Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Abeona House was born.
5 1/2 years ago, I found myself on the front porch of a small cottage at the end of Oak Street, chatting with another parent as we sat nursing our infants. I felt lucky to be on the opening list but overwhelmed by the tasks that still needed to be done: painting, ramp building, gathering toys, supplies, furniture, wiring and plumbing, etc. Was this really going to happen? It seemed a little impossible.
5 years ago, Abeona House opened. I carried Sydney through the doors the first day (she was not quite walking yet) and left her in what was probably once a bedroom. I vividly remember the emotions in the building that morning: excitement, relief, trepidation, awkwardness, and the elephant in the room: would we be able to stay open?
4 years ago, I joined the Board of Directors. We were still open, but in order to be truly sustainable we would need to grow. Economy of scale and all that.
3 years ago, Evan came along and when I carried him through the doors for the first time, when he was one week old, and saw the sign on the door welcoming him to the world and watched how every single person in that building--teachers, kids, parents--made sure to give Sydney extra love and attention, how attuned they were to the needs of our family, it really struck me: this was our community. This was our place.
1 month ago, we signed a lease on a new property in Mid-City--a much larger building with tons of green space, a garden, and a kitchen. On the night of the first open house, I watched Sydney play with the child whose mother I sat with on that first day on Oak Street; theirs was the comfort of old friends, easy and unspoken, and when I told my kids it was time to leave Sydney hugged me and said "But why can't I go to the new Abeona House?"
Today is our last day on Oak Street. We're moving out all the furniture, stripping the walls of cabinets and decorations. The kids are excited and anxious. I'm probably going to cry all day as I move boxes and cribs across town.
Albert Schweitzer wrote, "Search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity." I have found that place in Abeona House. It's an incredible and important gift, to have the opportunity to love something, to believe in it fully, to watch it grow and struggle and expand, to watch your children learn how to develop as individuals while retaining a sense of community, of being a part of something bigger than themselves. I really have been searching for this place to invest my overabundance of passion and energy, and I am so fucking grateful to have found it.
Search and see. It really is worth it.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
It started with New York. In a Spring volume of my running magazine there was an article about the famed NYC Marathon, with its spectacular crowds and perfect weather, and on a whim I entered the lottery. New York has a tiered and generally impassable lottery, which starts with elite athletes, moves on to members of the local Road Runners club, and eventually gets to everyone else. The results of the lottery would be announced in early April, and so I waited anxiously, not sure what I was hoping for. If I got in, I’d be looking at 4 months of a brutal and time-consuming training regime, in the sweltering summer heat—not to mention the prospect of another ridiculous injury and the subsequent, patience-depleting recovery. I’d had a vague notion that I would run another marathon, someday, but by all reasonable standards this was not the right year. I’d started a new job and was contemplating starting a private practice; I was chair of the Board of Directors for an organization that was expanding significantly, and had joined another Board in March. I was over-committed and ambivalent.
But when the lottery results were announced and I found out my number hadn’t come up, I immediately started looking for another race. Turned out the Savannah Marathon was the very same day as NYC, and 2 of my friends from high school indicated they’d be up for it. And so I signed up, click, and immediately began looking for a training plan.
Most runners use a plan when training for a significant distance, like a half or full marathon. Plans generally span a 16- or 20-week schedule and prescribe distances and types of runs (tempo, easy, long, speed work) to be done on each training day. I’d used a couple of plans for other long races but wanted something new, something that would push me beyond the slogging drudgery of the typical training regime. And then I remembered a story I’d read in the magazine several months before, written by a 41-year-old runner who’d set a marathon PR (personal record) by using this batshit-crazy training plan created by two brothers from Michigan. The Hanson Plan is characterized by extremely high weekly mileage (about 25% more than the average plan for regular runners) and brutal workouts (no “easy” runs on this plan). The sheer ambition of the plan intrigued me, as did the emphasis on total weekly mileage over the dreaded 20-, 22-, and 24-mile long runs that form the apex of most marathon plans (the Hanson plan tops out at several 16-mile long runs). The Hansons believe that the distance of the long run matters less than does the cumulative effect of intense and fatiguing training; in other words, in Hanson training you’re preparing yourself, both physically and psychologically, to run the final 16 miles of the race, not the first 16. Anyone who’s ever run a 26.2 will understand this distinction.
I’d read the article the first time, many months before, with fascination and fear; I’d looked at the training plan and my reaction was something along the lines of “fuck no.” But after I committed to Savannah and started seriously thinking about the training, thoughts shifted to questions of efficacy. Sure, it had a certain insane appeal, and the theory made sense, but did it work? The author of the article was a believer, after running his fastest marathon ever, at the age most runners are beginning their slow and insulting decline. I found forums online wherein scores of runners attested to the plan’s benefits (faster times, fewer injuries, increased confidence) and one night, after printing out the training plan and scouring it with a pencil, marking the dates and comparing my personal and work schedules, I realized that I had already committed myself; essentially, I’d gone from “fuck no” to “fuck it.”
And so I went about the business of serious training. First, I evaluated what had gone wrong in my previous marathon (weak hip flexors) and did some research into preventative techniques (stretching, stabilization exercises, massage). I vowed to approach my training more seriously than I had before, which meant some modifications to my everyday routine. (The heroin would have to go, obviously, but since I’d read that deprivation often leads to relapse I decided on one “cheat day” per week.) I have been a “serious” runner for a while now but I suddenly found myself rising before dawn most mornings, running 6, 8, 10, 18 miles along streetcar line, nodding companionably at the other, wiser runners in their reflective gear, or at the track at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings, pounding out grueling speed workouts in the steamy darkness. My favorite speed workout, commonly referred to as a “ladder,” consists of fast intervals of increasing distance, starting at 1/4 mile segments and building to a full mile, then working back down (hence the name). The focused brutality of the workout really appeals to me, and on one muggy morning in early July, I ran the 1-mile segment of the workout in 6 minutes and 35 seconds, which is the fastest mile I’ve run since high school. That meant that not only could I run a fast mile, but I could run it while fatigued, which is the most critical aspect of marathon training. I was totally stoked.
4 hours later, a city tow-truck driver barreled through a red light at Poydras and Loyola, totaling our car, deploying our air bags, mangling Cade’s arm and crushing my chest and my right foot. In the ambulance, on the way to the ER, I said something to the EMT about how I was training for a marathon and he look at me with some sympathy and said “Not anymore, you’re not."
Guess what happens when people tell me I can’t do something?
I took 10 days off and jumped back in. My foot felt stiff but it didn’t seem to get worse with the training, so I continued. In August I placed first in my age group at a local 3-miler, even though I was dissatisfied with my time and knew I could do better. I switched my fast workouts from “Speed” to “Strength,” per the Hanson plan, which meant dropping the track workouts in favor of longer, even more grueling intervals. I stretched, went for a sports massage (which, along with Baskin Robbins’ Peanut Butter and Chocolate ice cream and the music video for Ok Go’s “All Is Not Lost,” ranks among my personal Best Things Ever), went to bed early, did my tempo runs (6, 8, 10 miles at goal pace) religiously, even as the temperatures soared. I got suckered into coaching Sydney's soccer team and when I realized that the date and time of the final game coincided with the date of the Savannah marathon, I quickly found another race--the Pensacola marathon--on the following weekend. I ran during vacations and tropical storms and illnesses, and in early October, I won the Crescent Connection Road Race, a killer 4-miler that traverses the Mississippi River bridge. I had two thoughts as I crossed the finish line:
1) How strong is this tape? (Do I have to lunge forward to break it, or will it just fall away?)
2) Holy shit. The plan works.
Four days later, I broke my tailbone. For the record, I would strongly advise anyone seriously considering breaking their tailbone to think twice before doing so; the pain is excruciating, unrelenting, nauseating, imposing. Sleep is impossible, as is sitting down, which makes clinical work absolutely ridiculous (imagine spilling your guts to shrink who's squirming like she has a full bladder, or is terribly bored with you). The morning after sustaining the injury I "woke up" (I'd spent the night standing up with my face buried in the side of the bed, weeping) and realized that I would not be able to run. I had four weeks until the marathon, had four months of serious, uncompromising training under my belt, and that was it. Over. The injury was monumental, impassable, like a giant boulder rolled into my path. There was no amount of chutzpah that would overcome this, it seemed. I could barely speak without needing to vomit. Sleep was out of the question. Running had become an absurdity.
So that was Friday. On Saturday, I laced up my running shoes and headed downstairs to the basement treadmill, where I sullenly walked and then wincingly jogged, finally stopping about a mile in to clear the floaters from my field of vision. That's it, I thought. At least I tried. Then Cade came downstairs and said something like "Well, you gave it your best shot" and of course the thought that sprang to mind was nuh-uh, not even close and so I got back on the treadmill and pounded out another 5 miles. But damn, it hurt. A lot.
And so, because I'm not always a complete and total idiot, I evaluated the situation and resigned myself to a period of rest--of inactivity. My friend M.A. dropped by, bearing wine and cookies, and assured me that yes, I will run another marathon--just not this marathon. I set about the business of getting my mind straight, putting things in perspective, focusing on positives, focusing on healing, etc etc etc etc etc.
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, as I sat propped in the corner of the sofa downstairs, sobbing silently as not to wake the rest of the house, it occurred to me that if I was going to suffer pain, why not run? It hurt to sit down and to lay down and to sneeze and to laugh and to breathe anyway, so why not run? I hobbled upstairs, stepped into some running clothes, put on my shoes and headed out the door, before I could reconsider. The first 2 miles were pure agony, the next 4 slightly less so. Whatever. I chalked it up as a victory. The next morning I went out again, sleep-deprived and riddled with doubt, and ran another 7 miles. It wasn't pretty at all, but it wasn't making anything worse, so I soldiered on.
And it has gradually gotten better, the pain, although sleep is still hard to come by. This morning I got up at 4:30 and ran 10 miles, with minimal pain. Last week, I ran 20 miles in Liverpool, half of which into a headwind that left me feeling at various points like the Roadrunner--legs spinning, body standing still. But I finished feeling strong enough, though not entirely confident: I'd missed the portion of marathon training that experts point to as the most crucial--that monster week, that apex.
So here I am, 9 days from Pensacola, sleep-deprived and uncertain, resisting the urge to log a couple of punishing speed sessions just to prove to myself that I can. It's kind of stupid, right? I mean, it's just a race, after all, just a "recreational activity." But this Monster has taken a definite shape: I can feel its contours in the hours before dawn, hovering near my bed, ready to smother my ambition; I can feel it in the 6th mile of almost every run, when my legs start to feel heavy, and even after a successful run, it's there to negate my efforts, to call it a fluke, to call everything into question, whispering things like:
Why are you doing this? (Because I love it).
Why are you hurting yourself? (I'm not, not really...).
Wouldn't you rather sleep in? (Now you're just being cruel...)
Why is this so important? (...)
You do know that pain is the body's way of saying "stop," right?
(Really? I thought it was the body's way of saying "I double-dog dare you.").
Saturday, September 24, 2011
My sweet girl,
As I write this, you are sleeping soundly, in the bottom half of the bunk bed that PaPa made for Daddy so many years ago. You wanted to stay up until 9 o'clock tonight, and though you gave it your best shot ('Sound of Music' is a really long movie--good choice) you only made it to 8:18 before limping up the stairs and falling into bed. And who could blame you? It's been an incredibly full year.
Since you turned 5 one year ago, you have learned to read, to add and subtract, to jump rope and hula hoop, tie your shoes, ride a bike, snap your fingers, chew bubble gum, roller skate, and solve for x (Ok, the last one I made up. The rest are true.) You found a tiny kitten in the Spillway, hiding under a rock, coaxed her out with a shrimp you got from a nearby fisherman, and talked us into letting you keep her. You named her "Alice Sparkle," and the name stuck even after we discovered that Alice is actually a boy. You managed kindergarten with total grace and confidence. You have grown a foot taller, your hair is several inches longer, and your face has lost all traces of toddlerhood. You're a big girl now.
In many ways, you are exactly the same as you've always been, from day one: strong, loving, inquisitive, creative, fierce and passionate. You still love your baby dolls and will occasionally spend a full hour dressing, cuddling, and arranging them for sleep. You spend the majority of your free time drawing and making jewelry, and since you acquired the ability to read, your creativity has extended to writing and illustrating stories. Your friends are very important to you, and you go to great lengths to make them feel happy and special. For example, when your friend J. lost a ring at school the other day, you spent who knows how long investigating, quizzing classmates who may have seen it, talking teachers into searching the campus in spots where your subjects indicated they may have seen it. You were very upset when, at the end of the day, the ring still had not been found, and you spent the evening trying to talk me into buying J. another one for her birthday. When I explained to you that J's birthday is not until December, you went into your jewelry box, found one of your favorite rings, brought it to school the next day and gave it to your friend. So that she would feel better.
Generosity is a value we try to instill in you and Evan, but you really come by it naturally. You would give your last cookie to any kid on the street, and in fact you often do. You have such a beautiful spirit, strong and genuine and kind. Sure, you have fears, but you don't let them impede you--you walk out into the world every day with amazing confidence and a stubborn persistence that will serve you well in life.
I don't want to forget to talk about fashion. At morning meeting the other day, one of the other parents commented on how "well put-together" you always are and asked how I managed to get you looking so beautiful every morning. I had to explain that I have absolutely nothing to do with it, that you take tremendous pride in your appearance and how each morning after breakfast, you close your bedroom door and emerge 15 or 20 minutes later, impeccably dressed, immaculately coiffed and accessorized. You carry yourself with incredible poise, almost as if we'd sent you to one of those horrible etiquette courses, and sometimes when I see you walking towards or away from me I'm struck by how grown up you seem, how much time seems to have passed since I first held you in my arms.
This letting go thing is hard, Sydney, harder than I ever thought it would be. You don't need me as much anymore and though I encourage this independence and am so impressed by your incredible confidence, I just cannot believe that it happened so fast. Your friends have become the center of your world and my attention has shifted to teaching you about being a good friend, helping you strike that balance between taking care of yourself and caring for others. Though you appear to others to be indestructible, you are actually a very sensitive person, easily wounded (though quick to recover), and this makes you very aware of others' feelings. You will go to great lengths not to hurt someone's feelings (unless that person is Evan), and that extends to the way you talk about people. For example, the other day you were telling me that one of your friends has a crush on a boy in the kindergarten (gasp) and when I asked if the boy was cute you paused for several seconds and gave me a serious look. "Well," you said, "I'm sure J. thinks he is." What a thoughtful and diplomatic answer! Even in your friend's absence you were unwilling to say something that might be construed as hurtful.
Sydney, I am bursting with love for you. You have brought so much joy to our lives, it's indescribable. A few weeks ago I snuck into your room while you were sleeping and spent a few moments at your bedside, listening to your soft breathing and stroking your back. You're not a baby anymore; we have entered a new phase of our relationship. Thank you for your patience as I stumble towards parenthood, thank you for constantly reminding me to look at the world with wonder and not with fear, to face challenges with courage instead of anger, and to be the best friend I can be. I'm so proud of you. I will say that a million times over the course of your lifetime, and perhaps someday you'll roll your eyes when I say it, but for now, I will whisper it in your ear at night and before I send you off to your classroom in the morning and every possible moment in between.
Happy Birthday to my beautiful, kind, talented, fierce, stubborn, generous, amazing little girl.
Friday, September 2, 2011
Luckily, in the summer of 2001, my brilliant and beautiful New College friends put together a grand trip to Northern California--Gualala, to be specific--and we spent a week lounging in hammocks, playing endless rounds of Spite and Malice, dipping our toes in the Pacific and floating in the more welcoming streams, acting stupidly and trading bits of our souls. There wasn't much reminiscing, as I recall; but then, there wasn't much distance between our graduation and our real lives.
On the hammock one afternoon, a third of the way through a bottle of gin with the endless blue sky stretched out above our heads, my friend H. and I talked about my shitty life and the various ways in which I had surprised and disappointed myself. Relentlessly pragmatic, my friend suggested that a change of scenery and the company of fellow travelers would help get me back on track. She had moved to New Orleans a few months before; why didn't I join her there?
And so I did. It wasn't a tough call, given my long history of visits to New Orleans, my deep dissatisfaction with life in Central Florida, and my generally impulsive approach to major life decisions. I gave notice at work, sold my old Wurlitzer (sniff sniff, sob), packed the Tercel to the gills and headed off in the darkness up I-75. It was Labor Day weekend and pouring rain in the Panhandle; in my rearview mirror I watched a car fishtail and swerve off the road and I gripped the wheel and sang The Mississippi Squirrel Revival song when I spied the Pascagoula exit. Near Mobile the rain cleared and for the first time my drive across the Bay was not obscured by fog. I drove on, through the tunnel and across the pitted roads in the East and past downtown until I found the blue arches marking my new neighborhood. My friend was out of town for the weekend and so I found a pretty good pizza place on Carrollton (Venezia), had a couple of beers on the porch of the house on State Street Drive, and slept fitfully on the floor. The next morning I stumbled around in my running shoes until I found Tulane University, went for breakfast in the Quarter, and found Southern Decadence.
I wrote in an earlier post about that first morning, leaving out the most salient memory which--as is true of most memories--is steeped in emotion and devoid of much detail. I remember the way I felt back then, the hopelessness and despair, the disgust and disappointment and fear. I was in the proverbial desert, crawling hands and knees towards the promise of some Other life, some adventure, some nourishment; I came to New Orleans dying of thirst. I had a tattoo on my forearm and a music degree. Not a great formula for success.
I wasn't used to being a loser, but I got over it pretty quickly and even learned to embrace it. I spent a lot of time at Tipitina's and one night, as I was hanging on the bar watching my friends dance, a man sidled over to me and told me I looked sad. I shrugged and drank my beer, wishing he would go away, but he persisted. "You're empty, I think. I can see it in our eyes," he said and I thought that's the stupidest pickup line I've ever heard and he said "But that's okay, this town gonna fill you up." He walked away and I took the shot my bartender friend handed me and thought well it can hurry the hell up, then.
It took a few years, a few jobs, a Master's degree, a massive levee failure, and several Mardi Gras seasons, but here I am ten years later, full to bursting, ruined on any other kind of life. New Orleans is like a member of our family, the wild and unpredictable one everyone likes to complain about but desperately hopes shows up at Thanksgiving dinner. The city has a life force--you've felt it if you've been here--it pulses with every emotion you can think of, it forces you to stay awake. And ten years later I will venture to say that perhaps, just maybe, New Orleans is for losers--for misfits and malcontents, for the ones who lost their way in the wide world and came looking for a richer life, who came crawling, hands and knees, to a place where the store clerks call you "baby" and the ladies in the grocery pinch your infant's fat thighs and there is a certain comfort in the rites and rituals and idiosynchrasies. A New Orleans existence is not something you can sleep your way through, and that's what saved me a decade ago from a life of complacent surrender.
New Orleans, I love you. Here's to another 10 years together.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
in their crisp, clean clothes
The world made new
by their quiet attentions
heads bowed to the task.
There are few cars at that hour.
Very little noise at all and I can hear
my labored breathing,
the press of my shoes upon the pavement
When I think to take my headphones off.
I admire their attentions.
The care placed upon appearances
The soft swish of the needles
The rhythm of the brooms.
My rhythm is more insistent--
--faster, farther, more more more--
no goal in mind but speed and
The sweeper's goal is fraught
with failure, every day
a new mess to clear. And yet
They carry on,
Spartans at the gate
Of a sleeping city.
Monday, August 8, 2011
- "Thanks. She's smart, too! Quick, Syd, 9 x 6."
- "Thank you! She's funny, too. Syd, tell 'em the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the goat."
- "Yes, she is, but not as beautiful as her sister, who we keep in an oxygen-rich tank and feed only blueberries and sheep's milk. Really, you should see the other one."
- "Wow, thank you so much! She was genetically engineered for optimum bone structure and flesh tone--we did a good job, huh?"
- "You should see her routine with the scarves and flaming batons--it's really something."
- "Yeah, but she's a real dud in the personality department. Oh well, guess you can't have it all."
Friday, August 5, 2011
To have loved
I loved, once
who came every afternoon--
the freedom-loving male--
who flew by himself
the sweets of the garden,
on a high, leafless branch
with his red throat gleaming.
And then, he came no more.
And I'm still waiting for him,
ten years later,
to come back,
and he will, or he will not.
There is a certain commitment
that each of us is given,
that has to do
with another world,
if there is one.
I remember you, hummingbird.
I think of you every day
even as I am still here,
soaked in color, waiting
year after honey-rich year.
I implore you,
it's time to come back
from the dark,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt
in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,
which isn't half enough.
Let the world
have it's way with you
luminous as it is
graced as it is
with the ordinary.
To Begin With, the Sweet Grass
Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
the dancer, the potter,
to make me a begging bowl
which I believe my soul needs.
And if I come to you,
to the door of your comfortable house
with unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails,
will you put something into it?
I would like to take this chance.
I would like to give you this chance.
We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
you have changed.
Let me ask you this.
Do you think that beauty exists for some
And, if you have not been enchanted by this adventure--
what would do for you?
Thursday, August 4, 2011
My sweet boy,
You are 3 years old today. Right now I'm sitting in the dining room of Aunt Kate's house, writing this letter and listening to you play Legos with Ethan and Archer. Uncle Ryan is playing his guitar and every once in a while you stop what you're doing to dance around the room. You are so full of joy, sometimes it's hard to sit back and watch you play without reaching down to kiss and hug and squeeze you. In fact, I'm going to have to take a break from writing this letter to do exactly that. Be right back.
Evan, you are an amazing little boy. Last year I wrote about your gregarious nature, how self-possessed you are, how focused you are on anything that catches your attention, how passionate you are about the things you love. This year I've watched all of these qualities grow and expand; you are so fiercely loving--a quality you share with your mama--and it's incredibly exciting to watch you share that passion with the people in your life.
Your best friend is J. You've been knowing him since the two of you slept in adjoining cribs in the infant room at Abeona House. I wrote in an earlier post about your love for each other and my fears about whether and when the world would try to rob you of that love. So far it hasn't happened; though you are very very boy, through and through, whenever anyone mentions J. you are very quick to tell them that "J is my best friend. We love each other and give each other kisses and hugs."
During parent-teacher conferences a couple of months ago, your teacher, Ms. Aliza, and I discussed your natural tendency to lead (you do share a birthday with our current President) and she told me about a classroom management technique she'd recently developed that involved first telling you about the task at hand, then sitting back as you instructed the rest of the class and shepherded their compliance. She'd recognized your natural ability to lead and came up with a clever and creative way to channel it. I still get a kick out of watching you boss around kids who are twice your size. The funniest thing is, they always listen.
And speaking of size, you are very tiny. This only adds to your charm and makes it super easy to constantly cuddle you. Daddy and I are looking into some bonsai cultivation techniques.
You are absolutely obsessed with Legos. The first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is climb out of your crib and head for the Lego table in your room, or downstairs to root through your Lego buckets. You go to sleep each night with two or three Lego guys (who must always carry some kind of weapon or tool). You entertain yourself for hours and hours, building minifigs and spaceships and castles and boats and various means of entrapment for "bad guys." Your favorite movie is "Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers" and we've watched it so many times that our entire family can quote large sections of the dialogue ("Rock monsters?! Why does it always have to be rock monsters?!") So strong is your passion for this particular toy, as well as your devotion to a certain football team, that for Halloween last year Daddy crafted a fabulous costume for you...
...Saints Lego Guy!
You have a keen interest in sports, particularly baseball and football, and you have fabulous hand/eye coordination. Your fine motor skills are freakishly strong and you are very affectionate. You love for me to hold you and luckily, you are still small enough for me to do so pretty much constantly (okay, okay, so the human bonsai thing is actually a pretty nasty business but can you blame me? You are just so unbelievably adorable).
Though I don't ascribe that much relevance to astrology, I have found that certain astrological traits seem to apply in many cases; I have always felt firmly Saggitarian, and your Dad is definitely a Taurus. Sydney is Libra through and through and you, my sweet, fierce boy, are so, so Leo. And in astrological circles, Leo and Saggitarius are reputed to have an unparalleled chemistry. Your fire, your ferocity, your boundless enthusiasm and your magneticism just fascinate me; I really cannot wait to see what you become.
You have brought so much joy into our lives that sometimes I feel I can't hold it all. Luckily, there are so many people in your life who love you and the joy is theirs to share, you give it readily and fully to everyone around you. You are the sun and moon, my dear: light and warmth, cool and calm. I could never have predicted how boundless my love could be, how inadequate words can be, until you came along at 5:42 pm on August 4th, 2008, and changed everything. Thank you for choosing us, I promise we won't let you down.
Now put down those Legos and give your mama a hug.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Of course I had read the nonsense about his philandering. I can't remember if it didn't seem important at the time, or if I didn't understand it, or if I chose to ignore it so as not to disturb the fantasy, but for whatever reason, these trespasses did not disrupt my fantasy. From a young age I'd always been comfortable with moral ambiguity. I remember a bedtime conversation with my mother about someone who'd hurt my feelings at school; I distinctly remember saying something along the lines of "I don't think there is such a thing as a bad person, only people who do bad things."
I still believe this to be true, though distinctions tend to gain importance as we age, don't they? As children we're permitted a non-judgmental stance; as adults we're expected to have opinions, to take stands and sides and positions. Those of us who are more comfortable in the grey area are thought of as wishy-washy. There's a line in a song I love: I see that there is evil/And I know that there is good/But the in-betweens I've never understood. The lyrics are catchy but the sensibility is opposite my own; the in-betweens have always made more sense to me than the poles.
But here's the rub: I'm surrounded by good people. Not just good enough, as in never killed or maimed anyone, but straight up amazing, off-the-charts awesome. My husband's grandmother died a few weeks ago, just shy of her 93rd birthday, and at her funeral we heard stories about the clothes and costumes she sewed for her children and their friends, the wedding cakes she made (in her spare time), the ferris wheel my husband's grandfather built for the 4 kids in the backyard of their home in Luling. Another funeral I attended back in the Spring, for a man who died way too early of a rare degenerative disease, left me reeling for days, contemplating the astounding integrity of this man's life. And it made me think of Tom Sawyer spying on his own funeral, and how every kid who read that chapter must have been fascinated by this scene--not just the fact of our mortality but the prospect of so much focused attention, of so many people observing our last appearance, celebrating our life. And it begs the question: what will people say at the end of yourlife? Will they spew platitudes and sing a couple of songs and go back to the house and eat cheese and crackers, or will it be a standing-room-only, tears-at-the-podium, we-all-learned-so-much-from-this-life sort of affair?
I had a dream in college after listening to the Beatles for hours on end and watching too many episodes of Twin Peaks with my roommate. In the dream, it was raining and everyone was searching for the body of Penny Lane; the banker, who wasn't wearing a Mac, was running through the drenched streets with blood dripping down his arms screaming "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes!" and I sat in the barber's chair, horrified, contemplating the scene, and the barber leaned over and whispered in my ear "It's not enough to be a good person."
It's not enough to be a good person. Now what is that supposed to mean? As parents we comment on our children's behavior, not their character; we talk to them about making good choices and we (hopefully) encourage a non-judgmental approach to interpreting others' bad behaviors. But how many of us really think about the accumulation of our behaviors and choices? How often do we let ourselves slide because we believe in our own intent, in our goodness? How often do we recuse ourselves?
Sydney and I are working on our way through the first Harry Potter book and she has tons of questions about the Dursleys and at one point, the other night, I just said something along the lines of "they treat Harry like that because they are rotten people." Normally I go to great lengths to explain the nuances of human behavior, but on that particular evening exhaustion got the better of me. Sydney was quiet for a moment and I had just resumed reading when she tugged on my arm and said "Mommy? I don't think the Dursleys are bad people. They just seem a little scared to me."
Friday, June 10, 2011
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
At morning meeting the other day, the music teachers played a rendition of "Ain't That a Shame" and halfway through the song Sydney stood up and started dancing, that booty dance that we all know so well. She was the only one standing but she didn't care, she shook her money maker and just kept on going, even when all of her classmates, still sitting obediently, started to giggle. Eventually, after Mr. Hughes (the resident guitarist and kindergarten folk hero) called out to Sydney in the affirmative, a large number of her peers joined in, and I watched her enthusiasm and joy work it's way through the group.
Evan and I left after the meeting and drove to Abeona House, his school, our beloved community, our third place. His friends were on the playground and per the latest preschool custom he ran into the yard to show his buddy J. the Lego guys he'd brought to share. The boys' love for each other is so pure, so enthusiastic, that sometimes they become overwhelmed by it and end up embracing. This was one of those moments: I watched as they fell into a bear hug, then kissed on the lips.
Have you ever seen a pair of 2 1/2 year old boys kissing? It's a truly beautiful thing. This also happened at Mardi Gras, when we ran into J. and his family and the two boys had a dance party in the street, then shared a bowl of Goldfish. As they were parting they gave each other a big smooch, and I noticed several people around us sort of...shift. The woman next to us laughed and said something like, "Well, it is Mardi Gras, after all." I laughed too before feeling kind of pissed off and dismayed. What was so wrong about my boy demonstrating his love for his best friend? I know that some day the world is going to rob him of that pure expression, but for now, why diminish it with awkward jokes and laughter?
I've been thinking a lot lately about Outward Journeys--specifically the journeys my children will take, as they move out into the world and have to define and revise themselves. Abeona House was named for the Roman Goddess of Outward Journeys, and over the last 5 years I have truly come to appreciate the connection:
"Abeona's name comes from the Latin verb abeo, "to depart, go away, or go forth". She was believed to especially guard children as they took their first steps away from home to explore the world, an anxious time for parents, perhaps reflected in the fact that abeo carries the added meaning of "to die, disappear, or be changed". Abeona watched over any "first steps", whether literal or metaphoric. With Her associate Adiona, Abeona was believed to teach toddlers to walk. And when that child grew up and left home--whether due to marriage, college, or to make his or her way in the world--Abeona was there to ease the fears of the parents and guard their son or daughter." (http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/abeona.html)
"An anxious time for parents," indeed. I had my share of anxiety when Sydney graduated from Abeona House last May and took her first steps out into the world. The smaller kids lined up along the ramp with bouqets of wildflowers and sang "You Are My Sunshine" and Sydney giggled nervously througout and I cried like a baby on the Director's shoulder after I cleared out her cubby. My baby, my precious and outrageous little girl--what would the world do with her now? Of course, I forgot the part about Abeona being there to ease fears and protect, which our Abeona has done in every way imaginable, by helping me navigate and cope with the summer camp/kindergarten process, reassuring me that Sydney's exuberance and intense creativity were absolute gifts, and by helping form a bridge for Sydney between her old friends and teachers and her new community. Syd's teachers, and the Abeona House families we spend time with (nearly all of them), remain as connected with and attuned to her as ever; when we pick up Evan together, Syd is always quick to find Ms. Nicole's lap, or Ms. Emmy's ear, or to brag to Ms. Aliza about her latest achievement. And they are all not just attentive, but genuinely loving--and that's what sets this place apart in my mind from all the other perfectly good childcare centers out there: this love, this community, this connectedness that transcends enrollment and classrooms.
When Evan kissed his friend J. on the playground, there was no snickering, no jokes made to cover up the social taboo. Instead, his teacher smiled and made a comment about their relationship, how much they are learning from each other, and how excited she is to have the privilege to watch their relationship develop. This teacher saw my son and his friend not as two boys kissing, but as two people expressing their love and affection for each other in the most natural way we know. I'm so grateful that Evan is in a place where his incredible gregariousness and innate empathy are recognized and valued; we all know there are many places in the world, even those child-friendly places, where this sort of behavior would be cause for a teacher-parent conference. Not so at Abeona House.
I obviously love this place with every fabric of my being. Last year I wrote about my love for the place and the history of that attachment, with the same goal as this year: to convince anyone still reading this to sponsor me in the 10k race I'll be doing on behalf of the center. On Saturday, April 23rd, I'll run the Crescent City Classic with a group of Abeona House teachers, parents, and friends; we raise money by asking our friends and family to sponsor our run. Last year I raised $700, and the center raised almost $7,000--money we rely on to help keep our tiny place of such high quality. If you're so inclined, visit our website, www.abeonahouse.org, and hit the DONATE button on the top left of the homepage. Go on, it won't hurt, but it will help a lot.
And I will love you forever and ever.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
The summons came in the mail at the worst possible time: 14 clients a week, massive Spring events for my administrative job, preparation for a workshop on Ethics I'm conducting in April...throw a month of jury duty into the mix and life suddenly went from "overwhelming" to "batshit crazy."
My initial impulse was to use my children as an excuse to get out of serving - until I remembered that I'm not the type of person who uses her children as an excuse. I also remembered that I believe in the legal system, or at least I believe in the idea of the legal system, of which jury service is a fundamental component. Also, I like to watch Law & Order and figured I might see some hot prosecutor action.
So I reported for duty on the first Tuesday of March and made my way to the small room, the one without televisions, having recalled from my last experience with jury duty that the larger room quickly becomes crowded with the sounds of new best friends chatting, Judge Judy or Troy or Maleficent or whomever shouting and abusing and haranguing, people yelling into their cell phones, the Roni Deutsch commercial that runs an endless loop around the midday television shows. The small room, on the other hand, is quiet - at least in a relative sense (yes, I'm looking at you, Ms. I-Can't-Be-Bothered-To-Turn-Down-the-Volume-on-my-iPad-While-I-Play-Neverending-Games-of-Bejeweled-Blitz).
There's a digital screen at the front of the room that keeps track of how many cases are currently on the docket (like that word? I learned it watching Law & Order). Some mornings we walk in and the screen flashes the number 2 or 4 and everyone heaves a collective sigh of joy and relief; other days, like today, the number is much higher, and I watch as people slump down in their chairs, bracing themselves for the tedium. Most cases seem to plead out and every once in a while I hear delighted murmurs and look up to see that the number has shifted drastically downwards. When a case goes to trial and the judge needs a jury for voir dire, the clerk gets on the microphone to call the randomly selected and it is an incredibly Pavlovian phenomenon: after a couple of days the mere crackle of the microphone caused a visible stir in almost everyone around me.
I've been called to voir dire 3 times now. The first time, I got choked up when they swore us in; I was stunned and oddly moved by the sound of 50 strangers loudly and resolutely affirming that they solemnly swore to uphold the law. We live in a country where most folks don't know the words to the National Anthem and although I wouldn't call myself a patriot, there was pride and purpose in that room and it was hard not to get all worked up about it.
The case sucked, though: felony carnal knowledge of a juvenile. I hate to say it but I took one look at the guy and my perpetrator radar went off. There was no way I could have been impartial so when they went around the jury box and asked us each what we do for a living, I didn't feel too guilty when I told them I was a psychotherapist and they asked me if I thought I could be impartial and I hesitated for a moment. I was just being honest.
The next case was a home invasion, and my radar wasn't doing anything special. Still, when they asked me if I had any experience with home invasion I did not hesitate to give them both my own and my acquaintances' histories with that particular horror, and when they asked me if I could be impartial given those experiences, I hesitated, and for that I do feel a bit guilty. Granted, they likely wouldn't have picked me anyway, but that one was on purpose; I didn't want to get picked and I was playing the system.
The problem is really in the onerous nature of the commitment. In Orleans parish they require residents, when called, to serve jury duty for an entire month, 2 days per week. For many people that is a tremendous burden, and it manifests in the way people, or at least people like me, respond to the prospect of being detained. If I were called to jury duty for a couple of days or even a week, I imagine my willingness to give myself over to the legal system would dramatically increase; it's the prospect of an entire month of inconvenience that squelches my urge to serve. You see, even if you get picked and serve on a jury, you still have to report back for duty on your next scheduled day. At the voir dire for the home invasion trial, I sat next to a woman who had served on a jury until 10 p.m. the night before--and reported to the courthouse at 8 a.m. the next morning. I also sat in front of a man who, in the brief interlude when the judge stepped into chambers, proceeded to relate the details of his daughter's hysterectomy to the total stranger seated next to him - but that's another story.
Today, walking into the jury pool, I resolved to be less calculating, to give myself over to the system I supposedly espouse. I would NOT be calculating in my responses to voir dire inquiries; instead I would answer openly and spontaneously. I would NOT wish to be excused from the courtroom, but rather re-frame my thinking in terms of civic duty and pride of procedure. I would put my crazy commitments aside and focus on the matter at hand - that matter, of course, being justice, or the pursuit thereof. We shuffled into the courtroom and sat quietly for a few minutes while the judge fussed at the attorneys. I checked my phone for emails - I do have to work, after all - and just as the man next to me leaned over to ask if my phone was a Blueberry, the judge called a continuance and we were dismissed.
I can't say I wasn't relieved.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
* While I have heard that it can be hard to be a Jew during Christmas, during Mardi Gras that base is covered.
* You may be able to find a King Cake in December, but it's probably not as good as this or this or this.
* Sure, on Christmas morning you may find yourself lounging in your pj's a bit longer than usual, heck you might even indulge in a pre-brunch Mimosa, but Mardi Gras casts a lovely spell over the rhythms of daily life, for weeks on end. People tend to take vacations at Christmas, but during Mardi Gras we take sabbaticals. Baths are taken in the morning, so as not to interfere with parading. It's generally considered appropriate to consume alcoholic beverages before 9 a.m.--same goes for fried chicken and King Cake. Work, traffic, laundry, school, and pretty much every other activity of daily living stops about 5 days before Fat Tuesday, and at some point in that span of time between the halt of normal routine and the day we're supposed to repent and have our foreheads smeared with ashes, many of us will look down at our bare feet, or catch a glimpse of our face in a random rearview mirror, realize we've already been smudged, and consider our duty done.
* At some point during the Christmas season, the age-old dilemma about whether or not the Santa Claus myth counts as lying to your kids is bound to come up in conversation. During Mardi Gras there's no such moral ambiguity. Sure, you might have to make up some sort of story about the guy "taking a nap" on your front lawn, but trust me, that's definitely for the best.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
(you could totally see something like this, if you lived here.)
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Most mornings, Evan accompanies me to the daily assembly at his sister's school. It's usually a fun way to start the day, with music, dancing, puppets, etc. He likes to sit up front in the class line with Sydney and takes pride in being a Big Boy--hanging with the Big Kids. Sometimes he likes to stay with me and play "race car," a game he devised which involves me sitting cross-legged on the floor with him in my lap and us "racing" around invisible corners and around invisible obstacles. He knows the rules of the assembly and, most recently, the Pledge of Allegiance.
Recently, though, his behavior has taken a turn towards the Twos. We have a lot more defiance and the occasional mind-blowing, patience-mangling, confidence-wrecking meltdown. And he is such a boy, too, with the Legos and knights and footballs and ridiculous sports trivia (go ahead, ask him who won the Super Bowl this year), the nimble footing of a born athlete and, of course, the obsession with his penis (playing with it, talking about it, talking to it, etc.). I swear we haven't instilled these biases--at least not intentionally--but they are there nonetheless and I feel kind of foolish for all those psych courses where I ardently maintained that personality and temperament are both nurtured and natural. I mean, they can stop the research now because I have solid evidence that nature has everything to do with everything.
Last Friday, Evan was restless at the beginning of Morning Meeting as the teachers and staff worked to quiet down the student body. One of the kids took the stage with the flag, to lead the group in the Pledge, and silence descended. Evan took his fingers from his mouth and into that brief and total stillness shouted "POO POO DO DO POO POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO." Heads turned, but I was the only one laughing (sort of like the time the magician at the 6-year-old's birthday party announced that he was going to bake some "magic cookies." I guess I was the only one who went to college.)
I don't tow the line with stuff like this, for a few reasons, most of which have to do with my own temperament and propensity to find humor in twisted shit (I have been known to laugh at a few funerals). But it's also about--and maybe here's the nurturing part?--not wanting to squash his boyishness, that little bit of wickedness that I see, frankly, as a life force. I want my kids to be a little wicked, to get in some trouble, to find the inappropriate path and sometimes take it. Don't get me wrong, I'm also pretty old-fashioned when it comes to raising kids and I expect mine to have manners, to act kindly, to treat elders with even more respect than they show their peers. I insist on responsibility and thoughtfulness, and have no issue with imposing my own beliefs about what is required to live a productive, meaningful life. My kids know not to cross me and while some might find that a bit too authoritarian, it's my style and it seems to work for us.
Raising a boy feels different than raising a girl. While I'm certain that at some point in her toddler-hood Sydney shouted potty words in inappropriate environments, I don't think she ever deliberately waited for total silence before doing so. Evan's timing was pure comedy, and I'd be lying if I denied feeling proud of him for that. I probably shouldn't have laughed, or shouldn't have let him see me laughing, but I just couldn't help it. I was born that way.
Monday, February 14, 2011
30 minutes later, experience an acute existential crisis as you stand at the edge of the highway, staring at the ruined bits of metal and rubber that was once the rental car, before the truck driver decided to turn into your lane and his trailer hitch nearly flung you off the 60-foot overpass. Take deep breaths. Call 911 and debate about whether or not you need an ambulance (you did hit your head pretty hard). Decline the ambulance--a hospital would take too long. Tell yourself the dizziness and nausea are related to shock, not concussion. Sit down in the grass, then stand up. Call your husband, who is in Amsterdam, and realize as the phone is ringing that it is 3 a.m. where he is. Listen to your voice cracking, fight off the panic that overtakes you when you realize that you have to go sleep in a hotel that night, far away from your family. Hang up when the truck driver approaches, insisting that your friend shared fault for the accident. Wait for the state trooper, watch as he tickets the truck driver, then wait some more for the tow truck. It's cold and raining and you haven't eaten since New Orleans, but all you are thinking about is what the overpass looked like as you approached in slow motion, how you tried to remember what you knew about positioning your body for impact--how you knew you would die anyway, but thought you needed to give it a shot, for your kids. Your kids.
Hold hands with your friend and talk about all sorts of inappropriate things as the tow-truck driver sneaks sideways glances and feigns interest in the radio song. Get a new car--a minivan!--and drive to the hotel. Head immediately for the hotel bar, your old college haunt, and buy your first pack of cigarettes in 8 years. Declare to your friend that all bad behavior over the next 4 days will be excused by the near-fatal accident. Fight against giant waves of existential panic. Go to the bathroom and cry over the sink; emerge to find a group of friends you haven't seen in years, the people you love most in the world. These are your people and you tell them what happened and they are appropriately horrified but also wonderfully hilarious, they re-affirm that all bad behavior is now permitted and perhaps even encouraged. Sit with your Tanqueray and Tonics while wave after wave of beautiful people walk through the door, laugh until your cheeks burn with the strain, marvel at the fact that we all look the same and everything still feels so right, so easy. These are your people and it is a damn good thing that you didn't blow their reunion weekend by getting yourself dead on the first night.
Spend the next 3 days reconnecting, networking, showing kid pictures, drinking way too much; stay up until 4 a.m. each night, dancing in the middle of the campus like you did 15 years ago. You've still got it; you can still hang. Walk into Hamilton Center and find your old friends immersed in a game of ping-pong, as if no time had passed at all. Hug your old advisor and realize, as relief washes over you, how worried you'd been that he was disappointed in you for not becoming an academic. Listen to the music department performances and feel like the luckiest fool on the planet to be connected with these genius people--to be one of them. Spend an entire afternoon lolling on the Bayfront, drinking beer and turning your face to the sun, so fucking grateful to whoever is responsible for luck or fate or whatever it was that not only saved your ass the other night, but guided you to New College, this unbelievably beautiful place, this Center of the Universe, all those years ago.
On your last night, sitting at the hotel bar with your old friends, discover a Haiku, written on a bar napkin, tucked away inside a giant Maori mask mounted on the wall. Watch as your friends construct a Haiku response and tuck that inside the mask for the next friends to discover. Thank the Universe again for life and fellow travelers.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
* I was busy running. Not long after my last post, I ran the Gulf Coast Half-Marathon, on a warmer-than-expected morning when my stomach was out of whack and my legs felt wobbly. About halfway through, I started running with a young woman who told me her goal was to run the race in under 2 hours, a wall she'd never managed to break through: her closest time was 2 hours and 15 minutes. We ran together through the last 6 or so miles, my stomach roiling, her will collapsing, and I found myself saying things like "If you stop now and walk, you'll hate yourself later." I think at one point I actually called her "girl," as in "Come on, girl, you need to pick up the pace." When we crossed the finish line in 1 hour and 55 minutes she was sobbing, I mean crying hard, and I wandered off in search of beer and Chee-Wees as she fell into her whooping boyfriend's arms. So that was cool.
* I ran some more. 3 weeks after the Gulf Coast race I did the Children's Hospital Jazz Half, on a chilly but not-quite-chilly-enough morning when my stomach felt fine but my legs felt unsure of themselves. I told myself at the starting line that I would take it easy (go ahead, laugh), that I would take my time and run the race slow, not faster than 2 hours. I envy those folks who walk the marathon, who chat with friends along the route and don't worry that the 70-something in knee socks is passing them easily. I wanted that kind of experience, but what I got was this: around the halfway point, I found myself running alongside a young woman who--you guessed it--was desperately hoping to break 2 hours. So of course I stuck with her and bullied her through the 10th and 11th miles, when she wanted to stop and walk, and in the final stretch watched her dart ahead of me, sprinting across the finish line, arms held high in triumph. We finished in 1 hour and 58 minutes. I was so, so tired.
* But seriously, ya'll, I kept running. The Turkey Day race on Thanksgiving morning is my favorite race of the entire year, and this past year was no exception, even though it was warm and humid and I had volunteered to cook just under 1,000 complex dishes for our large family gathering later in the day. But boy, was it worth it: at the starting line I overheard a man tell his buddy that his only goal for the race was to "beat at least half of the chicks," and I will tell you it felt damn good to wait for him at the finish line, beer in hand, slap him on the back and say "I think at least half of them were behind me."
* I finished my 5,760 hours for clinical licensure. That's a lot of hours.
* I got a new job! It's a super cool new job.
* Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, yada yada yada.
And also, I've been ruminating. A really amazing psychiatrist came to the agency in the fall to do a workshop on Mindfulness Practice with the clinical staff, and during one of our meetings he read the following story:
A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
I've heard many versions of this story over the years, and the point has never eluded me, but for some reason lately I've been turning it over and over in my head. I have been such a full cup, for most of my life: some of it comes from being small and young-looking, the need to impress people with my wisdom and competence. Some of it comes with the territory of being an oldest child of a divorced family. But some of it is just straight-up hubris which, as I get older, is a quality I find less and less desirable. But true humility is hard, right? And all those athletes and movie stars and politicians who talk about being "humbled" by awards and accolades can suck it, because those sorts of things aren't humbling--they are the exact opposite of humbling. What's up with that, anyway?
I can think of lots of humbling experiences. A humbling experience is one in which you've hurt a friend who is already hurting with your harsh words and impatience and lack of compassion, and that friend confronts you about it and you react with defensiveness and anger and later you realize what an asshole you've been and you ask for forgiveness. That is humbling. A humbling experience is one in which you make contact with your former best friend who you abruptly broke off contact with many years ago and have an open, honest discussion about what went down, where you accept responsibility for your share of the breakdown, where you sift through the awkwardness in search of that little nugget of forgiveness. A truly humbling experience is one in which you apologize to your child for your harsh words, and promise to try harder next time to be patient and kind.
These are humbling experiences, ones that force you to empty your cup and abandon your Ego. But of course these haven't happened to me; I mean, seriously, I was just giving some examples.