Out of the Womb and Into Life

Third in a series.                                                                                                                       I’m letting our Picture a Conversation cards inspire this ongoing essay series. We found this little cactus flower family at the Mund’s Wagon trail head in Sedona 

I’m under the wire for this week’s post. And with good reason. There’s a new bud in our family. Born Wednesday afternoon Leah Florence, our second grandchild and second granddaughter, has a cap of black feathery hair, eyes of indiscriminate color and looks exactly like her big sister did as a newborn.  Swaddled tightly, her petals hidden within, Leah is pure potential. A lifetime of unfurling awaits her. Her sweet body, still conforming to the curves of her first home, is just beginning to unfold. 

At this moment, her life is scripted within her parents’ and grandparents’ hearts and dreams and yes, by the Divine’s plan for this sweet little soul. Come Saturday when all are safely home from the hospital, Leah’s relationship with her big sister will finally begin. They will choreograph their own dance of love and rivalry, worship and protection, vying and sharing, stepping on one another toes and engaging in the life-long pas de deux of sisterhood.  The sweet chattering voice Leah has heard for months through watery depths will be one she will follow and resist and then follow again. The page is blank, the score yet to sound, the steps un-notated. It is the perfection of an as-yet-to-be-lived life.

When I was a teenager, I came across a quiz in a magazine titled, “Are you a perfectionist?” No, I thought to myself, I am not. Because if I were, I would be perfect. I would know what to do, I would never make anyone angry. I would study harder and get perfect grades. Back then I thought perfectionists had it all figured out in a way I never would. We are so hard on ourselves until we realize that perfection is for circles not humans. 

The decades have taught me that dark moments, awful things, and utter messes are perfect opportunities to grow and learn. There are no perfect children nor perfect parents. Instead we walk paths, together and separately, that give us perfect moments to summon and share love. Yesterday’s frustration begets today’s patience. Last week’s scribbling on the wall becomes next month’s framed artwork.  A boundary crossed inspires restraint come the next intersection. It feels anything but perfect. But it is. Because going in circles, even perfect ones, gets us nowhere. We are born to move forward.
And moving forward often requires struggle.  What is childbirth but the universal struggle that brings forth precious life?

Welcome to the world, dear sweet Leah Florence. May your joys be great; may your struggles bring strength; may life embrace you with unending love.  Grandpa and I cannot wait to meet you.   Aviva

 

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Where Do You Stand?

Second in a series.

I’m letting our Picture a Conversation cards inspire this ongoing essay series. Many years ago, Martin captured the image of these geese when we visited Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.

To add a bit of spontaneity to this essay adventure,  each week I am choosing the conversation card at random. This way I am forced to approach each topic with a fresh perspective. Oh, the Universe is a trickster. Had I been choosing deliberately, I would have left this card to the last. Like the intuition that leads cats directly to the feline-phobic, this card sidled up to claim my attention.

How does this happen, that the thing we do not want comes to us? There is much talk today about the energy we put out.  Positive or negative, our energy serves as a magnet of sorts, returning to us precisely what we transmit. Perhaps magnet is the wrong analogy. Magnets attract their opposite; they repel like poles. If negativity is one’s prevailing mindset, why doesn’t it draw positivity?  The guru in my mind whispers, Because that’s just not the way it works, Debra. The things we may fear, fight and dread come our was so we can face them, walk through the valley of our resistances and come out the other side hopefully wiser, expanded in spirit, strengthened by new insights.  

When I crafted the statement and the questions on the reverse of the card above, I thought about the parents and adolescents who might use it as a jumping off point for a meaningful conversation. Yet opportunities for loved ones, friends and colleagues to go head-to-head over any number of issues span all age groups. My daughter and I are navigating plans for her wedding. At the outset she said, “I want  planning my wedding to be as joyous as my wedding is going to be.  If we reach a wall we’ll hang up, cool off and talk to each other the next day.” Wise woman this daughter we have raised. 

I am discerning anew what flexibility feels like — united, gratified, content —  versus submission’s residue — squelched, diminished, divided against myself. Flexible allows me a sense of personal agency.  Submission stirs up feelings of impotence. Flexibility spreads before me choices whose breadth is limited only by my own imagination. Submission shuts down any possibility of choice or creative thought.

And what about principles? Which are ironclad and which would we modify or even set aside?  Are we unprincipled to reconsider certain principles we have stood upon, perhaps for decades? What, if any, are the costs and consequences and to whom? 

Of the 25 cards in the deck of Picture a Conversation, this one’s accompanying message was the hardest one to craft.  I love the image of these geese and their respective postures. Anthropomorphizing, I wonder what they are saying to one another. After Martin snapped his shot, we walked away. Perhaps they kept honking at one another. Maybe they switched stances. Then again, perhaps they went their separate ways for a bit, only to reconnect the next day, realizing that rigidity and submission kept them anchored in place. That perhaps by standing at the intersection of flexible and principles they could make way for new paths.

Use these geese to start a conversation of your own.  Recall a time when you and another had to “agree to disagree.” Was the relationship strengthened or diminished? How did you resolve the impasse?

Each Picture a Conversation deck has 25 cards and over 75  questions to enrich your relationships through meaningful conversations.  It’s a  unique birthday, shower or engagement gift. Are you corporate? Picture a Conversation will deepen your team-building experiences. Or choose a card to take with you on a walk with a friend or loved one.    To order a set, here’s the link. Expand the conversation! I would deeply appreciate your sharing this essay on your social media sites.  If you missed last week’s essay, here you go.

 

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A Memory Returns

First in a series.

I’m letting Picture a Conversation cards inspire this ongoing series of essays. Martin captured this image many years ago in California’s Huntington Gardens. 

Some weeks ago, I experienced the healing power of sensory memory. I doubt I have ever put those five words together before, but they capture the truth of a moment when mere touch opened a door to a long-submerged beautiful experience which in turn allowed me reconcile the loving and devastating ways my mother behaved throughout my life.   

I was attending a meditation workshop.  It had been enlightening and challenging. I was in the company of a small group of women whom I hoped found me as deep and delightful as I found them. 

“Before we go on,” our teacher said, “let’s take a moment to close our eyes and breathe. Place your palms on either side of your face. Starting at your scalp, gently let your palms travel down to your temples, then over your cheeks to meet at your chin.  Breathe quietly as you slowly repeat the pattern — open palms, scalp, temples, cheeks, chin.”

Before my palms even met at my chin I was weeping. The mere touch of my hands grazing my face instantly returned my mother to me. We were young. She was looking deeply into my eyes, her own eyes suffused with love for me. Stroking my face she said, “Sheyna velt. My beautiful world. Such a sweet heart-shaped face. My sheyna velt.”  I had completely forgotten these moments which, at one time in my life, were not uncommon.  

She called me chocolate-and-strawberry — chocolate for my dark hair and eyes;  strawberry for my pink cheeks. That she called my face heart-shaped made me feel that I was her Valentine. Yes, breathing quietly I felt her hands on my cheeks, I saw her unusual greenish-yellow eyes gazing into mine. A smile lit her face with love for me. I was indeed her beautiful sweet world.

As some of you know, or have read in a prior essay or two, our sheyna velt turned upside down. As the years went on there was less sheyna and more shouting, less velt and more viciousness that left me spinning in confusion, like a cartoon character whose head is haloed by a jumble of stars, lightning bolts and crazy lines.

But I stayed with the moment, my hands becoming her hands. I saw the arc of her life. A young, felicitous and loving mother whose troubles were yet to surface. An impetuous brilliant woman born in the wrong decade. A still beautiful, still brilliant seventy-something woman who turned down treatment when diagnosed with cancer. She went on to live four more years, years during which she excised me from her life even as she thrived in a new environment, making friends, illustrating publications, giving impromptu piano concerts several times a week. The why no longer matters; I could never answer that one anyway. Now, nearly ten years distant from her first salvo that left me keening in a public parking lot, I realize once again that our strongest lessons evolve from the greatest pain.

There are many spiritual understandings of the forces of opposition that inhabit us all. Jewish tradition teaches we are born with a pure soul that resides with us until the end. Equally embedded within us are twin urges — the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-rah — the inclination to do good and the inclination to do evil. It is up to us to hear the voice of the yetzer ha-tov over the cacophony of the yetzer ha-ra.

Native American tradition has a similar perspective. A Cherokee grandfather tells his grandson about the two wolves warring within all humanity. One is suffused with a grocery list of destructive traits — anger, envy, greed, resentment, falsehood, ego. The other’s list is just as long but contains qualities of peace, kindness, love, compassion, courage, faith. 

“Which wolf will win?” the grandson asks.

“The one you feed.” answers the grandfather.

I had always known my mother loved me. She delighted in me. She was proud of me and my professional accomplishments. Those early years of love came easily and joyously when I had my own sheynas velt. As my mother did before me, I would cover them in kisses. “Look!” I would call out. “Look at the beautiful world God gave us. See the newborn green of spring leaves? Look! A lady bug! A lightning bug! An ant, carrying such a heavy burden!”

What I couldn’t know then was what a heavy burden my mother was carrying. At the end, her yetzer ha-ra won. The wolf she fed, consciously or not for much of her life, ultimately devoured her. I struggled to reconcile these two mothers. How can someone who could stroke my face so lovingly, slap me from her life? Why couldn’t I summon the mother of my early years when her yetzer ha-tov was still in the lead?

My own hands brought the answer, allowing light to shine through the darkness. Intellectual memory can only take us so far.  I needed sensory memory to break open my heart and return my mother to me. To allow me to feel with my very skin what I knew I had been given, only to have seemingly lost it.

It has been many weeks since those strokes of revelation. Perhaps we have wolves of memory as well. The wolf of good memory has emerged from the thicket. It is becoming easier and easier to feed her.

 

Picture a Conversation makes a unique birthday, shower or engagement gift. Are you corporate? Each card  is a great ice breaker for your next off-site. Are you family? Begin a new dinner tradition. Picture a Conversation will transform your mealtime together.  Keep the conversation going. I would deeply appreciate your sharing this essay on your social media sites.  Order here

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In Memoriam: Eleanor Chambliss

Elliot home from college, with Papa and Mimi

Our Mimi died yesterday. She wasn’t our grandmother. Or our aunt. Or the kind of friend who becomes family over years of gatherings. But had she and her husband not come into our lives, we would not be where we are today. In fact we wouldn’t have lived the lives we have lived and continue to live in this solid brick home on a quiet leafy street.

We were to be transferred to Michigan come my ninth month of pregnancy. Well before the due date, Martin and I  headed to Michigan to house hunt. Day after day I felt like Goldilocks. This house was too big; this one was too small. This one was too noisy; that one was too isolated.  Forget about feathering a nest; it looked like we might not even find a nest to feather.  Then our real estate agent remembered a couple in her church were splitting their lot and building a new house next door. Maybe they’d move out before the new house was ready?  She’d ask.  That’s how we met Eleanor and Ed Chambliss.  The deal was sealed. Come June, we would move into their old house and they would rent an apartment until their new home was ready.

Eleanor was the epitome of Southern grace. She was slender and elegant. Her white blonde hair was  done up in a French twist.  There was the softest Charleston lilt in her voice.  Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was often. Eleanor gardened in crisp beige chinos that never showed streak of dirt.

Concretia watching over Elliot as he learns to crawl.

“I planted the beds for you,” she said soon after we moved in.  “I didn’t think you’d be up to gardening this summer.” True to her word, there were gentle spots of color hinting at the beauty to come. I liked her assumption that in a year or so I would be out in the dirt planting, too.  Eleanor left behind a little stone angel that I named Concretia. A master gardener, Eleanor transplanted as much as she could from the lot upon which the new was being built. That’s how there came to bloom two dogwoods, one white and one pink, treasured echoes of my own Georgia childhood.

Ed, Eleanor’s husband, was a giant gentle bear of a man. Ruddy cheeked with a shock of white hair, he was easy with hugs and exuded the kind of resolute optimism born of hardship and hard work. Where Eleanor’s voice was light and lilty, Ed’s was sonorous. HIs eyes were blue as Eleanor’s, the ocean of his reflecting the sky of hers. You couldn’t help but feel safe in Ed’s presence. That’s the kind of man he was. 

We moved in and three weeks later I went into labor. The day of Elliot’s bris, Eleanor stood with me in the doorway of his room and held my hand as the mohel did what mohels are trained to do.”Did you ever think you could love anything so much?” she asked, distracting me, keeping my knees from buckling when my infant son cried out and then quieted.  She had seen straight into my heart. “No,” I said, in awe of the emotions swirling within — relief, pride, gratitude, and above all, yes, the biggest, fiercest love I had ever felt.

Before long, Elliot was toddling around. “Call us Mimi and Papa,” Eleanor said.  Elliot followed Papa whenever he could. One day the two sat down to make a huge Lego pirate ship. Other times they raked leaves.  Come Halloween, Mimi and Papa’s house was our first stop.

They moved on a few years later to build a house that was even bigger than the one next door.  They were in the spring of their retirement years and wanted a home that could accommodate their growing brood of grandchildren. We visited them once or twice in this new lakeside home and then became caught up in blur of our separate lives. They downsized into a condo and then moved back to Charleston, building a house in a small community not far from the ocean.  We visited them a time or two the summers we vacationed in South Carolina.  It was wonderful to see them, wonderful to have them see how our kids were growing up. Our last visit there we could see the subtle signs of the dementia that would eventually commandeer Ed’s life.

When Ed died, their kids convinced Eleanor that it was time to return to Michigan.  I visited her soon after she settled in. Her apartment was elegant though much pared down. She had culled the best of her antiques and beautiful rugs. Ed’s portrait was the first thing you saw when entering her bedroom. She had hung it so that it was the last thing she saw before closing her eyes to sleep. “It was an honor to be his wife,” she said, longing and sorrow threading through her words.

We settled in for a long-overdue visit.  “You were such a bright and special one,” she said, seeing in her mind’s eye a girl of 29 I can’t even recall, if indeed I ever knew her.

“What did you see in me, Eleanor?” I asked  “I’m not fishing for complements.  I just want to know who I was then.” I thought of Robert Burns’ poem and the gift to see ourselves as “ithers” see us. 

“You were sweet,” she said. “So very sweet and loving. You were special.  You still are.”

We visited for a while and then it was time to go.  Mimi and I shared a long hug. I thanked her for all she had given us. I promised to bring Elliot by.  I wanted her to have the joy in seeing the little boy grown up with his beautiful wife and toddler. 

It never happened.  Life got away from us. The calendar pages blurred together once again. Newly retired ourselves, Martin and I  began to travel much as Eleanor and Ed had decades before. I tried to call, but could not reach her.  Trying again months later, I learned Eleanor was no longer residing in the beautiful apartment she had feathered with a lifetime of mementos. Hoping she hadn’t died but figuring she had begun the descent we will all make in one way or another, I stepped back not wanting to intrude into whatever the family was doing to care for their wonderful mother.

Her son emailed yesterday. Going through Eleanor’s old AOL account,  he came across an email I had sent her, inviting her to get together.  “Mom died this morning,” he wrote.

I move through my house and imagine her beside me. I imagine her walking across the green slate tiles of our foyer. I envision her looking down at the garden from the bedroom window each morning. She feels closer to me now, more intimately near, than ever before. I am so very very sad.  Our Mimi blessed our lives with so much. I’d like to imagine that in addition to Concretia, come spring there will be a new angel in our garden watching over us as we get to weeding and planting.

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Three Little Words in the Land of See and Say

I went to play with Olivia this week while her mom was readying the family for an upcoming road trip. Olivia is talking up a storm, nay a veritable cyclone of words. When her brain outpaces her speech, she sets forth a garbled hurricane of language that only she can decipher. I am in heaven!

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. I’d add that if you’re spending time with a toddler, speech is the window to her mind and her perception of the world in which she lives.  I’ve been waiting for this moment.  Olivia is not only speaking words, but speaking her mind, speaking her observations, speaking delightful conclusions based on her experiences. 

At this age there are no filters, no hesitancy to share whatever percolates within.  This is the age of See and Say. The first time my younger brother saw snow, he said the stars had fallen from the sky. When Olivia’s daddy was her age, he called me into the dining room and began pointing to the topmost shelf where a set of tissue-thin crystal goblets rested safely out of reach.  “Bubbles, Mommy! Bubbles!” Sure enough the glasses, iridescent in the afternoon light, looked exactly like bubbles floating upon slender crystal stems.  To be with a child at the threshold of speech is to be party to magic around every corner. “Doesn’t the snow make you think of God?” Elliot asked me his third winter of life. I don’t even know how much we had talked about God at that point, but the sight of the falling snow called forth something deep within him and he put the feeing into words. An unforgettable gift.

Olivia has the concept of “now” down pat.  Ditto “no” and “Olivia do.” This makes moving from A to B more of a challenge. But that’s a small price to pay for the fun of making silly rhymes and the astonishment I experience when she repeats back to me something she heard weeks before.  (You can bet I am quite judicious in what I say to drivers who misbehave on the road these days.)  Our walks in her neighborhood are filled with notations on the moon, airplanes and clouds. When I bring Olivia to synagogue, the first thing she says when she enters the sanctuary is, “Torah!”  

She slept over for the first time recently and called to us around five in the morning. We brought her into our bed hoping for a bit more shut eye.  It worked until 6:30 or so.  “Olivia, it’s still dark out; still night time.”  “Night over,” she replied quite firmly. “Breakfast.”  Down we went for Cream of Wheat and fruit.  

What must it feel like to be able to express her opinion and be listened to? For that is the other side of speaking, perhaps the more crucial side. Being heard. Having her words acted upon gives Olivia a sense of agency in her life, a sense of trust that those charged with her care take her words, and thus her, seriously.  Not all toddlers are so fortunate. She is surely not conscious of the dynamic but its seeds are being planted in every exchange she has with us and with her parents. It won’t always be smooth. The family definition of cooperate — “Mommy say, Livvy do.” — doesn’t always leave room for the preferences of an opinionated and willful toddler. 

While her mom waded through her packing lists, Olivia and I built towers with her letter blocks and then toppled them into haphazard jumbles of vowels, consonants, roosters, dogs and sheep.  Come snack time, I picked her up, hugged her, and tickled her neck with kisses.  

“I love you,” she said. I simultaneously froze and melted.  “I love you too, Olivia. I love you, too.” 

In the Land of See and Say, snow becomes stars, crystal becomes bubbles and it all makes me think of God. 

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Literary Conversations are for Kids, Too


Book clubs aren’t the only place literary conversations take place.  My granddaughter Olivia and I discuss books every time I read to her.  Our deepest and most prolonged discussions take place around Over in the Meadow, a counting song beautifully illustrated with Ezra Jack Keats’ stunning collages. It has been a treasured favorite since my own kids were read-to-me age.  

In Over in the Meadow, ten mother animals and their babies dig, caw and buzz their way through the sand, nests and  beehives. This book’s version of the song (based on an original text attributed to Olive A Wadsworth) includes, among other creatures, turtles, fish, crickets and an old mother muskrat and her little ratties four. For whatever reason Olivia is obsessed with the muskrat. Our book club conversation begins like this:

“Muskrat!  Muskrat!” she shrieks the minute I arrive, gesturing with her hand a motion of diving into water. I take Olivia into my lap. First we examine the book’s cover. I point to the title and read it aloud; she responds  by pointing to the three baby birds peeping out from the tree.  

“Sing!” says Olivia, recalling from our prior readings that is what the baby birds do when we get to their page. 

Next we turn to the title page, a beautiful collage  of a green field. We examine ferns, maple leaves, and clover before  identifying the two “O’s” in the book’s title.  When we get to the dedication page (to Bernice), Olivia points to the blue dragonfly flitting across the page. “Dagafy,” she says. The dagafly reappears on page two and the baby bluebirds from the cover illustration are still singing to their mother on page three. We depend on and appreciate the illustrator’s foreshadowing of the text by cuing the reader through his art. 

Page four is where our conversation really gets going.  “Muskrat!” Olivia shouts and dives into the text the way Old Mother Muskrat’s little ratties four dive into the reeds on the shore. She identifies a detail of the story not referenced by the text but is a fact she can infer from her own life experience.. “Mommy muskrat hands?” Olivia asks pointing to the mother muskrat’s paws. 

“Yes,” I reply, “Mommy muskrat hands.” Next time I’ll introduce the word “paw.”

Olivia comments on the action in these two pages.  We agree there is a whole lotta diving going on.  We observe that each character is doing something different: swimming, diving, watching from the shore. We extrapolate from the illustration, moving from Mommy muskrat hands to her own and then to mine.

Come the seven crickets, I offer up brief comments about poetry’s convention of visual or sight rhymes (even/seven) and how later in the verse this visual rhyme is repeated in reverse (seven/even.)  We could also discuss how words in the English language evolve, meaning one thing in one era and something else in another. For now though, I leave the gay mother cricket to chirp cheery notes as all mothers — gay or not, crickets or not — chirp with their children. Eight, nine, and ten we bask with the lizards, croak with the froggies and finally shine with the fireflies. 

Although Olivia is not yet two, our conversations about books are lively and expansive. Through them, the English language becomes a word-meadow where a devoted grandmother and her curious granddaughter run free with love and delight. 

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Some Things are Cheap at Costco, but Not This Conversation

Not even two weeks back in Michigan I hit a pothole and blew out two tires. Off to Costco for replacements. As synchronicity would have it, Yuval Harari’s Sapiens was for sale.  Martin read it for book club; Emma devoured it and wanted to discuss it. I’ve been wanting to read it for eons. Thank you, book angels. 

I found an empty table in the food court and began reading when along came a woman who’d been a few tire repairs ahead of me. She had spent the interim time shopping with her teenaged son.

“You’ve found yourself a cozy place to read,” she said.

“Yes,” I agreed.  “This book is terrific.” Only ten or so pages in, I couldn’t share much info but raved just the same. Her son had wandered ahead so I kept my response brief so as not to delay them.  

“I’ll have to get it,” she said. I went back to my book, but she was still standing there. If you’ve read other posts about some of my interactions with strangers, you know that right about now the conversation is going to veer from mundane into marvel.

“My son is fifteen,” she said nodding at the lanky boy who was pushing their cart toward the exit. “I don’t know who he is any more. He attends the IB [International Baccalaureate] school and his grades are tanking. I don’t know what to do. I didn’t raise him in a church but I raised him with God’s Word. He doesn’t listen to me.” I could feel her hurt, bewilderment, frustration.  I remembered it too.

Nineteen years has softened, but not erased, my memories of this difficult year in our son’s life. Fifteen was simply awful. Elliot was oppositional. Defiant. Distant. I could do no right. He was slipping away. I had a recurring nightmare somewhere in that year — Elliot would sleep each night beside my bed in a little nest of blankets, the way he had in childhood. But in my dream he was now an addict. Every morning I would wake and have to watch him die of an overdose all over again. I’m a master at horrific nightmares. Just ask Martin.

Writing these words nearly two decades later I see the metaphor so clearly. My sweet little boy was “dying.” The man he would become had withdrawn into a chrysalis of conflict and contention. Every day that 9th grade year, he slipped farther and father away from me. Yet seven years hence he would write me a poem in which he reflected on the entire arc of our mother/son relationship. In the stanza recounting  high school, he penned the line, “I didn’t know where you belonged/between boyhood mother/ and mom go away.” A decade after that poem, he would return to Michigan with his newly-pregnant wife. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined where we are now.   He sleeps nested beside his beloved in a home not even seven miles away. Their child is the light of our lives. 

I told this tall and attractive mom that when my son was fifteen, I felt that a body snatcher had spirited him away. That it was our hardest year. That it would get better.  And then I stopped advising.  I had no idea if it would get better or where this year of mother-son tension would deliver them by his 16th birthday, much less his 22nd. I had no idea if their future held a multi-verse poem, a multi-year jail sentence or something in between.  Instead of advising, I told her what I knew was true. “It’s a frustrating time, a terrible time. But stay strong. He needs to push against something, against someone. That someone is you because you’re safe, and even if it doesn’t feel like it, he loves you, and his love for you makes this transition all the harder for you both.” 

A hug would have interrupted the rhythm of the conversation; I was seated, she was standing.  I offered her my hand instead and clasped hers in both of mine. “He’s a good boy,” I said. “Keep faith.” My words seemed so ephemeral, even as I said them. Faith can get us through, but there’s no guarantee faith will deliver us where we want to be. She went to catch up with her son and I sent a prayer after them both and turned back to Sapiens.

We human beings have evolved mightily but fifteen remains a horror of a year for parents of sons and daughters. I’m waiting to read what Sapiens says about it. Or what evolution might say about the wonderful ease with which women find common ground,  bearing their hearts, offering and accepting wisdom and comfort whether they find themselves sharing a threshing floor or waiting for tire repairs at Costco.

 

 

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A Conversation about Becoming a Mother

Some twenty five years ago my mother gave me the painting at the left. She’d seen it in a little restaurant in Atlanta that she frequented. I was in the thick of mothering and striving to get a freelance career off the ground. The painting’s message was spot on.  

The mother’s arm holding the paintbrush is rendered awkwardly but the point of the whole painting is the arm holding the flailing baby. Firm beneath her mother’s forearm, Baby just has to chill. Mama is conversing with her Muse, determined to hold on to a treasured piece of herself all the while hip deep into taking care of Baby.  Maybe the babysitter cancelled that morning; or an ear infection kept Baby out of day care. No matter what, Mama has to paint. My mother’s gift acknowledged my struggles to balance work and motherhood.

On a past trip home, my daughter claimed the painting.  “I want you to give this to me when I become a mother,” she said.  “I want the reminder that I can still create art even if I’m a mom.”  I thought of her comment after reading a recent article in the New York Times profiling young women who do not want, or are not sure they want, children. 

While I thought “not having a partner yet” was a sage reason to wait, and others — wanting leisure time and personal freedom — are legit if short-sighted, the one factor that stopped me cold was that a quarter of the respondents to a survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times didn’t think they’d be good parents. A young woman quoted in the article had such, “high expectations for parents that she wasn’t sure she could meet them….I would have the responsibility to raise this person into a functional and productive citizen, and some days I’m not even responsible.”

Heck that’s what it is to be a parent — living up to your own expectations is an ongoing challenge. You won’t always meet meet them. In fact you often won’t. Some days parenting levels you, knocks you on your ass and makes you cry uncle. Those children you are raising?  Little mirrors reflecting you at your worst and your best. This is what it is to be a parent: to grow; to forgive yourself your human failings; to strive to do better.  And this is what it is to be a parent: the littlest things become daily miracles as you watch your baby discover a shaft of sunlight crossing her line of vision, hear his first laugh and bear witness to their growing discovery of their world, a world in which you are the sun, the moon and the stars. Our children summon from within us strengths we didn’t know we had. Ask any parent who’s survived their kids’ adolescence. Or first trip to the hospital. Or broken heart. Or, God forbid, a life-changing diagnosis.

As for the the functional productive citizen stuff? Drop it.  Celebrate your child’s sense of wonder; protect their joy; follow their lead and guide gently. Focus on instilling patience, empathy, manners, honesty, respect.  That’s the stuff of good citizenship, anyway.

My daughter recently expressed many of the same reservations of the women quoted in the article. I held my counsel. Mostly. The thicket of doubts and uncertainties is hers to maneuver. While it’s difficult to wrap my head around the possibility my daughter may choose not to have a child, the painting is hers no matter what. She will determine what her left arm will hold. 

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Big Lessons from a Tiny Person

Conversations with my granddaughter are expanding beyond burbles and trills to delicious mispronunciations that will become the stuff of family lore.  Ohdor means Please open the door. UpDown is a request to read the Olivia book about opposites. More than her darling gymnastics with the English language, Olivia’s actions speak potent lessons. In a single week, this little being who doesn’t yet weigh even 20 pounds, has taught me much.

Lesson 1 —Blissful experiences deserve endless repetition. 

Olivia and her mom were visiting one afternoon when Olivia discovered the little slope of grass abutting our patio. Down she toddled, gathering speed. When she reached the bottom, she lay on her back, threw her arms wide and grinned up at the sky in utter bliss.  If there’d been a cartoon balloon above her it would have read, “Ain’t life just the BEST!!!”  

Again and again she toddled up the slope, ran down and collapsed, looking skyward. She was utterly in the moment, reveling in the joy of her body, in the speed her chubby legs could now take her, perhaps even in the wind caressing pink cheeks. She exulted in the realization that she could experience this again and again and again.

Delight in your experiences. Repeat them. And then again. 

Lesson 2 — Share your love with insistence. 

It was bedtime.  Olivia had been bathed, diapered and PJ’d, read to and read to again.  

“Kiss Aviva good-night,” her mother said, holding her out to me. Olivia covered my face with kisses. She planted sweet love on each cheek, on my chin, on my forehead. She stopped for a minute and I stepped back to leave.  Olivia squealed her displeasure.  I got the message loud and clear.  “I’m not finished, thank you very much. I’m not done giving you my kisses!”  I moved within kissing range and was rewarded with three more, light as a butterfly’s wing. 

The love we give is precious; give it joyously.  If you are fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such love, for Pete’s sake, hang around!

Lesson #3  — Love yourself. 

I can’t draw; lots of skeletons in my creative closet. What my eye sees and what my hand renders do not align. But one day, determined to silence the ghosts, I set out to sketch Olivia from one of my husband’s photos. 

I worked on it for the better part of a morning, studying the fullness of her cheeks, the little round point of her chin. What was the proportion of her forehead to her features? Where do the ears go? The eyebrows? And those eyes! They are swirled with brown, green and blue. Someone called them little earths. I struggled to show the way each strand of her hair feathers across her forehead.  When I was done, it wasn’t an exact likeness but I had captured something about her that was familiar.

One afternoon I showed her the drawing. 

“ME!” she shouted touching a tiny finger to the page .  “ME!!” Then she leaned over and kissed the drawing. 

I was stunned. She recognized herself! Even more moving was the immediate kiss she planted on the drawing. When you look in the mirror, is your first reaction joy or criticism? When was the last time you kissed the mirror when you saw your reflection? I see the lines in my face, not my smile and warm brown eyes. I bemoan middle age spread instead of being grateful for the strong body that takes me hiking and allows me to crawl on the floor with Olivia. I pine for what was, instead of celebrating ME! ME!!  HERE!! NOW!!

Olivia has no reference of what was.  She simply is.  She doesn’t know or care that three months ago she had no hair and now has just enough to make a bonsai-sized palm tree atop her head. She saw a likeness of herself and went to town exulting.  “That’s me! I’m wonderful! I’m OLIVIA!” 

Offer huge smiles and spontaneous kisses to the person in the looking glass. She is to be treasured!

Dearest Olivia, what lessons will you teach me this week?  

Your willing and loving student, 

Aviva

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Of Poetry, Hiking Trails and Spring

A lovely bonus of our hikes out west are the unexpected conversations that come our way. Readers of this column may remember the conversation Martin and I had with a fellow hiker and his sudden revelation of his wife’s recent death. More common are the less intense where-are-you-from? exchanges or the serendipitous six degrees of separation chats that inevitably reveal a connection.

Hiking West Fork late last month, a friend and I were discussing books we had loved as children. I mentioned a favorite and began quoting to her a poem  from Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s Prayers from the Ark. It is a stunning book of poems voiced from the perspective of Noah’s menagerie. The edition my mother gave me when I was a child has an introduction by Rumer Godden, the book’s illustrator who was fortunate enough to meet the author, a Frenchwoman who became a Carmelite nun toward the end of her life. Trying to recall The Prayer of the Monkey, I recited what I could from memory, “Oh God, why did You give me a face so comical that no one will take me seriously?”

One of the two hikers coming our way overheard me and seamlessly joined our conversation.  “Oh, man,” he replied, “I would take you very seriously! I would never mess with you!” Well, at that point, I had to stop and give the backstory. He wrote down the title (Ha! Wrote down. He took out his cell phone and started tapping.) His friend asked if we’d read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. (Out came our cell phones.) We talked a few minutes more about books and then parted. My friend and I marveled at the cool exchanges that are just a natural part of our hiking experiences. It’s one of the magical things I miss now that we are home and there is concrete, not red earth, beneath my shoes once again.

But yesterday, I was rewarded with a trail exchange. It was a glorious spring day — blue skies, white puffy clouds, the trees just greening up in a way that would inspire me, once upon a time, to recite to the kids Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay. A woman was coming out of the bank as I entered.  Our eyes met and then our spirits.  

“Isn’t this a glorious day!” she exclaimed. “It’s simply beautiful.”  

I agreed and mentioned that it was the kind of day  that called me to share a poem with my kids. Taking the kind of chance that is no chance on the trails, but de rigeur, I asked “May I share the poem with you?” She smiled her assent and I began, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold…”

After the recitation she agreed and said at this time in spring she looks at the leaf packets with such happy anticipation.

“Leaf packets!” I said. “What a wonderful phrase!”  

“Yes,” she replied. “That’s how they always seemed to me, these little packets of beautiful green just waiting to burst open.” I thanked her for the phrase; she thanked me for the poem and we went our separate ways on the day’s trail.

Magic can happen anywhere, even in a bank parking lot, if you stay open to its shimmer and share a bit of your own sparkle dust along the way.

Resources
Prayers from the Ark (This looks to be the edition my mother gave me.)
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Dandelion Wine

The “boulders” in the foreground are actually the reflection of the canyon walls above.

This is a shot from the West Fork hike. What you are actually looking at is the canyon wall reflected in just six inches of water along the edge of Oak Creek. The reflection was so perfect, so mirror-like that when I approached, the fight-or-flight center of  my brain took over and slowed my steps, so convinced it was that I was at the edge of a precipice and just inches from cascading into the canyon itself. The brain bamboozlement between my eyes and my limbic brain was a hoot. 

 

 

The Prayer of the Monkey
Dear God,
why have You made me so ugly?
With this ridiculous face,
grimaces seem asked for!
Shall I always be the clown of Your creation?
Oh,who will lift this melancholy from my heart?
Could You not, one day,
let someone take me seriously,
Lord?

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