Easier than you think, harder than I expected: a week in eleven stanzas (Week 2: Goodness and Selfishness)

one

It’s Thursday, and Sean has an important interview on Friday at 3 pm. He’s nervous. I’m nervous. We’re all nervous. It’s a REALLY BIG DEAL and we’re all attached to the outcome.

Jane: Flora and I will do some magic at three. Draw a pentagram on the floor, sacrifice a small..

Flora: Child?

She looks at Ender poignantly as she says this, and the Unicorn’s eyes are so expressive, Ender starts to cry.

Sean: I will be very very upset if you sacrifice any small child, but especially if it’s MY small child.

Flora: But….

Sean: And it sets a dangerous precedent. Once he’s gone… who’s next in line to be sacrificed/ Hmmmm?

Flora: Cinder. The spells always call for the eldest child or the youngest child. For once, being in the middle has a bonus!

By now Ender is howling—fake crying but still—Cinder is threatening to burn Flora’s books—“WE NEVER EVER BURN BOOKS IN THIS HOUSE!!”—that’s my contribution—and Sean’s wondering if perhaps we should stop getting Flora witchcraft books out of the library.

I’m watching. Taking notes, obviously.

two

Hell froze over on Wednesday but after doing all the work and ruining supper (it wasn’t entirely my fault), I trudged through the cold and snow to have tea with a fellow artist.

I learned something important but it’s all confused inside me right now. It’s there… germinating. I suppose it’s a seed.

So thank you for that.

three

On Tuesday, we introduced Ender to Bill Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. Cinder had committed all ten years of the strip to memory by the time he was eight and Flora still sleeps with the complete editions we got her for Christmas—the year she was eight—under her pillow.

Flora: Under my bed.

Jane: Shall I look under your pillow to prove my point?

Flora: No!

Sean and I think Bill Waterson is a genius, and in our more dogmatic moments, believe Calvin & Hobbes should be mandatory reading for all parents—part of pre-natal classes, or maybe delayed till your kinder are three or four, but absolutely mandatory by the time they’re five. You see, Waterson captures so perfectly the inner life and logic a child, the interplay of reality and imagination. The fire and the helplessness, the freedom and the frustration…

I generally think I’m a pretty good parent for two reasons—the the first is that I remember. I remember not just being six and sixteen… but what it felt like to be six and sixteen.

I think one of the tragedies of modern prescriptive-scientific-lived-on-social-media-so-many-books-and-blogs-and-artciles-telling-you-what-you-SHOULD-do parenting is… that most people just don’t remember. They don’t remember what if felt like to be small.

They remember… facts, events, accurately or not. Things done to them, said to them. But they forget… how those things made them feel.

(The second reason, by the way, is that I’m selfish, in a self-aware way. More on that later.)

four

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,  I am super-productive, tying up all the loose ends, running, sprinting—pause, breathe—and then a prolonged interlude to ground myself, see that I’m almost done and revel in what I’m about to finish…

But even in the middle of it all, I take time—make time?—for pleasure and love, sheesha and hot tea, a lover’s embrace. Time slows down, suddenly, everything is possible, everything is clear—everything will get done.

I make time for reading too, not work-related reading (novels are now work-related reading and I do need to figure out how to reset that), but soul-nurturing reading.

You: I thought you were this hard-core atheist.

Jane: Hush. I have a tender little atheistic soul. Don’t crush it.

I read this:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

CS Lewis, The Four Loves

It’s quoted in this book:

Ordinary Goodness by Edward Viljoen… I’m not quite finished the book yet, and I’m not sure I’m going to get to the end. It’s making me feel kind of bad about myself.

Jane: See, I just don’t think I’ve got a drive to be good. Or kind.

Sean: What do you mean?

Jane: I just don’t think I’m that good. The way he defines the word. And I don’t really want to be. All the “practice this” sections? About how to be this person who celebrates and lives and practices ordinary goodness and everyday kindness? I read them and I say, “Fuck, who has time for that? I’d rather be writing.”

Sean: You’re an artist.

Not, I suppose, an altruist. Or much of a humanist, really.

See? Selfishly self-aware.

It has some bonuses, I won’t lie. But also pitfalls.

five

On Monday, I do something not good. Unkind. Selfish. Not even to fulfill a burning desire—more a whim, temper of the moment—I do something that makes me so conscious of my selfishness and unkindness that I weep.

I’m not going to tell you what I did. One, it’s private, two, I’m ashamed, three, it doesn’t matter.

I do something not-good that, yes, potentially harms other people.

But here’s the thing:

Even before it harms them—it harms me.

I feel awful.

six

As Monday became Tuesday, Cinder forgot to put away the dishes before he went to bed.

“It was 2:30 in the morning!” he says later. “I remembered, but I was already in bed!”

He puts them way noonish—at least, they’re put away when I get back home Tuesday afternoon.

While Cinder still sleeps, and the clean but un-put-away dishes litter the kitchen counter, Sean and I resist the urge to a) do his job b) be angry at him.

“Remind Cinder to put them away when he gets up,” I tell Sean as I head out the door.

“I’ll remind him eventually,” Sean says. “I’m not going to… ‘Good morning, you didn’t put away the dishes last night’—starting the day with being nagged about something you didn’t do last night and probably feel bad about forgetting to do… that’s not a very loving way to wake up.”

I kiss him and for a few minutes rest in the love of his arms.

He remembers what it felt like to be sixteen, six too.

seven

I remember trying to explain attachment parenting to some “this sounds fucking weird people” a decade, more ago, and saying something along the lines of, “Attachment parenting gave us this amazing, loving little son.”

I’d never say that now.

I’d say, “Attachment parenting made ME a better, more compassionate, more complete person.”

Caveat 1: I never treated it as a religion or dogma.

Caveat 2: I chose selfishly self-aware over martyr, for better or worse, every single time.

eight

Friday, we smoke seesha, Saturday, we play Bears versus Babies, and on Sunday, I have a fight with Cinder.

Well. Not a fight, exactly.

He gets angry. His anger infects me. I tell him that. He calls me a hippy, and I slam the stainless steel serrated knife I’m holding against the kitchen table, as he slammed his “switchblade-style” bottle opener against the table a few seconds earlier. I start to cry and he storms off to his room. I weep outside his door, barred. So angry, so helpless, why will he not tell me what’s wrong?

I drag myself away from his bedroom door to the kitchen. Go back to reading Sylvia Boorstein’s It’s Easier Than You Think.

Read this:

Even If It’s Senseless, Mushrooms Matter

My friend Alta’s life was a lesson to me, and her death was a lesson to me, too. She enjoyed good health for seventy-nine years, then quite suddenly she became desperately ill, and it was clear she would die very soon. She accepted this awareness with her normal consummate grace. That was half the lesson she taught me.

The other half was about what makes sense. On the last day Alta could talk to me, two days before she died, we talked about meaning.

“I’m thinking about the meaning of it all,” she said, “and it doesn’t seem very important. What do you think?”

“Maybe it’s ‘much ado about nothing,’” I said.

“Seems like that,” she replied, adding, “You did a good eulogy for your father.”

“I’ll do yours too.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble…”

“Give me a break, Alta! What do you want me to say?”

“It doesn’t matter. Say anything you want.”

“How about if i give your recipe for the great marinated mushrooms you make?”

“That’s a good idea. They were very good. People liked them a lot.”

“Do you remember the recipe? You could give it to me now.”

“Not exactly. Look it up. It’s in my recipe box. Remember to say they shouldn’t be made more than four hours before you eat them. The mushrooms wilt.”

Mushrooms are as meaningful as anything else.

Sylvia Boorstein, It’s Easier Than You Think, pg 121

Cinder comes back downstairs to his computer. I get up, slowly. There is no anger in me. There is no anger emanating from the other room. But there is shame in me at my anger.

I go up to him and hold him, hug him.

He hugs me back.

We don’t talk, but that’s ok.

We talk later.

nine

Friday, I am trying to take some time for myself, but, children—the sheesha at the end of the day is a treat. Saturday, I run from event to event, overscheduled and frazzled, a little, but also happy.

I matter. I find out I matter, I hear I matter, I feel I matter.

And then, suddenly—I don’t.

Hello, weekend existential crisis.

ten

It’s Sunday so I no longer really remember what happened Monday (proofing) or Tuesday (proofing, an interlude for love) and all I remember from Wednesday is that it was too cold to live and yet we walked in the Ice Age anyway. Sean’s interview on Friday went well even though Flora did not sacrifice her little brother to the human resources gods.

On Sunday, I make the bathroom and a quarter of the kitchen shine. It deepens my existential crisis: I wish scrubbing kitchen counters mattered, was in the least bit fulfilling, changed the world—or at least filled my soul.

It doesn’t.

Does this? This scribbling, throwing of words into the cyber-ether?

Probably not.

Flora: Chocolate?

Jane: Thanks. I love you.

Flora: I love you too.

Sylvia Boorstein:

… when I love, I’m happy.

eleven

I guess the third Monday of 2018 will start with existential angst. But maybe not. God is not merciful—I’m not sure the universe exists—but my abstract concept of life has a wicked sense of humour.

Ender: I’m hungry!

Jane: Chocolate?

He says no. I give him a cold porkchop instead. He eats it while watching his older brother and sister play Minecraft.

Flora: I still say we should have sacrificed him.

Ender: Mom!

Jane: Flora!

Somewhere, an imagined God laughs.

And I smile.

Self-indulgently yours,

“Jane”

PS Last word this week to Sylvia Boorstein:

“We are VERBS not NOUNS
EXPERIENCES unfolding
STORIES TELLING THEMSELVES
as sequels to other STORIES
previously told.”

2018

The year started with a Monday; so does every week (Week 1: Transitions and Intentions)

Vices, Heaven

I.

I have this neighbour who only ever sees me when I’m loading my kids into the car. Three out of four times, I’m yelling at them. Example:

Jane: It. Is. 11. A. M. And. I. Am. Already. Sick. Of. You. Will. You. Stop. Fighting. Before. I. Go. Raving. Mad?

I suppose she thinks I’m a terrible mother.

I think I’m providing a public service. No matter how bad her day goes, her Super-Ego can reassure her Ego by whispering to it,

“Well, at least you didn’t call your children fucking assholes this morning…”

(I didn’t actually call them fucking assholes, but the phrase was strongly inferred in the yelling. And yes. I thought it.)

II.

Jane: Your job, now, is to look out for a coffee shop. Starbucks, Second Cup, Tim Horton’s, I don’t care—I need to be caffenaited. NOW.

Cinder: You know, Mom, you’re not supposed to drink coffee after 10 a.m.

Jane: Do you want me to yell at you again? Find me a coffee shop, now. Starbucks! Yes! Wait here. Don’t drive away. Don’t let anyone steal the car. If the dog jumps out through the window, don’t follow her. I’ll be right back.

Flora: Mom? Have you ever thought that you might have a problem?

Yes. Yes, I have. But you know what? I only have three vices right now, and this is the least troublesome one of them. Caffenaite me. Now.

III.

Hell is being trapped in a car in traffic while three children sing “What does the fox say.”

IV.

Heaven is this rocky river bank I know. Bald eagles and ospreys fly overhead, the water is fucking cold but blissful. The children roam free, and there are no other people.

The bitch of it is—to get to heaven, you have to first endure hell.

NBTB-VICES HEAVEN

V.

A stranger wanders by.

Stranger: Having a good day?

Jane: No, not really.

FYI: pretty much the best way to get a person to walk away from you as quickly as their knobbly legs can carry them.

VI.

Flora: Feeling better, Mom?

Jane: Gods, yeah. Thanks, babe. But that doesn’t mean you guys can start acting like little jerks again.

Flora: No, we’re all feeling better too.

We have lemon meringue pie for dinner. Then lazy sushi* for dessert.

VII.

On the way home, after I stop to pick up the lemon meringue pie and cucumbers for the sushi, I swing by the liquor store.

Cinder: Jeesus, Mom, how much wine are you planning to drink tonight?

Jane: That all depends on you.

I’m joking. Really. A glass, maybe two with dinner. That is not one of my vices. Although, between June 22, 2013 and June 21, 2014, it was definitely one of my more common, yet least effective coping techniques.

VIII.

Flora: I wish I understood Ender’s fascination with dog’s butts.

Cinder: I can explain it to you.

Jane: Please wait until I’m out of the room…

IX.

Exhausted, Ender falls asleep on the couch. Excited, Flora packs her lunch for camp.

Jane: What do you want to do, Cinders?

Cinder: Take over the world with Paul and Sam.

Jane: Go to it.

Cinder: What are you going to do?

Jane: Come up with creative excuses not to work.

Cinder: Go to it.

I do.

X.

I actually kind of feel like working. Magic combination of afternoon coffee + wine with supper + chocolate for dessert for the win.

xoxo

“Jane”

19.7.2015

P.S. Lazy sushi: Make rice. Shred carrot. Cut a cucumber into long pieces. Ditto avocado. Put basil, cilantro or something like that on a plate. Shred crab meat or left-over chicken. Cut seaweed paper into squares. Put everything on the table. Have everyone make their own sushi cones or maki rolls. It’s like tacos… but different.

On yelling, authenticity, aspiration and the usefulness of judgemental relatives-and-strangers

Jane: Cinder! I mean Flora! Ender! Gah—child-I’m-mad-at, come here!

Flora: Which one? We were all being kind of buttsacks.

Jane: Wah! All of you! Just come here, line up, and I’m going to yell at each of you in turn. Or maybe all together…

Cinder: I did not do anything! Not really!

Jane: But I guarantee you will do something yell-worthy soon. Get over here. Now here’s what we’re going to do. I am going to deliver an all purpose yelling-lecture session now. Then, whenever you’re buttsacks the rest of the day, I can just go, “Waah! Remember what I said this morning?” And we can move on without more lecturing-yelling.

Flora: I don’t think that’s going to work.

Cinder: You’re really weird.

Ender: Maybe I’ll be really good the rest of the day.

Flora: Probably not.

Cinder: Definitely not.

Ender: You! Suck!

Cinder: You’re! A! Buttsack!

Flora: I think this is why Mom wanted to yell at us. Ok, we’re ready, Mom. Go.

So here’s the thing, friends. I don’t really yell at the kids that much. More than I’d like to… less than Aunt Augusta—you know Aunt Augusta, you’ve got one too*—thinks I ought to. But sometimes, I yell.

Sometimes, they really need to be yelled at, and I really need to yell.

Sometimes, “You! Are! Driving! Me! Insane!” is better—more real—more authentic—less damaging—than taking a deep breath, gritting my teeth, and muttering, “Never mind.”

Actually—gritting my teeth and muttering “Never mind”—when, in truth, I really, really, REALLY DO MIND—is never the better thing to do, the healthy thing to do.

Do this. Think of something that makes you extremely angry. Whatever it is. Clubbing baby seals or keying cars or taking the chicken carcass out of the garbage and trying to flush it down the toilet…** Now, sigh, shrug, and say, “Never mind.” You liar. Of course you mind. Feel yourself tightening up and going mad as a result? Acknowledge that you mind. And then move on.

Cinder: Mom? Mom! You did that spacing out thing again! We’re waiting for the yelling!

Jane: Oh. Right. The moment’s kind of passed. I’m no longer in a yelling mood. Just try not to be buttsacks*** to each other.

Cinder: You know that’s probably not going to happen.

Jane: I know. Try. Most of life is aspirational.

And as Flora explains to her brothers what aspirational means, I decide that today may be an ice-cream discipline kind of day. And also, a good day to NOT clean the kitchen and NOT do laundry and NOT try to squeeze in a couple of hours of research on that project—the deadline’s too far away to be urgent, kitchens just get dirty again, and everyone still has socks. Instead, it’s a good day to text a friend or two and take our collective brood to roam some urban park or other. Climb a hill. Break some ice floes. Get soaking wet and dirty in melting puddles. And then do THAT laundry. Or not.

Most of life is aspirational.

xoxo

“Jane”

LanternsPin

* You don’t know Aunt Augusta? Are you sure? She’s my all-purpose metaphor for every relative-aquaintance-friend-of-the-family-well-meaning-stranger-at-the-bus-stop-nosy-neighbour who has an opinion about how I live my life/raise my children and misses no opportunity to tell me I’m doing it wrong. Ah, Aunt Augusta. The pain and angst you caused me when I was a brand-new, vulnerable mother… The amusement and opportunity for passive-aggressive and just-out-right-aggressive barbs you give me now… I won’t say I love you, darling, because you’re bitchy, abrasive, judgemental, intolerant, invasive and well, kinda nasty. But I’m glad you exist, because you’ve become this amazing barometer for me. If I ever do anything of which you wholeheartedly approved—man, I’ll have fucked up but majorly. So please, darling. Criticize away. I’m too permissive, messy, insufficiently-hovering-spoiling-my-children-too-much? Awesome. Thank you. I was worried I was too-cranky-angry-controlling-snappy these days, but clearly, I’m still doing ok.

**I caught up with him before Part II was fully in effect.

***It’s also a metaphor. Cinder’s creation. I’ve stopped fighting it and now fully embrace its use as a term of… endearment. That’s what it is. Endearment.

##

I’m the adult: not burdening children with responsibility for fixing our black moods

I’m so angry, I’m vibrating. You know that feeling? When you’re not sure if it’s the world around you that’s shaking or your innards? I’m so angry, I want to scream, stomp, feel my fist crash into something hard and preferably breakable…

Instead, I get into the car with all three of my kids. Safe, eh?

Close my eyes. Take a deep breath. Sternly tell myself: “Thy truck is not a weapon and you will not feel better if you mow down an unfortunate pedestrian.” Take another deep breath. Try to get the world to stop shaking.

Fail.

Grip the steering wheel. Start driving.

The two little redheads in the backseat are oblivious of my mood. They’re talking to each other, over each other. Excited about where we’re going.

The older, messy-haired blonde in the front seat beside me… he picks up on every nuance. And he starts to talk to me, frenetically. About the Redwood Forest. The new Redwood biome in Minecraft about which he’s so excited. He offers story after story, asks question after question, trying to lure me out of my anger, hate, blackness.

I don’t realize what he’s doing, not right away. I answer monosyllabically, barely hearing him through my anger. And then, suddenly, something he says—or maybe the way he says, the pitch of his voice—breaks through the fog, the blackness, and I stare at him in horror.

He’s trying to fix me.

He’s trying to make me feel better.

He’s taking responsibility for making my black mood go away.

…and here you might think, Jane, what the hell? Why the horror? Why is this a bad thing? Oh, it is. Hold on. Read on.

“My beautiful boy,” I say, and I reach for his hand, and squeeze it. “I appreciate… I very much appreciate what you are trying to do. But it’s my bad mood. And I’m the only one who can get me out of it. Don’t—don’t take it on yourself.”

He frowns, doesn’t understand.

But it doesn’t matter. Me realizing what he was doing—enough. I grit my teeth one final time. Take one—two–three–more breaths. Wish I could close my eyes, but there’s a semi to the right of me and a cement truck to the left, so I just shake my head side to side.

I’m not happy, not tranquil or joyous. But. I am sane. The black fog of anger recedes.

At this precise moment, the two redheads in the backseat—oblivious to everything but their own interaction and joy—start up a chorus of:

Ender: Fox in box. Fox in box. Fox in box.

Flora: Moist. Moist. Moist. Moist.

…because they know just how to push my buttons. But, I’m sane again, so I just yell at them in the usual Mom way—not the psycho bitch from hell who will devour you alive if you say one more word you little beasts way. They giggle and fall silent.

Cinder keeps on talking about the Redwood Forest, but now only because he wants to, not because he’s trying to jar me out of blackness.

Not his responsibility. Never.

Do you understand?

Do you understand the danger of making a child feel responsible for taking you out of your foul mood?

Not for putting you in a foul mood. That’s different. I’ve got no qualms at all about saying, “Mommy’s pissed off because you dumped the potty over the balcony and stuck a crayon up the dog’s butt.”

But when when I’m unhappy—when you’re unhappy–when you and I are angry, black, broken, all those ugly, ugly feelings that come on all of us (and always at the most inconvenient times, no?)—it’s our job to work on ourselves and get ourselves out of that dark place.

Or–a therapist’s.

Not our children’s. It’s not their responsibility. Not their burden.

Never.

They’ll take it on, you know, if you don’t stay aware. And I’m not crazy or dogmatic: a little love and care from the people around you, even the little people, when you’re down, is a beautiful thing. Nothing like a hug or a bowl of chocolate chips put into a frazzled mother’s hand at just the right time to turn a hard moment around.

A little love, awareness, affection. A beautiful thing.

Taking on responsibility for fixing a parent’s, an adult’s blackness?

Not their responsibility. Not their burden.

Ever.

xoxo

“Jane”

Cinder long messy hair unhappyP.S. Don’t worry, the black mood is gone, and I love everyone and everything again. Well, maybe not everyone. Or everything. But–all the important people. And enough things. But. Anger as a parent. A terrifying thing, is it not? Close your eyes (unless you’re driving). Breathe….

Photo: Cinder in an unhappy mood of his own. But, if I recall right, this was had a very direct cause: swarms of pre-flood mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds with the appetites of vampire bats.

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