Sunday, November 28, 2010

thanksgiving in the 12x12

For those of you who were wondering how one cooks a twelve-course meal, including a 12lb. bird, in a kitchen that looks like this:
Fear not. I'm about to enlighten you. As this was my first attempt at cooking for more than 4 people, I proceeded by trial-and-error. Error: blowing a fuse by baking a turkey, sauteeing onions, and boiling water all at once. Error: blowing a fuse yet again by baking a turkey, boiling potatoes, and listening to the radio all at once. Error: blowing the fuse once more by baking sweet potatoes, reducing gravy, and checking email all at once. Gak. Having, FINALLY, learned from my mistakes, I pushed the estimated serve time back about five hours and cooked one. thing. at. a. time. The boys were occupied by creating a paper tablecloth for the outside table (the only one that could hold us all!)
I put the dishes that were finished on top of the toaster oven to stay warm while other things cooked. I let go of my need to make everything from scratch and allowed my friends to bring rolls and pie. I listened to the Nat King Cole station on Pandora for 12 hours straight, long enough for 13 versions of "Baby, it's Cold Outside" to cycle through.

We had a wonderful time. The table the boys decorated turned out beautifully,

everyone had plenty to eat, and the storebought rolls were, predictably, the biggest hit. After twelve hours of prep, the meal was over in about 15 minutes. Then came cleanup. In a sink the size of a thimble.

And, just for the sake of science, here is what the dish drainer looks like after the detritus of a wonderful, joyous meal has been run through a thimble-sized sink. My cup--and my counter---runneth over.

I learn so much about the true nature of ritual and celebration every time I try to create one in limiting circumstances. I learn that joy has little to do with the setting and everything to do with the participants. I learn that little boys can make a celebration out of ANYTHING (including an old washcloth, a handful of chicken feathers, and some lego pieces). I learn that the less I worry about getting everything right, the more fun everybody has.

This year, I also learned that escaping right away to play in the snowy mountains with one's boyfriend is a great way to dissipate any accumulated stress.
I have so much to be grateful for.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

when anainn came into the world

up from the ocean the mist finds its way
it blankets the earth at the dawn of the day
over the east, the sun burns through
a band of gold in a bed of blue

down by the shoreline the pelicans sweep
plunge through the heights and down to the deep
all i know is when the birds fly free
my heart sings along like a wild gypsy

now that you're here i'll take your hands
and lead you through this wondrous land
every moment is shining and new
and you're in the power, and the power's in you

up from the ocean and down from the hills
throughout all creation the power spills
all i know is when the power's in me
i fly like a bird through the high country


Happy second birthday, Anainn. You've changed everything in my life for the better, simply by existing.

Here is what I wrote hours before you came into the world:

...The changes are coming, I feel them without fear or anticipation, just a steady knowledge of the shift to come. Perhaps Anainn chose me, now, to help usher me out of this place I have been stuck, to spur me for love of him to to make the changes and impossible choices I haven't made for love of myself.

Xir rustles and wakes. All the questions--his strength astounds me. Always ready to love, to readjust, to understand. I hate for him to see my mistakes, to suffer the effects of my bad choices. I wanted to spare him that. We all must, we mothers. How do we bear it, generation after generation, this terrible, painful love? What I have done to my mother. What we all do to our mothers. And what is done to us in turn. Yet the love, that wonderful love and those tiny hugs and kisses! Perpetuation of life, drudgery, all of the pitfalls and immensities of existence for the sake of that love.

It's all worth it. I love you, Anainn.

xir's world

Xir fished around under the refrigerator with the broom this morning to retrieve a car that had rolled underneath. What he came up with was:

-two toy mice
-a marble
-a Sacagewea dollar
-a koosh ball (has it been under there since the '80s, I wonder?)
-myriad hair bands
-several magnets
-dustballs enough to insulate a smallish shed
-a lost bakugan ball.

The way he greeted this bakugan ball was downright lyrical. He sang to it. He carried it around murmuring to it that this was the happiest day of his life. He carried out a little ceremony honoring the car that had rolled under the fridge in the first place, for 'rescuing' the bakugan. He took it into the bath with him. He tucked it into bed beside him.

However, this was the first I'd heard of it. I had no idea that a) the bakugan was his favorite toy or b) that it had been lost. Lately I've come to understand just how circumspect this extraordinarily special and exasperating six-year-old is.

"If Baba gets remarried I'll have a step-sister," he mentioned as we walked to the store today. (How long has THAT been percolating?)

"ladies and gentlemen", he announced into his sing-along-cassette-player mic, "the world will now be ending because of meteors and climate change. But the Andromeda galaxy will be all right."

"Do you know what Juan Pablo did one time? He held my arms down so I couldn't block Kenny Rey when he punched me. He was making me the victim. But that was a long long time ago when Kenny Rey was my enemy." Whoa, whoa, you had an ENEMY? Someone PUNCHED you? "It was a long time ago mom. When we still had drama class." You had drama class?

This child growls along behind me on hands and knees, biting the clothes that hang from the racks, as I try to buy him shoes. When I hiss under my breath that he should stand up because he is embarrassing me, he responds "I am a saber-tooth cat and they do not care about embarrassment." When I use my banshee voice to tell him that saber-tooth tiger or no, he is not getting any shoes until he gets up out of the middle of the aisle and removes his teeth from the merchandise, he doesn't bat an eyelash as he responds "you mean saber-tooth CAT. You always get that wrong. There was never any such thing as a saber-tooth tiger."

He happily wears the waldorfy linen tops and chunky knit scarves I make for him, though I don't know how much longer that will last. He believes in the Tao but not the tooth fairy. He hums his own theme music as we walk along, pretending his hands are men, engaged in an eternal fight against one another using anything we pass as weapons: sticks, acorns, blades of grass, bougainvillea flowers. He has firm plans to save the world by a) gathering up all of the garbage humans have piled into landfills and loading it into a spaceship bound for incineration by the sun and b) sailing a ship equipped with two extremely large cups, which he will fill repeatedly with water from the sea and deliver to villages around the world that do not have enough drinking water.

I will discuss the difficulties of desalinization with him at some future time. Though, for all I know, he's already got that angle figured, and is just playing his cards close to his chest. I wouldn't be surprised.

Friday, November 19, 2010

a night at the museum

It is amazing to me how quickly one can go from scrubbing a kid's vomit from the floor to having giddily insightful conversations in a secret restaurant with world-class artists, conductors, and editors.

There seem to be moments in my life when charm flows through me like a river and I can keep company with anyone. I can't control when they come and don't ever anticipate them, but when they occur I am so grateful, and overcome with the remembrance that life is like this: flooring us with sudden shifts and new directions. It is so easy to think that the breadth of one's experience is always only going to be just what is happening now. But it has always been so much more than that; and the changes can take your breath away.

I have been extraordinarily lucky in the people whose lives have crossed mine. They remind me every day what is possible, how very much we can make of our lives. If not us, then who?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

a portrait of health

According to Abraham Maslow, the psychologist whose humanistic ideas spurred Esalen into being, there are only a handful of fully-functioning people out there. How do you find them? Here are the signs:

1) openness to experience. (such a person sees the world for what it is, sees herself for what she is, without having to disguise or defend against unpleasant truths.)

2) living fully in each moment. (this person is not stuck in behaviors that no longer work simply because "that's how she is" or obsessively planning for the future.)

3) inner trust. (this person listens to her emotions and intuitions and does not question her own judgement, values, or ideas.)

4) experiential freedom. (although this person is aware that her environment can limit her choices to some degree, she also knows that she has a choice in every moment of how to respond to and think about her circumstances.)

5) creativity. (this person can play around with her own concepts, her own reactions, her own emotions to come up with new ways of being every day.)

I couldn't tell you exactly why Maslow's theory resonates with me more strongly than some of the others I've learned, but I can always tell the good ones because the day after I've studied them I behave in happier and healthier ways. Thinking about self-actualization and human potential made me drink enough water today; it helped me make long-term decisions that were right for me even if they were contrary to prevailing opinion; it helped me stop and do some kung fu and tai chi instead of pushing obsessively onward with the mountain of work that seems always to loom.

I like to think about all the people I know that fulfill these criteria, and how lucky I am to know them. I like to consider those I don't know so well, figures from history and of present-day importance, and wonder which among them would qualify as self-actualized. I like to look at the long stretch of my life still ahead and see how openness, living in the moment, trusting myself, sensing my freedom, and acting creatively will open it into something truly lovely to experience.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

a spell for chameleon

One of the most influential authors in my development was Piers Anthony, who managed to unite both incessant punning and richly imaginative fantasy into a stay-up-all-hours have-no-social-life spend-all-one's-pocket-money-on-paperbacks cocktail. A Spell for Chameleon featured a female character that changed with the moon, so that at one point she was incisively intelligent and painfully ugly, at another spellbindingly beautiful and dull beyond belief, and all the stages in between. It is perhaps unfortunately portentous that this was my favorite book as I navigated adolescence; these constant and severe changes still characterize my adult life.

I was thinking about this as I reread my journal of the past week. I could so easily see holes in my logic; an overruling pessimism blinding me to other interpretations. Yet when I wrote it, my feelings seemed to be the whole truth. Allow me to elaborate...

I made a fatal error this morning: I looked at the SouleMama blog. Now, although I possess the secret of the hyperlink, I am not going to utilize it here for fear of doing to you what I did to myself. This SouleMama, she is a mother of the highest order. She knits incredible sweaters of hand-spun wool for each of her FOUR children. She writes bestselling books. She makes violet jam and takes exploratory art walks with her offspring and they do morning chores together that include gathering eggs from their chickens and feeding the pigs. She is young and beautiful. She has a house filled with color, ritual, music, and handmade beauty. She is like a refreshing dip in lemon juice to my whip-slashed self-esteem.

Why do I do this to myself? I sat there counting off all the things she was doing that I had failed to do: 1) obtain a successful, loving, sane, and productive mate
2) live in new england, in a farm house no less
3) keep a beautiful, welcoming, and cozy home (of more than one room, even!)
4) channel her creativity into moneymaking and socially productive endeavors
5) prioritize the happy childhoods of her children over all else.
I admit it, I kinda wallowed. It was her brand new beautiful wood-fired stove that did it, see.

But then. After an incredible day with my vivacious, intelligent, adorable, funny, insightful offspring (Anainn can now say "Buddha" and "otter" and "more bubble water, mama"; Xir befriended both a duck and a human being at the park and had one of them eating out of his hand and the other teaching him chess by the end of the day. I'll let you sort out which was which), I raised my hand in psych class to answer a question about adult development and floored the professor when I mentioned my...uh...lack of car ownership. He drew me out over the break (not hard to do, I'm a Leo) and then made this announcement to the entire class:

"Folks, some of you have been complaining about the difficulty of the exam and all the reading you have to do. I want you to know that one of your fellow students is a single mom of two, does not own a car, works, lives far below poverty level and still managed to get an 'A'."

This was all it took to get me chatting up my fellow bus-riders, writing poetry, and irish-dancing in the streets all the way home.

I'm not repeating this to toot my own horn---well, okay, maybe a little--but to point out how quickly what seemed to be failures were turned into matter-of-fact circumstances that could be overcome. I was not a single poverty-stricken irresponsible mother of two--I was a SUCCESS who had OVERCOME those setbacks. Wow! What a difference! All in the emphasis!

So this is what I need to remember when I'm taking a swim on the dark side of the sea. It's all a matter of perspective. The moon will wax again and I will regain whatever intelligence or inner beauty or insight I thought, in the darkness, had gone forever. Nothing is ever just as we see it; there are all the other interpretations and ramifications that we can't see because of the limitations our present chameleon phase puts on our vision. And this, too: there are things we think we can control that we can't. Our self-esteem, other people's behavior, our children. But there are things we think we can't control that we can: our happiness, our optimism, our willingness to accept change.

New task: find the stressors in my life that I can control. Figure out how best to do that, and then follow the plan. Let the things I can't control be.

And call the plumber.

Friday, November 12, 2010

parallel lives

This morning, as I was wondering how I will ever manage to pull off a graduate thesis when I've lost both my credit card and my thumb drive in the space of a few hours, I got a wonderfully newsy email from my father.

(My father, for those of you who don't know, is a farmer's boy from Indiana, raised by a widowed mother, who went on to get a doctorate in religious history and is now one of the most respected authorities on Quakerism in the country. Preen, preen.)

Part of his work directing Friends' Center is to bring in various speakers, and in his email he is describing the visit of a bestselling Quaker author:

"...After that, I took her to lunch...that went 2 1/2 hours, as somehow it came out in an off-hand comment that one of our daughters had married a Taoist - and this expression came over her face! Turns out that her first marriage was to an American who had embraced a cultic form of Taoism, was her teacher, was 26 years older, made up the rules as he went along, was overweeningly controlling, and whom she finally had the good sense to leave with her children after about 6 - 8 years! As we shared stories and vignettes, it was just too bizarre for words how totally similar everything was!
She is writing a chapter in her book about it... she lives in N.C. now over near Chapel Hill, with her new husband & two children; they have a small farm, cabin with guest house, and animals."

What I fervently hope is that the odd synchrony in our lives continues long enough for me to get to the farm part.

Also: I have a new bike! This is my equivalent of a sporty convertible. I've been biking around all morning in leather gloves and a head scarf, a la Grace Kelly. Betcha Grace Kelly never got her skirt caught in the gears, though.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

the center cannot hold

Things are falling apart. Actual things: my wardrobe, my bicycle, my immune system, the plumbing. I know that entropy is inevitable, but when it occurs at this rate even I can see that something in my life is off-kilter.

It would be interesting if I could set up a poll here, Shelayna-style, to gather advice and commentary. I could ask questions like:

1) Is it too much to ask of one's bike (and oneself) to commute from Culver City to Brentwood to Santa Monica to Brentwood to Westwood to Culver City again in a day? With some running around after children in a park too? Don't farmers and hunters in many cultures demand far more of their bodies than this daily?

2) Is it more responsible, as a divorced mother, to try and maintain two separate lives (dating and children) or to try and integrate one's family into all that one does?

3) How many of you actually sit down and eat three meals a day?

4) At what temperature does it become necessary to have indoor heating?

5) Is a bathroom sink really necessary? I mean, can't you just use the bathtub faucet that's right there?

and so on. When I am exhausted---physically, mentally, and immunologically---I tend to lose my sense of perspective and cannot tell if the behaviors I am engaging in are whacko or not.

And when things fall apart, I tend to get wistful for Lives Not Lived. You know---what would have happened if I had married X and become a midwife? kinds of things. NOOOOOOOOT good. Or to get really maudlin about the kind of childhood I provide for my kids and start thinking of all the ways it could be better. Unattainable ways. Like, for instance, if I had married X and become a midwife and we lived in a cabin in the mountains and my children wore beautiful handmade linen clothes and milked goats when they were thirsty and scrambled up butternut trees to gather nuts when they were hungry. Like that.

But I know better. I know that all of this surface stuff is as changeable as the temperature. I know what needs to happen: sleeping enough. Eating well. Meditating and being grateful, mindful, and calm. When the center is taken care of, everything else falls into place.

Everything I have learned, through the years of self-cultivation and meditation and talking to smart people and reading up on psychology, tells me that energy spent wishing and worrying is not just wasted, it's actually harmful. That it drains us of our joy, our energy, and our health.

So, onward. I'll do the foolproof fix-it tonight: a milk-and-honey facial (2 Tbsp. honey, 2 Tbsp. whole wheat flour, 2 Tbsp. milk mixed together and smoothed on the face for 10 minutes, then rinsed off with lukewarm water and followed by a splash of rosemary tea) followed by a candlelit yoga session and a half-hour of writing. Before I sleep I will consider my extraordinary luck in knowing the people I know, having the children I have, living in this incredible place I live. And tomorrow I'll call the plumber.

Monday, November 8, 2010


"It's my destiny to heal people", remarked Xir as we walked along. We were on our way home from Trader Joe's, whence we'd sallied forth for milk and sunset-viewing. "But I have several destinies."
"Are these things you feel in your heart, or you just know, or someone told you?" I asked.
"I just know in my brain. It's my destiny to be a really, really good kung fu man. And it's my destiny to make art."
"Really? Wow, what kind?"
"All kinds of art are my destiny. And it's my destiny to love people. And I have one more destiny. Can you guess?"
"Nope. It's my destiny to like dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts. But I've already done that one."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

possibilities and questions.

This Thursday I took a bus to the Union Station, took a train to Santa Barbara, took a shuttle to downtown, took a bus to Goleta, and walked half a mile, all to attend a brief presentation and Q&A session for applicants to the psych program I'm looking at in Colorado. I turned out to be the only attendee, but the 5 1/2 hour travel time was worth it, because being able to speak one-on-one with a graduate of the program I'm looking at was extremely rewarding.

The program is a synthesis between wilderness educator training and counseling psychology. You graduate ready to sit for licensure as a counselor, but also prepared with kayak, rope climbing, horseback, wilderness first aid, and orienteering skills for getting folks out into the wilderness where nature can do its healing magic. In addition, (as if this weren't enough!) the program is run through a Buddhist university, so there is emphasis on self-reflection, self-cultivation, and meditation in order to keep oneself centered as one goes about trying to help others. Right? This is my PLACE!!

However. As I have tried to justify my application to this 3-year masters degree program, I have run into a few seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.

1) Finances. Oh, it is expensive. And oh, I am under no illusions that I am going to easily find well-paid work in this extremely narrow and obscure field.

2) Children. How exactly am I going to haul them off to Colorado without a lengthy and world-rending custody battle? And what are they going to be doing when I am on my long solo expeditions in the second year of the program?

3) Self-doubt. Can I be a single mom and a graduate student simultaneously? Will I be able to pass the licensure exam? Will I be able to negotiate promoting myself and pulling a business together on my own?

But the conversation with this woman--Krista---allayed many of these fears. Now I know that she is an admissions representative, so there's that whole I'll-say-whatever-it-takes-to-get-you-in-our-clutches dynamic, but what was interesting about this particular encounter is that she also, as a graduate of a Buddhist program, meditates. And reflects before speaking. And is careful to find the most compassionate response. Her good intentions were palpable. And here is what she told me:

1) there is a reliable and frequent bus system to campus from just about anywhere. Very few students own a car.

2) students often rent houses together. She has known of several occasions where students of the wilderness program trade off a year of childcare: for instance, in my first year I could watch someone's children while she does the intensive trips on the second year, and she would watch mine in return the following year.

3) there is a new program by which payback of student loans is prorated by income. So I would only have to pay back what I can legitimately afford until I get my feet on the ground.

4) about 50% of graduate students at this particular university are parents.

That leaves custody...a topic for another time. Altogether I left the session with a buoyant, almost giddy sense of this could happen. This really could happen.

And then my sort-of boyfriend picked me up and we wandered the streets of Santa Barbara together, giggling and eating and listening to mandolin music played by a dreadlocked individual on a skateboard. We watched scores of bike riders, all wearing false mustaches, throng the streets. We drove up the winding mountain roads to his home, where I proceeded to--HALLELUJAH!!!--sleep for TWELVE HOURS STRAIGHT.

For the duration of a full day I felt cared for. Someone was trying to help me resolve my difficulties, someone was holding me, someone was driving me home while I slept. How wonderful. I cannot adequately express what an overwhelming relief it is to let go and be cared for. It brings tears to my eyes even now. You forget what it's like.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

intelligence test

This weekend brought an unanticipated (and desperately needed) visit from my friend Sarah--everyone should have a friend as devoted, intelligent, and generous as she. (Though if you take a walk with her you do need to bring a broom along to sweep up the bodies of prone men--it's worth it.)

Sarah caught me at a very very low point. I am a tough little animal, it's true, and can handle nearly anything, but lack of sleep is my Achilles' heel. Lately---what with cranky toddlers and maladapted kindergarteners and teeny spaces and midterms---I'm lucky if I get 5 hours. I'm a ten-hours-a-night kind of girl---wish I were kidding---and the upshot of this sleep starvation diet has been a general slow-motion implosion of my entire life. I become the mother who shrieks in the scary voice at 8 am "LEAVE ME ALONE! MAKE YOUR OWN @#$@ BREAKFAST! IF I DON'T GET BACK TO SLEEP WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE." Again--wish I were kidding. I look like a poochy eighty-year-old. I drop/forget/lose things. I get myself into situations where my toddler is standing on the kitchen table peeing on my laptop. True story.

Enter Sarah, haloed by SoCal sunshine on her trusty bike steed. While Anainn (belatedly swaddled in a diaper) threw things around and shrieked in striking imitation of his mother, Sarah sat crosslegged on my red futon and earnestly took in everything I said, asked questions, gave thoughtful responses, and worked out solutions. We wandered over for tea at my new favorite place and she handled Anainn's dish-breaking food-throwing propensities with grace, somehow making me feel throughout that not only was she having fun anyway, but that I was a great mother despite obvious physical evidence to the contrary. All while maintaining that stimulating let's-solve-your-life-problems conversation. Have I mentioned I adore her?

And, here, thanks to Sarah, is my newfound understanding of my life:

I am due for a change. When I am sure of what I want---not what others might want for me--- it behooves me to examine EVERY POSSIBLE METHOD of achieving it. The solution is there somewhere, and it is not necessary for me to compromise myself morally to get what I want (assassination was bandied about for a bit, but ultimately discarded, as a possible tactic).

In a wonderful example of synchronicity, this evening's psych class centered on problem solving methods. I'm going to do a work-up of the particularly intransigent problem I face---the custody thing---using every blessed technique in the textbook.

We also got our midterms back. Before handing them out, the professor asked us what professions we might associate with intelligence; how an archetypal "intelligent" person would look. We generated a picture of a 40-something male Asian astrophysicist in eyeglasses.

Then he wrote the current definition of intelligence on the board. This is amazing. Intelligence, according to the experts in the field, is:
1) skill at absorbing/processing information
2) strong and rapid problem-solving
3) ability to adapt to new or changing environments

Now this looks an awful lot like a skills list for motherhood, by my lights.

And it must be, because his next announcement was that the highest score on the midterm had not been earned by an astrophysicist or even an Asian. It had been earned by a part-time art teacher with two kids.


(p.s. I'm awfully low on practical intelligence though. As evidenced by the fact that I drank a huge cup of coffee just before class and now, when I could be SLEEPING or studying for the midterm I have tomorrow, I am busily crowing here.)