Everything You Ever Wanted Release Day!

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Well, as of yesterday, my new memoir is finally released! Dropped, as they say. Birthed is more like it. Thanks for all your support along the way. Without this blog– where I first began to feel for my voice writing about parenting– the book wouldn’t have happened. I’ve treasured the support this space has offered me, along with the freedom to explore and make mistakes.

If you’d like a little teaser, there was an excerpt in last month’s Elle magazine.

Another excerpt just came out today in Harper’s Bazaar.

And here’s an interview with me at Hip Mama.

All of my tour events are listed here on the website. Please come see me when I’m in your city!

I couldn’t be more thrilled to share with you this book about our family’s struggles and triumphs. I hope you read it. I hope you love it.

Being Counted

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In October of 2008, Scott was on tour in Seattle and I was sitting at my dining room table working on my first memoir, when the number of our adoption agency flashed on my phone. We had been waiting a solid year since we finished the last of our paperwork. I picked up with a shaking hand. The voice on the other end said, “We have a beautiful ten-month-old boy for you….”

I opened my computer to find an email with two photo attachments, which I forwarded to Scott as I dialed his number. The blurry photos were of a gorgeous infant with dark, thoughtful eyes, a wide forehead, skinny legs and a face like one of the famous Ethiopian paintings of wide-eyed angels that adorn the ceilings of their churches.

“There’s my son,” said Scott. “Look at him. He’s perfect.”

I was smitten. I wore my little angel around my neck in a locket. I blew the pictures up and put them in every room in the house. I carried them around in my purse and shoved them in the face of everyone who would look.

“Look! My son! Isn’t he terrific? Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t he clearly a genius?”

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One day, I met my friend Joel for coffee and began our chat by enthusiastically foisting Tariku’s pictures on him. He oohed and aahed appropriately, and then he said, “I’m here for you if you need help. And you’re going to need help. For instance, someone is going to have to teach this kid how to handle the police.”

I said, “He’s not even a year old, Joel.”

He said, “It goes fast.”

I thought he was being a tad hysterical. But Joel is a black man, and now, a few years later, as Baltimore is smoldering and I can’t look at pictures of Freddie Gray’s face without crying for that young man’s mother, I see that Joel wasn’t being hysterical. Not remotely.

Tariku is seven now, reed thin, goofy-toothed, adorable and all wild boy. He’s taller every day, all of his pants two inches too short because I can’t keep up with him. And as I watch him lope through the park like a gazelle, I think, How soon before he’ll be mistaken for a teenager? How soon before it’s not a mistake and he is a teenager? With every inch he grows, how much less safe is he?

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This should not be a mother’s first thought upon looking at her growing boy.

I’ve found myself stuck every time I sat down to write this past week– unsure how to write about Baltimore and unsure how to not write about it. For such a big mouth, writing about race doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m personally terrified and politically enraged about the brutal institutionalized racism in this country, but when it comes to writing about it, I feel overemotional and under-qualified.

Then I read this sentence from Kevin Powell’s amazing “Why Baltimore is Burning:”

“They know it is madness that so-called progressive, liberal, human-rights, or social-justice people of any race or culture have remained mightily silent as these police shootings have been going down coast to coast.”

That’s me, I thought– the mightily silent. I acknowledging my privilege, cry over pictures of Freddie Gray, make it out to a protest or two once in a while, read books by people smarter than me, retweet people more clever than me… It’s really not enough.

I joined some amazing women at a blogging conference this last weekend, including Kelly Wickham, Luvvie Ajayi, and Kristen Howerton (see: the people I often retweet who are more clever than me), and walked away feeling inspired. These women challenge me to read and write more about race. To reach for my own voice in the dialogue, even if I don’t have anything new to say. It’s not an originality contest, it’s about being counted. This is how I begin.

Making Music Practice Less Annoying

Tariku loves music. He’s a terrific drummer and an even better dancer. But lately his music lessons have been becoming more and more of a pain, with whining and wheedling and foot-dragging and falling off the piano bench onto the floor once every 30 seconds. Even with Scott’s monk-like patience, it’s enough to make you want to gouge out your own eyes with the nearest drumstick.

There are a lot of reasons why practice is challenging for T. First of all, learning an instrument is just plain hard. If it were easy, we’d all do it. I personally took three years of piano and all I have to show for it is one scale, a C chord, and the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas,” so that’s useful. Secondly, T works hard holding it together in school all day, and when he gets home he lets it all hang out. Right around dinnertime we can usually count on some bonkers behavior. We generally try not to pay it too much attention, but in this case we needed to figure out a way to address it or his practicing was going to go out the window. I wasn’t willing to let that happen, both because he’s really talented and because I think it’s important to lean into the tough parts of valuable endeavors. It builds self-esteem. Having the grit to keep at something not immediately pleasurable is a learned skill. Plus, music is important to our family, and playing together is something T and Scott love to do. Every time I watch them jamming downstairs, I know they’re creating really special memories.

So how do you get past the epic annoyingness of trying to strong-arm a kid into practicing their instrument?

I found that threatening him with taking away his TV time didn’t help all that much. It was usually just followed with more bargaining and whining. I could see that we were going to have to rethink the whole thing, so Scott and I sat down to try to come up with some strategies. These moments give me a new level of respect for the creative, out-of-the-box teachers who have really made a difference in Tariku’s life. Because you know what? I don’t feel like being inventive about his practice. I just want him to sit down and do it while I get dinner ready. But no one asked me what I wanted (see: parenthood)…

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A couple of months ago, T started working therapeutically with horses. It’s profoundly regulating for him, and gives him a chance to address his feelings in a non-threatening way, by talking about the animals. He has a lot of responsibility at the horse ranch, and keeps track of all his tasks with a whiteboard checklist. He LOVES that checklist. So I dug a little whiteboard out of the garage and have been making a checklist for his music lesson every day. I make sure to build in choices for him. He has to play 3 songs, but he can choose what songs those are. And in between piano and drums, he gets 5 minutes of indoor soccer, so he can get his sillies out.  Then we incentivized his practice with little treats for ten completed checklists, so he has both immediate and long-term goals.

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Btw, this method is also pretty much exactly what I do to keep myself disciplined and motivated about my work. I feel overwhelmed and distracted and don’t generally want to sit down and write in the morning, either. I use checklists and timed tea breaks and little treats and big goals and it gets me through.

So far it’s working! We’ve had a few straight days of non-obnoxious practice. I’ll let you know how it progresses. What do you do to encourage your kids to develop the habit of practicing?

Shadow Puppets

Been slacking on the posts a bit, mostly because I’m having a challenging time balancing my upcoming book release with my mommy-ing…

Add homeschooling Tariku’s stuffed animals, and my schedule is way overbooked.

Here’s a picture of Tigey and Willie doing their math homework. Tariku is very serious about their education. He wrote out a whole schedule for me (Monday: Library, Tuesday: Music, Wednesday: Art, etc..) I took this photo to prove that they’re hard at work while he’s at school.

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Cute, right?

Well, very often, no, not so cute. Tigey winds up in time out more often than Tariku does. I’m totally serious. We have to put his stuffed animals (he calls them “the kids”) in time out. Mostly for talking back and fighting with each other. Your patience hasn’t truly been tested until a buffalo puppet has been whining at you all morning and demanding more bacon.

T’s thing with his stuffed animals started about 4 months ago. When he was a baby, he never took to a binky or a lovey. In order to self soothe, he would suck on his bottle like a man dying of thirst in the desert, while he rocked back and forth. As his trauma begins to heal and he feels safer in the world, he’s able to turn the clock back a bit and avail himself of some of the comforting things he never got the hang of back then.

As T’s behavior improves, “the kids” continue to act out. They’re whiny, aggressive, needy, demanding. In Jungian terms, I think that the kids are Tariku’s Shadow. The general idea of the Shadow is that it’s all of the thoughts and feelings we deem unacceptable to the public eye- it’s what we don’t want to be but fear we are. The tricky thing about the Shadow, is that if you try to stuff it down and ignore it, it may manifest in undesirable ways in your life. The Shadow needs some form of expression.

Tariku often expresses his socially unacceptable impulses through the kids. Which seems so creative and emotionally intelligent to me. It strikes me how tender and caring he is with them.  He doesn’t care how much they’re fighting with each other or crying about bedtime. He makes them little shirts and pants out of paper and tape. He cuddles them while he watches TV. He puts them in their pajamas (yes, they have pajamas) and makes sure that they each have a soft pillow under their heads before bed. He sleeps with his arms around them. He gives the kids unconditional love.

I think about the Shadow a lot. As a writer, I express the shadow on the page. That’s where I can allow all my darkest, most shameful thoughts and feelings to be heard. It’s a frightening thing to do, but it’s absolutely necessary both for the vitality of the work and for keeping my destructive impulses from screwing with my life and my relationships, including my relationship with myself. Tariku reminds me that even the really sticky icky stuff- especially the sticky icky stuff- deserves to be treated in a loving way. Our vulnerabilities are essential to our humanity. And they deserve to be dressed in their striped orange pajamas and put gently to bed.

For more on the Shadow, I highly recommend the book The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower– and Inspire You To Live Life in Forward Motion, by Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. It’s been tremendously helpful to me.

Here’s Willie at his first Weezer show:

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Travel Guilt

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Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that tired old subject: being a working mom…

I was in upstate NY last weekend for the Woodstock Writers Festival, which was an absolute delight (Thanks, Martha Frankel! And for the photo, Kevin Buso). Compared to many moms I know, I go out of town on business fairly often. I have conflicting feelings about this. I always miss my family. I always experience things I wish they could be experiencing with me.

And…

I also love waking up WHENEVER I WAKE UP, with no one interrupting my dreams by crawling on my head or farting in the bed. I love not making anyone breakfast. I love going to the hotel gym, or reading, or catching up on emails in bed over a giant pot of Earl Grey tea.

This is an extremely privileged version of working mom-ness, to be sure. And I wallow in a lot of guilt, as many of us do, about my time spent away from my child. I feel even more guilty that I enjoy it. Then I remember: Scott goes out of town all the time, because it’s his job. His job is awesome, and brings so much to all of our lives. Not the least of which is our house and the food on our table and drum lessons and groceries from Whole Foods and and and…. But that’s not the end of the story. He loves his work. He never would have considered giving up his work. Why would he?

All of this is also true for me, and yet I feel compelled to apologize for it.

Many of my friends justify working with the idea that it’s better for their child, because their resulting sense of fulfillment makes them a better mother.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m also not sure it matters.

Scott would never say that he should work because his music makes him a better dad. He would say that he finds joy in parenting and he finds joy in his work and that both of these things are important to him and help give him a sense of meaning and purpose.

Some of my anguish is certainly due to a cultural double-standard, but not all of it. Some of it is the sense of urgency brought on by the fact that my seven-year-old currently looks like he’s about ready to take the SATs and has a girlfriend and a report card and a lot of opinions and I am acutely aware of how few years I have left that he will still want me to carry him to bed. Which is a good thing for my lower back, but a devastating development for my poor heart.

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I look at his sweet little nose, his still-round cheeks. He catches me staring at him, throws his hands in the air and says, “WHAT are you looking at?”

“You,” I say. “You’re so big!

He rolls his eyes. “Everyone needs to grow up sometime, Mom.”

I think- what am I doing, spending my days facing the f-ing blank page again and again, when I could just be connecting with this precious being every minute of every day? And then I think, he will grow and change, no matter how hard I stare and try to memorize his face. He will grow and he will grow and there are things that will be irretrievably lost. We will also collect treasures I can’t even anticipate yet. And while all this growing and losing and gaining is happening, I’m still going to string words together on paper every day, because that’s what I’m compelled to do.

I just interviewed a super-famous and crazy-cool actress in her sixties (it’s still a secret- I’ll let you know more in a couple of weeks!), and she told me: “Jillian, I was so guilty about the time I spent working when my kids were young. And I shouldn’t have been. I really shouldn’t have been.”

I have been clinging to that like a buoy in the mom-ocean of blame and competence and guilt and joy and judgment and acceptance and fear and love.

The working mom discussion can become so strident and politicized on both sides. The truth is that all of these grown-up decisions have consequences, don’t they? Either way. Consequences suck.

But last weekend I found myself staring out at the Catskill mountains, getting ready to talk to a bunch of people about memory and art and writing– much of the stuff I’ve been deeply engaged with since I was a little kid. I thought, there are consequences, yes. I’m most at peace when I can hold them in the same hand as I do my embarrassment of riches.