Growing Up, Home

Plant Anyway

corn shucking.jpg

He  drops his backpack by the door and heads out. Whether the temperature hovers at freezing or rises to a swelter, he and his friends find each other. Sometimes I block the way and steer him back to his violin for a round of scales. The neighborhood kids bang on the door every three minutes, “Is he done yet?” They loop around the breezeway on bikes and scooters. A few come up barely past my knee. A few are already shaving. When he’s free, they all charge off down the hill, hollering ever-changing rules to an ever-evolving game that winds through this labyrinth of stairwells and parking lots.

I shut the door and head to the kitchen to rinse out the lunch containers.

Divorced at 37 and still single at 43, parenting a surly tween, stuck in the suburbs, jammed into a 5-story development abutting a freeway, and working a desk job for a paycheck that barely covers groceries while a white supremacist and a Russian oligarch run the White House.

Continue reading “Plant Anyway”

Art, body, Creativity

Pleasure Bank

Muffin Bank

The hunger for sensation collapses into craving.  The call seems to rise up from somewhere inside my flesh.  It is deafening.  My mouth obsesses.  Sweets, yes, and the feel of pastry on the skin of my tongue.  Nothing satisfies but the hook is in and pulls me from my desk, my book, my deeper pleasures. Continue reading “Pleasure Bank”

Choices, Parenting, Purpose

Single Mom Playbook

Stormy Sea

Be a more attentive friend. Make meals at home. Save every penny. Walk. Take the metro. Clip coupons. Go to the gym, to Zumba, to the mountains. Find a group. Be the least awkward. Breathe through the irritation.

Lift weights. Smile at everyone. Ignore the men. Take the pills. Take the vitamins. Go to counseling. Go to church. Bike there. Carpool. Pack water bottle, reusable mug, hand sanitizer, glasses.

Respond without yelling. Appreciate out loud. Remember mom. Remember all the birthdays.

Get to work on time. Stay on task. Buy the groceries on lunch break. Run on lunch break. Walk on lunch break. See friends on lunch break. Take lunch from home. Stay until the last possible minute. Leave with enough time to get to child care. Run for the train. Push through the crowds. Run for the bus. Shake it all off. Greet your child with serenity.

Empty the sink, the dishwasher, the backpack, the laundry basket. Meditate. Pet the dog. Give her a long walk. Look over homework. Manage dinner, shower, teeth, clothes, packing up, settling down. Read to the kid. Watch the clock. Ignore the clock. Speak gently. Breathe. Don’t cry in front of him.

Write in the journal. Post to the blog. Update the resume. Go to a social event. A networking event. A lecture. Take a class. Get a certificate. Learn a new skill. Read something edifying. Plan a party. Be mindful of the guest list. Befriend successful people.

Respond to the emails. Upload the photos. Pay the bills. Track the money. Notice the steady shrinkage. Resolve to create wealth somehow. Rethink the financial plan. Resolve to apply for all the jobs. Try not to notice the absence of jobs.

Speak with positive problem-solving language. Ignore feelings. Schedule a meetup. Wash. Iron. Fold. Put away. Keep the wardrobe up to date. Make a hair appointment. Restock the toilet paper, the dish soap, the dog food, the baking soda. Use less. Shop smart. Read ingredients. Note materials. Consider the planet. Eat vegetarian. Think of landfills. Think of Indian trash-picking children. Do we need it? Can we make it at home? What is a less toxic alternative? What other store sells it? How much? Unit cost?

Feel the pull to be doing anything but this. Ignore the pull. Inhabit the aisle. Save pennies, save packaging, save for college, save the world.

Pay attention to the calendar. Note the upcoming holiday. Figure out summer vacation. Hope the money will come. Map out the weekends. Sign up for after-school activities. Show up for basketball practice, for karate, for games. Pay for all of this.

Make new friends. Remember names. Don’t give male friends the wrong idea. Be kind but not flirtatious. Check the pantie line. Check the body language.

Remove dog hair. Patch worn places. Get another year out of the coat, the shoes, the Goodwill purse. Blow dry. Apply lips, cover blotches, rinse the pits, glow. Count calories, calcium, miles, pounds. Brush, floss. Walk with bold steps. Don’t scowl.

Kiss better. Send sweet notes. Remember to ask questions. Learn the love languages. Appreciate. Communicate. Pause. Give the benefit of the doubt. Speak your truth.

Don’t complain. Don’t gossip. Bear the weight of this list alone. Shut the door when you cry.

Resist the craving. Sleep more. Shut off the phone. Look past magazine covers and success stories and smiling facebook families. Try not to notice the cracks. Avoid schadenfreude.

Learn their secrets. Trust yourself. Live your full life. Don’t measure yourself against them.  Aim high. Simplify. Dream big. Think less. Take account. Shed what you don’t need. Be honest. Know your heroes. Listen to the still, small voice. Follow in the footsteps of great ones. Be yourself. Picture your future self. Know that what you have is enough. Strive. Be quiet. Create. Count blessings. Resist inertia. Meditate. Spark a revolution. Fake it til you make it. Honor your shadow side. Write your own story.

Keep moving. Be here now. Be kind. Be fierce. Be better. Be you. Become someone. Surrender. Fight on.


Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1801, “Dutch Boats in a Gale” (The  Bridgewater Sea Piece) from the National Gallery, UK.

community, Friends, Giving, Uncategorized

A Gift of Need

We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.


Maria Popova in the postscript to The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

Fruit Gathering

A friend wrote to me with an offer of help. A generous spirit by nature, she also follows Momastery which further expands the reach of her care. She has a modest surplus in her family this year and felt called to support the extraordinary Together Rising Holiday Hands project. After a bit of soul-searching she made a brave overture: she sent a note offering me a small financial gift so Bug and I could get through the holidays. Continue reading “A Gift of Need”

Career, Mindfulness

Leap Frog

leapfrog
The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.

We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”

We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.

Also, $475,000.

My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.

A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.

This is a blast!

How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.

A game.

So I play.

Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.

And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.

It’s not the task that sucks.

It’s all the tasks.

It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.

The desk-turned-junk drawer.

The “Do you have a quick minute?”

It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.

The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.

It’s the anxiety.

I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.

The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.

As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.

Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?

Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?

Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.

I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).

The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.

Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.

Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.

Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.

Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.

Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.

Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.

When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.

The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.

Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.

Choosing a play.

And then leaping in.
 

Career, Determination, Learning, Things I Can

100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters

mother child at sea

It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.

Can we make it on my salary?

I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more. Continue reading “100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters”

Determination, Things I Can

89. Things I Can Seal: The Deal

Mechanic

The car I drive is the first I bought and the third I’ve owned. In 2011 when it seemed to breathe its last, I chose to keep it on the road. Here is that story. It is pushing 16 years now and finally failed its emissions test, revealing fatal injuries deep in the machine.

The registration expires at the end of the month. As the clock ticks down, the stress ticks up.

Maybe decisions like this are simpler for others. Or less fraught. Or — though it defies imagination — more fun? Here at Chez Smirk, the car quest has unearthed a staggering load of emotional chaos.

It’s just a car! Chill out, girl.

Except this:

  • A skinflint’s car outlives addresses, job titles, and even marriages. I am heir to a great family legacy of beater love. What I buy now needs to fit the next 10 years at least (insha’Allah).
  • The earth is dying. In this small corner of it, I do what I can to consider and conserve resources. The choice of which vehicle is as critical as how the vehicle is used. If a car is indeed necessary, then small is good, hybrid better, and plug-in best.
  • Plug-ins only work if you live somewhere besides a condo complex.
  • Hybrids are expensive unless they are several years old, and everyone selling a several-years-old hybrid has already put 180,000 miles on it. The new ones are getting cheaper but economies of scale have yet to reward my patience.
  • I am a single mom living on an almost-enough university administrator income in one of the higher priced areas of the country.
  • Interest steals from my son’s college fund so I only pay cash.
  • A little bigger for traveling and growing, or a little smaller for fuel efficiency and economy?
  • Type in “Honda” on Craigslist and you’ll get 300 cars from today alone within 20 miles of my address.
  • What the hell does a person look for in a used car?

All of this (and more) all at once (and repeatedly) every time I turn my attention towards this inevitable purchase. I also mortifies me to notice the ripples of self pity lapping at my ankles. The whole experience is quite lonely, and I still (ugh) ache for someone to rescue me.

Meanwhile, help is all around. But a girl’s got to know what to ask for and then work up the courage to ask. It’s easier to resort to excuses, which most often manifest as a state of overwhelmed agitation: Craigslist harbors just as many crooks as a used car lot, and my mechanic and my bank are open almost exclusively during the hours I need to be at work, and work is a deafening, mewling menagerie of stresses right now, and and and.

I try the logical self-talk I would give any girlfriend attempting this task, because from the outside, what could be simpler? “It’s just buying a car, people do it all the time.” Yet this approach makes me feel even more incompetent and out of my depth.

It’s easier to stick with what I know I can handle. Thumb through seller ads and haphazardly send brief emails of inquiry. After the occasional test drive and glance at a labyrinthine engine, say, “Let’s figure out a time I can take this in to get looked at.” Then add another line to the maybe-but-unlikely-to-do list, and eventually delete the seller’s info.

This is avoidance at its best. The illusion of progress accompanies my march across the calendar while I sing myself strangely comforting lullabies of defeat. I don’t know I can’t This is too much I’ll screw up What am I doing I can’t I can’t.

Doubt is an addiction with its own cunning hooks. It keeps me fixed and frightened and small and safe.

Except this:

I can’t is off the table.

This experience is baffling and difficult, sure. Learning most anything important is. But there really is only one choice.

I can.

I can study YouTube videos on how to inspect a used car. I can ask my parents for a no-interest loan. I can compare prices and skim reviews. I can assess the gleaming backsides in parking lots and traffic jams, and I can begin to build a private transport taxonomy. I can pepper my mechanic with questions, and carry an oil rag in my purse, and duck out for an hour in the middle of the day to go test drive a car.

I can inch my way to confidence with small — almost immeasurably tiny — steps.

And then it’s today and here, and another equivocal Craigslist inquiry leads to another sort-of plan for a test drive.

On a Saturday afternoon with banks and mechanics all closing in two hours? With my dad en route to Tucson, my mom in Scotland, my Mister incommunicado, and my boy in the back seat?

This is absurd. I can’t do this.

So I do it.

We shoot across town to check out a Corolla with only 49K miles on it. As if I’m outside my own skin, I watch myself stride up the walk. I marvel at the command this gritty mama takes. It’s like the time she removed the chutney jar from the ineffectual hands of the man at the party and twisted it open on the first turn.

The two middle-aged guys selling the car stand and shuffle at the curb, trying to catch up to her questions. She pops the hood, checks the threads on the oil cap then the treads on the tires. She runs her fingers along the seals in the trunk. She starts it cold and listen for pings, blasts the AC, make two hard turns and slams on the brakes.

All these weeks of dawdling and ooching along, she’s been picking up skills.

And now I step back inside that skin and press the gas.

I talk the guy and his brother into going with Bug and me — yes today, now — to the mechanic. I spin the mechanic’s emphatic “no time” into “we can squeeze it in.” Bug and I hop back in my car. With our bellies rumbling and gas light blinking, we slog through jammed Beltway traffic to my online bank’s sole financial center, arriving minutes before its 3pm closing. In the lobby, I get the skinny from the mechanic by phone (“This car is actually in great shape”). While the bank rep makes cocoa for Bug, I call up the seller and talk him down a few hundred bucks.

At 3:05pm, my phone pings. The VIN comes through. They lock the bank doors. I sign for the cashier’s check.

On Monday morning I’ll be at the DMV trading it for a title and a new set of keys.

It staggers me to know this single mama is managing this all on her own.

It steadies me to notice the many hands lifting me towards this version of myself.
 

 
Image: A Nine Pound Hammer