Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Day in Paradise

Dear Little Man,

It's time for me to run out a buy a few things for work and I fear I will be up half the night getting things done. I've been working a lot this week and not getting home until the night is black and the air frigid. And tomorrow, I will get up at the break of dawn and do it again. But I just needed to tell you a few things. I have started so many posts for this blog and never get back to them because they get too long and personal. So I will keep this short and simple, but it's a record, a shot in time of who I hope we both can become.

Today, as I was driving to work, I saw a number of homeless individuals. Some I have seen many times before and they seem... well, almost like this is their profession. And it's possible that it is. There will come a time in your life when you learn that things are not always what they seem and that some people will take advantage of your heart. I will hate to see you learning that lesson, but it's also important and will hopefully help you define your own morals and how you can help people.

However, there was a man today that I hadn't seen before. He was far off the road and was not asking for anything. In fact, he didn't seem to want any help. His clothes were tattered and his beard was long and white. He had a shopping cart loaded with his possessions and he appeared to be looking for things to recycle. I passed him right before getting on the interstate and thought about him for the next 50 miles. His name, his life, his story. How he came to live in this way... if he was happy...safe...warm. If he loved someone and if someone out there loved him too. How little it takes to put people into that situation.

When I was 8, I thought I could save the world. I remember looking at my closet doors in the warm glow of my nightlight and think about going to Africa. I was simply going to build everyone houses and make them food and solve everyone's problems.

When I was 11, I was in the front seat of Papa's little blue S-10 truck. The back was loaded with tools- my brother and I were tagging along as he had to go fix something. We traveled down Rt. 48, a road we traversed often. We saw a grungy man walking along the side of the road and I guess I snapped. I cried until we stopped at a gas station and I was allowed to buy him some food. We turned around and drove by the man, slowing down enough to pull over and give him the bag and some kind words. Papa was tolerant, my brother was befuddled and irritated at my emotional outburst. But I felt that I did something good in the world. As we pulled away, we saw a cop car pull over to the man. I remember feeling so deflated- we were just trying to do something nice, and I felt like I got him in trouble.

At 18, I was going to be a psychologist. I was going to work in the United Nations. Or be a nurse. Or a teacher. But no matter what, I was going to help people.

The first song I taught myself on the piano was Phil Collin's "Another Day in Paradise." The haunting notes at the beginning and the lyrics touched something raw inside of me and I played it for years. I listened to a different version of it tonight:

This weekend, we are going to sit down and listen to this song. We are going to talk about being homeless and needing help. We are going to brainstorm things that we can do to make this a better world. And then we are going to do it.

We can't save the world, but we can do something important and good. You are my gift from God and I don't want either of us to ever forget that we have His love in us to share.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is There a Baby In Your Tummy?

So much to write about and so little time. But I did want to take a moment for a quick service announcement for people to understand the manatees in your life.

This morning I dropped off my little man at preschool. I usually do it every Tuesday and Thursday and then take a brisk 1.5 mile walk around the adjacent business park. I've only been doing this for about six weeks. I am hoping to increase my health and decrease my waistline. I'm concerned with the way I carry my weight- despite that fact I have to much and always have, the way I carry it in my belly is shown to be correlated to higher risks of all sorts of nasty things I don't want, like heart attack, stroke and diabetes. I also want to increase my energy and general health levels.

I eat too much. There is just no way around it. Compounded with the fact that I have been obese since the age of four, I have also played havoc with my metabolism with a variety ill-fated ideas and diet attempts. But, again, the truth must lie in the simple fact that I eat too much and don't burn enough.

But here is my big secret and the one that people get angry about: I don't hate myself.

I'm not filled with self-loathing, nor do I pine for that "someday" when I will be thin so that I can start living. I am living and I have a happy life. Not perfect. And some days, not so happy. But my happiness does not depend on my size. It can't. If that were true, I would have wasted 34 precious, wonderful years.

That doesn't mean I will stop trying. I am going to try to eat less. I am try to stop eating to fulfill emotional needs instead of nutritional needs. I am going to keep increasing my physical activity. I find great peace in my morning walks, yoga and Nia. I can't wait until it gets warm enough to swim again. And there are a lot of other physical things that I want to add to my repertoire.

And trust me- I have certainly tried to apply self-loathing at different times and spent a lot of time with it as a youth. Most recently I have tried Overeaters Anonymous groups. And while there are some aspects of it that I think I can grow & learn from, the part that I don't like is the loathing. There are stories of people who were very, very unhappy when fat. People who hid from life, not wanting to go out, not having healthy relationships. And as I would listen, I would try to relate. I felt that it I couldn't relate that I wasn't trying hard enough or wasn't being honest with myself. Clearly I am fat, so I must be much more unhappy than I realize. Listening to folks talk about how happy they are now- I must be missing out. But the last group that I was at, I had a surge of emotion... and it was because I was feeling that being in that room was keeping me from enjoying a beautiful Saturday morning with my family. And I felt that I was missing *that*.

But here's the thing- we are have different, personal journeys. I will go back to OA and I will continue to read the literature and look to grow my serenity, courage and wisdom. And I'm going to continue to work on my nutritional and physical activity. But it's not because I think my life will begin when & if I am thin... but rather, because I love my life and my son and I want to be around for both as long as possible.

So, back to what started this post. On this frigid Florida morning, I finally lured my son out of his warm covers. My husband, who had to leave especially early for the end of semester catch up, left little man a sweet note in his room that made us both smile. The sun was streaming in the window as we got ready, happy and singing. Our little old geriatric wiener dog, Abby, stuck her snout out from under the baby blanket next to LM's bed and sent us into giggles. I had warm, clean laundry and I was just very happy with life. I put my hair in a ponytail and threw on my walking clothes- no makeup to cover the weird skin issues I've had lately- I'd be sweating off any attempts at it and was already looking forward to the shower I allowed myself after I got my heart rate up. A little coffee and sudefed to help with the cold I refuse to acknowledge and we were off to school.

Once there, a little classmate looks up and ask, "Do you have a baby in your tummy?" Now- this is not the first (or second, or even third) time that a wide-eyed child has asked me that. And honestly, I wish the answer was yes (that's a whole different post). But I said, "Nope!" with a smile. A little girl sitting next to him said, "Well, why is your belly, uh, ummm" and uses her hands to indicate roundness. My reply? "Well, sweetie, I guess I just eat too much food." One of Little Man's teacher- a young one, still a student- looked a little mortified and said, "OH! Kids are just too honest," or something to that effect. I didn't leave feeling sorry for myself- but I did feel bad that she was so uncomfortable.

I related the story to my husband on the phone as I drove away and he remarked that I still sounded in a good mood. Here's the thing- kids are innocent and curious. If that had been a malicious 45-year-old man in a bar, I may have felt differently. But not because he would point out something I didn't know (um, yeah, I may have noticed my size. It didn't just sneak up overnight) but because he would be initially trying to be mean and I hate that. I hate it anywhere I see it.

So that's it- PSA over. Plenty of work and sunlight await me... I hope the same for you.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Making This American

Originally Created on Veteran's Day 2010:

I grew up an overly earnest child in the 80s and in my small town we said the pledge of allegiance every morning in the public school. And while I could clown around and question authority at other times during the day, in the morning I made sure my spine was straight, my hand firmly on my heart. My words were clear, as some of my classmates would mumble. My body turned, my eyes fastened on the flag. There were certain things you could mess with in life, but not the pledge. I was always astounded at the children- and yes, sometimes adults- who didn’t stand quickly, who didn’t pledge sincerely. For me it was a part of being American. I didn’t understand yet what that might mean, but I knew that the pledge was solemn and meant something so profound that I wouldn’t dare risk the wrath of whatever higher power was watching my action and judging my intent.

Soon enough, I was donning my brown Girl Scout jumper every week to meet after school at a local church. So many silly memories of the time come rushing back- of crafts and songs and camping and navigating the social landmines of being a girl- but what I remember most is the flag at the front of the room and ending each meeting grasping the small sweaty hand of the girl next to you while singing Taps.

Day is done, gone the sun, From the lake, from the hills, from the sky; All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

And I knew in my young heart that God was nigh. He was close and He cared and He was watching and He knew that I believed in Him.

And that uniform, dotted with badges sewn on by my mother, would be put back on with incredible care so that I could march in the parades that would wind through our main street and end at Rose Hill Cemetery. At the gravestones, small flags and plastic flowers would be carefully placed and we would end the ceremony among them with a lone trumpet playing Taps. The sound of that in my memory still brings me to tears. Day is done, gone the sun….

In a few simple years, I would live next to that cemetery in an old house and I could look out the tiny triangle window in my closet and see the cemetery at night. It became my sacred playground, where I would ride my bike and gaze at the gravestones. The ones of babies who never got a chance at life. The ancient stones with dates whose etchings were beginning to become indistinct. Countless hours spent on a bench next to the memorial with a small fish pond. I would wonder about the lives that came before these stones. And I came to recognize the surnames engraved so carefully. They were relatives of my classmates, my neighbors.

And soon, they bore the names of those that I loved dearly.

First, it was my grandfather, “Poppy”. A man who spent his life working at General Electric and when I stayed with my grandparents he would bring White Castles when he came home from second shift. He would also fill old tin coffee tins with his spare change and those became the funds that would eventually send me to college. My grandparents moved closer to us and I was able to walk to their new suburban tract house when we all lived “behind Van Luenens,” which remains a geographical designation, despite the long absence of that particular store. This was the home where my grandfather would grow tomatoes and zucchini and roses. The place we would celebrate holidays. And then it was the place where my grandfather recovered from his stroke and learned to function with the use of just one hand. It was the place I would go so that I could trim my grandpa’s nails, since he couldn’t anymore. And with his good hand, he would still put up Christmas lights, still pull out the one dollar bills that he would use to pay me for each “A” on my report card. He would gather my grandmother, myself and my baby brother and drive his small red, modified car to Norma’s Restaurant, where he would proudly show off his grandkids to the other old timers while my grandmother ordered peanut butter pie.

But the memory that is most vivid to me today is that of my grandfather using his good hand to turn the pages of the scrapbook that held the images of his time of service in WWII. The brittle pages held pictures of a handsome young man posing by seductive female forms drawn on the noses of airplanes. Of that same man brandishing a machete, and later mocking the image of Adolph Hitler. And then we would come to the page with the folded white silk of the Japanese flag that was spotted with blood. A souvenir of something so intangible that I still refuse to put words together to try to describe it. We never talked of the war outside of the times that we looked at the scrapbook. And before I could blink, his name was carved on a stone in Rose Hill, a small American Flag placed in his honor on Veteran’s Day.

And then it was my grandmother. My “Mom-mom.” A woman whose love was so profound in my life that I still have a hard time controlling my tears even twenty years after her death. It still pains me that she left this world when I was still too immature to really know her. In my lifetime, she was frail and small. She battled lung cancer and uncomfortable wigs my whole life. She was the giver of treats and unconditional love. The maker of zucchini bread and memories. I have countless writings dedicated to her memory and her role in my life. But most outstanding is the picture I have of her in her youth, looking glamorous and standing on a building in New York City, when she served as Sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps. We never spoke of it and I wish we did. I don’t know what her life was like, what she did, what she saw. I have that picture- and the etchings on her gravestone- to remind me that there was much more to her story.

My other grandfather fought in the Korean War. He was emotional, cantankerous- especially as we debated politics- and I think, at times, befuddled how someone like me could have popped up in his family tree. I don’t know of all of the ways that war affected him and his story went to rest with him. But I do know- quite clearly- that he took great pride in the idea that his family continued to grow and that with each new birth, his story continues. I have incredible gratitude that before he passed I was able to introduce him to my newborn son

Today, on this Veteran’s Day, I think of the many lives that I have only glimpsed in on. Of the volunteer who proudly showed me the photos of her newly enlisted son. Later, she shared his wedding photos and then that of his pregnant wife. And then, right after I had moved hundreds of miles away, his obituary. His memorial. A picture of the child he did not get to see born. There are other stories still too new and too sore to tell, some that I do not own but that have clenched my heart all the same.

At times I have lost faith in the human race. My belief in fairness and compassion have been tested and shaken. I no longer have the blind, unquestioning zeal of childhood to neglect the bumps of reality that crop up when considering the world. I can hardly stomach politics. But my patriotism is soaked in sincere love and woven into my fiber of my story. And again I thank those who protect and those who make it worth protecting.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Overcoming Panic with Lamb Riding

The countdown is on! We leave tomorrow at 5:55 and I am electrified with terror. I'm at the computer, putting together final agendas and double-checking everything, so I'm quiet... but screaming inside. Little man is coloring pictures for us. I worked out earlier and that took the edge off my nerves... until Hubby started changing things up on me. And then the email came from Delta to check in and since then my blood pressure has been racing. I can't decide if I should buy travel insurance and I'm in a silent tizzy, my shoulders tight. I'm coiled like a snake and ready to... what? What am I ready for? Technically, my bags are packed and ready. My body, my heart is not.

* I have to take a minute to laugh. This is the JOYFUL journey blog, after all, and you begin with a healthy dose of anxiety. I am happy to be taking this trip and incredibly thankful. I just have to record it all. Maybe I was this scared before and forgot it. This documentation might help next time. Yeah. That's the ticket!*

Okay, back to my kvetching. My house is a hot mess (in every sense) but it's okay. Yes, my dear friend and mother will be in here, presumably trying on my clothes, jumping on my bed and digging through my closets to find skeletons... but I've foiled them with my extremely messy house. They won't be able to find a thing! I could stay up all night cleaning, but with my cold, PMS and aforementioned anxiety I think it would be a mistake. Sure, the house would gleam. But I would probably be on the lam for some type of crime of passion. So, truly, I'm helping society by not cleaning. Yes, it's true. I expect to earn my sainthood anytime for these contributions to the betterment of the world :)

As I typed the last sentence, I had a moment of doubt. I'm sure it's "on the lam" but suddenly I have an image of me riding a lamb. And that mental image is funny. I feel a crazy cackle coming on. Imagine it a bit like this, will ya?

So, whilst on Google Images to find this, I found out that there is a lamb riding academy. Yes, truly. This is not a fact that I have ever possessed before, so I applaud the use of the internet to advance my knowledge. And, I have the site that this lovely picture was found open in another tab and it's complete with baaaaaaiiinnnnnnggg sounds effects. Which is blending nicely with my current Pandora channel, French cafe. You've really never heard "When I Fall In Love" until you heard it with sheep bleating.

So, I started this post in a panic and ended up quite amused. That was cheap therapy there, my friends.

It's time to dig up that lovely white jacket now... I'm sure that qualifies as a "personal carry-on item" doesn't it?

When Doves Cry

Who are the girls in a juvenile detention facility?
One girl was filled with rage, striking out at the world. It was because she was watching her big brother get lost in drugs and felt helpless to save him and angry that no one seemed to care.
Many of the girls were runaways… from people who had hurt them, ignored them, hit them, violated them, taken advantage of them. Some raised their siblings and yes, some of them had their own children.
All of them shared the common bond that somewhere along the way they were let down by the people who were supposed to love and protect them.
My first visit to the DOVE Juvenile Detention Facility was both better and worse than I thought. It was clear that there was a committed and caring staff that put all of their resources together to make a safe and nurturing place for these girls. The cafeteria was painted in a beautiful yellow and tables were covered in bright, cheerful tablecloths. The library was a wonderful room with books and movies and a large television. There were pictures and artwork everywhere testifying to bonds that these girls have formed with their caregivers. One picture in the main hallway stopped me in my tracks. It was a young teen hugging a little girl, with the concrete glistening below and behind them. You couldn’t see either face, as they were buried in each other. But the pain and longing was so clear in their stances. It was taken on a family visitation day and the two sisters clung to each other.
There was ample evidence of all the normal things that you would see with any girl between the age of 15-18, but there were plenty of locked doors and stark reminders that would remind you that this was not an ordinary place. Somehow these girls went too far down the wrong path and were required to “do their time.” The hope, though, is that they would find new, brighter paths, self-confidence and caring adults who will lead them to better lives than the ones that had been laid out before them.
There are a lot of people fighting for their futures, but the reality is painful. As I was leaving one office, a co-worker brought in a card to be signed. One of the past residents of DOVE was getting a sympathy card from the staff, full of loving messages. Her brother had been murdered. I wondered how many other cards this girl would receive… how many people who notice the life that had ended and the girl who was so affected from it?
This is where I want to spend more time, which will be hard since it is a two-hour drive from my home. I want to know the girls and their stories. I want to find more mentors for them and open them up to new possibilities in the world. I want to bring them the yarn so that they can continue to make the beautiful blankets that they donate to vets in wheelchairs. I want to get sheets and pillowcases and blankets for all the girls who have the cold, stark beds.
Some of these girls have never played before. They’ve never had a chance to simply be a child. And because that was robbed from them, they found other ways to try to survive in this world. But how do you give someone a childhood? How do you go back and help them reinvent themselves and be open to love and kindness when it was so alien to their existence?
I don’t have the answers. I am learning about the models, the psychology and all the reality. In the meantime, I shall look for the resources. The soft blankets, the kind mentor, all the things- large and small- that will help them to imagine a world where people care.

As Souls March By...

This is a re-post about the my impressions of the lives that I will come to know through my new job. I wrote it two weeks ago and it is part of a series. As I visit these facilities, I want to share the things that I am seeing and learning.

It’s the end of my second week on the job. Yesterday I drove over an hour and set up shop at one of the juvenile detention facilities where we serve boys with Boys & Girls Club programming. In between a series of meetings, I was alone in the clubhouse on campus. The boys were still attending classes, so it was quiet and through the windows I could enjoy the sunlight streaming in as I typed up policies and ideas. The campus is remote and on a large expanse of what appears to have once been rolling farmland. Periodically, I would see the boys marching by in a straight line, led or followed by a counselor, all matching in their facility-issued uniforms. The boys are mostly in the middle of their teen years and every shape and size and skin color glistens in the sunlight as they cast shadows upon concrete block walls.
I don’t yet know these boys. I don’t know their stories or their names or the reasons that they ended up here. I don’t know their hopes or dreams, what keeps them up at night, what monsters hide under their beds, what demons they must escape. I remember being this age and being scared of boys, their grungy faces and sometimes explosive emotions remote and jagged, even as I experience my own explosion of teen emotions. And later in my life I taught boys this age and they remained a riddle. Education and psychology allowed me to understand and predict their actions, but I still felt as if I were observing an alien species.

But it’s only a few minutes later that I am truly distracted. It’s a new group walking by and at the tail of the line is a very small boy who is practically swallowed up by his uniform and in shoes that are clearly too big. I’m sitting with my boss, a caring man who has dedicated his whole professional career to the club.
The air in my throat catches and he tells me that the little boy is nine. He’s so small, though, that he looks more like six or seven. Not so many inches taller than my own little boy. My little boy who is the center of my universe and the joy of my every day. My little boy who can confound and confuse me and wear me out with his energy and daring, but who also owns my heart more completely than I do.
Why is this little boy here? What did he do? Is there a mother out there grieving, wondering how she went wrong? What is a simple bad decision or a series of actions knitted together so tightly by fate that this little boy was caught in a fabric too enormous to find a fold to peak out of?
I can’t stop thinking of his face and even now my heart is clenched into a fist of resolve. I think of my own life, with advantages and pain and the bright beacons of good souls that helped to guide me when I was lost. My mind wanders to those I have loved and how some of them were lost and found… and some were lost forever, leaving only memories of regret.
We are not alone in this journey and when we lose our children to dangerous paths, we lose part of a beautiful future. I can’t say that I spent a lot of time thinking about children who are in the detention system before now and I know that many people may wonder why they should care about kids they don’t know. If it’s not their child who is lost, they pat themselves on the back for the marvelous job that they have done as a parent. And yet, we are all bound together with lives that continue to astound me with complex serendipity.
All it took for me was one little lost soul marching by to really get it. He needs more caring adults in his life. He needs opportunities to learn and to be successful in new and different ways. He needs the support system of the Club once he is released. He must be shown the myriad of paths that he can choose and feel confident about those who are before, beside and behind him.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Traveling with my heart outside my body

It's a pretty standard morning here in the Manatee household... the smells waft by from a questionably nutritious breakfast and Little Man wanders from room to room, bouncing between us like a pin-ball machine. Sunday mornings are for chilling and slow starts, although we have managed to cook and clean the tiniest bit and gave the geriatric wiener dog a bath (I can take no credit for that, unless my constructive encouragement-aka, nagging- can be counted). I listen to hubby soak in his bath down the hall and Little Man has rediscovered his toy laptop with a variety of annoying electronic songs. I don't mind because I love it when he plays with any toy instead of requesting the television that I dislike so much. Every few minutes, one of us will punctuate the air with the chorus from "double rainbow," the strangely addictive viral video on YouTube at the moment.

I live for these mornings, when we are safe together with no agenda but to simply be together. We'll go swimming at the community pool in another hour, provided Florida doesn't pull one of her bait & switch weather routines that she likes so much in the summer.

So, in the midst of this peaceful happiness, why is it that I feel close to bursting out in tears and having a panic attack? In fact, I feel bad even taking the time to type these words, like a giant clock is ticking and I have mere moments that I must spend as wisely as possible.

At the end of this week, the hubby and I go on an amazing journey to Europe. It's my first time, a culmination of over 20 years of longing. He has not been for almost that long after a lone stay as a summer exchange student in France. But he had a chance to present at a conference in Italy and that meant that most of his travel expenses would be covered from a grad-school travel account. After all the ups and downs in this roller-coaster of life lately, we decided not to surrender this chance.
So, for 10 days we will wander though Paris, Chartres, Padua and Venice.

It is surreal to me that this is actually happening. I've always been a brave and willing traveler and Little Man has known his share of hotel rooms and road trips. He's standing next to me right now, practicing writing on the little erasable marker boards that I mounted at his height next to my new home office. In between my words, I stop and help him spell and copy my to-do list (oh, and here comes another chorus of Double Rainbow).

We knew that taking Little to Europe would be too much. Beyond the money, I knew he couldn't tolerate the endless walking and the cobblestones and cathedrals will simply not hold as much wonder to his young mind. I was also scared to navigate an alien world with him in tow- how do I struggle to communicate and keep an eye on pickpockets with him? So instead he is staying with my mother. It's an arrangement that we are grateful for and I am sure that they will both enjoy... but it's also heart wrenching. Each of us has taken a few business trips since his birth and it was hard even then. I would imagine horrible accidents befalling one of us and it would be stop my heart for a few beats. But even then, there was comfort in knowing that he always had at least one parent with him should the worst ever happen.

((In the last few minutes, I have maintained a number of conversations, make some juice, and partaken in some wiener dog drama. I fear that this blogging concept alone will require me to construct some type of Unibomber-esque dwelling to hide away in. But I digress.))

So, now I prepare to travel for the first time without my heart, simultaneously living a dream and a nightmare at the same time. The paradox of parenthood continues to astound me. My carry-on mocks me, since it can never hold the most important element of my life. But we will go, we will learn. We will come back smarter, more adventurous parents and will forge a path that we will take him on when we return.

But my heart will be here and already I look forward to my return.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Oh no... I have a blog!

Oh gentle sea cow, large and misunderstood... you and I are woven from the same threads of creation and just as often mistaken for mermaids.

And so I present to you, curious reader, my adventures- large & small- as a journey through the currents of live.

In the most broad titles, I am...
A mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend and maybe even an arch-nemesis.

I'm a writer who doesn't write enough. Some of my writings are either dark, disturbing poetic ramblings so intense that they freak Emo kids out or so infused with blinding joy that I look at them later and ponder the legalities of hormone fluctuations.

But it's time to practice making sense in words on a more regular basis than is required by my paid chores. To silence the nagging perfectionist and simply write- even if the words aren't sculpted. It was one of the great artists- Michelangelo or De Vinci- who is credited with a quote about not being an artist, but rather chipping away at the marble and finding the image inside. That's my intention with these words- do chip away at the armor of my life and see what is revealed.

I also want to capture a record for myself and my little man, to make a digital time capsule of our lives together. The four and a half years since he was born have sped by in a blur of pictures and it's time to slow it down a little bit and create a record of who we are at these precise moments.

At the same time, I continue to learn, explore and morph into the being that I am supposed to become and I want to document this path and perhaps meet some kindred souls along the way.

I suppose that the best I can promise is inconsistency. Some days I'll pour forth introspection, followed by rants and observations about the bizarre. Some days will be pictures of the beautiful things in the world and hopefully many, many days of laughter and quirky celebrations of not fitting inside the places for square pegs.

So let's join hands and wander the open fields of our minds together.