Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Into 2015 with Resolve and a Shorter List

Is anybody really good at New Year's resolutions? Every year when January 7 rolls around and I've mangled every single one, I remember that Lent is coming in two months and I have another chance, so I can give up again for a bit. I don't like to fail, but I fail spectacularly at these.

Mostly, I think it's the type of resolutions that I make. Exercise more. Spend less. Volunteer more. Yell less. They're generic and abstract and utterly unattainable when phrased like that.

So I've been rethinking resolutions, with a little help from my mid-30s and from my friend Heidi. My mid-30s have found me college-educated, employed in a job I love, married, mortgaged, and mommy-ed. Last week I found myself in a panic because there was no concrete milestone (that wasn't actually my kids' milestones) in sight except menopause. I've always looked ahead for the next "thing," and suddenly, I have no more "things." Vague "traveling" and "writing my novel" feel slippery and distant. I love my life, but for me, having a defined, achievable goal gives me balance and a tether in this tumultuous world.

And then my friend Heidi, ever the realist, told me that she had a New Year's resolution that was simply to finish "Moby-Dick" within the year. Nothing glamorous or abstract about such a resolution, but also not pressure, no competition, and no guilt. After all, it's just a book.

With these two disparate thoughts clanging around in my head as I sit here, drinking bad champagne and waiting for Chef Matt to come home so we can watch even worse TV, I think I've found a middle ground for 2015. And there are only three. Double-digit resolutions are the expressway to early-January failure.

1. Re-read a couple books from high school that I hated.

There weren't that many that I truly hated, but I can think of a few: "The Scarlet Letter," "The Invisible Man," and "The Old Man and the Sea" are ones that I haven't touched in 17 years. I can't even remember why I hated them, why I feel repulsed every time I see them on a "Greatest Novels Ever That Everyone Who Thinks They're Smart Should Read" list. So it's time for a revisit. I think sometimes we hang on to an opinion for so long that the original motivation for that opinion is completely lost. If it's in our power to do so, rethinking beliefs and ideas that are comfortable and part of us, even if we ultimately come to the same conclusion, is healthy and might make us more willing to hear what others have to say. I'll start with books (probably "The Old Man in the Sea," because Hemingway and I don't see eye-to-eye on anything) and see where that takes me.

2. Write something.

Vague and specific, best of both worlds. I love to write, to twirl the words around my fingers and release them on the page and feel exhilarated when they land in an exact expression of the thoughts in my head. A long time ago, someone told me that a writer is always writing, no matter what they're doing. and it's the truth. I write in my head almost all the time, but rarely does that writing ever end up in black and white. Time and energy: those are my excuses. and they're good ones. But what I've failed to embrace is that the words I write don't have to be brilliant or complete or for anyone but me, and that hesitation has cost me. So this year, I will write. It might be a Word document with a series of one-liners: "Today, I ....." Or it might be this sadly neglected blog. Or it might be one of my actual writing projects that I've crafted in my head over years of sitting in traffic. As the transcendent Maya Angelou said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

3. Model positive self-image.

This one sounds like I pulled it straight from a suggested resolutions list. But it might be the most personal for me, so hear me out. My self-esteem and I are perpetually warring nations. Every time I think we've declared an armistice, it comes back with some mixture of new and old weapons that I just can't defeat. And it leaks out into my work and my health and my relationships, in particular the relationships with my kids. I don't want my kids to see what I see when I look in the mirror.  I want them to look in the mirror and see bright, thoughtful, inquisitive, silly people, but that confidence doesn't all come from within. They see the way I talk about myself and treat myself, and no matter how highly my husband might speak of me in front of them, the poor self-image will always break though, at least a little.

So it's baby steps here. It's saying, "thank you" to a compliment. It's fighting the urge to internally criticize every word I've said in a conversation. It encompasses those usual resolutions of eating better and exercising more, but with a mental component: do it to feel healthy and strong, not just to reach some arbitrary number. It's accepting that I've had four babies and all that comes with that physically. You can tell someone that it doesn't matter, because look at those gorgeous children that you created, but it's sometimes quite another thing to come honestly to terms with the fact that there might be mom jeans in my future. I know this all sounds very recycled; we've heard this a million times before, the person who struggles with nothing original. Maybe, but it's still a struggle. The end goal of all this for me is true, actual belief, which, when projected out at the world and my kids, feels sincere.

The moral of this story, I guess, is that I'm making a resolution to actually make resolutions, to be truthful about what I can accomplish and what needs a little TLC so I can better contribute to the world. A new year always feels a little lighter, as if you've left the cumulative weight of 365 days behind and are forging ahead with determination to be a better version of yourself. And maybe a determination to find better milestones to look forward to than menopause. We are all dreamers on New Year's Eve, right?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Can See the Sunlight Ahead

My children wouldn't have been born.

That's the thought that haunts me when I think about a few terrifying days in the darkest hole of my depression. If I had acted on the notion that the world would be better off without me, the world might have been without me, and without my four beautiful babies. As I listen to their quiet breathing tonight, and as I read the flood of confessions and calls to action following the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, I pray that the other lives teetering on the edge of despair find their way back to solid ground.

Days such as this shock us into movement, and throughout the last 24 hours, people around the world have begged us to seek help and to help others. Inevitably, focus on this issue will fade when the next human tragedy occurs, but I implore you to be vigilant. The dismantling of a human because of depression is not something that can be casually or intermittently patched. It is silent and dark and omnipresent, and to me, it felt like someone dangerous was following me down quiet, black alleys.

I have come out safely on the other side. I still fight some demons, as many of us do, but every single day is no longer a struggle. I have learned to wrestle self-loathing to the ground, to ask for help, and to understand that I am not actually a burden to the world.

But (and here's the really important part that all of us, those who fight depression and those who don't, need to know) I did not do it alone. In college, there were two friends in particular who did not take "I'm fine" for an answer. My family rose up like a great and mighty wall, to offer support and protection at any cost. And my parents, whose fear rattled me, stood armed and ready to combat my depression with love, time, prayer, and listening.

I see my own children, and I worry that hiding in their genetic code is a little of what drove me to desperation. What will be, will be, and no amount of self-love and pride and confidence that I can soak them in will be enough to overwhelm depression, if it appears. I will try to inoculate my kids against it, but must remember that it can hit even those who seem the most collected, the most even. If it comes, I have to unleash the weapons my loved ones used for my sake.

There is much good advice circulating today about preventing suicide and treating depression, and we should sit up and pay attention, and not just for the week or month. We can never know what is inside a person's head, what private struggles cloud their thoughts, but we can be compassionate observers and listeners. I can say with certainty that the road to recovery is difficult, and with equal certainty that each life is worth the effort to listen and love.

Please know that this mountain can be climbed. If you are lost inside your own head, put out your hand to someone on the outside, and they will take it. If you see someone stumbling, even someone who you think is fine or who has overcome in the past, watch for their outstretched hand or just go and take it.

Four little people are on this Earth because I climbed that mountain.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Other Heroes

Let me tell you about my sister. She's younger by two and a half years, loves her job as a veterinary technician, and is a devoted mother to two sweet boys.

At this moment in her life, the thing that is largely defining her existence is one that she inherited through her marriage to her husband, Joe, and one that makes her both proud and scared. She is a military wife, about to bid her deployed soldier farewell.

My sister and I have a lot in common. We are busy working moms, we have similar values, we laugh at many of the same things, we are in secure, loving marriages. And we both have a sense of what it means to struggle with the schedules our husbands' jobs create for us, and the loneliness that battles with pride.

The singularly unique experience of being a military spouse is one that I can't pretend to understand, no matter how much I miss Chef Matt on our long stretches of long days. We all have our private struggles, but I believe that it takes a remarkable sort of woman to be a good military wife.

As the granddaughter of two war veterans and the daughter of an Army brat, I was raised with an understanding and respect for the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. My grandmother, at the end of her honeymoon, watched her new husband leave for Korea. When he returned, he had a son. And so continued their lives through six more children and another war. My grandfather was a patriot and a brave soldier, but so was my grandmother. The sacrifices of soldiers are tremendously important, yet without the equally important sacrifices of their families, it is difficult to keep the world of military active duty in any kind of balance.

As a historian, and a patriot myself, I feel awe and profound appreciation for the men and women that have served since Lexington and Concord. When I learn about the conditions of battlefields and Army camps and trenches and parachuting missions, I can barely believe that so many have answered their country's call. They carry with them their service and the things they have seen, far beyond their active duty. I see my brother-in-law ready to deploy, and I feel that, just as it has been since 1775, our country is in good hands.

But when we think about our soldiers, we cannot forget about those back home. The women and men on the home front kept farms and businesses going, raised children, buried family members, fought to keep from starving, and battled with the fear for their loved ones' fate. I think about the debilitating sadness of a lost husband or father, and the inestimable joy of a safe return. The families are heroes, too.

The next time you see a soldier in uniform, please thank them for their service. No matter what you might think of the military or the war, that is still a soldier who felt driven to serve and protect. But then also send up a prayer or kind thought for that soldier's family. Parents, spouses and children sacrifice and hold life together in a soldier's absence, and though I've never done it, I know that it is difficult and frustrating and unsettling. That family is waking up every morning with one thought in their mind, yet facing a million little things that need to be done. Life goes on, but for the families, it goes on with a temporarily empty chair at the table.

On this Independence Day, I am grateful for my country and its founding principles. I am grateful for our own G.I. Joe, and all the loyal soldiers in our history. And most of all, I am grateful for my sister, and all the other families who have sent their beloveds off to war. We are behind you. You are brave and your soldiers are lucky to have you in their corner.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Life, Kindergarten, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Every time I see an online post titled something to the effect of "20 Things I Will Teach My Daughter" or "75 Things I Want to Do with My Kids to Make Them Active Citizens in an Increasingly Global World", I read it, partly because I want to see how my parental teachings stack up. What nuggets of wisdom am I already imparting and what am I missing?

This week, my daughter finishes kindergarten. In the past seven days, I've also had a preschooler finish his year and a first and third birthday, so you've caught me on a particularly weepy week. But my daughter's matriculation from kindergarten has me thinking about the list of advice I shared with her on her first day of school and wondering if a post titled "3 Things I Said as I Sent My Peanut into the World of Formal Education" would be of use to anyone. Probably not, but here it is anyway.

I gave her a note on her first day, and I told her that while she was in school, she would learn so many things. No matter what she learned, and how old she was, she should always remember these three things.

Be Kind.
Be Curious.
Be Yourself.

Kindness is magic. Even in small doses, it has great healing power. I can remember, with great regret, times when I was unkind to others, and with great relief, times when others were kind to me. Think of all that we might accomplish if we were kinder to each other, if we recollected more often that unkind and kind behavior can leave equal traces. I watched my daughter shrink under the embarrassment of being pushed over on the bus, and then rise with grace at the hand of a sympathetic third-grader.

Curiosity is a kind of Miracle-Gro. Under the influence of a curious nature, we flourish. The world is a curious place, as Alice noted so often while down the rabbit hole, and if we are scared or unwilling or uninterested in asking questions of it, we cannot properly grow into better beings. Our daughter has implanted an infectious curiosity in her brothers; I cannot get through an entire book without a half-dozen inquiries about words' meanings. Even our three-year-old, who doesn't quite know what it means to ask "what does it mean?", is building a habit of asking without fear.

To be yourself is sometimes the greatest challenge of all. We spend a lifetime with ourselves, trying to figure out who we are and what we want, and along the way we sometimes try too hard to fit in or be someone we are not. The person we are cultivating will certainly change, but that change should be on our own terms. Embracing our individual weirdness can be hard, especially in school, but how freeing it is to finally look in the mirror and see the self we want, and not the self that others determine is okay. From the viewpoint of a mother who has always struggled with this, my daughter's unembarrassed self-acceptance is a relief and a joy.

I could have added so many things to this list. Be confident. Be strong. Be proud. Be cautious. Be risky. Be dependable. Be a dreamer. Be a listener. Be a doer. And I'm sure that in time in years of schooling and living, she will learn all of these things.

But last week, when the mounds of papers started coming home, I was reading her writing journal, and I noticed a pattern in her words that cut right to my heart. The lesson that she learned, the "Be" that enveloped her and that I had not thought to include, was present on almost every page: "I was happy."

Perhaps it was just that her vocabulary of emotions wasn't expansive. But I don't think so. I think she genuinely saw that happiness is important, and that so many things make her happy, from the park to her friends to to ice cream to family outings to trips to Grandma's. And her happiness was big enough as she talked about all the doings of her life that she expressed it over and over.

Such is the wisdom of six-year-olds. It matters to be kind, curious, and yourself. But happiness should be front and center. We seek it, it slips by us, we envision it in places or things that are like walls of smoke, we wake with a start to realize that is is staring us in the face. And maybe, in the pursuit of happiness, amongst all the other things we are trying to achieve, we should look for it in the realm of a kindergartner: in parks, ice cream, and family. It's a place to start, anyway.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Dinnertime in the Life Of

5:45 p.m. Basking in the sun at the playground. Wonder vaguely what to make for dinner.

5:53 p.m. Remember that I am supposed to be on a Twitter chat for work, which starts in seven minutes. Attempt to wrangle playing children. Feels a little like a game of Pac-Man.

6:01 p.m. Unceremoniously dump children into the house. Shove a bottle at screaming baby.

6:07 p.m. Now late to the Twitter chat because of inept struggle with the iPad cover.

6:09 p.m. Finally on Twitter chat. Boy #1 escapes outside.

6:12 p.m. Remember that the masses still need to be fed. Begin hard-boiling eggs. Add too much water, which will shortly become another problem.

6:17 p.m. Boy #2 escapes outside.

6:20 p.m. Boiling water overflows. Baby throws bottle at me, howls to be set free of car seat. Twitter chat continues at the speed of light. What are these other people doing at dinner time that they have so much time to Tweet four times a minute?

6:26 p.m. Boy #2 finds the biggest branch in the yard and is wielding it like a sword, all the while teetering on the edge of the landscaping. Boy #1 breaks baseball T and demands I fix it immediately. Threaten loss of all dinosaur toys if they don't behave.

6:28 p.m. Realize we have no fruits or vegetables on the house. Food pyramid fail.

6:35 p.m. Twitter chat is now going so rapidly that my responses coming in two minutes late are clearly "so yesterday."

6:38 p.m. Both boys now running through the yard in their socks. Run out to corral them inside. While retrieving Boy #2, Baby somehow manages to open screen door and is headed outside. Jump down treacherous stairs, with a boy over my shoulder, to save Baby.

6:42 p.m. Crack eggs incorrectly, have to peel shells off in millimeter-sized pieces. Decide that a crunchy egg salad sandwich is exactly what the kids will eat.

6:45 p.m. Yell at three older children for stepping on each other. Discover hidden stash of peaches. Feel slightly less incompetent.

6:46 p.m. Hear Girl consoling crying brother who is sad that Mommy yelled. Feel incompetent all over again.

6:49 p.m. Finally figure out iPad cover, but give up on Twitter chat. Boy #2 dumps full glass of water all over the floor, and then kicks the Baby.

6:53 p.m. Feel slightly crazed and start mumbling to myself. Girl says, "It's okay, Mommy."

6:59 p.m. All children seated, prayers said, eating late dinner. Half ends up on the floor, but no one mentions crunchy eggs.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Married and Happy About It

A happy marriage does not make for very good entertainment, I think. It's the reason that "Downton Abbey" killed off a beloved main character, and it must be the reason that we don't have our own "Housewives" show by this point.

When I write about my happy marriage, it is true and sincere, but probably not very compelling, and quite possibly comes off as boasting. And maybe because the marriages that fill our celebrity news feed are dramatic and tumultuous, the happy marriages out there in the world aren't quite on our radar.

To everyone else, our marriage might seem a little boring. There's very little drama. There's not much in the way of exotic vacations or fancy anything. There's romance, but in the way of "thanks for taking hamburger out of the freezer so I could make tacos tonight" romance. We have our moments, but for the most part, we are happy.

This might only be interesting to read about if it is coming from a cute old couple who's been married for 70 years, or a couple who's come back from the brink and are stronger than ever, or a couple of high school sweethearts who reconnected after 40 years. But what about the everyday cases of happy? Sometimes I feel reluctant to share our happiness, maybe because it might seem too private, and maybe because I don't want anyone to think that we are arrogant in our gushiness.

Good marriages are not newsworthy. Perhaps they should be. "Couple Still in Love, Folds Laundry Together to Celebrate" is not going to sell any newspapers. Yet in that story of folding laundry is the revealing of a thousand little things. It's a sharing of life's mundane responsibilities, the acknowledgement of tensions related to jobs that never seem to get done, the financial strain of so many tiny dirty clothes, the precious 20 minutes spent together watching "Princess Diaries" while sorting two dozen socks without matches. It's ups and downs and boredom and romance, all in one giant pile of laundry.

Can we please talk more about happy marriages, in an honest, hopeful way? We shouldn't try to come off as perfect, but we should be unashamed and genuine in our discovery of a match that is more than we could have wished for. I love to hear people talk about their happiness. We do it at length about our kids and our pets and our jobs, so maybe we should up our game in praising our joyful wedded state.

If you see me posting one too many pictures of Chef Matt on social media, or hear me talk yet again about how awesome he is, don't think that I'm out to brag. Truly, I feel all lit up inside every day of my life, and he brings such peace and confidence into our world. It's bliss that I can barely contain. And if your bliss is powerful, too, as it emanates from love letters or walks on the beach or date-night laundry, then share. We could all use a little more happy.