Friday, June 14, 2013

Making Up for Lost Hugs

It's the first full week of stay-at-home summer, and the work-life balance is actually a little less difficult than I thought it would be. It's a little tricky on big work days, and I admit that I miss my time alone every day, even if I was spending that time working. It can be difficult to be subject to the constant needs and question-asking of the little bitties without any break. Although while they are sleeping I do get a break, which means I do the bulk of my work after they are asleep.

But it is still more manageable than it would have been last summer. Chris and Norah both take directions now, and while they do fight me and refuse to cooperate sometimes, they are actually fairly easygoing these days. I think they like not being shuttled around, and I kind of like it too. I have used about an eighth of a tank of gas all week, which... yes, please.

Anyway, I just wanted to note a little trend I have noticed, which is constant spontaneous hugs from the kids. It's like once they realized we were all hanging out together all day, it broke loose some kind of hug-hunger in them, and now they are making up for all the hugs we miss out on when we are rushing around. At first it seemed a little strange, and then it made me sad (Am I denying them the proper number of hugs? Are they desperate for love? Have I failed them completely? You know, the normal neurotic parenting questions... I can't be the only one...). The truth is probably just a little of these. We do get too busy, and I get too schedule-focused. Even though it means staying up a little later than I would like to get all my grades done, I don't mind being a bit open and unscheduled for now, and giving out all the hugs I have.

Happy Summer!

Thursday, March 21, 2013


I found something out about love—

It is something so simple that I am not sure how to say it. It is this:

That when you love someone, and they love you, it is just as important – just as attractive – just as vital -- that they need what you are, that the empty bowl they hold is in the shape of what you have to give, as it is that they can put all the right ripe, juicy plums and blue-black grapes into your own empty hands. It is rarer to find someone who needs what you have than it is to find someone who has what you need.

And that when both of these things happen at the same time – the giving and the taking – it is maybe the rarest and most precious thing of all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Womb and a Soul: An Open Letter to Benedict XVI

**Warning: Shit's about to get real. If you are easily offended, don't read on.

It must be nice to retire because you are tired. It must be nice for the exhaustion of your body to count for something.

I am 32 years old, mostly healthy. I was Catholic for the first 30 years of my life. I have two children, conceived under the auspices of Natural Family Planning. My husband and I do not have plans for a third.

I had extreme postpartum depression after my first baby. I rode it out, for 12 long months, and then slowly came back to life. Six months later we decided it was time for the second baby, and I became pregnant almost instantly (thanks, NFP!) with my beautiful daughter.  I thought the PPD might have just been a symptom of my son’s difficult birth – he was born two months early, and his first six months or so were very hard on me in every way: mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. I had high hopes; I thought a second baby – a full-term baby – might head off the postpartum depression a second time around.

It turns out it didn’t.

While my symptoms were not quite as severe after my daughter was born, it turns out that something inside of me is a genetic bomb designed to go off three days after childbirth, and to pour out its fury for months afterwards. I stay in a dark, sludgy haze for the first year of my baby’s life – to this day, I have very limited memories of the first year of both of my children’s lives. That's two years out the past five, basically lost. Mothering infants for me is a matter of teeth-and-bone survival. It’s ugly. It isn’t graceful. It is not a Pampers commercial. It’s a prison camp that smells like baby powder.

And at about twelve months, the bell jar lifts. The sunlight comes back in; I can hear the birds singing again, and I begin the long, painful, years-long process of finding myself again. While losing 60+ pounds of baby weight, working, and raising young children. Twice.

Once, on a Catholic NFP forum, I posed my question -- can I delay conception of another baby indefinitely, because of my difficulties with postpartum depression? The answer: "You need to get on antidepressants immediately, so that you can be open to God's call to parenthood when it comes."

So... God made me one way, and I need to take a pill to change that nature, in order to... please God?

Sounds legit.

I left the Church two years ago, for many reasons. What made it easier to stay away is that other Christian faiths do not condemn me for saying that I am done – that I do not desire to go back into that dark, tar-sticky wormhole of postpartum depression. That I am okay with having two children – that I am even happy to have “only” two children. That my beautiful son and daughter are enough for me and my husband. Other denominations allow the fact that I might be more than just a womb and a soul.

It must be nice to be allowed to retire when your body and mind give out.

How much nicer it would be if your Church would extend such a pontifical privilege to the women it claims to cherish.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

These Forty Days

My hopes for this Lent are kind of modest, and I think it's better that way. First, I want to stop using profanity. I am doing fairly well with this, although I have slipped a few times. It seems like the better I regulate my stress level, the better I can stick to this one. It's just an aggressive and caustic way to talk, and I think I will be better for avoiding it whenever possible. I don't aim for 100% eradication of all cursing, but maybe a good, solid 85% to 90% reduction. We will see how this one goes.

My second hope is kind of ironic, considering that I am writing it here, but I am working on reducing my world a little bit. I am removing myself from social media to a great extent, although not completely. I have deleted my Tumblr and Twitter accounts, and scaled my Facebook friends list way down. This is as a result of several difficult things that have happened lately, and I feel like the more private I am, the better. I do like keeping up with my friends, but I think I have to do it in a much smaller kind of way.

My third hope is very closely tied to the second, and it has to do with really getting comfortable with my reality. Part of my personality is that I spend a lot of time "in my head" -- ideas are incredibly real and important to me. Alternately, sometimes the tangible stuff of my life seems very dull or difficult, and it is always a temptation to escape into thought and to strive to built thought-castles like stories or books (or blog posts) instead of just sitting with reality. For me, social media makes this kind of escape easier, which is why I am cutting it back. It also has to do with letting go of silly ambitions that belong to someone younger. I am a wife and mother and teacher. I am not a writer (at least not in any kind of real sense) or thinker or influential person of any kind, and the less I try to be those things, the more peace I think I will ultimately feel. I guess another way of putting it is that I want to let my ambition go. Ambition is something like desire, in that it can lead you to achieve and strive more, but conversely it always leads to sadness and disappointment. The less ambition there is, the less twisting, turning, churning adolescent pain. I stopped being an adolescent at least ten years ago, if not more. I should really leave it in my past. This translates into something like talking less, and listening more. Communicating in ways other than with words. Doing my work faithfully and daydreaming less. Something like more dishes and laundry, fewer story plots scrawled in my notebook. One day I want to wake up contented with the fact that I live an obscure life, and always will.

So far I am doing all right with these goals. Today was a big day because I got rid of Tumblr and Twitter, both. It actually hurt, a little, but I think in the end it will be good. My goal is to make it through an entire Monday (tomorrow, and the hardest day of the week) with no profanity. Can I do it? :)
Update: No, I can't do it. Too many stressful events, and the profanity just tumbles out. Might try again tomorrow.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Outside the Box

I have been trying to get my head around a really strange thing that happened to me last week – an unsolicited letter out of nowhere, full of criticism, judgment, specific instructions for my immediate redemption, and threats of what would happen if I did not comply.

I thought about it, I got mad, I got sad (before this incident, the letter-writer and I had shared a certain amount of friendly close-ness that I liked), I got livid, I got vengeful, I got sad again; I got tired.
And then this morning the pieces snapped together like a toddler’s jigsaw puzzle.

I got an email from my sister about an annoying habit that people have of asking her when she will have children. It’s such a personal question, and it’s asked in such a prying, nosey way. In a way, it is similar to the letter I received – criticism, judgment, instructions, and threats.

So why does this happen? I see it suddenly like a sign in the sky: society hates an un-filed lady.

It is not a coincidence that Romney talked about “binders full of women” months ago. In many ways women are seen this way in general – as sheets of paper to be hole-punched and collated into smooth-covered vinyl binders, to be perused at leisure, or put on a shelf.

In this time and space, it seems like we have a few different file folders for women to fit into. Single girl, married woman, married woman with children, older married woman; nice grey-haired elderly lady. Unless you are rich and eccentric or famous, or all three of these, you are expected to hop fairly neatly and with perfect satisfaction from one folder to the next, in the appropriate timeframe and in the correct order. If you have the gall to get out of the file box and look around the room for a minute, to feel cramped or bored in your folder, or to linger too long in a space you enjoy, the secretary comes for you with her questions, and inevitably, with her criticism, judgment, instructions, and threats.

I am out of my file folder because I am a happy married woman with children and a good life – and yet I am not done striving yet. I still have some inconvenient artistic ambition swirling around in there, and someday I want to see Europe, and I want to walk down a street where I can’t even read the alphabet in which the signs are written. At 31, I am neither young nor old, yet I am seen as both a child and a parent. I don’t know the answers, and sometimes I don’t even know the questions. I have all the things I am supposed to want, and I still want other things besides, and I am okay with that. I am more than okay. I like it. I like being excited about life and its possibilities. I like wondering what I will do and what I will see in the next ten years. But this unfinished, raw-edge quality that my yearning gives me upsets the secretary as well, just as a healthy lady of 30 with no children causes consternation and constant comment.

The secretary sees a problem – a woman out of her binder – and she seeks to file me away. You have a problem, she tells me, and I have the solution. Get closer so I can three-hole-punch you.

A woman outside of the file-box is automatically a rebel, even if she would be rebelling against herself by jumping into it. Just by existing in an unexpected way – unexpected by whom, you might say, because at least in the case of my sister and me, our husbands love us, want us as we are, not crammed in folders – she threatens order, raises impertinent questions, and confounds the filing system.

A few weeks ago, I pulled all of the paper out of my filing cabinet at home and sorted it, getting rid of the old, obsolete documents, relabeling a few folders to fit our current filing needs, and after putting the useful things back again and watching two straight episodes of Sherlock went outside in a fit of drama and burned the useless old documents in the fire pit in our backyard. I must have looked like a bona fide lunatic, dancing around the backyard in my jeans and sweatjacket, ducking out of the way of the eye-stinging smoke as it drifted toward me again and again, white ash in my hair and on my clothes.

It was surprisingly hard to keep the old, worn out paper burning. I lit match after match, fanned the flames, and in the end fell to twisting the documents into little paper logs and stacking them in a pyramid shape all around the flames in the center. Whatever it took, though, the effort was worth it. I got to see the old obligations, bills, receipts of the past five years light, crackle, burn, and float up to the sky like so much smoke.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Anteroom of Faith

It's a weird hot, humid, cloudy day today but it's the fourth day of an awesome week. I hit the ground running with the new semester, and a lot of really exciting things are underway.

One of the most exciting things is one of the simplest -- I have taken the dog for a substantial walk every day this week, which is good for him and really, really good for me. I find that my mind is so much clearer when I have that time to let my mind wander and Gunther and I walk up and down the road and through the neighborhoods.

Something that rolled through my mind earlier this week was how much I wish there were a sort of "junior member" status that you could take on for a given religion or denomination. I am currently attending a Lutheran church, and while it is a good organization, I don't feel any particular calling to be a Lutheran. After the sort of wrenching process of leaving my previous denomination (Roman Catholicism), I feel very skittish about being a joiner, especially when it comes to religious things. In the moment in the pantry when my will to stay Catholic snapped like a string, my love of orthodoxy in any form -- following rules for the sake of following rules -- snapped as well, and suddenly (very suddenly, for someone who could have carried the entire meaning of "goody two-shoes" within her person) I did not care one tiny bit about toeing the line. Or any line at all.

It's a strange position to find myself in. I've been here for a long time now, in this sort of spiritual borderland. It's an unfamiliar place, but I am learning a lot about it:

1. I am a kinder person when I am spiritually homeless. The less "sure" I feel about what is and is not, the more compassionate I am to my fellow humans, who underneath any exterior are all just bumbling around like I am. Sureness, at least in my case, tends to breed judgment and coldness. I didn't enter into spiritual homelessness on purpose, but it has taught me a lot, and really enriched my experience of life in general. Being relieved of the burden of constantly judging everything and everyone around you (which I was basically doing, for years) is incredibly freeing. There is so much more room for learning and joy and experience and friendship and love when I don't have to constantly consult my rule book to see who is better and worse than me.

2. I feel more integrated as a person. I don't have a spiritual self, and a friend self, and a wife self, and a mother self. Instead, self is all of these things, and infinite other things, and they are all bumping down the dirt road together. Spiritual things express themselves in the objects and interactions of my daily life, and spirituality becomes more tangible as well, in a way. It's like that moment when you clean out your purse and you realize that you really only need to carry about five things, ever. It's just so much simpler.

3. Nobody really cares much. I don't mean this in a poor-me angsty kind of way. Instead, I mean that when I was deeply Catholic, I had a sense that other people had a stake in my Catholic-ness. So-and-so would care or be affected if I did or didn't meet this requirement, etc. I felt a responsibility to other people to be the best Catholic I could be. Now, I do not get the impression that anyone else is biting their nails over my spiritual journey. This is just one way out of many ways in which being spiritually homeless has helped me to take a huge step backwards from being frankly self-obsessed to being a lot more connected with the world and the people in the world instead. No one else is as concerned with this whole journey as I am, and thank goodness. What a gift. (This point might be hard to understand if you have never been deeply into a rigid rules-based system of some kind, but being free of this heavy burden of representing the goals of the group perfectly within your own body is a huge, huge thing.)

4. Life is more raw, and that raw place is where real life comes from. A lot of things have happened in the past few years that have forced me to keep the door open to the world -- to stay unfinished, unsanded, and unvarnished. To not have "steady footing" in any particular place, to not breathe a sigh of relief and feel like I am finally "done struggling." Instead, life keeps me perpetually off balance, and because I no longer have the balm of observing rules perfectly to smooth over this rawness (because for me, Catholicism allowed me to play out a sort of spiritual OCD, soothing myself with perfect observance of this or that rule in order to Feel Okay and keep those messy human feelings at bay), I have to actually experience it. And that messy, raw, shifty-sand state is the planting ground of such amazing life. For example, late last semester I was feeling this terrible antsy, unsettled feeling. I could hardly sit still, and I felt so jittery, like I was suddenly full of this huge amount of life energy that didn't have an outlet. It was driving me crazy. I couldn't find any way to calm it down. I am normally a fairly steady person, without any great extended periods of elevated energy. When I thought about what was making me feel this way, I realized that I had been neglecting my writing. That off-kilter jittery feeling pushed me right back to doing some creative work, and now the energy is focusing to help me push that work forward. It's very exciting, and it's something I would not have experienced if I had had a quick fix to just get rid of the jitters -- to avoid that raw feeling of being unsettled and not knowing what to do next. I am learning to actually really value that feeling of shifting sand under my feet, because it sort of pushes me in the direction I need to go.

So as these developments slowly take place, I find myself wishing for an authentic way of expressing them, on Sunday morning. When I worship with the Lutherans, I feel united with them in so many ways, but not in the need to Be A Lutheran. I like to visit other churches sometimes, worship in different ways (and sometimes on my own), just to keep it a little mixed up, to keep Sunday worship from becoming something I just do by rote. I find myself wishing there were a way to institutionally declare that I hope to remain in the outer borders of organized religion, until such time that I feel called closer in to the center, if that day should ever come. And if it never does come, then that is fine, too. I like being a second-class citizen, spiritually speaking -- not fully initiated anywhere -- because it keeps me open to other people in the world who are similarly homeless. What I am finding is that really, we all are.

This Sunday I will go and worship with the Lutherans again, but maybe I will sit on the end of a row in the back. Maybe I will feel restless and jump out to the church library for a few minutes to flip through a book or soak up some Quaker silence on the sun-soaked couch in the corner. I will continue my dance on the edges of the sanctuary, with one foot in and one foot out in the great unknown. I am in good company here in this place.