More peace

I’ve been quiet the last couple of weeks, drained by the Newtown tragedy, a cold that has lingered for months, and some uncomfortable feelings of tension at home. Maybe they’re all connected, as stress has a powerful way of breaking us physically and emotionally.

Whatever the causes though, stress is not something we can avoid. And so when I hit rock bottom over Christmas for events that didn’t warrant the level of anguish I suffered, I began to ask myself why.

I have never done well with conflict and anxiety. I have a heightened sensitivity to tension, to anger, to loudness, to violence. My heart pounded whenever I witnessed playground fights as a child, and my heart continues to race today whenever I hear voices begin to escalate at home. If the combination of anger and loudness brings back enough memories, my lungs will feel like they are closing off and my fingers will begin tingling. I will then have a full blown panic attack, feeling and seeing in my head an emergency (that may not actually exist) from which I cannot escape.

I grew up in tension, in chaos; anxiety, however unpalatable, is the air I am most used to breathing. So despite wanting peace so much, despite having such a visceral reaction against anything that upsets, I wonder if I, too, contribute to the chaos with my own violent reactions…every time I think a mean thought, every time I choose to say something that will scourge, every time I blame, every time I fantasize about hurting myself as a way to escape feeling pain. Maybe I recreate the emotions I am most used to even if I don’t want them.

I was struck by this blog post on anger by Shannon Lell, and in particular the latter half of this (the emphasis mine):

I am coming to understand that my anger is my half of why my marriage isn’t better than it could be.

Invariably, whatever tension is felt in my life is felt most frequently in my marriage…not necessarily because we may have issues (though there is that, as there are in most marriages), but because our partners often get on the receiving end of whatever discomfort we feel in life: sleep deprivation, annoyances at work, etc. Often our partner is our most regular and intimate other, and lucky they become subject to our every mood unless we happen to be skilled at and vigilant about monitoring our emotions.

When things aren’t right with my husband, things don’t feel right anywhere else in my life.

But this time I remembered Shannon’s words: my half of my marriage.

Too often when Max and I are overcome by emotion we end up spewing out a whole lot of you’s: but you did this, and you said that. We focus on how the other person has wronged or hurt us. I’d like to think that we do this not because we are malicious or self-centered, but because deep down, it is easier to accept someone one else’s wrongdoing than it is to accept our own. While it may anger us to know that someone else has hurt us, it may be unacceptable to our conscience to know that we have hurt the person we love.

Or at least I realize that may be the case for me. By focusing on what someone else did to me, it becomes convenient for me to avoid having to acknowledge the things I have said, and the wrongs that I have committed. I don’t think we can ever go anywhere with someone if the person is constantly made to feel defensive against our words. We end up in self-protection mode, and we begin to see the other person as enemy. Because we shouldn’t have to protect ourselves against friends.

I’ve decided that from now on, whenever I have an urge to say something, I will ask myself, Why am I saying this – is it to satisfy my feelings of anger, or is to further our discussion? If it will not improve interaction, then there is no point in saying it.

From now on, I will think about my half of any relationship, and focus on what I can do rather than what the other person can do. It takes two in any relationship, but ultimately the only person we can control is ourselves. But in doing so maybe we can help bring about the change, and the peace, that we have longed for.

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Heartbreak

This post was not planned, since just 12 hours ago or even 6 hours ago no one could have conceived of something so unspeakable happening. But I need to talk to someone, even if I don’t have the words, so I’m just going to write off the cuff here.

I’ve already decided that I may not turn on the t.v. today, or click open any links, or turn on NPR. I’m not sure. As much as I want to see the parents and the children – to show them some symbolic solidarity – I’m not sure if my heart can handle getting so close. And for that I feel selfish.

And is it also selfish that after thinking about the children and their parents my mind raced to my own child? Because deep down, I have imagined the worst and have wondered how I would react if I ever got such a call. Because I know these things happen, especially in the United States. And because it has happened to other parents, it can happen to us too. And because my son’s school actually practices lockdown procedures. Oh yes. From the ripe old age of 5, my little boy had learned the word “lockdown.” By kindergarten he was more familiar with what to do when a gunman shows up on school grounds than with how to tie his own shoelaces or prepare his own snack.

“Me and Danny and Lily and Jana all ducked under the teacher’s table with our heads down and our hands over our heads. The other kids went under the other tables.”

How innocent and cheerful he was when he said that, as if he were telling me about a new game at recess, while I had to fight back tears at the very image of it.

And once or twice Fred and his schoolmates did in fact have a real lockdown. The most serious one was in first grade, when a student arrived at the high school down the street with a gun and took a shot inside the school bus. But the teachers were calm. As far as the children knew, they just had extended language arts that morning. No panic…only among the staff and parents who’d received a call from the principal about the lockdown.

It’s ironic, that I grew up in a much rougher and more destitute neighborhood 30 years ago and yet I did not become familiar with the words “gunman” and “lockdown” and “barricade” until I became a parent in an affluent neighborhood.

I am so angry at the gun laws in this country. I lived for almost a decade in a country where guns are illegal, and where the annual number of deaths by firearms ranged from 2 to 22 between 2006 and 2008 (compared to 12,000+ in the U.S. in 2008). I love America but for this.

Today so much is running through me – the urgent need to hold my child, anger at the senselessness, and a visceral ache for my fellow parents…because in parenthood we’re united by a common understanding of those unique emotions that can only be felt but not described. In this way I can only imagine and at the same time imagine too well what those parents are going through…and that is why it hurts so much.

That’s all I want

About a month ago Max and I started this little ritual with Fred: we would end each night telling each other what one kind thing we did for another person, and what we were thankful for that day. This was important, we thought, in a life where we are capable of giving Fred almost anything he wants and where it becomes so automatic to receive. And it is also important for me, as someone who has been prone to focus on the things I don’t have over the things that I do.

It’s a heartwarming way to end our frequently frenetic days, as we snuggle in the dark and exchange reflections. For examples of gratitude, I’d expected to hear from Fred lists of treats and goodies that he’d received during the day, like an ice cream sandwich he was allowed for dessert or the chance to play on the computer. But instead it is almost never that. Almost night after night he has surprised me:

I am thankful that you let me help you cook dinner tonight.

I am thankful that you let me do the laundry with you.

I am thankful that you and Daddy listened to me when I wanted to go to Subway for lunch.

I am thankful that you read to me and got me into bed.

I am thankful that a stranger held the door open for us at the restaurant.

Really, he has blown me away. Because he has made me question how well I really know my own child. “Me me me” is how I have heard him. After all, conversation sounds often like a litany of “I want”s: I want soda; I want a cookie; I want a new Wii game; I want more Lego…The seeming obsession with acquiring things is what prompted me to start this gratitude ritual in the first place, but it’s in our process of thanking that I have been able to see what my son really wants…

to be autonomous

to feel needed

to contribute

to spend time with Mom and Dad

to be visible, to be heard, to know that his voice counts

to receive kindness

Very seldom have material things even entered into his nightly thanksgiving.

How is it that I never heard this? How is it that what I always seemed to hear instead was “I want this” and “I want that”?

Perhaps it was always there but I was simply shutting it down.

Like when we say “No” every time he asks to have dinner at MacDonald’s or to go to Chuck E. Cheese.

Or when I say, “No, let me do that; you’ll take too long/you don’t know how/you’re making a mess.”

Or when I say, “I’m too tired/too busy/not feeling well” and “I don’t have time right now/maybe later/later/no.”

Maybe he was telling me all along, but I just wasn’t listening.

But I am now, Fred…I’m listening now. And I realize that you simply want all the same things that I want too.

Are your children always wanting one thing or another? What wishes of theirs have surprised you?

Why doesn’t she like me??

This morning at the school bus stop I ran into my neighbor, or former neighbor, I should say. She and her family just moved over the weekend but came back to tie up loose ends. I was happy to see her and told her we were going to miss her and her family, blah blah. And so we chatted for about 60 seconds before she (in my mind) made a sprint to talk to someone else…to a child.

Sigh.

In the two years that we had shared the same street I never really did connect with her despite the fact that our sons are good friends. She was very reserved, and so after a while I just let things be, not wanting to make her uncomfortable by forcing conversation. The only thing is, she seemed quite warm and friendly with some others on the street. She seemed cold or uncomfortable mainly with me.

What is wrong with me?

Of course, I’m 4x years old, not 14, or even 24, so I’m not going to waste too much time obsessing over this (just the 60 minutes to write this post) or feeling the need for everyone on this planet to like me. But let’s face it, I grew up needing to please and needing to be liked so while I won’t obsess, I will think about this, and allow this to bug me, just a little.

We face this all the time, don’t we? The neighbor who refuses to return hello’s, the mother on the playground who will chat up a storm with everyone but us. Last year my girlfriend and I went on and on about the mother of our children’s classmate, who barely ever looked in our direction whenever we said hello. What is wrong with us, we anguished; what did we ever do to her? We thought about what we could have said or done, but really, in our limited exposure to her, we really couldn’t have been anything but friendly. Our husbands, in turn, shook their heads at us. It is not our problem, they tried to convince us; it’s the other woman’s.

Yes, that may be true, if we’ve searched and searched and don’t believe we could have done anything wrong. But still we carry these accusations around with us like recycled baggage, this silent finger pointing at us that we have failed. Failed to conform to the person that the other woman would have liked.

Years ago in our 20s my closest girlfriend said something that blew me away when she found out that the guy she’d had the biggest crush on was, in fact, dating an Asian woman. She said to me, “I have this thing against well-dressed Asian women.”

Hello.

First of all, I was (am) an Asian woman. I’d considered myself not a badly dressed person, or maybe she didn’t, or otherwise she wouldn’t have made the comment. Second of all, it was just a mind-blowingly inane and racist thing to think, let alone say. But it was eye-opening because it made me realize how the basis of some people’s reactions really is grounded in nothing at all. As our husbands believe, sometimes it really is the other person’s problem.

And I am ashamed to admit that I myself have not always risen above this. In college I remember disliking this classmate simply because she was so damned perky and sure of herself, even though she was short – shorter than me – and she had frizzy hair. How dare she be so imperfect and confident at the same time?! I was so jealous. My negative feelings toward her said a ton about me, and had nothing to do with her. But she never knew that.

And so I have wondered about my former neighbor. I get along so well with all our other neighbors, but her…I was never able to penetrate. So maybe it’s because I’m Asian, I had once thought, until I saw how close she is to the Korean woman down the street. Or maybe it’s because I don’t go to church, and she and the Korean woman go to the same church, and somehow I ooze heathenism in her eyes. Or maybe I remind her of someone she didn’t like. Or maybe…maybe…

Or maybe we just don’t have that much power over other people, over their pasts, over whatever they’re going through right now, and whatever connections they make in their heads when they meet us. And it’s okay – we should believe it is okay – to let go of the need for that power.

 

Raising a reader

When Fred was 3 or 4 I’d read a New York Times article about the crisis of boys and reading – how boys are not reading, and how this puts them at risk for dropping out of school and heading into a whole host of adult problems. I remember feeling pretty smug at the time, because my preschooler just loved reading, thank you very much, almost as much as he loved eating vegetables.

And as many mothers of older children know, in time we learn to eat our humble pie.

Like many mothers who are privileged enough to do so, I’ve filled our house with children’s books from the time that little stick turned pink. I began reading to Fred almost from Day 1, knowing that even the newest of infants can begin to understand and process language even if they can’t yet verbally communicate.

Fred loved books, and he loved being read to and flipping through books on his own. This is instinctive, I thought, human. Boy or girl, what child doesn’t love color and pictures and a good story?

As he got a little older I saw that Fred was the stereotypical little boy who could barely sit still, a boy who preferred creating over absorbing, doing over reflecting. Then I realized this was the daytime Fred; by nightfall he became a reader. No matter how tired he was he wouldn’t be able to sleep without having cracked open a book first. It became a ritual as necessary as bathing. And trying to get him to close his book and turn off the light was the one fight I welcomed and was often willing to lose.

I would also talk my books with him and take him to library book sales with me. He was only too happy to oblige, somehow loving being a part of my adult reading world. He’d ask me questions like, “Is the girl with the dragon tattoo the same girl who played with fire?” He’d beg me to retell novels like The Hunger Games, and I’d struggle to abridge them to Rated G versions.

But then one day I messed up.

Last year in the second grade he became fascinated with The Mysterious Benedict Society. A complex 5th grade level book about a dangerous mission undertaken by 4 gifted children, it was not an easy read for this 7 year old who’d only just learned to speak and read English a few years before, but he loved it and we read it together night after night, chipping away at the 400+ page book, stopping every once in a while to go over unfamiliar vocabulary or expressions. How proud I was the day he gestured to take the book from me saying, “Mommy, I want to try reading this. Let’s take turns.” And so we did, and a few days later he said, “Mommy, I want to take this to school to read.”

He came home that day, beaming that he had read 30 pages.

“30 pages?! Did you understand what you read? Can you tell me what happened?”

I drilled him all evening, and he responded with, “I guess…sort of…I guess I sort of understood everything.”

Overnight my pride turned into panic. Reading is not about finishing a certain number of pages or trying to look grown up. I wanted to make sure he enjoyed reading, that he was getting as much out of the stories as he could.

The next morning I noticed that he’d taken The Mysterious Benedict Society out of his backpack.

“Aren’t you going to take the book to school?” I asked.

“Nah…” Fred responded.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to have you asking and asking me what happens in the story.”

I told a veteran mom friend about what had happened and she reassured me that I can quickly get him back. But deep down I knew what I had done. Since that evening Fred never again picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society on his own.

And so last summer I saw him slowly sinking into that hole I’d read about in the NYT article five years ago. Whenever we went to the library he’d head straight to the DVD section or the computers. Whenever I asked him to get a book he’d borrow manga. Whenever I suggested certain chapter books he would complain that there were too many words. My heart was breaking. Eight years it took me to build up a reader, and in the space of an evening I had managed to dismantle his passion for books and his confidence to read.

That summer I began googling “boys and reading” and looking through library books with titles like How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. I read all the old advice again: Fill your home with books; read to your child; have the men in your house read in front of your son; accept all kinds of reading material, from cereal boxes to comics to magazines, and don’t criticize.

Don’t criticize.

And so I – we (I’d enlisted Max’s help as the male role model) – started again from the beginning.

Then one day we were at the library, and for some reason Fred pulled off the shelf the first book in the Warriors series, the intricate story of a clan of cats that wrestles with such hefty themes as loyalty, ambition, individuality and identity.

“Lily reads these,” he said, referring to a friend whom he finds excruciatingly annoying but who is famed for reading 400 pages a week.

We started the book together that night, and we both became hooked. Then Fred made me swear to keep all of it a secret, because boys don’t read about “cute animals.” I countered that he should be proud to read anything he wants, and that besides, these cats fight. Fred reconsidered.

By September, Fred was well into the series. He started telling his classmates about the books, and one by one hooked the others onto them. By the end of the month his class was divided into cat clans with his classmates each named after a cat character.

These days, I worry about Fred getting enough sleep. While he cooperates about lights off at night, he is often up at 6:30 if not earlier to read. He reads at the breakfast table and in the car and he begs me to ask him questions about what he’s read. And this time, I ask questions to talk rather than to test. This precious world with his books and characters and distant places? It is his, and may no one ever take this refuge away from him.

Tell me about your reading life with your children. Have you had struggles? How do you keep your children loving to read?