5May

Two-Minute Increment

Announcement: I’m still here.

I’ve been busy lately for reasons that still elude me, rifling through each day for the scraps of what’s most important. Uneventful busyness, I guess you could say. Every single minute has been an exercise in prioritization, and the mental weighing and justifying and second-guessing gets exhausting after awhile.

I adore writing, but it’s hard work–writing for publication, that is–and requires rich, intense blocks of my day. I also adore my girls, but they are both at ages brimming with needs: milk, structure, emergency bubble baths, story time, conversation, potty training, undivided attention, tickle attacks. Housework… well, I don’t adore, but a clean, welcoming home is essential to our survival around here. I love my husband like crazy, but it’s difficult finding our connection through all the pesky details of work and parenting, entertaining guests and early-onset bedtime. I have paints waiting in a giant pink bin under my bed and brand new music recording software I’m itching to try out and winterbaby flab to burn off and an entire language to finish learning already and always more and more wonderful, prismatic bits of life I want to hold onto with all my might… but I come in two-minute increments these days, and assorted parts do not equal a whole.

Do you ever find yourself hopelessly scattered and thinking that maybe the best present in the whole wide world would be a multi-pack of undivided time?

28Apr

Shouting in a Meadow

Writing publicly about religion makes me cringe. And hit delete buttons. And back s-l-o-w-l-y away from the computer as if the Inquisition itself were making a digital comeback with online dudgeons and high resolution torture devices and glinty-eyed execution-bloggers.

So I can be a tad dramatic. However, I’m starting to realize how much I still censor my thoughts to stay away from explosive topics like U.S. economy and home schooling and Ashlee Simpson and, of course, religion. I know that whatever my thoughts on the subject, I am sure to offend someone, and the prospect makes my insides wilt.

The thing is, though–I still don’t really know my thoughts on religion. I wrote a while back about the immense loneliness and confusion of finding I don’t like God. Now that I’ve had some time to marinate in that concept, I realize that what I actually dislike is my view of him. The portrait of God in my head is painted primarily in crap, and I was exhausted of sifting through it for the occasional fleck of real color.

Back in January, I indulged my inner heathen and scribbled the following during church (because that’s how I roll, yo), but didn’t show it the light of day for fear of Inquisition, etc. Now, though, I find it incredibly important:

 I can’t hide nearly as well in a tiny church. In this child-sized room, loosely populated by friends and hardly anyone else, I find I’ve lost my invisibility. I can’t fade comfortably into the woodwork. I can’t ignore the voice of reality in my head: “You’re a fraud, you’re a fraud, you’re a fraud”–sing-song, like those infuriatingly perfect Disney princesses.

I feel so out of place sitting in church with my overflowing suitcases of questions. Baggage doesn’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I know where I want to be though: an enormous open meadow, fiercely guarded on all sides by mountains, muffled by waterfalls and wind and the complete absence of other humans. I would SHOUT! my questions, all of them, as loudly as my lungs would let me. And God would be right there. He would answer and put my heart back in place and be real to me again.

Where am I supposed to find God in my claustrophobic world where life is whatever fits between walls and ceilings and floors? My questions are too big for home, for church. They are certainly too big for other people, and I’m floundering under the belief that they’re too big for me.

And then I filled pages with those questions–deep, aching ones that I had to rip out and lay bleeding on the paper.

Since then, not a single question has been answered. However, I’ve been able to step back and see the dung-smeared portrait and survey the multitudes* of people with their widely differing ideas that they call “doctrine” and “truth” even though they’re really just interpretations.

When I first read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian several years ago, I remember feeling like a huge weight was lifted–that weight being the dogmatic rightness of traditional American churches. McLaren proposed that the church’s tactics were outdated and irrelevant to today’s people. Duh, I know. But it was a revolutionary idea to me at the time, and I lost approximately 300 pounds the moment I accepted that church was not the same thing as religion.

Then I read Donald Miller and John & Stasi Eldredge and Eugene Peterson and went down 15 emotional dress sizes and started smiling when I thought about Christianity… the real thing, not the big-haired pastor kind. But I still have a LOT of pre-conceptions to sort through. I mean, I was practically brainwashed into a certain brand of religion as a kid, and it’s not easy figuring out which of those teachings–if any–have merit.

(Note: Here comes the part with the cringing and the wilting and the slowly dislocating of very important limbs on an html rack.)

Maybe this is common knowledge to most people, but I was in college before I learned that the Bible–militantly defended as a sacred text–is just a compendium of stories and letters and historical records compiled by various groups of men, copied, lost, translated, retranslated, reretranslated, and printed off for people to make of it what they will. The Bible covers thousands of years and many different cultures, yet religious leaders pull out certain lines and call them “precepts.” Mennonites with head coverings? Christians who won’t eat pork? Churches that don’t allow female teachers? All bits and pieces pulled from ancient cultural laws and applied to now.

I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important, though its history does raise a lot of difficult questions for me. I just wonder when church-goers stopped reading the book of Matthew: “You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do.”(23:8-10, The Message) Self-proclaimed religious experts threaten dire consequences for veering from their explanations of “truth.” They warn against any spiritual search outside of the Bible (just mention yoga to a group of Southern Baptists, and watch the paranoia about “New Age” practices; seriously, you’d think yoga involved slaughtering kittens at midnight over a bubbling cauldron of fermented demon juice). They loudly condemn people with different beliefs to a future more horrifying than death. They set up a hierarchy of sins (homosexuality! abortion!) and prescribe rituals for holding onto salvation (morning devotionals! prayer before meals!).

I feel the wind knocked out of me just typing this paltry list. The aggressive application of “doctrine” does nothing to alleviate my soul-thirst. What does refresh me is art. Creativity. Beautiful movies, beautiful music, beautiful books. The great outdoors. Talking to people with giant hearts. Random acts of kindness. Intimate discussions with small groups of friends. Quiet. Sometimes the deliberate peace of Buddhism, sometimes the grandeur of Catholicism, sometimes the passionate worship of Pentacostals, but usually no organized religion at all.

Sometime, I hope to be able to add the Bible to the list of things that fulfill me spiritually. I just need to get further away from the cultural classification of God so I can read each “book” as it was meant to be read at the time and take my own truth from the words.

I just deleted that last line and retyped it a thousand times, by the way, because I’m a scaredy-pants. I know the pastors of my childhood would accuse me of “relativity” and “denying the truth,” and my pants are most definitely scared. But I’m trying to stay real and honest because those rusty hinges in my head are creaking open, and I want others to see the wide, untamed meadows beyond the gates of traditional Christianity–meadows with room for dancing wind and wildflowers and the hard
est questions coiled inside.


* Bonus point for using a Biblical term!!

23Apr

Afghan of Exhaustion

It’s 9:55 a.m., and I’m sitting at the breakfast table alone with a poorly-made cappuccino. I was too tired this morning to go for a walk before The Hubby left for work, too tired even to have breakfast with my family. It’s a mystery, this tiredness, sneaking around like a cat burglar and stealing a moment here, a good intention there. I eat, I sleep, I exercise, I take ridiculously expensive vitamins, and I’m. still. exhausted. all. the. time. I mean, I’m thisclose to narcolepsy. Really.

Days like this, I feel a bit like a science experiment gone wrong. Some absent-minded professor mixed the blue potion with the red potion, and now I’m fizzing over and shooting purple smoke and growing limbs and speaking in tongues when all I really want to do is bubble quietly in my beaker.

I have a writing deadline coming up (oo, so official am I!) that would be making me spasm with giddy excitement were I not draped over the furniture like an afghan of exhaustion.* I have a lovely start and a lovely end and lots of lovely intentions for the middle, but I’m having trouble peeling my face off the pillow long enough to write a complete sentence these days. Maybe I should just scrap the lovely intentions and write, “At this point, Mr. and Mrs. Sneeth took a nap. A very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, long nap.”**

The tiredness is also presenting problems with the girls. Have you ever tried to make a three-year-old female comply with your No Talking Before Ten Policy? See, when I wake up in the morning, I need an adrenaline shot, a second adrenaline shot, and a team of coffee-buzzed weight lifters with crowbars just to help pry my eyes open. You could say I’m not a morning person. Natalie, on the other hand, wakes up exploding from all the exciting things she didn’t get to tell us during the night. Like, “Mommy! Hey, MOMMY! Good MORNING! Get up! HI! I have something to TELL YOU! I have EARS! And EYES! And… something else! Ummmmmm? Oh, a MOUTH! AND IT’S TALKING! See my buttylunten? [lifting up her shirt] It’s still GROWING! Hey, wanna play with me? I want Fruit Lips for breakfast! I mean Fruit LOOPS! Fruit Loops have all the colors! See? SEE? See all the really, really, really colors? That one is ORANGE! The orange Fruit Loop is a really, really COLOR! SEE? And see all the other colors? Oh my goodness. I really, REALLY like Fruit Loops! AAAAAA!!!!” I, meanwhile, am writhing in pain and groping around the bed for a mute button and begging Sophie to bring me an espresso IV stat.

Any suggestions on how to get my energy back? Because right now, I’m as productive as a dead fish. (Well, maybe not quite dead, but definitely in critical condition.) Natalie would appreciate being allowed to talk again, and the baby would like to be taken off housecleaning duty, and more than anything, I would love to feel like a normal person again. You know, awake.


* I really, sincerely apologize for all these similes and metaphors and metaphoric similes and phrases like “afghan of exhaustion.” I can’t help it. I’ve been limiting descriptive comparisons in the Very Official Thing I’m Writing, and the similes have to come out SOMEWHERE.

** The piece doesn’t actually have anything to do with Mr. or Mrs. Sneeth, but! I can see a future for this idea–maybe a short story called “The Grotesquely Long Nap: A Bedtime Story Guaranteed to Put You to Sleep.” Enticing, no?***

*** No.

21Apr

Public Service Announcement

This is a public service announcement:
Mortification Monday is on temporary hiatus while I hook up to a coffee IV and pound out meaningful and inspired art 24/7 finish A Project. Blogging may be sparse for the next few weeks, but don’t worry; I’ll still be lurking in the fringes of the internet, popping in from time to time to shake off the coffee jitters. In the meantime…

What we Bassetts do when dinner guests are late:

PARTY!

18Apr

The Importance of Disastercake

Have you ever dipped your hands into a bag of cake flour? (It is impossibly soft, like fluffed air.) Have you listened to the crackle of fresh bread crust? Smelled a spicy fruitcake bubbling in the oven? Seen the rich gloss of a half-melted chocolate chip? Tasted raw brownie batter? (Of course you’ve done that, with brownie batter being its own FDA-recommended food group and all.)

This is why I love baking: It provides unexpected treasures for all the senses. It is a whole-body experience, with love and delicacy and intuition being every bit as important as the baking powder*. I’m still learning the ins and outs, of course. In all my years of baking, I’ve only recently discovered that you can’t leave cream of tartar out of a recipe just because you don’t know what it is (though I’m not sure anyone really does). After 6,729 burnt candy bars, I’ve finally found the secret to melting chocolate**. And since moving to Italy, I’ve learned about baking’s greatest aphrodisiac: parchment paper. As long as your pan is lined with a buttered layer of paper, not even your Aunt Millie’s notorious Caramelized Rubber Cement Bars would stick.

Like any skill, the ability to bake comes through trial and error. (And error, and error.) For me, this little domestic pleasure has been worth every lumpy biscuit and soupy disastercake; however, I have trouble explaining why baking means so much to me. Maybe it’s because sending a plate of lemon bars to The Hubby’s office can brighten his coworkers’ entire day. Maybe it’s because I subconsciously want to be a Colonial housewife***, with my kitchen the warm and lively center of my home. Maybe it’s because baking is a tangibly creative endeavor, as if I were a composer and these were my masterpieces. Rhapsody in apple-cinnamon. Vanilla bean minuet. Opus n. 87 with a dark chocolate ganache.

Or maybe it’s just because a bag of flour costs 40 times less than a manicure.

*Which, just for reference, is rather important.

** It’s called a microwave.

***Hoopskirts! Embroidery! Taxation without representation!

17Apr

How to Be a Parent

When I was a teenager, I babysat several times a week. I loved every minute, and if I had written an essay called “How to Be a Parent” at age fifteen, it would have said this:

First, you play princess Barbies with your adorable four-year-old, then put her in her princess jammies to read princess stories before tucking her into her princess blankets for the night. Then you feed the baby his bottle while watching a romantic comedy and eating sugar by the spoonful dinner. Once the baby is asleep, you’re free to spend the next several hours taking sexy bubble baths, or whatever adults do with their copious spare time. The end.

In the 1,141 days that I have actually been a parent, I have taken exactly three bubble baths (none of them particularly sexy) and learned a few things. Like, the moms of the children I babysat were probably cleaning frantically for seven hours before I came over. Also, the parents had probably lost a cumulative year of sleep training that adorable four-year-old to stay in her princess bed all night. And normal adults, those with actual responsibilities during the day, don’t stay up until 2 a.m. drinking wine in their lingerie by candlelight. At least not often.

The relative who came to visit us when we brought Natalie home from the hospital was just trying to help, I know. But everything about her help got under my skin, crawled around, and gnawed at me like a swarm of chiggers. I scratched back pretty hard, I’m afraid.

I felt like all those years of babysitting had earned me a PhD in childcare, but I had no idea what to do with my own daughter. My mind boggled at the fact that this tiny person was completely dependent on me. What if I didn’t dress her warmly enough? How could I know if she was eating well? What was making her so miserable that she had to cry? I felt like I should be confident and relaxed, but I doubted myself at every turn, and my relative’s comments further prevented me from finding my own way of mothering. They made me feel 200% a failure.

The “I would nevers” started innocently enough: I would never leave my baby strapped into a swing all day. I would never use the television as a babysitter. I would never ignore my children. I wasn’t trying to be supercilious at all. I just knew I loved my little girl and wanted to learn from all the parenting mistakes I’d seen.

But then, the third trimester of my pregnancy with Sophie lumbered down and squished out my energy overnight. My energetic two-year-old was suddenly a pig-tailed tornado, and I kept falling asleep three words into story time. “Sesame Street” and “The Backyardigans” became very, very important to our survival. I started falling asleep at night under a palpable cloud of mother-guilt.

Natalie and I went out on a mommy-daughter date this week. We walked through a park, Natalie chatting incessantly about everything she saw (“Look, there’s a flower! And a bird! And another flower! Ooo, look, there’s grass! Did you see the grass, Mommy? The grass, over there? Did you see it?”), and then shared a cup of ice cream. It was perfect. I hadn’t paid attention lately to what an amazing little girl she is, bubbling over with sweetness and enthusiasm, and I was blown away.

I wish so much that I could do more for her. Maybe if Sophie cleaned the house for me, I could give Natalie the one-on-one time she deserves, but you know babies–too busy lying around, being cute. But despite my imperfections as a mother, my daughter has a vast, beautiful heart. She is happy and creative, and she knows I love her with everything I have. She knows, and that is enough for now.

We’re on the journey back into the sunlight, but this time, I’m not looking at other families for validation (At least our daughter eats her vegetables, yada yada yada). Instead, I’m deeply humbled by the other moms and dads who are struggling to be the right parents for their children. I’m encouraged to see other families who, through their aching, ache for one other. I’m so grateful to know I’m not alone in this shaky business of being human.

Things change. Children learn their way in life as parents temporarily lose theirs. “I would never” becomes “I’ll do my best,” and we fumble our way through apologies. We learn honesty and grace. Our rose-tinted glasses crack; we see our children for who they are. And through each struggle, each fight for the relationships most precious to us, we dive deeper into the mystery of unconditional love.

15Apr

Leafshade Living

I’m having a heavy week. It’s not bad exactly, just dappled in shadow like leafshades on the grass.

Sophie’s been a fitful version of herself. She’s allergic to bananas of all things, and I can’t shake the feeling that I betrayed her trust by feeding them to her, even though she loved them. Especially because she loved them. This is such a non-problem compared to Celiac Disease or lymphoma or epilepsy or spina bifida–should I go on?–but I keep thinking about banana nut pancakes on Saturday mornings and deflating in tiny puffs.

The weather is on crack, of course, but no one wants to hear more about rain. No, wait, sun. No, rain again. April, get thee to rehab.

I’ve started an intensive workout routine called “walking around.” I am enough of a wimp that circling the neighborhood every day leaves me breathless and sore and feel-goody the rest of the time. The idea was to build up my nonexistent energy, get my blood flowing enough to wash the breakfast dishes without collapsing into a puddle of wife-slush. What I didn’t count on was loving the effort. The steady push-pull of bright air in my lungs. The rhythm of feet on pavement. Wild wisteria, children playing soccer, twilight reflecting off the city’s peak. Twenty minutes a day to expand my hunchback life.

I’ve also been sorting through the tantalizing sludge of What Do I Want To Do When I Grow Up?, except this week, it’s I Finally Know What I Want To Do, So How Do I Do It? If I ignore the time factor (specifically, how I have none), I feel ready to write for broader surroundings. This blog is my cozy little house where I can wear pajama pants all day, let the dishes pile up, and spill my unedited guts. I feel safe and happy here, but I’m aching to get out the door, maybe wear heels and sparkly earrings, give my creativity a big breath.

Now that I’m looking for them, the opportunities are overwhelming. In fact, I’m having trouble staying in tune with my goals in the face of so many almost-rights. It’s like chugging a strange cocktail of doubt, hope, turmoil, and inspiration. Can you get a hangover from excitement? I’m ready to see myself as a writer, and it’s every bit as scary as you might expect… multiplied by a majillion or so.

Taxes are done, I have a functional computer again, and the kitchen floor may just get mopped this week. I am madly in love with my family, and I know what I want to do when I grow up. I’m thinking this heaviness won’t last much longer than the smoky crack-clouds pausing outside our window.

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