Friday, May 30, 2014

Your Children are Amazing

Sometimes when I write I don’t know where to start which is silly because obviously I should start at the beginning. But I’m just going to cut to the chase here because adult attention spans are shockingly short nowadays and before someone sends you that next BuzzFeed quiz (which flavor of microwave popcorn are you anyway?) I want to be sure you catch this one simple point.

Your children are amazing. AMAZING.

I think it’s easy to forget this stuff sometimes as parents. We get fed a ridiculous amount of messages every single day from pretty much every single person with a computer who thinks they can tell us what we should do or shouldn’t do as a parent:

These are the 4 things you needed to do YESTERDAY to raise a happy child.
Stop feeding your child these 6 things to ensure your kid is healthy.
Want your kid to love you? Be sure to say these 19 things to your kid every morning.

Honestly, I do believe that all of this comes from a good place. That we all just went happy and healthy kids and so we write and read and consume all of this stuff hoping it will yield the right result. We obsess over it. Or at least I do. But sometimes it’s too much, too many different voices chiming in with different dos and don’ts. And I feel myself starting to panic because I don’t know how I’ll ever retain all the stuff I’m supposed to know to parent them well, to churn out these awesome little creatures.

And though I’m certain it’s been said before I’m equally certain it bears reminding that when you obsess over that stuff so much, you sometimes forget that they already are awesome little creatures.

Last night I went to my nephew’s concert. It was a showcase of the best and the brightest in elementary orchestra, choir and band. In the beginning, there was an announcement for everyone to shut off all electronic gadgets. No phones, no cameras, no beeping. Nothing. Just music. Just kids and music.

There is something so amazing about a concert like this – seeing kids on stage performing their heart out for no other reason than the opportunity to be excellent at something, to try hard, to fill up the space with something beautiful. And so with no kiddies to watch and no phone to annoy me, I had nothing to do but close my eyes and open my heart and just listen.

I turned to see my sister frantically waving to her baby boy, the ever growing no longer a baby boy in the back with the giant tuba. Beaming with pride all the way up on the mezzanine, I thought about what my mother knew about her, about what she knew about him. These kids: they are amazing.

And they don’t need much more from us than love and encouragement. There are a million different ways to do this right but all it really requires of us is to let them be. Because your children are resilient and talented and loving and amazing. Somehow amidst all of the noise, I think had forgotten this a little bit.

And so if you can’t beat them, join them. I’m piling on my own advice to the already substantial number of how-to parenting pieces we all read each day. Inspired by last night’s concert, here it is: all you ever need to know to raise an amazing child in 5 words.

Open your heart and listen.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Go to New York

The windows are open and a steady evening rain is starting to fall. There are dishes and laundry and toys as far as the eye can see. For the first time in 14 hours, the house is quiet. At first the quiet unsettles me. A round of bed and crib checks before I can fully let out that breath I’ve been holding in all day long. Three very different very bright, fiery red heads are all finally resting. For some reason, I am amazed when they sleep. I think it is because they are so curious about every single moment and breakfast cereal and bath bubbles and pirates and addition and hot dogs and weddings and Barbies and basketball, that I am actually shocked when they allow themselves any time at all to just rest. I wonder if their dreams at night are filled with more of these questions.

Already the boy, the preschooler, the baby, they have such distinct personalities. I think about what I teach them during the day: use the napkin, wash your hands, brush your teeth, tie your shoes. I think about how irrelevant and not particularly useful any of that will be for them in the long term, other than in the most functional and hygienic of ways. But none of it will help them with the other stuff, all those questions, all those big ideas, the stuff of their dreams.

I think about what I want to really tell them, really teach them, and it is this: go to New York.

Go there in your 20s and be like everyone else who ever packs a bag and wonders if they’ll make it: sit with your own uncertainty. It is the first thing New York City greets you with and you should know this feeling because most of life is spent in the gray and you won’t always succeed. You’ll need to tease out that feeling. Will it be fight or flight? Do you run when you don’t know the answer or outcome? Or will you stay, not knowing how it will all turn out, not knowing if any of it will be good, certain all of it will be hard, but just staying because you have mettle enough to find out.

Learn how to live on very little money because most likely, you will have little, at least in the beginning or maybe the whole time through. You’ll be in one of those charming little hot and sticky NYC walkups. You’ll stretch $40 worth of groceries for 3 weeks and learn how to turn something fabulous out of 5 pieces of linguine, a slice of American cheese, and that Chobani that could probably last one more day.

Walk. Walk everywhere. Walk the city end to end as often as you can because its great exercise and it will help you develop a sense of direction. NYC is a grid and it will serve you well in more ways than one to know your North, your South, your East, and your West.

When you walk, realize how small and insignificant you are. Remember that almost always you are the least important person in the world. Humble yourself.

But also walk tall and feel proud that you are making it work there on your own. Go to parties with lots of important people and let yourself feel like the most important person in that room. Impress yourself.

Treat brunch appropriately, like the religion that it is in NYC. Wait 2 hours for Strawberry Butter.

Have a local diner and eat there both at normal and not normal times. Know the guy that runs it. Be on a first name basis with him and eat cheese fries with him on nights when you’re not ready to give up on the night.

Karaoke. Don’t ask. Just do it. Close your eyes and fucking sing like your heart is going to pop out of your chest and take your throat with you. Don’t get fancy. Start with Neil Diamond.

Learn. Realize how legitimately small and stupid you are (and I mean that in the best possible way) and learn from the brilliant people, libraries, schools and museums that surround you.

Both literally and figuratively, keep up with the pace on the sidewalks and subways during the morning and evening commute. If you don’t, you will be trampled.

All those things that you’ve been afraid to do that you’ve never done? Do them. Go on the blind date, take the trapeze lesson, try the Korean BBQ. Go. Do.

Work your ass off doing stuff you never thought yourself capable of doing. Test your own limits. Challenge yourself in ways you never have. Become the crazy work 24 hours a day person just to prove to yourself that when pushed, you step up. That you can lean in and not fall over.

Be lazy. Stop working and on those rare NYC summer days that are not oppressively hot, go to Sheep’s Meadow and lie down and feel how small and close and far and tall and how much of everything this city is. Of how much of everything you are when you are in it.

Buy the shoes in the window that you think you have no business buying. You don’t think they are very “you” but the girl you are walking with whispers in your ear that if you buy them, they will be you. She is right. And they are.

Run around the reservoir at Central Park with the music almost as loud but not quite as loud as the sound of your own heart thumping strongly and rhythmically in your chest. Imagine yourself the hero or heroine in every major movie that took place right where you stand now. Your city is your stage. Assume the role of a lifetime.

Get that amazing job you worked so hard for and then celebrate like a fool on the street corner. Remember that at any one time, you are both the most and least sane person on 36th and Broadway.

Take 3 days off from that job and take a staycation in your own city. Take the Circle Line, visit the Statue of Liberty, and the Empire State Building just to name a few. Be a tourist and learn the outward appeal of your city.

Go to Union Square and watch the street performers. Shop the farmers market and if book stores still exist, go to The Strand. Grab some shitty deli coffee, a bagel, and a bench. Sit and feel the pulse of life coursing around you. Cherish the more subtle, inward appeal of your city.

Streets Fairs. My God the street fairs. They are all the same and never miss any of them. Stroll them and buy yourself inexpensive workout clothes. One word: Mozzarepa.

Go to where the towers used to stand. Pray to whatever God you believe in. Stand in their shadows and feel small.

Get on the subway and sit with yourself, observe. Do not automatically plug in, look down, and tune out. You will assuredly miss something, someone that matters. Talk to strangers. Do not be afraid to open yourself up to other people’s gifts and hearts.

Don’t talk to strangers. Be slightly afraid of their gifts. It is NYC after all.

Don’t buy the New York Post. It is smut.

Fine. Fucking buy the New York Post. At $.25 that is a bad habit you can probably afford. Plus it has both Page Six and the Weird but True column.

Walk the High Line. Have the perspective of what it is like to both look down on life and blend into the skyline at the same time.

Open yourself up to the possibility of love, even if it ever only begins and ends with the city itself.

Be like the city you are in: be a walking, breathing contradiction. Learn to embrace all of the parts of you that shouldn’t mesh together yet always do, seamlessly, to make up all the parts of you. Learn to love yourself, fight for yourself, and stand up for yourself. Whether you stay and raise a family or yourself or leave after just a few months. Leave not as you came: leave with a piece of it in you.

And so it is, all of your life lessons all rolled up into one neat little package.

Dylan, Ruby and, Hope: go to New York.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned at Her Table

Each night as my husband and I fall into bed we are literally out of breath but we don't know why. Life has us on some sort of frantic treadmill that is ironically only making me fatter. We are stressed and rushed. I always wonder what we are working so hard to rush for. Death? Retirement? If only we can get through this day, this week, this latest bout of sick or sleepless kids. At what point do we stop "getting through" and just start living?

Perhaps somewhat related and perhaps not I am thinking about this as I stare at a photo I smuggled out of my father's house during our vacation. Unlike many of the old family photos, I've never seen this one. I can tell it predates me, and captures my father's mother's birthday one year. His family is gathered around a carefully set table in our living room. I can see that my mother has one of her good tablecloths on the table that she definitely ironed. There is a pot of coffee in the middle and carefully set place settings for everyone. Cups and saucers, the good dishes. There are flowers in the middle of the table and she is presenting my grandmother with a handmade cake as they both smile, not at the camera, but at the pairs of loving eyes surrounding them at the table.

It is a portrait of a moment in time. A carefully set, slow, deliberate moment in time. My grandmother does not appear to be turning any special age. But she is clearly being made to feel very special in that moment. That took work on my mother's part.

I think a lot about the slowness and deliberateness with which my mother must have moved through that day. There are no paper plates or plastic. Nothing was thrown out; everything was probably hand washed. It is a simple understated scene of how to do something right and enjoy that moment. I think about how often we forsake the importance of this in an effort just to get it done, to move fast, to get through. There is no art in that. It is what leaves us breathless each night. And suddenly it occurs to me that perhaps the key is that we need to stop getting through and just get in. That maybe my mother is teaching me everything I need to know about how to parent, to mother, to truly live well right there in this picture:

1. Be Prepared.
Several months after my wedding, with the china we received still in boxes, my mother came over to carefully wash, and put everything away. When we wanted to use it to entertain in our new home together, we'd be ready. If we didn't invest, organize, prepare now, we'd likely never use it. We spent hours carefully washing and separating dishes and saucers, then rewrapping them with plastic wrap and paper so they'd stay nice. The lesson was a valuable one and not just about dishes either. Don't put off till tomorrow what can be done today. Be prepared and anticipate what's ahead, because if you don't you'll spend forever on that forever treadmill, just trying to get by, catch up.


2. Use the Good Dishes.
In the end, my mother had significantly less time left than any of us realized. And if I had known then what I know now, I would've unwrapped that china and put it right on the kitchen table and said something like, "Hey Mom. Life's just too damn short. Let's sit here and eat our Milanos on these fancy dishes just because we can, just because our time together is that special." And we'd laugh at how frivolous and ridiculous we're being, which is more joy than I've ever gotten out of those dishes. Six years later, I've only just unwrapped them. They've never been used. In fact they've barely seen the light of day. But I'm not sure what I'm waiting for. For as many things as she taught me in life, her unexpected death taught me this: don't wait for an occasion. Find a reason to celebrate each and every day. Use the good dishes.


3. Set Your Table (and live your life) with Care
My mother knew how to set a beautiful table which by the way, is much harder than it looks. It wasn't necessarily filled with the fanciest of things, but it was filled with special things, beautiful things that she took very good care of. Her nicest table cloth that she carefully ironed, each place setting laid out, an old vase in the middle of the table with a few simple and beautiful flowers. When you sat at her table, you felt the care she put in, and it made you feel appreciated. It was a celebration in the art of slow, and it created an environment in which her guests indeed felt like moving more deliberately, truly enjoying each other's company. She gave care, and it showed. It stands in such contrast to a life where everything seems to move very fast now. Sometimes when I'm not accomplishing something, sending that email, making that dinner fast, getting it all done quickly, I literally feel panicky. My mother's table was the antithesis of all this. It took time to prepare. It took even more time to take down. And in between you appreciated the artistry of its slowness.


4. Write it Down
It's not that I don't like Pinterest. I do. But it just doesn't match up with an old faded recipe card well annotated with my mother's handwriting on what worked, what needed to be tweaked. Long after she's gone, it is the closest thing I have to cooking alongside her. Briskets and birthday cakes, Jell-o Molds and trifles that she carefully prepared to dazzle "delicious!" or subsequently disappoint "terrible, tasteless."  I see her scrawl, the spatter of ingredients added in haste or care, and it gives each recipe history. That history is part of the love that flavors what I cook for my family around the table now. Nothing on the Internet will taste like that.


5. Know Your Home (hint - it isn't your house)
Each moment spent around our dining room table for birthdays and holidays were filled with the family and friends in our lives that we loved. More than the recipes or the china or the tablecloths, they are what made these moments special. She was often fond of saying that a house is just a house, but a home is wherever your family is. As I think about all those festive moments spent together, my mother was careful to remind me that if you surround your table with the people you love, no matter what, no matter where you are, you will always be home.


This Mother's Day, the best way I can honor her and my own children, is to not get through the day, but to get in it. I will take care to move more slowly, live more deliberately, and surround myself with the people I love.

From my table to yours, happy mother's day.



Friday, May 2, 2014

Six


Freshly back from our trip to Florida, I am staring at some old family photos my father encouraged me to take with me. In the picture, we are in a lake not far from where I live now. My mother has a 6 year old, a 5 year old, and a 1 year old that she is holding on to tightly in the water. She is 34 years old. In so many different ways, she is me; that is, the “me” that I am now.

I relate to the woman in this photo, not as my mother but almost as a friend, a peer. I know we would connect and understand many of the same challenges we each face on a day to day basis. She smiles coyly in the photo, and I know she has no way of knowing (for how could she) that she gets just 30 years with that baby in her arms. No more, no less.

I feel cheated for her.

As I think of my own children, 30 years feels like it would never be enough. Of course I can’t think of a number that would be enough, enough time to feel like I had my fill of their love, their humor, their sweet and almost always mischievous, round, loving faces; all cheeks and red hair. Regardless of the number of years, no number would ever be enough.

Maybe that’s how she felt.

And now six years has gone by without her. Six is a truly peculiar length of time. You know how you’ll get in the car and start to drive and look in your side mirror and it looks like life is getting smaller and smaller and pulling away from you? This is what six feels like. It is not enough that you necessarily unlearn now fairly old habits. When something truly great or sad or frustrating happens, I still pick up the phone instinctually to call her. But it is long enough for everything else to have unfolded in a way that would be almost unrecognizable to her now. I am not a new mother. I have been a mother for 6 years. I have 3 children. She has been gone for nearly the entire span of their collective lives. This makes six feel exceptionally long.

It isn’t a decade, but it isn’t yesterday either. It’s just far enough away that you almost can’t remember certain idiosyncrasies and sounds and subtleties that pain you to let go of. Yet it’s just close enough that you can still touch and feel all of that and more in your mind’s eye. You know what it feels like to press her cheek against yours. You know when someone has on her perfume.

Six is so funny and in between like that. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel whole. I feel incomplete, as if with each passing year I am unraveling another layer of a mother I didn’t know, of a woman I’m still mourning, of the daughter and woman and mother I’m evolving into through all of this.

And the thing about time is that it pushes you forward whether you like it or not. My father, whose brothers and sister died sooner than they should have, assumed that he would never make it past his 65th birthday. Today, my father turns 71. I know that he continues to not understand why he is here, and why she is not. Why all of this has to get mixed up on one stupid date. The day he came into this world colliding with the day she left.

But such is life. Much like that woman at the lake, no moment, no person is ever all one thing. Like her I am the mother in the water with her babies, and a woman in her thirties struggling to stay afloat. But I am also still that baby in the lake looking for her mother’s arms six years later. I am grateful and sad and blessed and uncomfortable which I suppose is about right for what it is. Grief is a process. All these years later, all the parts of me continues to be an unwilling traveler on this journey.