The Last of the Single-Digits

As Lily enters her last year of being of a single-digit age, I can’t help but think this is an enormous turning-point for her. Her physical development is starting to catch up with her precocious nature. And it’s readily apparent to anyone who sees her that this little girl is becoming a young woman. Already. How is that even possible?

I’ll admit, my memories of being a child are a bit fuzzy. I have general time frames at which certain things happened, and have some recollections of things I did and people I did them with. So I may be looking at Lily’s development through a very skewed perception when I wonder how in the hell a 9-year-old can already be becoming a woman. To me, she’s still a baby. I mean, 9, in the grand scheme of things, is really quite new to the world. But then I look at this long-legged beauty, and listen to the clever, witty things that comes out of her mouth, and get slapped with realty. A baby she most certainly is not anymore.

Then again, I don’t want to encourage her to grow up too fast. Meaningful, careful change takes time. I want her to have all the time she needs.

This first occurred to me when, one day this spring, she had her two good girlfriends over to play—both of whom are one year older than she is. The three girls were all outside taking advantage of the mild spring weather. I just sat and watched them. They were all wearing training bras, all in different stages of needing them. They were all wearing some sort of accessory or had nails painted. They all had cute, sassy little outfits on. They all looked very much like they were becoming little ladies. And one might assume by just looking at them without hearing their conversations that they might be gossiping about boys or talking about situations with other friends at school. But they weren’t. They were playing house. Well, a strange combination of house and Minecraft, but house nonetheless. Like with baby dolls and each girl playing a different role: mom, dad, little sister. They were making pretend food from garden materials, and playing with Lily’s tea set and toy dishes that she got when she was 2. And it was so sweet.

It was at this moment that I really came to understand the term “tween” (even though I still think it sounds ridiculous). Here was my girl in a training bra, with hoop earrings in her ears, and temporary metallic tattoos on her arms, playing house and tea party. Not quite ready to move on, and not quite ready to let everything go. A little bit like a child, and a little bit like a teen, and nothing all the way. She’s kind of stuck in this middle-ground trying to slowly traverse her way from one stage to the next. And though I’m a little bit sad at how quickly childhood goes by, it’s sort of endearing as well. I do have many memories of that time in my life, with my girlfriends, and it was some of the best times of my childhood. I’m really glad she’s able to experience it as well.

In continuing with Lily’s transition from girlhood to womanhood, I also noticed that she’s become much more aware of how other females act, dress, and present themselves. I see her looking at older girls, studying them. What are they wearing? How are they talking? Who are they with? It’s almost as if she’s trying to figure out how she fits into the womanhood equation. And when she comments about seeing other girls maybe acting in a way she doesn’t agree with, I can see that she’s sizing up their choices in relation to what I’ve given her as a perspective on what it means to be a woman. Of course I’m going to always be, perhaps, a most influential example. But I do try to explain that there really is no one definition of what it means to be a woman, and I think she’s really trying to piece out all the choices available to her.

It’s a puzzling time, I think, making this transition. She needs to figure out what her values are, and how they compare to what we’ve tried to instill in her, and what might be uniquely her own. She needs to figure out what she likes about herself and others. She needs to figure out what her strengths and weaknesses are. All awhile taking into account what she feels others see in her. And I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to be there to play a more active role in her life this past year. Not having to dedicate so much of my time and energy to my job and someone else’s children, but rather my own, has been a true blessing. Especially given Lily’s nature.

One of my favorite stories to tell about Lily, and one I think I’ve already included in a birthday reflection, is from when she was about 10 months old. She had a very favorite book that we read approximately 1 million times a day. And one day, she picked it up and held it out to me. I asked her if she wanted me to read it, and she grunted and clapped her hands. And when I jokingly said, “But what if I don’t want to?”, she stiffened her arms out to her sides, balled up her fists, and yelled. I still think that memory is both hilarious and telling of her. Lily wants what she wants. And God help you all If you make her angry.

And even though she has definitely come to realize she can’t have everything she wants, she’s still just as fiery and quick to anger. But now she will pout, stomp upstairs to her room, and shut out the world. I understand that sometimes she just needs some time alone. But luckily I also have the time, energy, and patience to be there for her. Because every time (I’m not exaggerating), every time she gets into one of these moods, if I come to her room to see if she wants to talk after she’s had time to calm down, she always does. She wants me to hold her hand or snuggle her, and just listen to her. She wants to cry and yell, and be heard. And I’m forever grateful that she lets me do that. That I can be present for her. Because I know so many children who never had that, and how it made them grow distant, angry, self-critical, and even harmful to themselves and others. And I’m grateful that Lily loves and trusts me enough to know that no matter if she’s angry with me or someone/something else, or if she knows I’m angry with her, I’m still going to come into her room, sit on her bed, and ask her if she wants to talk about it. And I hope this will help her through whatever challenges this next year will bring.

And I expect there to be many challenges ahead of us. With homeschooling on the horizon, it could be a recipe for trouble even though it will also most probably bring us closer. What I hope is that Lily will continue to see how much I believe in her, and transfer those beliefs to herself. I hope she will go back to loving school, as much as she loves learning (which are, of course, not one in the same). I hope she continues to grow as an artist now that she will have ample time on a daily basis to experiment with new ideas, mediums, and techniques. I just hope that every hurdle we come upon, we will jump over together. Whether she is giving me a boost or the other way around.

Because as I love my children equally but different, I love my firstborn in a way a parent has to love the person who brought them the greatest gift of parenthood. I see so much in her, and I would do anything for her. She was my first sidekick, my first baby, my only girl, and hopefully my future best friend.

And so, Miss Lily-Girl, I wish you more happiness than you can ever know. I love everything about you, even the things you yourself don’t seem to appreciate. Because you know what, Pookie, everything inside of you makes a whole you. And without them, you wouldn’t be the girl I know so well. Embrace all your quirks, interests, shortcomings, fears, hopes, and dreams because every bit of those things make you the funniest, cleverest, pun and joke-making, intelligent, talented, beautiful little sassy-pants that you are.

I saw a story online that told of a mother who always told her daughter, “I wish you enough.” And it resonated with me. Yes, I wish you the world, but only so far as the world brings you that which fulfills you. I wish you enough from life to make you happy. Because no matter how much you have of toys, clothes, books, travels, whatever, as long as it makes you truly happy in your soul, it will be enough to sustain you. And that is what I wish for you, my dear girl. I wish you enough.

I love you, Pookie. I hope you have a most marvelous last single-digit birthday. Thank you for being my baby.

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To My Kiddos

This morning I read a news article explaining that the original founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, were arrested in the Capitol for protesting ‘big money’ in politics. Knowing a bit about the two, and knowing that they regularly speak up for and out against issues that they find important, I wasn’t really surprised by this information. But maybe because it’s the primary election day; or, maybe because we’re in the midst of a political movement that has been a long time coming and needed, and the likes of which we haven’t ever seen; or, maybe it’s my own growing desire to do something of similar meaning and importance; or, maybe it’s a firestorm of all of those things; whatever the reason, I felt compelled to seize this feeling, and make this an opportunity to hopefully teach my kids a little something someday. Thus, this letter is born.

 

Dear Lily and Ollie—

As your parent, I want so very many things for you. The normal stuff—love, friendship, health, opportunities, and of course happiness. But I also want some pretty complicated things too. I want you both to understand things about life that took me far too long to figure out, or at the very least, accept. But these things I want for you aren’t things I can give you. No, these things are far too valuable, and which you must earn on your own. And I worry each day about you missing out on them, and feeling like I could be failing you if you do. Please understand that it’s not that I don’t want to give you these things. If I could, I’d open your skulls, and crack open your ribs and shove these things deep into your brains and hearts. But like most things that are worth anything at all, these things will only be worth it if you go out and get them yourselves, and define what each means to you as individuals.

I can hear you now, Lily, “Ok, Mom, stop being so damn vague. Get to the point.” Or, at least that’s what I imagine you’ll sound like someday when you’re old enough to read and appreciate this. Ollie, tell your sister to calm down. I’m getting to it. So impatient she is. 😊

What I want so badly for you is something I was not able to give myself until recently. I want you both to feel safe enough to always be brave, and fierce, and radical. To do what’s right, not what’s popular or expected of you. To believe in something so deeply you’re willing to risk everything for it. To put yourself out there and try. And to put yourself on the line sometimes. You know, “fight the good fight”.

I want these things for you because no one ever achieved anything great by sitting on the sidelines. And what I want for you is greatness. Not necessarily in the sense that you need to be President or someone rich and famous. But greatness in the sense that though you may question yourself or doubt your choices, you’ll never regret them because you’ll have earned a life that makes you genuinely and wholeheartedly happy. I mean happiness that seeps into every cell of your being. Happiness that cannot be permanently erased by a slipup or momentary hard time. Happiness that is so inherently a part of who you are that no one can take it away. But the only one who can give you that is you.

And so you need to live each day with the intention of doing all you can to better your life. To find that place of deepest contentment. But not be afraid to shake things up to get there. You need to go to sleep every night knowing that you truly did all you could that day to be the best you, work toward the best world, and that what you’ve done could have enacted change or goodness for others, and lead you to your greatest happiness. If you cannot do that, you mustn’t be too hard on yourself, but promise yourself to do so tomorrow. But don’t sell yourselves empty promises. Believe me, that’s only a temporary soothing. It’s a Band-Aid where you need stiches. Use your words, and use your heart, and act. Take a plunge, knowing you could, and likely will at some time, fall hard. Then get yourself back up again, brush off those bits of gravel from your pants, and climb up and jump again.

Of course, don’t be foolish. Your dad and I have hopefully raised you better than that. Do your research. Think. Inspect. Ask around. See for yourself. Experiment. And listen to others. Don’t always take what they say and adopt it. But listen. Always be listening. And choose wisely. There are so many chances to take. And there are so many battles in this world. You can’t fight them all. It took me until my 30’s to realize that. You must be more like Atticus and less like Scout. (Surely, you’ve both read To Kill a Mockingbird by now! What kind of mother would I be otherwise??) As long as you are helping others, and not harming yourself or anyone else, know that we will support your choices.

And just remember that everyone is someone. We all have thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, mistakes, etc. If you can look into the eyes of every person you meet, and see them as a person, an individual, regardless of their actions, behaviors, or choices, and see what is universal in us all, I think you will never really make a terrible mistake. We’ve tried to raise you with empathy, and with consideration for others in hopes that when you see a wrong being committed, you’ll act to stop it. And when you see a need being unfulfilled, you do what you can toward filling it. Everything we have done and continue to do is for you two. For your greater good and so that you will become amazing adults. And we hope you can use our examples as a springboard for doing so much more. Losing my job for speaking out against poor education practices is small peanuts really. But I have the hope that it was one of the first examples of you seeing your parents standing up for what they believe in, even though it had a somewhat unfortunate outcome. Follow us, kiddos, but eventually pass us. Forge those trails on your own. Look back and we’ll be waving. We will always be here; we will always support you. So don’t be afraid to be yourselves and do what’s in your heart. Because if you do, you’ll never want for a thing. And what more could we hope for you both?

Love you with all my heart and soul,

Mom

The end of NaNoWriMo

Today is the last day of NaNoWrimo, the day by which all participants should have reached 50k words and verified it, thus “winning” the challenge. Today I am at 42k words, haven’t written in 3 days, and have no plans to do so today. And I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you what I learned by doing NaNoWriMo.

I signed up for this challenge with some optimistic naivete. Having never written more than a short story, but wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, I thought this would be it. I’d heard of NY Times best sellers that were NaNo books, and I figured anything was possible. Sure 50k words is a lot, and it demanded commitment, but I had the time and the drive. I could do it.

And sure, I did do it. I got to 42k words, which is in itself pretty impressive. And if I wanted to, I would have reached the 50k mark. And after having 7k be my highest word count, I feel super proud of myself. You see, because even though I didn’t “win,” I still feel like a winner. NaNoWriMo was the kick in the ass I needed. I needed to go from talking about writing, and wishing I was writing, to actually writing. And I did.

This challenge made me go from thinking I’d never be good enough and that my writing is unremarkable, to thinking that it might be unremarkable now, but that I have the potential to make it better. That a blank paper will never be more than that, but a paper with lots of red cross-outs can be better. And my 42k words will get better. On my time, at my pace, by my rules. I appreciate NaNo for getting my engine started, but I know now that time constraints and word count goals make for more quantity of writing than quality of writing. And to be fair, no one claims to have a polished novel at the end of the month. But I felt I was putting too much pressure on myself, and that was not good for creativity.

Now, I know that all writers work under some sort of deadline. When you are working with an editor and publisher, you need to have your work completed by a certain time. I get that. I also understand that every good writer writes every day. Every. Day. But that’s just not ideal for my life right now. I could write something every day. And maybe that’s really the point. Just to get something down. But I could not commit to 2k words each day. Some days the words flowed very easily, and I reached over 2k words, and other days not so much. And it was on these “not so much” days that I felt enormous pressure. If I didn’t hit 2k, I would be behind, and if I was behind, I would have to race to catch up, and if I didn’t catch up, then I failed. That was no good for getting the creative juices flowing again.

And while I realize 2k words isn’t that much to ask of someone, it just wasn’t always feasible for me. When I left my job as a teacher and decided that I was never going back to the profession, I did so for many reasons. But one of the main reasons was that I had put my job ahead of so much else for so long. I sacrificed personal time, my health, and pushed my family to the side for ultimately nothing that gave me long-term pleasure or benefits. And when I decided teaching was no longer the best fit for me, I swore to always put my family first, no matter what else I was doing. And there were several times during NaNo that I should have been with my kids, because they were sick or wanted attention or just because otherwise I was holed up in my office and not really present; and, I didn’t honor my commitment to them. And I always felt a pang of guilt then. But in my head I defended my actions as it’s only for a month, it wouldn’t be forever. And I got through much of the month this way. But what would I say if I continued past the November 30th mark (as my 42k words is roughly only half the book)? Would I continue to justify my reasons for eschewing my promise to myself and my family? I wasn’t willing to do that.

But toward the end of the month, with Thanksgiving upon us, my kids being home for 4 days, not to mention some bouts of pink-eye, upper respiratory viruses, and then strep throat, I couldn’t see myself focusing on my writing above everything else. As the days went by, and my word count stayed stagnant, I started to realize that making it to 50k wasn’t really winning me anything but a return to the life I’d previously lived and loathed. And it was then that I made a conscious decision to not finish. My story would still be there waiting for me when I was ready to pick it up again. But these moments when my family needed me were too crucial to miss.

I know I might seem hopelessly idealistic in saying I don’t want to live a life that feels like a burden. Yes, I know sometimes aspects of our lives are difficult. But after having lived for so long with everything being difficult, I know the danger in complicity. I know how making concessions can be a very slippery slope toward feeling futile and worthless. I never will allow myself to live like that again. And when it comes to writing, I never want it to feel like a chore. Challenging, frustrating, perhaps? Sure. But never like something I have to do instead of something I want to do. I want to want to write even when I can’t, when I have something else I need to be doing. I don’t want to feel like I have nothing I want to say when I have all the time in the world. And that’s exactly why I walked away so close to the finish line, and why I don’t regret it or feel like a loser at all.

I congratulate all of the participants who will, by day’s end, have met the goal of 50k. And I also applaud all those who tried and didn’t get there, willingly or otherwise.

Hopefully we all have so much more to live. And while I know today could be our last and perhaps then I should write like I don’t have forever to finish, I choose to simply live life enjoying what I can from each day. And if writing is a part of that day, great. If helping a sick child blow their nose or catching their vomit in my bare hands so it doesn’t hit the carpet is part of that day, that’s great too. I will live my life by my rules only now, and my rule states that I always do what feels right. And today what feels right is saying farewell to NaNoWriMo. Regardless of my word count, I now consider myself a writer.

My New Normal

It’s been awhile since I’ve last written anything. Sometimes I find the words to match my thoughts just mischievously elude me.

Anyhow, this is what I decided was good today. I am NOT a poet by any means, but today this just felt right in this format.

I naively thought the little pill was magic,

that I would pop it into my mouth each night,

and by some miraculous conjoining of my bile

and the Sertraline

it would make me better.

I thought that this little pill

the color of lima beans and

smaller than my baby niece’s little fingernails

would conquer my fears

and anxieties

and bring me back from underwater where

no matter what

I would breathe again with ease, and

like a superhero, keep me safe from

the monsters in my head and their claws pulling

at my brain and my heart.

I guess I should have figured that nothing

is as good as it seems; or,

that nothing worth having comes this easily.

I guess I should have realized these cliches

were true when it comes to mental illness.

Yes, mental illness.

Not crankiness

or a bad day

or over exaggerating

or being too sensitive

or making things up.

And just like any illness,

this too doesn’t go away by command.

I can ask and plead and even

cajole or bargain with myself

to stop all of this; but,

like no one can stop cancer from spreading

or epilepsy from seizing

or diabetes from metabolizing incorrectly,

I can’t stop myself from

worrying if I’m good enough

or wondering if I’ll ever measure up.

I can’t convince myself to leave the house

some days

or see friends

or go for a run

or do yoga

or anything that would help me feel

more alive.

Because I’m afraid.

This fear is real to me.

It squats upon my shoulder

nagging at me

taunting me

trying its best to

reduce me to invisibility.

It feasts upon me.

It nibbles little holes

into my willpower.

It breaks me down into

digestible pieces that are

easier to take without notice

over time and with little struggle

until suddenly

there isn’t much left.

And it’s then that it’s up to me

to save myself.

This little pill can be the buoy that

keeps me from being swept to sea,

but it can never be my personal island.

I can either flounder and drift amidst the

menace of the swells;

or, I can find some inner strength and

pull my dead weight to shore every time.

Because it’s become clear to me that

this isn’t going away.

It isn’t a small hiccup that will slowly

taper off until stopping without notice.

This is my new normal.

And so I open my arms wide,

put on a pot of tea,

put some cookies on a tray,

and welcome Depression into my home

like an old friend who will be staying on

for an indeterminate length of stay.

We sit together in my room, in

the sunshine pouring into the windows.

We sit and listen and watch and wait.

We enjoy the company of solitude and

the freedom of endless time.

We don’t worry about dressing up for each other

because we have no need for impressing.

But we also hold no pretenses.

We don’t embrace each other because that

would feel too risky.

But we also don’t ignore one another because

that would feel like a charade.

We watch each other in our periphery

waiting to see what each other’s next move

will be in this game of chess we play.

It may be the longest, most impossible

game of chess that has been played;

but as long as I have my arsenal,

my little green pill,

and my writing,

and my room with the sunshine,

I can make it.

There’s no magic here.

There’s no cure-all.

There’s only me.

In my new normal.

Whatever that means.

The beginning of bravery

Very recently I had the pleasure of meeting with a former professor whom I admire greatly as a woman, thinker, educator, and mom.

I originally met her in my second to last semester as a graduate student. I had to take a research class, which I thought would be a definite drag. It wasn’t. It was one of the most challenging and intellectually invigorating classes I’d taken in all of my academic career. It was a breath of fresh air–pardon the cliche–amidst some very heavy and droning lecture-style classes.

This professor “had me at hello.” She was at once witty, insightful, hilarious, brilliant, and best of all, radiated confidence. Though she wasn’t that much older than me, I developed the sort of idol complex children often have with super heroes. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up. She believed what she said, didn’t need to apologize for any of her opinions, and didn’t care who disagreed.

I acutely remember one doofus moment very early on in the class during which I felt like a prize idiot. After introducing ourselves to the class, we had to tell one thing of interest. I mentioned that I had a one-year-old daughter. Without a blink or hesitation, this amazing woman shared that she was going through fertility treatments and that they were making her sick to her stomach. I, thinking I was making idle chitchat, said something to the effect of, “Well, you’ll definitely feel like that during pregnancy.” She immediately responded with something along the lines of “Yeah, but at least I’ll have a baby.” Burn. What a silly, foolish thing to say to a woman who was fighting with every ounce of her being to conceive a child, and here I was reducing it to some trite idea known galaxywide.

But that was it. There seemed to be no malice in her comment, nor did she seem to harbor any resentment or ill will toward me. She just said what she was thinking, and that was that. That was, and still is, her style. In a world where people exist with so many masks and who live so much of their lives hiding behind either a keyboard or false pretenses, this way of facing the world feels almost poetic to me.

And so, when she asked to meet me to help her with an interview for her newest research, I was floored. Though we’ve maintained contact via various Facebook posts and comments, I was excited to sit down with her after so many years and really talk.

We talked mostly about education–the good and the bad…mostly the bad on my part, I admit. And in doing so, I shared so many thoughts and feelings about the state of education, what it is to be a public school teacher in a country so comfortable with vilifying us, and how worried I am that students are missing out on what could be amazing experiences because of the restrictions put on schools, teachers, and the students themselves. It felt amazing to be heard, really heard. And not just heard, but understood.

Of course I’ve spent my fair share of time commiserating…ok, bitching…with my colleagues. And of course my husband has had to wield my rants more times than he should have. But to have someone objective, with no connection or investment in my personal situation come out and agree with me, felt liberating. Perhaps I wasn’t crazy after all. Perhaps I’m not just a jaded, miserable wretch of a teacher. Maybe it’s the system, and not me, that’s flawed.

As if this wasn’t good enough for my soul, one of the last questions she posed to me was, “How are you so brave?” I was honestly taken aback by the question. Me, brave? I really hadn’t thought about it that way. I was just speaking my truth. And it was in that that she impressed upon me was what was most brave. To speak what I really, truly believe without any of the typical dancing-around-the-bush or other verbal detractors, was impressive to her. And that resonated with me.

And the more I think about it, the more I really wonder how many of us are speaking our truths? And how many of us don’t worry about the consequences? How many of us refuse to apologize if what we say isn’t what others want to hear? And why the fuck don’t more of us feel secure in doing so?!

Soon, I found, I couldn’t keep her question to me out of my mind. Yeah, I guess I was brave in being completely honest to her. But what about other times I practically have to force my mouth shut? Why was I hiding sometimes? And what good was it doing me? The more I questioned it, the more I knew I had to do something about it. I had to do something for myself for once.

And so, this is where this blog comes into play. This is now my sanctuary. A place where I can express myself, and not care about repercussions. I have always found solace in writing. It waters my soul. And so I no longer give a shit who sees this. Come, get a glimpse of my mind and heart. No one will stop me. No one will make me feel afraid or ashamed to feel how I feel and say what I say. Come what may. I’ve battled anxiety and censorship for too long. And that is over.

And it was all because of a single question.