Valentine’s Day, 2016
Your playdown game will start in just under 3 hours. I know your whole team is both excited and nervous for this important game against Fond du Lac. If you win, you’re headed to State! If not, well, everyone will be disappointed.
And that’s ok! It’s ok to be sad when you don’t win. I’m so proud of what a good sport you’ve become. I can remember making you return the game ball when you were a Bull in PeeWees. (Believe me, I cried just as much as you did…you just didn’t see me). But learning to be a good sport and handle defeat was a crucial lesson to learn, and you have learned it. I am so, so, so proud of you.
Which brings me to the point of this letter. Of course I hope you win. Of course I hope I get to watch Squirt Silver play in the State tournament. This has been an amazing season of hockey, and it has been an absolute joy to see you grow in your knowledge and love of the game. But no matter what happens, nothing can take away from this great season. No result today can make this be a less awesome group of kids, coaches and families. You will always carry the memory of this season with you. I will too.
When we were in law school, Daddy and I had a professor named Girardeau Spann. He was a wonderful teacher, probably my favorite at Georgetown. In his class, there was one test for the whole semester. Your whole grade was based on that one test. We were all terrified before taking it. But here’s what Professor Spann said, in just about his exact words: “Listen, if you are a turkey before you take this test, you will be a turkey afterwards, no matter what your grade is. And if you are a good person, you’ll still be a good person, even if you fail.” His point was that even though it would be absolutely devastating to get an F in Constitutional Law, it wouldn’t affect who you were on the inside. Henry, this game won’t either. You are a loving, compassionate, considerate, smart, hard-working, funny and talented 10-year-old. I love you with my whole heart, and I thank my lucky stars every single day that I get to be your mom.
Play hard, have fun, don’t get hurt. Go Silver.
“Do you like Lent?” my nine-year-old asked me this morning.
“Yes, I do,” I answered, and anticipating the inevitable ‘why,’ I continued. “I like it because it’s a time of year where it’s a little easier to focus on being a good person,” but he was already at the table with a mouthful of bagel and his eyes on the sports section.
My blog posting is testimony to the fact that I like Lent. One blog post a year, whether I need it or not! But I do like Lent. It’s not that I’m a particularly somber person I don’t think, but I like the exercise of stripping away the extraneous and focusing on the essentials. It’s the same reason I love going to the kids’ school masses, and doing children’s liturgy on Sundays. I like going back to basics.
A good friend of mine said to me today that she likes Lent way more than New Year’s resolutions. I know just what she means. Lent is a little like spiritual trash collection. You bustle around, getting your spiritual house ready for Easter and the Resurrection. This year, some friends of mine and I are going to try to declutter our homes as a part of our Lenten fasts. “40 bags in 40 days.” (I can probably come up with that just out of my basement). But as tough as it’s going to be to declutter my house – you should SEE my basement – it’s even harder to declutter my mind. To get rid of all of the things don’t serve me…fear, and pride, and anger, and judgment, and criticism, among innumerable others…Maybe I should try to get rid of 40 negative feelings in 40 days. 40 bad habits in 40 days? 40 sins in 40 days! Sigh. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but I have this community that helps me, and at the end of Lent, I’ll have so much space for love, and compassion, and kindness.
Meanwhile, I’m going to go tackle the coat closet. Happy Ash Wednesday, and a good Lent to you.
I received an unpleasant diagnosis yesterday. Not a terrible one, and not a particularly scary one, but a real, uncurable, and frankly, kind of icky one. I have psoriasis, which is thought to be an auto-immune disorder of the skin. A real, live disease – golly! (You know that expression “God only gives you as much as you can handle?” I’ve often thought how lucky I am that God knows I am a serious wimp).
I’ve only been googling “psoriasis” nonstop for the past 24 hours, so I’m far from an expert, but here’s what I do know. I have raised red patches all over my torso, with some on my arms and legs. Some of them are scaly and sort of grayish. Some are blob-like and some are more dot-like. They don’t hurt or itch and the vast majority are covered up by my clothes, so I’d say I’m pretty lucky. I’m trying not to be too down about it, as in the grand scheme of things – brain cancer, starvation, war – this is pretty minor, but I’m terribly vain, and I have an ugly rash. So that sucks.
I’m still figuring out what my plan of action is for treating it. There are drugs I can take and creams I can use, and maybe I will eventually, but I don’t want to yet. There are other options, crunchier, alternative type things, and those are more my speed, so I’ll explore those first. (At first I told Sam that if this mystery rash didn’t go away I was going to connect the dots and tattoo constellations on my torso…at this point it would be more of a supernova, but who knows, maybe I’ll still do it).
Anyway, here’s why I’m writing about what would otherwise be a pretty private and kind of embarrassing subject. It dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.
The Internet is awesome. Look how much I learned about psoriasis in one afternoon! Social media can be too. I’m in touch with family and friends all over the world on Facebook. Hundreds of people wished me a happy birthday on May 29. I play Scrabble every day with my brother who lives five hours away. I hear about new jobs, new puppies and new babies almost instantly. I can feed my real estate/decorating addiction endlessly on Pinterest, scroll through beautiful pictures on Instagram and get a quick laugh at my favorite celebrities’ Twitter feeds. I’m fairly plugged in, and I’m fine with that.
But it’s only part of the story. It occurred to me the other day that you rarely see someone posting, “Told my eleven-year-old to shut up today” as their status update. No one tweets “Man, hemorrhoids suck!”*** So picturesque vacation pictures, yes. Lousy parenting moments, not so much. Selfies with celebrities, for sure. Gross medical conditions, no way. I scroll through my news feed, and it’s like that Lego movie song: “Everything is awesome!” which is great, but not true. Not for anyone. I am lucky beyond belief…in my family, in my friends, in where and how I get to live and in what I get to do, but you know what? The most perfect-seeming life has darkness in it. Everyone, everywhere, is battling something. Like fucking psoriasis.
What’s my point? I dunno. I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, unless it’s my kids, and I mostly want them to figure it out on their own too. But for me, I need to hear about people’s triumphs AND their struggles. I ordered a print that says “I will not compare myself to strangers on the Internet” because it’s insidious, comparing yourself to people’s carefully presented public personas. I don’t want to envy other people, I want to be grateful for what I have. But sometimes when all you’re seeing is the highlight reel, it’s hard. My sports nut son likes to watch the highlights of last night’s game when his team wins. And when his team loses, he’ll tell me that he’s watching the lowlights. I think it’s important to talk about both. So, you know, now you know.
***Those are totally hypothetical examples. Unless they aren’t.
My breath is ragged and uneven, here a grunt and there a gasp. My mind wanders, to grocery lists and carpools, to doctors’ appointments and dinner plans, but I reign it back in, and try, for the umpteenth time, to smooth out my exhalation, to lengthen my inhalation…to yoke my breath to my movement to my brain. I’m at yoga, and I can hear the ujjayi breath of the men and women around me. Breath with sound…it is even, ineluctable. It washes over me like the waves of the ocean. I close my eyes, even though I’m not supposed to, and bathe in the sound. I can’t add to it. If the combined breath of the men and women in that room is the Atlantic Ocean, mine is a little creek, so insignificant it dries up in the summer, so unimportant it’s short i, not long e.
My mind wanders again, but this time to the words of the gospel I heard yesterday at mass.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
I heard the same gospel at a funeral a few weeks ago. “The yoke doesn’t seem easy or light,” said the priest. “It only becomes that way because we share the burden together.” I held onto that thought as I choked my way through the familiar prayers and hymns, adding my voice thick with tears to the rest of the congregation’s. “There is nothing I can say or do,” I thought. “But I am here, with these people, saying these words and singing these songs. It is nothing, but it is all I can do. Maybe it is enough.”
And so I join my little creek to the ocean of sound as I move through my yoga practice. In and out, labored and burdened, but shared. What I have, I will add to the room. What I can, I will give.
Last fall, Lucy and I planted 200 tulip bulbs. Tulips are my very favorite flower, and have been since at least high school, which may be the longest I’ve ever gone without changing my mind about something. It was a sunny September day with a bite in the air, and we knelt down in the mud and clay, dug 200 holes, filled them with bone meal, carefully set in the bulbs, and covered them up with earth. As the season wore on, the weather turned cold, and then very cold. The leaves changed and fell. We raked enormous piles that the kids jumped in, and we raked some more. It snowed, and we danced for the sheer joy of it. Then it snowed and snowed and snowed, and when it snowed at the beginning of April, we almost cried. It truly felt as if spring might never come. We wondered how many of the tulips would come up, if any. Would they become dinner for hungry squirrels and chipmunks? Were they frozen to death under the ground? Had we done it right? Had they survived? I think any gardener will tell you that planting something is an act of faith, and hope. I think all gardeners have to be a little bit of optimists in their hearts. So we waited. And waited and waited and waited.
And then, obstinately, defiantly, those tulips forced their way up. The snow wasn’t even gone yet, there was still ice on the lake, and we still bundled up in hats and scarves as we walked past those stubborn tulips. We checked on them every day, measuring their progress, watching them grow from green little fingers in the ground to suspiciously tulip-shaped leaves on suspiciously tulip-shaped plants. They haven’t bloomed yet, and there might not be 200 of them, but they’re there, growing and changing from something that looked dead to something that is not only alive, but beautiful.
Today is Easter. What was dead is alive. Where there was sadness, there is now great joy. It’s warm enough for me to sit on my porch with my laptop, after having gone for the very first family bike ride of the season. We went to the Easter Vigil last night, the Easter Bunny hid a nice amount of eggs in the backyard this morning which the kids found at the crack of dawn and we ate too much ham and drank too much champagne at lunch. It has been a happy day. But now we need to keep it up. As our pastor said, we need to celebrate Easter for an entire season. In fact, we Catholics are supposed to be an Easter people, a people of joy all year long. We’re supposed to be optimists and hopeful and believers, and joy-spreaders. Gardeners, so to speak. That’s hard sometimes. I think I might be better at Lent. I’m good at rules, and I’m probably a little too good at sad, and introspection, and deserts. But I did plant those tulips…I bet I can get better at cultivating joy.
A very, very happy Easter from the Belfry to wherever you are.
Aaaaaaaand it’s Ash Wednesday again – my blogiversary, and the beginning of perhaps my favorite church season, Lent. I was sort of stumped on what to write about, to tell you the truth, but determined to think of something since Ash Wednesday is evidently THE ONLY day I won’t let pass without a blog post, and phew! here it is. My annual post.
So at yoga, you can set an intention before you begin your practice. For me anyway, it makes my work on the mat a physical expression of prayer, like the dervishes, or the Shakers, except with incense and lycra. I often go through my mental Rolodex of friends and family before class or my own private practice, offering up my effort for the people I love best. (It’s interesting how it works…the two seem to dovetail until the person I’m praying for and the practice mirror or match each other. A while ago, I set one of my dearest friends who was going through a tough time as my intention, and the yoga was hard. Or I set my youngest child who radiates light as my intention, and the yoga was easy).
Anyway. I escaped to class last night by bribing my husband to take our son to violin, and getting take-out burgers for dinner. Before class began, I was thinking about who to pray for, and my oldest daughter popped into my head. I have some people on my list who ostensibly need prayin’ a whole lot more than she does, but thinking of her working on her book report at the dining table as I dashed through on my way out the door made me smile, so I offered up the class for her. For Riley, I said, closing my eyes and smiling as I stood at the top of my mat.
As class began, my teacher said we would work on backbends (boo!) and reminded us not to let our minds boss us around. Well, I’m paraphrasing, but her point was that while we need to respect and be compassionate toward our bodies and their limits, sometimes our brains put the brakes on way before they need to…and that frequently we are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for. She also pointed out that backbending, which is considered to aid the nervous system, can be intense, and can open you up to a lot of emotion.
If you know my daughter, a lot of that will seem pretty pertinent. And if you don’t, you can take my word for it. She’s nervous, she’s intense, she’s emotional, and she has a fiercely big brain which frankly, gives her a lot of guff.
That’s all very nice, you say, and kind of a cool coincidence, but what about Ash Wednesday? Patience, grasshopper. I’m coming to that part.
So my darling daughter has a problem with overreacting to things. Falling apart because she asked the wrong person for Fiddling Fernando in Go Fish for example, or exploding because her brother is being poky tying his shoes again. Actually, to be truthful, it’s us that have the problem with her overreacting. I don’t know. I think sometimes her gauge of what’s reasonable just needs to be rejiggered. We had a great conversation about it the other day, and we came up with the idea that I could just shoot a codeword at her, and then she’d know that maybe she was at DEFCON 1, when really 5 was all that was called for. and maybe that would pull her back from the emotional cliff.
And here’s where Gilbert & Sullivan come in. I got the idea from Ruddigore, a G&S operetta I was in in grad school. I played a character named Mad Margaret who is unhinged by lost love when you meet her in the first act, but who is (mostly) cured when she is eventually reunited with her soulmate, Sir Despard. Mags has the terrific idea that when she veers off course into CrazyTown, Sir Despard can pull her back by saying only “Basingstoke,” the name of a real town in England. I don’t know whether it’s crazy or not. I’ve never been. But anyway Riley and I now have our own version of “Basingstoke,” and I won’t tell you what it is, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the codeword.
And NOW I sew this all up together with Lent. I realized during yoga last night, mid-backbend, that Lent is our Basingstoke. Life is so bananas, batshit crazy most of the time for all of us that we LIVE on the edge of the cliff…but every year Lent rolls around again saying “Basingstoke!” which really means “yes, your schedule wants to eat you alive, and your children make demands on you and your parents need you and you’re neglecting friends and you’ve only gone to yoga a couple of times since your New Year’s resolution to go all the time, and you’ve blown several obligations and you didn’t see a single movie in the theater in the whole of last year, and you’re drinking too much and you’re eating crap and you gossip and you don’t have faith, but take a minute. In fact, take 57,600 minutes -that’s how many minutes there are in the 40 days of Lent – and do these three things: Pray. Fast. Give alms. Or put it another way if that’s too churchy for you: Reflect. Streamline. Love more.”
So this Ash Wednesday, that’s what I’ve got for you: Basingstoke. And maybe more yoga.
My oldest child is in another professional play. She’s having a good season, it must be said. She had just finished one play when she started rehearsals for the next gig. Like seriously, the very next day. And she’s been spending HOURS downtown at rehearsal. My life, for the next two months, is chaffeusing. (I made that word up, I’m very proud of it, and I like how it sounds way more than what it means). In fact, our communal schedule is so bananas, we gave her a phone. And yes, the fact that I am now the kind of parent who gives a ten-year-old (almost eleven) a phone is horrifying. In fairness, it’s not hers to keep, it’s just so that when I drop her off in front of the theater, double-parked in heavy traffic with the blinkers on, my throat hoarse from cursing the other drivers on the way downtown, she can run out and text me from the fourth floor, “Hey Mommy” – she still calls me ‘mommy,’ the darling, darling girl – “I made it. I’m safe. I’ll see you at 9.” Actually, her first morning with the phone she texted me three times, saying “Mommy, I love you so so so much.” Frankly, I don’t know why we didn’t give her one ages ago. I need the affirmation.
Anyway. Yesterday the director and the children’s director and the stage managers were kind enough to meet with the clueless parents to try to explain the mysteries of producing a show. I had 82 questions about how to read the call sheet, explaining who is expected at rehearsal when. If Riley isn’t cast there again, I’m sure it will be my fault. “The kid is great, but that mom is pretty dim – I have serious concerns about the gene pool…” I appreciated the director’s honesty as he explained that while he hopes that the kids have a good experience, it isn’t his paramount goal…that putting on the very best production they can is of primary importance. And then he thanked us. HE thanked US…for letting them have our kids, and for driving, and for shifting schedules and all the rest. He has a two-year-old, he said, so he isn’t there yet, but he recognizes how difficult the demands of the show will be. It was a nice gesture, but here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been on my best behavior.
“Are you effing kidding me? Listen, your kid is two, so you’re stuck playing with Little People and watching Backyardigans and running around trying to make sure she doesn’t kill herself, so you don’t know this yet, but let me tell you something. Watching your kid discover what she loves is one of the most magnificent experiences a parent can have. Seeing her be good at that thing is sublime. And if she has success at that thing that she loves and is good at? That is one of the most profound joys you can have, I think. At least it is for me.
My daughter has come home from rehearsal every day glowing. Seriously, she is glowing, like an alien or an angel. Her happiness wells up from her toes and explodes out of her mouth in happy chatter all the way home. She is delirious to go to rehearsal and disappointed when she doesn’t. And this magic is not just stagecraft. She’s so happy and confident, she’s doing things she’s never done before, like scoring goals in soccer, and walking home by herself from the store. She even likes school a little bit now, which hasn’t been the case since kindergarten. So thank you. Thank YOU. Thank you for the opportunity, and for recognizing the pure gold from which my daughter’s heart is fashioned. You have excellent taste, and I promise, she’s way smarter than I am.”
Pearl S. Buck said that “Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.” I think sometimes in this parenting business we fail to see that. Family life is challenging and growing pains hurt, duh. The minutia of day-to-day life can be pretty soul-sucking. So I am so freaking grateful for this tsunami of joy that has entered our household. I’m gonna dive in and enjoy the ride.
“And, the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action.” Robert Louis Stevenson
So an old friend posted two articles from The New Republic on Facebook today. In one, the author says “don’t make your kids play an instrument or take ballet.” In the other, a different author says “make your kids play an instrument,” skipping ballet all together. Mr. Con says that classical music and ballet lessons are a giant waste of time, because they don’t teach the student any practical skills she’ll take into adulthood. Mr. Pro says you should study music to commune with musical deities like Bach, and to be part of a centuries old tradition. I don’t agree with either of them.
Full disclosure – I met that Facebook friend way too long ago at a high school music camp, where it’s fair to say that we shared one of the most sublime musical experiences of our lives before or since as we rehearsed the 4th and 5th movements of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. (Schubert wrote it when he was 22, which produces the same kind of distress in me as the fact that Keats was only 25 when he died. But that’s an aside…we all have issues).
So yeah, I studied cello. I started when I was 11 or so and played through high school and college, and unlike the anti-music lesson author, I still play it. Mostly when I’m helping my son with his violin lesson, but sometimes when I’m looking for something to do, I take out my dog-eared copy of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites and make like I’m Pablo Casals. I also play the violin a little bit, the piano a little bit more and the guitar pretty badly. And I’m looking forward to starting the viola with my youngest daughter this afternoon when we go to her very first Suzuki viola lesson. In the interests of being thorough, I’ll tell you that I also sing in a church choir, and cantor at two different churches, sing the occasional wedding and perform with two different rock bands. You might be getting the picture that music is pretty damn important to me.
But wait! I haven’t told you about ballet yet! I started when I was six. I was supposed to begin at five, but I broke my arm standing on a folding chair that folded – kids, don’t try that at home! – so I started in first grade once I got my cast off. I danced seriously until I was 18. I performed with my town’s professional ballet company in countless productions of The Nutcracker. I continued to take ballet lessons in college, but I also discovered other forms of dance there, and when, after I graduated, I realized that directors would hire me to dance in musical theater, it was like I had found the holy grail, combining as it did both music and dance. I am not exaggerating when I say that my twenties were filled with music and dance, and that I would not trade those memories for all the world, nor would I give up the friendships I forged doing those shows.
I will admit that I have an uneasier relationship with ballet than I do with music – I have some injuries now that I’m 40-something that I blame on dance, and I worked through some fairly gnarly body image stuff that I also blame on ballet. However, I am one hard-working and disciplined mother (no, really, I’m a mother) and I credit ballet with that too. And my confidence! Come on, I used to prance around on stage regularly in little more than my underwear – what can possibly embarrass or cow me now? And I still take an occasional dance class, just to kick the cobwebs off.
So where do I shake out on this issue for my kids? Well, all three of them study an instrument, and they will continue to do so until they no longer reside under my roof. I’m lucky so far in that no one wants to quit yet. I don’t know whether any of them possess any real musical talent. How could I know? They’re 10, 8 and 6. There aren’t all that many musical prodigies out there – there are way more people who work and work and work and get better incrementally. Anyway, that’s not the point. I’m not expecting to raise the next Joshua Bell here. My children take music lessons because music is a central part of the human experience, something that binds us together and sets us apart from other animals. They study music to learn discipline, and hard work. They play music with each other to realize that working together, disparate people can achieve a thing of beauty. In fact, they play instruments to create beauty, to put beauty into our broken, often ugly world. Surely that last in and of itself is enough of a reason. And contrary to Mr. Con, I believe that they will take all of that into adulthood, whether they continue to play the same instruments, or whether they pick up the guitar and the ukelele instead, or whether they stop playing all together. And as far as Mr. Pro goes, well, I don’t actually think it’s carrying on the classical musical tradition that’s the point either. If my violinist wants to start fiddling in a bluegrass band, that’s fantastic. If my pianist wants to switch to jazz, that’s awesome too. If the soon-to-be-violist wants to find some way to funk that up, well, good luck kid, but by all means, go for it.
And with regard to dance, my youngest takes ballet and tap, although not at the professional ballet school I attended. My mother was horrified by the bootie-shaking at the spring recital, but Lucy loved all of it, and truthfully, so did I. The oldest used to take ballet, but asked to stop when she was in second grade. I was okay with that, although I told the aspiring actress that dance would help her move well on stage. She’s asked to go back to it this year. All three of the kids took a hip-hop class this summer too, and we all faithfully watch So You Think You Can Dance every week it’s on, which inevitably leads to a family dance-off. Again, I’m not aiming for Barishnikov here, but dance is a great form of exercise, and like I said, I attribute my work ethic and persistence to my years of ballet training. I love dance, in all its forms, and like music, with which it is so closely aligned, dance is one of the things that separates us from the rest of the animal world, something that elevates us, sometimes literally! toward the divine. Listen, either you believe that the arts have intrinsic value on their own, or you’re dumb. I mean, or you don’t.
So I’m staring down the barrel of years and years of chauffering the kids to various music and dance lessons, let alone sports, (how would we feel about an article that said, “don’t make your kids play sports?” I wonder if there’d be a different reaction?) and I don’t dread it all. I’m glad to do it. Even though it may not seem like it during those first screechy string lessons, or tentative tendus, they’re already artists, and they’re creating beauty…and like Keats said, at age 23, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”
Now We Are Six – A.A. Milne
When I was one I had just begun
When I was two I was nearly new
When I was three I was hardly me
When I was four I was not much more
When I was five I was just alive
But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever;
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
How can Lucy be six? Six isn’t little kid anymore. Six is just kid, kid. Six needs two hands to show her age. Six reads chapter books. Six plays on a soccer team. Six takes viola lessons. Six eats lunch at school. Maybe Six makes the bed? I miss you Five, but I love you even more, Six.
We celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary on Sunday, so that means it’s been 12 years since 9/11/01. There are lots of posts about 9/11 on my Facebook feed this morning, prayers for peace, and “I will never forget” badges and the like. Me, I’m going to be spending the day trying to get organized for the kindergarten party on Saturday, getting the Battle of the Books stuff done, and paying bills. I think that’s ok. Life goes on.
I was in Arizona over the weekend. It was 80 bazillion degrees the day we got there – the heat was so intense as soon as we got off the plane, it felt like being punched in the gut. The desert is beautiful, albeit not beautiful in the way my Wisconsin soul typically imagines beautiful. We climbed a mountain, a little one anyway, on Saturday morning. I took pictures of every cactus I saw, fascinated by their foreignness. On Saturday night it rained, just a little, and by Sunday morning, the brown and seemingly barren mountain was green. It had exploded with life in the space of 24 hours.
I think we humans are the same way. Give us half a chance, and like the desert with that tiny bit of rain, we won’t just choose life, we’ll seize it. There are moments when life seems fragile, but paradoxically, it’s tenacious at the same time. We’re tenacious. We have to be.
So here we are, 12 years on, and our country is considering military action in Syria. I don’t have the answer. (Wouldn’t that be awesome if I did? Middle-aged suburban housewife solves Syria question. Sigh.) All I can tell you is what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to teach my children to do: Choose life. Choose peace. Grow.