Halloween and the unimaginative mother

Happy Halloween!

Those were Fred’s first words to us this morning. He’d been waiting for this day for a full year, and this year he’s expanding his trick-or-treating territory to cover 3 additional subdivisions.

I remember so well the first time we took Fred trick-or-treating; he was 4 and newly American (we were in Japan up until that point). He chose a red Power Ranger costume, and we would stand behind him, instructing him to walk up to a neighbor’s door, ring the bell, yell “Trick or treat!”, stick his bag out for (free) candy, say “Thank you,” and move on to the next door and repeat, no strings attached. You should have seen the look on his face. What a concept! What a country!

Whoa - what a concept!

Whoa – what a concept!

Halloween takes on so much more meaning once you become a parent. Before Fred came along, Halloween ranked just a few notches above Columbus Day for me. I’d never really gone trick-or-treating as a child, since the year my immigrant mother first learned about the concept was also the year that someone in our city was putting razor blades and poison inside the children’s treats.

This non-Halloween upbringing led to a certain inertia every year came Halloween. I don’t even remember ever having dressed up for college Halloween parties.

And then I had a child. Each year October became a month of anticipation beginning with costume planning and trips to the pumpkin patch and culminating in a magnificent and surreal evening that this underprivileged girl can only say comes straight out of the movies. On October 31st each year our neighborhood streets are filled with dressed-up children who seem to have come out of the woodworks. After-school activities are canceled and homework is excused. Halloween is huge, and it is happy.

When Fred was a toddler I hand made his costumes and threw annual Halloween parties. We were in Japan and I wanted to share this unique piece of Americana with my Japanese friends. Elaborate costumes, decorations, food, arts and crafts, games and 6 screaming toddlers. I actually used to do this.

Then we got to the States, and I began pulling out the credit card. I’d groan having to shell out $30-40 for a one-time costume so you can imagine my joy when Fred announced one year that he wanted to be Darth Vader a second Halloween in a row. We’d get pumpkins but I would leave the carving for Max to do with Fred. I’d look at our neighbors who plant skeletons in the soil or blow up 12-foot spiders to guard their front doors, and I’d do my part by moving our carved pumpkins into better view on our front step.

This year, I felt a slight deflation when Fred announced that he will not be going as himself after all, and then thankfully Max stepped in to help make his costume. I initiated our trip to the pumpkin patch a couple of weeks ago (very fun) and this evening I will accompany Fred on his expanded trick-or-treating route, keeping my eye out for a 20-something-year-old man in a red sedan that was seen yesterday in our town in an attempted child abduction. We didn’t have (or make) time to carve our pumpkins this year and our house/front door looks as festive as it does on Columbus Day. Seeing other people’s children already dressed up on Facebook this morning filled me with some guilt, another reminder of what I am not doing enough of as a mother (though we’ve covered that in an earlier post here where I am supposed to understand that, err, I have other gifts as a mother). But it’s also been almost 10 years. It’s hard for this non-Halloween and unimaginative gal to sustain the rah-rah for a full decade. I still have a dream to someday turn our house into a haunted house and to bake orange cupcakes for all the neighborhood kids. (I used to dream of dressing up as a belly dancer but I have long let that dream go.) This year, I’ll focus on keeping the kids out of the reaches of that red sedan, and rely on the insane concept of adult-supported-candy-begging to keep my 9-year-old more than content.

Sibling rivalry and family secrets: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden_www.onlyoublog.comI finally got around to reading the final couple of hundred pages of East of Eden, which I’d started some time ago but had put down when my work got busy.  Since graduating from college I hadn’t previously gravitated toward the classics, but I was intrigued by the premises of this story: an American family saga at the turn of the century, a vicious rivalry between two brothers, and family secrets. I was not disappointed and I would consider this one of my favorite books of all time.

The story takes place mainly in the Salinas Valley, California and begins with two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Hamiltons are immigrants from Ireland and Adam Trask is a wealthy man who moves in to the Valley as a new land owner. Samuel Hamilton befriends Adam and from there the story of Adam unfolds.

We learn about Adam’s troubled youth in Connecticut, growing up with a half-brother Charles who nearly beat him to death out of jealousy over his father’s favoritism. Adam joins the military and by the time he returns home his father has died, and he learns from Charles that they were both left a sizable inheritance.

One night a woman named Cathy Ames who is badly beaten by a pimp is found near the entrance of the Trasks’ home. Adam and Charles take her in, and while taking care of her Adam falls in love. Only Charles is able to see through Cathy, while Adam is oblivious to her psychopathic nature. He marries her and takes her to Salinas Valley to start a new life and family together.

However, the life that Adam is dreaming for takes a shocking turn. I’ll stop here so as not to give any more details away, but the story continues to the next generation, where we see the sibling rivalry play out between Adam and Cathy’s two sons, Aron and Cal, culminating in an emotional ending.

It’s a modern-day retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, and of the complexities of sibling rivalry and a boy’s desperate need for connection with and approval from his father. It’s also a story about nature versus nurture, free will, and what we do with both the evil and the good that we are born with. Lee, the Chinese servant-turned-surrogate father and family friend in the Trask household, offers the seemingly omniscient voice in the book, and in one careful discussion of the story of Cain and Abel offers a different translation for the Hebrew word timshel as used in the Book of Genesis:

…The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice . . . That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ . . . Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (page 303)

And regarding the story of Cain and Abel overall, Lee says,

I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul  . . . The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears . . . and with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. (page 270)

(For anyone who might be interested, I found out last night that another film adaptation of East of Eden is in the works, with Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, Silver Lining Playbook) to play the part of Cathy Ames. The first movie version came out in 1955 starring James Dean.)

Have you read East of Eden? What has been your own experience with sibling rivalry, as a sibling and/or as a parent?

Breaking the cycle of how we were parented

Jp_shpSigh…parenting is hard. I know I’ve been saying this every year for the last nine years. But really, it is very hard for me right now. I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to separate my own issues from my parenting.

Those of us who didn’t grow up with “ideal” parenting always vow to not turn into our own parents. We will know better, we say; we will be different. I used to criticize my husband for repeating his parents’ negative patterns, until lately when I’ve realized for myself just how hard it is to break out of those cycles.

I tend to be critical and perfectionistic. My mother tends to be critical and perfectionistic. I never met my grandmother, a single mother, who passed away before I was born, but I’ll venture to guess that she was pretty critical and perfectionistic too.

Over many years I’ve trained my eye to notice only the gaps – the 5% on a 95 on a test, the slightly bungled response in an otherwise fantastic job interview. Don’t even get me started on photos of myself.

God knows what the cumulative damage has been, from living with this kind of lens. And now I find myself looking at my own child in the same way.

Fred got a 94 on his math test last week, came in second in his martial arts competition two weeks ago, and remembered to bring home everything from school yesterday except for his water bottle. I know enough to not voice my knee-jerk reactions every time, but it’s bad enough that I even have knee-jerk reactions to begin with.

One area in particular that’s a hot spot for me is time management. The problem is that the one area Fred needs to improve on is the one area I’m very good at. I’m a planner and I haven’t worn a watch in over two decades because my internal clock is so freakily accurate. Time management is important to me and something that’s come naturally so I don’t know how to help those who aren’t able to do it.

But I’ve been trying – big white board with check-off list, a ticket incentive system. After a number of struggles, yesterday morning I heard Fred’s alarm go off a half hour earlier than his normal wake-up time, and then the opening and closing of his dresser drawers followed a couple of minutes later by the clapping of the kitchen cupboards. He had gotten dressed and gone downstairs to get breakfast. I told him I was proud of him and that he was up early enough to catch the bus (always a treat for him). Then, five minutes before he was supposed to leave, he needed to use the bathroom, and ended up missing the bus…which was just as well, because he then realized he’d almost forgotten his recorder for music class.

I didn’t shout or get angry (this time), but I was visibly irritated. He was up a half hour early for crying out loud, and still managed to make no progress in terms of getting to school any earlier.

The truth is that Fred did great that morning. He had the foresight to set his alarm clock, at an early enough time to give himself a comfortable cushion (he had not originally planned to take the bus). He got dressed and prepared himself breakfast before either Max or I were even up. This is HUGE for him. I just wish I had really seen that, and not only in hindsight.

The most painful realization in all of this is that I have blurred the lines between love and approval, and it clued me in on why I, too, have spent my life terrified of losing people’s affections whenever I make a slip. Sometimes when I’m disappointed by Fred’s behavior I’ll feel myself freezing up, even though my love for him of course hasn’t changed. Fred on the other hand will, without fail, kiss me and tell me “I love you too, too much” before closing his eyes to go to sleep each night, no matter what my mood is. On one particularly bad morning before leaving for school he wrapped his arms around me, hugging me long and hard before getting into the car.

I know that his challenges with time management are the flip side of his creative mind, a mind that is often lost in intense thought. Among his many gifts is a huge capacity to love, overlooking others’ flaws and mistakes and slips, and making sure that the last message before “good night” and “good bye” is always “I love you.” I have so much to learn from him, and every incentive to break the cycle.

Do you struggle with this too – that is, repeating patterns from your own childhood?

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

the book thief_onlyoublogI’m coming to The Book Thief a tad late as this was a sensation when it came out in 2006. After hearing more than one person say that The Book Thief was one of the most amazing – if not the most amazing – books they had ever read, I felt I had to put it on my to-read list. Then this summer I read somewhere that the film version was coming out in the fall, so I immediately ratcheted it up my list.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, and it’s the story of a girl named Liesel Meminger who is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. She is 9 years old at the start of the book and the story spans the next 5 years of her life.

Liesel’s own father disappeared under mysterious circumstances (it is later speculated that he was taken away due to his Communist activities), her younger brother dies suddenly on their way to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and Liesel never hears from her mother again. Her days getting adjusted to her new parents are difficult and her nights are consistently filled with nightmares. Rosa Hubermann is like the coarsest sandpaper possible but Liesel finds a loving and kind new father figure in Hans.

The book thief is Liesel, who is illiterate in the beginning of the story and is bullied because of it. But she becomes pulled in by the possibility of words when she picks up a book dropped by the man who was digging the grave of her brother. She takes it home as the one thing she can remember her brother by and Hans, though limited in his own education, begins reading it to her and tries to teach her to read.

Over the next five years Liesel continues to grow in her love for words and books as well as finds her voice. It is, after all, through her ability to write – she ends up writing her autobiography in a blank journal – that we come to know her story.

The main action in the book revolves around the Hubermanns’ decision to hide a Jewish man in their basement. The story comes to an emotionally powerful  conclusion.

The book is unique in terms of structure and writing. First of all, it’s narrated by Death, a surprisingly human and, on many occasions, humorous voice that helps create the intimate feeling of the book.

It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Fuhrer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die. (page 491)

Once in awhile, Death would speak like this:

The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. (page 200)

And he would insert bold alerts in the middle of a page like this:

* * * THE SITUATION OF HANS AND * * *

ROSA HUBERMANN

Very sticky indeed.

In fact, frightfully sticky.

(page 199)

And Death also does a lot of foreshadowing – that is, he (why do I assume it is a he?) will tell you the fate of a particular character or situation and then either in the next chapter or later on in the book, when the timing is right, tell the actual story.

I didn’t mind most of the literary devices used, though I found the bold alerts a bit distracting. My other mild complaint is that I felt the book started to drag a bit 2/3 of the way through…at that point I really began wondering if I was missing something, why The New York Times laud this a “LIFE CHANGING” book on the front cover. This is a 550-page book and while it is very readable, I was feeling at that point that it was a hundred pages too long. Then I got to the final part and things really picked up. Amazing, those final 55 pages made up for whatever disappointment I was feeling earlier.

While I wouldn’t say that this book changed my life (maybe because I picked it up after so many years of hype? and maybe because I’m comparing it to other works on the Holocaust like Anne Frank’s story), it was a satisfying read and a wonderfully told story I won’t soon forget.

Remembering our babies, mothers, and fathers

I have a stark memory from my pregnancy, during one long morning when Max and I were sitting in the hallway outside my obstetrician’s office, waiting for my regular prenatal check-up. A woman walked out of her ob’s office, her hands over the little person curled up inside of her, her entire being enveloped by the arms of another woman. They walked briskly down the corridor and toward the lobby and exit, their bodies seemingly attached, both sobbing the kind of pain that we only hear in our worst nightmares. This was Japan, a country in which such public expressions of emotion are unheard of. My heart pounded and constricted at the same time. I wanted to wish her news away.

In the coming three years I would hear two other stories that would make my breath and heart seem to stop. Fred was a healthy, active, smiling two-year-old, safely playing in our living room when my midwife, who had by then become my friend, came over for lunch and a visit. She told us stories of her experiences in the maternity ward, and especially of one woman who couldn’t decide whether or not to listen to her instinct to get checked, and then lost her baby on his birth day, born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Her story haunted me for a long time. After a long and difficult labor Fred was born with the cord around his neck. I had barely a glimpse of him before the medical team rushed him to the NICU. But he was with me, two years later, giggling and playing hide-and-seek with my midwife. My what-if’s channeled into gratitude for the simple, small, daily miracles of a child growing and smiling. Every day I know absolutely how lucky I am.

NICU

One year before Fred was born, my friend Claudia, whom I have known since our shared study break days in college,  lost her infant son, Caleb. Fred and Caleb share the same birthday week and each year that Fred blows out his candles I also remember the sweet face of Caleb and his and his mother’s story.

By chance I read this morning that October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Last Friday on Facebook Claudia had posted a stunning tribute to the ten years since Caleb passed away. I wanted to share her words with you and I am grateful to Claudia for allowing me to do so. I don’t have adequate words to introduce Claudia but I think that her voice below will more than show the kind of mother and person she is.

~~~

A decade is a long time for a mother to be without one of her ducklings. Caleb Joseph Stahl died on the 11th of October 2003. My third son’s earnest, brave, innocent seven months of life changed me irrevocably. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of when I last held my little sweetheart, here are ten wonderful gifts Caleb gave me:

1. Fearlessness. I have survived the worst; very little rattles, bothers, or frightens me anymore.

2. Compassion. We never know what struggles a person might be going through at any given time. I like to think people are doing their best to get through the day – sad, averted eyes or brusque greetings? They might be covering a world of sorrow.

3. Joy. When triumph is measured in occasional smiles, half-drunk bottles of milk, and decent O2 sats, a person learns to celebrate the little things every day.

4. Patience. Sitting at Caleb’s hospital bed for hours, waiting for a peek at his gorgeous hazel eyes, was worth every single moment.

5. Friends. Old friends returned to me and new ones came along the way. The outpouring of love for our family during Caleb’s life and since has been astonishing.

6. Sam. Sam was only five when Caleb died. Countless afternoons, Sam was in charge of his two-year-old brother in the hospital play area. He never complained. He never whined. To this day he is one of the most stoic, grounded, genuinely kind people I know.

7. Henry. Henry doesn’t remember Caleb, which is incredibly painful and poignant. Yet he seems to have the strongest connection to him – he used to ask to go to Caleb’s gravestone just to play near him. Henry’s tenderheartedness, tucked beneath his exuberant exterior, takes my breath away.

8. Abigail. The first thing I did when an ultrasound confirmed I was expecting my fourth baby was drive to Caleb’s place to tell him he was going to be a big brother. I told Caleb the baby would know all about him and that he would always be kid #3 while the baby would be #4. All her life Abby has declared that she has THREE big brothers. Abby is loyal, steadfast, and loving.

9. Goodness. The past decade has not been without its curveballs, disappointments, and grief. However, Caleb’s life lessons – packed into just seven months’ time – taught me to relish the good and relinquish the bad so I am always surrounded by good.

10. Gratitude. I cherish everyone and everything mentioned here and so many others who are not on this small list. I only had 219 days of “I love yous” to share with Caleb. When he died, I vowed to appreciate and acknowledge life’s gifts – this is a work in progress for me, but I have Caleb to thank for giving me the marching orders for my remaining years.

~~~

Thank you, Claudia. xoxo

Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon

Snow Hunters is a novel by the young award-winning writer Paul Yoon. It’s the story of Yohan, a North Korean soldier and prisoner, who is freed after the Korean War and then emigrates to Brazil, choosing a country he has never heard of over repatriation. He goes to Brazil hoping that it will be a place “where there would be no more nights.”

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

In Brazil Yohan becomes an apprentice to a tailor. The tailor, an older Japanese man who lives alone above his shop, trains him, feeds him, and shelters him. They work together in silence during the day and occasionally talk over beers at night. Over the years they develop a quiet, father-son bond, and yet Yohan never really gets to know him.

During this time Yohan also meets and becomes close to two children, a boy and a teen-age girl. Where they came from and where they live he doesn’t know. It appears that they are orphans. They come in and out of his life.

The book alternates between Brazil and Yohan’s past – his time in the prison camp, a rekindled friendship with an old childhood friend whom he meets again in prison, his father whom he lost when he was sixteen.

It’s a story about understanding and grasping loss – the loss of time, people, and place. There is an elusiveness throughout the book, that a person feels so close and yet simultaneously out of reach.

A haunting image recurs in the novel, that of a loved one fading from view. The person is slipping, slipping, gone…and gone also is the chance to go back in time. There is one more person at the end whom Yohan stands to lose, and we find out on the very last page if he does.

Below is one of my favorite passages from the book about the passing of time:

He thought of these years as another life within the one he had. As though it were a thing he was able to carry. A small box. A handkerchief. A stone. He did not understand how a life could vanish. How that was even possible. How it could close in an instant before you could reach inside one last time, touch someone’s hand one last time. How there would come a day when no one would wonder about the life he had before this one. (pp. 127-128)

I have minimal experience with novellas and poetry and Snow Hunters is both. It is written in prose but it feels like poetry. I picked this up after coming off of a reading marathon, and initially felt relief thinking that I could breeze through it because it is so small. Literally, the book is only a little longer than the length of my hand. But as I soon realized, it is not that kind of a book. It demands you to soak in every word and to translate it onto your own canvas. It was not a difficult or laborious read, but still I worked harder at reading this than I have at any book I’ve read this year.

The book is melancholy, tender, uplifting. It is also gorgeous and deafeningly quiet. I understand from the editor’s note that Yoon had originally written a manuscript of over 500 pages and pared it down to 194. You get the sense that each word is pregnant with meaning. This was a beautiful read, and a powerful study in writing.

Thoughts on blogging by an ordinary blogger

My blog is four years old today (!). That’s four years longer than any plant I’ve ever owned, a little less than half my son’s lifetime, and a third of the life of my marriage.

I’m not putting myself down when I call myself “ordinary.” By ordinary I am referring to clout and status in the blogosphere. It’s not unlike money and status in the off-line world. By both accounts I am ordinary. But do I think I am a good person who lives authentically? Yes, in both worlds, I do. I don’t have tips here on how to get big and successful, but if you want validation, you might find some here today.

I started blogging because I was interested in writing again. I could’ve simply written in a private journal, but maybe what I wanted was to speak up and be heard, by somebody. When I began looking back after a couple of years, it became clearer and clearer to me that I wanted to write because I had spent most of my life silenced. For many different reasons, not the least of which was growing up in a culture of shame, I had been trained to shut my voice down and to take up less space. We all have a voice, and it is a matter of whether or not we want to activate it. After all those years I wanted to activate mine.

And so I started, with many false starts. I had different blogs with different themes and names and nothing stuck until Only You. I named Only You for my son, then five years old. I liked having him be a part of this new life, and partly for that reason I have never considered abandoning this blog, even during stretches when I had lost motivation and confidence to continue.

But Only You was also me, because after having been consumed by motherhood those previous five years, I felt my identity fading out once Fred entered his own world of school and friends. And yet there was no previous self that still existed that I could go back to. Blogging helped me to re-draw the outline of who I was and to fill it in again.

So below are some thoughts, looking back on my four years of blogging:

On motivation

I was never a prolific blogger, and I have gone through peaks and valleys in terms of posting. For me the biggest motivation drainers are lack of physical energy, low writer self-esteem, and perfectionistic tendencies.

I’m going to sound a bit self-pitying here but in the name of honesty I’m just going to come right out and say it: I used to be inconsistent in part because I wasn’t sure if anybody cared. Writing to an audience of busy mothers I’d felt apologetic for my long and heavy posts. And when I found it hard to write – and I have gone as long as two or even three months without writing – I also didn’t explain my absences because I’d assumed that no one would notice if I disappeared for a while.

Of course, what I’ve learned is that 1) as a blogger you need to take a leap of faith and start from there; and 2) creating a community will help lessen that fear of “Who’s going to care?”. It’s a catch-22 because the less you write, the less likely it is you will gain a community and the less accountable you will feel about showing up. For a long time I was caught in exactly that negative cycle.

I also decided to follow my heart in adapting my blog. I was losing a bit of steam writing about motherhood, most likely because my world had shifted. Since the summer, books were becoming a greater part of my life, and I really wanted to start writing about reading. So I took a chance and added books as another blogging theme. I was a bit nervous about changing my blog but being able to write about my passion has refueled my motivation to write.

Finally, I’ve learned to not care as much. I used to approach writing each post almost as if I were drafting an essay for publication. That kind of pressure is what it takes to kill any chance of getting a blog off the ground. I’m still struggling to find my voice after all these years, to write more the way I talk, but I realize that won’t come unless I keep writing and keep practicing.

On community

I’m not going to say the predictable just yet. Instead, I want to say that it took me a while to get the hang of community, the on-line kind. I started out as a “mom blogger,” and soon learned that there is a whole subculture in the world of mom bloggers. There are the big players and you can choose to be a part of that whole scene or not. I’ve strung along to see what the fuss was all about, but I often ended up feeling more alienated and alone than anything else, like being back in my freshman year in college when I was struggling to find my niche. Any social situation that reminds me of those adolescent times is a sign that I need to move away. And so I did.

I also took things a little too personally in the beginning sometimes, feeling hurt if, for example, someone I followed didn’t follow me back. I’ve long let go of that need for tit-for-tat commenting and visiting, because the truth is I often can’t follow back the same people who follow me. Trying to keep up on-line is overwhelming and I understand that everyone else is going through what I go through. It’s not personal. There’s huge freedom in being able to visit a blog simply because you enjoy it, and not worrying about obligation of any kind.

And now I’ll say the predictable: I love my community. It is hard to talk about this without sounding trite or resorting to cliches. I blogged last Friday about the things that bring me down. Well, the people I’ve met through blogging are what bring me up. It is not better or worse than having friends off-line, but there is a certain amount of ease in building relationships on-line. Our first impressions are made not through appearance but through the most intimate parts of a blogger: her words. We can know quickly if we click or not, and with each post we feel we’ve gotten to know the other person a little better. Words are my favorite medium for bonding, and so I love being able to build authentic connection through that.

On validation and vulnerability

Like most bloggers I’ve done my fair share of obsessing over statistics, followers, comments, and shares. Are people reading my posts? What do they think about what I’ve said? Why did I just lose a follower? I never had any goal to amass a huge following, but still, I probably spend more time than I need to checking on my stats.

A few times I got syndicated on larger sites, and it was like small midwestern town girl meets the Big City. My stats skyrocketed during those brief periods of exposure, and it was there, in the scary streets of Blogher and Mamapedia, that I also encountered my first trolls. It was kind of a surreal experience, being told I was an incompetent mother who needed therapy or at least a few good self-help books, all because I’d written about the regrets I’d felt and the lessons I’ve learned from fighting with my husband in front of my child. Since then I’ve had little motivation to put my words out there again, in such public venues. It’s not so much that I’ve allowed myself to be intimidated into silence as it is my lack of desire to share myself with so many people whom I don’t know. It’s like I’ve decided I like my small town better than living in Los Angeles. My goal isn’t to make the big time.

Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable to judgment as both a person and a writer is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s impossible not to be self-critical and to fill yourself with doubt, honestly paralyzing doubt that makes you question if there aren’t easier and safer things to do with your free, unpaid time. So if nothing else – even if I don’t have a ton of followers or page views to show for my four years of blogging – I can say that I’ve shown up, year after year.

Do you blog? If so, what’s helped you stay in the game? As a reader, what keeps you coming back to a blog?

The quiet of growing up

As if I needed any more reason not to clean…

On Friday I cleaned out my closet, a catch-all storage over the last half year for everything from clothes to bags to Fred’s toys when I needed to take them away from him. Within the first five minutes of entering this black hole I found the following “interview” I had taken in my notebook three-and-a-half years ago, shortly after Fred had turned six. Funny how I had thought nothing of his words then.

While reading it Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World also happened to be playing on Pandora and within a couple of minutes I had to switch the station. It was too much. (If you want the full effect you can click on the link above and listen to the song while reading my post, though I will totally understand if you are not awash in the same nostalgia and bittersweet melancholy that I was.)

Things I’ve Learned Now That I’m 6 [by Fred, and dictated by Mom]

Bugs don’t live that long.

This is something that I knew when I was 5: The earth spins around and around and around.

People make books.

Some people are strong, some people are smart.

Some babies write on books for the library or something.

Babies don’t know ABCs until they read a book on ABCs.

My dad can go fast.

Dads can read books.

My dad can do origami.

The grown-ups cook and the kids eat.

It’s not good to fight.

I love my mom and dad.

It’s not good to lie.

5 x 5 = 20.

6 x 2 = 12.

9 x 2 = 18.

If you use a magnifying glass, you can see bugs very well.

The sun is very hot. You would not want to live on the sun.

Making things makes your bones strong.

You can get hurt when you play a sport.

Some bugs like wet.

Flowers or any kind of plants die if you don’t water it. Almost everybody knows that.

If you tear a paper, you can’t put it back without tape or glue.

And in his writing: 

If you bracke a promas then that persen will be mad.

If you have 1 one pensle and you bracke it: you will have to buy another pensle.

~~~

At the time I thought it was cute, mundane…if anything I remember wishing he would come up with something deeper than how bugs look under a magnifying glass. But now having reached the median of my active duty as a mother, I appreciate this innocent list as a glimpse into my child’s world during the year he started school, when he was taking cause and effect and rules and being a good person to a next level, as well as admiring Daddy. There will never be another list like it.

I don’t see Fred growing in the way that I used to, when change meant such drama as going from traveling on all fours to walking upright. Nowadays I catch it in the quiet and in passing – the sighting of small wads of hair in the recycling bin because he has decided to fix his haircut by himself, or when I look up from my cutting board one evening to answer a question and realize that I need to raise my head higher now in order to meet his eyes.  I see it if I take the time to peer into and appreciate his world, a world that is constantly shifting, changing, growing, at a speed now so steady we can hardly feel it, not unlike the rotation of our planet or the blooming of a flower when we water it.

Personal cleansing: identifying the stuff that gets you down

One of my very “with it” girlfriends recently told me that she thought I was “fierce,” and in a good way. Wow. I was shocked and flattered. As I’ve always thought of myself as fragile, I love it when I appear to be the exact opposite. I was one of those princess-loving girls who fantasized about being Wonder Woman.

Of course, when I look at the big picture, I think I’m pretty strong, given some of the things I’ve gone through. But at the micro level, on the day-to-day level, I’ve often thought of myself as fragile.

I’m sensitive – maybe too sensitive. By that I mean that I feel too much. Things don’t bounce off of me; they soak into me. Back-handed compliments, rude tones, dismissive attitudes…I give people too much power over how I feel about myself sometimes.

I’ve been kind of monitoring my moods of late, because I’m getting tired of the emotional see saw. I’m giving up on “Forget about it!” and “Don’t let it get to you!” because those instructions don’t come with instructions. Really, when someone does or says something that feels mean, how do I not let it get to me – me, who feels everything so keenly? Someone needs to tell me how.

Of course, I do make an effort to try and react from my head rather than my heart. It’s beyond difficult, since I am not wired this way, but I do make efforts. For example, if someone makes an off-handed remark that was meant to sting, I have to remember that it says more about the speaker than it does about me.

In the meantime, though, I do think that we need to arrange (or rearrange, if necessary) our lives in order to maximize healthy living and to minimize toxicity. I didn’t always do this, and out of either cluelessness or politeness chose to stick around situations that were not uplifting.

Years and years ago I was with a man who had no limit on how he could frustrate and torment me. At one particular party he’d spent half the time avoiding me (even though we were in a committed relationship) to talk to other women. I was crying and then trying to explain everything to a concerned girlfriend who turned around and said to me, “I don’t care what the reasons are. All I know is that you shouldn’t be crying.” That pretty much sums it all up. Now, of course, if you cry at everything, then that’s a problem. But assuming you are a normal, warm-blooded human being, you really do have to question situations and people that constantly leave you crying.

And the following are things that make me cry, or at least figuratively speaking (and the things I need to pare down on or do something about):

Facebook

So ridiculous, isn’t it, that something so trivial can actually dictate what mood underlies my days. My FB friends would never believe it given how active I was on it (I am using the past tense, effective 18 hours ago), but I actually don’t feel good on FB a lot of the times. And it’s not because of envy, the most commonly cited issue that people have with FB. Most of my friends (bless them) do not brag or flaunt, and I don’t take very seriously the two that do.

However, I do find it too easy to feel rejected on FB. It reflects my insecurities in general. If I were to psychoanalyze myself I can trace this flicker of fear back to the time I was 14 when my best girlfriend decided to suddenly leave me out of things she was doing with our mutual friends. It is easy to put something out there and feel ignored, whether the gesture is real or imagined, and to wonder if you have just made a fool of yourself or written something that offended someone or are being judged. FB is poison for those who crave interaction but who also think and worry and analyze too much.

People in Friend Disguises

Especially with the advent of Facebook we really need to find a new word for “friend.” I have whittled my real life pack of friends down to the people who really deserve the title. Sometimes it’s not easy, because there are people in friend disguises. They blow their cover when they make off-handed remarks about the fact that you have no children, or have only have one child, or that you work outside of the home, or that you stay at home, or that you formula feed. They tell you you can tell them anything and then freak out or avoid you when you actually do. Or they take up more and more of you and make you feel guilty for taking a step back.

Family

This is so hard, when the people who love you most are also the ones who make you cry. I love my mother and on many levels I am in awe of her, and I know I can never live up to many of the things she has accomplished as a mother and as a woman. But she can be hard on me, still, all these years since I’ve learned impeccable manners and brought home good report cards and earned my university degrees with honors. And as a parent my life is just rife with fodder for criticism right now.

But I can’t just avoid her or cut her out of my life. I do understand that there are daughters and sons out there who have no choice but to. So in my case I am fortunate, fortunate because it is not like that. I know there is more to us than these particular bad feelings, and I know that in a perverse way the criticisms stem from worry which stems from love that is too strong to be rational and objective. I can drift apart from people in friend disguises, but family doesn’t let me off the hook quite as easily. There is a lot at stake here, so I need to speak up.

Clutter

This sounds trite but it’s as big as the piles of books and papers that surround me. Serenity starts with order. I can clear out the toxic people from my life but still drown in my own clutter and disorganization. So 15 minutes a day, even 60 seconds. Today while waiting for my computer to boot up I tidied up a small pile of books on my desk and threw a few things into the waste basket.

Guilt and Self-Criticism

This is the Headquarters where all the toxicity originates. So many self-reprimands (often very quiet and very subtle) when I fail to do something, including accidentally getting on Facebook this morning. There’s no point in trying to rid yourself of mean or unhealthy people when you are your #1 toxic friend in disguise. Why is it so hard to be kind to ourselves? To talk to ourselves the way we would talk to others? Last month when I spoke to a therapist she told me it was my internal voice that was sinking me into that hole I couldn’t seem to get myself out of.

Part two of this de-cleansing would be to surround myself with all the good stuff, but for now this is my list of things to cut down on or moderate or do something about. What’s on your list? What eats into how you feel about yourself?

sky and trees_wal_022713

Literary Wives: “Wife” as depicted in Ahab’s Wife

It’s October! Which means it’s time to post about the next installment in the Literary Wives series, a virtual book club I’m hosting with five other bloggers. (The series started earlier this spring but I just joined in the fall.) For October we have been reading Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

Ahab's wife

Ahab’s Wife is a novel published in 1999 about the life and times of Una Spenser, the wife of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as created by Sena Jeter Naslund. It is a sweeping story of Una’s life in the first half of the 19th century from her teens to early adulthood. There are a number of story lines and themes in this novel but for this post we’ll be focusing on these two questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

I would say that this book/Una defines “wife” as a role that is equal to that of husband. A wife can reasonably expect equality, friendship, respect and romantic love from her marriage. Leading up to this desirable (though by no means necessary) position in life is a woman’s right to choose – whether or not to wed, whom to marry (should she choose to marry), and how to steer her own life.

Here are some quotes along those lines, all from Una:

Perhaps . . . Giles wishes me to learn that many men could love me, that choice and not inevitability were the lot of both woman and man. (p. 124)

Is our life determined for us, or do we choose? Some of both. Some of both – the answer came clean and simple to my mind. (p. 134)

I wanted my own life. And I wanted it to be different. Choice lies in the purse. (p. 142)

I had begun to see my own life as a story and myself as the author of it. (p. 158)

I would not marry anyone anytime anywhere. I would sail as a man and live ashore as a woman. I would do just as I pleased. So long as I hurt no other being, why not do exactly as I pleased? ( p. 204)

(To Kit) “You are my beloved husband, my best friend.” (p. 314)

And so Una does live a life that she has a strong hand in playing. As a child she refuses to bend to her father’s narrow religious demands, and is sent by her mother to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin (lighthouse keepers), to avoid further physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her father. She misses her mother, but quite enjoys life with her extended family at the lighthouse. Then, at 16, she travels to New Bedford to meet her mother. When she receives word that her mother cannot make it, Una decides that instead of returning to the lighthouse she would disguise herself as a boy, and seek work as a cabin boy aboard a whaleship in order to see more of the world. And so she does, until the ship is sunk by a whale. She survives this ordeal and is rescued by Captain Ahab’s Pequod, and from this point on the story of her more “domestic” life as a woman begins. She ends up marrying three men (Kit, Ahab, and I won’t name the third so as not to ruin the “surprise”…) over the course of the novel and bears one surviving child.

As a wife Una appears devoted, understanding of Kit’s descent into madness (they undergo a traumatic episode at sea, one that, incidentally, does not appear to touch Una in nearly the same way) and usually forgives his out-of-line behavior because of it. She also endures patiently the years of separation when Ahab is at sea. She is strong and independent and good at somehow getting a whole village of people to support her. Her men come easily to her and she remarries without difficulty. Each man seems better than the last. Men seem to fall at her feet and fawn over her, body, soul and mind.

From what I read I wasn’t able to see anything out of the ordinary or of great insight in terms of marriage in the 19th century. Though Una’s marriages were not easy given Kit’s mental breakdown and Ahab’s long absences, she was never treated unfairly because she was a woman. Her husbands (when Kit was of sound mind) always respected her as a wife and an equal. Una’s strong-willed aunt was “exceptionally happy” with her husband. Frannie, Una’s cousin, grows up rejecting marriage and choosing, instead, to cohabitate with a man and to have a child together.

The one marriage that piqued my interest was that between Una’s parents. To me it was curious and unexpected that a mother, in protecting her child from her husband’s abuses, would choose to send her one and only child away rather than try and reform the husband or leave the husband, or maybe this is telling of the obligations that wives in the 19th century had to their husbands.

Otherwise, setting aside the historical realities of the time (slavery, women as second class citizens), I didn’t feel that I gleaned anything from the situation of wives in the 19th century that was really any different from that of wives in the 21st century. And therein lies my problem with this book: everything is so modern, so forward-thinking, so ideal, even for our present world. Nearly every character seems to be a women’s rights supporter and an abolitionist. While Una philosophizes a great deal about the importance of free will for women, I never got a sense of the challenges that she faced as a woman. She wanted to have choices, and voila, she had choices. People – men and women – loved her and welcomed her and all her ideas with open arms, heart and ears. Famous historical figures who have cameos in this book – women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller, astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne – all want to be in her company and to hear her thoughts. Things always seem to fall into place for Una. When she goes into labor alone at home in the middle of winter, a runaway slave girl magically appears from underneath the mattresses to help deliver the baby. When her huge fortune from Ahab starts to dwindle, she is informed that her investments are suddenly all doing remarkably well. Really? Was it really that easy? This novel would have been more satisfying had Naslund written a more complicated story of a real woman in the 19th century.

Have you read Ahab’s Wife? If so, what did you think? Do you have other recommendations for good reading on 19th century women in America?

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Please also check out the other Literary Wives bloggers’ pages to see what they have to say about the book! 

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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Next up for December 1: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon