Month: May 2019

My Heart is Singing Songs of Home

I had a plan. I was going to step outside my usual round of things for a week. I was going to put down the host of regular tasks and that was going to open up space for me to think writing thoughts and write words.

Ha ha ha ha ha. (<---- me laughing at my own naivete) This was a trip in two parts. The first was a convention where I was support crew for my daughter. While I did have long hours of mostly-solitude, sitting at a table fractured my attention just enough that I couldn't write much. I did accomplish some brainstorming, so I guess that is something. The second part of my trip was visiting my parents and helping them with some household projects. This included helping sort through boxes left by my Grandmother, painting a porch, organizing papers, taking a tour of the Oakland Temple, and untangling twenty years' accumulation of tangled computer cords. When I list it like that, it doesn't sound like much listed in a sentence like that, but I was fully occupied, body and mind, for the entire four days I spent here. I love organizational work. I love taking a jumble and turning it into a functional space. And my parents have such interesting jumbles full of memory and fascinating accumulated objects. It has been a good four days, but today I get to go home and for that I am very glad. Usually when I'm on a trip, I fold away my home thoughts and don't feel much active homesickness. This time home kept tugging at me, my thoughts were with the at-home folks quite a lot. The largest portion of today will be spent in transit, but by evening I will be back in my house and seeing my own jumbles with new eyes. I will get to set things to rights, but only after I've hugged all my people and pet the kitties.

On the Road for a Week

I’ve attended a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions. Some of them energize me, others are draining. Often the energy or drain have little to do with the event itself and more to do with my emotional state as I arrive at it, or how I engage with it once I’m there. However the people who are at an event can change it from draining to energizing or vice versa. The one I attended this past weekend was draining. Some of that was that I spent the vast majority of the con running a table for my daughter who was off being on panels or teaching workshops. The dealer’s room was cold and because I’m far from my house there were few familiar faces in the crowd. The best hours of the show were when friends sat with me, either at the table or over food, and we talked for hours. Such conversations are the reason I do conventions at all. when my writer friends stopped by to talk, those were bright spots in long hours of keeping myself occupied while not really speaking to anyone. Actual solitude tends to reinvigorate me, but the isolated non-solutude of being behind a dealer table where I can’t fully tune out because I need to be ready to engage people at a moment’s notice; that is draining. The weekend turned out to be worthwhile in an educational sense. An education for which we paid tuition rather than turning a profit.

Now I am at my parent’s house and much happier. I’m here for three days to help my parents accomplish some house projects that can be better done by backs and arms which aren’t slowed by arthritis. Tomorrow we’ll be re-painting their porch. Today we sorted through boxes of things left by my Grandmother. I love this kind of organization. In the boxes were things that were puzzling or fascinating or beautiful. We got to look through all of them and then haul more than forty boxes of things to various thrift stores. On Thursday we’ll get to tour the Oakland Temple which is currently open to the public after a major renovation. I’m really looking forward to being there again. It is the temple I visited as a teenager for many church-sponsored activities. It is where I got married almost 26 years ago. On Friday I get to go home, and by then I will be more than ready. I miss my people and my house.

Challenging the Boundary Boxes

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.

Happy Mother’s Day

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.

Counting the small triumphs

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.

My Newsletter

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.

The letter:

Dear Readers,

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.