Read it again

Do you re-read books?

I do. I read them over and over, or at least selected portions of books over and over. My son is learning to read, and it is a wonderful process. On the way home, he asked me what this spells:

T. O. B. A. C. C. O.

Tobacco, I answered.

What’s that?

It’s what they use to make cigarettes. They sell cigarettes there [he's staring intensely at a stand-alone kiosk/drive-through place on a street corner].

They DO?! he stretches, turning around to scope the place out.

Where else do they sell cigarettes, Mom?

Um, I guess gas stations.

Like SHELL?

[Really?] I think.

Do we take oil from SHELL, Mom?

Pause.

I insert a couple of sentences about how we know not to smoke cigarettes because they can make you sick and generally aren’t very good for you.

But I know how to wash your lungs, Mom.

How?

Just drink lots of water.

Sometimes the conversations I have with my children amaze me. They are lifted directly from their surroundings, physical, emotional, visual, scented and filled with air, dirt and love. The boys play with rocks and invite ants to crawl on their hands.

One of these days I’ll purchase over 1,000 [!] ladybugs to release in our garden. To my eldest child’s delight, we also intend to buy a live praying mantis to go after any leaf hoppers, aphids or other pests in the garden.

What a creepy insect. It looks like a twisted, tiny version of E.T. and the female bites the head off her male partner after they, ahem, consummate their relationship. But my son read a book about organic gardening and here I am calling up nurseries to check on their helpful insect supply.

Back to books. Right.

These are the ones that I turn to repeatedly. Especially at the end of a long day, turning to the words of familiar story is like coming home.

Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It was enchanting the first time I read it – I was perhaps nine or ten – and it only got better as I explored the world of Charles Wallace, his family and his star-turned-angel friends. 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaajte. Read this twice while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Its pages are well, well worn. A mystery, a tragedy, and a war compel an unusual combination of people to fall in love and share a home. 

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Published just three years ago, this is the best example of high quality urban fantasy that I have ever read. The sequel was a tad disappointing, but this book is unbelievably good. The magic in this story is dark and dangerous, and the characters will endear themselves to you — if you like antagonistic, narcissistic, depressed teenagers who are painfully transitioning into young adults.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read this as a high school student and remember laughing at the somewhat antiquated, stilted language that pen put to paper in 1958. Today I recognize the significance of this tremendous story that describes the impact of colonialism on traditional African society. It is brilliant, heart breaking, and relevant today.

House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The magical, beautiful, political story of the del Valle family is set in South America This novel is illustrative of Allende’s best work in magical realism. She makes me want to be a writer. I’ve read in numerous times in English and once or twice in Spanish. 

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Since giving birth to two curious monkeys boys, I understand the brilliance of this book depicting a rebellious young boy and his wish to control his world. 

Almost everything I’ve read by Ann Patchett, but mostly Truth & Beauty and Bel Canto.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The life of a child as he moves from young to middle to old, and older, and his relationship with a tree, and unconditional love. It makes me sad. I still own the copy I was given by my aunt and uncle on my First Communion. 

This list is just a tease, but these are my go-to and go-back-to favorites. 

What are you reading these days, readers? 

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When Skies are Gray

I was incredibly glad to shut my boys’ bedroom door tonight. I have the tendency to be chatty sometimes, but geez, those two don’t stay quiet for longer than a minute or two, and they often speak simultaneously, unless they’re heavily engaged in some strange and creative world that brings together batmobiles, batjets, and batpeople with alligators, birds of prey, race cars, soccer pros and garbage trucks (what, you’ve never played that game?)

That, or if my oldest is playing Angry Birds (a game I mostly curse, but for which I am occasionally grateful).

The day felt long by noon.

My eldest is generally very sweet and unperturbed when I drop him at school. Today, however, it was drizzly and cool as we walked down the road, and he complained of being cold. Always the antithesis of his brother, he actually likes wearing long pants and hoodies and warm pjs and wrapping himself in fleece blankets. Just like me.

He was wearing a long-sleeve cotton T and a rain jacket – just a shell, no warmth built in.

After a month of gorgeous sunshine-y spring, it’s now in the 40s and raining.

I forgot today there was a field trip. The kids were going to visit Portland Police Bureau’s mounted patrol – a pretty excellent opportunity, but they were going to spend the day on public transit and picnic outdoors after meeting the horses. And my kid is freezing because, ahem, his mother didn’t dress him appropriately.

I assured him I could rush out and bring back a warm hoodie in no time flat. He didn’t believe me. There wasn’t enough time before they headed out.

Not to worry, I said. Moms are magic. 

Clutching the hand of my youngest, I marched him down the hallway to Lost and Found. We have lost at least two, maybe three hoodies and jackets this year, and they’ve never shown up at Lost and Found. I had no shame in searching the rack, telling my three-year-old, we’re looking for Miles’ jacket! because we were. Kind of.

Red vest, size 7. No nametag. Big, but it would do.

Back in the classroom, Miles apprised the vest. It looked a whole lot like the one he misplaced earlier in the year, and he slipped it on beneath his raincoat.

Whew.

Then.

Shit.

A bunch of the kids had backpacks. Kindergarten policy doesn’t allow backpacks, and the students bring tote bags instead that all look alike.

Except on field trip days.

Miles recently procured a Star Wars back pack that is awesome and he loves it. Of course, it was at home.

More tears. He’s not cold anymore, but his mother forgot his backpack. Really?

I thought maybe, maybe, maybe I could make it back home and to school again with the backpack, but I told him it was a long shot. We live less than five minutes drive from school.

Off we went, pretending cheer as we left my sensitive boy at the door.

Home, I parked and rushed in to grab the pack and sped back to school.

The classroom was dark.

Back to the car. Max and I drove around the neighborhood because I knew the kids are waiting on a corner for the bus … somewhere close to the school.

I spied 29 five- and six-year-olds in colorful raincoats hanging out on a street corner and pulled over.

Max proudly delivered the backpack to his big brother. But where was the big smile we expected?

Tears flowed. Oh dear. This situation was not one that can be easily remedied. I waited ten or so minutes before extricating myself from my terribly sad child. Around him most of his classmates were squealing and talking and laughing. Just two stuck close to Miles. One, a tall sweet boy with dark, longish curls, and the other, a boy fairly new to the class, accompanied by his gorgeous young mom who spoke with a slight Spanish accent.

They watched him cry quietly and cling to me, thoughtful, not teasing. Others were oblivious to our tiny world of Sad. As I left, I asked the boys to keep an eye on Miles, and they were eager to say, yes, yes, we will. We REALLY like Miles, one said.

Meanwhile everyone else in the class was excited as they waited for the bus to take them downtown. Max and I climbed in to our car and went home.

I got him a snack and set him up with some books, toys and Clifford the Big Red Dog. My sister called, and I hung up on her to take a work call. Things were going well when my dog started barking and the doorbell rang multiple times.

What the *&*^%?

The delivery guys arrived 90 minutes prior to the four-hour window to deliver and move some furniture. I hit mute on my mobile and rapidly signed some paperwork, directing them where to put stuff. Put the dog in the back yard and called back into my meeting.

Meeting complete, I turned my attention back to my youngest who had quietly (miraculously) watched an entire Clifford video.

Stark naked.

Then he put his new rain boots on and announced he was ready to go to the store. I suggested he might put on some clothing, and he did so with minor fuss. We walked to the corner store and picked up a few things for the soup I would make later that day. We practiced using an indoor voice, unsuccessfully on his part, but I did quite well.

Home again. NAP TIME.

Back to work, a review of some materials and communications to make sure I didn’t lose all that had taken place during the meeting.

I picked up my eldest at 3:00 pm. He spotted me from across the playground, dropped his backpack and sprinted to welcome me with a crashing, wonderful hug. We talked about his day, the drop-off, the field trip.

Well, I’m still sad, Mom. I wanted you to come with me like the other Moms.

What did you like best about the field trip?

I got to pet the horses. They were really big, like gigantic. Oh and I met the police men. I didn’t see their guns, but *** did.

And the poop! There were small ones and big chunks of poop. Almost everybody stepped in it. 

Well, in the end he was most impressed by the piles of horse manure in the city, but at least he had found his smile.

And I guess tomorrow we’ll give the red vest back to Lost and Found.

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Guest post at Kind Over Matter

Today I am delighted and grateful for the opportunity to guest post on a wonderful blog called Kind Over Matter. Kind Over Matter is a celebration of community that is creative, energizing and full of gratitude for the good stuff, and even for the bad stuff.

Please consider reading my brief essay discussing kindness after loss.

Be kind, be well, be kind.

Thanks, readers.

girasol

Whelming

A few years ago I offered a basic overview of what I called “Work Overwhelm” to a gathering of my colleagues. It included the definition of overwhelm and several well-intended but impractical suggestions for coping. I say impractical because while I am a true believer in the benefits of practicing yoga, walking, stretching, eating well, taking time for oneself that does not include work or children, and sleeping more deeply, I observe so few people actually committed to doing all of these things — not just once or occasionally — but doing them over and over again and again.

Myself included.

I called this post “Whelming”, but I did not know that was actually a word. Later I looked it up, and found this definition:

  • Engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something):  “a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm”.
  • Flow or heap up abundantly.

The first definition I interpreted to be negative, while definition # 2 seems positive. The image of the swimmer in definition # 1 reminds my of my father. An attorney, writer, teacher, and former distance runner, he has found a home in the open water in recent years. He swims regularly in a pool but frequently dives into rivers and seas.

The consequences of my father’s swims are certain; he is physically strong, confident and seeking ever more challenging time on the water. The unexpected outcomes include uncertainty of path, process and finish, due to the way in which open water swimming events are  conducted, and the nature of the sea.

Tonight, we talked casually about an upcoming swim of significant distance that he hopes to undertake in a few months time.

The fact that he will finish the event without doing any harm to himself is almost certain.

But.

It is not a fact.

There is a risk that we take in all that we do.  For me, the physical risk is easy to digest, but the mental risk is less so.

Just the other morning a client for whom I am working mentioned at least two of her colleagues being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of e-mail they receive – and consequently they are less able to respond to queries or requests in a timely manner. In the same breath this woman assured us that the busy-ness factor did not prevent them from working effectively, and I can absolutely agree that most overwhelmed people with whom I’ve worked ARE indeed effective. They take on mountains of tasks and make it to the summit and eventually make their way back down to a less tumultuous place.  I’ve observed the journey to be exciting, but somewhat painful.

Does it always have to be this way?

I’m not sure. I think it might.

So.

Knowing that the work won’t go away (and being one very grateful to have work indeed), how can we manage so that we are able and willing to take on great and meaningful work but not sacrifice A.B.C. in the meantime?

Please note that your A.B.C. may differ from mine.

What is important to you?

What matters to your family – especially – those with whom you share a roof?

How do those activities for which you are not paid fit in?

They may (should!) include any or all that follows:

Breathing.

Thinking.

Walking.

Stretching.

Talking (to that one person who will pick up the phone for you no matter what)

Writing (not a grant, not a spreadsheet)

Dining (not in a car, not on the move)

Being

and

I’ll quote from the poet Shel Silverstein:

“If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you’re a pretender com sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
Come in!
Come in!”  

I’m hoping for a little feedback here, because I’m at a loss to provide any creative answers to what overwhelmingly is the problem of overwhelm. I want to meet the person who can put forth a plan for magic bean buying that benefits both the procurement team and the vendor.

I do.

Wishing you and yours a weekend that sparkles with unplanned experience and unexpected outcomes.

WebBeanstalkGrad

Four more weeks!

Tonight Miles said sweetly, “Mama, I’m sure glad President Obama gets four more weeks!”

Weeks.

Well, he’s getting it, sort of. I’m sure glad, too, sweetie. Four weeks plus three years plus 48 more weeks. YAY! (understatement of the year)

It got me thinking, though, what if I had to design and accomplish literally mountains of work and play in just four weeks? Two weeks from yesterday will be Thanksgiving, for goodness sake. How did that happen?

Two weeks after a pumpkin-pie and cranberry-scented holiday, we will be deep into the season. Me encanta la temporada navideña. The sun sets too early, but twinkling lights guide one’s way home.

***I interrupt this post to tell you that my eldest just announced he is breaking apart his Lego gun because he wants me to be happy and that he prefers to wait until he grows up and becomes a soldier or a police officer and gets a real gun in order to protect the people. He has decided to stop building Lego guns. I genuinely applauded his decision.***

Now back to four more weeks.

In four weeks, I can:

  • Write 1,000 words a day in a novel-writing experiment.
  • Purchase, wrap and deliver holiday gifts to niece and nephews well in advance of 25 December.
  • Clean out the freezer.
  • Go for a dozen or more runs.
  • Get three pairs of too long pants hemmed, finally, by someone other than me.
  • Examine the 2012 bucket list, and sort out what I’ve accomplished, what’s coming up, and what’s just not gonna happen this year.
  • Lose seven pounds.
  • Decide how to spend the 16-day public school winter break with two kids under age six in the rain.
  • Visit the Grotto by myself to talk to myself, my sister and her angel friends.

This list sounds pretty good to me tonight. It’s been quite a week! I get to break out the Christmas music on November 23rd, but here’s a teaser of a song I love. I know it’s premature, but I also can’t resist sharing this version of my very favorite Christmas carol by Jennifer Hudson. I listen quietly to these timeless lyrics that affect me, an agnostic, deeply as I consider moving emotionally and physically into the season that represents giving, sharing, and celebration.

There’s been tough times this year for our family. Earlier my eldest (the self-declared non-Lego-builder-of-guns-until-he-gets-a-real-one) mentioned that the reason he likes Christmas is “because he gets lots of toys”.

His words are true (thank you to my most amazing parents and parents-in-law and family and friends – we do enjoy a beautiful and generous Christmas morning). Of course, I immediately launched into a Christmas-is-for-giving-and-sharing-and-love and he heard it coming, agreeing with me, yeah, Mom, ok, and so on.

I have much to be thankful for this year. And I’m going to figure out a way in the next four weeks to share that gratitude with the people I love best.

So what do you do?

I’ve worked in windowless cubes, shared desk space, worked at home, on airplanes, and in a private office from which I could just glimpse the tip of the Washington Monument. I’ve learned from, been intimidated by, commiserated and collaborated with men and women of varying ages, ethnicities and experiences. I’ve dated a coworker. I’ve commuted by foot, bike, car and public transit.

Some jobs and colleagues I’ve forgotten.

Others are unforgettable.

The definition of career is an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.

A job is a paid position of regular employment.

Like many people, I’ve had both.

In my second job post-college, an attractive, middle-aged African American academic from North Carolina interviewed me for forty-five grueling minutes. The position was that of Staff Assistant, a lowly and low-paying job that introduced me to the world of international development and HIV/AIDS prevention. There I met people who traveled the world for a living, joked in French, Spanish and Arabic, and cared about issues unfamiliar yet compelling to me — public health, poverty and prevention. Within a few days I was sold.

I am grateful to this day that this woman chose to hire me.

A year later I was accepted into graduate school. I studied public health in New Orleans — no unsmall task considering competing activities that included parade-watching, throw-catching and Hurricane-drinking. There, too, I met like-minded people who shared my hope to help – somehow.

Professionally I find myself today in an unusual place. I’m not working, at least not in the sense that I receive a regular paycheck and attend painful staff meetings. I no longer report to anyone other than myself. I am an organization of one. Sort of.

As my eldest begins kindergarten this week, I daydream about him starting out someday. My first job was putting away books at the local library. I was fourteen years old and I longed to check the books out, but reception required far more experienced librarians. I could alphabetize and knew my numbers, so the Dewey Decimal System welcomed me. I also babysat, pulled weeds at a local farm, and lifeguarded at our neighborhood pool. I don’t think I ever made more than five dollars an hour.

Work.

It’s such a thing, isn’t it?

Intern, college-student, graduate student, volunteer, entry-level professional, mid-level-manager, supervisor, supervisee, on-maternity-leave, unemployed, laid-off, consultant, writer, blogger, stay-at-home mom.

It’s been a journey.

Truth or dare

I remember playing Truth or Dare as a pre-teen and a full-fledged adolescent. Yesterday I dared my five-year-old to jump into our backyard pool (a cheap plastic thing that was the greatest investment of the summer) and he looked at me.

What does “dare” mean?

I did my best to explain the concept. He didn’t jump until he was ready. That’s fine.

The next intention from my Week in Words is Be True.

I thought this one would be easy. I also think I am a pretty good judge of people, and whether they are being truthful or not.

This week has been a mixed-up sort of week of highs and lows, and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen next. If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, then you know that I was recently laid off. What you may not know is that my employer announced that it is closing its doors entirely within the next 30 – 60 days. Every single employee will be let go. Founded seventeen years ago, this organization has been a leader in the community food security movement – one that has brought knowledge and inspiration to thousands of individuals and organizations working to build healthy, sustainable, and just community food systems. It is a sad ending to a strong story. And I’ll stop there — the complexity of the decision to close down operations is real and not possible to address briefly.

I’m not saying it was the right or the wrong thing to do.

The point is that my lay off was so much bigger than me. And I’ve found it increasingly challenging to determine who is being truthful and who isn’t.

I’m going to step away from my computer soon. We head south to camp for a few nights tomorrow and I.Need.To.Get.Out.Of.The.City. We’re bringing enough provisions for a multi-family car camping expedition that would last a week, but we’ll only be gone three nights.

So…. Be True. Today I cashed in a Living Social deal to float for 90 minutes in a sensory deprivation tank. I anticipated falling into a deep meditative state, but that didn’t happen. I think I was too curious and too delighted for me to completely settle down. Delighted to be emerged in a dark, silent environment, I explored so much in those ninety minutes — it was almost overwhelming. I tried to stop myself from wondering how much time had passed, and then suddenly soft music brought me back into reality and the experience was over. I wasn’t as True as I had hoped I could be during this unique experiment in self-care, because I found myself thinking about work, and working, and all sorts of layered and random and worried thoughts tumbled around my brain until I told it sternly to Be Still a la Max from Where the Wild Things Are. I floated in a good-sized tank filled with water and 850 pounds of Epsom Salts and took plenty of deep breaths.

The best part by far was the silence.

There was no worst part, but I’m not sure I’d do it again. I wanted to stretch and move and in a pitchblack tank of salt water that’s not really a smart thing to do. But I liked it. I like that someone like me can make an appointment to float.

And that’s true enough.