T’s Fifth Cha Cha Day!

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Last year Tariku renamed his “Gotcha” Day (the anniversary of the day he was finally in our arms), “Cha Cha Day.” Which is obviously the most awesome name for any day. Woe to the mother who expresses enthusiasm for such a thing… This year the Cha Cha name was strictly verboten. But between you and me, I’m keeping it.

We threw him a small party, just a few friends and neighbors. We ate cake, moved the coffee table out of the way in the living room and danced to “What Does the Fox Say” like sixteen times. And we told the story of his adoption. A family fairy tale, woven through with sorrow but ultimately triumphant. I stole the denoument from psychologist and author Brenè Brown (with whom I’m obsessed):

You are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. You are worthy of love and belonging.

I always get reflective and nostalgic around his Cha Cha day. I wrote this poem early that morning. I suppose it is less for him, exactly, and more for the moms out there. He’d rather have a dance party than a poem at this point anyway. I thought I’d share it with you.

TO MY SON ON HIS CHA CHA DAY

Perhaps I know what other mothers do not.
Of necessity, I know that you were never
mine to begin
with that you are merely a loan
so precious that, Gollum–like, even though I have it in
hand it leaves me wracked with longing
like cherry blossom festivals or a great
song you hear at the coffee shop and can’t
rewind.

Perhaps I know too what other mothers
all know that you have always been mine
settling into my skin
long before there was even a seed
of you taking root miles from here.
These fingertips caught fire some nights for
reaching, the same that first touched your silk
cheek.

Out of nowhere you say:

I was only a baby when Jesus died on
the wooden cross. I think it was, yes
I know it was a
Tuesday. In March.
I was there.
It wasn’t my fault.

I have no idea where
you got ideas of fault
or wood
or belonging
or March
or Tuesday
or God at all.

I wake up to your vinegary breath, your hands
on my face, a
mastiff puppy’s paws, too big,
for your tectonically shifting frame
a missive from the future these
hands, that I cannot read
except to know it
ends with.
Love,

Somewhere on a red dirt road
flanked by corrugated tin lean-tos painted
blue/green like a sea that is
nowhere to be found, by waxy green leaves of false
banana trees and round huts the same color as the
ground, miles every day she walks in rubber
flip flops toward the well
and back again, red kerchief over her
braids, carrying a burden of
water, dreaming a shared
dream.

Beginnings

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Motherhood has given me a whole new reverence for being a beginner. Of course, our kids have to learn absolutely everything from scratch. Once again, I am forced to love in my son all that I have found frustrating and humiliating in myself for most of my life.

When I think about the failure and the falling inherent in being a beginner, a young girl appears to me. She is always about twelve-years-old, dressed in a tennis skirt and wearing French braids so merciless she can barely blink. She is as tightly strung as her tennis racquet. You suck, she says. What kind of serve is that? Your backhand is pitiful. You are an embarrassment. All those years of lessons and this is what you have to show for it? You might as well just quit.

There was a time I listened to that girl in the tennis skirt. Why try and fail?

But if I have learned anything in my adult life, it is that sometimes you have to trick yourself into taking yourself seriously, even if all the evidence is piled up against you. You have to get up in the morning, get out to the track, and hold yourself as if as if you’re an Olympic athlete, even if you’re struggling through 3 miles at a snail’s pace. If a stack of rejection letters and a battered ego is all you have to show for your writing life, you must still sit down every day as if you are Faulkner himself, and write your heart out. Beginning again and again is a noble fight.

I have been radically humbled and adrenalized these last few days, as I’ve begun to ski. T and I tagged along for some shows Scott is playing in Aspen (duh, of course we did) and I threw T straight into the “Powder Panda” ski school. He clung to me at first and acted like a little jerk to the instructor (who was a peach- thanks, Billy at Buttermilk Mountain!). By the time I showed up to check on him at lunchtime, he reluctantly tore himself away from his new friends and dismissed me with, “I’m doing great, okay. I love you. BYE, Mama!”

The extent of the outdoorsiness of my childhood was the ubiquitous scent of Pine Sol in our relentlessly climate-controlled house. I want my son to have a different connection with the mountains and ocean and sky that that. How can I ask him to do something I’m unwilling to do myself? So I got my cold tushie out there in the snow and took some lessons and fell on my face like a dork. By the end of our time in Aspen, T and I were bombing down the green trails together. I felt exhilarated and alive and proud of both of us.

I was a beginner, with laughter. And what I got in return was the view from the top of a snowy mountain. I got to shout a big WOOOHOOO when I made it down my first blue run. I got that blissful exhausted feeling of an earned dinner, a deep sleep and happily sore legs the next morning.

I want to etch this feeling into my body and take it with me into 2014.

As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t make resolutions. But if I did, I’d say I want to dance more.

Happy New Year! Happy beginnings, today and all days.

Bodies in Motion

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This holiday was more stressful than usual, for no particular reason. Sure there were work deadlines and money hemorrhages and family drama and too much food and too little sleep, but there always are. So why this year did I feel so shut down? Even my latkes sucked this year, and my latkes NEVER suck. I found myself curled in a ball on the upstairs couch more often than I would have liked.

When I begin to get overwhelmed and anxious, I react by trying to control the situation. I have multiple to-do lists, color coded, on different sized note pads and post-its. I’m sure if I get to the end of the to-do list, I will find…freedom. Aaahh. Spaciousness. Wide sky. I’m convinced that if I just throw myself with enough gusto into doing doing doing, I will round a corner one day and see the finish line. I will run through the ribbon with my arms held high in a victory pose and then (and only then) will I feel at peace.

I’m not sure why I persist in this delusion, when it has never once worked.

In service of this unrealistic goal. I employ generous measures of self-denial. The first form this denial takes is neglect of my physical self– rejection of my body and its needs. I don’t eat or I mindlessly eat too much. I don’t exercise, because I don’t have time. I don’t stretch and my old back injury acts up, so I take more and more ibuprofen and muscle relaxers and “power through.” The ibuprofen upsets my stomach, so I scarf antacids by the handful. I don’t sleep well because I can’t stop running through the list in my mind.

The plan the whole time is that, when I reach this mythical finish line, I will “take better care of myself.”

Perhaps you have such a plan. Perhaps you imagine the finish line is January 1, and you can abuse yourself in a method of your choosing until then, when things will finally change, like, forever after.

Except they won’t, and you know it. When I began to face the truth– that my resolutions almost always crumbled before January 15 rolled around– I stopped making them. Now, I try to see the New Year as a useful marking of time rather than a clean slate. Because I have come to believe there is no such thing.

My body is the scene of more that one crime in this lifetime. Crimes done to me and crimes I’ve committed against myself. I have legitimate reasons for wanting to shut it off at the slightest provocation. I resent my body and its annoying needs, its troublesome memories and emotions, its alarming register of the passing years. But I have learned time and time again that it is my only way back to feeling grounded and present in the world.

I went to an exercise class on Christmas Eve (dreaded because I had played truant for so long). I went for a long walk, when I had absolutely no time to do so. I began rolling out of bed into a yoga pose or two. Slowly, I started to feel a bit less like a walking to-do list and more like a human inhabitant of this earth.

So again, I go back to the beginning. I go back to my body. Not one day a year, but every day. Each morning, I must choose to say, Hello, Body! I know you, house of all I’ve witnessed and thought and experienced in this lifetime. I see you, you have carried me this far. I feel you, and you are not half bad.

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Brightness

Love and light to all of you, from all of us!

xmas

Thanksgivukkah: Gratitude and Light

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Remember this guy? Remember how adorable and yet how incredibly challenging he was for a while there? It seems he slept for a total of about 5 hours in 3 years. My body was more decorated with bite marks than it was with tattoos. And I have a lot of tattoos.

play

Well, here he is in his first school play. I didn’t mess with the picture at all to create that effect. The way the light fell in the room made him glow. He stood there like a champ, looking calm and proud, and when his turn came, he flashed that giant smile and gave ‘em the Tariku razzle dazzle and got the only laugh in the whole show.

And another thing….

Remember her?

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If there was a way to leave bite marks on the world, she would have. I always understood my son, with all his wildness and fear and anger. I had the same thing, for a long time. We’re both a little better now.

chef

T is quite a cook these days and he asked for a chef’s hat for Hanukkah. We have been cooking up a storm. This is really the first year we’ve done much Hanukkah celebrating, as it usually seems to get lost in the shuffle and holiday stress. But it’s easier for me now somehow. It’s not so laborious as it once was to have a few people over for dinner and light the candles. There is a bit more ease to my days. Not because I’m less busy, but because I’m less of a basket case.

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This holiday season, I am thankful for healing and change. And for patience, when I have it. And for faith, which is there even when you think it isn’t.

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The Trouble With Happiness

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shaakespeare

siene

On gratitude and guilt- the text of my latest post up at Huffington Post Women:

During my recent week in Paris, the mornings came quickly. I felt pressure to do something important with my limited time, as if there was a tick tock soundtrack to my days. I mostly didn’t listen. What I did: met friends for dinners and drinks and lunches and more drinks, saw the fantastic Surrealism exhibit at the Pompidou, bought a pair of boots and an orange glass ring; sat alone and ate a duck fois gras and fig tartine that might have been the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

I crossed the Seine one night on the Pont des Arts (laden with thousands of pad locks, inscribed with messages of love) while the full moon hung in a gauzy web of clouds above me, the water beneath shimmering under the amber streetlights. Gratitude broke over me like rain.

And then just as quickly, I felt guilty. How corny and sentimental– to stand on a bridge over the Seine in stupid too-expensive boots and feel lucky, feel happy. In an instant, I became a grotesque shadow version of the person I was not three seconds before. I had been feeling pleased with my sporting attempts at French, but suddenly felt foolish and embarrassed. I had felt aware of the delicious cold air on my face, but suddenly became aware only of my stumble on the cobblestones, my perpetual clumsiness.

Whenever I feel joy, I’m sure I’m going to be punished for it. How dare you be happy when you’re so far from your family? How dare you, when the bodies of typhoon victims line the streets of the Philippines? How dare you, when children are starving? How dare you, when your ancestors were herded onto railroad cars and then gassed and burned in Poland? How dare you be happy in this world of such enormous suffering?

I have a similar train of thought about my writing. How dare you take these hours to write? How dare you when your child needs you right now? How dare you when you are a clown compared to the brilliant writers that came before you? How dare you sit around writing about your silly life, in clunky and clichéd prose? How dare you when your house is a filthy disaster area? How dare you when you could be doing more important things for the world? And on and on.

I imagine that I am Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, during the scene in which she has just been coiffed and pampered and is skipping merrily around Oz, waiting for the wizard to grant her deepest desire. It is at just this moment, of course, that the witch appears, interrupting the giddy song by skywriting in black smoke:

Surrender Dorothy

For years, I read it as a call to Dorothy to surrender, but that is incorrect. That would be Surrender (comma) Dorothy. No, this is a call to the city itself to give up the cursed girl. But Oz doesn’t surrender Dorothy. Instead, Dorothy walks out herself to meet the witch.

I had lunch with a Buddhist expat friend of mine at a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Marais, and we talked about my inability to experience joy without guilt. He spoke about developing a consciousness that allows you to observe the emotions as if they’re waves in the ocean, cresting and receding and then cresting again. Joy and guilt and despair and exhaustion and anxiety and curiosity and complacency and awe and longing and disgust and bliss. Again and again. Until you can watch them all and not attach so desperately, but rather see them for what they are: feelings — mutable, neither good nor bad, but human.

In the end, Paris did not surrender me, in spite of the old demons that flew around leaving trails of smoke in the soft grey sky. Instead, I kept my stupid-but-still-very-sassy boots firmly planted on its cobblestones, one foot after the other, as the waves of emotion rose and broke and rose again. And I found that the joy was there– somewhere in the lacy foam on the very crest of the wave, impossible to grab and even more impossible to keep, but there.

Letter to My Son

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The original letter is hidden somewhere safe in Paris….

November 19, 2013

Dear Tariku,

As I write this, you are at home with your dad and I am bumming around Paris. I hope you’re not too mad at me- either right now or when you someday read this. I’ve never been able to shake my wanderlust and, for as long as I can, I will always go off on an adventure now and then. I miss your face all the time when I’m gone.

In a life blessed with a lot of wandering, you are still my grandest adventure.

As I sit here, I picture you as a young man- tall and wild, curious and joyful (as you always have been)- rambling through these beautiful streets one day. I hope you’re having the time of your life. I wish for you a wondrous journey, filled with love. I wish for you a safe journey home.

I love you to the moon and back. Remember that? Stop rolling your eyes. Call your old mom sometime, she misses you.

Love,
Mom

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Je Suis Arrivè!

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Settling into my friend’s place in Paris right now. The sky is soft and grey and I’m drinking a strong coffee and staring out the window at the last of the fall foliage and thinking about a remarkable book I devoured front to back on the plane- Elif Shafak’s memoir, Black Milk: On The Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity and Motherhood. Of course, this very conflict is at the forefront of my mind, as I embark on a week away from my little guy. Once again, the synchronicitous universe drops exactly what I need to hear right into my lap.

In the book, Shafak talks about two dominant images of motherhood, from which we are expected to choose:

1. The traditional mother- a paragon of selflessness and self-sacrifice. We give up every trace of individual desire so that our families might thrive.

2. The quintessential superwoman- effortlessly juggling husband, career, kids, and home, all without breaking a nail or skipping a Pilates class. You can have it all. If you don’t, you must be doing it wrong.

Shafak writes:

As different as these two views seem to be, they have one thing in common: They both focus solely on what they want to see, disregarding the complexity and intensity of motherhood, and the way in which it transforms a woman and her crystal heart.

Throughout the book, Shafak regularly converses with six, finger-sized women she calls “Thumbelinas,” or her “inner harem.” These colorful and divergent little gals represent some of the distinct, persuasive and often conflicting voices inside of her.

I found the idea so intriguing and resonant that it inspired me to conjure my own Thumbelinas. I didn’t intend to write this for anyone’s eyes but mine and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed by how naked it is, but I found the exercise so thought provoking and useful that I thought I’d share it.

My Thumbelinas (inspired by Elif Shafak):

Ms. Dignified Artist
Weathering a life of both hardship and triumph, she ages gracefully. Famous photographers take black and white photos of the dignified lines on her face. Capable hands, clay under her nails. Her emotional life is intensely feminine but her assertion of voice is masculine. Clothes like a Maoist. Could forget to eat. Could live alone in the desert and kill rattlesnakes with her walking stick, its tip sharpened to a point for just this purpose. Secretly tossed in turbulent waters of insecurity and doubt. A lifetime of painful and storied relationships that never quite worked, but instead were transformed to art by alchemy.

Mrs. Trophy Wife
Eternally coiffed, nails done, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel of a luxury SUV, no tattoos, expensive clothes and lots of ‘em, feet never see a flat shoe, waist never sees a size beyond 2. She is smart enough not to care about being smart- would far rather be powerful. Uncontrolled by sentiment, she’s my funniest Thumbelina. And my meanest. Lives on juice cleanses and laxatives and Chardonnay.

Miss Boozy Good Time

Fat fingers, sun damaged, inked to the gills, everything been pierced at one time or another, needs love more than money but never quite gets enough of either. Muffin tops and eyes sinking into face bloat and cleavage spilling out of the top of her shirt. 20 years and 20 lbs ago, she was so punk rock. She knew everything. She was unafraid of consequences. She was bold and ready to join the carnival and unaware that any of the other Thumbelinas existed or ever would exist. She can take it on the chin. She can laugh at herself.

Ms. Busy Busy Bookworm, Phd
She has always been most comfortable hiding behind a pair of thick-framed glasses. Her happy place is the library. Her treasure is her Grandmother’s first edition of The Magic Mountain in German. She keeps it where a picture of a boyfriend would be on her desk. She favors clothes that make her look like Sylvia Plath at Smith in the 50s, like cashmere twin sets (bought vintage of course, her adjunct professor job doesn’t allow for new cashmere). She’s a little bit chubby because she eats while she reads and she reads a lot, the pages of her books stained with peanut butter and mocha lattes. She doesn’t think about her body much at all- she feels like a head on a stick. She plans every year to go to temple for the High Holidays, to make her parents happy, to stay connected to something, but she never does. She is happiest in a world of ideas.

The Patient

She would like to think that she wears her hospital gown like Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted but more likely she looks like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She is sick. People take care of her, until they don’t. No makeup, big eyed, at odds with her body and her nervous system and always, always in pain. She watches hours and hours of television. She doesn’t eat regular meals; her days have no shape. She eats comfort food- grilled cheese, macaroni- exactly when she wants to. She likes the shades drawn. She is always planning to get better. There is always another illness.

Mrs. Mommy Martha Stewart
Tying little shoelaces (little shoes! adorable!) and cheerfully cleaning up pee accidents on the kitchen floors (everyone has accidents sometimes, honey!) making snacks and helping with homework and blowing kisses at school drop-off and texting the other moms about soccer drama. Dressed in workout wear or nouveau-hippie silverlake garb. A pretty mom. A nice mom. A mom who gets a little snarky on the wine at back-to-school night but what the hell. Full of advice. Goes to church on Sunday. Good at solving problems. Good at making quiche.

This is just a beginning.

If you feel inspired to share in the comments, I’d love to meet some of your Thumbelinas!

Fear of the Dark

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The neighbors on our street all decorate for Halloween and hand out absurd amounts of candy to sugar-crazed zombie hoards. We always throw a big party and it’s a blast. We let Tariku pick the family costume theme and then I get crazy with the glue gun and next thing you know, we’ve created a mutual fantasy world into which we all can escape for one chaotic night. This year, we were an octopus, a mermaid and Neptune.

Our culture demands that mothers be perfectly wholesome, that children embody the very essence of angelic innocence. Any deviation will bring down the wrath of the haters, both online and on the playground. I love that Halloween offers us a chance to give a public voice to our darker side. Costumes are a great way of letting our fantasy or shadow selves, heroes or monsters, spiral outward into the world.

Tariku stands in front of the skeletons and ghosts hanging from the trees on our street and faces them down, saying, “I’m not afraid of you. You’re not real.” Which, of course, is both true and not true. The skeleton masks are just cheap, novelty store rubber, but the specter of death is looming over us all, just over our shoulder, all our lives.

I have always been afraid of the dark. As a child, I woke regularly from terrible nightmares, frozen with fear, imagining the darkness to be alive and swimming with menace.

This irrational terror lasted into my adulthood, until at one point a therapist suggested that I walk into dark rooms and then just stand there and lean into the feeling of fear, letting it move through me until it transformed into something new. It is embarrassing to admit that the first few times I tried it, I couldn’t do it. I would stand there rigid until a wave of fear washed over me and I ran from the room with my heart pounding. But slowly, with practice, I learned to stand quietly in the dark. Now, when I wake in the middle of the night, I sometimes intentionally walk through the house without turning on the light. My reward has been that I get to walk through patches of moonlight spilling onto my kitchen floor, that I get to experience the peace that can come from being alone in the velvety darkness.

To me, Halloween is symbolic of the potential for growth that lies in engaging with the shadow side of life rather than denying it. It’s a chance to bring your fears out into the light and dance with them, rather than running away.

It is also ridiculously fun to watch the kids explode with joy at the prospect of putting on a mask and having permission to eat a peanut butter cup or two.

I love it all. And I particularly love that Tariku thinks this octopus costume is “really, really scary.”

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How Down?

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Scott and I have always loved the Albert Brooks movie Lost in America. In it, there is a scene in which Albert Brooks discovers Julie Hagerty gambling away the last of their nest egg in a Las Vegas casino:

She: We’re still down!
He: How down?
She: Down.

About a year ago, each night after putting T to sleep after yet another exhausting day, we would look at each other with stricken expressions.

Me: We’re still down.
Scott: How Down?
Me: Down.

During that difficult time, I often felt lonely. It seemed every other mother I knew was posting pictures on FB of the beautiful organic seasonal dinner party she just threw (to which I wasn’t invited), using some table linens her three perfect kids decorated themselves with stamps they carved from potatoes. No that their kids were at the dinner party. Because they were sleeping. SLEEPING!

I spent a lot of time crying in the car and feeling hopeless. Forget trying to get on the waiting list for a good kindergarten, I was starting to think about getting on a waiting list for a good rehab. I felt unequal to this task of motherhood. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for all of my blessings, I genuinely was. It’s just that some of the time, I was also pretty disappointed by life.

Tariku’s school aide, until recently, was still going to class with him one day a week (mostly because I was used to hanging onto her like a life-preserver), but a couple of weeks ago she called me and said, “Look, this just isn’t necessary. He’s doing amazing. He really doesn’t need me anymore.”

Then yesterday we drove down to see a circus that should have been an hour away. We left an extra hour early but still wound up late, because we got off at the wrong exit, landed in the worst neighborhood of all time, and got caught behind a police barricade. True story. And do you know what? My son was the calmest, most content person in that car. It used to be that the slightest deviation from any plan would set off an epic tantrum. This time, he was just singing and playing with his transformers and occasionally asking random questions like: If this isn’t the Cretaceous period anymore then what period it it? I honestly have no idea what parents did before google. Did they have to actually be smarter than their kids?

Now that the crisis has abated, I’ve noticed that every one of the mothers I placed on a pedestal has, at some point in this year, been down.

How down?
Down.

I recently witnessed the mom that I consider the height of PTA-going, Martha-Stewart-crafting perfection nearly have a nervous collapse, when Tariku accidentally kicked a ball of paper mache in her garage (because it looked like a ball and not like a Halloween costume in-progress). No joke, I thought I was going to have to call 911. And later she was like, I’m sorry, I’m just stretched so thin.

Meaning, y’know, I’m down.

Maybe I was really never that isolated to begin with, it’s just that all I could see were differences and not similarities. Which is to say, I have been down before and will, I’m sure, be down again. But the next time it happens, I hope to remember not to look at everyone else’s potato stamps and see them as evidence of my aloneness at the center of the universe.

Get Up, Stand Up…

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This morning, I smiled and nodded and let some homophobic comments pass right by me in a schoolyard conversation. I feel disappointed in myself and curious as to the cause of my inability to speak up. I have spent all day considering ways I might deal differently with a similar situation in the future.

This is what happened…

I was joking around with some parents after the drop off. We were having a “cute stories” moment, talking about our little boys liking to dress up in girls’ clothes. Tariku likes to put a toy airplane in his hair and pretend it’s a tiara- that kind of thing. One of the dads piped up with: it’s fine when they’re seven as long as they’re not still wearing dresses when they’re seventeen. “I mean, that’s just not okay,” he said.

And that’s when I said…nothing. I said nothing.

I should have said, I’d be thrilled to have my son in a ball gown at his wedding if that’s what makes him feel good about himself and happy in his own skin. That is the truth.

So why didn’t I?

When I imagine being confronted with racism or sexism or homophobia etc, I think that I would always stand up to it, that I would always do the right thing, no question. In reality, we are often in situations with a great deal of social pressure. We are taken off guard. We want to be liked. We don’t want to make other people uncomfortable.

I feel like an outsider among the parents at pre-school and I am honestly often self conscious about T’s wacky behavior. When we arrive for drop off, most of the kids are sitting nicely, waiting with their parents, while T is running around, hollering and leading dance parties on the playground. I’m conscious that we’re different. The fact that I look like I fell of the side show carnival train doesn’t help. It makes me try extra hard to fit in. I think my desire to be socially accepted at the school is one factor in my silence.

Another factor is practice. It can be helpful to think situations like this through before we get blindsided with them. When I was first walking around in the world with Tariku, it used to be a lot harder for me to speak up when people said boneheaded things about adoption or race. Now I’m more experienced and I have a handful of standard responses that allow me to speak my mind in a way that doesn’t generally create a confrontational dynamic. I rarely wind up in the car later obsessing about what I might have said.

I’ve been thinking about the standard narrative of Rosa Parks. I was always told that she was tired from work one day and refused to move to the back of the bus. The reality is that she was a trained civil rights activist and that her refusal to move was a planned act of civil disobedience. We could all benefit from a little training, from a little practice. Perhaps on all of those back-to-school nights that we spend looking at their macaroni collages, we could take ten minutes to have a conversation about diversity.

Whether or not it’s incorporated at an institutional level, this does remind me how important it is to keep an open dialogue about these issues at home.

I’m going to a parent meeting at the school tonight and I’m going to bring up the idea. Because, as I would say to T when he screws up, “We’re gonna do better next time!”

Wish me luck!

This is How I Begin

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The night before last, I dreamed I was rushing through a hospital to see a friend of mine, who recently died of breast cancer. I was in a hurry to get to her so I could say goodbye. When I arrived, she rose to greet me and she didn’t have any hair, but otherwise she looked like her old self, her body healthy and strong. She looked happy. She hugged me. And then we began to dance.

I woke with my face wet with tears, but grateful to have seen her again, even if only in dreams. I felt that she had brought me a message about my body and time and the preciousness of it all.

That morning some girlfriends and I took our kids to the pool and I brought the message with me in my bones. I spent the day happy to have my legs stretched out in the sun, charmed by my wonderful friends, awed by the adorableness of our kids (even as they basically assaulted each other in the shallow end). When it came time for lunch, I sat there in my suit on a lounger and ate a Cobb salad and not once did I think, I should really put that sarong back on. Because I have been on this planet long enough to confidently know that no one is thinking about the size of my ass except me.

Phew, good thing my self-absorbed, self-conscious, self-loathing, weight-obsessed days are over and done with…

Yeah, right. Well, at least I had a morning of reprieve.

Every time I talk about body image issues, I can preemptively hear the charges of “first world problems” being leveled at me. It’s a popular argument these days and I’m not convinced it’s a useful one. Its intention is, of course, to shift our perspective for a moment, to make us less whiny and more grateful. Instead, it often shames us for having a feeling about anything other than the genocide in Darfur, which is simply unrealistic and not at all helpful to people who are genuinely in pain, whatever the cause.

Last week I sat down in a Macy’s dressing room and cried because I was so desperately sick of hating myself. I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel like someone made a mistake when they made me- the wrong shape, the wrong size, clumsy, thick. This bizarrely distorted lens is reserved for use only on myself. When it comes to other people, I have an expansive view of beauty, both physical and not.

The self-hatred isn’t constant, but it is always lying in wait for a window of opportunity. I can be going along my merry self-accepting way, when a moment of social anxiety, a rejection or even just a hard morning, will trigger a full-force flood of poison and the conclusion is always this: I am so ugly that I don’t deserve to be alive.

Of course I don’t consciously believe this. What I consciously believe doesn’t matter. What I actually look like doesn’t matter. My politics don’t matter. It is illogical. It is, in fact, ridiculous. I believe it has its origins in having too high a premium placed on physical beauty when I was a child, in having been inappropriately sexualized at an early age, in feeling out of control. Somewhere, I blame my own body for the injury it has sustained.

But frankly, at this point in my life- a grown woman, a writer, a mother- I don’t give a shit about the origins of it anymore. I simply want it to change. With the rest of my time on this earth, I want a different experience of my body. I want a life in which I don’t cry in dressing rooms anymore.

I don’t know how to make that happen. If it was a matter of just deciding to change my perspective (please don’t tell me to read The Secret), it would have happened long ago. If it were a matter of meds or therapy or yoga, believe me, I’d be golden by now. To whom do I go for help with this one? God? My therapist? My dead friend? Walt Whitman?

This is not a rhetorical question. I am asking you, the women in my life, how did you learn to love yourself?

It’s hard to conceive of tackling a problem that lies deeper than conscious thought, deeper than words. But all the change I’ve managed to effect in this life thus far has started with noticing. This, giving voice to the beast, is how I notice. This is how I begin.

Some un-Wisdom

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So what has been happening? New York happened. Back to school happened. We had a few weeks of major regression in T’s behavior and it led me to a dark place. We’re all clawing our way back out of it toward the light. Yesterday at yoga, the room suddenly seemed three times brighter, and I thought- I’m pulling the cobwebs from my eyes. It’s getting better.

It was partially due to parent fail. He’s been doing so well lately that I forget to keep the things in place that help his nervous system stay regulated. Things like lots of sleep and very regular food and plenty of time to calm down between activities. Scott and I subjected him to crazy fast transitions all summer long. Disney! Legoland! Pool parties! Beaches! Broadway shows! Coney Island! Sounds fab, right?

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All that “fun” sounds good on paper- to him and to us both. And we did have moments of serious fun. For instance, taking him to The Lion King- his first Broadway show- was a moving experience for all of us. We had a blast with old friends in upstate New York. But overall, August was draining and worrisome. There were tantrums we haven’t seen the likes of for a year. When T’s nervous system gets out of whack, it can unravel not just his emotional well-being, but mine as well. I have to keep a close eye on my tendency to mirror him.

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What helped? School starting. Getting rigid about his sleep schedule. Getting back to his awesome occupational therapist.

Tariku teaches me about courage all the time. He never stops trying. He loses his shit entirely and makes heroic recoveries nearly every day. He loves school, but it’s also a hard, long day for him. I watch him pin his shoulders back, take a breath and steel himself to enter that classroom every morning and I take a lesson from it.

I tell my students to write through the breakup, write through the parent death, write through the divorce, write through the depression, write through all of it. Just keep moving and creating. Emotionally volatile times can stir a lot of resistance. You know- I’m too busy feeling things, I can’t be bothered to write. That’s exactly when you need to sit down and let some words happen. There may not be any worthwhile product that comes out of it, but the process is gold. I also find that you think you’re going to remember the intense moments, but you’re so stoned on adrenaline that they don’t always stick. So it’s good to have a record.

I figure, I don’t always have some pithy bit of wisdom, but I always have my heart to share. I learned that from T. Even when you don’t have it figured out, just go in and play with all you’ve got.

Magical Muddy Birthday

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I spent my birthday with old friends and new, sunning ourselves like lizards on the flat sandstone rocks on the banks of Abiquiu Lake. I am not usually a birthday person, but I had this odd thing happen. I was happy today. Like, heart too big for your chest kind of happy. Like, wade into the lake and look up at the Pedernal mountain and thank God for your blessings out loud kind of happy.

We swam out to the island in the middle of the lake, covered our bodies with mineral mud and just basked there topless, looking like blue-grey sea creatures, until we made our way back to the rocks. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading poetry and painting with watercolors and eating cheese. It was pretty much perfect. Every once in a while life gifts you a day that you couldn’t have written.

Even if my boobs did get a little sunburned.

Life Among Ghosts

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I am in the deep desert. Deep high gorgeous painted desert. I think there is nothing in the world quite like this. Just look at it. Here we are.

My girlfriend Marti and I drove for twenty hours to get here, not counting pit stops for psychic aura readings and vortex visits and moccasin shopping. It has been a long time since I’ve taken a road trip with a friend, eating fast food with the country radio station blaring and the windows open to the desert wind. It was a blast.

We arrived Monday at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe lived and worked. I’m teaching at the AROHO (A Room of Her Own) women’s writing retreat here. It’s an amazing organization and a magical week. My workshop participants are brilliant and brave and have reminded me that if you want to learn something, teach it.

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My grandmother loved this part of the country and I now understand why this place is called Ghost Ranch. When the winds kick up around here you find yourself awash in memories. I’ve been walking with my grandmother’s ghost every day, talking to her. She was razor sharp and funny as hell and I’m pretty sure she’d roll her eyes at the tears I still shed for missing her. Even so, I think she would be proud of me today.

I miss my kid like crazy. I keep seeing things I want to show him- fossils and meteor craters and constellations. The colors, the clouds, the shooting stars. I will bring home stories. And lots of good rocks.

On Improvising

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We recently took a fantastic little trip to Portland. We rode the street car all over; we went to the OMSI museum; we saw good friends. T was excited to reunite with one of his friends from the care center in Ethiopia. It really meant something to him. He’s still talking about it.

T got very shy and gentle when he first saw Lula and her brothers. There was none of his usual bravado (well, at first, anyway). The kids picked figs and picnicked on the lawn. He was incredibly sweet and well-behaved all afternoon, until the video games came out and all bets were off. At that point we’d had such a successful day already and it seemed as good a time as any to pack it up and head back to the hotel. It was a great evening with old friends, for all of us.

We love Portland. I don’t think I’m revealing any big secret to say that we’ve been fantasizing about moving. We even looked at some houses while we were there. It’s both liberating and frightening to contemplate such a sea change at this point in our lives. Adventure has always been a cornerstone of our marriage. We took a ten-day spontaneous road trip three weeks after we met and almost got married in Reno. So it seems like something we’d do. Just up and leave and go somewhere green and gorgeous, full of art and bicycles and great food and nice people. And it’s also scary as hell. We have a great support network here: a school we love, a sweet house, fantastic neighbors. Tariku’s aunties live around the corner. So- stay or go?

Another thing I did in Portland was to perform at an improvised storytelling show. I was TERRIFIED. No, really. Like, nauseated for days. I tell stories on stage often, but they are always crafted in advance. This show was structured like a game show, with surprise story prompts and five minutes to come up with your story. When my turn came, I realized immediately that I had a memorized story that fit the prompt. But I decided to stay true to the spirit of the thing and make one up on the spot. It wasn’t the best story I ever told, but it was better than I would have expected. More importantly, the improvising has opened up a whole new world for me, both in my storytelling and in my teaching. I am having more fun with it. I’m less anxious. I’m trusting myself more in front of people. It was so worth it to take a chance and try something new rather than sticking with what I knew was already successful.

I’m sure there’s an application for that lesson within our moving decision. For now I’m still sitting on the fence. There are a lot of good arguments on both sides. But if we decide to stay, at least it won’t be because we’re afraid to improvise.

The Ride

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Summertime conjures images of lazy afternoons by the pool, backyard barbeques, a gorgeous peach, beach tar on your feet. But if you’re a musician, summer is actually when you work your ass off. Scott has been rolling from gig to gig with Weezer and we’ve occasionally been tagging along. Comicon was a kick. The Orange County Fair was like a sensory gorge. I let T ride every ride over and over and then eat giant hot dogs and funnel cake and pet the pigs and the bunnies. I was like- who are you gonna be, the mom that doesn’t go to the fair? The mom that spends the whole fair saying no? So I said yes, and there was emotional fallout, of course, but I was braced for it and it was really no biggie. Even his worst moments now are generally just mega-annoying and not deep despair-inducing.

This summer has been a ride. There has been a lot of work and travel and fun and difficulty and disappointment and sadness. My kid is swimming like a fish. I had a chat at a party with Sheryl Sandberg. I wrote some hard stuff. I had some minor surgery on my girl bits. T-bone hated summer camp. I cried for like three days straight at the beginning of July. A friend died. I’m turning forty. Yeah, so there’s that.

Honestly, I have been holding on for dear life. I am a gripper by nature. But once in a while I manage to loosen that grip- usually when the late afternoon pink tangerine light announces itself in a way that defies you not to stop and feel it on your face, not to just pause look at your child laughing on the playground. I could sit around all day planning how I’m going to be a better person: more present, more conscious, thinner, more disciplined, recycle more, whatever. But I can’t wait until all that comes true to be happy. I’ll take the moments now. The ones in which I take my hands off the bar and put my hands up in the air and scream for joy.

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Remembering Jen

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My dear friend Jen Wilson passed away last night after a long and heroic battle with cancer. Her friends and family are all grieving today.

Jen’s husband and mine are in the same band and we traveled the world together. Many nights, we said goodnight across a bus aisle before drawing the curtains of our bunks. In the morning, we stumbled into each other on our way to find coffee. We sat around together for hours in both grand hotel suites and crappy European dressing rooms. She was my stage-side companion for the last ten years and in a way, we were family.

When I showed up in the Weezer picture, she had been at it for years already. She welcomed me into the camp with open arms and taught me the rockwife ropes. I can only hope that I’ve learned to weather this blessed and challenging life with half as much grace and humor as she did. Jen was real. She managed to be the salt of the earth, while always carrying the latest Louis Vuitton bag. Above all, she was devoted to her family and friends.

When Scott and I were desperately trying to have a baby, Jen was already pregnant with their second child. Many of our friends with new babies acted uncomfortable around us. Jen was a notable exception. She was able to truly listen to me, sometimes offering advice, sometimes just being a sympathetic ear. More than once she prescribed immediate retail therapy and dragged me out in pursuit of some much-needed distraction. She was able to be present for my pain and so she was fully able to be present for our joy when Tariku finally came home. She threw me an amazing baby shower. Jen threw a lot of showers. She was the girl who wanted to give you a party.

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I love the story about Jen working as a barista at Starbucks when the “Undone” video first came out. People would come into her work and say, “I saw your husband on MTV!” She would just nod and smile but she hadn’t even seen the video yet, because they couldn’t afford cable.

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I remember a flight to New York one time, during which Jen was holding Ian and I was holding Tariku. We were across the aisle from each other and both the boys were being fussy. I was far tenser than she about having screaming babies on a plane. I remember looking at how she was rocking her son and shaping my arms around my baby in the same way, learning from the wisdom of a more experienced mother. Soon they were both quiet.

There is so much she taught me. I will take it with me. I will remember her sunny smile always.

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Mad for Martha

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I don’t usually do product reviews, but when the Martha Stewart people asked if I wanted to see a copy of the new kid craft book, it was too many of my favorite words in one sentence to turn down. For those of you who aren’t in on my darkest secrets, I love Martha Stewart, OK? I practically have a whole shelf of her entertaining books. I start anticipating the Halloween issue of her magazine in August. In line at the grocery store, I pass over all the gruesome Kardashian gossip and dive straight for her tips for a summer barbeque. I’m unlikely to take her investment advice, but when it comes to inventive ways to color Easter eggs, I defy you to challenge her.

I was not disappointed! Actually, the book surpassed my expectations. As much as I luuuuuv Martha, I was skeptical about a kid craft book, because sometimes she sets the bar a little high. I like to read her books but rarely follow through on the projects because for the normal humans among us, her suggestions can be over-complicated make you feel like a slacker about your messy house and the bread you didn’t make and the table centerpiece you didn’t craft and the chicken coop you didn’t build etc. Instead, I use her as sort of an organizing principle of bringing a joyful consciousness to domesticity. I like to imagine Martha to be a benevolent hearth-and-home deity who smiles down at me from above when I manage to go outside and pick a few figs off the tree and make a cake. Or when I feel inspired once in a while to put out the nice table linens for dinner just because.

These crafts, however, are not only inspiring but also surprisingly simple and adorable. Very do-able and fun! Check out their crafts for kids video collection to see some crafting in action. Above is a picture of T making the monster salt crystals- so cute! We’re doing snow globes next.

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Wrap it up!

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At my office, my desk faces the glamorous and funny Annabelle Gurwitch, who always has some handy green mom tips. I wanted to share with you my favorite, because it’s adorable and eliminates the need to buy wrapping paper for the twelve billion birthday parties you’ll go to this year. You know that unwieldy stack of drawings and paintings you stuff under the bed or in a drawer or next to the washing machine? Use them as wrapping paper. Isn’t it so chic?

As for gift suggestions, I always give books. You can’t have too many. My close friend from childhood, Julie Fogliano, has written two children’s books: And Then It’s Spring and If You Want to See a Whale. They’re illustrated by Erin Stead (of A Sick Day for Amos McGee) and they’re sweet and surprising and gorgeous. If you haven’t read them yet, you should!

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