Friday, July 13, 2012

Lucky Number Seven

This weekend we'll be celebrating Miss Awesome's seventh birthday. She's super excited. I'm a little conflicted. As we were running errands yesterday she was wearing "high heels" (about an inch) and a dress that's starting to get too short. I turned around and nearly fell over with astonishment at the preview of a gorgeous, leggy, teenager stalking along. Then she came up and held my hand and for a little while she was my baby again.

Miss Awesome is not an easy child, nor has she ever been. In her first couple of months she never wanted to be put down, and it was only thanks to a wonderful cadre of women -- Aunt Peg, Grammy Vi, and Mimi in particular -- who took turns toting her around Vermont that I was able to function those first three months. As a toddler she fought tooth and nail when we stopped carrying her. She spent hours sitting on floors, wailing because she wanted me to pick her up, and I just had to wait her out. We were tortured by defiant screaming whenever she was buckled into her car seat. I had to take away her dresses for a year when she refused to wear underwear. More recently I took away all her toys when she wouldn't clean her room.

Will gets extraordinarily upset by her defiance, and we both struggle to redirect her energy from anger to something more positive. Nonetheless I am astonished by and grateful for her spunk. True, Miss Awesome regularly renders me speechless with frustration, but still I look at her and see someone absolutely amazing. She has a truly indomitable spirit, and I can only imagine what she will do with it. Too often I see girls who are meek and quiet and nice. Miss Awesome is not, and hopefully never will be, nice. She is proud and strong and confident and intense and powerful. She is beautiful and determined and strong-willed and creative.

She is a gift.

This weekend we celebrate the anniversary of her birth, but in my heart I will be celebrating my good fortune in being her mother.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Small Town, Big City

I grew up in a small town of just over 3,000 people in the 1980s. It was pretty idyllic. There's some truth to the depiction of small towns in the media. Everyone really does know everyone else. We left the doors unlocked, and never needed to knock at the neighbor's house. The town cops ticketed me once for failing to signal a right-hand turn -- on my bicycle! Because it was such a small community, we also were very close-knit. When I was in elementary school our town was devastated by an industrial accident which killed 15 men. Nearly everyone in our class lost a relative or friend. The town rallied, as it always does, with memorial services and fundraising potlucks in the park.

My parents still live in their house in the center of town. I go back several times a year and am astonished each time by how much it has grown. More than 6,500 people live there now, and there are new suburban style developments whose residents don't really mix with the old timers. But the heart is still there. When I run to the grocery store I am always greeted by the manager, for whom I used to work a lifetime ago. My mom keeps me updated on the local gossip, and keeps everyone there posted on my life so when we run into each other conversation continues like I never left. I fled because the town was too small, but I miss that closeness now.

Today I live in a big city where the metropolitan area population numbers in the millions. We have every amenity, convenience, and opportunity a modern American city can offer. I love it. I love the anonymity. I also love the variety and number of people. When there are only a couple hundred kids around, and everyone has roughly the same background and interests, making friends as the odd kid is not easy. With so many people to choose from it's been a little easier for me to find a fit, and I'm hoping it works that way for my kids, too.

Still, there's a special kind of security in a small town. People watch out for each other. So I was pleased and grateful the other day when I realized that my neighborhood really is a small town inside the big city. I know all the grocery store clerks by name and chat with them about their kids and gardens. I run into folks I know on the street and we say a quick hello. There's a neighborhood group on facebook where people can ask for the name of a good window cleaner, or hear about a burglary. On our block in particular all the kids roam from house to house, playing across half-a-dozen front yards just as I did when I was their age.

We went to the neighborhood 4th of July parade this year. It ran for blocks and blocks, and had marching bands and local politicians. Kids decorated their bicycles and swerved along, shepherded by watchful parents and bystanders. Fire engines ran their sirens and kids scrambled for candy -- just like we did years and years ago. It was a small town moment in my big city, and it felt like home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Write?

A friend commented recently that what I write is very personal, but my medium is very public. I think she's quietly concerned that I am making myself vulnerable. She's right. But I've always been told to write what I know, and the only things I know are what are in my head and in my heart.

So why write? I guess first because I can't not write. Its something I've done all my life -- poetry, essays, short stories. Life makes more sense to me when it's on paper. Dark thoughts and feelings evaporate when released into the ether.

There's more to it, though. I believe that in the grand scheme of things I may be unique but not particularly special. That's not a bad thing. It's just that I'm not a celebrity or political figure or leader of some sort worth noting, and therefore whatever I write may be meaningful only to a very small circle of friends and acquaintances. In addition, I believe that people are fundamentally the same, especially those with similar experiences. I find solace on our commonality, and perhaps my little essays will be a touchstone for someone else, somehow.

Finally, there's a sort of validation in the comments and responses I get. When I hear that something I wrote touched someone, or made her laugh until she cried, I can glimpse for a moment the many strands of of the tapestry that weaves us all together.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I Walk The Line

My stomach clenched as I bought a doll this past weekend. Julie, an American Girl doll, to be precise. Miss Awesome has been asking for an AG doll for more than a year now. The longing started when she was given a pair of hand-me-down AG-type dolls by a friend who had "upgraded" to the real thing. She immediately began planning for "when I get my real American Girl doll". I explained how expensive they were, and how I didn't see the need, especially since she had two dolls almost exactly like an AG. But that didn't end it. We (Grammy) tried at Christmas to appease her with another 18 inch doll by Madame Alexander, but apparently girls of a certain age know and note the difference.

Miss Awesome has been unwavering in her goal. She recently determined to use her savings to buy the doll herself, which my husband and I both admire. But with her birthday coming up and better uses for her savings later in life, we decided to buy it for her. I'm looking forward to seeing her face when she opens the package. Still, paying more than $100 for a doll seems like a classic example of conspicuous consumption, and I worry about what I'm teaching my child.

Will would disagree, but I consider us wealthy. True, we are careful with our money; I drive a 10 year old car we bought used, we are waiting to redo our back yard until we have enough in savings, and big purchases are carefully considered and budgeted. But we also are able to take every other summer in Vermont, and take the kids to Disneyworld on vacation. They get fairly elaborate birthday parties, and have all the modern conveniences. We certainly have far more than my family did when I was young.

When I was little we had everything we needed, but I didn't always have what I wanted. I don't regret my childhood; I learned a great work ethic and the value of the money I earned. But I also have memories of longing for what others had. In high school I couldn't afford the Express and Benetton clothing of my peers, except when I could find their cast offs in the thrift store. I bought my own car, but parking my turquoise Volvo -- older than I was -- next to the new Audis, Saabs, and Porsches in the school lot was an act of courage the first day. In middle school I wanted a new-fangled mountain bike. Most vividly, I remember how, much earlier, I too desired a doll.

In 1983 the only thing little girls could talk about were Cabbage Patch dolls. They were cute and soft and each one had its own story. I begged for one for Christmas. It was the only thing I asked for. To me it was a magic key of acceptance and friendship as well as a new toy to love. When the day came I could hardly wait to open my present. But instead of a Cabbage Patch baby of my own, I got Mandy. She was a lovely doll with clothes I could remove and a straw hat and glossy yellow hair. But she wasn't THE ONE. I played with her for years, but our games were always tinged with disappointment, as if they could have been better if only I had the right companion.

My children have everything they need, and a fair amount of what they want. I hope I'm making the line between the two clear. I try to create limits and teach them to appreciate what they have. I tell them "no" as much as I deem fair. They are required to do chores, and sometimes can earn money by doing odd jobs around the house. Both must use their own money to buy non-essentials. Miss Awesome makes many of her doll accessories from scrap fabric and tape. Still, I don't know how much of my parenting is an effort to give my kids the things I grieved for when I was little. Perhaps that's why I plunked down so much money on a silly doll.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Through Another's Eyes

I've often wished my friends could both see themselves as I do and believe the marvelous things I see. So many of the people I know don't have faith in themselves, and few realize how impressive they truly are. I've been told that's true of me, as well.

I don't know when I lost my confidence. I think it was gradual, starting in middle school right around the time I was first bullied. Apparently it didn't show; I walk tall and pretend I am more confident than I actually am (fake it 'til you make it), but for years my foundations slowly eroded until I had no faith in anything about myself: intelligence, parenting, friendships, writing, my job. Above all I never believed I could accomplish anything. I've been embarrassed for years about the disappointing trajectory of my life.

I hit rock bottom around December of last year. I considered walking away, abandoning my current life. I thought about suicide a lot, even knowing I could never do that to the people I love. (As the child of a suicide I know something of the aftermath.) I thought about getting counseling, even though the last counselor I went to essentially told me I was being ridiculous. I almost opted for pyschopharmacology, which again would require going to a counselor.

I don't know what shifted, but in January I took control of one aspect of my life: my health. I started eating better, exercising, and getting more sleep. I started to feel better about my physical self. Then, instead of just griping about a toxic situation I was in I allowed myself to be irresponsible for once and walked away. With the encouragement of a new/old friend, I gave myself permission to stop trying so hard to make people like me. And I've started taking ownership of my life again.

I still have a great deal of rebuilding to do. It's been more than twenty years since I saw myself as someone worthy of friendship. Those doubts still creep up on me regularly – the bullies of yesteryear are unwelcome residents in my mind. However, I'm trying.

This month I have been graced with a glimpse of how others saw me for my first twenty years. As part of my college re-application process I went looking for some very old records -- IB and SAT scores in particular. My mother, bless her, had not only those but all my report cards from kindergarten through the end of my years at UWC. In each document someone had written a few words summarizing their experience with me. I read through them with tears in my eyes. I was described as bright and delightful to teach. Instructors saw me as a leader, a teacher, an intelligent and enthusiastic student. They believed in me.

For years my biggest fear has been that I am a completely forgettable person -- reliable, dependable, but the person in your yearbook you don't remember at all. I've been surprised by the outreach on Facebook from people I barely knew. Maybe I just need to see myself through their eyes.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Leave a Corner

I am a patriot. Today I honor the decision 236 years ago to declare independence from Great Britain. Like my fellow citizens I will celebrate with fireworks and barbecue and a parade, and my eyes will well with proud tears at the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Ours is a powerful and proud country. We have a history of faith in divine providence and a firm belief that we have a destiny to lead the world. But we also are kind and generous and have a tradition of aiding those who need our help, both individually and nationally.

Which is why I am so saddened by the current state of our political discourse. In the Declaration of Independence our forefathers stated "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" as they set forth to "institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect [the] Safety and Happiness" of the American people.

Today, instead of working together toward the greater good our politicians snipe and cut at each other, standing more on soundbites than principles. Above it all, wealthy people and corporations collect more money and more power, leaving the poor behind. We seem to have lost sight of the lofty ideals which have given our country such strength and endurance.

I have friends and family who like to tell me that the United States is a Christian country. I could dispute that, but instead I'd like to remind them of Leviticus 19:9-10: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger.”

On the anniversary of the launch of this great experiment, I pray that we, as a united people, remember the spirit in which our country was founded – that the government is a tool for securing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


The waves were powerful and regular as clockwork. My children were thrilled, riding on top of a two-person tube, eager to go deeper despite the drenching splashes and chilled shudders. We were just in a wave pool at a local theme park but as I watched them bobbing on their little craft, it felt like a metaphor for both their personalities -- and possibly their lives.

Miss Awesome is smaller, younger, still a faltering swimmer, yet it was she in the bow. She faced every wave head-on with a triumphant shout even when she could barely breathe for all the water cascading down her face. She urged her brother to move forward, go deeper, catch the biggest waves. I pulled them shallower and she glared at me, making it clear that I was overstepping my limited rights. Had I not been there she would have been in the seven foot deep part where the waves were strongest and least predictable. She has no fear of adventure and few qualms about fighting for whatever she wants, no matter the odds, consequences, or who is standing in her way.

The Boy, in the stern, didn't appear to be paying much attention to the waves. He was busy trying to engineer ... something. I couldn't quite decipher his goal, although it was perfectly clear to him. It involved getting a moving craft to stay in the exact right orientation. Even as they were tossed up and then down he was asking me to turn and shift the tube just so. He, too, was delighted by the action, but as usual he was focusing more on some inner voice. The boundary between what happens in his mind and our reality is thin, and sometimes I wonder what he really is experiencing.

Sometimes one child would slip, and immediately the other was there, grabbing a wrist or lifting with a foot, laughing and teasing, but always helping. As with any siblings they have awful fights and sometimes wish out loud that the other didn't exist. But in between they have a sweetness to their relationship, a friendship on top of their family connection. It comforted me, knowing they are there for each other. Miss Awesome will stand and defend her brother against any challenge. The Boy will catch his sister and keep her afloat through any adventure. And I will watch from a distance, ready to pull them back but silently urging them forward.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Forest Grows

A forest grows in the quiet still center of my soul. There are pine trees and firs, there are spruces and aspens. The wind sighs in the topmost branches and punctuates the sound with the papery rattle of aspen leaves. On the ground the air is quieter, perfumed by the sunny sweet vanilla smell of ancient ponderosas and decaying granite. The forest floor is pine needles laid down in thick carpets, broken by wild rose and geranium and decorated with the dark green leaves and bright red berries of kinnikinick. A brook winds through, silvery clear and sweet, burbling between grottoes lined with willow and long grasses. It is not quiet, but peaceful. And when I start twisting and fretting with worry, I breathe deep, picture this place, and start again.