Saturday, April 28, 2012

In Which I Pause Mid-Leap to Explain Myself, Part 2

To follow up on Part 1—yes, I’ve been hurting. Not like some people do, but still. It’s been enough, has lasted long enough, to finally get my attention.

I won’t get in to all of it here, but I want to share one aspect of it because of how it intersects with what I’ve been trying to do here on this blog.

I’ve been wondering recently why it takes me so long to speak up. I think it is because I deal with pain by pulling inside of myself. Closing my eyes during contractions—that wasn’t stoicism, that was me blocking out everything else so I could focus, hold myself together, ride the wave of pain. I get quiet when I’m dealing with things.

In other words, I’m an introvert. I get my energy by going inside of myself. I process internally, I respond to things internally, I prepare for big things internally. From the outside—to other people—it’s probably hard to tell what’s going on. But I’m not necessarily trying to hide anything. That’s just how I’m wired.

Aha. How I’m wired.

I love this article by Jonathan Rauch about introverts. It helped me understand a few things about myself, which in turn have helped me with this leap I’m in the middle of (that I really am going to get to if I can circle back to it properly.) This article resonated with me in a way I can barely explain, but the following bit, especially, shifted a whole bunch of things into focus for me:

“after an hour or two of being socially ‘on,’ we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.”

The people in my life are my greatest treasure, but they also wear me out. If I don’t get away sometimes to process, re-group, re-energize, I feel kind of crazy. Often I shut down involuntarily. Understanding that this is part of my personality, not a character flaw I need to get over, has been extremely helpful.

It turns out that understanding who I am is as important as understanding who my kids are.

I love what I’m doing—homeschooling, teaching violin and making music, writing. But the pace and the intensity are too much. For years I’ve felt like I was in crisis mode trying to hold everything together, keep everybody moving, make sense of it all. It’s been clear to me for a while that something has to give, but I haven’t been willing to decide what that would be. It’s all good. It’s all invigorating and wonderful, and I’ve managed to get myself to a place where I can see how it all sort of fits together—how, in fact, one area of my life feeds into another in amazing ways.

Except for the fact that I feel like I’m running on empty pretty much all the time.

And the other fact that one thing is tugging at me harder than anything else—and if I were to cut it out of my life it would be like cutting off a limb.

That thing is writing.

When I finally got the courage to take a hard look at everything I was trying to carry, I realized that there was one thing I could let go of and still ensure that it would happen, one place where maybe all of us needed a little breathing room, a little space to flourish.

And that’s homeschooling.

Which scared me.

The idealist part of me locked on years ago to what I was convinced was the best way I could be a mother. I had no problem with other people making other choices. But I knew this was the best thing I could choose because the idea was so delicious—I would stay home with my kids, eliminate all the tension between work and family by making my family my work, and pour all of myself into this perfect thing. We would all learn and grow together. Homeschooling was a brilliant plan. Sticking to it—even when I felt pulled towards something else—felt safe. It was a good plan, we were following it pretty well, and I felt secure that I was doing Good Things.

Besides, if I made a change there was always the risk that I was making the wrong decision.

The thing is, I know amazing moms who homeschool their kids, and amazing moms who don’t homeschool their kids. Amazing moms who work outside the home, amazing moms who don’t work outside the home, and amazing moms who combine working outside the home with staying at home. I’m convinced now that the truly important factor in a child’s life is her parents’ love for her, and their continued investment in her life and growth. And for different families, different situations, different personalities even, that necessarily looks different.

When I think about what I want for my kids, it looks something like this: that they live a life of faith and purpose, that they take joy in who they were made to be and live boldly the life they were given. That they love others and live out their dreams, passionately and honestly. I don’t need to homeschool to help them with that. In fact, I’ve been so worn out with things like keeping the four of us on task each day and just being “on” all the time that I don’t have a lot of energy left over to focus on what I see as my most important goal.

Here, then, is where my leap comes in: all three kids are going to school next year, and I am reserving a good chunk of the hours they will be in school to write.

I’m excited about the change. It means new experiences and opportunities for all of us. But it feels like an audacious thing to take a risk on myself like this. I have struggled long and hard over whether I have the right to change the lives of those closest to me in order to do it—and yet it is exactly what I would want my children to do as they learn and grow and strike out more and more into the unknown to discover who they were made to be and what they were made to do with their lives. And if I—wanting them to learn how to do that—hide behind them, afraid to make a move myself—how can I encourage them to do what I won’t?

There is as much danger in hiding behind my family and refusing to take the next step as there is in making a wrong decision. And I think the danger is greater in not stepping out in faith—both for myself and for the people I love.

I have no choice but to be an example—to let them watch me clumsily work out a balance between their claims on me and my work’s/passion’s/dream’s claims on me, between who I am not only as a mother, but as a human being.

If I want them to genuinely work out their lives, I have to step forward and work out mine, as well.

This choice, I think, has been waiting for me for a long time.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Which I Pause Mid-Leap* to Explain Myself, Part 1

So I kind of stink at dealing with pain.

When I was pregnant with Oldest, I read a lot about labor and delivery. Breathing and relaxation techniques, what to expect at different stages, pretty much whatever I could get my hands on in order to be well-prepared. But what I wasn’t prepared for was a nurse who kept asking me questions. During contractions. I expected small talk in between, but she seemed oblivious to the fact that I was otherwise occupied, and the questions just kept coming. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. Nevertheless, I generally try to respond to people when they talk to me—anything else would be rude, right?—so I did my best to be polite and answer her. But I was having a really hard time staying focused.

When she left the room I asked my husband to intercede so I could concentrate on my breathing. “Would you please stop her from talking to me when I’m in the middle of a contraction?”

“Okay, but when are you having them?”

“When I close my eyes!”

Duh. Isn’t that an obvious sign?

But it got worse. (Bear with me—I promise there’s nothing graphic or sappy ahead.)

Oldest was breach, and I had an emergency c-section. I hated how the pain medication made me feel afterwards, how whenever I turned my head the room swam for several seconds before it followed behind. I wanted to be alert and soaking up every moment with my baby, and instead I felt drowsy and out of it. So when the nurse on duty told me, “Just let me know when you need something more for the pain, okay honey?” I didn’t exactly feel motivated to speak up. Besides, I told myself, it only hurts when I move. I’ll just try not to do that.

So I didn’t ask for anything for the pain. The entire day. And nobody offered anything, that I can remember. I had not considered that the nurses would want me to walk around the ward several times. Or that there would be other reasons I would need to get out of bed. The pain got bad. I’ll just go to bed early, I told myself. That will help. I didn’t realize that even beyond nighttime feedings there’s no such thing as sleeping through the night for a new mother in the hospital. It seemed like somebody constantly wanted something from me—my vitals, my arm for an immunization, Oldest’s vitals—I don't even remember what else. I was not going to get much rest.

By 9 or 10 that night I was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed in tears. “I can’t take it anymore,” I admitted to my husband. Still, I don’t think I asked for anything for the pain for another few hours.

Yes, the doctor scolded me the next morning. And yes, I learned my lesson.

When Middle was born I had a lovely little button attached to my I.V. that I could push whenever I wanted. It administered painkillers in small doses and was on a timer, so if it wasn’t time for another dose I didn’t get anything, but if it was—relief at my fingertips.

Lesson #1: It’s important to manage the pain if you can, because if you don’t, it will ride you with its legs wrapped tight around your throat just like that old man who got hold of Sinbad the Sailor on his fifth voyage.

Lesson #2: For heaven’s sake, woman, learn to speak up!

Okay, I sort of learned my lesson. I’m better about taking ibuprofen if I really need it. And I’ve gotten better at asserting myself in certain situations.

But there are other kinds of pain. And my lingering tendency towards silence and coping-with-it instead of dealing with things full-on proves I still have a lot to learn.

More on that next time.

*It's a good leap by the way, even though it has me sort of nervous.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Like Peeling the Skin off an Orange

When we visit my parents, or when they visit us, all the kids get a lesson with Grandpa. He is the master teacher in the family, and we all benefit from his wisdom and insight, as well as the way he combines a gentle nature with high standards.

I love watching these lessons. It is good for me to see how my kids play for somebody else (who is not their mother.) It is good for my kids to get instruction from somebody else. It is good for me too, and either reassuring to see my dad pinpoint the same things I think need the most work, or instructive to discover things I’ve missed. Often I learn new ways to approach issues that have me stymied.

Seeing the process from a different angle is instructive in itself. My mom and I observed a fascinating lesson Youngest had last fall. We could actually see it in her body, how hard she was working to listen and cooperate. She loves violin, but she gets excited. She will start out with every intention of listening, but then an idea will strike, and she wants more than anything to run with that idea, even though at this stage she doesn’t have the tools to see it through. She will fight tooth and nail against structure (especially mom-imposed structure,) but when she gives in to it she flourishes. I suspect she is more than a little bit aware of this about herself, because I can often see the inner struggle playing out in front of me. But it was an especially visible battle trying to be good for Grandpa.

This learning thing—it can be so painful. “It’s like peeling the skin off an orange,” my mom agreed when I commented on Youngest’s struggle. I use words like polish and refine so freely when I am teaching, and yet they speak of painful things. Rubbing, wearing down, burning, loss. Does it have to be so hard? So costly?

I feel like I’ve learned a few things, but I still want the good stuff for cheap. My kids and students want that even more. And it’s a hard sell, trying to convince them that the hard-won things are the most satisfying. They need to experience it, starting with the tiniest baby steps.

They need to know what really good, sweet oranges taste like.

And maybe they won’t even have an appetite for good, sweet oranges until they see somebody else thoroughly enjoying one. Or a bowl-full.

Let them watch you peel and eat and savor, and don’t give a second thought to the juice dripping down your chin.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I Finished

I really can’t say I rocked it, even though my shirt does. But I finished. And even though I had this hierarchy of goals and only met the first one, it was by far the most important.

Not giving up was a big deal.

Because it hurt. A lot. I know it wasn’t the wisest thing to run on an injury—it’s maybe one of the more foolish things I’ve done—but I was reasonably sure that it was something I could fully recover from, and I had a lot invested in seeing this through. And I admit it, I completely stink at knowing when to stop and when to power through.

More on that another day.

It wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t have even believed I could run a half marathon.

Even now, there is something in me that is not quite sure I’ve earned the right to wear that shirt in the picture.

*       *       *

The friend I ran with—the one I’d hoped to keep up with but couldn’t—came back onto the course after she finished and ran the last mile with me. Seeing her coming back for me was exactly what I needed at that point. It gave me strength.

My kids and my mom were waiting to cheer me on about half a mile from the finish line. Seeing their faces was amazing. They grinned and waved and took pictures of me with their hand-held game systems while I limped past. Oldest called out, “Miss ________ finished way ahead of you!” (That would be his math teacher, who is young and smart and beautiful. From what I hear, she knows everything there is to know about math, plus, this is, like, her 13th half marathon. She is a godsend—I couldn’t have hand-picked a better teacher for his hardest subject.)

My kids are awesome.

My mom is also awesome. She drove to Kansas City from Minneapolis the night before the race, then drove home the next afternoon through horrible storms. She reminds me on occasion that she’s getting older, but she makes it easy to forget that fact every time I turn around.

I felt like I had so much support from family and friends—it was better than a birthday, I think.

And yes, it was worth it, and yes I want to do it again.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Running Along the Edges

When you handle a book, what about it do you enjoy touching the most? I love feeling the edges of the pages—their thickness or delicacy, pliancy or brittleness. I often find myself fingering the pages while I’m reading, measuring my physical progress through the book, feeling how close I am to the end of it.

There’s a whole lot of magic around the edges of things—the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the week leading up to a school Valentine’s Day party, sunset on the Fourth of July, the night before your birthday. The days when earth, air, and light are bursting with the transition from winter to spring, spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter.

There’s a deliciousness to expectation—to not knowing how it will all play out.

I should be asleep right now, but here I am on the brink of running my first half marathon and I am wide awake.

My first response to the suggestion that I sign up for this race was, “Yeah, right. Me?” But that’s exactly why, immediately after that response, I wanted to do it so badly.

Because maybe I actually can. Because I am not quite sure what the edges of who I am really look like, but I’m learning to go there—undiscovered territory can be wild and beautiful. I need to know I can visit some of those places and survive. Because it’s on the edges that you stretch and learn and grow.

If I had not hurt myself, and then gotten sick, and watched my training schedule completely fall apart, I might feel a little more confident. As it is, I’ve managed to hurt myself a second time. All I know at this point is that I have no idea what to expect, but I’m going forward.

But did I sign up to be this far out on the edge?

Funny how that works.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Things I Could Not Share With You

• The sound of branches knocking together on a windy day
• A robin building her nest outside our dining room window
• Rain
• The thousands of moments the light caught my eye—bending and shifting, illuminating and coloring a thousand tiny different details
• Open windows, the spring-scented wind
• The warmth of the sun
• The joy of a current read-aloud (The BFG, by Roald Dahl)
• The slowness and delicacy with which green (and yellow and pink and fuchsia and white) spread through the trees
• Every sunrise, every bud, every flower about to bloom
• The frustration of an injury, then illness (my half marathon is on Saturday. Saturday!)
• The relief of a full, deep breath (after 3+ weeks, I can finally say today that my breathing is back to normal)
• The story behind each picture
• All the imaginary conversations I had with you—all the words I wanted to pour out on you

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

And Still

Today I’m recycling a picture. I took it in April two years ago, at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska. We were there with our kids, giving them a chance to run around and take a break from an emotional visit with my grandma, who was dying. I have written before about how strongly I felt that we were in a place between worlds during that time, driving between our home and hers, moving between normal life and life-out-of-time. Facing death while the world around us was quietly exploding into life.

This white peacock struck me at the time as other-worldly, even though it was exactly something of this world. In the midst of hurt and loss, here was beauty—silent, arresting, sacred.

How much of what surrounds us is like that. The fact that anything you set your eyes on, or touch, or hear, can speak to you of something else—the fact that everything can whisper or cry out as a metaphor for something else—it is all at once soothing and heart-rending.

I wonder about myself that I think that could sound cliché.

*       *       *

This wordless project was at least partly an exercise in faith. Faith that I really could find something to share each day. Faith that anybody would care in the least. Faith that I would find anything to say at the end of it.

Faith, too, that finding pockets of beauty in a fallen world is not a trite exercise in denial but rather a flying into the face of darkness with complete and utter defiance.

*       *       *

I arrived at a grocery store once just as a person was being wheeled out on a stretcher. We passed each other in a matter of seconds—one of those things that is over before you realize what is happening. I didn’t see even if it was a man or woman, but was left only with the impression of motionlessness and gray skin. Inside, in the produce section, there was a freshly-mopped section of floor. Whatever happened there was quickly becoming invisible. And it struck me that maybe there is not even an inch of ground that we walk on all day that has not at some point in history seen the struggle between life and death.

And we go through life having no idea, most of the time, what scars we are touching.

*       *       *

And still the truly beautiful never ceases to be beautiful, and light never stops being light, if we can bear to keep our eyes open.

*       *       *

Thank you for continuing to stop by here. My readers are a small group, and I wondered if it was a mistake to do this project—if it was tiresome or silly or who knows what. I worried. I needed time to be quiet, but I did not want to stop speaking or reaching out, and this was all I could think to do. I appreciate knowing you were listening.

Happy Easter to you.

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