Anti-Survival Instincts

Yesterday, I poured myself into a writing project that drained every last bit of me out through my fingertips and left me as useful as an empty waterbed. I emerged from my computer around 5 p.m. to be on active mama duty, and let me tell you—the following three and a half hours until the girls were safely tucked into bed rivaled snowboard cross for difficulty. Every “Mo-om! out of their little mouths felt like someone ramming my board just before a jump. The fact that they expected to eat dinner sent me skidding. Our bedtime routine stretched from here to Russia. It. was. hard.

This is how things go when I’m tired; everything ramps up in intensity, and a wipeout is inevitable if I don’t let myself slow down. That’s the key, isn’t it? Slowing down? It sounds so simple here in the straight lines of a paragraph, but in the glorious mess of real life, slowing down runs exactly opposite to my instincts. Here’s what goes through my head when I feel fatigue start to drag at my reflexes: Oh no, I’m running on fumes. Better SPEED UP so I can get to the end sooner!

Yeah. Have I ever told you about my other anti-survival instincts? Like how my palms start to gush sweat if I even consider the human act of dangling from a precipice? Or how my fight-or-flight reflex could more accurately be called the curl-up-in-a-ball-and-forget-everything-but-the-lyrics-to-Bohemian-Rhapsody impulse? My instincts do me few favors when it comes to winning at life.

So yesterday evening, I sped up to reach the finish line faster, and it wasn’t pretty. Sure, I got the kitchen cleaned and the laundry put away and the allergy treatments administered and the children homeworked/fed/cleaned/pajamaed/storied, but I did it with a kind of urgent clumsiness that left the girls reeling and myself too tired even to sleep. (Irony at its most insomniac.) What I’m trying to say is that no one was particularly happy with the result.

Here at the starting gate of another exhausted day (see above re: ironic lack of sleep), I’m writing this down to cement some facts into my modus operandi:

  1. Daily life is not a competition… unless you’re on reality TV, which I am not nor ever shall be so help me God.
  2. Slow is good for the soul, especially when said soul is feeling drained.
  3. Putting down the frantic dishrag and curling up with my daughter is a two-way grace.
  4. I should probably consider hiring Bear Grylls to be my personal life coach, help balance out these unfortunate instincts a bit.

Wiping out in style
(Oh yeah, I could totally rock the snowboard cross.)


The Things I Forget to Instagram

On Monday mornings, I wake up slowly. I’ve always done a clumsy job shifting between weekday and weekend mindsets, and no matter how straight I aim my Sunday night intentions, I tend to wake up in a dead stall—engine cold, momentum at zero, the week’s potential out of view beyond a right turn. I’m working on showing myself grace this year, so I accept that morning pages will not get written first thing on Mondays. Neither will inspirational reading be absorbed. I will not be jumping up to hit the track, nor will I be performing sun salutations on the yoga mat I keep forgetting to acquire. The only thing I am capable of doing when I wake up on a Monday is settling back into my pillows with a cappuccino and scrolling through Instagram while I wait for the caffeine to loosen my mental gears.

Now, I love Instagram. It feels like the least needy of the social media conduits, rarely snagging at the threads of my attention with links, surveys, or political commentaries. The comment sections can get a little dicey, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone post a Willow-filtered snapshot to illustrate their outrage over the latest hot topic. By and large, Instagram inspires users to curate the beauty in their daily lives. People appreciate and preserve little moments through the act of sharing them, and others appreciate and share in return, and say what you will about our narcissistic culture or the ascent of selfies, but I love the whole construct. I do.

That said, I myself post photos sparingly. Part of the reason is that I want to avoid the habit of detaching from beautiful moments in order to crop and filter and caption them, but the other part is that I simply forget. It doesn’t occur to me to document the majority of my daily circumstances, even as I extract pearls of gratitude from them, even as I notice their unique and lovely hues. My “hey, I could Instagram this!” gene must be recessive.

I spend a kid-free Sunday afternoon wandering medieval streets, fingers woven through my husband’s in the most blissfully unFebruary sunlight, and forget to document a second of it.

I give the girls as a Valentine’s gift a packet of coiled paper streamers that they blow into a giant pile of pink insta-wig, but I forget to capture the hilarity.

I peek in on them as they sleep, my heart catching tight in my throat as it always does to see them so relaxed, so safe in their vulnerability, small elbows cradling beloved stuffed animals.

I look up from my own dregs of sleep to catch Dan bringing in a deluxe Saturday breakfast for me. Still, after eleven years, this.

I hang wet sheets on the balcony and breathe it all in—the Mediterranean sunlight, the quiet symphony of our neighborhood, the cypresses whisking pollen into the air and teaching the world to sneeze, our Italian way of life.

I make us this day our daily pasta. I lift weights (got to burn off all that pasta somehow!). I coach the girls with their piano practice. I dial up my sister’s sweet face on Skype. I discover that if you run out of polenta and try to substitute fine-ground cornmeal, you will end up with a pot of yellow Elmer’s glue. I switch between flip-flops and winter slippers like the uprooted Texan I am. I read Romans and Gabriel García Márquez. I cheer and groan and formulate Thoughts on the Olympics. I kiss friends on both cheeks in greeting. I use the last of the midnight blue nail polish. I kick my feet up next to Dan’s while we discuss whether we’re more in the mood for Firefly or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I water my “poor kid.” I burn the pizza.

Life pulls me straight into its kaleidoscope heart, and I ride the color from second to second, pattern to pattern, and each one is worth memorializing in some way. I forget to Instagram most of it though, and this finds me on Monday morning scrolling through proof of my friends’ beautiful weekends and wondering where mine got off to. It’s not that I think an instant of life has to be posted online to mean something—goodness no—but I still miss undocumented moments as if they were old friends moving out of state. How long until we lose contact? Until they stop coming to mind? Until I forget that they were ever in my life?

I’ve been afraid of forgetting ever since I was a 10-year-old journaling what I’d eaten for dinner and what I’d studied in school that day. Anne Frank’s diary made me wild to record every second of myself for posterity. Years later, I’d write at red lights or in empty parking lots because I couldn’t wait until I got home; I might forget too much.

And I do. I forget too much. Dan will try to reminisce with me about our early years together, and I’ll ask, “That happened?” I can watch the same movie twelve times and be surprised twelve times by the ending. The fingers of my mind hold memory loosely, as casually as if it were a handful of gravel, and pebble-sized bits of my life slip through before I remember that I could be documenting them.

An ongoing lesson in my life, however, is how to let go. I’ve written about it here before, how I struggle with letting good things come to an end even if they no longer have a place in my world, but I’m getting better at it. I’m learning to sink back against my trust that if a tree falls in an empty forest, it still makes a sound, and if a swath of delight cuts through my day undocumented, it still serves its purpose. Sometimes living in the moment means grasping it with both hands, a smartphone, and an armada of hashtags… and sometimes it means quietly enjoying it and then releasing it into the care of the universe. Both ways are valid. Both celebrate the beauty. (Repeat to self daily, twice on Mondays.) And it’s possible that forgetting to Instagram might just be the most Zen choice I [n]ever make.


Off-The-Shirt Parenting

…And so it starts.

One of the girls began crying out of the blue yesterday about a word a playmate had used to describe her months earlier (unbeknownst to us). It was an F-word. THE F-word, the one I had been dreading having to redefine for my innocent children’s ears:


Instinct rocketed an immediate protest to my lips—“You’re not fat!”—but I blocked it at the last minute. I’ve read so many wonderful articles and stories over the years about how to discuss body image with our daughters that I know better than to pick my fight with the word itself. “Fat” and “thin” can be such arbitrary descriptors, especially in a girl’s own mind. What’s more, they don’t even come close to covering the nuances of appearance, of stature, shape, skin, smile. They speak nothing of beauty, though of course we tend to associate one with beauty and one with its opposite. They’re subjective and emotionally loaded, and the last thing I want to teach my wounded little girl is to go through life relying on others to affirm her skinniness.

So I wracked my brain for tips on how to proceed in this conversation without crushing any eggshells underfoot, and I prayed a quick “Help!” and I started into every right thing I knew how to say. I told her that health matters far more than size. I talked about how each girl is born with a unique shape. I showed her this stunning photo of diverse Olympic athletes. I listed amazing things that her body is able to do. I read her passages from The Care And Keeping Of You. I assured her that she was utterly beautiful. And after a solid hour of this, we had gotten exactly… nowhere.

Someone had told her she was fat, and that one word had more weight than all of my words put together.

Finally, in desperation, I lifted my shirt to show her my stomach. This was not easy for me to do. My girls have seen my stomach plenty of times before, and we have been getting the European locker room experience for six and a half years now, but none of those times was I putting my deliciously squishable middle on display for someone to scrutinize. Besides, I haven’t worked out consistently since the marathon in October. AND CHRISTMAS HAPPENED. I was absolutely not ready for my midriff close-up.

I also had no idea what to say once I had my shirt raised. What was I even trying to convey with this? That my daughter should feel better because her stomach isn’t as big as mine? Or that the way to deal with insecurity is to become an exhibitionist? Gah, and again I say gah. I felt like an idiot and quickly put my shirt down… only to see that my girl had lifted hers and was examining her own lovely tummy with delight. When she went to bed a few minutes later, her feelings were still hurt, but she no longer seemed to be taking the F-word to heart.

Once again, I’m amazed by the power of vulnerability to heal. The stories and songs and works of art that have touched my life the most over the years have always been the ones that cost their creators dearly—the tender, raw, unpolished truth of themselves that they were brave enough to share. I’m forever grateful to authors like Maya Angelou (the first memoirist I ever read) and Glennon Melton (the most recent) for daring to hold their experiences up to the light, inviting us to look and touch and brim over with Me too!s. Artists like Frida Kahlo, songwriters like Fiona Apple, friends who whisper their hearts out over kitchen tables or email servers… their bravery makes me brave. It never fails.

In light of that, I can understand why a minute of pretending I was Gwen Stefani worked when an hour of impersonal truth-reciting didn’t. My girl needed to see a little of my skin to help her look kindly at hers, not in comparison but in recognition. I’m not sure exactly what she saw in my cookie-sculpted abs (do I want to know??), but helping her make peace with herself was well worth my momentary discomfort.

(Annnnnd as of today, I’m back to working out! You never know when the F-word will rear its fire-breathing head again, and a mama wants to be prepared.)


Two-Part Answer

I went through high school in a sort of homeschool/private school hybrid where I would go to certified teachers’ houses to take courses with a handful of other students and then continue my coursework during the week at home. This setup allowed me to get a solid academic education while still sheltering me from the much-feared religious and pop culture educations I might have gotten at public school. At least, sheltering was the idea. I still learned the Salt ‘N’ Pepa lyrics, and my theological doubts only chafed more the longer they were constrained, but I kept it all in a sound-proof vault as if my authority figures were the ones needing sheltering from all that I knew. However, the academic side was everything I could have asked for. Between Shakespeare and AP English, I established my permanent love affair with this language of ours, and I learned more in my ninth grade biology class than in three semesters of science electives once I went to university.

Recent events have stirred up a memory from that ninth grade biology class, and I wanted you to know about my educational construct at the time—strong value on academics, strong fear of secular influence—so that you can understand the weight of our final assignment for the year. Our biology teacher, a pragmatic woman with a twinkling sense of humor, decided not to teach the unit on earth’s origin directly. Instead, she had us pick teams and spend our home study time preparing a debate on evolution versus creationism.

I, being a ridiculously earnest pupil who hadn’t yet developed a sense of humor, picked creationism. Obviously. I’d already read Ken Ham’s “The Lie” about how families were being destroyed by false scientific theories, and it was perfectly evident to me that Darwin’s followers were sponsored by Satan himself. If you believed in evolution, you were against the Bible—God’s encyclopedia—which meant you were against truth. I’d been to Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum and seen a human footprint alongside a dinosaur one. I’d freaking memorized Genesis 1. Armed with so much truth and the absolute assurance that God was on my side, I looked forward to crushing the “evolutionists” in our class debate.

And here’s what happened: The evolutionist side (made up of homeschooled teens, remember, who were probably loving this chance to play devil’s advocate) pulverized us. They presented scientific facts that left us creationists flipping through our notebooks, “ummm”ing in panic until we had to admit that we had absolutely no rebuttal. How do you argue against photographic proof of genetic variation using the Bible? Where are the verses that debunk carbon dating? Why wouldn’t the other side just accept the biblical account of God’s six-day creating spree? It was bad.

And all the while, a quiet smile grew on the corner of our teacher’s mouth. I didn’t think much of it then; I took it for granted that she, as a Christian, would be a young earth creationist. In retrospect, however, I suspect that she was brilliantly directing us to discover what she wasn’t free to say out loud in our circle. She never did summarize her stance on the creation vs. evolution debate. She simply smiled, and that smile stands out to me today as the first glimpse I ever had of someone at peace with both God and science.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing many other Jesus-loving scientists in the years since, and it no longer seems the least bit strange to me that someone can think deeply and believe deeply without the one contradicting the other. True, if you’re going to accept that God created life millions of years ago by means of biological evolution, then you have to read the Bible differently—not as an encyclopedia but as a literary compilation full of allegory and poetry and various writers’ experiences. I don’t see this is as necessitating a crisis of faith however.

I remember one afternoon at a fundamentalist apologetics camp in my teens, the speaker pretended to be a theistic evolutionist arriving at the pearly gates of heaven. “Well gee, God!” he blustered in a hillbilly accent, “When you said ‘day,’ I thought you meant four billion years!” God was having none of it. Straight to hell went the hillbilly who had dared to read Genesis 1 figuratively. And there, caught up in the theatricality of the moment, were hundreds of kids absorbing the message that our God would condemn us if we believed the wrong brand of science.

(Which appears exactly nowhere in the Bible, just for the record.)

That moment still makes me heartsick… for all the kids who have been terrified out of [using] their minds, for all the bright thinkers who have been convinced that faith is incompatible with fact, for a love-starved world that sees Christians get publicly bent out of shape over issues more appropriate to a lab than to a Bible study. I have to ask—Is it worth it? Is dogmatizing one interpretation of a Bible story worth driving a wedge between others and God?

I am more grateful than ever for my ninth grade biology teacher who chose not to attack our beliefs but instead guided us into challenging them ourselves. That experience helped loosen the tight, terrified fists clenched around my mind, letting it slowly expand toward a view of reality in which soul-truth and science-truth can be a two-part answer to the same question.

I’d like to hope that by the time my girls are grown, science vs. God will no longer be a source of strife. However, considering that Bill Nye this week earned himself the same label applied to Galileo by Christians four centuries ago (rhymes with “shmeretic”), I’m not sure we’re any closer to unity on the issue. What I can do, however, is try to raise my girls with active minds and open hearts to the world around them—both the spiritual world and the natural one—and trust that the God I know will be watching them research and question and make mistakes and learn with a smile ever growing on the corner of his mouth.


Grown-Up Shmown-Up

This morning, I signed Sophie out of school for a doctor’s appointment. I’d completely forgotten about it (see Instagram), so we were nearly two hours late, but I’m choosing to dwell on the principle of Better Late Than Never and to thank my stars that Italians aren’t particularly hung up on punctuality anyway. While signing the school release statement, I caught myself wondering for the zillionth time if I’m really qualified to be doing this. Being the grown-up, I mean. I’ve had nine years now to get used to the idea of being a parent, but the range of parenting tasks I feel well and truly qualified to do starts with breastfeeding and ends with changing diapers. Infants are and always have been my homies. But what do I know about raising KIDS? About homework help and birthday parties and PTA meetings? About big-kid insecurities and big-kid friendships and—Lord O’Mercy—big-kid hormones? What in the world do I know about ushering these small humans through the mysterious and noisy process of becoming themselves?

Right now, I’m cobbling together these sentences next to the piano bench while Natalie practices, and it seems unfathomable to me that I’m the one here offering corrections and compliments, promising her that one day she’ll appreciate having had a musical education. Who is this person in my head generating parent-y clichés, and what has she done with the real me, the eleven-year-old me who just knows she’s going to be stuck practicing scales and arpeggios forever?

These are the easiest and the hardest days of parenting, all at once. My girls are becoming delightfully independent; my friends with toddlers almost cry when they hear that Natalie and Sophie get themselves ready for school in the mornings down to their breakfasts. On the other hand, I almost cry when it’s time for their showers or their piano practice or their chores because teaching them independence in these things requires exactly fifty million times more effort than just doing them myself. They need me far less of the day than they did as babies, but they need far more of me now. They need more of my focus and my creativity and my present, intentional self. They look to me to troubleshoot emotional tangles and answer complicated questions, and my goodness. Never do I feel less like a grown-up than when I’m being looked up to as one.

Fortunately, the girls haven’t figured this out yet. They think I’m the real deal, even when I forget doctor’s appointments or burn the pizza or quake in my boots at the timbre of their curiosity. They’re perfectly okay accepting me as the grown-up in our relationship, and when it comes down to it, theirs is the only qualification I really need.

Still though… I might want to work on that maturity thing. Word has it, it can be helpful when one is trying to pass for a real live adult.


When a Head Cold Leads to Paralysis

The cold virus I’ve been dodging for weeks closes with a snap around my brain one evening, and I know I’m in it for the long haul. It drags me to bed like a wolf with fresh prey, preferring to gnaw at me under the protective dark of blankets. Noise hurts. Light hurts. My head feels like it’s being digested. I force myself up far too soon (the children need me! and if not them, the laundry certainly does!) and regret it almost immediately. Gravity pulls the cold from my sinuses down to my lungs, and I’m down for the count.

This is why I haven’t been writing lately—because sickness has a way of wrapping itself like fog around the landscape of my mind until it’s all I can see, and because no one wants to read about somebody else’s head cold. That’s a fact.

With so little of color or substance penetrating this head-fog, I’ve stayed quiet, and in some ways, it’s been nice. I don’t tend to give myself slack unless I’m forced to by extenuating circumstances, so sickness can be its own form of grace. I’ve been devouring books in long, thirsty gulps, sleeping without an alarm, and letting Dan bring me hot drinks without repurposing his kindness as guilt. Rest is such a gift.

To be honest though, I’ve let the gift turn into an excuse. Quiet is a little too easy a condition for me to accept, and it doesn’t take anything more significant than a head cold to validate the lie woven into the threads of my life that says I have nothing of value to say. See? my mind asserts, No one wants to read about what’s going on in your head. This is faulty logic, of course—swollen sinuses and theological reconstruction are hardly the same kind of head issues—but it’s pretty damn hard to refute all the same.

It’s staring me in the face each time I open Facebook. Link upon link upon link to other people’s words… some beautifully penned, some slapped into a template for maximum page counts, all competing for the attention of a public simultaneously addicted to and numbed by viral posts. The Internet has gotten so loud. How could my voice possibly matter in this sea of words, in this roar of marketing machines and big opinions? Why work to put my heart into sentences when someone out there has surely already said the same thing, only better or with more impressive graphics?

Please don’t take this as a hankering to be louder or to build a competitive platform. Fame isn’t why I’m here, and God knows the world doesn’t need any more noise-for-noise’s-sake. I do want to matter though. All my life, I’ve hungered for significance, rooting through theologies and grasping at circumstances for extra legs on which to stabilize my position in this world. I’m not saying this is a healthy habit, but it’s the truth. In fact, I’ve poured far too much time, energy, and money over the years into activities that no longer worked for me simply because I couldn’t acknowledge that their significance was over. (See: classical ballet, psychology courses, and every craft in which I’ve ever dabbled. Disgruntled cross stitch samplers, anyone?)

I know that I tend to pour more of myself into time-wasters in a [misguided and ultimately doomed] attempt to make them matter, but I also know that I tend to give up on good things prematurely for fear of starting this time-wasting cycle… and it all becomes a jumble, my perspective darting around wide-eyed and disoriented in the muddy in-between. How do I prioritize without clearly glimpsing the thumbprint of significance? How do I distinguish my creative calling from the cacophony of my expectations, much less from the noise of the world around me?

In times like this, Dan often reminds me that I think too much, which, YES, CLEARLY. I’m a lifelong pro at thinking a good idea to death, at second-guessing my second guesses until the whole thing goes belly-up. I’m a serial doubter, which is different from a cynic in that cynic has pre-packaged negativity ready to slap on an issue whereas I can’t decide on which brand of negativity to use. This isn’t likely to change. (Sorry, dear.)

All this leaves me in a rather paralyzed place regarding the new year, especially in regards to writing and blogging and social media and the ever-changing face of the creative community. WHY is a pretty big question to be bringing to the table, and I’m having a hard time proceeding without knowing the answer.

However, inviting you into the discussion in my mind is why this blog exists, so here we are—on the downswing of an epic but still categorically boring head cold, searching for personal meaning on a global scale, and actively refuting the lie that there is nothing of value left in this world to say.

Join the discussion, would you? I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on navigating the noise and content overload we encounter online. What motivates you to keep showing up? What helps you keep standing on your own two feet in the fire-hose stream of input? 


Holiday Hangover

We told everyone that this time around, we would be doing Christmas in our pajamas, and we did. No suitcases, no schedules, not even snapshots to commemorate the thing. We spent the holiday drawn in tightly to our little family nucleus, and when a Yuletide virus stopped by to knock the four of us out of commission, we simply paused the carols and curled up for a nap. It was as low-key as you can get.

And still still still, despite our PJs-and-leftovers approach to Christmas, the season managed to flatten me as surely as a wrecking ball. This happens every year. I imagine us strolling through a December as serene as the lyrics to Silent Night, our faces reflecting the twinkle of simple delights. After a Christmas of grand surprises and Norman Rockwell reenactments, we’d settle back with our eggnog to watch the snow fall and our children play jacks until the new year chimes in, inviting us to skip down new avenues of creativity and possibility with all those fresh reserves of energy. I imagine REST as the defining characteristic of our holiday.

Of course, my daydream version of December is 97% dependent on house elves while the other 3% is up to the weather.

Real December has a knack for turning joyful occasions into deadlines and togetherness into a theater production. At least it does for me. No matter how committed I am to slowing down and savoring the holidays, most spare moments still find me scrambling to finish the backdrops and props of traditional merriness while our budget burrows a hole under the fence. Some of that I’m sure is due to my being The Mom, which is shorthand for Santa-Claus-party-hostess-errandboy-housecleaner-magic-experience-coordinator-pixie, while the other part is that I’m terrible at letting go of expectations (mine + others’ + ones that I attribute to others whether or not that impression is accurate). I’m so afraid of disappointing anyone that I run myself into the ground preparing for events that I’m then too worn out to enjoy. Really, REST ends up being the opposite characteristic of my holiday, so it’s no big surprise that I tend to start January with an emotional hangover.

I’m not writing this to complain about our Christmas but rather to notice and remember—to acknowledge the patterns that end up depleting me and to tack my observations up on the doors of future Decembers. It’s only now that I really can begin to notice, with the girls back in school and house renovations wrapping up (what timing, eh?) and all the upheaval and rush and too-late nights of the past month gradually losing their grip on the present. Self-care can now get a word in edgewise, and I’m relieved to be getting back to myself. I love the sparkle of Christmas, but I also love the slow glow of a nourished heart. Here’s hoping that next year, I’ll finally find a way to combine the two.

How were your holidays?

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