Nov 042009

The best thing you’ve ever done for me, is to help me take my life less seriously. It’s only life after all.”

-The Indigo Girls

This week I’m discussing beliefs and disciplines that help me relax and live bravely. The strategies I’ve written about so far have been proactive strategies, things I do before I am upset to remind myself that I am loved and that the world and I are all right. These things are good, and they help me maintain a peaceful heart, to some extent. But the thing is that I live with three children, and I am convinced that they meet early in the morning to plan the most effective way to take me down each day. So, the fact is that my peace is not going to be consistently maintained, no matter how much reading, writing, praying, or yoga I do… because there are very strong willed forces working against me. These forces are led by a little girl who will remain unnamed, but I will tell you that her name rhymes with fish.

Allow me to offer a specific example. Here’s what our evening looked like last night, after Craig and I suggested that everyone had to eat their dinners even though dinner was, admittedly, gross. One nanosecond before this moment, we were all discussing our upcoming weekend and laughing and talking about daddy’s day at work and generally feeling like a lovely, well adjusted family. Then – this.

Now, the problem is that I am not good in these situations. There are mothers, my friends Gena and Casey come to mind, who roll with these scenarios. When their kids tantrum, Gena and Casey’s facial expressions don’t change. Their eyes, weary smiles, and demeanors suggest: “Oh well…kids will be kids,” and then they calmly do whatever needs to be done to diffuse the situation.This approach is not my first instinct. My first instinct is to freak out. My first instinct is to remember that yes, this chaos is proof that I have ruined my life and the lives of everyone in my home and that we are a disaster of a family and that no mother, in the entire history of mothers, has ever been forced to endure the drama, decibels and general suffering of this moment. My instinct is to tear my clothes and throw myself on the floor and bawl and cry out worthless declarations like “I can’t TAKE this anymore!” My first instinct is to allow my anxiety and angst to pour out like gasoline on a raging fire and indulge in a full-on mommy meltdown.

This, Craig suggests, is not helpful.

So, after a few years of parenting, it became clear that I needed a strategy to help me regain my peace after I had already lost it. Because I am going to lose it, frequently. That’s just the way I roll.

Enter Joan Didion.

Have you read Slouching Towards Bethlehem? Ms. Didion is a VERY serious noticer and writer. No pan jokes. No fluff. Every word she chooses is necessary and perfect, precise.She leaves no room for argument or conjecture. As you read you understand that Ms. Didion knows what she’s talking about and perhaps you should just hush yourself and read on. Also, she trusts her readers to recognize the important parts of her writing without even using italics. Or maybe it’s just that she doesn’t go off on tangents so she doesn’t feel the need to constantly use italics to signify that she is now coming back around to the point. Let that be a lesson to me.

In an essay called “Self-Respect,” Ms. Didion offers the only strategy that has ever consistently helped me regain my mommy peace once I’ve lost it:

“It was once suggested to me that as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable. It is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a food fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any sort of swoon, commiserate or carnal, in a cold shower.”

Yes, Ms. Didion, yes. It’s the little things. The little disciplines that help us get through the day and regain peace. It’s not necessarily a different career or parenting philosophy or neighborhood or husband that we need. Sometimes it’s a deep breath, a bath, a glass of water, or a paper bag.

I now store paper bag hats on all three floors in my house. And when everyone starts losing their minds, I put on my bag and breathe and hide. Tada! Instant quiet time, oxygen, and a reminder that things are not necessarily as dramatic and horrible as my kids or jumpy head might suggest.

Here are a couple more pictures from last night, during phase two of the family tantrum, when we had moved things over to the couch for a change of scenery.

I draw smiley faces on my bags because I know that a large portion of my kids’ mommy memories will include these bags, and I’d like them to be smiley memories. Also, I love how the smiley face makes me look content, even though inside I am scowling and hyperventilation and ruing the day I was born. I think the thumbs up gesture really completes the effect. One piece of advice: if you decide to employ this strategy in your home, don’t be tempted to cut out eye holes. I tried it once, and it ruins everything, because, well, eye holes mean you can still see the carnage, and the carnage can see your maniacal eyes.

No eye holes.

Just to preempt the question that many of you plan to email me when you finish reading….No, I am not joking. I really do this…which might have been an excellent alternate name for this blog.

Anyway, bag or not, I’m just saying that it’s helpful to adopt “small disciplines” to remind oneself that life is much too important to be taken seriously.

Enjoy your day, friends. Good Luck.

Nov 022009

…Max said “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him the king of all wild things.”

-Where the Wild Things Are

This post is dedicated to the redhead who’s like fire and water.

Krystal, a new blog friend, posted this comment a few days ago:

I really don’t understand how anyone could not LOVELOVELOVE food because I wake up thinking of what I’ll eat all day, but maybe it’s your faith and your wicked smartness that keep you full rather than food? I donno.

Krystal, to answer your question, I didn’t know how to fill myself up for a very long time.

I’ve avoided writing about food because my obsession with eating and weight has always seemed like a raging fire that I narrowly and inexplicably escaped, and I was NOT heading back into that fire. Not even to save someone else who was burning. But now, with fear and trembling, I’m ready to return to the fire, because I’ve finally learned how to feed myself. And that is the most exciting sentence I’ve ever written.

I became a bulimic when I was very young, and I binged and purged several times a day for twenty years. My life revolved around what to eat, how much to eat, and finding the nearest bathroom to get rid of it all. Binging was something I did to surrender to life and descend into my own madness.I binged to numb the anxiety and fear that believers in scarcity experience. I binged because I was panicked that there would not be enough wonderful things for me. I was sure I’d be overlooked, left out, because there could not possibly be enough love or acceptance or time or money or food or attention or joy for me to get what I needed.Binging was like grabbing, hoarding. I remember bursting into my house after school and feeling like I couldn’t breathe until I downed every leftover in the fridge, and purged it all out. The moment between the binge and the purge was excruciating, terrifying…that feeling of being so FULL. I would have done ANYTHING to get rid of that full feeling. It felt like hell. Probably because I was full of the wrong things.

But after reading Krystal’s comment it struck me that lately I have felt filled with the right things. And I’d like to spend this week acknowledging and exploring this miracle in my life. Because when you finally start winning, it’s a good idea to review the game tapes and find out what you’re doing right, so you can try to keep doing those things.

This week, Momastery is dedicated to how I learned to feed myself.

The first thing I had to do was get quiet enough to learn what I was really hungry for.

I am extremely sensitive to voices. I tend to listen closely, believe, and obey. In order to start making this tendency work for instead of against me, I had to decide which voices to allow into my head and which voices to silence.

Right now there are teams of experts all over the world determining how to make you and me feel needy enough to buy their clients’ jeans, homes, diet pills, what have you. They have degrees in psychology and they are paid to use them to make us anxious and insecure. Since I get anxious and insecure easily, it is crucial to my peace to silence some of the media’s noise. Because even the noise that’s not a direct lie is still a distraction from the truth. The media noise waves its arms and says LOOK! LOOK OVER HERE! SOMETHING SHINY!SOMEONE SKINNY! SOMETHING UGLY! because it doesn’t want me to rest in silence. The noise has ulterior motives, and it needs to convince me of things that it knows the silence will refute. The noise does not want me to be filled, to be satisfied. It needs me to keep binging, and purging, so I’ll binge again, literally or figuratively. The noise knows that in the silence I might hear that still, small voice- the one who will tell me what I’m really hungry for. If the voices of the media are making you crave the wrong things like they did me, shut them out, a little at a time. Because we must practice taking care of ourselves.

Maybe you are less vulnerable to the media’s noise than I am. Maybe it’s the voice of a toxic friendship that’s making you anxious. I’ve been there, too.It is said that each person enters our lives for a reason, and while I suspect this is true, I also suspect that the reason some enter is so that we can practice politely requesting that they exit. This is an important survival skill. We must practice taking care of ourselves.

Sometimes, in the hardest cases, the poisonous noise comes from family. I’ve heard from many women who explain that it’s their families that make them anxious and insecure. They have parents or spouses who are abusive or siblings who are dangerously competitive or adult children who are sucking them dry. But they don’t protect themselves because of the guilt that accompanies silencing family. I get it, but this Chinese proverb rings true to me: “It is said not to bite the hand that feeds you, but maybe you should, if that hand keeps you from feeding yourself.” We must practice taking care of ourselves.

Shutting out the malignant, and even the benign voices is how I learned who I really am and what I’m really hungry for.And each day I need to find that stillness again in order to remember.Silence to me means no television, no radio, no magazines, no people. No input. Just God and me. Mother Teresa once told a reporter that she prayed for several hours a day and the reporter said “What do you say to God during all that time?” and she said “Not much, I just listen.” And he said “Well, then what does God say?” and she said “Not much, He just listens.” And that is my favorite description of prayer, ever. For me it’s not hours, my silence is sometimes a matter of minutes. God works with whatever I offer.

I’m not interested in offering or receiving advice. Whenever I share something with someone and they offer advice, I end up wishing I never shared at all. So I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I’m just suggesting you get quiet enough, somehow, so you can hear God’s advice. Give God the time and space to tell you who you are and what you’re hungry for – just in case you have the wrong idea about yourself and your hunger, like I did.

When I finally got quiet enough, here’s what happened. Over time, I heard God tell me that the love, appreciation, intimacy, comfort, truth, and freedom that I was hungry for were unlimited and mine for the taking. But I would never find them in a bar or refrigerator or mall. He promised that if I decided to remain in those places He would love me exactly the same, but that I would never feel filled. He told me that if I wanted to feel filled, I could try hearing and telling the truth. So now when I get insecure or anxious because I have forgotten that there is enough and I am enough…instead of hitting the fridge or bottle or mall, I quickly get quiet and breathe deeply. And I try to remember what I’m really hungry for. Then I come here, to the keyboard, and make my fingers move. And I dance with the monsters in my head. And when they gnash their terrible teeth and roar their terrible roars, I stand up tall, hold my scepter high, and secure my crown. Then I stare my monsters down without blinking once and I say,

Awww…look at you. You were never really that scary at all, were you? Stop bossing me. I am the boss of YOU.

BE STILL! Now Line Up. And DANCE!

In the quiet, I am Queen of the Wild Things. And that is enough.

“And now, cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

Oct 292009

This post is dedicated to my new blog friend, Joelle.

My college experience was a little….vague. I am told that I had an excellent time, but I can’t be sure. Mercifully, I mostly recall college as a seven year black out, but sometimes a memory of something I did, said, or worse, WORE, hits me like a wave of nausea, and I marvel at how I made it out of there alive.

Throughout college I had this sweet little ritual where I’d enjoy a couple dozen drinks and then go for a walk, perhaps at 3 am. And then, usually, I’d get lost and decide to go ahead and sleep in a cozy parking lot or under a tree somewhere in town. It was like camping, except without a tent, clue, or functioning liver. There must have been a strict No Camping rule in my college town though, because I was often awakened by annoyed men and women with guns. These uniformed bandits were not my parents, although it would take me a good three minutes to understand this. They would ask me why I was on the ground and I would assure them that I planned to explain just as soon as they told me where we all were, and also, my name.

Fortunately they actually would be able to teach me my name because, well, we’d met before. We went way back. And they’d invite me into the back of their cozy car and put shiny silver handcuffs on me. And I would sort of settle in and ask them how their families were, and they’d tell me. They liked me, and I liked them. I went to school in a sleepy little town, and so I like to think that maybe the night police shift was glad to have the company.

So we’d continue to catch up and all would go smoothly, but inevitably during the ride to my new camping spot my officers would get frustrated. Because every time they turned around to check on me, my handcuffs would be off and placed in a tidy pile on the seat beside me. So they’d stop the car and put them back on. And I’d take them back off. My wrists are very small and I had decided that while it may have been silly for one to sleep under a tree in January, it was ridiculous for one to PRETEND that one is handcuffed. I just couldn’t fake it, though I did try for the sake of my police friends. I have a paralyzing respect for authority, so I was always vehemently on their side. But they really were going to have to do better with the handcuffs. I understood that they weren’t arresting child sized people often, but still. I explained that it was probably important to be better prepared.

{A few years ago, Craig and I were watching Cops and I noticed that police forces had started using plastic cuffs that look like garbage bag ties which close more tightly. I got very excited and told Craig that I was positive that the plastic tie handcuff innovation was inspired by me and my mini wrists. He stared, as always, and then asked me to never share that theory with anyone. But it’s hard not to discuss what may have been a real contribution to the law enforcement community on my part.}

When we got to the station I would say hello to Tom and Carla, who were often in charge of checking me in. “Booking,” I believe they called it. They were lovely people, just lovely. And they’d lead me into my very own private cell which made me feel like a bit of a celebrity, to tell you the truth. Special treatment, you know. One time, after having been there for a few hours I called Carla over and asked her if I could be released early for good behavior. I’d been quite well behaved that night, if I did so say myself. She said no, it didn’t work that way. But she did agree that I was being especially good, so she shared her granola bar with me. I was deeply touched.

Eventually I’d fall asleep and I’d awake in the morning and call my long suffering friend Dana, who had always wisely slipped an index card with our phone number into my back pocket. And she’d pick me up and we’d go to Waffle House and discuss what we were going to wear that night.

Wow. Strange, but true.

I started thinking of these stories yesterday when I got an email from a woman who is a sheriff deputy and reads this blog daily. In her email she thanked me for inspiring her. I was up all night thinking about her and how proud I am that she’s reading my blog. I forwarded her email to my dad with the subject line: DAD- THE POLICE ARE READING MY BLOG! which was probably so much more enjoyable for him to receive than my usual announcement “DAD- THE POLICE ARE READING MY RIGHTS!”

You guys, I don’t want to sound boastful, but I think I’m finally coming up in the world.

Joelle, Tom, Carla, Grandpa, and every other kind and dedicated officer. Thank you. Thank you for protecting me from bad guys, even when the bad guy is me. Thank you for serving so bravely and honorably. Thank you for improving all of my camping experiences exponentially. And thank you, especially, for the granola bar. I was really hungry. I appreciate you.