When my son was six years old, I got home from work at his bedtime. We would take a few minutes in the dark of his room to talk over our days.
One evening he told me he imagined his closet was a magic closet that granted his wishes.
“What do you wish for?” I asked.
“I usually wish for lots and lots of money to come out.”
“What would you use the money to buy?”
“A Go-Kart!” (He was obsessed with Speed Racer.)
“Then why not just wish for a Go-Kart? It would save you considerable time and effort in trying to locate a dealer. And even if you found someone willing to sell you one, you might run into trouble trying to negotiate a good price as a kindergartener.”
He told me he thought the money would give him the ability to get whatever he wanted, in case he changed his mind about the Go-Kart. I pointed out that he was already in the realm of pure fantasy with his magic closet. Wishing for money just set up an unnecessary middle step to achieving his dreams.
I asked my son what he wanted to do with the Go-Kart. He said, “Go real fast!” I suggested he could get that wish fulfilled much easier than having to deal with the hassle of a vehicle purchase, licensing, storage, taxes, and maintenance.
At the time, there was a Go-Kart track near our house. He was still too little to drive one by himself, but he could ride with his dad. I offered that if he slightly modified his wish – to name the experience he wanted rather than the object he thought was necessary to achieve it – his wish might come true.
It took more than a year for us to arrange, but he eventually found himself speeding in circles through clouds of diesel smoke, inches above the asphalt. His father didn’t hesitate to drive with the reckless abandon young kids crave. My son’s magic closet worked!
Money is only one way to acquire products, services, or experiences. When we wish for money, we are longing for the power to get what we want. That can knock us off course as we pour energy into securing the means to the end, instead of clearly identifying the true nature of our heart’s desire.
One thing I love about talking with kids is that the advice I give them inevitably applies to me as well. I don’t think I could have come to this realization on my own. But, ever since then, when I find myself fantasizing about money I stop and ask myself, “What is it I really want?”
“Not everyone has to become a mother, Megan. The world also needs good aunties.” If I could remember what prompted my mother to tell me that when I was a teenager, I might not harbor this suspicion that she thought I’d make a lousy mom. That, in turn, might make me feel a little less like a lousy mom.
Then again, I may just be a lousy mom.
My mother died before I had children. In her final years, she continued to downplay the importance of parenthood. “You really don’t have to have kids, Megan. It’s okay to focus on your career. You don’t have to try to do both.” I lived three-thousand miles away from her at the time, but we had money problems in common. She could barely afford to stay in an apartment and cover medical care with her disability payments. My husband and I were under a mountain of debt, barely making minimum payments and rent with our entry-level salaries. Her reassurances were a relief.
Less than a year after she died, though, I was pregnant. It seemed like an act of rebellion. “I’ll show her. I WILL do both. And I’ll like it!” Giving up my career was never an option. I might disregard my mother’s advice on kids, but her lessons about making a living were sacrosanct.
When I was in junior high I’d sit at the table with my mother every day after school. We’d drink ice tea and she’d lecture me about the importance of getting a college degree, earning my own money, never relying on a man, learning what it took to succeed in an industry and then doing whatever that was with passionate intensity.
My mother would point out to me that it was only because she got Multiple Sclerosis that she was at home. “If I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d certainly still be working.” Before she had to take disability retirement, she earned her Masters in Education and considered moving from teaching into school administration to improve remedial instruction.
She fondly recalled the brief time when she worked and my father kept house, back when they lived in Chapel Hill and only had one child, just before I was born. “You know, that was the perfect situation for us. He was so good at homemaking, and I loved having a career.”
But then I was born, my father took a job at his father’s mattress plant, we moved to Hope Mills, and my mother was diagnosed with MS the first week in the new house. To her, the correlation implied causation. To me, it was a cautionary tale.
I concluded that all of the other factors that contributed to our family’s crises – my father’s bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and hereditary depression, my mother’s chronic, degenerative disease, the socio-economic shifts during the 80’s and 90’s – could have been avoided with better employment decisions. Specifically, NEVER LEAVE A CAREER FOR FAMILY.
Family is unreliable, marriage is vulnerable, love is blind, but a career gives you freedom. I hard-wired that into my brain and made professional success my priority.
At the start of my senior year in college, my boyfriend broke up with me, accusing me of wanting to trap him into a traditional married life. He thought I wanted him to work and take care of me so I could have babies. He said I’d stop him from pursuing his dreams.
Ending the relationship hurt me deeply for many months, but that accusation burned me for decades. There was no greater insult than to say I might be willing to just be a mom. I had dreams too, and they didn’t include staying at home with kids.
I went back to work full-time when my son was eight weeks old. After my daughter was born, I started working from home only four weeks postpartum. My husband cut down to part-time work: three days a week with the first baby, then just one day a week when I was pregnant the second time. He assumed the primary parent role so I could hold on to my career. I became the breadwinner.
Our situation echoed my mother’s best times. According to my teenage judgement, I should have been as happy as my mother remembered she was before I was born.
I wasn’t happy.
I also wasn’t healthy.
Even though I put my job first, the factors that contributed to my family’s crises still affected me. Professional success did not rewrite DNA nor avert socio-economic shifts.
Not only did I have less and less time to see my kids, the stresses of my job drained all my emotional capacity. I couldn’t offer them any support through the daily challenges of growing up. I couldn’t even offer my husband much. And no matter what, I didn’t have anything left over to take care of myself.
I started to crack. Then, I cracked. A debacle to call my own.
As much as I wanted to fulfill the dreams of my fourteen-year old self, and as much as I respected my mother’s experience, life didn’t turn out the way I planned. I broke up with my career. My husband went back to work full-time. I started part-time consulting. Our family budget took a huge hit, and our lifestyle is exactly what I feared most as a senior in college.
Ever since then I’ve had time to sit down at the table by myself, with a glass of ice tea, and re-examine what my mother told me. I am now the same age she was when she imprinted the primacy of a professional life. Rather than seeing her as an irrefutable authority – and she had an amazing authority about her – I have tried to see her as a fellow mom, as a peer.
My mother raised three girls while slowly losing the use of her body. She counseled us through school work, boyfriends, frenemies, lousy jobs, cruel teachers, car crashes, and most notably, our father. Despite his long decline, the drunken insults, the DUIs, the embarrassing public displays, the inconvenient absences, she believed in his better nature and told us not to hate him because it would only be hating ourselves.
I can clearly remember countless days of talking with her for hours. In my memories, I’m in a parade of different hairstyles, fashions from halter tops to floral dresses to vests and then overalls. And always, my mother is there, listening, asking questions, offering advice.
There was no way for her to know what I needed to do to have a secure future. She didn’t even know how to secure her own future. In fact, she didn’t know a lot of things. She didn’t know that I might marry a man very different than my father. She didn’t know that a good job is still no guarantee. She didn’t know that I’d take one thing she said one afternoon and try to build my whole life around it.
Most importantly, my mother had no idea what kind of a mother I might be. I know this because I have no clue how my kids will turn out. I’m still surprised they made it out of diapers. I dispense wisdom and warnings in equal measure, hoping that the right things will stick so they’ll make the best decision they can when they’re all on their own. Only now can I see that that’s what she did as well.
As a child, I listened to her words. As a mother, I look at her actions. Rather than saying the perfect thing or accurately predicting any future, her greatest gift was showing up day after day. If I still followed all of her advice, I’d be wearing patterned sweaters, oversize glasses, and have a smart, short haircut. If I follow her example, though, I give my kids my time.
Mothering is in the minutes.
I think my mother was right that not everyone has to be a mom (or dad). The world does need good aunties (and unkies) because kids require a tremendous amount of guidance and support. But whether or not my mom thought I might be good at it, I can’t back out of motherhood now. I have two kids and if I’m lousy the only thing I can do is try to get better.
That’s where all those years of institutional indoctrination and management training might help me gauge if I truly am a lousy mom. I need a personal performance review.
Since a performance review is based on a job description, I wrote one for myself. I put down what I think I’m supposed to be doing – not what I want to be doing or what I think would be ideal. My hope was to capture any illusions and unrealistic expectations as well as the daily tasks I expect of myself right now.
JOB TITLE: Queen Megan
Reports to: The Higher Power
Colleague: Captain Britton
Supervises: Young Padawans
Work Hours: All of The Hours
PURPOSE: This position manages the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the family which is defined as the four humans and three cats currently living Chez Sukys, Tacoma, WA.
NUTRITION: Provides food eating routines consistent with a healthy body, community, and planet.
SANITATION: Develops and maintains routines which inhibit noxious germs, odors, and clutter on people, in rooms, in the yard, and in cars.
RESPONSIBILITIES: dishes, laundry, garbage, recycling, compost, kitty litter, floor, dusting, pest control, disinfection, bathrooms, windows, filing, organization, winnowing, gardening, car maintenence, showers/baths, haircuts, handwashing, medicine cabinet, veterinary, doctor and dentist appointments, Lectures on the Black Plague
SUPPLIES: Evaluates and maintains stocks of necessary possessions.
RESPONSIBILITIES: food, cleaning supplies, clothes, shoes, school and office supplies, art supplies, games, entertainment, catnip, incense, cars, household items, gifts, tools, luggage, garden supplies, bath products, appliances, Saying No
ENRICHMENT: Researches and schedules opportunities to enjoy and learn through physical, mental, and artistic experiences.
RESPONSIBILITIES: after-school clubs and sports, summer camps, family vacations, educational opportunities, screen time, library, home improvements, dining out, babysitting and child care, parties, playdates, movies, bikes, watching baseball, Judge of What’s Funny
BUDGET: Creates and maintains resources to accommodate all needs and duties.
SELF: Assesses and provides the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view self and this incarnation.
COLLEAGUE: Communicates with and supports Captain Britton to maintain a loving, compassionate, cooperative, creative, Cosmic, sensual partnership and parenthood.
PADAWANS: Communicates with and nurtures children to help them recognize their unique needs and personalities, assists them in creating routines for self-care to maintain loving and compassionate Cosmic views of themselves in this incarnation, offers love, compassion and personal Cosmic views where they need it, allows them room to also practice their routines of self-care.
EXTENDED FAMILY: Maintains relationships, knowledge and communication with family members outside the house, as well as ancestors, to share and understand the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view of self and this incarnation.
FAMILY: Shares insights and lessons from self-spiritual path when appropriate, encourages others to find their own connection to the timeless, Cosmic view. Listens and dialogues about others’ questions and insights, learns from others’ unique perspectives, offers fellowship and participation in spiritual seeking.
RESPONSIBILITIES: listening, inquiring, storytelling, artistic expression, rituals, wilderness trips, Fielding Questions about Santa and the Tooth Fairy
Continued Development: Recognizes that all listed duties are subject to change at any moment without notice, accepts continual evolution of physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies within the family, adapts assignments and delegates tasks as soon as possible, maintains health and energy reserves to handle any and all eventualities, including the ones that cause insomnia.
My dad taught my Sunday School class for a brief time when I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have gone if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have gone if my mother didn’t make him. He wasn’t the Bible study type; he was in alcohol recovery for the second time, at the age of forty-five. Redemption was on the line.
The high school class never had many attendees. On the first day, when only two other students showed up, my dad took out his wallet and counted his cash. Then he pulled out his car keys and said, “How about a field trip?”
He drove us to McDonald’s. After we got pancakes and sandwiches, he sat down at the booth with a small black coffee and an aluminum ashtray. He lit a cigarette and admitted he didn’t know how to teach Sunday school. But, he knew the Bible was mostly stories to help you live your life. Since he couldn’t think of any Bible stories, he said he’d tell us a story from his life, from his days in the Navy.
My dad never talked much about life in the military. He was a Navy fighter pilot stationed in Hawaii during the Vietnam War. That sentence pretty much summed up all he ever told me. His photos shared more words.
My dad would say “Fighter Pilot” like that was all I needed to know, like that title was beginning, middle, end. Before our McDonald’s breakfast, the closest he got to sharing Navy stories was when he tried to explain the flight simulator program on our new home computer.
I ate my Egg McMuffin, elbow to elbow with my fellow fast-food acolytes, while my Dad smoked and looked in the direction of the Mayor McCheese playground with a faraway gaze. He knew how to use the dramatic pause. I wondered which amazing adventure he was going to share.
Almost everything I knew about my dad I heard from my mom. My mother talked about his service more than he did. When he wasn’t around – which was most of the time – she told me how much he loved flying, to explain his manic depression.”Once you go supersonic, how is anything else in life going to match that?”
She told me how everyone in his squadron had alcohol problems, not just my dad. “Was it the men who became pilots or what being a pilot did to the men?” The planes he flew were notoriously difficult, earning the name “ensign killer”. My mom told me a friend of my dad’s was killed during take-off from a carrier’s flight deck – the jet just flew straight into the ocean.
My mother also told me my dad never seemed to recover from the trauma of his Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.) training. It was POW training, required of all pilots. She said he came back different, that the experiences left him shaken for years. The training is what he told us about in McDonald’s.
That Sunday, he was a long way from his high flying F-8 glory days. After three years sober, he fell off the wagon a couple weeks before my sister’s wedding. He lost his job at the car dealership. He had nothing better to do than accept my mother’s Sunday School enlistment.
The thrill and honor of his piloting was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he remembered the pain, the fear, all the things I never heard about from him. He said he had a hard time thinking of a story he could share with kids our age, but he thought he’d tell us what changed him most during his service.
In one part of the training, my dad learned to find food in the wilderness. He told us how an officer held up a dove. My dad said it was the most beautiful bird, coo’ing softly as the officer pet its head. The officer talked about the importance of getting the most nutrition from every meal, that they should cook the whole bird body, no plucking or dressing. Then he ripped the bird’s head off and tossed the whole thing into a pot. My dad said that probably upset him more than anything that was to come.
Once they had their survival skills, his group was released in the woods and told to evade capture while crossing to a check point. He saw some soldiers just hide out, opting to wait till the training was over to emerge. Even though he tried to run, my dad said he got caught. His captors took him to a building where he was given a cigarette and a water. Then he was interrogated and a couple burly guys beat the mess out of him.
Once he was released into a cell, he found the other guys who hid out during the exercise. Evidently, they were picked up when the all-clear was given. Officers took them to a building where they were given cigarettes and water, then they were interrogated and got the mess beaten out of them.
He finally looked back at us Sunday Schoolers, across the pile of empty wrappers on the table. He said, “See? Either way, same ending. You can try to hide out, try to play it safe, but you don’t learn anything along the way. I mean, if you’re just gonna get a cigarette and a beating when it’s all over, why not try to get the most out of it you can before you get caught?”
Being only fifteen, I was still struggling to get past the dove decapitation, and the terror of imagining his training, and the brand-new awareness that my dad had an interior landscape totally foreign to me. I couldn’t begin to understand what his POW story meant to me, or even to him. I excused myself to get a refill of sweet tea.
My dad “taught” a couple more classes. Two more McDonald’s trips, but no stories. Just coffee and cigarettes and greasy biscuits. Then he told my mom he couldn’t do it anymore.
Soon after, he opened a consignment store. Then, he took up acting for the first time. My mom said it had always been a dream, but lifelong stage fright held him back. He decided he could finally face that fear.
I wish I could say that was the start of a whole new life, and a happy ending. It wasn’t. There were DUIs and mental commitments and the wild swinging of bipolar disorder still on his flight path. But, for a few more years, my dad got back into the pilot seat and took life for another spin.
Looking back, I could define my dad’s life by his failures, but I would only be cheating myself. I’m almost the same age my dad was in that McDonald’s, and I have debacles of my own.
I didn’t join the military, haven’t seen combat, I’ve avoided ever getting pummeled, and I can’t begin to understand the ways that his service during the Vietnam War affected his life. Despite his Sunday School lesson, I tried to play it safe, to hide out, to avoid getting caught. And I ended up having the proverbial mess beaten out of me all the same.
When I was fifteen, my dad’s advice to “get the most out of it you can before you get caught” seemed kind of obvious. (It’s easy to be smart before you actually learn anything.) I now see my dad’s advice is about having the courage to get back out there and play the game again. Even though you know exactly how much it’s gonna hurt at the end, and how little that affects the final outcome, you might squeeze a bit more learning out of life.
As resonant as his ‘get back out there’ message is, though, what means the most to me now is that when he was at his rock bottom it wasn’t old glories that got him through. It was the tough times. Remembering his POW lessons, that’s what gave him hope when his high flying days were over – not the promotional photographs.
That gives me hope because while I don’t have any dazzling achievements, I have plenty of painful lessons. Rather than letting those failures bury me, I might be able to use them – even if it’s just to pass on a little wisdom to kids who are still too young to use it.
Moments after I gave birth to my daughter, my second child, I felt as though a heavy blanket of grief lifted from me. My daughter was born in June 2008, exactly a week before the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death.
The closeness of those two dates held even greater meaning for me because my son had been born in February 2005, just four days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. It seemed like the start of my kids’ lives filled the voids left by my parents.
Holding my newborn daughter in my arms, the sudden sense of completeness gave me confidence that my family wasn’t lost forever. That thought was a relief because the intervening five years felt like living in a black hole.
A few months later, on the Day of the Dead, I made a tribute to my parents at a community event at the Tacoma Art Museum. It was the first time I made a formal effort to honor their passing. Before that, I don’t think I’d been able to accept they were gone.
In the community art space I painted my parents’ initials on a sugar skull and wrapped it in scarlet tissue paper. When I was done, it was mine to take – but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t really a mantlepiece object and I didn’t have a grave to place it on. So I stuffed it in my purse and took it home.
As I pulled up to my house, I saw the red Japanese Maple in my side yard. It had been a tiny sapling when we first moved in, but grew into a beautiful tree over the years. Its leaves were just starting to fall, and I noticed they matched the color of the tissue paper.
When I took the photo above, I half-jokingly named the maple “The Family Tree”.
Since that day, I watch the tree every morning while I drink my coffee. I thought of the roots I put down here in the Northwest, far from my North Carolina home, as it grew tall enough to reach the attic windows of my house. The tree even inspired me to draw, despite the fact that I’m not so good.
The previous homeowner planted the tree just before selling to us. It sits closer to the house than it should. On top of that, the trunk divided very close to the ground. It looked like two trees joined together.
According to my tree book, those two factors put the tree at a serious disadvantage. For years I wondered if it could continue to support both main branches. I fretted over its viability in such tight quarters. Every Spring I would stand in front of the Family Tree and try to carefully, modestly, prudently prune the branches to keep it happy.
Last summer we installed new siding on our home and the tree’s placement made the job harder. The siders wanted to remove it to get easier access to the job. I said no.
For three days I listened to the two men yelling at each other in their native language as they wedged scaffolding in the narrow space between the house and tree, bumping into branches and badly scraping the trunk. I couldn’t understand their words, but I guessed there were plenty of curses being tossed in the tree’s direction.
Before Fall hit last year, most of the Family Tree’s leaves turned dark, curled up, and fell to the ground. While the neighboring green Japanese Maple still fluttered in the breeze, the red maple bared its branches.
This Spring the Family Tree looks sad. Few branches have leaves, most of them are dry and splitting. My research tells me that there’s not a lot I can do to make it come back to life. It will or it won’t, depending on how strong it is.
Last week on Mother’s Day my husband tackled a few jobs for me. First, he took the hand saw to one of the Family Tree’s main trunks. It was dead beyond recovery. Once it was cut off, the remaining tree looked fragile. Only a few living leaves clung to the tips of the branches.
Although I shouldn’t read so much into landscaping, I sat in the yard looking at the tree and wondered what its death would mean for my own extended family. When I left North Carolina back in 1999 I didn’t think it would be forever. I thought I’d go back in a few years.
I tried to hold on to my connections down South, but the physical distance crept into familial distance. It’s not easy to keep a family together, especially once everyone has kids of their own. At some point, I suppose, we have to focus our energy on growing our own little saplings. Still, as I looked at the drastically diminished Family Tree, I felt the loss of my lineage all over again.
Then, my husband did one more job for me on Mother’s Day. He painted my weary, ragged kitchen cabinets so they could be used as chalkboards. Until we get the money to overhaul the whole room, we figured we could have fun “arting” up the kitchen.
Knowing there’s nothing physical I can do for my Family Tree, I picked up the chalk and created an artistic tribute to it. My daughter saw me drawing and asked what I was doing. I told her the Japanese Maple was in bad shape and I hoped that maybe imagining it coming back to life might help.
That evening I walked into the kitchen to discover a companion drawing on the cabinet. My daughter told me she decided to draw her own picture, “but with the sun, because trees like sunshine, too.” She also told me she put her own message on the drawing, so the tree would know what she meant.
My daughter has a better grasp of the spiritual than me. All my years of school and science and journalism leave me a little embarrassed about fully committing to prayer – or even positive thinking. Just shy of seven-years-old, though, my daughter has an innocent confidence in the power of intention.
This morning I went out to check on my garden and braced myself as I walked up to the Family Tree, afraid I’d see even more branches failing. Instead, I saw something on a part of the tree I thought was long gone. A teensy-tiny leaf pushed its way out of the bark.
The rational part of me can’t credit this new growth to the drawings my daughter and I made. But, thinking back to how my daughter’s birth, her emergence into this world, helped a long-dormant part of me come back to life, I can hope it’s a sign that my Family Tree isn’t yet a goner.
Luckily, I’m not the only one to find inspiration among the trees. Here’s a playlist of songs that fuel my flights of forestry fancy.
Humans are incredibly resilient, considering their squishy makeup. However, you will want to provide your human incarnation with the best food and treatment if you want her to thrive, stay engaged and live as long a life as she possibly can in this chaotic, carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane.
It can be hard to tell humans apart since they all have four limbs and walk upright. Upon closer inspection, you’ll discover your human is unique, with her own character, talents, and genetic variations.
Before you assume your human can be trained to behave in a certain way, or you expect her to fulfill complex commands, get to know her as an individual. Just because she can’t perform an action that may be popular among other humans, she may have her own strengths that will allow her to do any number of actions that only she can do.
Obviously, behavior, command and action are why you acquired a human incarnation. But, humans are not toys. You must address their basic care and feeding before all else. These are deceptively simple needs that can lead to the most chaotic, quantum-level disasters if they are not addressed every single day.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of acquiring a human incarnation is that you must assume occupancy before you can provide your organism with these basic requirements by yourself. Thus, other humans must provide your needs. Some humans are better at this than others.
Unless your human carefully evaluates the care she learned from her first human contacts, she may simply perpetuate bad self-treatment, thinking it is the best for her. As a result, you may find yourself at a time in your existence where your human incarnation is in pretty lousy shape with no real clue how to take good care of herself.
This brief, modest Guide attempts to provide a few practical tips for daily maintenance and troubleshooting of your human existence. Remember, this life does not come with an extended warranty – or a money-back guarantee.
The very first skill your human incarnation must learn is sucking in and blowing out air. If mastered, this task will occupy every moment of your human’s life.
If you find something is amiss with your human, she isn’t responding well or is acting unusual, check with her breathing before all else. While there will be times when your human does not exchange air, that only happens when something is creating a significant challenge to your human, like swimming underwater, running from a tiger or carrying stinky garbage to the alley.
You may quickly resolve many, many issues with human incarnation by rebooting her breathing. Remember, breathing is sucking in and blowing out air. Often, the human neglects one or the other task. Take the time to guide your human slowly through each stage of the breath.
Refrain from mocking or judging your human for forgetting this most basic task. Occupying a mortal existence AND maintaining her constant function is a lot harder than it looks from the outside.
Humans live almost exclusively on dry land, but don’t be fooled. They are water-based organisms. Rather than swimming in the liquid so essential to their existence, they carry their ocean inside of them. This is terribly inefficient as every action humans take, including breathing, depletes their water reserves.
Humans must constantly replenish their cellular sea. The great challenge for watering a human incarnation is that, unlike breathing, this cannot be accomplished without a conscious effort.
She must seek out, procure, and consume water, often taking time away from far more entertaining and seemingly important tasks. And yet, if she does not monitor and maintain her water levels, all those far more entertaining and seemingly important tasks will take on the challenge level of running from a tiger – or carrying stinky garbage to the alley.
Do your human a favor, keep her interior ocean full of clean water. Since humans tend to resist their best care (hence the need for this Guide), you may find it easier to camouflage the delivery of this liquid life essence in an entertaining and changing mix of flavors, vessels and locations.
The most difficult and yet very first step to fulfill this basic need is identifying food. Your human incarnation encounters an infinite amount of matter on a daily basis, much of which can fit in her mouth, some of which can pass through her organism without causing death, and very little of which will actually keep her existence operating at optimum levels.
To make the whole matter of identifying food matter more difficult, there are many other humans who produce matter that looks exactly like food, but is not, in fact, anything that should really pass through the biological engine that keeps your human alive. This category of matter includes things like rubber cheeseburgers, fast-food, and the Wienermobile.
The core challenge of identifying food is so great that some humans dedicate their lives to the answer, some build religious belief systems around it, and some spend great amounts of money to fool other humans into believing their definition of food. (Curiously, all of these apply to the Wienermobile.)
With this in mind, if your human incarnation wants to perform other actions beyond defining food, she might aim to acquire nutrition that has passed through as few human hands as possible. Food does not come from humans, it comes from the sun.
Plants, being far more grounded than humans, chose to keep solar energy transfer as simple as possible. They adopted photosynthesis. Humans, already being willing to walk around in their own personal ocean, chose to harvest their solar fuel from other organisms. It’s only incidental that this action allowed humans to get back at those smug plants.
Since plants are dependent on the up-again, down-again sun cycle, humans sometimes harvest their solar energy from other animals who store the energy they took from plants in the form of delicious meat hanging all over their bones. However, the topic of eating animals is an express ticket right back to the battle over defining food (and oddly back again to the Wienermobile).
To steer clear of the Wienermobile conundrum altogether, this Guide advocates a close examination of the way anything claiming to be food affects the operation of your human incarnation. If your human is performing poorly or malfunctioning, you may need to evaluate what she has identified as food and help her develop a definition that serves her biological engine better.
Once your human incarnation is comfortably breathing, hydrated and fed, she must face the unending awareness that her continued existence is under constant threat of attacks on a microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic, and even virtual level. Many humans complain loudly – and frequently – about their lot in such a chaotic universal plane, despite the perks of being carbon-based.
This Guide takes the attitude that it’s a little late to argue the contract of existence. Keep in mind that even stars explode. If they didn’t, you never would have all that squishy carbon to assemble into a body to occupy. The best thing is to make the most of the peaceful times between attacks on the microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic and even virtual levels.
Since there is simply no way to permanently secure your human incarnation, even though it is one of her most basic needs, it may be helpful to remind your human frequently about all the things that are secure in her life. If you’ve already addressed her breathing, water, and food, these are good things to point out to her.
Threats from tigers, stinky garbage that needs to be taken to the alley, or anything that compromises your human’s ability to pursue the next three basic needs, must be addressed. The action to be taken can span the widest range of human behavior: running away, shutting the door, making a witty retort, putting a foot in a delicate place on another human’s body, or even breaking a societal dependence on fossil fuels. Like with food, entire human civilizations have risen and fallen and been mocked for centuries afterward because of their approach to perceived threats.
With that in mind, take the time to understand the cultural context of your human incarnation to determine how her security could be compromised by forces beyond her control. Although it contradicts many powerful human empires, this Guide takes the stand that anything that violates your incarnation’s physical body and degrades her existence can most certainly be identified as a security threat that requires attention and correction.
(Even though the Weinermobile fits these parameters, please note that this Guide is referring as well to oppression that eclipses the visual and conceptual blight of mobile processed meats.)
Your human incarnation is limited in her ability to completely secure her existence, especially considering the constant threat of attacks on a microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic and even virtual level, but giving her a clear and compassionate assessment of her security level is an essential component of maintaining her well-being.
Having satisfied basic care up to this point, most human beings are ready for action. Paradoxically, action may be the last thing they need. With the possibilities of carbon-based activity before your human incarnation, she may ignore the most essential source of her lifelong energy: rest.
Human resilience enables all of them to function and perform commands even if they are desperately tired. In challenging situations, like tigers, stinky garbage, or fleeing the Weinermobile, your human can tap into reserves that give her the ability to get herself to safety. This is why it is helpful to address security before rest.
Once secure, though, your human incarnation may be reluctant to surrender the energy of emergency. She may avoid sleeping, reclining, even sitting down, simply because rest can feel like dying.
To be sure, sleep is a weird state for the human incarnation. She must deny herself the use of her four limbs, relinquish even her sight, and enter a state of suspended animation, unaware of her physical surroundings. Wired as they are for movement and command, it’s no wonder humans try to deny this basic need. It only reminds them of their limited existence.
This is why it is so very important that you provide your human incarnation with consistent, adequate periods of rest and deep sleep, even if she says she isn’t tired. What humans cannot see is that deep inside their organism, rest gives their operational systems time to both repair and build new networks of information and processing that will enable them to perform actions and commands in ever-better ways.
Regarding Dreams: Perhaps the most vexing aspect of sleep for the human incarnation is dreams. Not only must she enter the dream world without her carbon-based body, she must confront bizarre, illogical, and frequently frightening distortions of her own life.
There is simply no way around this.
Your human will function best if you give her some positive, assuring explanation for these surreal mind movies. Only you can determine what will work best for her, but dreams could be anything from neural processing to astral visits to the spirit world.
Have fun with it.
The human incarnation provides you with a solid, yet squishy, carbon boundary. This makes it necessary to connect with other incarnations physically, as it is exceptionally difficult to simply drift into any other organism’s consciousness. In fact, companionship, the sharing of existential space with another being, is an essential element of your human’s care.
It may be helpful to remember that your human incarnation gained entry into this existence through the body of another human incarnation. Connection with another being gave her life and was necessary to sustain her life when very young. Companionship defines her experience of existence.
Depending of her developmental stage and unique characteristics, though, that companionship may take many different forms. Your human incarnation may crave close proximity with a single other human, or she may eagerly seek out connections with many, many different humans, or she may find companionship with animals, plants, even the Weinermobile. To point out a pattern, companionship can have many different definitions.
This Guide encourages you to allow your human incarnation a wide interpretation of companionship, depending on her current life situation and what allows her to thrive, stay engaged and live as long a life as she possibly can in this chaotic, carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane.
Whatever definition suits her, provide your human with the experience of companionship every day.
At this point in your human incarnation’s care, she can effectively fulfill most any behavior, command or action that falls within her unique existential skill set. This is when it may be most tempting to set her to the tasks that drove you to occupy human existence in the first place. Indeed, it may be necessary for her to go straight to work. Keep in mind, though, that the importance of playing cannot be overlooked.
This carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane, despite being chaotic, operates through systems. Any action or command given to your human must comply with concurrent systems of gravitational orbits, tectonic shifts, hormonal cycles, and even more terrifying forces like the touring schedule of the Wienermobile.
It is impossible for a human to know the most effective and successful way to accomplish anything without first knowing the system in which she operates. This is what play does for your human. Through playing, she gets the chance to explore and experiment with many different systems, understand similarities between systems, and learn more about her unique skills and talents. Those experiences are critical for her to be able to actually get anything really useful done.
Once again, the definition of play is something you must discover for your unique human incarnation. There are humans who find play in pushing tiny stones around a square board, others delight in pushing other humans around a square mat, and still others pursue games that having nothing whatsoever to do with pushing. (Some people even pursue play by writing Guides to Caring for Your Human Incarnation.)
We expect an awful lot of humans, considering they are such water-soaked, squishy, and needy organisms. It’s a testament to their stout nature that they will fulfill behavior, command and action even when their most basic care and feeding is woefully denied.
Too often, we fail to realize what our human incarnations might accomplish, the marvelous secrets they might unlock about this plane of existence, if treated with care and attention. However, it’s never too late to make life better for them.
No matter how busted-up or run-down your human incarnation may be when you find yourself in the position to consistently supply these basic needs, you’ll be amazed how she rises to the very fullest potential of the life remaining to her carbon-based body. What’s more, you may find that your human’s unique skills and characteristics will shine in new ways, enabling her to spread her life energy beyond the limits of her skin boundary, even improving the lives of other humans.
Life does not come with an extended warranty – or a money-back guarantee – so when it comes to existence on this universal plane, your human incarnation can use all the kindness she can get.
My daughter and I discovered the Wienermobile parked at our regular grocery store.
As much as I want to avoid being a helicopter parent, the world doesn’t help me much. If I am supposed to let my kids take risks then someone needs to do something about sharp corners and dangerous strangers and gravity.
Things aren’t like they were in 70’s, when I grew up. We lived in a small town where I could bike around a little lake to the library and drugstore by myself, without a helmet. However, when I think back farther than childhood nostalgia, I recall how many kids in that town were paralyzed in accidents, were viciously attacked by dogs, and died in car crashes. The world wasn’t any less dangerous. I think we simply have a lower tolerance for tragic loss these days.
For all the times I have felt silly for being so protective, something like the #3 most-viewed post of 2014 happens.
originally posted July 18, 2014
A friend and I took our kids camping at Cape Disappointment, Washington in early July. The area clocks in about 106 days of fog every year, so our chances of enjoying a sunny beach trip were slim. Plus, we had three kids under 10 between two moms. We didn’t expect it to be relaxing, and I took the State Park name as a reminder to keep my expectations low.
When we arrived, everyone from the park ranger to the store clerk to fellow campers warned us, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.” It may look inviting, but sneaker waves and rip tides make it treacherous.
From our campsite, we could hear the roar of the Pacific, sounding like an Interstate full of cars. Added to the usual camping hazards – fire, axes, climbing trees, strange dogs, mosquitos, molten marshmallows, etc. – I anticipated 48 hours of lifeguard duty. My mantra of the trip looked to be, “Stop, Don’t Do That, Watch Out!”
My friend is a seasoned camper. I am not. She brings all the gear and know-how. I bring extra food and complaining.
As we set up the tent and unloaded equipment and fielded a thousand requests for risky adventures, I groused about how much it cost – mentally, emotionally, physically and financially – to give our kids happy memories. Luckily, after fourteen years as friends, my companion knew how to deal with me.
“The first thing you have to do is get over the injustice of it all.” We were talking about dealing with intense kids, our kids, the kind of kids who fulfill the curses our own mothers put on us when we tried their patience.
She told me she had to let go of the fact that children will find every flaw in a system and exploit it to their fullest advantage. And, there’s no way to enforce every rule, all the time, with complete accountability. Following rules is not a natural state of being. So, kids demand eternal vigilance from parents. A moment of inattention can result in tragic loss.
Motherhood requires personal payments of blood and pain and humiliation for the public profit of well-adjusted, vibrant, creative and productive adults. If you expect huge personal returns, you might be unhappy with the balance sheet. It’s a sketchy investment, and my friend advised that mothering was more manageable when she made peace with that fact.
I listened to her. Then I poured us each a jelly jar of wine. Once my glass was half-full, I decided to give her crazy idea a shot. I told myself that for the next 45 hours I would let go of the injustice of it all.
By this time, we had a campfire going and we had to negotiate the acceptable parameters for stick burning and log poking. It’s all too easy to go from a little stoking to wielding a torch. In exchange for temperance around the flames, the kids demanded a spooky story. I pointed to my now half-empty glass, “Y’all are big enough, why don’t you tell a story yourself?”
My friend and I were entertained as her son, 8, and my son and daughter, 9 and 6, respectively, struggled to scare one another.
“It all happened at an abandoned toy store,” the 8 year old had the best grip on pint-sized terror. “These kids found it and inside… hanging from the ceiling… was a Barbie doll… WITH ONE EYE. Only, she could hypnotize people. And she made them… STRANGLE THE OTHER TOYS! She was possessed by a ghost who made her do it.”
“That’s not really spooky. It’s more… gruesome,” the 9 year old assumed the role of critic. When pressed to make up his own tale, he suggested his sister should try first.
The 6 year old started talking low and whispery. But, it became clear she was just telling the same story as the 8 year old. The boys shouted her down and she threw her hands in the air, “What?? That voice was totally scary.”
Finally, they joined in a chorus to beg me to tell them a story. I didn’t have one. But, I figured kids without a television or tablet would be too desperate for entertainment to judge harshly.
So, I drained my jelly jar and launched in with a seed of an idea, a classic story starter. “Do y’all know how Cape Disappointment got its name?” The kids sucked on their juice boxes and shook their heads. I didn’t know, either, but I thought I’d see what I could make up on the fly.
“It happened more than 100 years ago, back in 1889. A lot of people from back East were moving out here to start new lives. They walked across the country or they took a boat to get here. Either way, it was a loooooong journey. On one of the boats, three kids traveled with their families. They were coming from… New Jersey.”
The 8 year old jumped in, “I’ve been to New Jersey. My mom’s from there. We went to the beach.”
I raised my eyebrows, “Interesting, because that’s the exact beach where the kids left on the boat.”
“From the boardwalk?”
“Yes, those three kids walked that exact boardwalk to get on the boat.” Sometimes kids make a great, gullible audience.
My 9 year old spoke up, “Hang on. WE’RE three kids. How old were they?” He threatened to bust my tale before it got started.
“I don’t know. I just know when they were born. Let’s see… one boy was born in 1881, another boy in 1880… and his sister in 1883. What would that make them?”
Much finger counting commenced and the 9 year old reported in awe, “Oh. My. Gosh. They were the same age as we are!”
The 8 year old came dangerously close to wising up, “Yeah, I’ve heard this story before. At the library. It will be all about us, really. That’s how the story’s told.”
I knew I was about to lose them. “Really? Huh. Well, I don’t know what story you heard, but all I know how to do is tell the story as I know it. It didn’t occur to me that the kids were like y’all. You may not think you’re all that similar once you hear what happened to them.”
Then, I stopped pulling punches and let my imagination entertain ideas that would even scare me.
“So, the kids boarded a boat in New Jersey and sailed down the East Coast, down along South America, around Cape Horn, back up along the West Coast, past Mexico, past California and they got as far as right off this beach, out in the ocean. They were on their way to Seattle to start new lives, working and going to school and all that.”
The 8 year old jumped in again, “Hey! I live in Seattle!”
“They sailed along this Cape one night and a huge storm blew in. Black rain clouds blotted out the stars, the wind whipped the water to twenty-foot swells. The ship rocked side to side. The sails almost dipped into the water. The weather threatened to sink the ship. Everyone scrambled for the life boats, women and children first. It was chaos and the three kids got separated from their mothers. A sailor grabbed them by the collars and threw them into a life boat… all by themselves. He put oars in their hands and told them to row for shore, ‘JUST DON’T STOP PADDLING!’
And then, the kids were out on the water, all alone. They frantically paddled, but the storm waves knocked them so much that they didn’t even know which direction to go. One by one, the wind tore the oars out of their hands. And then, they felt a BUMP on the bottom of their little boat. Then again. BUMP! All three children peered over the edge of the life boat and saw underneath them… a WHALE. It was pushing them to shore. Somehow, the whale kept them from capsizing and got them as close to shore as the breakers. Any closer and the whale would have been stuck. A wave lifted their boat toward the beach. And when it looked like they were almost safe, another wave, a SNEAKER WAVE, smashed into their little boat and they all spilled into the water. The children tumbled in the breakers and gasped for air, but instead got mouthfuls of salt and wet sand. They thrashed and kicked, but the waves beat them back down.
The next thing any of them knew, they were sprawled out on the beach, soaking wet, clothes torn, bare feet. They managed to find one another and they huddled together, shivering, until the sun rose up out of the forest. The morning was beautiful, warm, gentle.
The ocean’s roar fell to a whisper.
The three children were hungry and went searching in the woods. They found berries and mushrooms. Back at the beach, an eagle swooped low and dropped a fish – still wriggling – at their feet. Since they had all seen their mothers prepare fish, they knew what to do with it. Only, they couldn’t build a fire. So they just ate the fish raw. And it was pretty good.
By late morning, the children were feeling… kind of good. Most of the time, they were treated like little kids. But, they saw they survived the worst, most scary night and lived to see the sun rise again. The animals seemed to help them, so maybe they weren’t totally alone. Soon, they were making plans for new lives – all on their own.
They called it, ‘Kidtopia’. It would have a queen and two kings. They planned to climb the rocky cliffs and build a marvelous castle overlooking the ocean. They started to even feel a little excited. Living on their own, by their own rules, no one to tell them what to do, meeting the animals and running free of clothes and chores. And just as they started to sing the new National Anthem of Kidtopia, they heard someone yelling.
Then they heard two people yelling. Then, they could see two women, way in the distance, running toward them.
They recognized the coats and long dark hair of their mothers.
The children ran to meet their mothers and hugged them long and hard. Then, their mothers told them that, miraculously, everyone survived. Even the ship weathered the storm and would be ready to sail again in a day’s time.
And their mothers said, ‘Wonderful news, we can row back to the ship and still make it to Seattle in time for all of you to… START SCHOOL!’
And do you know how those children felt?”
My 9 year old said, “Pretty bad.” My 6 year old groaned. The 8 year old said, “NOOOOO!”
I said, “Yeah, they were DISAPPOINTED.”
The next day we did our best to fulfill the kids’ wishes and do everything the Park had to offer. Sand castles and scooter rides and meeting every other child in the campground. Having been admonished to only swim at the mouth of the Columbia River, never in the ocean, we let the kids jump the smallest waves at the very edge of the water on a beach called Waikiki. (It offers little competition to its Hawaiian namesake.) They claimed the land and renamed it, ‘Kidtopia’.
Through it all, my friend and I were hawk mothers. We called out when they climbed too high on the rocks, we swooped in when they got in water over their knees. We laid a blanket in the sand and barely sat on it because the kids kept finding some new danger, like climbing the creaky driftwood sculptures people built on the beach.
During the five minutes we both happened to get off our feet, we each wondered if we were being too careful, if we should just lay off, not worry so much. Then, we watched a Coast Guard boat speed across the horizon, heading north, so fast that it caught air as it cut across the choppy waves.
When we got back to our campsite late in the afternoon we couldn’t hear the ocean. Instead, the air was full of the sound of helicopters. My friend is a reporter, and a news hound to the core. She followed the sounds back to the beach to see what was happening. I took kid patrol, continuing my mantra, “Stop, Don’t Do That, Watch Out!”
After a half-hour my friend came back, sadness on her face. No one official was on the beach, but the talk among the crowd was that two pre-teens had been swimming in the ocean and a sneaker wave pulled them out to sea. The helicopters were searching for them. As she told me this, another helicopter joined the search, flying low over our heads on its way to the beach.
We followed our camp schedule for the rest of the night, burgers on the grill, campfire, s’mores, scooter time, tree climbing, tooth brushing, but no story. That night the story was still in process.
Three hours after the search started, the helicopters still circled. Four hours after the search started, the helicopters still circled. I climbed into my sleeping bag, my children on either side of me in their bags. They grabbed my hands and put their heads on my shoulders. I listened to the helicopters and thought about the mother of those children.
Everyone warned us not to swim in the ocean. Had anyone warned her? Did she even know her kids had gone in the water? Was this the result of one moment of inattention? Did she see it happen? Was she listening to the helicopters, too?
I wrapped my arms around my kids and pulled them in tight. I prayed for the other mother whose children were alone in the ocean. I wished for them to have a benevolent whale, a miraculous salvation.
My son was four years old before he asked me, “Mom, do you have parents?” I said, “I do, but they died before you were born.” Thus began The Day Of Big Questions.
From morning till late afternoon, in between PBS shows and over PB&J, I fielded, “Why did they die?”, “How did they die?”, “Did they know they were dying?”, “Who else dies?”, “Does it hurt?”, “Do we HAVE to die?”, and repeatedly, “HOW do you die? I mean, what happens?”. I gave him as simple an answer to each one as I possibly could – but I’m not so good at simple answers. Inevitably, my responses would wander into philosophical possibilities, or a survey of world religions, or scientific explanations.
Finally, as the setting sun bathed the living room in a golden light, he said, “But, if all we do is die in the end, then why even live in the first place?!?” I told him, “That’s a question almost every human has asked. But, the real answer is up to you. Why do you think we live?”
He thought for a minute, “Well… I think it’s to… swim… and to laugh… and to love. Yeah, I think that’s why we live. How about you, mom?”
I thought for a minute. Swimming, laughing, and loving all sounded like great reasons. I said, “I’m going with your answer. That’s real good one.”
He said, “I love this game! Let’s play “Why Do We Live” again!!” And so we spent the next half-hour naming off all the experiences that make life worth living.
Within a few days, my son was on to another obsession. I think it was Thomas the Tank Engine. I, however, continue to play the “Why Do We Live” game to this day. It’s a wonderful meditation when melancholy pays me a visit.
I thought of that day when I wrote the post that occupies the #4 spot on my 2014 Top 10. Kids need lots of guidance and supervision, but as often as not, I find raising them ends up teaching me more about myself.
originally published on March 7, 2014
The worksheet asked third graders to determine whether creatures and characters were “real” or “fantasy”. My son made aggressive air quotes around the words as he told me about the assignment. His voice trembled with outrage, “There were pictures of dragons and fairies and unicorns and the whole thing was about how those things weren’t really real!”
The assignment was light-hearted busy work during his weekly academic enrichment class. It was supposed to fill time before lunch, but my son took it as a personal affront.
“I walked up to my teacher’s desk and told her I couldn’t do the worksheet because of my beliefs.”
I braced myself for the rest of his story, wondering if I would soon receive a call from his teacher. Growing up in a small Southern town, there was a distinct line between what was acceptable and what was devil worship. I learned early on to demarcate imagination from faith, never talking about my fascination with unicorns and magic in church or in school.
When I was in third grade, we had a special guest come into our class to tell us how to identify Satanists and to be aware how they were trying to snatch us from our loving families. It was 1982. Parents worried about the mental and moral damage caused by Ozzy Osbourne, Procter& Gamble and games like Dungeon & Dragons. This was the same year that the made-for-TV movie “Mazes and Monsters” aired. The boundary between reality and fantasy had to be firm, or else we would all end up trapped in our imaginary worlds, like poor Tom Hanks.
As careful as I had to be in public arenas, at home my mother welcomed conversations about the nature of reality. I could ask her all the questions that made my Sunday School teacher go pale. And if I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t accept something, she made it clear that I had to develop my own understanding of the world, that my faith could be my own.
My mother identified as a Christian without reservation, but she loved to probe the greater mysteries. She read Edgar Cayce. She talked about the possibility of multiple planes of existence, “A train could be rushing through this room right now in another dimension.” She would pose provocative questions.
In one Bible study she posited that Jesus was reincarnated, “The Bible says that Jesus knew what it was to be human in every way, but he didn’t do everything that humans do in his life. He didn’t kill, he didn’t steal, he didn’t marry. How could he know? What if,” she would get a twinkle in her eye when she asked ‘what if’, “What if Jesus lived before? What if Jesus had been Adam, Noah, Abraham, David? He would have had all those very human experiences, so when he came back as Savior, he could truly know what it meant to be human.” The members of her group shifted uncomfortably and let her question hang in the air without response. My mother told me about it with a sense of a humor, “I guess they hadn’t thought of that before.”
In 1984 “The Neverending Story” came out. My mom and I watched it together. We got it on Beta tape (my mother was insistent that Betamax was superior to VHS and that she would only get the best technology) and watched it over and over, especially the saddest part.
“It’s the Swamp of Despair!” She told me about “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the 17th century Christian allegory that included a swamp where the hero sinks under the weight of his fears and guilt. She bought me my own copy of the book so we could discuss the significance of the image in relation to our real lives. “That’s what depression is, Megan. It will pull you under, but you have to have faith that you will be rescued, even when it all seems hopeless. That swamp isn’t reality, it’s not more powerful than God’s love.”
For years afterward, we would talk about our challenges in terms of the fantastic characters and situations of “The Neverending Story”, especially the idea that wishes, our hopes for the world, are the things that make that the future. All of my mother’s words carried more weight because she talked to me from her electric cart, unable to walk or work due to Multiple Sclerosis. She knew what it was to be immobilized, to lose the ability to meet the rest of the world, to feel stuck and alone due to circumstances beyond her control.
Reality for her was often full of pain and limitations, so she fiercely protected the freedom to think what she wanted, to believe in the ideas that kept her going through her own Swamp of Despair. Even though she couldn’t take me out to parks or on long trips, she helped me travel the galaxy and explore alternate dimensions through imagination. And she always made clear, “We don’t really know what’s real and what isn’t. With God, anything is possible.” It’s a gift I treasure, a lesson that shaped how I see the world.
Still, I have struggled with my son’s vivid fantasy world. When he was in kindergarten, I’d interrupt his flights of fancy to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating or expecting an actual dragon to be hiding behind the tree. He’d look at me with disappointment and concern, “I know Mom. It’s IMAGINATION.” I can’t shake that early warning about Tom Hanks, I guess.
My instinct is to tell him to hide his “beliefs”, downplay its importance to him, couch it in terms that won’t upset people. I imagine the judgment of my upbringing and don’t want him to get labeled or outcast. Perhaps even more, I don’t want to be accused of being a bad mother. That’s why I’ve been trying to remember my own mother, to reach back to the years before she died, before she got so sick that even fantasy couldn’t break through the pain and disability. What would she say to my nine-year-old son?
I didn’t take detailed notes of her words, I didn’t get a hard drive of her brain, I don’t yet have a phone that makes calls to the afterlife (iSeance, anyone?). If I want my son to learn from the woman who taught so much to me, to know her as more than just a picture in a frame, I have to conjure her from my memories. To have her wisdom and presence in the present, I can’t worry about what fits societal norms for “reality”. The only way to keep her real in my life is through fantasy.
When my son told me about protesting his assignment, he wasn’t looking for approval or advice. He felt confident about his actions, firm in standing up for his right to maintain his “beliefs”.
I tried to remain neutral, allowing the incident to be his own, “How did your teacher respond?”
He said, “She said she knows plenty of people who can see things that aren’t supposed to be real. She said she has friends who say they can see angels, and she believes them. Then she gave me a math problem that was so hard it took me till lunch to figure it out!”
That was it. He ran into the other room to play Minecraft. Even though I was prepared to tell him all about what my mother told me, he didn’t need it. He was fine in his “beliefs”. I was the one who was having a problem. I was the one who needed advice on how to handle being woo-woo without apology.
So I asked myself, “What would my mother say to me?”
My six-year-old lost her first tooth on Christmas Eve. Two days later my nine-year-old son lost a tooth as well.
Sibling rivalry exists even below the gum line.
Waiting for those teeth to break free, I found myself repeating the kind of advice I got when I was giving birth.
“It will happen in its own time.”
“Don’t try to rush it or it will just hurt more.”
“Yes, there is pain, but it will pass.”
“You’re not dying. This is a natural part of living.”
“The waiting is the hardest part.”
“Don’t panic. Just breathe.”
“Something new wants to be born, that’s why your body is changing.”
“You did it! Bravo!”
No one required an epidural, luckily. Even so, I remembered why I wrote the #5 most-viewed post of 2014.
Whether it’s losing a tooth, remodeling the kitchen, going to slay a dragon, or starting a new career, the pain, concentration and screaming reward of any new journey has a lot in common with having a baby. For years, I’ve wanted to write the stories that talk to me in my head, but I just couldn’t push them out. Finally, last February I decided the only way to get over the first, big step was to revisit an experience that I wanted to forget.
originally published February 2, 2014
My son turned nine yesterday and I’ve never written down his birth story.
I hoped I could give him a tale of more courage and less pride,
but I hate lying to kids.
By the time this photo was taken, I was surprised either one of us was alive. It wasn’t the most traumatic birth, but my midwife repeatedly told me that it was “the lousiest labor I’ve seen in a while”.
It started at 8:00 am on January 31, 2005 with a small white pill.
Having been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I was lucky that my care providers were willing to let me go forty-one weeks, one week past my due date. Even though I had no other complications, statistics showed that my risk of having a baby too large to birth vaginally got significantly higher the longer the pregnancy went. I fought to postpone intervention since my 38th week, but finally agreed to try inducing labor by taking the drug Cytotec. It’s no longer approved for labor induction, but at the time it was considered a less extreme method than Pitocin.
My older sister flew out from North Carolina to be with me, my husband was by my side and my doula was on call as I sat in the Labor & Delivery Suite of St. Joe’s Hospital in Tacoma. They watched me swallow the pill. Then, we were free to leave and wait for the magic to happen.
On the way out of the hospital we saw another couple in the elevator. The mom-to-be looked discouraged. She had also tried Cytotec, but her labor didn’t start. She was probably going to get even more intervention. I prayed that I wouldn’t. All I wanted was a beautiful, transcendent birth where everything went exactly according to my plan.
My husband and I had taken Bradley Method classes to prepare and I was determined to do the whole thing without any medication. My older sister recommended I take Bradley classes because they had helped her deliver her second two kids naturally after an emergency C-section with her first.
A few weeks earlier I told my midwife I was only worried about the pain, whether I could handle it. She looked at me with a blank face and said, “Well, it’s gonna hurt.” I couldn’t believe her callousness.
My doula, who had four kids of her own, told me to moderate my expectations. She pointed to her own difficult labors, each with complications that required intervention. Only on her fourth birth was she able to deliver according to her wishes, and her description of that one was nothing like the calm, spiritual water birth I felt was necessary to bring my first child into the world. I wondered why my doula was so discouraging, whether she doubted I was strong enough to handle it.
Up until this point in my life, I had been able to will my way through most every challenge. Perhaps because I’m an Aries I found that putting my head down, setting my jaw and plowing forward was an excellent method for getting anything done. I saw no reason that giving birth would be any different. So, when I started getting contractions about 5:00 pm while we walked the neighborhood, I thought, “Bring it on.”
Back in my living room we put Jill Scott’s “Golden” on the stereo.
Feel free to take the time to listen to that song and imagine a kid emerging to his first breath with a voice like that singing about living life like it’s golden.
I felt the first waves of labor and could see the radiant miracle.
If you’d like to keep that image, stop reading here.
Within a couple of hours the contractions got more intense, piling one on top of another. I ended up sitting on the stairs of our house, moaning and rocking. The pain was intense enough that I couldn’t talk or smile or focus on anything except breathing. That’s usually a good indicator that labor is at its peak, the baby’s coming soon.
We packed up and went to the hospital about 10:00 pm. The general agreement was that I’d have the baby by midnight. As we checked in at the front desk, I was doubled over in a wheelchair, moaning loudly. The attendant felt certain I might give birth in the hallway. I only remember the process by people’s voices, I held my face in my hands.
The staff got me into a delivery room, one with a large tub just like I hoped. It seemed like I would get that water birth after all.
Based on my physical state, my midwife said, “I see you’re in pain and I can offer you this comfort, it looks like you’re about to be over with this soon.” But when they got my clothes off and my midwife checked my cervix, I had only dilated 2 centimeters.
The magic number in birth is 10 centimeters. When the cervix is dilated 10 centimeters, the uterus is ready for the baby to be pushed out. Before I got pregnant I didn’t realize that the real hard work and the worst pain of having a baby comes from that dilation. To find out that I was only twenty percent of the way, that everything so far had yielded so little progress, I collapsed onto the bed.
When the staff hooked me up to the labor monitor, the green lines on the black screen showed that my contractions were irregular, random and ineffective. This is the first time I heard my midwife use the term “lousy” with my labor. No one ever said the use of Cyctotec could have been the problem, although it might have contributed. It was used off-label at the time and was known to occasionally induce very hard labors. Instead, I heard “lousy” and thought she was describing me, my efforts at laboring.
I reached deep into my head and screwed down my intention as far as it would go. I told myself I’d make it through the birth without any more medication or I would die. I would not accept that my first act as a mother was “lousy”.
The next ten hours sucked for everyone on that floor of the hospital. I was on the birthing ball, on my knees, in the tub, on the toilet, in the shower, on the bed, never in any clothes. I cried and moaned my way through rounds of contractions that didn’t get me any closer to the magic 10. My body wasn’t following a standard trajectory.
The pain was the worst in my back. My midwife came to the conclusion that the baby wasn’t in the best position. My uterus was spinning him around to get him into the right place. I had the dreaded BACK LABOR.
When I was preparing for natural childbirth, I often tried to imagine the pain. I thought that as long as it wasn’t like getting cut in half with a chainsaw I could probably handle it. For me, back labor was *exactly* like getting cut in half with a chainsaw. I knew I had brought it on myself, like the Ghostbusters getting the Stay-Puft marshmallow man as their destructor.
That night is a blur of faces and voices in my memory, but I do remember wondering if they’d let me leave it all for a few minutes. I thought someone had the authority to let me press pause, put on a coat, go home for a little, especially if I could promise, promise, promise to come back and pick up right where I left off in a day or two. In truth, there was no relief.
My sister got a break and went out to the nurses station in the center of the floor. My moaning echoed off the concrete floors. One of the nurses shivered and said, “I hate hearing that.” My sister found out it wasn’t because of the labor, but because people claim that floor is haunted and I sounded just like a ghost.
I kept thinking, “Surely this is almost over. Surely if I hold on a little longer it will be done. I have to be strong enough, I have to be. I can’t give up. If I’m not dying, then I can and will do this.” Finally, the sun started to rise and the sky outside the window got brighter. My sister politely closed the blinds, knowing the dawn of a second day would discourage me.
At 8:30 am my midwife said the hospital clock was ticking on my labor. My cervix had only dilated to 3 centimeters. She advised that my bag of waters should be broken to help speed labor. She also wanted to start Pitocin, to push the dilation along. For me, speeding labor and pushing dilation would mean increasing the pain.
I’d been laboring intensely for twelve hours by that time. I had been up all night. I was exhausted by pain and crying and that screw down deep in my head was failing. I knew I had to keep going, that to ask for medication, for relief, was to admit complete failure.
The midwife, the doula, my sister and my husband all sat around me, looking at me intently. It was ultimately my decision. I could say no to anything. They just needed to know what I wanted.
I wanted to be in control. I wanted to show them all I was strong enough to withstand the trial of childbirth. I wanted to be better than “lousy”.
My doula said, “Remember Megan when I said you had to check your expectations? You have worked hard and you still have work to do. This isn’t what you wanted, and you need to make a decision based on what IS happening.” My doula said this as she nursed a migraine that came on during the night, probably due to all my screaming.
I looked at my husband and he just cried. He had been holding my hand, my head, my entire weight at various points the whole night. He had gray hairs that weren’t there the morning before.
I looked at my sister. More than anything, I wanted to do it for her. I wanted to make my sister proud that I could do it just like she did. If I asked for help, if I took pain medication, I felt like I’d let her down. I whispered to her, “I’m sorry. I can’t do any more.”
My sister smiled, “There’s a reason there are pain medications, Megan. You’ve done a lot. No one can say you didn’t work, you didn’t put everything into doing what you could. But, you don’t have to keep doing it this way. What do you need?”
I didn’t want to say it. I had hoped at one point that I’d black out or go into a coma and then they’d have no choice but to drug me and take over. Regardless, I stayed conscious and alert and responsible for my medical decisions. If I was going to get relief, I had to say that I wanted it. For me, asking for help is just about the most painful thing. Labor, as it turned out, was the only thing more painful.
I hung my head in shame and said, “I need something to help me with this pain. If I can have help, something, I would like it now.”
The whole room exhaled, the staff sprang into action. Having admitted the pain was too much, it felt worse than ever. I curled up on my side and didn’t care who poked what or where on me. The screw in my mind, the one that held in place the promise that I would “make it through the birth without medication or I would die”, busted loose. As far as I could reason at that moment, I was dying.
One nurse hooked my IV up to fentanyl. A nurse promised the anesthesiologist would arrive in less than twenty minutes and she counted down every minute until he got there. He made it in less than fifteen. As he prepped my back for the epidural, he muttered, “I don’t know why anyone would want to put up with this pain.” My sister glared at him. I accepted his judgment. It sounded to me like, “Sheesh, why would such a lousy woman put everyone else through this when she clearly couldn’t handle it?”
Then the medication took hold and I passed out, feeling like the next few hours would be my last.
Silence returned. My husband crawled into the birthing tub and took a nap. Everyone else tried to get sleep.
My body and the Pitocin worked together for the next eight hours while I slept.
At 4:00 pm on February 1, 2005, my midwife came back to check on me. I was finally dilated to 10 centimeters. The epidural had worn off enough that I was feeling contractions and could move my legs a little. It was the perfect time to push. But, I had no will.
The hard part of me, the part of me that pushed through everything, that knew how to make things happen no matter the odds, was broken. I said, “I don’t feel like doing anything.” I thought for sure that whatever I did I was going to end up with a C-section.
Then, a new nurse came in to the room. Her name was Kevin. She also happened to be a midwife, but was working as a nurse. She was calm and casually tucked in the sheet on the bed.
She said, “Do you mind if I check and see if you are even able to push? Since you had the epidural, you might not be able to push on your own right now. So, if you can just give it a try, I’ll know if it’s even a good idea to ask you to push.” She reminded me of an elementary school teacher, kind of like my mother. She clearly expected very little of me and very little was exactly what I felt like I could do.
So, I gave a little effort. She said, “Hey! That was a better push than I thought. It may have just been lucky, though. Can you do it a second time?” I took the bait. I pushed a second time to show her what was lucky and what wasn’t.
She said, “You know, you don’t have to push now, your body will get around to it anyway. So, what do you say we take another tiny practice here while you’re rested?” Again, it was so non-committal, the stakes were so low, I figured I could give it a try.
In a few minutes, the tiny practice pushes became bona fide baby pushing and I was surrounded by my husband, my doula, my sister, my midwife and two nurses, all yelling at me, “PUSH!” The shift from low pressure to high pressure was so sudden I felt tricked, but I knew deep down that I needed every one of them giving me as much encouragement as they could.
There was a moment when my son’s heartbeat dropped and the crisis team rolled in with more monitors and oxygen. Kevin had me get on my hands and knees. I was scared. When I’m scared, I make jokes – even if I’m in pain. I made a “Blue Velvet” reference through the oxygen mask to see if anyone would laugh.
Everything about birth seems to hold the specter of death. At any moment, it could all go to shit. And, with all the tubes and the machines and the loved ones around me I kept thinking that the last time I’d been in a hospital, I watched my mother die. I watched my father die four months before that. But, I had never seen life begin. My initial expectations had been for a soft-lit, ecstatic delivery. By that time I just hoped we’d both be alive.
Changing positions worked. My baby’s heartbeat came back strong. The pushing got stronger as my body seemed to get the idea and the contractions worked with me. A nurse wheeled in a giant mirror and asked if I wanted to watch the progress as I pushed the baby out. I said, “OH GOD NO!! I’m barely doing this as it is. No WAY I want to SEE IT!”
My midwife sat between my legs, giving me the play by play. “I see the head! Nope, it’s back in. Push a little further. There’s the top of his head again. Dang, if he just had more hair I’d grab it and pull from this end. One of these pushes should work eventually.”
My sister asked if they had a ‘squat bar’. They did. With my legs propped up by my ears, my husband held my shoulders, my doula looked me in the face and said, “PUSH!!” I cried, “Why are you all so mean to me??” I only kept pushing because I didn’t know what everyone would do to me if I stopped.
At 5:16 pm, when I was sure the midwife was going to call it all off, tell me I was “lousy” at pushing, when I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest and it would be the end of me, my son emerged from my body, eyes wide open. He had his left hand against his chin, like a Jack Benny reaction shot. As his shoulders emerged, he took a huge poop. For me, it was the creepiest slippery fish feeling as the rest of his body slid into the open air.
When they put him on my chest, I recognized my eyes. Through all that time, I forgot that he would be a real human being. I had forgotten everything except trying to survive. And yet, there he was. He was clearly my son. And, despite the whole lousy circumstances of his arrival, I was undeniably his mother.
It was another hour before they wheeled me out of the delivery room, but I must have still had a lot of narcotics in my system. I held my infant son and said to my husband, “Ok, so NEXT time I have a baby…”
This is what the kids gave my husband for Christmas yesterday. If it wasn’t for Homer, we probably wouldn’t ever have family dinners.
The magazines tell me that I should aim for four meals a week around a table together, but what then? If quick-cook meal commercials were correct, we would all explode into hilarious anecdotes, smiling as we chewed our beefy-mac and talked at the same time, toasting one another with our milk glasses. My family does none of that.
I enforced a few years of diligent table dining, complete with “What was the highlight of your day?” conversation starters. No one enjoyed them. The kids pouted and just pushed at their food. My husband and I gave each other tight smiles. We ended up shoveling our plates clean – or not – and then slinking off to our respective evening entertainment.
Then, we discovered the nightly repeats of The Simpsons. With back-to-back episodes at seven AND seven-thirty, for one whole hour a day we all have a common love. Of course there are many jokes the kids miss, and many that we just talk loud over so they won’t hear enough to question. But, there are plenty of episodes that get us talking – even if it’s just about how we DON’T ACT LIKE BART. OKAY??
The laughs draw us to living room to eat, plates perched on TV trays. Sometimes, though, the show seems to have an eerie correspondence with our real lives, like an animated oracle. That’s what I wrote about in the #6 most-viewed post of 2014.
originally published February 15, 2014
Rather than joining the throngs of happy, loving couples eating out on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I celebrated with some quick pasta for the whole family at home. We all sat on the couch and ate on trays in front of the television as we watched the nightly Simpson’s syndication on Seattle’s JOE TV.
Early in the show, Lisa spies a boy at the next table through a crack in a restaurant booth. He’s reading “A Farewell to Arms”.
My husband turned to me and said, “Hey, just like your book!”
I’ve been reading “The Paris Wife”, by Paula McLain. It tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their life together in France during the early 1920’s.
I am not a fan of Hemingway. In his work I’m most likely to identify with the people he hates. As a woman, I feel like I’m not really invited into his world.
A new friend recommended the novel, though. I only agreed to borrow it if she promised that Hemingway didn’t get a whitewash. “‘Cause I think he’s a jerk, okay?” I surprised myself by how emphatic I was, but she said she didn’t like him either and that’s why she wanted me to read it, so she could talk trash about him with someone else. I started reading it a week ago.
In The Simpsons episode, Lisa meets the boy from the booth next door at the dessert buffet. She learns his name is Nick. He quotes Hemingway, Lisa swoons.
Due to my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I don’t know that much about him. But, I felt a little smug at this point in the show because I read in “The Paris Wife” that “Nick Adams” was the main character of many of his short stories about his early life.
Despite my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I did get drawn into the novel about his marriage. There’s a scene in “The Paris Wife” soon after they get married. Ernest reveals to Hadley that he has to sleep with the light on, his World War I flashbacks overwhelm him in the dark.
Hadley recognizes his pain. Her father committed suicide when she was a girl. Hadley stays up all night in a chair by the bed, watching over Ernest like he was a newborn. At that point, my heart opened up for them, two lovers bound together by tragedy.
Once the newlyweds move to Paris, though, I struggled to lose myself in their romance. Living off Hadley’s small trust fund, they rent an apartment with communal piss pots on every stair landing. They only escape the squalor of their neighborhood by going to lunches with extravagantly wealthy friends. Ernest refuses any charity from the rich, but he doesn’t resent having Hadley completely pay his way.
She and Ernest drink to oblivion on most nights. She has little interest in creative work of her own, she dedicates herself to supporting her husband’s dream.
Ernest spends his days writing in seclusion and Hadley keeps house and shops by herself. One day, she walks a block away from the dazzling market vendors to find an alley full of rotten meat and garbage and refuse from the week’s unsold goods.
I laughed out loud at the Simpson’s episode, then, when Lisa joins her new beau at “Le Petite Appétit”. She holds up her hands to block out the vision of Barney puking in the dumpster and Gil bathing in the fountain so she only sees a fantasy of Parisian cafe life with Nick.
I said, “That’s what Hadley had to do! Wait a minute. Holy crap. Did the writers also read “The Paris Wife”?” I checked the broadcast date of the show and cross-referenced it to the release of the book. The show aired early in 2012, the book was first released in 2011. It was possible, and I hoped the writers had read the novel because I was having trouble finishing it.
The deeper the novel goes into the Hemingways’ marriage, the harder it was for me to imagine myself in the world. It’s written in Hadley’s voice and I felt trapped in her sad, outsider view. I kept waiting to see her “as wife and as one’s own woman”, like Entertainment Weekly promised in their front page blurb. It never came.
When Hadley accidentally loses the suitcase that holds all of Ernest’s writing, every last sheet of it, I shut the book. I had to go online to make sure the novelist didn’t make it up. She did not.
In real life, Hadley packed a bag with all of his work, including copies and notes, and it got stolen. Ernest gets mad when she tells him, but not nearly as mad as when she tells him she’s pregnant.
Hadley says in the book that she loves Ernest and is happy just to know he couldn’t do his work without her. I don’t love Hemingway and I was unhappy to suffer any of his terrible personality, even through historical fiction. By the time his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, shows up on the scene, a mistress posing as Hadley’s friend, I was ready to leave the whole love triangle between closed covers.
Even the prospect of trash talking Hemingway couldn’t get me through the rest of the book. I still had eighty pages to go in “The Paris Wife” on Valentine’s Day, when we happened upon the re-broadcast of “The Daughter Also Rises”.
In the final scene, Lisa takes off for a romantic rendezvous with Nick, but things go awry. Grandpa Simpson gets pulled over as he drives them to the beach, Nick pushes Lisa until she says “Ow!”, Nick lets a branch smack her in the face as they run through the underbrush, he offers little help rowing the boat to their romantic island destination and he complains of the cold. As they are just about to kiss, Hadley Richardson shows up in Lisa’s imagination.
Hadley advises Lisa against falling for Nick. Then, Pauline appears in the bubble and agrees that “Tortured writers make lousy husbands.”
I whooped out loud, “What are the chances!? JOE TV ran this episode based on the novel I’m pointedly *not* reading right now!” It felt enough like serendipity to inspire me to read the rest of the book. It had to be good if the Simpsons skewered it.
Before I read the last section, I checked online for any reviews of the episode. I wanted to see how someone else interpreted the satire of the book. Surprisingly, no one mentioned it.
The fan reviews of the episode are negative. I agree it’s a pretty shaggy plot. In fact, I remember seeing it the first time it came out and thinking that I could probably give up my appointment watching of the show. But, I wasn’t reading “The Paris Wife” at the time.
I Googled every which way, but I could only find one single reader comment that even mentioned a connection. In all the Internet, just this:
I stayed up late and read the novel through to the end. It was disappointing.
According to the novel, Hadley never stops loving Ernest. She accepts another man, but when she hears of his suicide decades later, she wistfully returns to romantic memories of their time in France. I only remembered the pissoirs, snobbery, and alcoholism.
As I crawled into bed with my husband, he asked, “Well? What’d you get out of the book?” I thought for a long time, looking for the most spare and true way to relate my reaction and came up with, “Meh.” My expectations for books are probably too high.
I woke up this morning with a bad attitude about reading “The Paris Wife”. I felt suckered into spending those hours giving Hemingway’s persona even more validation. I was pissed that I felt compassion for him when he was young and fragile. It hurt me that Hadley never developed her own creative voice. Worst of all, the writer stayed very close to actual events, so I knew it was all really that sad. What’s the use of historical fiction if you don’t rewrite the worst parts?
That’s when I sought refuge in The Simpsons. We actually bought the episode on Amazon to examine it for any hope.
The episode we saw is called, “The Daughter Also Rises”, but the main plot is about Bart and Milhouse cracking school myths in a parody of “MythBusters”. After they dispel everything, including the classic dead girl in the bathroom mirror, Dolf, the bully, says, “So school is just everything we see?” All the kids walk away morose, very similar to my feeling when I finished the novel.
Bart realizes he has to do something. “I can’t be the one who killed everyone’s fun!”
Milhouse and Groundskeeper WereWillie restore the magical fantasy for Springfield Elementary.
For me, the idea of busting myths made sense of “The Paris Wife”. The author, Paula McLain, pops the illusion of Hemingway the “Champ”. His feats of masculinity come across as desperate acts of self-making, funded by wealthy wives and fueled by the kind of smoke and mirrors publicity that was easier before the days of the World Wide Web.
At the end of “The Daughter Also Rises”, Marge braves water walkers to save Lisa from falling for Nick. Once she gets there, Lisa is just fine. She knows how to take care of herself.
Lisa does get a kiss from a true love, her mother. It’s not romantic, of course, but the whole episode starts with Marge sending Homer off with Bart so she can spend Valentine’s with Lisa.
Nurturing, functional, family love, not really the stuff of great literature, possibly a myth as well, is the prize of the episode. It’s what gave Lisa the self-confidence to see past romantic illusions. It’s what both Hadley and Ernest were missing, and what they couldn’t build together.
While I never fell for Hemingway the writer, I have succumbed to romantic illusions and men who were mostly myth. The dream of a dazzling lifestyle as a celebrated artist has also afflicted me, making me feel like my current situation is as bland as Hadley. But now, I have a different perspective on the gift of spending Valentine’s Day dinner eating on the couch with my husband and children.
File this under ‘blog post talking about a cartoon that’s a satire of a novel that’s a historical fiction account of a famous novelist writing about something that actually happened to him because he wanted to be a famous writer who everyone talked about’.