Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

The Purge

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

We carry our childhoods with us throughout our adult lives.  For some of us this is only metaphorical in that we are forever influenced by the experiences we had as younger people.  For others of us there is a more literal component to it.  I am someone for whom both interpretations are true.

Over the past several years my mother has been wielding empty threats at my sister and me about culling through the artifacts of our childhood that have been sitting in my parents’ attic for more than ten years.  We made halfhearted attempts during various visits home, but never really made much progress.  Then, last fall, my entire family converged on my home for a Labor Day get-together and my parents arrived with a trunk full of boxes.

Starting that weekend and over the course of two additional weekend visits home I finally completed the process I’d been not-so-gently reminded of for several years.  Many things were thrown out and donated:  Old prom dresses and ballet costumes.  Helmets from my days of competitive horseback riding that no longer fit.  Silly serial books I read in junior high.  Board games missing cards and pieces.

But there were other things that I couldn’t, even today, bring myself to discard:  My full boxed sets of Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Avonlea books.  Leftover wedding invitations.  Berenstain Bear books.  The spiral notebooks from my my semester abroad courses, full of notes taken entirely in Spanish.  A stack of journals with every line filled.  And three shoeboxes’ worth of letters, notes, and printed e-mails from a roughly eight-year span of my life.

The books have been stored.  So have the wedding invitations.  But the journals and the letters required a more thoughtful dispensation.  After skimming the journals I am decidedly embarrassed.  They contain the self-absorbed ramblings of a teenaged girl.  Melodrama of all stripes: friends, boys, clothes, parents, siblings, and the like.  They seem like they were written by another person.  They are fickle, insecure, predictable, and a tad shallow.  I can hardly deny that I was that girl back then – the evidence is there in my back-slanted lefty script.  But I am not that girl today.  And she’s not a girl I’m inclined to keep in storage.  The letters are less embarrassing, but only because fewer of them were written by me.  Within them also resides a portrait of a lesser Gale.

Thus, the purge.

One by one I’m reading sections of each journal; taking one last glimpse at a person I left behind.  And one by one, I’m tearing the pages from their spiral bindings and shredding them.  The letters were subjected to a similar culling.  Summer camp letters from old boyfriends have been tossed.  The letter my mother wrote to my Aunt B the day before I was born was not.  Long-winded e-mails from girlfriends whose bond didn’t stand the test of time are now in the trash.  My sixteenth birthday card from my first love is safely tucked away.  And each letter that GAP and I wrote to each other during the summer before we started dating – ours was an old-fashioned and long-distance courtship - is also in the keeper pile.  Many others are not.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not all that nostalgic about letting these things go.  It’s freeing in a way to know that this hard evidence can be destroyed and that I am not tethered to a version of myself I’d rather leave in the past.  It makes me wonder how I would feel about my adolescent self without so much documentation.  Would I remember myself accurately?  Or would I just think back on a hazier version of the same clichéd memories of junior high and high school without being bothered by the granularity of my actual thoughts?

While this process of reliving a few moderately miserable years (no more miserable than anyone else’s teen years) has been humbling, it has also been a bit redeeming.  In addition to some awkward moments with myself, I’ve been proud as well.  I am not that girl anymore.  And it was a long and sometimes arduous journey that brought me to today.  I spared myself no challenge, no pain, no character-building experience.  And I’m happy to report that it was well worth it.  Having such a crystalline view of what I left behind makes me realize exactly what changes I’ve made.

As I think about it now, I deserve the purge.  I’ve earned it.  Adolescence is an unfriendly time of life.  And those of us who’ve found ourselves bettered on the other side are entitled to cut that proverbial cord.  I expected to be misty-eyed and reluctant over this process.  But quite the contrary, I think it’s been a catharsis I didn’t know I needed.

Youthful Indiscretions

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Do you cling to embarrassing vestiges of your youth?  Is your autographed New Kids on the Block poster still rolled up and tucked away in your parents’ house somewhere?  Do you still have the first CD you bought?  Do you wish it were something cooler than Poison?  Are your high school diaries collecting dust until you have the emotional fortitude to throw them out?  Do you still know every single word to “Ice Ice Baby”?  Are you ambivalent about your old prom photos, wishing never to see them again, but yet unable to discard them?

My answer to all those questions is Yes.  (Except for the New Kids poster.  I can proudly say that I was never a fan of NKOTB.  Also that I never had big bangs.  I made a couple of decent decisions.)  Our youths are full of poor, but harmless, decisions.  We look back and cringe at our fashion selections, musical tastes, romantic pursuits, and rampant overuse of the word “like.”  I am no exception.

But sometimes we stumble onto something in our more formative years that endures; something that initially smacks of a teenaged phase, but somehow holds on.  Either the emotional tether to that thing (bad hat, cheesy song, flavor of lip gloss, etc.) is so strong that no amount of humiliating hindsight can sever it.  Or maybe that thing wasn’t such a bad decision after all.  Sometimes, in spite of our adolescent selves, we managed to develop an affinity to something worth holding onto.  The novels of Barbara Kingsolver.  Baking.  Or the Indigo Girls

Yes.  The Indigo Girls.  These crooners of summer camp ballads and chick rock anthems found their way to me in the most predictable of venues: the Walkman of a seatmate on a 16-passenger van during a Spring Break road trip to a Mexican border town for a church mission trip.  It doesn’t get much more clichéd than that. 

Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight the night has come. 
Fasten up your earthly burdens. 
You have just begun.
   

Those lyrics, sung in tight harmony over acoustic guitars, slid effortlessly into my melodramatic, 17-year-old brain and stuck.  Permanently.  I was hooked, and over the next few years I accumulated every album they’d produced since 1985.  Each song oozed with melody, harmony, and poetry – an intoxicating combination for an innocent Southern girl searching for dramatic depth and meaning in her happy and complacent little life. 

But as I outgrew many of my other youthful indiscretions, I never outgrew my love of the Indigo Girls.  Perhaps I no longer bathe myself in their lyrics looking for parallels to my own life.  But my initial affection wasn’t misguided.  They have, for 25 years now, created music that does in fact ooze with melody, harmony, and poetry.  And I’m not the least bit ashamed that I’m still lured in by it.

I thought about these things the other night as I stood on the floor of a concert hall, watching them perform live.  As everyone in the crowd sang along to our forever favorites I realized that while some of my reasons for loving this band have changed, the core reasons have not.  I love beautiful music.  I love eloquent words.  I love powerful messages.  And their songs weave each of those things together into an intangible tapestry that will always speak to me. 

It was a wonderful night.  Two girlfriends and I met up at my house, leaving our husbands and sons to fend for themselves.  And out we went for an evening of pizza, drinks, much talk of motherhood, and a date with the favorite band of our youth.  I loved every minute of it. 

I am grateful to have a life that is filled with pizza, and friendship, and beautiful music.

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

You Can Never Go Home

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Home can be a slippery concept. 

The city that I now call home is not the city where I grew up.  My hometown, however, hasn’t been “home” since I graduated college ten years ago. 

This comes up because I spent last weekend visiting my parents.  My sister was also in town, but neither of our husbands joined us.  So, with the exception of one IEP (whose abilities to change the dynamics of a weekend should not be underestimated), for a couple of days we were the same family of four of my childhood.

Visiting my parents is an odd mish-mash of emotions as it relates to the concept of “home.”  They still live in the house where I spent my adolescent years.  And for several years after I moved out, going back there still felt like going home.  It felt familiar, comfortable, and still in some way mine.  It still feels comfortable and familiar, but no longer mine.  Throughout the course of the past ten years I have moved to a different place along the continuum of “home.”  It’s a strange experience to realize that home no longer feels like home.  And I’ve puzzled quite a bit over when and why this happened. 

There is the physical.  One by one, every room in my parents’ house (except the kitchen) has been redecorated since I lived there.  The coffee table in the living room that I once stabbed with a letter opener as a toddler is now in my sister’s house out West.  The lilies-of-the-valley wallpaper that I picked out for my bathroom (and which was installed upside down…) has been removed and replaced with textured green paint.  The leather couch where I did my best napping was donated to charity.  The dark mahogany pool table in the den that occupied me and my friends on many weekend evenings throughout high school has been taken down and replaced with an exquisitely arranged seating area.  The dining room, whose walls used to be covered in bold stripes, now displays a more muted floral pattern.  And so on, and so on, and so on. 

There is the temporal.  The city itself has changed since I left.  Like any city, my hometown is not a snapshot of itself.  Naturally some things are the same, but many things are different.  Restaurants open and close.  People move to new homes.  Land is developed and re-developed.  Family members move back.  Friends move away.  And so on, and so on, and so on.  A city is an organism with a pulse that beats according to the people in it.  As those people grow and change, so does the city around them.  So even if I were to move back tomorrow, I could never return to precisely the city I left, because it doesn’t exist anymore. 

There is the emotional.  I have never lived in my hometown as an adult.  When I finished school I had a strike-out-on-my-own mentality.  “I can move back there any time” I thought.  “This is the time to go explore new places.”  And so I did.  But once GAP and I had settled into our current city and built our networks of friends and colleagues, it became clear to me that my logic had been backwards.  For numerous reasons, I have understood for several years now that I will never move back to my hometown.  This was a strange realization to face.  Even stranger?  I’m okay with it. 

And most importantly, there is the issue of family.  There are many maxims about home.  (It’s where the heart is.  It’s where you hang your hat.  It’s where your dirty laundry is.)  For me, home is where my family lives.  Of course my parents and sister are my family and I love them dearly.  But they are no longer the sun around which I orbit.  My hometown no longer feels like home for a few important reasons:  GAP has never lived there.  IEP has never lived there.  My giant, ever-shedding dogs have never lived there.  For me, home is where IEP’s toys clutter the floor of our sunroom.  It is the place with the telephone table in the kitchen whose corners were once chewed by Bernese Mountain Dog puppies.  It is the place where GAP’s and my bookshelves stand opposite each other because even now we refuse to co-mingle our books.  And it is the place where nearly ten years of academic, professional, and social roots have descended into the ground.

Over time I have grown to love this city and the life we have built here.  It may not always be home, but right now it is.  I doubt I will ever feel as bonded to it as I once did to my hometown.  But ten years ago I also would have doubted that never again living there would become a perfectly comfortable path for me. 

Like cities we too, quite literally, are organisms.  We change over time; not only in our looks, tastes, and interests, but also in the way we interface with the world around us.  In many ways I am vastly different from what I was at 22.  In other ways I am exactly the same.  And I suppose that the same is true of home.  Home is now “here” instead of “there.”  But it is still the place where I live my life on good days and bad.  And it is the place where my husband and son are at my side.

Role Model

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

There are many people in the world whom we identify as role models.  Many of them are athletes.  Some are government leaders.  Others are astronauts and soldiers.  Others still are people who have overcome incredible hardship.  And all of these people certainly deserve our admiration.  But there is a different breed of role model that this collection excludes.

For all of the attention we pay to people whose stories are worthy of glossy magazine pages, the honest truth of the matter is that they probably influence our lives very little.  We may be inspired as we read about them, or watch their stories play out in front of us in the form of a collection of slow-motion clips, narrated by Bob Costas and accompanied by touching background music.  We may tear up in these moments and stand in awe of these impressive people.  But when we close the magazine or turn off the television, very few of us carry these people around with us afterward. 

Most often the people we carry with us are those whose faces we can see when we close our eyes; whose voices we can hear when we find a quiet moment.  They are people who have taught us things big and small.  They have watched us succeed and fail.  They have shown us what maturity and integrity look like at every turn.  They are the people whose lives have left an indelible impression on our own.

Because I have led a blessed and lucky life so far, I have a number of people in my life who fit this description.  But only one of them celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend.

Steady.  If I had to pick one word that describes my grandfather more than any other, it would be steady.  In today’s world where we flit about, jumping frenetically from one thing to the next, steadiness is a trait that has become increasingly rare.  Today we value speed, multi-tasking, and efficiency.  We do not always appreciate the value that is brought by doing something well or with consistency.  But such quality and consistency are hallmarks of my grandfather’s life.

For forty-odd years Granddaddy was a physician; an internist.  He was an army doctor during World War II.  And when the war ended he started his own private practice which he ran until he retired in his sixties.  Throughout his practice he saw patients in his office, made his own hospital rounds, and made house calls.  He was home in time for supper.  He has gone to church nearly every Sunday of his life.  He played tennis with my father every weekend of his teen years – rain, shine, snow, or sleet.  He took a two-week vacation with his family every summer.  He made double mortgage payments every month until his house was paid off. 

When I was a little girl I did not always appreciate these qualities.  To a child some of this steadiness can seem a little stuffy, even rigid.  He has playful moments, to be sure.  And he is always full of affection for my sister and me.  But the same steadiness he exhibits each day he also expects of those around him.  As kids we knew exactly what the rules were, and what consequences might be handed down if we broke them.  Those consequences were never more than a stern expression accompanied by a few castigating words, but they always did the job.

In my life today I notice the ways in which we embrace and endorse many aspects of our lives that don’t quite measure up.  We have starter careers and starter marriages.  We eat fast food and watch reality television.  We carry credit card debt and spend more than we save.  In light of all this I am especially thankful for Granddaddy and the example he has set for me.  Because of him I have come to value reliability and consistency, and I can see what a life looks like that has been built on decisions that were made, one after another, with stalwart integrity. 

Granddaddy has always been a little bit formal.  But this past weekend at his birthday party I watched him soften a bit.  I worked collectively with my family to create a memory book from years’ worth of photos and stories for his birthday gift.  He unwrapped the book to find a front-cover photograph of himself and my grandmother taken in their front yard in 1960.  She wore a pale blue dress with a belt cinched around her impossibly tiny waist.  He stood in shirt sleeves and a tie with his arm draped over her shoulders.  They were so obviously happy.  As he flipped through the pages he smiled and sighed.  Stories spilled from his mouth as the photos cast fresh light on memories that had grown dusty with age.

It gave me real joy to watch him in that moment.  And it inspired me to more fully incorporate into my life the values that he embodies.  Granddaddy can sit happily today knowing that he has lived his life well.  I hope that I too reach my 90th birthday someday, and that I too will be able to look back over my life with a similar sense of satisfaction.

Damaged or Destined?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Young Ted Kennedy and his father.

For the past several weeks I have been (slowly) making my way through Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass.  He was a man about whom I knew precious little as a child; only by his family name as a young adult; and increasingly by his own reputation into my adulthood.  When his brain tumor was diagnosed in the spring of 2008 I started paying more attention to his history and influence.  My attention span increased further when he endorsed and, throughout his illness, actively campaigned for then-Senator Obama.  When he passed away last August I had significantly made up for my prior ignorance.  But it wasn’t until I read his book that I realized how woefully uninformed I still was. 

As a Kennedy there is clearly a big story to tell.  The wealth and privilege.  The fabled family.  The tragic loss of three brothers and a sister at ages far too young.  The life of public service.  The scandals.  The legacy.  But despite all these things, it was a passage on the 40th page of this 500+ page book that made the deepest imprint on my mind. 

My father’s voice was paramount.  He was never abusive, never wounding toward any of his children, but he had a way of letting us know exactly what he expected of us.  Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old Dad called me into his room for a chat.  I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don’t remember what it was.  But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy.  I’ll still love you whichever choice you make.  But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.  You make up your mind.  There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.”

I returned to that passage multiple times as I made my way through the rest of the book.  I noted the page number on my bookmark so I could easily find it.  I became mildly obsessed with it.  I cannot fathom what it must have been like to hear words like those as a teenaged kid just trying to find some sunlight in the shadow of your overwhelmingly impressive family.  And now, as a parent, I cannot fathom saying those words to any child of mine; particularly at such a tender and impressionable age. 

However, whether or not you agree with their politics, it is difficult to deny that the Kennedys set an unparalleled example of public service in this country.  Given that there have been many wealthier families who did not enter the public sector in droves, I believe it is fair to surmise that it was more than the financial edge afforded by family money that buoyed the Kennedys into these positions.  Clearly there was something about the way they were raised that spurred them to lives of service.  And statements such as the one above made by the senator’s father solidify that suspicion.

Throughout the book Senator Kennedy writes with sincere affection for his father.  But beyond that he writes with admiration that borders on reverence.  His father, along with his brothers, was a pillar in his life whose approval he worked ceaselessly to earn.  And despite the fondness that his words convey, I can’t help but wonder what frailties his relationship with his father suffered due to such profound expectations.     

Ted Kennedy is not the only man to achieve “greatness” whose relationship with his father was strained, distant, or altogether absent.  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama all fit this bill.  And so I am prone to wonder what it was about the way that these relationships affected this collection of men that served as a catalyst for achievement rather than dereliction.  Federal penitentiaries are filled with men whose paternal relationships were equally strained and didn’t take the high road in response.  Where does the fine line reside that separates the damaged from the destined?

I believe in many of the principles that the Kennedy family has stood for, service being foremost among them.  As GAP and I raise our family I would be proud to see any of our children choose such a path.  But at what cost?  Could I bring myself to tell my son that my interest in his life survives only to the extent that I find his choices sufficiently “serious”?  And even if I could bring myself to speak such words (which I proudly doubt), would I want to?  Twenty years from now, as he enters adulthood and the parent-child power dynamic begins to soften, do I want IEP to see me as a dominant figure whose approval he covets?  Or would I rather our adult relationship be closer to friendship; something comfortable we can share and enjoy?

I find Ted Kennedy’s relationship with his father troubling.  I certainly would not be comfortable in it, and I don’t intend to parent in that way.  But I admire Joe Kennedy’s ability to impart the value of service on his children to such a profound extent.  (As an aside, I do not mean to shortchange the Kennedy daughters by omission.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.  And Jean Kennedy Smith founded an arts foundation for mentally and physically challenged children and also served as the US Ambassador to Ireland.)  However, I aim to find a kinder, gentler mechanism for fostering such values than the blunt instrument of ultimatum. 

As for these men who’ve risen to political peaks (I’m sure comparable examples are plentiful in the business, sports, and entertainment industries as well) I will continue to wonder what aspects of their relationships with their parents drove them to achievement versus failure versus something in between.  And I will wonder if it is possible to find a hybrid version of the same; an emphasis on service and philanthropy, but absent the cost of a dysfunctional relationship.  Is this too much to ask?  Surely these qualities are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps my naïveté betrays me?  Check in with me in twenty years and I’ll tell you how things panned out.

You Don’t Have to Like It

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Earlier this week I posted a video on my private family blog.  It is a video of IEP sitting in his highchair and crying miserably in the face of… cauliflower.  Usually he is amenable to dietary negotiations.  (“Eat this bite of cauliflower and then you can have another bite of ravioli.”)  But the other night he was not in the mood to barter.  We ended up taking a break to collect ourselves and then returned to the table for a fresh start wherein he did eat his cauliflower. 

I am adamant about picky eating.  I’m sure there are bigger things to worry about in this adventure of parenting.  But this is a battle I choose.  I was raised not to be a picky eater.  “You don’t have to like it, but you have to try it,” were some of my mother’s most famous words.  Those words got me to eat certain things that I loved (bread pudding!) and certain things that I didn’t (stewed zucchini?).   So today there are very few foods that I simply won’t eat.  And I’m very thankful that culinary breadth was foisted upon me without the opportunity to appeal. 

As a rule I think that attitudes about food can be (somewhat) reasonably extrapolated out into the larger picture of life.  And so recently I’ve been thinking about this philosophy as it applies to life in general.  The older we get the easier it is to define ourselves as a defined set of interests and activities.  Childhood finds us constantly trying new things – piano lessons, Girl Scouts, softball, tennis, gymnastics, basketball, horseback riding, ice skating, and ballet.  (Sorry guys, I don’t have any brothers, so I don’t really know what you did as kids… besides torment your sisters.)  But as adults we are no longer signing up for summer camp activities, electives, and various kinds of lessons.  We know what we like and what we don’t like, and we stick with it. 

But what if we were a bit more adventuresome?  What if we tried new things every now and then?  Sure, we might not like them.  Sure, we might regret time or money wasted on a dud.  But we might find something we love.  Or, we might at least get a good story out of it.

Better yet, why do we limit ourselves as adults?  What is about adulthood that makes us cling to our safety nets so dearly.  Elizabeth from Life in Pencil explored the relationship aspect of this question in her guest post over at Motherese the other day.  She insightfully pointed out that with age we are more inclined to dig our heels in than to tap dance our way into a paradigm shift, which, to me, is just plain sad.

We may not be ten years old anymore.  We may no longer thirst for the next new experience the way we once did.  We may find that the familiar suits us just fine.  But how did we find our way to the familiar?  At some point, it was new!  At some point it was strange and maybe uncomfortable.  As I think about some of the things that I cherish most in my life – going to college, living on my own, traveling alone, speaking another language, mothering – my first experiences with each were exhilarating.  But they were also frightening and overwhelming.   

I am as guilty of this rut as the next person.  It’s so easy to stick to your routine.  And there is real value in routine.  It allows us to let our guard down.  We can focus on the little things that bring us pleasure and joy when we aren’t spending our days fielding new and unwieldy circumstances.  But over time our routines can come to own us, rather than the other way around.  We come to rely on them so fiercely that we never venture beyond their bounds.

Like many of us, IEP would gladly eat nothing but his favorite foods day after day.  But I will continue to push him out of his comfort zone.  Some days there will be cauliflower in my hands.  But some day there will be bread pudding.  And when the bread pudding day comes, I hope he will be happy that he learned to try new things. 

In the meantime, I will try to live by my mother’s words more broadly.

Learning to Share

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

About a year ago GAP and I, rookie parents both, went through the whirlwind process of hiring a nanny.  My maternity leave was drawing to a close and after many months of debating the best path for our family, we decided that I would continue to work and that IEP would stay home. 

Hiring a nanny is not an easy thing to do.  Today, with a year of experience under my belt, I’d probably conduct the whole process quite differently if I were doing it again.  However, in spite of our novice level of experience and clumsy search process we couldn’t have found a better person for our family.

She is nothing like we are.  And yet she is a perfect fit.  She is playful and affectionate.  She is calm and assertive.  She is engaged and invested.  She is a good communicator and a good teacher.  IEP smiles with giddy excitement when she walks in each morning.  He waves bye-bye when she leaves each evening.  I feel good – truly good – leaving him in her capable hands each day.  He has never had an ounce of separation anxiety, and I believe that is due largely to having three loving adults sharing in his care on a daily basis.

Here we are a year later.  The newborn who could do nothing but coo and cry twelve months ago is now a walking, playing, laughing, babbling (“talking” would still be a stretch at this point…) toddler.  He needs interaction and stimulation.  He needs a break from his daily routine.  He needs… a friend.

Monday brought him that friend in the form of our neighbor.  Two doors down lives a family with a little boy just three months younger than IEP.  And moving forward IEP will share his nanny for half of each week.  Two and a half days out of five he will have a buddy, a playmate, and a partner in tiny toddler mischief.  I suspect they will have quite a lot of fun together.

But along with all the fun will come some challenges for my little boy.  He will have to learn to be patient, to be gentle, and to share.  He will come to learn that sometimes there are other people who need help more than he does.  He will grow to understand that he is not the only boy craving attention and affection.  And he will begin, in some rudimentary way, to see the world that exists beyond his own set of wants and desires.

For the past year I have relished in the dedicated nature of nannying.  As an infant IEP never had to cry because the student-teacher ratio left him to fend for himself.  But it’s time for my little boy to start learning some of these lessons.  They aren’t easy lessons.  They are lessons that we struggle to remember even into adulthood.  But they are lessons that will serve him well throughout his life.

Monday morning when his new playmate arrived at our house IEP walked over to him, pointed, and said “This!” 

“This is L,” I responded. 

But a more profound statement might have been, “This is your friend.”  Because in spite of the value of all the other lessons, learning about friendship is easily the most important.

Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron?

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Today’s post is the third installment in my four-part series on friendship  For the first two posts, click here and here.

Last summer, after many months of reluctance, and mostly out of morbid curiosity, I joined Facebook.

I don’t know what I was looking for or what I expected to find.  But I joined.  And for the most part I haven’t regretted it.  I have gotten back in touch with people from my past.  And I have stayed up to date on current real world friends whom I don’t necessarily talk with every day.

But since joining I have been perplexed with the concept of the “Facebook friend.”  I imagine most of you know what I’m talking about.  When you label someone with the surprisingly pejorative “we’re Facebook friends,” it diminishes the relationship instantly.  It’s understood by anyone familiar with the site that Facebook friendship isn’t real friendship. 

Yes, many of us have Facebook friends with whom we are also real world friends.  But we don’t refer to those people as FB friends; we just call them our friends.  No, the “Facebook friend” is a different animal altogether.  “Facebook friends” means “I’ve met this person in real life at least once and I didn’t find them objectionable enough to proactively exclude them from the banalities that show up on my FB page.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement. 

So, if FB friendship is so contradictory, why do we bother?  What value does FB bring to our lives that wasn’t there already?  And what are the criteria by which we select our Facebook friends? 

As an example, here is a list of people who are my FB friends:

  1. My sister
  2. My son’s godparents
  3. Some friends from childhood whom I haven’t seen in ages but still genuinely care about
  4. Little brothers of friends from childhood with whom I wasn’t really friends back then either
  5. Former coworkers (only a few… I’m choosy)

And here’s a list of people who are not my FB friends:

  1. My parents (they’re not on FB)
  2. My husband (he won’t accept my friend request and thinks it’s hilarious…)
  3. Our nanny
  4. My in-laws
  5. Any current coworkers (I have to keep some boundaries)

So clearly, there is no correlation between FB friendship status and real world importance in my life.  Zero.  Zip.  Nil. 

But yet, I joined.  And I log in.  Daily.  I don’t post all that much (confession: I’m a bit of a FB lurker…) but I enjoy knowing what’s going on in the lives of my “friends.”  And, honestly, Facebook is about the only means by which I could stay updated on such a broad swath of people at the same time.

To wit, through FB I have reconnected with a dear childhood friend.  I knew when her daughter dislocated her elbow and saw pictures when she turned two.  I had a good friend in college and we lost touch ten years ago when he graduated.  But he and his wife just adopted the most darling little boy and I have quietly stayed abreast of the process via the updates and photos he posted on FB.  Without FB I’d never have been privy to these events, and I was quite happy that I was.  So I will concede… there is value in Facebook.

But how much?

Well, that depends on how you use it.  I’ve come to realize that there is a “wheat from the chaff” process that FB requires.  If your threshold for “friendship” is low you’ll be inundated with a barrage of updates on people and events that don’t matter to you.  But! If you are more selective in your “friendship” habits, Facebook can become a valuable method of staying connected to the people in your life who genuinely matter to you, but whose paths don’t cross yours on a regular basis.

It’s this latter path that I’ve tried to take.  I admit that sometimes it’s hard not to lower the proverbial bar.  Sometimes that morbid curiosity takes hold and I’m tempted to accept a friend request merely to satisfy it.  (And sometimes I do cave…)  But for the most part I have been selective in my Facebook choices and am glad of it. 

So, for me, Facebook serves the role of a relationship butler of sorts.  I tell him who I want to hear from versus who doesn’t make the cut.  And he delivers sometimes charming, sometimes witty, sometimes juicy, sometimes informational, and sometimes fantastically boring (they can’t all be winners…) updates and photos about these people right to my virtual front door.  When I’m particularly struck by such an update I can reach out with a more personal communication.  And the rest of the time I can quickly ingest the information, resting assured that all my cyber-buddies are in good shape, and get on with my day.  And that isn’t such a bad deal after all.

I Am Not Normal (But Neither Are You)

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Fair warning:  I am not normal.  Sure, I may seem it.  (Or maybe not.  I’m not sure how I come across here.  Perhaps I seem a sheer lunatic.  But I digress…)  Brown hair, blue eyes, average build.  Married, working mother of one son.  Two dogs.  Medium house.  Midwestern.  Etc.  But it’s all just a ruse.  Underneath this wholly normal exterior, I am quite a strange little person (as my husband frequently likes to tell me). 

I bring this up because the other day I was chatting with my father.  I don’t really recall the original thread of the conversation.  (Actually, I think I was bragging to him that IEP had gobbled up barley risotto for supper, which is really neither here nor there.)  But as we were chatting we somehow wandered down the path of “normal.”  Or rather, not normal. Probably because barley risotto is not normal fare for a 14-month-old.  And I spent a little time ribbing him about some of the oddities of my own childhood.   

When I was a child my parents dreamed of having a place in the country.  A little plot of land outside of the city.  And so it was that every week my parents scanned the classifieds in the local paper for listings of land for sale.  Some of those listings would warrant a phone call.  And some of those phone calls would produce an appointment.  And even when there wasn’t an appointment, sometimes we just drove out into the country to cruise section-line roads and scan fences for For Sale signs. 

This is how it came to be that I spent many weekend afternoons of my childhood riding through rural Oklahoma and playing out a real-life version of The Berenstain Bears and the Perfect Picnic Spot.  On Sundays we listened to NPR’s rebroadcast of the previous evening’s A Prairie Home Companion.  We stopped in small-town cafes and ate meatloaf, fried okra, and cobbler à la mode.  We met crusty old men in coveralls.  We listened to oldies on the café jukebox.  My sister and I walked through brush and shimmied through barbed wire while my parents weighed the pros and cons of whatever forty acres we happened to be scoping out. 

It wasn’t until much later that I realized this was all a little weird.  Most eleven-year-olds don’t know Garrison Keillor’s voice by heart.  Most little girls don’t know the difference between a No Trespassing sign that you can probably violate versus one that means business.  Most kids don’t pull into the next town excited to help their dad find the “main drag.”  But I didn’t know that at the time. 

What strikes me about all of this is how I assumed that these adventures were par for the course until my frame of reference broadened enough to understand that they weren’t.  

As children we are prone to assume that our life is normal – that a life any number of standard deviations away from what we know must be the outlier.  Our experiences are normal to us, so we assume they are normal in general.    But as we get older, make new friends, go to college, date, marry, and so on, we become privy to a number of other life paths.  We have arrived in the same place as our friends, colleagues, and partners, but not via the same set of experiences.  And as we share those experiences we discover which aspects of our own journey are universal and which are unique. 

If we are perfectly confident and well adjusted, these discoveries may become empowering to us; points of pride or distinction; or perhaps just privately treasured all the more due to their specificity to our own life.  Or, if we are insecure, these little oddities may be embarrassing; things we henceforth keep under wraps; things that make us stand out when we want only to blend in. 

What I love most about this little premise, though, is that, when you get down to it, none of us is normal.  We share things in common that allow us to relate to each other, to bond, and to commune.  But ideally, we will celebrate each other’s differences along with our similarities.  And we will come to celebrate the path we’ve traveled for the ways in which it formed us.

As for my parents’ plot of land.  When I was twenty years old they purchased one.  Shortly thereafter they purchased adjacent plots.  They built a house, a barn, a pond, and several miles of walking and carriage driving trails.  My old show horses are living out their retirement years there.  My sister was married there.  My son petted his first baby lamb there.  It is a place where time slows down, where people relax, where happy times are had.  It is a place that makes me fiercely proud of my parents, the dream they pursued, and the beautiful reality it has become.

Summer sunrise at the farm.

I am not normal.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.