Thursday, April 26, 2012

What IS it About a Baby?

Ending a volunteer stint counseling breastfeeding mothers was the best form of birth control I ever practiced. What is it about a baby that makes me want to have another? For seven years I worked new mothers through engorgement and thrush and sore or cracked nipples. I walked them through the benefits of colostrum, proper latch on, and the concept of supply and demand as it applies to breast milk. I highlighted the impact their efforts would have on baby’s health, reduced risk of allergies, childhood obesity, and certain cancers, improved jaw and facial development, visual acuity, and cognitive development. I fielded questions on pumping, cosleeping, nursing during pregnancy, and sex. For seven years I guided new mothers as they made their way through this thing called breastfeeding, this thing that everyone assures a woman will just come and causes her to feel like a complete failure when, in fact, it doesn’t. For seven years I held babies while these mothers readied car seats and coats, helped older siblings with potty breaks, grabbed snacks and drinks, and chased down errant two-year-olds. For these seven years I was pregnant, nursing, or thinking about getting pregnant.

Life gets complicated. I did not intend to have so many children. I did not intend to stay home with those children. I did not intend to help other mothers do what I myself did not originally intend to do. I did not intend a lot of things, like putting off career for twenty years, splitting up work on my degrees like I have, or questioning at forty-eight what it is exactly that I want to do with my life.

But for now I teach, and I am fine with that, except that for now I am overwhelmed, overwhelmed with end of term projects and papers and presentations. I am feeling flustered and ready for a much-needed break. I am overwhelmed with other things as well. I am overwhelmed with remodeling projects left too long undone, with adult children who are stretching to find their way in this world, with dinner and schedules and bills and the matter of making time to write and to read and to walk in the woods. I am overwhelmed with nagging questions that won’t leave my head. Have I parented as I should? Have I given my children the start they needed? Have I given them enough of whatever enough means? What about me? Am I doing what I was put here to do? Am I operating at half speed or giving life my fullest? Am I too ambitious, too arrogant, too aggravating or absent?

Let’s not even talk about my marriage. I pinky swore long ago to leave THAT story off the page. I am wedded to a private man who would rather have his eyeballs plucked than bare his soul to random readers of unknown origin. As much as it pains me, I respect his wishes and leave many an essay posted only in my head. So, to allay the fears of certain Facebook followers that there is trouble brewing because I do not fling connubial perturbation or praise across my page, no, in fact, I am not headed for divorce, but merely being considerate. Still. I question both my intent and my behavior as well as that of my spouse over the past twenty-six years we have spent together as husband and wife. I question a lot.

A former student visited the other day. I knew her well as she had taken three classes with me. She confessed midway through her child psychology class that she was expecting and would be using her personal experience as part of her final project. Agreed. I insisted, in return, on a real life visual once the baby arrived. She showed up to make good on her promise. As I made my way to class through the crowds of bodies and backpacks, I could see the tiny pink fleece, the overstuffed diaper bag, the car seat perched on Mom’s lap, rocking, bouncing, comforting. As I approached, I laid eyes on the roundest, sweetest face topped off by a silken mop of jet black hair.

I am not sure I exactly asked if I could hold her.

What IS it about a baby? Though my arms had not done this in nearly fourteen years, they knew. They knew their place. While marketing genius would have us believe that infants require scads of complicated equipment, drawers loaded with coordinating outfits, and nurseries outfitted to a decorator’s delight, the basics really are very simple. All a newborn really requires to thrive are food, warmth, and love. A breast from which to nurse, arms to be held in, and a heart to love.

Life starts that simple. Why do we complicate it as we do? Isn’t this all any of us really need? Food, warmth, love. As I felt that baby breath rising and falling in my arms and sensed the serenity that comes from knowing all is well with one’s world, I could not help but think my problems insignificant. I could not help but think them of such very little consequence. I could not help but think that I was fed, and I was warm, and I was loved, and that THAT was good enough.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The End

......minutes after birth

I lectured on death today, always a disconcerting way to end a term. But for a class that begins at conception and weaves its way through potty training, puberty, and perimenopause, death seems a logical spot to come to a close. After all, if we live, we die.

A hearse crossed my path on the walk from the parking ramp into school. I kid you not. On the drive in last week, the beginning of the “Death” lecture, I found myself at the head of a funeral procession. A glance into the rearview showed a long line of tiny car flags whipping in the wind behind me. In the five years I have been teaching I have not once experienced such a visceral visual of the words I would speak in class. Needless to say, I was a bit freaked. I felt like throwing salt over my left shoulder, scouring the earth for a four leaf clover, knocking on wood, and closing my eyes to make a wish all at the same time.

It’s not the after life or the process leading up to dying that most fascinates me. It’s that point smack in the middle, that moment when the last breath is taken and the first one is not. With the process leading up to dying, there is always hope or remembering or preparation for death. There is something to do or to think or to be. There is the anger, the questioning, the sadness or acceptance, and the saying of final goodbyes. During the days leading up to that final one, there is living still to do. After death itself, there is whatever you believe there is. Maybe. How can we be sure? And don’t debate me on this one. That’s another essay. A student asked, “Do you think life would be easier if we knew for certain what came after?” No. No, I don’t. Living is hard. Some of us are procrastinators. We wait until the last minute to actually start the living. Procrastinator or not, though, life is still life no matter what comes next. Whether the Kingdom of Heaven, a passage into another life form, or dark, empty nothingness, the days AFTER death are of no consequence to those prior. Argue with me if you will, but my feeling is that life should be lived to the fullest extent possible and in the most compassionate manner regardless religious belief. Be kind. Love one another. Use your gifts to enrich the lives of those around you. No, it’s not the before or the after of living and dying that fascinates me but that spot right in the middle, that spot that is not life and yet not fully death, that place where one is jumping the gap.

I cannot stop obsessing over transition, the impact on a life it has, the power behind that point, the finality, the definition. Though, technically, it is not the transition over which I obsess, but that instant in which the transition is made.

One minute, for example, I am not a mother. Sure, I am pregnant, but big deal. My life is still pretty much my own. I sleep in my own bed with my husband, with no tiny hands or feet flung over my face, no nursing babe attached to my breast, dribbling milk onto my bed sheets, clutching at my nightgown. I eat my own food, grown up food, not remnants of neon-cheese-colored pasta in the shape of cartoon characters. I pee in privacy. I shave BOTH legs when I shower. I shower. Yes, my body is full with new life, but that life does not take crayons to my walls nor does it send lacrosse balls through bay windows. I close my eyes. I bear down. With that final push, I am a mother. I am a mother with one push.

Why do we fear death? Why are we so afraid to look it in the face, to talk of it? WOULD it be easier to live if we knew what came after? I don’t think so. But I think it WOULD be easier to live if we could see that point, that point in between the last breath taken and the first one not. If we could feel it with our minds and with our hearts and know that it is real, KNOW that THIS life has an end, THIS life comes to a close, THIS life is for the living. From that last push to that last breath.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Game On

I was always good at dodgeball but not in the way you think. When the game would draw to an end and the rest of the team was lined up along the sides, I was usually still on the floor, still in the game, but only because I was good at making myself scarce. My plan? Find that one guy who just blasts the ball at the bare legs of the girls on the other team, who KILLS his opponents before they even have a chance. When the whistle blows and the madness starts, quell the panic, look around, and FIND that guy. Then, stay behind him for the entire rest of the game. I may not be strong or have mad ball handling skills, but I am a strategist. I am smart and quick and I know how to run. Hide. That was my plan.

What was simply a game to some, though, was a life philosophy to me. I learned it early. Out of necessity. Stay out of the way. Stay quiet. Don’t make waves. Be a good girl. Don’t get my ass whipped.

I forget sometimes. I forget to be good. I am five and have been playing with my sisters. I think that I am good, but I am not, for some reason I don’t know, I am not. My dad is yelling. He is yelling at me and headed for the door. I know he is going to cut a switch. I know because he has done this before. I grab the book. I stuff it in the back of my shorts. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, and I can’t find a place to hide. Where can I hide? Panic. I run screaming, book in my shorts, under the table. He will see me here. I know. He always does, but there is no place else. My mother sits in her chair while my dad cuts a branch from a tree. She picks at her lip, shakes her head, looks at the floor. I am screaming for her to help me. Don’t let him! Don’t let him! Don’t let him do it!! I am screaming and panicked and can’t make it stop. I feel the switch hit my bare legs. I feel it hit again. He doesn’t hit the book. I can’t run. He holds my arm so that I can’t run. I can’t get away. I can only wait, screaming, sobbing. My legs burn. They sting. My face is red and soaked from tears. I can’t get my breath. I take in globs of air, but can’t get my breath. I know that I am not a bad girl, but maybe I am not as good as I think. My mother sits in her chair, picking at her lip, looking at the floor. Why does she not stop him? Why does she not help?

It wasn’t always the switch. Sometimes it was the belt. Sometimes it was the shoe. My mother would hold up her shoe and ask, “Do you want some of THIS?” I wonder what child would ever look and say, “Yes. Yes. Hit me with that thing. Hit me hard so I learn my lesson.” I learned to stay quiet, to keep my opinions to myself, to be strong and brave and silent when I didn’t want to be strong and brave and silent. When the madness starts, quell the panic, HIDE. That is the plan.

Well. I have had enough of that plan. I have had enough of hiding, of keeping my thoughts to myself lest they bother or offend, of not speaking my mind for fear of attack.

And so.

I am witness now to a village at odds. It bothers me to no end. We refuse to help each other, to support and love and care for each other. We look the other way and say “It’s not my problem. I take care of my own.” The assumption is that the one in need of help is not trying, not working, is lazy and selfish. I know a young mother. She is single with two babies. She used to be married with two babies but decided she didn’t much care for being beaten by her husband, didn’t want to chance those babies being on the receiving end of that abuse. She now is a single mother with two young children. She takes classes to make a better life. She takes classes and raises her babies and makes a better way with no car and no family, with sketchy day care, fighting to keep those babies out of the hands of that poor example of a father. She moves forward every day even while forces push her back. Where she finds her strength, her smile, her positivity, I have no idea.

This is what I think. One day those babies will be out in society. They will either be productive, contributing members, sharing their time and talent and gifts, or they will be young, single mothers struggling to raise THEIR babies, struggling perhaps to make a life after leaving a husband who beats them, a husband who after beating them, fights for the right to keep the babies, to raise those babies in an environment of abuse and neglect. “It’s not my problem. I take care of my own.” No. I would say you’re not taking care of your own. Taking care of your own would be realizing that YOUR world is impacted by THEIR world. We do not live in isolation, coexisting simply with our OWN. We live together as a family, as a unit, as a community. That baby you are so eager to pass off as someone else’s responsibility may just save your life one day when you are rolled into the emergency room. She may, IF she is given that opportunity, IF someone has made a difference in her life, IF someone stepped in to help a young mother in need.

Don’t sit back in your chair and complain about the so-called dregs of society when you have done nothing to help break that cycle. I know it’s an evil thought, but sometimes when I hear talk of how these individuals are clueless and selfish and lazy, sometimes I wish that life on you. I wish YOU were that mother trying to raise those babies on five thousand a year, with no car and no family and no insurance, trying to make a difference for her children, trying make a better life, trying to break a cycle. I wish YOU were that mother. Then you would see how amazing she really is.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Writer You See

Thank you for being in my life. You have no idea what you contribute to the writer you see on this page. Whether you touch my days only briefly or follow along beside me, know that you are a part of each of the letters I so carefully put to word.

To the one who called me beautiful when I was fairly sure I wasn’t, thank you for giving me the chin up, for filling my heart with hope on a day when I was feeling like a loser both inside and out, that even with all of my best efforts I had not done what I was here to do, had lived up to only half of my potential, had failed my mission, had not given enough, encouraged enough, smiled enough, written enough, loved enough, that I had failed, indeed, to save the world, to bring peace and light and love to all, no matter how hard I had tried, and that no one was willing, or would ever be willing, to publish my words on the issue, failure or not. Thank you for the kind word on a day when I was berating myself, belittling myself, judging in a way I would find reprehensible should I witness it in someone else. Hey beautiful! I know the words were nothing to you, but they were everything to me.

A special thank you to the friend who looked at me on the ride back from our thirtieth high school reunion and asked, “Do you think there’s a story in that?” That phrase is, since, forever locked in my head. I have always approached life in a thoughtful way, but you have given me the words. I can no longer experience a wave crashing against the shore, the eerie vastness of a canyon, or an open road on a sunny day without hearing your voice whisper in my ear, “Do you think there’s a story in that?” When I am enjoying a lunch in a local cafĂ© and a displeased customer begins raising a voice and causing a scene, when all heads turn, when the ever patient and painfully nice teenage clerk registers fear in body language that even a kindergartner could read, I ask myself, “Do you think there’s a story in that?” The answer always, “Yes. Yes I do.”

Thank you to the one of you, even though there were two of you, who told me to leave the pixie dust off the page, that pixie dust is magic and chance and luck and a bit of fancy, and that none of that has anything to do with where I am in my life today or why I am the woman I am, that I have come through what I have and am standing before you where I am through no less than determination and grit and lots of hard work, plenty of hard work, and that I should celebrate that, embrace it, give it the acknowledgment it deserves, and in no way pass it off as chance or happenstance. Thank you for looking at my words and for breathing life into a story I had nearly dismissed, a story that was just my life.

To the other of you who told me the same, thank you for ignoring my whining. You should know that others let me get away with that sort of business. They think my pouting is cute or deserved or necessary. They throw me parties of the pity type, complete with hugs and kind words and imaginary Feel Better Soon balloons. They tell me how great I am. They build me up. They speak meanly of those agents and their evil rejection slips, can’t BELIEVE anyone would pass up the opportunity to represent my wonderful work. They treat me like the princess who has temporarily had her crown knocked off kilter. You just tell me to buck up and deal and get on with business. You don’t buy into my act. Thank you for that. That is exactly what I need. But if you could, please don’t tell the others. I sort of enjoy the attention. And, for the record, I WILL keep writing. Always.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Peace and Love, Kumbaya, and All That Shit

There’s something you should know about me. I don’t really like people as much as you think I like people. Sure, I love my family, I enjoy spending time with my friends, and I’m kind often even when others aren’t. Still. Don’t tell me your problems. And don’t think I care. I might pretend to listen. I might even look like I’m concerned or trying to help you with a solution, but this is all a front. It’s just a cover. You might find this strange given that I’ve chosen a very people-oriented field. After all, am I not supposed to WANT to sit and listen as others pore over their trials and tribulations? Am I not supposed to ENCOURAGE others to open up, to share? Am I not TRAINED to nod and reflect and make copious mental notes? Please. I find that so draining, such a bore. I’d rather beat my head against a brick wall, against any wall. Unless, of course, it involves some juicy bit of gossip or the most private of secrets, then by all means, do go on.

And this is the thing. I don’t really care either if you are concerned about MY issues. I will share and open up and pore over trials and tribulations of my own whether you listen or whether you don’t. I am not looking for a solution or pity or empathy or anything really. I’m just looking to empty my head so I can move on. You just happen to be in front of me.

I realize this all makes me sound like a major ass. For fear of confusing you even further, I’m not. I’m really not. Unless you think I am, then go with that. Feel free.

I actually do care about you, just not like you think. I don’t get warm fuzzies every time your face pops into my head. I don’t lie awake at night dreaming of the next time we’re together, wonder what it would have been like had we met earlier in life, or sit scribbling your name in curlicues all over my writing journals. No. I see you as a tool.

I know what you’re thinking. She’s not doing much to prove her case. But is it not true? We are all brothers and sisters on this planet we call home. What I do impacts you, maybe even if I never come into contact with you. The other day a student in my class comes up after lecture. She wants to let me know that a project I have assigned has helped her clarify her path, has helped her to better understand her direction in life. She wants to let me know that she appreciates my approach to teaching and that “We are lucky to have you.” We are lucky to have you. Who SAYS that?! I was humbled. I was moved. I saw myself as the tool I am. And I don’t mean that in the popular slang sense of the word. I saw myself as one piece in this puzzle of humanity. I saw myself as a local means to a global end. She was speaking as if from a higher source, and I was nothing more than a pawn. I took her words home that day. I felt joy in my heart that I had made a difference. I was kind to my children. I was pleasant to my spouse. I was silently euphoric. I did nice things. I cooked dinner. A real dinner. I smiled. I was patient. I am never patient. I remembered her words. We are lucky to have you.

When I step out the door each day, I impact humanity. I can impact my brothers and sisters in a positive way, or I can impact them in a negative way. I can build others up, or I can bring others down. Life is not about me. It is not about my needs. It is not about my problems. It is about the greater good. And yet, because I am the tool I am, it IS about me. I ask myself, am I doing everything I can to be all that I am here to be? Am I encouraging others to do the same? Am I shining a light where there may be darkness or doubt? Am I helping others to see the possibilities for their lives that I so clearly see when I speak with them, get to know them, understand who they are and what they are all about? Do I show them love?

Yes. Do I show them love? I do care. But I care about the whole. I care about all of us together. Hands joined. Peace and love. Kumbaya. All that shit. I care about the bigger picture, the grand scheme, humanity as a whole. You ARE important to me, but you are only one part of this complicated puzzle. We have work to do, you and I. Let’s not sit wallowing. Let’s build ourselves up, get over our problems. There are people out there with REAL problems. Let’s get to developing our strengths, nurturing our gifts, figuring out what it is that we have to share with others. Then let’s get out that door and go use those gifts, go share ourselves, go love people.