Sunday, March 31, 2013

what i learned from my chives

spring eggs come naturally in a variety of hues
goose egg (center), quail eggs (speckled), chicken eggs (outside)
(we buy a variety of eggs because of Olivia's allergies)

Last year when the spring sunshine came sauntering up to my door stoop, I felt unready.  I still had my table set for old man winter.  Even though the soup had gone long cold in the tureen, I did not want to give up hope that my weathered old guest would arrive. 

Still, he did not, and spring shouldered its way in the door against my will. 

I worried I'd never see my old friend again, and I had needed him.

The bitterness of a truly cold winter allows me to use one of my favorite words: hunker. 

Hunkering asks only that we endure, which makes room for other things like rest and healing.   It allows us to turn a defensive back to nasty weather so that we can savor endings such as loss, failure or grief in an introspective and wound-licking kind of way. 

Last spring, I felt tired--unready for the extroverted demands of spring because an unusually temperate winter never allowed me that process of turning inward. 

This year, the old geezer at least made a showing--even if he did arrive to VA more than fashionably late. We got very little snow, but I did fire up the wood stove on many occasions, serve up our store of black-eyed pea soup, and huddle often over my tea, allowing the steaming mug to do for my brittle fingers what the keys of my laptop could not.

When you've hunkered long enough, you know it.  You throw it off like a dirty blanket and welcome spring at the door, ready to start something new.

Having been raised in the Episcopal church, I am trained to think of this springtime rebirth through the lens of Jesus's resurrection.  But as I've said before, that upbringing didn't stick.  I have no need to displace that narrative for those who believe in it.  However, I have to say that I am so much more moved by my chives.

I am. 

During the late fall, they begin to dry.  By the start of winter, they'll have disappeared. They remain entombed for a period of rest, then three months later, they rise again, fresh, crisp, and brilliantly green.   

I don't mean that in a belittling way.  It's just that for me, the narratives are flipped around.  Rather than see spring as a reflection of the Christian celebration of Easter, I see Easter as a reflection of spring. 

Either way, the point is that the holiday celebrates rebirth, regeneration, new beginnings, second chances, all regardless of what narrative most effectively speaks those things to you.  

And so, with tender petals and shoots of green peeking out from my yard this week, I've been thinking about hunkering and rebirth. Hunkering has its pleasures and its benefits, but spring asks us to make something--big or small--of the endings we have suffered.  And when we don't have the energy to do so, spring sends shoots of green triumphantly out of the earth anyway, if only just to show us that it's possible--for when we are ready.

So no matter your narrative, or what your state of hunkering, I hope you can make the most of the season.

Happy Spring!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

suburban skin-crawl

I live in suburbia, about 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C.  It's not the wild West around here, nor is it the Twilight Zone, but it's had its moments. 

Years ago, when I was a paranoid new mother, I saw Mr. Fox come traipsing through my yard for the first time. Two-week old Gareth lay vulnerable in his stroller nearby--protected only by a thin veil of mosquito netting.  Recognizing imminent danger, I scrambled for cover, leaving Mr. Fox with nothing but the jingle of a new baby rattle hanging in the air like bear bells. 

I grew accustomed to Mr. Fox soon enough, but then, while sitting with teensy little Gareth on the deck one day, a pileated wood pecker swooped in and, in a matter of minutes, violently reduced a nearby stump to rubble. 

Have you seen one of these Pterodactyl-like birds up close?  He was just feet away from us.  Just a few seconds of this far-less dramatic video can at least help you imagine bird, beak and baby in such close proximity. 

If the eye-threatening beak of a ginormous woodpecker doesn't creep you out, how about this murder of crows? (yes, "murder" is the fancy word for "flock" when you're talking crows).

Are you thinking Hitchcock yet?  You should be, because that's just a crafty bit of foreshadowing I tell you.

We learned quickly that the the cacophonous racket made by a murder of crows signals the presence of Mr. Fox.  One early morning, as Steve and I lay slumbering in our bed, the squawking out on our lawn reached a feverish pitch. I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.  Away to the window I flew in a flash.  Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.  The moon on the breast of the new fallen CROW, gave a luster of gore to the objects below.  What to my wondering eyes did appear? 

You guessed it.  A murder of crow.  It lay splayed out on it's back, wings askance and curled up slightly at the tips.  I swear they were 3 feet across.  Body cavity: empty.

(And yes, I realize that Twas the Night Before Christmas is not Hitchcock.  I'm telling you, you just have to wait for it.)

Poor Mr. Crow.


So...we had a predatory fox, a prehistoric looking woodpecker, and birds in Hitchcockian numbers.  Was that enough?


One day a silver ferret stuck its head out from under our deck.  It wasn't scary, but WHY was there a ferret under my deck? 

Then there were the RATS.  The first one we saw was the size of a ground hog.  When it walked from my neighbor's yard into mine, she and I gasped at the rolls of fat that rippled down its back in waves.  Would a rat like that hurt a child?!

Despite being a paranoid new mother, I remained an outdoorsy kind of girl, so I rejected the idea that my yard could be a dangerous place to play.  By the time Gareth became an older toddler, I'd collected my confidence enough to let him wander into the wild by himself.  What could happen?

One day as he played alone in the sandbox, Bambi's dad, with his monster set of antlers, appeared from around the side of the house. 

I watched in horror from the kitchen window as he galloped straight towards Gareth with his thundering hooves. I began running in time to see him swerve, jump over the woodpile, and disappear into the neighbor's yard--as if I'd dreamt him.

Did we live in crazy land?

I thought maybe.  But over time? No.

Since those first few years, we have settled in.  The population of deer has grown while their dramatic impressions have diminished.  These more sweet looking but garden wrecking creatures visit often.

We have other non-threatening wildlife as well.  On many days, hawks come a-hunting.

Bunnies come a-hopping.

Termites come a-swarming. 
those white dots on the log are termites leaving the nest

Baby birds come a-feeding.

All of this harmony in nature convinced us that our home occupies just another yard in suburbia. 

Until this morning, when Steve took the dog out for a pee and found this.

I told you to wait for it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

about “coming out” – can’t we talk sexuality sooner?

Have you seen this beautiful letter from a Dad to his gay son?  It went viral on Facebook earlier this week. 

It's an expression of unconditional love, no doubt, and I commend the family for sharing their example so that others might see what it looks like. 

If your gay child is a teen who has yet to come out, then I believe this is a great way to handle that--to help them along by removing the burden of telling with compassion and love.

I have to ask, however, if we couldn't improve this model for raising our kids.  I ask because the idea of coming out during late teens/early adulthood seems belated and traumatic to me. 

Our society forces heterosexuality upon our children by assuming that everyone is straight unless otherwise specified.  We accept that straight is the "normal" and expected way to be.  By doing this, we ignore the needs of youngsters who don't identify as straight, leaving them out in the cold, struggling to understand and accept their sexual identity without guidance or support.  Worse, after they've worked through all this on their own, we then ask them to face their fears of rejection and make the big reveal.

It's not a great plan. 

I'm so glad this particular instance played out well, but these stories don't always have happy endings.  Teens face so many difficult challenges as it is.  Many LGBT young people crumble under the added pressures of sexual difference. 

I think we can make it easier.  Couldn't we raise our kids so that "coming out" is something that everyone does--and at a much younger age?

I got this idea from my son.  Many years ago, when Gareth was around three, I folded laundry as he played nearby.  He had assembled an array of figurines from his Playskool farm, his Winnie the Pooh house, and various other sets of "people."  His play took the usual form of high drama  and adventure: "Run! the lion is coming! He will eat you! [insert toddler sound effects for terrifying roars, a dramatic escape and perhaps an unexpected explosion here]."  After a bit, I heard something that made me tune in more closely: "No, you can't get married. Girls can't marry girls." 

Hmmm.   What was this?  I had intended to raise my kids with openness towards varied sexualities, but with one child still in preschool and another still in the womb, I hadn't yet given much thought to what that would look like. 

I listened quietly as I folded his miniature t-shirts and socks, amazed to hear my son give a lecture to poor Winnie and friends about how only a boy and a girl can get married. 

I hadn't taught him that, but he'd learned it anyway.

I knew instantly that this was the moment.  This is when you start teaching kids that relationships do not always pair up along a tidy boy/girl dichotomy. 

I didn't make a big deal.  I just corrected him gently, "Y'know honey, girls can marry girls if they want to.  And boys can marry boys too."


"Yeah.  The important thing is that you marry who you love.  Boys can love boys, and girls can love girls.  When they do, they get married just like a boy and a girl would." 

"Oh.  Ok," he said.  Then he went back to his play.

That was it.  Gay marriage wasn't legal anywhere in the states at the time, but I figured I'd deal with that technicality later (and I hoped that maybe it would change (as is happening now) by the time he grew). 

I learned from this moment that I could teach tolerance through play.  After that, I incorporated gay characters into our play-acting regularly.   Other times, I rocked their gender-loyal worlds by choosing to be the boy when we played games like Shoots and Ladders, "because I feel like being a boy today."  And during The Game of Life (a game I despise, btw!), I often chose a pink peg to ride in my car as my spouse.  The kids would say, "Mom married a girl again!" while rolling their eyes.  By that time, they understood I was making a point, but that was OK because they also got the point.

I think many parents have trouble getting their heads around the idea of introducing LGBT topics early because these issues are still overassociated with sex.  A child's view of relationships, however, does not revolve around what happens in the bedroom.  When we talk to kids about heterosexual marriage, we don't tell them, "marriage is a commitment to a person of the opposite sex with whom you'll have missionary intercourse for the rest of your life."  We tell them that marriage is about love and commitment, right?  So why not introduce the idea of gay love and gay commitment at the same time? 

If we suggest that love instead of gender should determine a person's life partner, then we not only teach tolerance for LGBT people, but we open children up to the idea that their own sexual identity is yet to be determined.  This idea came up naturally with both of my kids when they each asked something along the lines of:  "If we marry who we love, then who will I love?" 

Again, I hadn't planned it ahead of time, but the answer seemed obvious.  I told them both that they would figure this out as they grew up--that it was not a question mommy could answer for them.   While they both had varying opinions (including their desire to just marry mommy--or daddy) I let them all ride--leaving the ultimate answer open-ended.  They both seemed satisfied.

Without the imposition of assumed heterosexuality, I hoped my kids' sexual identities would evolve and become apparent organically during elementary school, before the uncomfortable teen years when kids are so hard pressed to talk about these things.  If necessary, I hoped this would eliminate the need for painful soul-searching and awkward "coming out" moments later on.

My kids are teens now, and both appear to be comfortable with themselves and tolerant of others.  It seems to me that things went the way I'd hoped.  Still, they are too young for me to wax poetic on my amazing parenting successes.  Like all things, I suppose time (and my disgruntled adult children) will tell. 

In the meantime, I'm glad this father handled his son's coming out with so much care.  In his situation, I don't think he could have handled it better.  I just wonder if parents of younger children couldn't open the door much earlier, before the combined workings of modesty and stigma have a chance to shroud this very sensitive topic in stress, pressure, and fear. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

advice or slice? parenting with an invisible sword

Hanging out in the women's locker room at the pool this morning, I overheard one mother tell another, "My son wanted to study accounting for a little while.  I told him I didn't think that was for him because I just didn't think he had the focus for all those numbers."  

They both laughed.

She continued, "Of course, he didn't last more than a semester at it." 

She sounded so knowing, so satisfied that things had turned out just as she'd expected.

I couldn't help but ask myself, did she never wonder if her son's failure to stick with accounting had anything to do with her lack of faith in his ability to do so? 

Which, in turn, got me thinking in general about how we have so much scary power as parents.  I say "scary" because I think we're wielding it all the time, without always realizing it or understanding its effect. 

When I was in elementary school, I told my mother I wanted to be an archaeologist.  I imagined studying history, solving mysteries, learning about ancient civilizations, and of course, digging around in the dirt.  All fascinating! 

My mother's response: "Really?" with a definite tone of "ew."  She continued, "That sounds SO tedious, having to find and label all those little teeny pieces of things and then record them. Too many details for me!"

My mother didn't intend to suggest that I shouldn't or couldn't study archaeology.  In her mind, I think, we'd simply had a casual little chat where she admitted she found science boring.  I'm sure she saw her own disinterest as something unconnected to mine. 

At my young age, however, I took her words as truth, feeling disappointed to discover that studying archaeology would, in fact, prove an endeavor full of tedium instead of mystery.  The notion stuck with me for a long time--dissuading me from pursuing this path even though my interest in it persisted.

What would have happened if she'd said, "Really? I've always wanted to study that too! Maybe you'll find a lost civilization and get famous!"

Believe it or not, if she had responded more positively, I think there is a very good chance I would be an archaeologist right now (although I feel fairly certain I wouldn't have achieved any degree of fame).

Would my life be better or worse? I have no idea. The point isn't whether or not I want to dig holes in the desert.  I'm just fascinated by the idea that such an off-handed conversation between a mother and her 10 or 11 year old daughter could have such far-reaching and unintended implications.

It's as if we parents have an invisible sword.  If we handle it right, we can use it to blaze a trail for our kids - to fight off adversaries and clear the way toward success and happiness.  But with the darned thing being invisible and all, how do you keep from accidentally lopping off a toe or severing an arm in the process? 

I'm left wondering, what battle scars have I inflicted on my own children?  There's that time I manipulated six year old Gareth into playing soccer instead of baseball because I didn't think the dugout offered enough action for his hyperactive little body.   Or how about that time Olivia broke her leg ice skating and, instead of believing her, I moralized on the foibles of overdramatizing pain? 

Did I decapitate their career plans, their self-esteem, their spirit with my invisible mommy sword? 

I kind of doubt I've done the kind of damage that would require a word like "decapitate," but perhaps that's just wishful thinking?  It's sobering to discover that, while you have tremendous power as a parent, you can't always tell the difference between forging a path and chopping off someone's ear.

You think you're going to correct all the mistakes made by your parents or the lady at the pool.  You think that you're going to--for once and for all--do it right.  Then you find out that what you're actually going to do is be a human being. 

Which, after all, must have been what all those parents before you were doing all along.

Monday, March 11, 2013

lonely feminist

It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist,
or that this active, restless spirit,
equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust...
Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable.
--Mary Wollstonecraft

Did you know that it's Women's History Month?  If you're feeling weary from the varied and relentless attacks on women's rights that we've come to call the "War on Women," it can be helpful to look back. 

I'm over at The Broad Side today, remembering Mary Wollstonecraft.  Having grown up feeling like a lonely feminist, I eventually found an unlikely companion in the writing of this 18th Century radical who must have felt far more isolated than me.

You can read more about how she influenced me at Mary Wollstonecraft: Radical Feminist Then and Now

In the meantime, I'd love to hear about your feminist inspirations!   Is there a woman, past or present, who changed your world?  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

plant-killers anonymous

Remember at New Year’s when I made a resolution to keep a houseplant alive? 

I had hoped to buy a new plant for the experiment, but it seems I'm no better at buying plants than I am at watering them, so I turned my attention to the two plants that already have the misfortune of belonging to me. 

Both are philodendrons (the kind you can only kill if you, as the primary caretaker, die yourself and leave the occasional responsibility of watering them unmentioned in your will).  While many other plants have met their demise under my austere roof, these two have somehow survived--probably because they both have sentimental value (and because of that unkillability factor I just mentioned).

The first was given to me by my mother when I went off to college in 1985. She wanted me to have something green in my dorm. I usually kept it in more of a pale yellow state, but a strand of it has somehow persevered anyway. 

I received the second plant when my dear grandmother passed in 2002. She won it in a bingo game at her retirement home and kept it on her coffee table where it thrived in a big tangled poofy bouquet of greenery. She used to trim it to keep it from taking over the room. 
Desperate not to kill it, I've always kept a cutting as an insurance policy.  Not surprisingly, however, I have managed to kill the cutting on numerous occasions.  This, in fact, appears to be one of them:


Actually, can you see the shoot of green coming out of the root?  When you live on the edge as my plants and I do, such a show of fortitude is cause for great celebration.  That, my friends, is a sign of life! 

When the cuttings do die (completely), I shift into crisis mode and take extra special care of the potted plant (provide water) until I feel it’s healthy enough to make another cutting.  Then, without intending to, I slip back into my usual pattern of anxiety and neglect.    

You see, I make light of all this, but my desperately thirsty plants cause me unremitting stress.  I read somewhere that plants feel pain. This is a horrifying idea to me. I wonder: do they have voices that moan and wail in a frequency unmatched to the capabilities of my very human ears?  Do I live obliviously in a madhouse of suffering, the air filled with the keening of unheard stress and despair?

I think I might.  I know my sister hears something that I don't.  Whenever she visits, she waters my parched and raspy philodendrons, claiming that she “can’t stand it another second.”  

While I am apparently missing this piece of moral engineering, I am determined to change it.  I tell myself that I am not the product of my biology. 

So I have been working diligently to keep my two plants in a happier state.  I've watered them regularly and given them new soil.  I trimmed off their dead parts.  And I've succeeded!  If we had Plant-Killers Anonymous, I could stand in front of my horticulturally challenged peers and report that after a lifetime of staying dry, my plants have enjoyed 64 days of damp!   

While they're both much smaller than they were when I received them so many years ago, they at least look happy, don't you think?

the plant my mother gave me for my dorm room in 1985
now smaller, but alive and full of promise

a feeble remnant of the plant i inherited from my grandmother
looking perky and hopeful
I'm so proud of the progress I've made that I'm thinking of installing a plant-cam.  I could broadcast their new growth in a live feed of moment-to-moment thriller action on this blog.  Think how you would tune in with the fam every night just to watch the thriving!

I'm making these plans.  I'm celebrating my triumph.  Then, while busy composing this victorious post about how I’ve turned over a new “leaf,” I noticed this:


Right here under my roof of resolutions.


I suppose it's too early for the plant-cam after all.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

knee-jerk feminist

I read Joan Baumberger's post yesterday afternoon about Sheryl Sandberg's new book Lean In.   She rails against it, comparing Sandberg to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and arguing that she neglects the needs/conditions of less privileged working women and mothers.  I jumped right on the bandwagon, leaving a comment in which I complained "these two women make me a little ill."   I did acknowledge that I hadn't yet read Sandberg's book, but still... 

Later, I read Michelle Goldberg's, The Absurd Backlash Against Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In'" in the Daily Beast.  Goldberg defends Sandberg as a feminist, albeit one who wants to work within the bounds  corporate culture.  Goldberg acknowledges elitism in Sandberg's argument, but adds, "so what? No book speaks to everyone, and leadership tomes by wildly successful male executives aren’t typically pilloried for ignoring the concerns of immigrant day laborers."

I'm left chastising myself for judging so quickly--and blindly.  Perhaps I'll hate Lean In;  I'm not much for corporate anything, but I should at least do Sandberg the service of reading it before I spout off about who makes me "ill" and who doesn't. 

Which leads me to our capacity as mothers and feminists to second guess ourselves and consequently, to judge.  Both Goldberg and Sandberg address this.  Here is Goldberg:

"Women are conditioned to compare themselves with one another. When we’re not wholly at peace with our own choices—and who is?—those comparisons sting." 

And Sandberg:  "There is always an opportunity cost, and I don’t know any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions." She continues, "As a result, we inadvertently hold that discomfort against those who remind us of the path not taken. Guilt and insecurity make us second-guess ourselves and, in turn, resent one another."

Yes.  I know what they mean.

For my first eight years of motherhood I was an ambitious graduate student and teacher who spent long days on campus and parented on 4 hours of sleep and buckets of coffee a night.  After earning my Ph.D., however, unfair university hiring practices combined with the extenuating needs of my kids to persuade me to leave my job as an adjunct professor and stay home and parent while tutoring dyslexic learners. 

I made the best choices I could, but still, on a bad day, I can look back at 16 years of motherhood and beat myself up for neglecting my kids during the first eight years and neglecting my career during the second.


Our pursuit of that elusive balance can turn us inside out, and turn us against each other in the process.  

Perhaps my knee-jerk reaction to Sandberg's brand of feminism, without even really knowing what it is, has more to do with a momentary regret that I'm not the one who is COO of Facebook writing my own version of a feminist manifesto for everyone to tear down.

None of that is to say I approve of Sandberg's book.  I'm just thinking perhaps I should read it before I decide.