21

When the End Is All Wrong

For ninety-nine years my grandmother has been a tough, kind, gentle, funny, fierce, wonderful woman.

For my whole life she’s been my model of forgiveness and unconditional love.

For decades she has missed her husband keenly but has found joy in her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

For years she has been saddened by a body that does less and less of what she wants. Now unable to read, hear, follow television shows, play piano, or walk well, she has still found a reason to see the bright side. She’s the champion of silver linings. Not Pollyannaesque. But genuinely grateful for her lucky and blessed life.

I saw her Monday. She was sleepy after a rough night but she still told good stories. She still fawned all over my son. She perked up comedically for the Acme sourdough cheese roll I brought her. She loves to eat.

Wednesday she had a major stroke. She’s had small strokes before. But this time her left side is useless. Her speech is slurred and swallowing is compromised. She’s very conscious and very pissed.

She’s ninety-nine years old; long-term rehab isn’t in the cards, even if she were cooperative, which, thank heavens, she’s not. Because the only thing that makes being that old any fun is telling people you refuse to do what they tell you.

I am grateful to have her in my life. I’m grateful for the ways in which she has and does bring my family together. I’m grateful I saw her two days ago.

I don’t want this to be her end, not because I hoped she’d live forever, though I did until the last few years showed how threadbare living had become for her. I don’t want this to be her end because this is the wrong ending.

Quickly, silently, napping in the sun in the family room is the right end. Quickly, painlessly on the car ride home from a remarkable family gathering is the right end.

Immobile, unable to eat or talk, unable to do anything well that means something to her? Fighting for a glass of water to be told that good old dashing water isn’t in the cards for you anymore? Thickened water, whatever the fuck that means? That is the wrong story. I want to write her a different story.

How selfish I am. A wonderful woman lives a wonderful life full of love, and I have the audacity to complain about her frailty at age ninety-nine? In a world replete with poverty and hatred, wars, inequality, wide-scale Othering that hastens if not caused deaths all over the globe daily, I have the gall to ask for a different demise for a cheerful, privileged grandma?

Yes. I have that gall. I am that selfish.

She told my mom a year ago that she wanted to read my book. It isn’t done. I told my her it isn’t done. You won’t like it, I said; let me finish it. She can’t read now. She could a few months ago, in the afternoon sunlight with big print. But now not even that.

I need time to make a time machine and go back and finish my book and print it large and give it to her. Ten years ago. Two years ago. Two months ago.

Two days ago.

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I’ll go see her in a couple of days when hospice has figured out the details and she’s settled. When I stop gagging over the idea of thickened water. When I have some good stories to tell.

Because she deserves to hear some good stories now. Once she’s done high-fiving my kids.

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5

Things I Don’t Recommend

So here’s the thing about excellent art…it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Right?

Nope. It disturbs and comforts those who are porous yet washes unchanged over those who have no capability for human feeling.

And since this month has broken pieces off my psyche, I’m feeling particularly porous.

Unfortunately, I’ve been reading exactly the wrong books this year. By the end of January I was hopping back and forth frequently between Neverwhere and The Bone Clocks.

Want to know what you should avoid when feeling a bit…off?

Novels whose primary effect on you might, perhaps, be

OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS A LIE AND SENTIENCE IS ILLUSION AND THE DARKEST, MOST SINISTER PARTS OF US WILL BE THE THREADS THAT RISE ABOVE AND DOMINATE OUR BETTER IMPULSES, FOR THIS IS THUNDERDOME!

are not the best choice.

Maybe.

Excellent books, though. Look into them when life is all sunshine and buttercups. Or if you’re not easily swayed by minor apocalypses.
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11

Eyes open, head up

On a hike with a friend Monday I saw
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And on a walk to clear my head Tuesday I absorbed

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And on a run Wednesday I was ignored by

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And on a run Thursday I spied

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Paying attention is my favorite thing ever.

4

Filling the Spaces

One of the unexpected journeys in the process of separation is reorganization. Not just reconfiguration of stuff, but of ideas and intention and meaning.

A third of the furniture goes, a quarter of the closets empty, much of the cupboards’ contents thin…there’s more space. And in those spaces there’s a lot of unearthed treasure. It’s as though the furniture has been emptied, unbolted from the wall, and moved to the center of the room. Now I get to put everything back together a different way and collect the little treasures that fell into the gaps years ago. Pennies, dust, LEGO wheels, and a long-lost photograph all reward my efforts at fixing what doesn’t feel right.

Since the house has less in it, I’ve realized what I do and don’t use, what is and isn’t important, where I do and don’t feel comfortable. Connection to what feels right waxes and wanes; excitement over exploring the spaces I find and sense of home I create is ephemeral. While the boys are awake, the house is full of life and noise and life. And it’s just right and too much all at the same time. While I work the house fades away and I’m in a known, safe place playing to my skills. When there’s no work and no children, I’m puzzled by the lack of flow around me. The books are in the wrong places and I need to reorganize. The bed drawers stick and I’m suddenly just enraged that I don’t have a dresser. I buy one and build it and feel triumphant, trying to create a new space that is all mine and fits just right. Then, in settling into the newness, I notice something else that is all wrong and needs a good reconfiguring.

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The roller coaster in and out of discomfort isn’t about stuff, of course. It’s not a function of dresser or lack of dresser. The issue is not that few of the projects boxed in the garage are ever going to see the light of day, nor is the real problem that I don’t even know how to begin purging those old projects.

The sense of unease comes from not knowing which parts of my life to keep. Do I want to be more of the old me, the person from before the marriage? Am I some of those parts plus other facets I shaped with my husband and with my kids? Have I completely shed the pre-Spouse self and now need to crawl out of the marital shell as a completely new person? That’s a lot of pressure to metamorphose. Am I what I choose now to keep and what I ditch? Do I have to define myself right now, today, or can I actually give myself some time, try things out, explore and evaluate? Is unknowing exploration a quality only of youth, or am I allowed some leeway? If I buy a new dresser because the organization in my room is genuinely dreadful and not working for me, and I get gorgeous unfinished pine and paint it in glorious ways as a way to feel I own all my life changes, then I decide I hate it, can I just Craigslist my transition self and get a new one?

At least three friends are in the midst of the seeking, the sorting, the excavation; one is upset about the physical mess of splitting two merged lives into two separate lives.

The good and bad news is you can’t sort out who you are in an afternoon. Or a weekend. Or a month. You have to sit in the mess for a while. Parts of your house’s going to be a disaster as long as your heart, your head, and your life is a disaster. But in that disorganized clutter is a whole mess of opportunity.

This process isn’t like splitting a pizza dough recipe. There is no simple, William Sonoma tool for cleaving a family into two tidy sections. Not even in the annual parody.

But the messiness is an unexpected benefit of this process. Space to make changes, space to reevaluate, belongings dumped in a heap and begging to be evaluated. What’s working? What’s not? What do I need? Who I am?

In the empty and messy spaces, there is opportunity for new and opportunity for do-over. I don’t have to fill all the spaces right now. Or ever. I could leave them alone for a while. Wipe them clean and fill them with different ideas. Or shift endlessly. Consolidate and decorate and ponder. Try something and see how it goes. Put everything in boxes in the garage and donate them next year if I still don’t need them.

I’m excited to see what I find during the excavation, and how I fill or retain the spaces as I come across them. I can’t wait to sweep out the corners of my life I haven’t seen in years but that I’m slowing down to examine lately.

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12

Under Pressure

The past few weeks have spiraled for me, and catching my breath seemed unrealistic. But a friend has given me a new approach to test for a while, and there’s a chance I won’t be struggling, chest-deep in mud much longer.

The panic lately of the mounting lists and tasks and projects and work and solo parenting have felt a lot like I’ve always supposed quicksand would feel: doesn’t matter how often I’m told to stay calm to ensure my survival, I claw and scratch and flail and scream to get to whatever I imagine dry land would be. I do emergencies very well, unless the emergency requires ignoring all the impulses of adrenaline.

Adrenaline feeds most of my days, and has since high school. Adrenaline wakes me with a slap and barks to all my muscles that it’s time to do. Accomplish. Hustle. Adrenaline gets me to each of the days’ moments just on time, if not a few seconds before. Adrenaline tells me not to sleep so I can finish a few more tasks, including daunting tasks that are rarely of the “just a few more minutes” variety.

Lately it takes more and more to elicit that adrenaline. Deadlines don’t impress me; I just parcel out the work and accomplish in bite-sized chunks without any terror. The thought of being late does little; I just walk in slow motion through jello starting a few minutes earlier. The physical need for a run can’t pry me out of my chair. In fact, the only thing that makes me quicken my pace even slightly is sibling bickering. And after years of trying to manage that, I almost don’t care anymore. I have no sympathy for either of those children, who insist on teasing and encroaching and generally menacing each other despite everything I’ve tried thus far.

And this worries me. A lot.

So I cobble together new approaches and find new ways to motivate myself. But I feel I’ve lost my way. I’ve worn myself down to a nub over the past decade, and my to-do list continues to grow while the day seems to shrink. I found an old list from last summer, and 22 of the 49 items on my list from last year are still waiting to be done. Someone joked that I needed shorter lists. Or a way to notice the 25 things I confidently cross of the list every single day.

I don’t know how to do either of those: shorter lists or feeling accomplished. Because everything left on those lists is important. Four journal articles, representing hundreds of hours of work, just languish, needing a few hours of edits each and then the honor of submission. Thousands of photos endured being pared down to dozens, but now need to be uploaded and made into photo albums for the grandparents. FSA forms pace across my desk impatiently, waiting for receipts and explanations and 57-point-checklists before releasing the money I paid almost a year ago. Summer glares at me from almost-full camps and annoyingly-paced flights, and cackles at my inability to commit six months early.

And I’m baffled at myself, since I’ve always self-defined as driven to produce and accomplish…why can’t I focus on the big picture? Where’s the vim? The vigor? I feel as though I’m moving through coagulated blood, slogging, vaguely nauseated, from one task to another. Every non-work task feels like a burden. (I know I’m not depressed because work is still fun.)

So I make schedules of how to tackle the tasks I continually punt. But I’ve honed my efficiency pretty well over the past few decades, and I’m making the most of my time. After accomplishing what I consider the bare minimum each day, there are maybe 15 minutes left.

How the hell do I prep articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals with 15 minutes a day? How do I rework a novel in 15 minute increments? How do I learn the piano, make photo albums, plan summer camp, bake, do yoga, write up a separation agreement, and sell my wedding china on ebay with only 15 minutes a day?

The answer came from a friend after we saw The Theory of Everything this weekend.

I can’t.

She suggested that for everything task I sign up for, I’m choosing something lame over the important things.

Sure, on paper, but, but, but…

She suggested that making myself crazy with tasks to ensure a steady flood of adrenaline short circuits my brain.

Oh, come on….

She suggested that there’s plenty of time to do things later.

Oh, no, no, no, nononononono no. Just saying the words, “There’s plenty of time” made me physically panic. Sweat, twitchy muscles, racing heart.

“But I have to get the photo albums out!”

No. You don’t. There’s plenty of time.

“But the school needs better emergency preparedness and the teachers need reviews and my portfolio needs…”

There’s plenty of time.

“But I need to search Instructables with the kids and find projects for the next time I remember to plan a playdate.”

Please. Stop. There’s plenty of time.

I know that each yes means saying no to myriad things, so by definition the yeses should be to important tasks. I know that each moment is fleeting and that choosing how to spend them needs to feed either my family, my soul, or my work.

I know that intellectually. But my body craves long lists at which I’m failing, so I can adrenalize myself into action.

The problem is that to synthesize that adrenaline, I’m filling all the spaces with tasks that are basically crap. Not the play, the joy, the work. Probably only 40 of 49 things on the list are crap.

That’s a lot of crap, y’all.

My mantra this month is “There’s Plenty of Time.” I shoved all the papers on my desk into a box, sparing the tax documents for a special folder placed in a drawer for next month, and the two handwritten letters from New York friends to whom I want to reply.

Tonight I’m writing a blog post. If I feel like it. If not, there’s plenty of time another day.
I won’t put anything else on the list, because there’s plenty of time to do everything another day.

(I winced as I typed that, and felt twitchy. But I won’t delete it.)

Speaking of things that had to get done today, look at what the world around me did today.

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Yep. Jasmine, plum blossoms, and daffodils. That’s what the Bay Area does in February. Overachievers, the lot of ’em.

4

Harry Potter, reprised

According to my boys, the Harry Potter series runs thusly:

Book One: Harry Potter Pees in His Pants
Book Two: Harry Potter Pees in the Great Hall
Book Three: Harry Potter Pukes on His Friends
Book Four: Harry Potter Poops in His Pants
Book Five: Harry Potter Potty Trains
Book Six: Harry Potter Goes to College
Book Seven: [we don’t know]

18

Kindness vs. coddling

I don’t know if I did today right. I tried, I debated, and I followed my gut. Let me tell you the story, and you judge.

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(Cool or gross? Also something for you to judge. Because I like empowering readers. And distracting them with science.)

Mornings are relatively time-sensitive I our household. We have a chronic problem with “ten minutes until you need to get ready; five minutes until you need to get ready; time to get ready; please get ready now; I’m really serious that you have to get ready; why aren’t you getting ready; we need to leave NOW,” with my frustration and stress increasing with each of these announcements (the latter of which are about three minutes apart).

The boys have different temperaments, and different needs. But both can put on their clothes and eat breakfast. The older one can put his lunch, homework, and library books into his bag. They can both become self-shod in a matter of seconds.

The problem is that they don’t do these things when asked, and I bristle. Over the past three years we’ve tried charts and rewards and different announcements and fewer reminders and more direction and yelling.

Nothing works consistently.

And after listening to Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy but No Fun, I’ve decided to reclaim what I want in this relationship. Fun. Senior notes that most mothers’ child care is time-sensitive and therefore more stressful. We’re the family nags because we have to get people places, get assignments done, prepare and serve food, administer baths and bedtimes…and it all has to be done relative to a clock.

Fathers, Senior writes, engage in interactions. They play. They teach. They chase. So one parent is generally the bad cop and the other gets to be the good cop.

I want to be the good cop.

So this morning, when the boys came in to cuddle me (more and more I’m embracing the “work late, wake grouchy, allow sweet boy cuddles to wake me and make me happy” paradigm we’ve settled into), I told them I wanted less time pressure and more play.

“I want to say ‘it’s time to get ready’ once, and I want you to heed me. And I’m going to try for a whole week not to say ‘we’re going to be late.'” They laughed. My middle name is “I don’t any to be late.” Because I don’t. Late is poison to my soul. Late is disrespectful and tells me that I’m a royal fuck up.

Sorry if you, gentle reader, are chronically late, but that’s what late says. It says you don’t care and can’t be bothered. I strive for one tardy a year. So far we’ve been tardy twice each year. I’ll take that failure rate.

But I exact this timeliness by harassing my kids. And they teach the family to operate this way by “just a minute-ing” until I’m mad.

So I can’t let them “just a minute” me any more. The anxiety isn’t worth my energy. I don’t want to be the bad cop. I want to be a fun mom. I want to play, then get ready without stress.

Today I said “it’s time to get ready.” After only one “just a second,” they did. Peanut had finished his homework, and I had checked it. He corrected a few minor errors and, as he packed his lunch and library books, grabbed his homework and put it in his bag.

Later that morning I found one sheet of homework he’d overlooked. He had corrected it and put it next to the others, and then forgot it during the great pre-school gathering process.

And I debated bringing it to him.

I had ten extra minutes.

He had tried and done his job, but made a little mistake.

I have a lot of work lately, and time is precious.

Homework is his job, not mine.

It’s not a big deal to help a little guy making his way in a grouchy world.

Spending recess redoing one sheet of math might remind him next time to be more careful.

Spending recess redoing one sheet of math he already found dreadfully easy was more consequence than an active eight-year-old boy needs.

If I left now id make it before recess.

Showing him that I care about what happens to him is core to my biggest job.

Showing him that there are consequences for actions is also core to my role.

Showing him that I can stop my day to help him could be detrimental to his long-term conception of what people should do for him.

Stopping my day to help him teaches an important lesson about how important I think he is.

And that’s where I stopped. It was a mistake. I love him. I may not have the time any other day, but I had the time today.

I made nice small talk with the office staff, whom I like. I showed my youngest that we help family in trouble. I showed myself that even though I often think about what a staff job rather than consulting could have done for my career, my retirement account, and my housing situation, I am glad I stopped working to invest in my children.

So I invested ten minutes in my firstborn child. I gifted a tiny little drive to teach my son that we’re in this together.

I won’t drive his homework to him again. And I likely won’t have to, because an hour spent thinking he would lose recess time was already burned into his rule-following little mind.

I treated him the way I would want to be treated.

That might mean I’m selfish. Or coddling. Or pathetic. But it feels as though it means I’m a good mom.

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(How could I not help a ninja in need?)

18

Cloudy with a Chance of Clearing

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The neighbors are installing solar panels. I’ve never really noticed their house before, and we’ve never spoken. But we’re as linked as ever suburban neighbors who’ve never met can be. And I’m not happy with our relationship right now.

They had their baby about a year after we moved in, when my boys were sometimes kind and sometimes dreadful to each other. I’d listen to them coo at their newborn out in their yard, which adjoins our backyard, and they’d hear me try and try and try and sometimes lose my temper with my sweet children.

They brought their infant to play in the yard every morning at 5am, and celebrated his every milestone as their dog ran ’round them yapping joyfully.

If my kids weren’t up and terrorizing the neighborhood early I would have been angry at their timing. As it was, their baby’s outdoor shrieks of joy often woke me only moments before my youngest started his morning shrieking at his brother.

My boys liked, on weekends, to climb our tree so they could watch the baby on his little slide. I always explained about privacy and spying and politeness. None of my pseudo-adult lectures ever got a laugh from the neighbors. They pretended we weren’t there.

The baby wasn’t in the yard after 6am on weekdays. I’m guessing from the gorgeous kitchen renovation, from the new solar panels, from the complete lack of baby sound from 6am to 6 pm that the baby went somewhere while Mom and Dad went to work.

I hadn’t thought about it, really. But I am now. Today I saw the panel installation by accident, while I was quickly changing clothes to take the kids to school. It was the first time anyone had ever had a sightline into my room, and I thought about roofs and gutters and home ownership and losing our shirts selling our home to move up here in 2008 and not wanting to buy in 2012 because our marriage was a mess.

And tonight as I thought these things, I saw the neighbors—actually saw their faces—for the first time. They’re adorable. Everything about them and their house is just right. So I watched, from my darkened room, as the couple made dinner. I watched because they must know something I don’t. If they look just right and decorate just right and cook just right, they must have all the answers. And that somehow makes it okay to spy? Don’t interrupt my story.

Gorgeous kitchen. Caribbean blue walls. Flawless pots and pans hanging above a butcher block table. Working together. Each of them occupied by a task: him stirring something hot on the stove. Her chopping and adding to his concoction. Smiling. Working in concert. Probably composting, donating to charities, decluttering, supporting causes, and refraining from all manner of judgment and coarse language. She likely doesn’t binge on to-do lists, and he probably asks her about her day. I’ll bet they have no problems with dandruff or weight fluctuations, and I’ll bet their kid will never get lice. Or a C.

Jealousy wrapped around me and started to feast on my insecurities.

Between us, aside from millions of miles of choices and regrets and difference was the lovely deck I’ve rarely used. Sometimes the boys and I stand out there with a sky map trying to pick out the planets from the stars. Occasionally Peanut lurks out there during a water balloon fight to pelt his foes down below, and I’d drag him back in, giggling maniacally.

But I don’t go on the deck to read in the warm fall evenings, nor to entertain in the summer, nor to contemplate the meaning of life in winter.

I use the pieces of my life in utilitarian ways. I forget about poetry even though I’m often absorbing the details round me.
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But tonight I’m hiding in the dark, assuming that other people have better lives. That money and love and a different career would solve my problems.

Wait. What problems?

I have a healthy and happy family. My kids fight. Big deal. My marriage is over. Big deal. We aren’t refugees, we made rent this month, and we see our extended family often.
I have a career. It’s shifting now, sure, and it’s not what I planned. I’m not enjoying consulting as I once did. Big deal. Plenty of opportunities to change jobs. Plenty of for-good clients who need my skills.
I live in a gorgeous, enthralling, expensive city. It’s beautiful and captivating. And I’ll find a way to afford it on my own. Or we can move. Big deal.

Jealousy is wretched. Because it’s often based in appearance not reality. I have no idea what the neighbors’ relationship is like. I have no idea whether their work-life balance is good or if they inherited their money, whether they’re cooking together because their therapist says they have to, whether the solar panels are a gift from a crime syndicate because of their drug smuggling efforts.

I have no idea whether the kitchen and solar panels make them happy. It looks as though their marriage makes them happy. So? They have that right. They’re allowed to find things that make them happy, to create traditions and habits that work for them.

I’m not always sure what makes me happy, but I know it involves going out on that deck in the sunlight, not hiding behind the blinds festering with jealousy based on comparisons I’ll never win because I’m juxtaposing apples with lemons.

So I’m off to make some lemonade.

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Both this post’s photos show the sky over the Bay last Friday. I rolled down my window and took them at stop lights several miles apoart. Because I may not be harnessing the power of the sun for my laundry, but I use sunshine for other happy-making purposes.

4

Brain Training (part 1)

After years of reading about the benefits of retraining my brain with meditation, after checking out from the library the book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, and after realizing how hectic my days, thoughts, and to-do list are, I finally tried to meditate.
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[this is me: wrought iron vulture that’s lovable to only a quirky few. And the flowers my boys added last week are my hope for meditation: a little sweetening that doesn’t change the vulture as much as give it some soft contrast.]

[Yes, that’s a Halloween pumpkin. From early October. Get over it.]

I wanted to meditate in earnest this time. Not just writing it on a list, not trying to do a teaser session in the four seconds before I fall asleep at night. Rather, actually sitting comfortably in the kitchen after tucking in the boys, closing my eyes, and watching my thoughts without judging them.

It took several minutes to settle. I noticed sounds and tried to let them go, then wanted to get up. I noticed my wanting to get up and tried to let it go, and wanted to write about it. I noticed my desire to write and tried to let it go, and tried to make a mental list of things I should do in addition to write. I noted the compulsion to list how many things I’m not doing. I let the list go. And I breathed. The list came back and I noted that I tend to repeat lists so I can remember them. I noticed how I was forcing breath. I noticed my breath settle.

And then a loud crash lit every nerve in my body on fire with the surety that someone had broken through a window and was going to murder all three of us. I screamed at the absolute top of my volume range and forced my eyes open.

I was just in time to see the cat finish his leap on top of the fridge a few feet from me, creating a cascade of holiday cards and homemade magnets to the floor. Jackass. Abjectly terrified, with a sore throat and adrenaline absolutely shaking every muscle in my body, I thought that, with the murder threat alleviated I had to go check on my son. I had screamed loud enough that I was sure I’d awakened him.

So I ran up the stairs and whispered as I hurried down the hall and into his room, “It’s mommy, honey; I’m sorry about the loud noise.”

“What happened?” he asked.

“The cat jumped on the fridge and scared me. I was trying to rest my thoughts and my brain and he freaked me out.”

“I thought he had jumped on you and scratched you.”

“Nope. I’m okay. Nothing is hurt and nobody is hurt and I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I was awake already. I was trying to figure out who is tricking who in Harry Potter.”

“Who is tricking whom is a good question, buddy. You go to sleep and I’ll go try to meditate again.”

“You should, mom. We do it in school and it’s really nice to connect with your breath.”

“Okay, buddy.”

There was no way I’d close my eyes again that evening. I had things to do and wasn’t interested in associating meditation with terror.

I’m sure I’ll try it again soon. Maybe not at night. Not in the kitchen. And not with cats nearby.

In his defense, this is what happens to the mediation-murdering cat when he tries to meditate.

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13

Nightmare of Middle Age

I woke up last night in a panic. I’d had a nightmare in which I knew I had exactly two days to move. The current house had to be empty and we had to be somewhere else in 48 hours. But I had no plan, had packed nothing, and knew not where we could go.

I don’t remember many details, but I remember Spouse trying to get me to answer some questions. We had either reconciled or finished all the divorce paperwork—I don’t know which, but something was capital-F Final about our relationship—and he wanted to know what my plans were.

“I don’t even know what state to move to,” I recall keening. In the dream, I couldn’t even process all the possibilities: there were no choices except homelessness and utter hopelessness.

And a cheerful new year to you, too.

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The longest I have lived in a house is five years. It was the home Spouse and I bought just before we got married. We painted and decorated and improved. We devoted every moment for 40% of that time to an adorable little Peanut whose presence made love more important than location. And we lost all our equity selling it in 2008.

The second longest I lived in one place was during high school. My mom moved us just before I started freshman year, so I could go to the best public school in the area. When I left for college I’d been in that house exactly four years.

In a few months, I will have been in this current rental for four years. We moved on Butterbean’s first birthday. It’s been a rollercoaster, and I’ve been trying to find a different, less expensive place to live for almost two years. But this is the house both boys have considered home for most of their lives.

I don’t know what the dream is trying to tell me. I don’t believe in dream analysis. I believe the unconscious mind combines the days’ and weeks’ images into a new story which is sometimes enjoyable and sometime terrifying. Either way, it’s fiction. The stress is real, but the story is fiction. And I tried to remember that when I awoke. “Just get a job,” I told my waking self as the homeless/hopeless panic swelled. I assessed the level of light outside and the lack of small children’s voices, and I went back to sleep.

I’ve always somehow thought that moving would solve problems. At last count, I’ve moved 26 times in my life. Feeling uncomfortable? Pack up everything and move. Not sure what you want to be when you grow up? It’s probably the apartment; change it. Scared about money and the future? Get a new address to distract you.

I’m managed this urge, somewhat, as an adult, by rearranging furniture. But the furniture is heavy and I’m less reasonable in my dreams. So it’s time to move.

I thought about this on a long run, the hours when I ditch music and podcasts and children and distractions to just let my thoughts wander. I tried to gauge how my life is going: my parenting and career and status as an engaged citizen and human. And I found a big problem.

The few metrics we have for being successful adults are not useful measures of successful human-ing.

I like data on how I’m doing. Good or bad, I prefer being measured. I’ve always loved tests and grades and competition with metrics, because with numbers I know who I am. Without them, I’m lost. I need to know how badly I suck (or, rarely, how awesome I am) based entirely on extrinsic factors. I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. I went through a long spell after college of measuring my worth by the numbers on the scale and my paycheck. I don’t enjoy admitting it, but I feel lost without rankings to give me a sense of success or failure.

The idea that I want to be measured…by grades, by the pound, by test score, by winner’s medal color…is problematic in adulthood, because there are very few quantifiable situations in which I’m compared to others. And I find that I’m failing at those which remain into middle age.

Happiness has no numbers attached to it. Nor does successful parenting, career prowess, or intelligent uses of time. I refuse to be measured by whether my kids eat the food I cook. I won’t look at the scale anymore, nor do I care what size I wear.

So what’s left to measure?
Run pace. (Awful, and getting worse the less sleep I get.)
Bank account. (Sob.)
Number of books finished this year. (No idea. One, maybe?)
Retirement account. (Fetal position.)
Number of friends. (Decent. They’re probably pretending, though.)
Salary. (I’m a consultant and this varies obscenely.)
Current client projects. (It’s December. Everything dries up.)
Books published. (…)

So how do I do I decide what to do if I don’t have a metric on which to base a decision? And if I use money and pages read to determine my worth, I’m a miserable human. But that can’t be true.

I need a calculation. I am ___% a success. I’m pretty sure the number is low. But if it’s not as bad as I assume, maybe I’ll feel better. And I could chart a path for improvement. To get better I should…what? Move? Begin a new career? Get a new job in current career? Find a new roommate? Move to a new geographic location? Cultivate a new hobby? Get back on stage?

I want some way to know if I’m doing okay. Fair to middling? Exceedingly well?

Relative to what? Younger me? Last year’s me? This year’s you? That guy down the street? Across town? Across the country? On the other side of the world? This is a stupid game and I shouldn’t be playing.

My experience of joy and of paralyzing fear, motivation, and sorrow have nothing to do with comparison or scores or rankings. But I feel someone should be showing me numbers. Evaluating. Measuring.

I need a grade. A score. A ranking.

42. It’s the answer to life, the Universe, and everything, right?

Doesn’t feel as though 42 is the answer. So I guess it’s time to fake it until I make it. Or ask what the question is, rather than what the answer is.

12

10 New Year’s Resolutions

My list this year isn’t as long as I’d like it to be, but it’s the day before and I have to call an end to self improvement at some point.

1. Sing loudly at the grocery store, especially when people get too close.
2. Show up to at least one client kickoff meeting in full clown regalia.
3. Send the kids to school with a lunchbox full of popcorn at least once a month.
4. Run, full speed, everywhere in the house.
5. Walk, excruciatingly slowly, when we’re a block from school.
6. Serve guests wine in coffee mugs. Serve kids soup on plates.
8. Speak in meetings only in pig latin.
9. Refuse to finish lists.

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Surprise!

Boo!

20

Failure

I’m sitting quietly tonight, coming to terms with failure.

Strangely, I’m wrapping the failure as a gift. I don’t want to give this package, but not because I’m dissatisfied with the results. Though I’m rarely happy with my creations, they’re not failures.

Here, for example, are nesting dolls I made for my sons and nieces. I’m not thrilled with the final results.

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They’re not what I envisioned, but these dolls are my first try at woodburning, and represent my best attempt at art for people I love, so I’ll accept imperfection.

This, on the other hand, is failure writ large.

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Not just the change in pattern. Nor the size. Or the ends I haven’t yet woven.

This was supposed to be a blanket for my husband. He chose the yarn just after we got married 11 years ago. I started the blanket eagerly, happy to be engaged in formal domesticity. I was in grad school and pressed for time, but I knit on trips, at conferences, and in the rare moments Spouse and I watched movies. I knit because I wanted to make him this gift to keep him warm and cozy.

I wanted him to feel loved.

But the project got heavy and I got caught up in other things. I wanted to finish. But life intervened and I slowed down. Then I stopped. Later I wanted to finish so I could free the needles to make a blanket for our baby. But finishing a huge project so I could start another didn’t motivate me enough.

After that I just forgot.

We moved the blanket, on its needles, not even halfway done, from one house to another, four times since our wedding. Each time I found the knitting bag, I wanted to finish this gift. But each time I stumbled upon the unfinished project, I was less interested in doing the work required to make it really beautiful.

Looking back, it’s a convenient metaphor.

I had excuses for dropping the blanket priority. It’s hard to remember the pattern. It’s too heavy. The cats, the baby, the other baby. Work. My book. Housework.

And so it languished.

I was hiding holiday gifts last week and found the 1/3 finished blanket. And I thought, “now that our marriage is over, why pretend? I’m not going to finish this blanket.”

I’m not. I have enough trouble trying to be consistently civil to my parenting partner. There’s no way I’m moving “make a present for my ex” up my long list. I bought him thoughtful gifts at the store this month, because I’m good at gifts and I’m good at kindness. I’ve been his partner for 15 years.

I just never made his blanket.

The trauma, though, of saying goodbye to the blanket is that I feel like a failure.

What if the blanket symbolizes the whole problem? What if decreasing effort and changed priorities are why my marriage died?

What if I had tried harder? What if I had made him feel more loved? Would I have been the wife he needed if I were the sort of Me that finished the blanket? Would that have helped him be the husband I needed?

Probably not.
Maybe not.
Maybe.

I cast off this weekend. I wove the loose ends from 12 skeins of yarn today. I trimmed off the extra.

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And I wrapped the pathetic, too small blanket and stuck it under the tree. Not to be a jerk. To cement for myself that I’ve stopped trying. That’s a hard thing to admit.

Maybe I stopped too early. Maybe too late. Either way, there’s a physical, heavy, warm reminder of The End under the tree tonight.

And it hurts more than I thought it would. Trying and failing doesn’t hurt like trying, giving up, and thinking later that I didn’t try enough hurts.

Because this lumpy package screams at me about lack of foresight and laziness and stupidity and selfishness.

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It represents the worst of what I offered my partner: a promise of love that I didn’t fulfill.

This present says I wasted time and energy by mis-allocating resources. The problem is: I don’t know if I invested too much or not enough.

And I’ll likely never know.

6

You’re either with us or against us

It’s important, now and again, to test the character of your children. Find out what they’re made of. See on which side of the fence they stand.

And it occurred to me a few days ago that my sugar-deprived, artificial-color-isolated children have never had to choose: Red Vines or Twizzlers.

We were in the hell of major-retailer-mid-December and I had a moment of weakness. So I bought a package each of the licorices in question, and I explained rivalries. I explained fake loathing. I detailed college football rivalries as an example. And then I explained all that rides on the question at hand.

After dinner I gave each boy one piece of each type of red licorice.

A lot hung in the balance.

Not just because I, naturally, want my children to share my taste. Nor because I, pathetically, want them to choose me over their father, the latter being a heathen of the Red Vines tribe, those who have no idea what they’re talking about when they proclaim that nasty wheat candy flavored with red air is better than Twizzlers. Those who blaspheme against candy when they lay their lame “they’re better when they’re a little stale” nonsense on the thinking world.

I told the kids to look, feel, smell the candy. They compared. They constrasted. They elaborated extensive comparisons. They liked the twist of Red Vines, the shine of Twizzlers, the smell of both.

Looking a bit foolish for even considering the Red Vines, they sampled and thus began their Test of Humanity and Worthiness.

Both spat out the Red Vines. Victory! These children are mine, they choose light over dark, they will never really align with their father…

But they both changed their mind. They had handed back their lame licorice; now they asked for it back.

Was this just because they ran out of candy and were willing to eat trash just to get their sugar fix? Was this because they’d been brainwashed? Had I failed them as a mother? I mean, other than the corn syrup and the red dye #Cancer?

Nope. They each took another bite and reluctuantly handed it back. They wanted more licorice, but not that nasty, foul substitute for real candy.

I gave them another two pieces of the superior candy. Might as well eat well tonight, boys.

Now, I’m not saying that discerning my children’s taste in red licorice was a watershed moment. It didn’t change our lives to know we align together, against the cretin amongst us who prefers wheat-flavored candy. We weren’t modified fundamentally to know we stand with the righteous.

But that night, just an hour after the Twizzlers triumph, the boys chose, for the first time in their lives together, to curl up on the little one’s bed and fall sleep together. No fighting, no teasing, no meanness.

If red dye and corn syrup are all it takes to get this kind of harmony, I’m buying stock in corn and joining the Chemistry Association of America. Or the International Chemistry Lobbying Association. Or something.

[Sure, your explanations of why Red Vines are allegedly better are acceptable here. You can post them. I won’t delete them. But I will gaze upon you with the stink-eye you deserve.]

14

Low Expectations Holiday Gathering

‘Tis the time of the year for my annual celebration of hosting mediocrity.

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The invitations went out. By email. With no reminder two days before.

This is your casual, heartfelt, and festive but unadorned invitation
to our annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. Come to our house for a
minor-key gathering of joy, adoration, and minimal preparation as we
begin the seasons of Too Much to Do and Too Little Time.

Cheer with us an ambivalent welcome to Hanukkah, Winter Solstice,
Christmas, Kwanzaa, and any other cultural eating and drinking holiday you
embrace.

With music!

Come as you are, with your favorite minimal-prep-time food or drink.
We will be here, without any promises to clean or decorate, but with
warm exclamations of how much we cherish you in our lives.

Guaranteed to be unassuming, but not underwhelming.

RSVP so we know how big a pot of apple cider we need to leave
simmering until you get here.

The day before the party I bought some cheese. I’m not gonna lie: it was good cheese. The kids were fighting and I offered threats and bribes in equal measure so I could select a triple-cream brie, petite basque, herbed goat cheese, and salty mountain gruyere. Later I ate the gruyere and had to serve a cheddar/parmesan blend.

I cleaned the bathroom. Then went for a run.

A few minutes before the party was supposed to begin I surveyed the Martha Stewart scene I had created.

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Microwave covered in crap: check.

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Mantle undusted and still home to a Lego piece, Pokemon card, and related detritus I have no home for: got it.

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Decorative gourds still on the porch two holidays too late: handled.

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Wax-covered menorah ready for next week and almost hiding random Halloween gift bag I’m too lazy too move: check.

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Lots of crap shoved in a closet: nailed it.

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Bag nobody uses and box of important projects crammed under antique seating: perfect.

I knew then that we were ready to underwhelm.

I think we exceeded expectations, actually. Hard to disappoint when you promise fair to middling.

I’ll admit it: I moved the candy corn bag off the table. Because good cheese deserves better than that. But I didn’t move the cat toy.

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Or the spider ring and backpack tableau. Yes, seriously. So little effort required and so little given.

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7

Let’s fight at the beach!

Historically, the cure to sibling bickering and older kid nastiness on our family has been wide open spaces. Not the song…the real thing. Hiking or beach time soothes them into a partnership.

Usually.

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Today, however, older screamed at younger at home, then at the beach. Older screamed at me at home, then at the beach. After leaving the beach, older sobbed that I had ruined everything by convincing him to share the driftwood they both found together and both built with together and both wanted to use on a new project. I ruined his life because I encouraged him to let his brother build a solo project when he, the older, wouldn’t let the little guy join in.

Building together is fine, but then he when he wants space the rest of us must all cease life functions until he’s ready to tolerate us again.

I think that’s the message. I might be wrong. If I am, I’ll get yelled at, I’m sure.

What in the holy hell?

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I guess let’s just all be full of testosterone and anger and disrespect for the world perpetually thwarting us, shall we?

Goodness. I’m not equipped for this 8-year-old teenager.