Defining home

When I was in college, a “worldlier” friend used to enjoy making digs at me because I’d never left Boston. Indeed, I went to both college and graduate school right outside of Boston and I started my career 15 minutes from where I grew up.

So when a young attendee at one of the work events I was hosting read my palm (she just happened to be psychic – I wasn’t working with the paranormal ;-)), I soon learned that a foreign country was in my future. I balked at her prediction, because I was every bit as domestic as my college friend accused me of. I’d just gotten promoted at work and moved into a new apartment (10 minutes from where I grew up) and I had no interest in going anywhere.

Then, sure enough, one fluke event led to another, and two years to the month that I’d met the palm reading woman, I was standing at Narita International Airport with the two suitcases from which the next eight years of my life would grow. I would end up changing my career, meeting my husband, and becoming a mother in Japan.

Nearly a decade later, we – Max, Fred and I – relocated to the States, to the south. We wanted warmth and affordability and we wanted out of the city. Our son gets to now grow up with the kind of life I used to only dream about and see on television: a neighborhood filled with the laughter of children, an American-sized house, trees, yards, elementary schools with campuses, neighbors who smile and lend you eggs and butter if you need them. While there are larger, serious problems with our state, I do love the idyllic, international, intellectual, liberal-minded and friendly town we live in.

But I started to have second thoughts this year, when the bombings in Boston pulled me back to a familiarity and security that I’d long resisted. Mourning in the shared pain back in April, I realized that I have roots, however ambivalent I may be about my actual experiences. Boston, with its harsh climate and harsh personalities, was not an easy place to live or grow up in. But it was home – the place that I will always associate my family and childhood with, and the security that family and the past bring.

That I felt rooted is significant, as someone who for a good part of her life didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere; I was too American for my Asian friends yet not quite western enough to be seen as American. Coming back after almost 10 years overseas, I have an affinity for other expatriates and international people.

I found myself wanting to move back to Boston – for my parents, for Fred (there are better educational opportunities in Massachusetts (read: feeder schools)), for myself. I’d even managed to convince Max to seriously consider the possibility, which was no small feat given that he’d left one home behind for me already.

After some gut wrenching ruminating, I told Max I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t make the possibility work without throwing a grenade into our family. Our time line would mean sending Fred to 3 different schools in 3 years. We would need to downgrade our living space to a small apartment. Finances would be tight. And I’d need to pull both my husband and son from the only home in America they know, a home and community that they absolutely adore.

The whole process made me rethink the meaning of home. Is it where I have my roots, my childhood memories, my parents? Is it a place that is defined by history, or is it a starting point for history? Is it the place brimming with opportunity and stimulation, or the place where you feel most serene? Can home be a home if one has chosen out of duty – for filial piety, for a better shot at Harvard for your kid? Can it be a home if one half of your partnership doesn’t feel the same way you do about it? Can you love your home and yet still long for another place? Questions like these made my head spin.

In the end I understood that home is where all three of us are happy, and eventually the place where my parents are better off retiring to. I decided that home for me needs to be about peace and comfort and space and freedom, a place without resentment or constant anxiety…and it is what we already have.  But the decision is also a compromise because we don’t have the luxury of having it all, and no matter what we choose we do end up sacrificing.

Memoir Review

I love memoirs. I’m one of the many readers who disagreed with this scathing commentary on memoirs and memoirists in The New York Times, as I believe that everyone has a story worth telling. While I love fiction with an equal passion, there is something compelling about a story that actually took place, and there is something very powerful about a writer’s voice that is birthed as a result of experience, processing, and honest reflection. It is through memoir that we can become more compassionate and understanding as well as feel validated and connected. Below are three memoirs I’ve read so far this year of three very different lives:

strongestlibrarian The World’s Strongest Librarian is Josh Hanagarne, a (6’7″) Mormon, librarian, weight lifter, book lover, husband and father who has struggled his whole life with severe Tourette’s Syndrome. I list these descriptions because they are all discussed in his book, and they are all interconnected in his efforts to get his Tourette’s under control. He writes first and foremost about life with Tourette’s Syndrome, and how the inability to control or predict his extreme twitches (at their peak Josh is literally punching himself) has impacted everything from his ability to finish college to his fears of burdening the woman he loves to his anxieties of passing his genes on to his son. He writes also about faith, which he has struggled with over the years, and weightlifting, which he finally discovered as a way to gain control over a body he had previously very little control over. And the big bonus is that he also loves books, and he relays some very entertaining tales of the crazy patrons he sees and deals with in his work in the library!

I loved Josh’s voice, which I found to be witty, intelligent, honest and humble. On some very odd level I often forgot I was reading about someone who was going through so much, because he showed so little anger or bitterness. I’ve battled, privately and with shame, a much milder case of tics, and his story is all my fears lived through another person; I don’t know how I could have coped if I had a full fledged case of Tourette’s. But Josh is a humble, persevering and positive man, and a loving family and community member. Reading his story you know that he is just a regular guy – someone you would want to be friends with. Yet if you sat down in a restaurant and saw an enormous man violently jerking, it may not be so easy to view him in the same way.

My interest waxed and waned slightly in some parts as he sometimes went at length in some details, but overall I am glad I got to know this new writer and to hear his inspirational story.

Swinging to the other extreme, I also picked up The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess by Turney Duff, a former hedge fund trader-buysideturned-writer. Duff’s memoir, which I couldn’t put down, is an (excuse the forthcoming cliche) unflinchingly honest account of his rise and fall on Wall Street. Yes, that description is cliched because we’ve heard or heard of this story before: the young and blinded plunge into excess and the inevitable repentance. In that sense this story is neither original nor surprising. Duff starts out at Morgan Stanley as an assistant through a family connection and after failing to get a job as a journalist. “Out degreed” as he describes himself as a graduate of Ohio University among all the pedigreed MBA traders, he was soon able to distinguish himself socially after hours, which led to critical relationships and dealings that would eventually help him rise as a trader. The more successful and well paid he became, the deeper he sank into a cesspool of cocaine, alcohol and sex. Duff is a great story teller and you feel the pain of the drowning and re-drowning, even as his live-in girlfriend and mother of his daughter threatens to leave him if he can’t stop.

I have read comments by people who say they have no intention to support this writer. As a member of the 99%, I am no Wall Street sympathizer by any means. However, I tend to not judge writers. Duff’s story is not original in its theme, but it is his story, he is honest, and I can understand the therapeutic need to purge oneself. I’m a firm believer that even if a million other people have gone through something similar, only you could have lived the experience that you have. Ultimately, I believe it is important for us to understand the darker sides of our society and, indeed, of our selves (even if we consider ourselves  above the temptations of money and narcotics…I still find the psychology fascinating). The only thing I wanted to hear a bit more of in this memoir was a reflection on why he kept going back to the drugs as it appeared that his fellow colleagues were not addicted at the same severity. Was it, figuratively and literally, the high, and the exhilaration of the freedom? Was it a coping mechanism for the stress or a deeper disillusion? Maybe these questions point more to my lack of knowledge of drug addiction.

A Fort of Nine Towers is one of the most personally impactful books I have read in a while, and I’ve been wanting for months now to write about thisa-fort-of-nine-towers-978144722174601 book, because it doesn’t seem to have garnered the attention that I believe it deserves. Qais Akbar Omar writes about his and his family’s life in Afghanistan, from the Soviet occupation to the more recent Taliban takeover. It is a coming-of-age memoir and we see Omar from the time he is 8 or 9 through young adulthood.

His memoir reads like a novel (and is page-turning in most places), vivid and rich in details of all the senses. You learn so much about the political landscape of Afghanistan but first and foremost it’s the story of a boy growing up and the love and support of a family that sustain him through some of the most unspeakable experiences that a human being – let alone child – could ever go through. At one point I put the book down mid-sentence and cried.  But the miracle is that despite the horrors, the story was simply beautiful to me. Omar told his story in such a way that you knew the resilience and love of family were more powerful than any evil…because of that, what I was left with after reading this amazing memoir were the beauty, light, and inspiration of Omar’s story and voice.

Is school starting yet?

I’ve lapsed in my writing, as we hit the road (again) the last couple of weeks to see more family and we had almost no internet connection.

We are home, finally, and now hosting my mother and Fred’s 16 year-old half brother. It’s been a whirlwind summer with the non-stop traveling, people-seeing, and work. The three of us have had our share of crying, shouting, and whining.

There are a number of things that I can use as a barometer for how things are going, but the most telling one is how I’m doing as a mother, and I can say with confidence that I’m just a bad mom right now.

I don’t know if I’m a “bad mom” because it’s summer in general, or because it’s been a particularly strenuous summer. I am always in awe (and flooded with guilt) when I see Facebook pictures of mothers cheerfully working on arts and craft projects with their children, or taking them on excursions through state parks. My Facebook posts (if I were to dare post them) would consist of photos of me rolling my eyes the nth time my child tries to negotiate to have dinner at McDonald’s, or wagging my finger at him to knock off that whining, NOW. It’s quite embarrassing to admit, but on three different occasions I have said to Fred, “You know, you would just love Auntie XXX.” I am thinking out loud during those moments, but I could name at least three friends off the top of my head who could make my child happier.

I am so tired, and I readily admit that I lack that maternal gene that allows me to be pleasant when I’m around a child 24/7 for more than a week. I feel guilty when I find myself thinking, “When is school starting again?”

I know it’s not so much my child that is driving me crazy as it is my fatigue that is facilitating my being driven crazy. The more tired I am the more impatient I am, and the more impatient I am the more I am chipping away at the relationship between Fred and me. When he is temperamental or difficult, he is saying to me, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this tension. I am not happy. Where’s my real mom?”

Indeed. Where is she? She’s buried this summer under the physical strain of traveling and adjusting and readjusting to time zones. She’s grappling with in-law issues and aging parents for the first time. She’s confronting the question of where to live over the next few years. She’s wondering how to keep her child entertained, or if it is even her responsibility to keep him entertained. She’s swinging between helicoptering and “free ranging.” She’s confused. She’s staying up too late and waking up too early. She’s trying to please too many people and get too much done. Then, she’s beating herself up because she sometimes doesn’t like whom she sees and hears when she looks at herself.

When over nine years ago I had asked Fred’s nurse how bad it would be to give Fred formula once in a while if I just couldn’t hack the breastfeeding (I struggled even while still at the hospital), she told me the oft-quoted advice that the first person to take care of was myself, and to do what was best for me. It’s clichéd advice in America, but significant then as I was in Japan, a country where the mothering culture is about sacrificing all of one’s self for one’s children. Nine years later, I know her advice still holds true. There’s maybe a mistaken assumption that as our children get older, things get easier, and that as we get older we become wiser and stronger. They do and we do on some level, and yet new and different challenges confront us and tax our energies and confidence.

Like aging parents and maturing children…and summer vacations.

A Friend of the Family: When you don’t like your child’s friend

Occasionally I will write a brief book review and connect it with a life story.

A Friend of the FamilyA Friend of the Family is a 2004 book by Lauren Grodstein about a suburban doctor and father trying to regain control of the wheel of a family life that is veering wildly off the course that he’d wanted.

The book opens with Pete isolated, teetering on the brink of familial and professional bankruptcy. A young man shouts threats at him; he has lost his long-time medical practice; he is living apart from his family above their garage; he is facing divorce. We don’t know why he is in the situation that he’s in, only that he’s done something to bring all of this upon himself.

We begin to learn about Pete’s story through flashbacks, and are introduced to the main players in this drama: his teen son Alec, his wife Elaine, his best friend Joe, and Joe’s daughter, Laura.

The crux of the story is the growing relationship between Alec – seventeen and lost – and Laura, a woman with a troubled past 10 years Alec’s senior. We learn early on what it is about Laura that bothers Pete so much, and why he doesn’t want her anywhere near her son. The story, then, is about how far a father is willing to go to protect his child from bad influences. It is also a story about how important it is for many of us parents – to our egos, to our sense of security – to force our children to conform to the dreams that we have created for them. At what point do we need to let go, and accept that our child has turned out artistic when we wanted athletic? ordinary when we wanted Ivy League? gay when we wanted straight? Why is it so hard to trust our children to forge their own life paths and to choose their own relationships?

The book was a quick and enjoyable read for me (a 3.5-4 star beach read), probably so because my own son’s adolescent years are looming and I am anxious to learn about the challenges that grip parents at this stage.

The one issue that jumped at me, of course, is the lack of control over whom your child decides to become close to, as I find myself entering this territory already with my rising 4th grader.

Pre-school, we pretty much chose our children’s friends; they were the children of our friends, or they were friendships that we had to take part in developing. With growing autonomy, Fred and his friends now develop and maintain their own friendships.

Fred has one good friend whom Max and I don’t particularly like. (I’ll call him “Jon.”) I’ve twice tried to “prevent” them from getting closer by requesting on the school’s annual student placement questionnaire to not put him and Jon in the same class, but each time they were placed together (I think I was not the only parent making this request…). Jon had behavioral problems when he was younger, being prone to aggressive/violent outbursts when things didn’t go his way. This seemed to have tamed when he got a little older, and now it’s more personality. We invited him to Fred’s birthday party once and I caught him stealthily trying to steal something. However, young children are still learning and developing, I understand, and I’ve tried to trust Fred’s judgment by finding the good in this child. Jon can also be warm and intelligent and they have many of the same interests, so among boys, shared hobbies is often the big connector.

And then I saw this e-mail from Jon over the weekend:

“Hey Fred, is your mom really strict? Do you or can you keep your e-mail private?”

We started an e-mail account for Fred as a way for him to stay in touch with his uncle, but he’s since used it with a couple of close friends. He keeps his account on my iPhone, and he knows that I look at it. (Things are still Mommy & Me with us.)

I was disappointed to see that e-mail, this early in Fred’s life. Or maybe this is normal and only feels early because I am absolutely unprepared for it. My son is clearly less precocious, more innocent. I am not sure how to handle this or what to make of it.

This year, Max and I witnessed/learned of a couple of instances at school in which Fred had risen above the mob behavior of his male classmates. One took place during a field trip that we chaperoned, and the other was an incident that a fellow mother relayed back to us. At a school event, she went up to Max and told her how grateful she was to Fred that, when her son was going through a rough period being teased and taunted by the boys in their class, Fred was the one boy who refused to take part. I teared up when Max told me this. How do you teach a child – a boy – not to fall to peer or group pressure? How do you ensure that your child has the strength to put someone else’s feelings and dignity over his own need to belong or his desire to feel powerful? I’ve followed no “formulas” in parenting once parenting became more complicated than swaddling and nursing, and so often I feel as if I am holding my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop as a result of things I did too much of or didn’t do enough of during these early years. With these  two incidents I was awash with an intense relief.

Fred calls Jon out on his bad behaviors, and distances himself when Jon becomes too much to take. When I remarked once at how polite and gentlemanly Jon was, Fred responded, “He acts differently around adults.” Fred knows. He can hold his own. And, well, I am going to need him to continue to hold his own, because going into the complex world of teen friendships, it will be my child that I will need to count on.

Have you already experienced this? How do you deal with it?

Living, Loving & Reading: my new blog theme

I’m back from my whirlwind trip through 4 cities in Japan, simultaneously exhausted and energized. So much happened internally for me over the last few weeks, as going back and meeting family and friends took me face-to-face against such issues as our aging parents and mortality, the meaning of filial piety, the cultural differences in what it means to be successful and how to raise our child in this blended context…

Exhausted and energized. American and Japanese. Confused and clear. Fatter and leaner. Yes, even down to my weight and body, I feel like a contradiction. Somehow I managed to gain 5 lbs. and feel more plump (due to the incessant eating) and yet more muscular (from the miles of walking and commuting we did each day).

At least the trip was a kick-start to get me out of the lazy comfort zone I had fallen into. Despite a difficult return home (our connecting flight was cancelled after the 13 hour leg from Japan, and we were stuck for the night at Newark Airport which I am convinced is hell on earth), I threw myself into work and cleaning the moment I got home. Maybe seeing my weakened parents-in-law (a distant relative died on our last day in Japan as well) unconsciously pushed me to not waste a minute.

I spent a couple of jet-lagged nights making over my blog. I’d struggled over the last few months to write meaningful content and to stay consistent. I’d gotten close to launching a second blog as well, on books and reading, until I had to be honest with myself that I can’t in any way be able to manage 2 blogs simultaneously. I think I was struggling with my blog identity.

As fellow blogger friends of mine have done and talked about, I need to let my blog grow with me. I started writing several years ago focusing on motherhood. These days, although motherhood is no less a priority for me, it has become less pressing for me in terms of discussion. Someone should probably write the life cycle of a mom blogger, as this cycle must exist. Somehow we go from wanting to talk and read about mothering all the time to wanting to talk and read about other things as well, all while still focusing very much, of course, on our children.

So I’m at that stage right now. Fred is 9. In many ways parenting is easier now. I don’t need to find childcare if he’s home from school and I need to work. I don’t have to serve him breakfast if he’s up and hungry and I’m still in bed. I don’t need to take him to the restroom if he has to go and we’re out in public. (Though I’ll wait outside. I’m paranoid of him being alone in a male restroom.)

But in other significant ways parenting is harder now. I feel less control than I ever did, more clueless about whether or not I am doing the right thing (with an uncomfortable, gnawing feeling that I am going about it all wrong and a fear of finding out just how wrong once the teen years set in). When Fred was younger the challenges were largely physical, and in the end I was usually successful in my influence. I’m feeling my power as a parent waning slowly bit by bit as Fred gets older, and I’ll continue to write about mothering in the middle years.

And I’ll still write about life, which is starting to look a little different now, with my time less constrained and with more need to find purpose, with the tarp over my relationship to my husband slowly coming off now that our child is older, with our thoughts turning now to the eventual loss of our first parent.

My new addition to my blog is a discussion of books. (I’ve added a new page to my menu (a list of the books I’ve read this year) as well as links to previous posts on reading to the right of the screen.) I’ve cranked up the reading this year, as some of you know, and I’ve loved being able to throw myself again into this hobby over the last few months. I’m finding myself gravitating toward other readers and other blogs about books, and I thought it would be fun to become a part of that community too. I read mostly fiction and memoir, and I know there’ll be parallels between what I’m reading and what I’m living.

So as you may or may not have noticed also, I’ve changed my tag line from “Motherhood, Marriage and Self” to “Living, Loving and Reading,” because that pretty much sums up what I want to be doing these days. Thanks so much for sticking with me so far, and I hope you’ll also join me in my future book discussions!