mine to fix. Sometimes my job is to hug them and stand nearby while they struggle to grow into their own answers. If I always change me to solve our family’s problems, then I steal opportunities for growth and change from my children. I know how to organize a schedule. Kiki does not. She can not learn how if I always step in to do it for her.

There are some things that I must fix or they will remain broken. There are other things that I should not fix because they belong to someone else. I wish the difference was marked more clearly.

Emotional weight and things which matter

Out of the blue comes a day like today when I get all of the important things done all on the same day. This is not to say that I accomplished everything on my task list. Not even close. I haven’t even caught up on all the things which fell behind during the weeks of sickness. But last night my paper journal and I had a good long talk and I was finally able to identify which of the perpetually postponed tasks were the ones filled with guilt. Today I put those things first. I worked on the Emperor Pius Dei layout. I worked on editing my book. I made dinner and enforced a homework hour for the kids. I helped my son make a boat for cub scouts. I did some other stuff too, but those were the things which really mattered to me.

Sometimes the things which matter are not the things I think ought to matter. This is another case of my emotional brain not communicating clearly with my logic centers. The logic center is the place from which I write all my to do lists. My emotional brain is the place which assigns emotional weight to all of the tasks. I can accomplish a hundred things which seem important, but the day will feel like a failure if I leave the weighty things undone. This is true even when the weighty thing is “shop for new shoes” a thing which my logic brain is not at all sure should even be on the list. Whether I think they should or not, some things matter more to me than others. The things which matter will shift and change according to my emotional currents. I have to take time to observe those currents so that I can make my lists to match.

Notes to things I feel grouchy about

Dear school,
One second grade child does not need four different reading programs each with a log for me to track. Yes I know that minutes-read can count for all four programs, but I still have to write it down four times and make sure that my son turns in four pieces of paper. Seems a bit like overkill, particularly when none of it actually increases the amount of time my son reads.

Dear church,
I understand the valuable social purposes of all the various auxiliaries and activities. We currently have a family member in every single one, which means that we often have weeks when our family routine is disrupted 3-5 times. Please understand that when we skip some of these activities it is for sanity’s sake.

Dear History teacher,
Your humanitarian project, history chapter review, reading assignment, and movie watching assignments are all simultaneous. My daughter has other classes, some of which also have time consuming assignments. I am really tired of her feeling overwhelmed. Can we pick and choose please?

Dear house,
I know you are messy. I’m sorry about that. Someday I will clean you up and make you pretty with paint and decorations. Right now I have neither the time nor creative energy to spare. It would help if you could just perk up a little and stop looking so distressed.

Dear New Gas Range,
I’m not grouchy at you at all. I like you lots and I’m so glad that I have you. Please continue to be wonderful.

Dear book project,
I know I haven’t spent time with you in almost two weeks. I know that you are supposed to be an important priority, but somehow I always do other things first. I’m trying to find my balance again. Hang on.

Dear Son’s Birthday Party,
Yes I know I need to reschedule you. Not this week please? Or next week? Do I really have to? (Yes I know I have to, because you matter to my son and he matters to me. Sigh.)

Dear Social Media,
You are full of things. I may have to ignore you for awhile so I can clear my head.

Dear Daylight Savings Time,
It has been brought to my attention that you will be arriving next week. That timing is not convenient for me. I much prefer being able to get my kids to bed at night after dark has fallen. They complain less that way. Also I don’t want to lose an hour. I’m already behind schedule on just about everything. I need every hour I can get.

Dear Food in My Fridge,
I wish you were different food.

Dear Monday,
I’m about done with you today. When I see you again next week I expect to find that I have re-established a normal schedule, that no one is sick in my family, and that I’ve caught up on all the work which fell behind while I was sick.

Best regards to you all, and please understand that while I’m grouchy I’ll get over it. Small grouchiness is like that.

Managing a bad day

Some days, today for example, I feel like a failure as a parent. My logical brain has a whole list of reasons to explain this feeling. It supplies them in regular rotation, proving them to be completely interchangeable and thus not the cause of the feeling. The feeling pre-exists the reasons and can not be quelled by logic or by copious contrary evidence, both of which my logical brain also supplies. It is a mood. It will pass. Some other day, perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, I will look at the same lists of faults and triumphs, and I will come to the conclusion that I am pretty good at this parenting thing. Logic and emotion are often only passing acquaintances in my head.

So on a day like today I cry some, hopefully in private, but more likely in an embarrassingly public location like church. I sort my thoughts into piles so that I can re-examine them on a more energetic/rational day. Then I find something to do. It has to be a small thing because I really need it to succeed. Today I succeeded in pulling copious quantities of lint out of the dryer vent pipe. In theory this will improve the function of our dryer, but even if it doesn’t, I still succeeded in removing a sack full of mess from our lives. Also I gave two kids haircuts and they don’t look awful. That’s three more bits of evidence to weight the scales on the side of being a competent human being. It’s a start.