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Zen and the Mama Bear

Below is a video of the piece I read for the Listen To Your Mother Show in Washington, DC on May 4, 2014.  What a thrilling day – I shared the stage with 13 fabulous women telling stories that made us laugh and cry.

Before auditioning for the show, I had never read any of my essays out loud.  As I tried to choose the right one for the audition, I noticed that hearing myself read aloud changed the tone, as opposed to hearing the words in my head.  Some of my pieces came across a little snarkier than I originally intended. Others just seemed better off living as the written word rather than the spoken word.  But this one, Zen and the Mama Bear, seemed to lend itself well to a staged reading.  It was dramatic, it had dialogue…yes, this was the one. What surprised me, though, was that every time I read it out loud, I would get choked up at the end.  I told myself that I could surely desensitize myself to this phenomenon before the audition with a little practice. But it turned out I was wrong.  I read it out loud several times before the audition, after the audition and before standing on the stage, and every time I read the last paragraph, I felt an unwelcome lump rising in the back of my throat.  I don’t know why I keep crying over forgiving that grouchy woman who smacked my kid in The Children’s Place eight years ago.

Maybe it’s because I wish I could be more peaceful and forgiving in the heat of a moment.

Maybe it’s because I wish other people could be more peaceful and forgiving in the heat of a moment, too.

Maybe it’s because every single person is worth shedding a tear over, especially if she’s grouchy.  I just don’t know.

When the incident revealed in this essay occurred, it felt infuriating and tremendously important.  Years later, it has softened into a funny story that illustrates how time blurs the edges of all things jagged; it’s a reflection on the motives behind people’s behaviors (my own included).  And it’s a story that initiates belly-laughter for my son, now 11, who is thrilled that it is being immortalized on YouTube, making him indirectly famous.

So here it is.  I hope you like it.  If you have any thoughts on the meaning behind the suppressed sobs at the end, I would love to hear them.  In absence of a better explanation, let’s go with my desire to be a little more forgiving. Deep breaths.  Always.  In laughter, in tears, in anger and in joy.  Deep breaths and forgiveness for everyone.

Zen and the Mama Bear

When I was a little girl, we spent a lot of time in the Poconos. To this day, the smell of bug spray and pine needles immediately brings me back to the little house my uncle built with his own two hands in the woods of East Stroudsburg.

There is a black bear population in that area. The little I know about black bears makes them strike me as fairly Zen.  Eighty-five percent of their diet is vegetarian.  Confrontations with other animals are rare and usually due to hunger rather than any territorial claim. They are quiet, gentle giants, who mind their own business unless provoked, but even then, (and I quote Wikipedia), “Black bears rarely attack when confronted by humans, and usually limit themselves to making mock charges, emitting blowing noises and swatting the ground with their forepaws.”

I never actually saw a black bear directly in front of me as a child, but my cousin found a cub once, and started playing with it – it was just so cute.  When my aunt saw him with the cub, she quickly whisked him into the house. She knew that if there were cubs, the mother bear must be close by. Our mothers explained to us that mama bears, like all mothers, are very protective of their young.

A Mama Bear is capable of killing you, even if she doesn’t mean to.

Sometimes I feel like a Mama Bear.

I try to mind my own business,

I avoid unpleasant confrontation,

I like fish and veggies, and I get very cranky when I am hungry.

And I, too, feel it is my job to fiercely protect my young.  Like the Mama Bear, I coast through life pretty peacefully, but every now and then, something gets on my last nerve, and I yell and stomp my feet.  Then I typically emit a blowing noise and lumber away to collect myself.

When my son was three, he went through this phase where he would smack anything he saw that was red.  The phase just so happened to correspond with the holiday season, when on any given day countless people would walk by his stroller wearing festive red sweaters.  There was one instance when I was paying for a gift at the Children’s Place, and my little Houdini managed to wiggle his way out of the stroller and toddled to the register next to us where an older woman in a bright red sweater was paying for her purchases.

Right across her back.

Now it couldn’t have hurt.  He was three.  It was like being smacked with a Q-tip.  But I was embarrassed.

I stooped down so I could look him in the eye.  I was JUST about to say to him, “No hitting – we do not hit people,” but before I could even get out, “Nnn,” the woman smacked him back.

I stood up in shock, silent for a moment, and then words came, although I didn’t know what they would be until after they were already out there.  They may as well have been grunts and blowing noises.

“Do NOT put your hands on my child.”

“He hit me first.”

Seriously.  That’s what she said.

“He’s three, Ma’am.  What’s your excuse?  I can’t teach him not to hit people if the grown-ups hit him back.”

There was a moment of intense silence.  The people working the registers were frozen.  The woman and I stared at each other eye to eye, wondering who would growl or retreat first.

“If he were MY child, I would give him a good spanking.”

“Well he’s not your child.  He’s MY child.  And you are not to put your hands on MY child.” (Grunt, grunt, stomp, stomp).

I was shaking.  She grumbled some more, and then she left the store.  Later, I thought of about 100 better things I could have said.  Roaring things.  I don’t remember any of them now.

What would I do differently if that happened again today?  Maybe nothing.  As the Mama Bear, I said what I needed to say to defend my child. Had she gone after him again, I may just have swatted her to the death – although not on purpose, of course.

Telling this story now may be eight years late and a dollar short, but I have something to say to that woman – as a human being, rather than as a stunned Mama Bear:

Dear Lady in the Red Sweater,
I am very sorry my three-year-old smacked you, but I stand by what I said, which is that you have no right to put your hands on him or any other person’s child.  We are never going to solve issues of violence and aggression in this world by modeling violent and aggressive behaviors.  We also need to respect the parenting strategies of others, hopefully with a little kindness and with the understanding that we don’t get the whole picture of a family in the snapshots of lives unfolding in public.  You will be happy to know that my son doesn’t hit people anymore, even if they’re wearing red.

Sincerely,
Mama Bear of an Energetic Boy

I probably could have written that eight years ago.  But what I may not have considered back then that I can offer today thanks to a little time and perspective is this:

Dear Mama Bear of an Energetic Boy,
Please forgive the lady in the red sweater.  She may have been having a really bad day or week or life.  A person who smacks a three-year-old stranger is likely having a much worse day than you are. You didn’t need to do anything more than what you did, which was to be the Mama Bear who protects her son and then knows when to walk away.

Peace.

A Bit More Like Connor

Daily Presents/Cadigan Creative:

My dear friend recently lost her mother to stage IV melanoma. She wrote this essay (among others if you visit her blog) that beautifully summarizes what it means to live in each present moment – a feat that for many of us is much easier said than done. Re-blogging this post with much love.

Originally posted on Letters to my mom:

kaths phone 369I sat by the pool and watched Connor navigate his way over to the small playground. He fearlessly attempted to join a group of other children who had been playing together. He tried to take charge and asked them all if they wanted to play Mine Craft, which is actually a video game. He proceeded to assign roles, and he began to make the sound effects and respond to imaginary creepers and swords. For a while, the other children tried to join him, but quickly you could tell by their stares between one another that they were not quite sure how to play this game that was clearly only vivid in Connor’s mind. They couldn’t see the blocks and towers and fire that Connor so clearly could; they saw slides, swings, and monkey bars. They may have been able to imagine with Connor for a bit, but in time Connor…

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Swimming Lapse

Daily Presents/Cadigan Creative:

Originally published in June of 2013…

Originally posted on Daily Presents:

Disclaimer:Your regularly scheduled program of peaceful presence and gratitude has been temporarily suspended due to a condition known as SVA (Summer Vacation Anxiety).

Aaaah, summer.   How I struggle this time of year.  If you will remember, I had a similar temper tantrum last year at this time, when I worried and worried about how I would possibly find balance and get any work done with the kids home from school when they were neither interested nor enrolled in nearly enough camps.  This year I don’t even have a part-time babysitter to help me sort it out.  I thought I did.  But I don’t.  I am trying not to be bitter about it.

On the positive side, I started freaking out about how I was going to function during the summer a little later in the game this year than last.  This is either a sign of progress or…

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Field Day

FieldDayAs I watched my son stand confidently, clipboard in hand, commanding the attention of 25 first graders on a chilly Field Day, I flashed back to his pre-school days. I remembered waiting with trepidation in the parent pick-up line, wondering if his name had stayed on the green traffic light, or whether it had been a “yellow day,” or – God forbid – a dreaded “red day.” On the days when sitting still during circle time and playing nicely with others had not been on his agenda, his lovely teacher, Miss Camille, would say things like, “Oh, Mrs. Cadigan, he’s going to be a great leader someday,” and I would reply, “If that’s true, he may just be president.”

My boy has always danced to the beat of his own drummer. Literally. He would often stand in the back of the pre-school room, beating his little hands on the closet door in the rhythm of Brian Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” singing all the words with perfect pitch in his three-year-old voice. This was far more entertaining than anything that could possibly happen while sitting on a carpet square. Back then, I wasn’t worried about major leadership roles. I just wanted my little man to make it to kindergarten.

A late talker and early walker, we threw the development books out the window when it came to tracking milestones for him. He would go through stretches of worrisome delays, followed by erratic development bursts. During his toddler years, we found ourselves wandering the jungle of early intervention for speech, behavior and social skills. As a result, I have always been a little more sensitive about preparing him for each stage of his life. After the school bus pulled away with my baby on it for his first day of kindergarten, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had spent five and a half years, day in and day out, preparing for that day. I cried like a baby as I watched his Spiderman backpack bounce up and down to the rhythm of his little legs climbing the bus steps. The only thing that kept me from chasing after him was knowing there were kind souls waiting at the other side; people who knew he was coming, and who were ready to greet him with a warm smile and an open mind.

Turns out, my boy aced kindergarten. The early intervention services in preschool totally paid off. By the end of first grade, he “graduated” from his occupational therapy plan, and although school isn’t his favorite thing to do, he has consistently surprised me with his ability to thrive in a well-structured environment.

Now he is about to complete the fifth grade. My “baby” stands almost as tall as I do, with man-feet two sizes larger than my own. Last week, he was one of the few in his grade selected to be an assistant for the early elementary Field Day. I watched him clearly and confidently articulate the rules of “It’s Midnight, Mr. Fox” to his sister’s first grade class. The boy who was his partner stood in his shadow, and 25 first graders clung to my son’s every word.

“Are there any questions?” he asked the class.

Twenty-five hands shot up in the air.

“Not about whether or not you can be Mr. Fox,” he said in response. There was a chuckle from him and the parents watching. A few hands went down. This kid, for whom social skills have always been a challenge, had command AND charisma.

He asked for volunteers for the game’s coveted Mr. Fox position. The twenty-five hands shot back up. He picked his sister. My heart burst with pride. Her admiring smile could have melted snow.

I don’t know whether or not he will be president (he has said he might consider it after he retires from the NBA), but it looks like Miss Camille knew a thing or two about little boys, even those who listen to the beat of their own drummer. My heart grew two sizes as I watched him on Field Day – my son, who I will send to middle school next year. Middle school scares me a lot more than kindergarten did.

I hope we have done well preparing him for what comes next. I remind myself he has repeatedly exceeded my expectations up to this point. Letting go as he grows up is hard, but I am proud of the young man my baby is changing into right before my eyes.

Easter

Easter2

In his book, Callings, Gregg Levoy cites Nobel Prize-winning Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures, which contends that “friction is a fundamental property of nature, and nothing grows without it – not mountains, not pearls, not people.” The Grand Canyon was not possible without friction.  A seed planted in the ground grows only after its outer shell has been completely destroyed; the plant reappearing in its place does not resemble the original seed at all. Friction, destruction and rebirth. This is the story of Easter.

I was raised semi-Catholic. I attended Catholic church (spottily) as a child. The oldest of four, I was the only one to make it through all of the sacraments up to confirmation and to attend Catholic high school. I think my younger siblings petered out of the sacraments by Eucharist, as our attendance and participation in CCD seemed to wane as time went on. This was due to a combination of things – we moved a lot, and as we grew up, our sense of community seemed to be served by other venues, but as a family, we always maintained an appreciation for tradition and spiritual groundedness, regardless of whether or not we showed up at the back of the church on Sundays.

When we did go to church, we sat at the back because we were always late. I imagine shuffling four kids to church on Sunday mornings and getting them to sit still and quietly was nothing short of a miracle for my mother each week. I also imagine that sometimes it was more of a miracle to just sleep in. I do remember when I started to question all that was being taught, though. It was a Sunday when we actually arrived early enough to find a pew near the front of the church. While I watched the priest raise the host above his head to bless it for Eucharist, I noticed the kneeling altar boy gently ringing bells that sat next to his knees. It was a subtle movement, but the ringing filled the church. I was horrified. In all of my years at the back of church, I had thought that the ringing came from God Himself in Heaven, when in fact, all along, there was this BOY ringing the bells on cue.  And so my questioning began.

My mother encouraged us to question. She wanted us to maintain faith and belief in infinite possibility, but she taught us that not only was it healthy to seek new information, but also that the answers we sought often lived inside of our own hearts.  Ever the obedient daughter, on the eve of my confirmation when my class was required to go to confession, I had a conversation with the priest that went something like this:

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a day since my last confession.”

“A day? Then why are you back?”

“Well, my teacher said I have to give my confession to you. I spoke to God on my own last night, and we’re good, but I am supposed to tell you my sins, too, in order to get confirmed tomorrow.”

Thankfully, the priest I spoke to was a pretty open-minded guy, and we had a nice chat about how having a priest to confide in can be a good thing to supplement my direct line with God. At the wise old age of 13, I thought he was full of crap. Surely I could get my messages to God more accurately than someone who hadn’t actually witnessed the things I was talking about. But as a forty-something-year-old woman, my paradigms have since shifted, and I recognize that perhaps that old priest knew a thing or two more than I did at 13.  I think it is good to abide oneself to an objective counselor at times – someone who will listen without attachment when you need to unburden your woes; someone who can help you see that you are not the only one going through whatever it is you are going through. I don’t think it has to be a priest – it can be a psychologist, or a respected friend, or a rabbi or a teacher. It can be anyone, really, so long as he or she is a good listener. Over the years, I have come to believe even more strongly in my own direct connection with God or the Universe or whatever you want to call this Massive Science Project that is greater than each of our individual selves. That said, sharing the direct line (i.e. exposing my most vulnerable, divine light to a trusted friend) is pretty holy, too.

The Buddha said that Life is Suffering. Jesus’ story says this, too. So does the seed that blooms into a flower, the caterpillar that turns into a butterfly, the canyon that succumbs to water, and the winter that gives birth to spring. Life is a beautiful story of changing seasons, of learning to let go of the past. Like all important lessons, in order to learn it well, it needs to be repeated over and over again. And so our lives go through the cycles of hard times relieved by good times: we welcome new babies and bury our loved ones when they pass. We say good-bye to friends whose paths no longer intersect with our own, and then turn the corner to welcome new ones. Like seeing that altar boy ring the bell for the first time, we are constantly challenged to process new information that shifts the paradigms of what we think we know. We reinterpret so that we can experience the joy and struggle of holding tight followed by the freedom of letting go. Hopefully, as we get older, the practice of coming together and letting go becomes more fluid, less painful. The fluidity is a function of our ability to step back a little, widen our perspective and witness the beauty of the process. We wake up each morning, both a little older and a little newer. That’s Easter, I think.

Two thousand-plus years after the fact, I’m not sure what happened at that tomb historically speaking, but I don’t really think it matters. Clearly the story/spirit/message/Divine Light of a man named Jesus is still living on in the hearts of people all over the world. Wherever he is, he’s still sending messages of peace, love and gratitude for the wisdom and light that come with inevitable transformation.

Happy Easter.

Easter

Forces of Nature: My Messy, Beautiful

iStock_000003689608Small-Messy-Beautiful

My chest tightens.

There’s a dull hum in my ears.

I am feeling crushed.

I can’t breathe.

It may be a bit dramatic to say that this is how I felt when I read the assignment for the Messy, Beautiful project at Momastery, but it’s at least partially true. I wasn’t literally buried in the rubble of an earthquake, but thinking about writing this story brought on a fast-heartbeat and tightness in my chest. It’s a messy story. Usually I prefer to write about things that used to be messy, but that I have since tidied up into shiny little life lessons.

Last summer, my husband and I went through what some may call “a rough spot.” We underplay these things when we talk about them, don’t we? I am fairly certain that every couple goes through “rough spots,” and I am also pretty sure that these periods of our lives feel more like natural disasters than little bumps in the road: scary, disorienting, filled with extreme emotions high and low that make time draw out on a wire. Last summer, every unaddressed issue that has ever bubbled under the surface of my eighteen-year marriage erupted somewhat unexpectedly. I woke up on many summer days feeling raw, vulnerable and scared; not knowing how it was all going to resolve itself. Other times, I knew in my heart that we would all be OK – regardless of what OK looked like. However, the unknown terrain between “anxious discomfort and ugly, loud arguments” and “everything’s mostly OK” was like surviving an earthquake. Dust would start to settle, and we would begin to navigate the new landscape of our relationship, only to experience aftershocks that altered our surroundings further and left us both more exhausted, frustrated, and sad.

On one particular day, I found myself crying in the bathroom. (Why do we relegate ourselves to the bathroom to cry? I think it has something to do with being in a small closed space, like a womb. No one can come in looking for a missing baseball glove/sock/TV remote, and you don’t have to come out until you’re ready). As I sat on the cold tile in a pool of my own tears and snot, I tried to practice some of the things I am learning about living in the present. I reminded myself that crying is my body’s way of telling me a few things: that I am sad, that I have something to let go of, and (the good news) that I am alive and breathing and feeling something. Being alive and feeling something is far better than the alternative.

I told myself, “Self – you have a choice right now. You can sit here and cry, or you can try to find the bright side of this situation. You can look for the ways to create order from the chaos, the way you like to do; you can move these circumstances forward to a more peaceful, shiny outcome and then glean some wisdom from the experience.”

I surprised myself when I replied that I would like to just sit and cry a while longer, thank-you-very-much. I remember consciously deciding that I would get back up on the proverbial horse tomorrow instead of today. “Self,” I replied, “I need to cry and wallow a bit right now, but I promise I will try to love the world again later.”

Funny thing about choosing to wallow: my choice was followed by a wave of relief. It was suddenly incredibly obvious to me that the suffering I was experiencing was temporary. To say I “enjoyed” the rest of the cry would be a poor choice of words, but it is a cry I will remember with a perverted twist of fondness – almost an out-of-body experience – because it crystallized how temporary everything is; that the good, the bad and the ugly will all pass. I can only do what I can do on a given day. On that particular day, I wasn’t strong enough to climb back up on the horse. On that day, I needed to lie in the muck underneath it and take a nap. But that day passed. Since then, there have been days when I have climbed back up, appreciating the view and forward motion a little more acutely. There have also been days when I have had to just rest.

Post-summer-storms, we’re both tender, but a few weeks ago, we took a trip without the kids. We re-discovered that without the mess of everyday life, we mostly really enjoy each other. If we could magically quit our jobs and have the kids in bed by 6:30 p.m. each night, life would be easier, perhaps. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Probably there would be other things changing the landscape. Regardless, right now we’re holding hands while we navigate. I still trip over rocks sometimes, and I hold no illusions that I am forever done with earthquakes or storms in the future. I am hoping that as we continue the journey, I will be less shocked by sudden changes in the weather, better able to focus on the step in front of me, and better equipped to know when it is time to rest, when it is time to climb, and when I am able to gallop freely with the wind in my hair.

I fear I may be doing it again: turning something messy into something that used to be messy, but now makes sense. But I won’t apologize for it – it’s one of the reasons I write. Writing is the cleanup crew and relief volunteers that show up after an earthquake changes my landscape. My life is made up of long lists and short days, jagged pieces and round holes. It will never be completely orderly and predictable, but I relish the process of organizing and reflecting nonetheless. Engaging in that process reminds me how precious it is to live this messy, beautiful life.

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Birds, Bees and Flower Protectors

My son had just turned four when his sister was born. During my pregnancy with her, my growing belly prompted a lot of questions from him. “How did that baby get IN there, anyway? I know you told me that Dad planted a seed that’s growing into a baby, but HOW did he plant that seed?”

Where Did I Come From? bookI decided to buy the same book that my mom read to us when we were kids, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins. If you haven’t seen this book or its sister-book, What’s Happening To Me? (a guide on puberty), I highly recommend them. They are a hoot, and they are actually quite helpful in explaining everything simply, truthfully and with cartoon illustrations. When my son first connected the dots regarding the physiology of human reproduction, his reaction was, “GROSS!” I left the discussion at that, figuring that when he was ready for more information, he would ask. I’ve heard that we’re only supposed to answer our kids’ questions with enough details to quench rather than drown. He had questions, and so I answered them truthfully and simply until he clearly did not want any more information. We’ve had more talks since then, but I have learned that sensitive topics like these should be approached slowly with him. He processes the information in small bits over longer periods of time.

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had any of these conversations with my youngest, because…well… she is the youngest.  Boy-O’s questions started when he noticed my body changing during pregnancy, but there is no more pregnant happening in this house, so one night, while we were chatting about her new-baby cousin, I asked my daughter, “Do you know where babies come from?”

“No,” she replied.

“Would you like to read about it with me?”

“YES.”

She has always been inquisitive and curious, but I figured it would be a quick read-through, like her brother’s, followed by maybe a question or two and then a kiss goodnight.

That child, at age six – SIX – interrogated me for an hour-and-a-half. Her least controversial question was, “Mom, if the special hug feels so nice, how can you do it without making a baby?”

Never in my wildest imagination could I have predicted that I would be having a birth control discussion with my six-year-old.  (I went with, “Well…um…there’s actually medicine for that after your married,” rather than touching a condom with a ten-foot pole, but I made a mental note that we should probably have a condom conversation by the time she is a teenager. Oy.)

To be perfectly honest, I get a huge kick out of these conversations with my kids. They feel like very important “keep calm and carry on” practice sessions for future conversations, when the decisions for which they seek input will be far weightier than whether or not they can drink soda at a birthday party. I want them to keep coming to me when they are seeking answers, even when the questions are hard. I want them to keep talking to me when they need someone to listen, even when the topics are scary or painful or downright embarrassing. I want them to know that I hear them; that I understand them; that I won’t fly off the handle over something important to them, even if the idea of letting them decide something big on their own has me shaking in my shoes. That little one is preparing me for big, hard questions (no pun intended). Deep breaths. It’s all good.

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