All posts by tinymantras

Turn it up to 11: A note to my son on his birthday

IMG_2763Today, sweet boy, you are eleven years old – slipping securely into your second decade like an ace. It’s an interesting number that people who like woo things like to watch for on clocks, apparently because events linked to the time 11:11 appear more often than can be explained by chance or coincidence. In Basque, hamaika (“eleven”) has the double meaning of “infinite,” which is a concept being your mom has helped me understand infinitely better, (pretty much).

Eleven. The interval of an octave and a fourth. There are 11 players on a soccer team and 11 guns in a salute to brigadier generals. The eleventh hour is the last opportunity to get something done, and while it may be ill-advised, the truth is that plenty of ingenious and worthwhile things have actually been accomplished during that short span. Messier Object Number Eleven is also known as “The Wild Duck Cluster,” which sounds like something worth seeing. Sunspots last approximately 11 years, and I surely don’t need to tell you a thing about the Apollo 11 mission. It’s the fifth smallest prime number.  It’s also the atomic number of sodium, so maybe you’ll start acting a little bit salty this year, or at least stop face-palming when I let a swear word fly. Canadians seem to especially think 11 is an awesome number. The coin version of the Canadian dollar bill – the loonie – is an 11-sided hendecagon, the maple leaf on their flag has eleven points and clocks featured on Canadian paper money show the time as 11 o’clock.

You are still one of the most deeply learning-driven people I have ever met. This week, you set the Greek alphabet to the Roman alphabet song melody so that you could memorize it. Your purpose for doing this was apparently unknown, even to you, but memorize it you did. In the past year, you re-learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube at increasing speeds, then graduated to the 4 X 4 and 5 x 5. We also started running – you want us to do a 5K together this summer. You are so supportive when I run out of breath, offering me water and encouraging shoulder squeezes, you are so brave and good-humored when you struggle yourself.

During this orbit, you found a passion that rivals your inborn love for astronomy and physics – the piano. What started as a 30-day trial last June escalated into a near obsession by the time the school year arrived. I told you I would keep paying for lessons as long as I didn’t have to bug you to practice. Instead, I ended up feeling conflicted every time I had to urge you to remove your fingers from those keys so you could get some sleep or go to school. The Tetris theme was originally burned into my brain in college playing on a friend’s old Mac Classic computer. Now I hear it in my head, so many times, played by you.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the celestial and quantum have in any way vacated your soul. You were Carl Sagan for Halloween, reciting fragments of the Pale Blue Dot speech as you collected your candy. When we went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson give his splashy Power Point talk, you basically smiled your whole face off for nearly three hours.

We are approaching a time in your life when everything feels a little tougher for me to write about, think about and feel confident about seeing you through. As Buddhists (you still call yourself one too), we believe that every individual has his or her own unique path. There is no time in life that I can think of when this is more obvious than it is during adolescence. Pretty much anyone with a pulse feels a pang of heartbreak just thinking about this bardo period between childhood and adulthood, the ripening uncertainty of all things. Or, to put it more simply, like your cousin once told me, “I’m in puberty now, so that pretty much sucks.”

We’ve had our share of uncertainty and in-between-ness this year, too. Columbus Karma Thesgum Choling, our dharma home since you were a zygote, was burned to the ground by an arsonist in January. I remember rocking and nursing the tiniest you in the back of the shrine room. You circled the coffee table in the basement over and over and over again as a toddler while we listened to dharma talks through a speaker. You and I both took refuge on that dais, where we were also blessed by many teachers. This place, which helped us find peace through some very difficult times, met such a violent end. It’s still hard to process, to not feel attached to what it was and how it felt to be there, even though our faith teaches us non-attachment.

We are also looking at other changes in our lives. We are looking at transforming our family structure to include a person who truly loves us both. This is so many things – happy and scary, sad and wonderful, uncertain but promising. I love the way your heart is completely open to Larry, and the ways that you express it. I love that you’ll lay down for a nap with him and his dogs after a long museum afternoon and sometimes choose to hold his hand instead of mine when we’re walking. You have a lot of adults in your life who love you and help you feel safe and accepted as you are. I feel so grateful you have one more.

You visited Chicago for the first time last summer – Larry’s hometown – where the two of you helped each other through fears about the scary rise to the top of the Sears (Willis) Tower and you slid down the Picasso sculpture with other children late at night. You have frequently visited the elder care colony for the deaf  here, where his mother now lives. Your sweet willingness to learn and try to speak ASL brightened the days of residents enough that they gave you your own deaf name – a letter D that moves down the side of the face in a gentle wave, like your hair.

You are becoming a superbly graceful person – in some ways unlike anyone I’ve ever known. This past weekend, you were the recipient of a poop sandwich when a friend over-promised his birthday party invites, chose to have it at a corporate chain with a limited guest list capacity, and you became one of the sacrificial lambs. You put on a brave face and told him that you understood his decision, but you were wounded and sad enough to have to let me in on what happened the day you knew so many of your friends would be spending time together without you. I was upset for you, upset that it was maybe even your propensity for kindness and understanding that helped make you a candidate for exclusion. You didn’t tell me or any adult what was happening.

“Someone in the class had to get hurt,” you told me. “I wouldn’t wish this on someone else just so I could feel better.”

I tried to find fun things to do for the day to try and take the sting out of your heart. We went to see “The Wind Rises” by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Gibli on the big screen. It was wistful and a true-ish love story about a Japanese airplane designer and his tragically serendipitous relationship with his wife, who had Tuberculosis. You, thorough reader of every John Green novel there is, didn’t mind the subject. Afterwards, we went to a vintage arcade so you could experience video game life as I first knew it, before the age of responsive controls.

I kept joking about your mom not being as exciting as a pack of 11-year-old boys, but hoping we could have a good day. Truthfully, I may have felt more shaken up than you.

After filling up on a Pho dinner – your favorite – we came home and you put your arms around me as soon as we got out of the car.

“I’m still sad that I’m not with my friends today,” you told me. “But I’m not sad that I got to spend the day with you.”

IMG_1905Then later, as I kissed and hugged you goodnight, you grinned widely and said:

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up by taking me to the movie with the lung hemorrhaging and everything.”

Declan, raising you and watching you become this ever more interesting, complex and kind human being is the great joy of my life.  The other night we were talking and I mentioned how happy I am that Larry has become one of my very best friends, what a secure feeling that is.

“So he’s your best friend and your romantic partner,” you said, smiling. “That’s healthy.”

You paused for a moment, smiled a second smile and said “and then one of your other best friends in the world is your son.”

It’s true.

I love you infinity.
Happy birthday, sweet child,

Mom

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A note to my boy, who is ten today

Chasing pigeons in lower Manhattan.Dear Declan,

Now you are ten. Declan’s first decade is a wrap.

Ten. Like all of your fingers or all of your toes, like the first syllable of your name. It’s the number of inkblots in the Rorschach test, the percentage you are supposed to tithe or take down to weaken an army, the atomic number of neon, the minimum number of players on a baseball field during play, the Wheel of Fortune card in a tarot deck.

It’s a powerful base number that can take you to infinite places, like the Eames’ film, Powers of Ten, that you used to watch over and over and over again when you were three. You loved it so dearly that you wanted to go to the Chicago lakeside to lay yourself down exactly where the man in the movie did, maybe thinking that it was a place where you could travel to the farthest reaches of the universe and the depths of the microverse.

“Ten is the number that allows all the numbers above it to exist because it’s the first use of zero,” you told me the other day. We had your birthday party cake decorated with 1+100 zeroes – a googol – because it is ten to the power of ten to the power of ten, and it was named 100 years ago (10 X 10).

You are an initiate into the double digits, a place I hope that you’ll remain vibrant and healthy for the next 89 years. You seem like a guy who could still hold his own well in the triple digits too.

Age nine has been eventful. You liked impersonating Rene Magritte’s “Son of Man” by holding apples and balls in front of your face and demanding that I snap a picture. You researched dark energy and dark matter. You learned to knit. You met Michio Kaku and nearly jumped out of your skin with excitement. You were a neuron for Halloween.

You asked to take refuge, the formal step of becoming Buddhist last summer, and did so with a lama who had taken refuge in Tibet when he was nine. The refuge name you were given means “glorious wisdom,” Karma Sherab Palzang but Lama Karma kept calling you “Chocolate” to see if you’d answer to it. And sweet you did every time.

I gave you a sign that says “I want to have adventures with you” for your room, and I’m happy that we still do. We do things like wake up early and drive around in our pajamas to see a lunar eclipse. We walked all over Manhattan together last August, exploring Battery Park, Chinatown, Little Italy, SOHO, The Skyscraper Museum. I let you play in the fountain in Washington Square Park on a steamy day. You emerged after a good hour, soaked and joyful. “God knows I loved that,” you said as we took back to the sidewalk.

You fell in love with the Met, the way I was as a kid. When you walked into the room with the Temple of Dendur, which you last saw at age 5, you said “THIS is where this room is! I have had so many dreams in here!”

You wake up the morning and ask me things like whether or not I know how George Washington really died, or if I realized that chocolate chip cookies and plastic were both invented by accident. I never know how the day is going to begin. I am happy that certain things seem to be outside of your purview. The other day, you told me someone had knocked you down at the roller rink and when I asked, startled “on purpose?” You replied within a beat, “of course not!”

I met Larry. And eventually so did you. (Plus his dogs, Walter and Leelu.) Your first impression of him was “he’s funny and he’s kind.” But what I most remember is that when I told you that he made me feel safe and loved, you hugged me so hard. You put your hand on my face sweetly and said “I think this is important for you.”

We celebrated your birthday on Sunday with so many of your friends at the bowling alley, which – of course we did, because the game has 10 pins and ten frames. You have this beautiful exuberance for all things and people. I loved the way some of your friends talked to you, how excited they were about presents that had gotten you or the cards they had picked out specially.

There was nothing in particular you asked for on your birthday today. You decided you wanted to give something instead – ten inches of your hair to Locks of Love. Your hair is beautiful and has been such a signifier of you as a person – this boy who hasn’t cared about being called a girl, this unfazed, self-possessed individual who I admire so, so deeply. You are such a dynamic and lovely person, Declan. And as earnest and delightful as you are, you’re also goofy and funny as heck.

It’s so exciting to wake up every day and find out more about who you are, who you want to become.

I love you so much my sweet boy,

Mom

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Run like you

994503_20135338Last night on the freeway I came upon an accident that I must have missed witnessing by less than a minute. The white SUV, flipped on its side on the side of the road, had twisted metal everywhere. Its lights were still on and I could see the silhouettes of two people, still hanging in their seats. I did not let my gaze rest there, having that sick, gut feeling that I was in the presence of lives, if not at that instant lost, permanently altered.

In those same few split seconds, I saw people running. There were five, six, seven, cars pulled over, hazards switched on, with people running, full throttle, toward the people in that SUV. From the furthest car came a uniformed police officer who must have just gotten off his shift. He was, in the parlance of eighth grade, totally booking.

“Wow,” I said out loud. Then, “oh yeah… om mani padme hung.” This is what my teacher says to do when you are not a medic, when you know that you would get in the way of people who know what they are doing, but you wish to help. (I am not a very good Buddhist scholar, but I understand this mantra as basically a wish or a prayer for love and compassion for all of the people involved.)

Moments later, at my exit, a man in a car next to me waved for me to roll my window down. For some reason, I thought he was going to tell me I had a spent taillight or maybe that he liked my bumper sticker, but instead he asked me “did you see that accident back there?”

When I told him I had, he recounted a particularly grisly detail that he had witnessed about one of the passengers, how difficult it would be for him to release that image from his mind.

“I feel so blessed, I’ve never been in a bad car accident,” he said. “Have you?”

I nodded that I had.

“Are you all okay now? Everything better?”

“Um, yeah,” I said, knowing that the answer was more complicated than yes or no. I wasn’t physically hurt. But I was driving someone I love, and he was.  Our lives continued, permanently altered.

“Be safe tonight, okay?” the man said. “You’re too purty to get hurt.”

I thanked him, kind of bemused that purty-ness would or should protect one from anything, but I appreciated his wish for my safety.

This morning I woke up from dreaming about those people running toward that SUV. They were conflated with the memory of hanging from my own seatbelt in my car, at 17, seeing people running toward me and my brother with everything they had in them, having others seem to appear out of nowhere. Having people leave messages on our answering machine that said “was that your car I saw on the news?”

There are people in the world who charge toward people who are hurt with everything they have in them. Sometimes it’s physical injury, sometimes it’s a more subtle one, like shame or fear.

They are such a miracle, you know?

I’m not enough like them. But I want to be.

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A note to my boy, who is NINE today

spaceboyDear Declan,

Now we begin your tenth orbit around the sun. It’s the last year that your age will be identified with a single digit, the closing of your time as a primary student, the beginning of who knows what? You are an ennead of enchanted and perplexing years. Everything is possible.

Nine is beautiful and mysterious. A stitch in time is said to save it, and isn’t that the truth? Dante said there are nine rings of hell, while Tolkien wrote of nine rings of power. There are nine consciousnesses in Buddhism, nine months in human gestation, nine innings in a regulation game of baseball, nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and nine squares on each side of the Rubik’s cube that you are so enamored with these days. Mathematically, it’s a square number, a composite number, a lucky number, a Motzkin number, an exponential factorial and a bunch of other things you seem to be really interested in. It’s the atomic number of Fluorine, which is some pretty scary, toxic stuff. I know, because I once read to you about it at bedtime by your request and thought to myself “if this isn’t a mother’s love, what is?”

When I was pregnant with you I drank water from the Castalian spring on Mount Parnassus in Greece, the consecrated ground of Apollo and the nine muses. Everyone who knows you knows that you have the inspiration of Urania, the muse of astronomy. But those who know you best know that poetry, dancing, music, theater and history give you joy as well. I suspect you will draw encouragement from all nine muses in time, my sweet, sweet boy.

When I asked you what you remembered best from this past year, it was mostly about the world around you. It was things like the confirmation of new element 115, temporarily called “Ununpentium,” which made you dance all over the house when you heard the news. Or the steps toward a unified theory of everything humanity made when it was announced that the signatures of gravitational waves were detected by a team of scientists led by your religion teacher’s brother.

You remember the conversations you have been lucky enough to have with OSU astronomers and physicists and the day you surprised math professors when you discovered a new configuration in their circle-packing game. And that you finally saw meteors one night in Woodstock last August, as one after another streaked the sky.

I remember a lot of things, too. Like the way you thought you’d need my help when you tried ice skating for the first time, but got out there on your own and felt so fast. Last summer we wandered through Manhattan together for the fourth summer in a row and you lit up on the rocks of Central Park, a place so familiar and comfortable to you now. We laid down on the floor of the Guggenheim to look at James Turrell’s installation and the American Museum of Natural History to stare up at the blue whale. I hope we can lay down on the floor of the Louvre or the Uffizi together someday.

I remember when you shook Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s hand sweetly and gently last fall and smiled with your whole head. We took a couple of containers full of nightcrawlers home from his teaching for a “life release” practice and buried them outside of my bedroom window, liberating them from their sentence as fish bait. Almost every creature from the bug world makes you uneasy, but for days after, you spoke to them through the glass.

“I hope you have a good life now, worms,” you told them. “I hope the soil is rich. You’re free!”

You were a d-brane from M-theory for Halloween, which had you lamenting the lack of physicists in the neighborhood on beggar’s night. You researched the possibility of warp drive for your project at the school Interest Fair. Right now, you are learning to knit from a woman who deeply impressed you with her hyperbolic plane made of yarn.

At Christmastime, you were cast as “the voice of God” in a school play and projected your lines like a pro, then sang “Away in a Manger” all by yourself in front of a church packed with people. You are so brave. You made a special book to give to friends and family that you named “Declan’s theories and other things he likes to think about.”

And when it comes to wisdom you are no slouch. Once, when I asked you about how you respond to children at school in a conflict, you were thoughtful about it.

“I try to let people be who they are and hope that they shape themselves into someone kind,” you said, pausing for a moment. “Unless they’re sociopaths.”

Your humor isn’t bad either. You reenacted the birth of the universe as you cracked a glow stick into action one night. As its blue light emerged, you waved it around and said “hey mom – do you know what chemical element is in this thing?” I said I did not.

“It’s hilarium! Because it’s a glow schtick.”

You look out for me. When I took you to see the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, I flinched during the violent parts, so you covered my eyes. I was roller skating too fast for your liking a few weeks ago. “You could get really, really hurt,” you said, and insisted that I slow down and hold your hand for a few laps.

You say thank you in unexpected moments. You try not to take things for granted.

Parenting becomes less and less about the choices I make for you every year. I try to put you in the best places that I can find to feed your thoughtful and curious spirit, but you are making your world happen, finding your own confidence, discovering and expressing your own feelings and convictions. It’s such an honor to witness your becoming.

A friend of mine told me he could see my imprint on you. “You circle all around him like a field of (William) Blake’s angels,” he told me. “He knows, absolutely, that he is loved. It’s safe for him to become who he is.”

God I hope that’s true, now and always.

I know that being your mom has helped me become kinder to my imperfect self, less afraid and more accepting of the life I have, even when it hasn’t gone the way I thought it should. I believe that might make anyone better at loving others.

I love you so, so much Declan and I couldn’t be prouder of how you you are.

Love \infty

Mama

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An interdimensional mother-son story

juniper

Juniper’s Big Adventure

By Declan and his mom

Declan and I wrote this together by hand, passing the notebook back and forth, each taking a turn at contributing a line or two. He’s excited to share it. We hope you like it. 

Once upon a time, there was a jackal named Juniper, and he loved to bark at birds.

One day a toucan named Alfonso Frederico la Vesta visited him, carrying a mysterious briefcase.

Juniper attacked, as usual.

Alfonso Frederico la Vesta bopped Juniper on the head with his briefcase, which exploded into 100,000 pieces of glitter and 600 silver balloons.

Juniper hadn’t a ghost of an idea what was happening. He ran away.

The balloons followed him. The glitter swirled into a massive shiny funnel cloud.

After a while, the funnel cloud reached and picked up the jackal. He flew up into the sky and bounced on top of the funnel cloud like Super Mario™ for 317 miles. Then the funnel cloud flattened and lowered down to the ground.

Juniper landed in a strange place that had a chocolate marsh and trees that were made of staple guns and jigsaws.  They started to grow rapidly as the jackal came down.

Out of nowhere, a glowy castle emerged from the chocolate marsh. It had a moat that was made of liquid rainbow Skittles™. If you tried to swim across, the castle would catapult TNT jawbreakers, which exploded in a hot gooey mess. The castle seemed to enjoy targeting a particularly cranky bunny rabbit that was practicing ballet on the other side of the moat.

Juniper fell onto his bottom in awe, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head for a moment.

A drawbridge made of Jolly Rancher™ candy dropped in front of Juniper that seemed to be just for him. As he walked into the castle, a giant Burple* monster with polka dots — which actually turned out to be UFO warp engines that were friendly — appeared.

One of the UFOs approached Juniper. The warp engine smiled at him, stuck out its tongue and licked the jackal on the nose, giving him the ability to make the moment become marshmallows. These marshmallows had tritanium in them, which made you fit and healthy.

“Wow, the present moment sure is sticky,” said Juniper. “But I feel like a million pronghorn bucks that have eaten unicorn milk that was impregnated by an interdimensional creature.**  Thanks!!!”

And so he went into the 2, 248th dimension, where everything flew by pooping rainbows from dimension zero.

“I feel kind of hungry for a pork chop,” thought Juniper.

Just at that moment, a cardboard foot flew into his mouth, but it tasted like lemonade.

“Delicious!” he thought.

Then Willy Wonka™ appeared and handed Juniper an infinite, updated version of his meal gum. He chomped it in his jaws and tasted the most delicious pork chop with applesauce that he had ever tasted. There was also steamed broccoli, a glass of high-pulp, fresh squeezed, not-from-concentrate orange juice and rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream.  He turned the shape of each food, but quickly sprang back into jackal form.

He decided to make a video/life portal to the Cookieverse™. He was so full of rhubarb pie, having just been rhubarb pie, that he simply gazed at the cookies lovingly.

Reluctantly (although he knew he could come back), he went out of there and onto television.

Whoosh! Juniper felt his body flicker. Suddenly he was transported onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise-E, next to Lieutenant Commander Data. He blinked and looked down and saw that he was wearing a red Starfleet shirt from the original series.  They were searching for the Borg.

“I wonder if this means I am nothing more than an incidental character – an infinitesimal membrane – in the universe…?” thought Juniper.

THE END

* A color that only exists in alternate dimensions.

** The unicorn milk is what was impregnated here, not the unicorn.

The collage/illustration is also a TZT & Declan collaboration.

P.S. Declan was very enthusiastic about writing this story, so please feel free to share it or leave him a comment if you are at all inclined.

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A note to my boy, who is eight today

decsweetDear Declan,

You are 8 today.  Eight.

Eight is the atomic number of oxygen.  There are eight spokes on the Wheel of Dharma, which symbolize the interdependent principles on the path to self-liberation.  It’s the billiard ball that you don’t want to sink, the number of drivers required in every Mario Kart race and the second magic number in nuclear physics (I don’t really know what that means, but you probably will soon).

Kick eight on its side and you have the infinity symbol, which suits you, my boy.  There seems to be no end to the things you already know and continually thirst to understand. I can hardly imagine what you will teach me in the future. Your mind is limitless.

Infinity is one of our favorite words. We make the symbol with our hands. It’s how much we say we love each other every day. At the classroom doorway or snuggled up at bedtime, we whisper to each other: I love you infinity.

Every year, when I write you one of these letters for your birthday, I seem to tell you how much you love babies and dogs. You still do. Sometimes when we can’t get rid of a particularly scary thought, we spend time looking at Cute Overload, where there are babies and dogs. And baby dogs. Baby pigs too. Hedgehogs, even.

I also always seem to tell you how kind you are. And you still are. To your Giga, to other kids – to everyone, really – but especially to your mom. You bolt in my direction and fling your arms around my waist like you haven’t seen me in weeks every time that I pick you up from school. If I shed a tear in your presence, your arms are wrapped around my neck in under a second. You invent secret handshakes for us. And you still blow kisses to me from the back seat. When you sang at a concert two weeks ago, they told everyone it was time to stop waving at their parents. You beamed right in my direction and winked at me instead.

Some great things have happened during your eighth tour around the sun. We drove to Alabama and joined my dad (you call him Papa), for Space Camp, a place where grown men who hold day jobs as accountants or computer technicians can safely wear flight suits without an iota of shame. We did space shuttle and International Space Station simulations, launched rockets and nearly had a heart attack watching your grandfather spin inside of a geodesic human eggbeater contraption.

Last November I took you with me, like I always do, as I exercised my right to vote at the early voting center. I snapped an image of you with a voting sticker on your palm, which landed – by way of an old college friend – in the hands of an ABC news producer. The day after the election, your sweet face moved slowly across the screen during Good Morning America. When I told you that four million people watch that show, your face went pale. But all of your color returned when you told your friends at school what had happened. They made you feel like four million bucks.

We’ve done some empirical research together, like trying to figure out whether Dr. John or Tom Waits has a “growlier” voice.  And we talked about all kinds of song lyrics at length because nary a word can get past you. It can get pretty tricky at times. Trying to explain the meaning of your grandmother’s “ART SLUT” mug felt particularly tricky. But we seem to have agreed that there are no bad words just bad ways to use them – particularly if it’s to inflict pain on another – so “stupid” and “jerk” are as bad as any.

You also played a lot of Minecraft. And you spoke a lot of Minecraft to in-the-know peers as well as several confused elders. You speak Mario, too, but a lot of adults understand that.

You grew our your hair out like a medieval knight, which seems to have made one gown-up after another believe that you are a girl. But it doesn’t seem to bother you. One winter afternoon, a barista in a Downtown coffeeshop brought you a cup of hot chocolate and referred to us as “ladies.”

“I am a boy,” you told him clearly, looking him in the eye. Then, seeing his face begin to redden, you quickly added: “It’s okay. I’m not upset.”

“I admire that attitude!” He said to you, giving you a big thumbs up.

We had some down moments too, but our struggles were much more ordinary than the string of deaths and losses we experienced when you were five and six. When I asked you about things that you felt had been important about being seven the other day, you told me that you don’t have as many fears as you used to. You’ve been working on those.

The other night I shared some of my fears with you. One of them is how scared I get sometimes that I’m not doing a good enough job at being your mom.

You grabbed my hand and pulled it to your heart. “You shouldn’t,” you told me sternly.  “You are.”

The librarian at your school stopped me one day to tell me about a report you had done about birds. There was a question on a worksheet about mother birds and their young.

“If mother birds are like my mother,” you had told her, “then they must protect their babies.  My mom always does everything she can to protect me and make me safe.”

Declan, somewhere in the time since you made me a mom, I began to learn and really understand that we always have the power within us to make others feel good or valued or heard or seen, and that actively practicing living that way always elevates us.  We always have the power to make people feel bad, too, but that’s easy, especially if we’re careless, and that usually ends up hurting us more than anyone else.

Love and kindness are things I have to practice to do well, but you make them seem effortless.  You are a tender, gentle soul. Even when you’re whirling and jumping and seem not to be paying attention, I find that you pick up more detail about those around you than most people.  You don’t ask for much, materially speaking. Your most formal, serious requests to me have been for time and attention. You are grateful for what you have.

You make me feel like being your mom is something I’m pretty good at. Whenever my life gets rough or painful, I see how loved you feel and I feel like a success.

I love you infinity, my sweet, sweet son.

xoxoxoxo,

Mommy

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Today is yes

Forget-me-notsHe said he was a corporate lawyer, born in Bolivia and that I probably wouldn’t like his politics. He looked like he was 12. It was late. I danced with him anyway.

“You let yourself fall when I dipped you,” he told me. “That means you are open to life. You don’t care what anyone thinks about you.”

That’s not true everyday. But thank goodness there are days that it is. Thank goodness someone pulled me onto dance floor and dipped me and let me know: Here you are. See? You are being that person you’ve wanted to be.

Sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly watching a voluptuous burlesque dancer swing tiny torches from her breasts that make little circles of fire in the air while the band plays Happy Birthday. The next night you’re singing the entire White Album, pressed up against people you don’t know while waving to the ones you do. A twenty-something woman from China keeps hugging you and smiling as you wonder whether the best song ever written is “Dear Prudence” or “Helter Skelter.” She says she wants to text you. “Hi!” says your phone. “Yellow Submarine!” That’s the last time you hear from her.

Sometimes you’re accidentally listening to an ‘80s cover band that’s opening for your friend’s band, and joy and shame collide inside of you when you hear songs by Simple Minds and Animotion and remember every lyric. You joke about that feeling with a woman standing next to you by the bathroom mirror who says “no, no, no… there is no shame. But I hate that it shows everybody exactly how old I am.”

“Meh,” you reply. “Me too. We’re not that old.”

Just as you are almost out the door, she yells after you, for no apparent reason “You are really beautiful!”

“Thank you!” you yell back. “So are you.”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, to become an expert at something. Now 42, after a childhood with a typewriter and 20 years of writing career behind me, I have undoubtedly accumulated enough time to call myself a master she-hack, a highly qualified assembler of printed characters, a capable wordswoman. But so practiced in living with self-trust, I am not.

This midlife single life is a little bit brutal. You think that practicing kindness and patience will yield you some easy companionship. It might for a little while. Or it might just give someone else the space to be wildly selfish with or unintentionally cruel to you. Wasting time is a greater concern than it used to be. The landscape requires a kind of detachment you’ve never had to cultivate before, that truthfully, you don’t exactly want to cultivate because you’ve come to like your wide-open heart. You know that you know yourself better than you did the last time you were out here.

I’m playing the long game these days. I want to reach that expert level of self-respect by practicing 10,000 hours trusting my own instincts; 10,000 hours being kinder to myself; 10,000 hours of traversing the thorny landscape without letting it shut me down, no matter how often it might draw blood; 10,000 hours of not letting myself feel threatened by any social situation; 10,000 hours of being kind to others traveling on this same nasty terrain, just because I can; 10,000 hours giving myself a break because all of this is practice.

10,000 hours of letting myself fall. Not into another person, but into myself.

10,000 hours being yes.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any –lifted from the no
of all nothing– human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– ee cummings

Today is yes.

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Are you okay?

“People help you, or you help them, and when we offer and receive help, we take in each other.
And then we are saved.”
– Anne Lamott

I sat alone in my car at a red light on a busy east side street a few weeks ago.

Feeling tired, I dropped my face into my hands and rested there for several seconds. When I looked back up, there was still a red light and a minivan next to me with a man with a blonde combover in the driver’s seat. He was aggressively waving his arms at me.

When he saw he had my attention, he mouthed the words “Are you okay?” with a point of his index finger and the universal OK sign, followed with a big mime-like raise of his eyebrows.

I think I looked at him dully for about a second before smiling a little and nodding in a way that was probably also more Marcel Marceau than natural human. I might have even given him a thumbs-up sign.  As he nodded back, smiled and pulled away, I felt strangely grateful for his concern. His out-of-nowhere, stoplight, blue minivan concern for some woman in an old Toyota resting her face in her hands.

The last three years have taught me more than I ever expected to know about the kindness of strangers — not to mention other people I might have been acquainted with, but had no way of knowing I could trust. At some point, when things were oppressively difficult in my life, I just started answering the question “how are you?” honestly all the time. I was not okay. I was hanging out with death and deadly illnesses and divorce and the effects of others’ addictions while trying my best to be a halfway decent mom.

But when I told people some piece of that information, I was amazed to find that I wasn’t exposed or embarrassed or humiliated. I was helped and encouraged. They held up a mirror and let me know that I didn’t appear to be as wounded as I felt. They told me I was a good mother or a good person. They rose to meet my honesty with their own. Sometimes they told me things that were braver than I ever imagined, making my own truths less scary and alien. I was saved. Over and over, I was given faith and hope in the primordial goodness of people.

As I made my way home from the minivan man, I drove past the Grill and Skillet – the dictionary definition of a greasy spoon. And I remembered another time in the spring of 2010, when someone asked me if I was okay on a day when I definitely was not.

“Let me take you for a coffee,” she said.

She was a woman of few means, but she was wealthy and generous with wisdom, and she liked to make a big production of treating people to the delights she could afford. She bought me that coffee and some toast at the Grill & Skillet, while she munched on four pieces of bacon.

“I’m skipping all the ordinary calories and just going straight for the devil today,” she told me. Then, eyeballing my jailhouse snack, “You’re a cheap date. Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

All I genuinely wanted was some of peacefulness she seemed to possess, her natural ability to be true to herself. I don’t remember what her exact words were to me that day, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably something like “you need to think about acceptance, baby, about accepting things as they are. It will free you.”

Every time I spent a few moments with her, I could feel a deep turning in my life, away from self-created obstacles and emotional storms.

And I remember watching her, usually moving slowly because of a tumor in her leg, dragging a heavy, quilted bag of self-help and meditation books and paper worksheets on things like identifying emotions that she felt would be useful to others. If you were in need, she would probably make you wait a little while. She might have to take care of something for herself first, like getting a drink of water or a snack – often something that seemed quite trivial compared to the desperately catastrophic things you were feeling. But then she would turn towards you, become present with you, and you were enveloped in the safety of her wisdom, usually ending with a hug that was equally, spectacularly enveloping. There was no telling whether you would be lifted for moments or days – that would depend on you – but you would be lifted.

Best of all, you would witness the grace she received for herself by helping you. As she sensed you lightening, she would lean back and smile. “I have an affinity for people like you,” she would say. “We have experienced the same kinds of pain, so know that I mean it when I tell you that I love you and I love to be of service to you.”

You were not a burden. Your willingness to share and trust actually gave her something too. Not only had you unburdened yourself to someone safe, you had been useful to that person.

After the Newtown killings and the apocalypse that wasn’t, Facebook, my email, phone calls and friends on the street have made me feel like we’re becoming a nation of blue minivan combover men and toast-buying women. “Are you okay?” we ask each other in the wake of fallen children, heroic educators and jokes about the world’s demise. Because no matter how much news fasting, meditation or other exercise in equanimity that you practice, there’s little or no getting around feeling a tragedy like this one, feeling the insanity of any human being treating the world like there is no tomorrow.

I keep returning to the notion that we are never as helpless as we think. Two weekends ago, I heard a wise teacher say “Love and compassion are never in vain. They are never useless. They are never powerless.”

And that’s the lesson from my friend that has remained with me most powerfully, a year and a half after her passing. (The lesson that the minivan man and a drive down Main Street brought back to my attention.) She showed me that when you take good, consistent care of yourself, helping or caring for others is not only not a burden, it’s a blessing.  You take that sip of water first. You say “I’ll call you back after I take a nap.” You eat a sandwich. You swim or meditate or pray or spend time petting your dog. You do what it takes to make sure your center is as strong and balanced as it can be today.

Then you walk toward that next person you see hurting, preferably without any expectation that they are even ready or willing to accept anything you have to offer.

“What can I do to help you?” you ask.

If the answer is “nothing,” you accept that.

If the answer is something you consider, then realize that you can’t give them, you tell them that directly.

But there is often something you can do. Sometimes just the question “what  can I do to help you?” is a greater gift than you might imagine. It may be days, weeks or years before you realize that you actually helped someone. You may never know you helped them.

You do it anyway. And you are saved.

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It’s such a good feeling

My son and I have been watching old episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood lately. It’s much easier than I realized to get engrossed in the land of make-believe and film footage of the crayon factory as an adult. But it’s even easier to rest in Fred’s compassion.

“He seems like a question answerer, conscious child idea conceiver Carl Sagan,” said Declan, looking for (and finding) the right words.

The man understood how hard it can be to be a person, especially a child. That’s been tough work for us lately, so I’m glad to be parenting in a digital age that can take us back in time.

Whether he was singing about liking people for true reasons, or his daily celebration of the fact that we’re alive and growing inside, he had this way of creating safety and space. Even though he has passed, I’m amazed to see that the shows still hold that power for my son.

In one episode, someone in the land of make-believe had invented a machine that could see into people, see something true about them, like the warmth of their heart or their love of chair-making.

When it was over, and the camera began panning above Mr. Roger’s colorful neighborhood houses and toy cars, Declan snuggled his face into my neck and pretended to look into me.

“There is lots and lots and lots of love,” he said. “And lots and lots of art, writing especially. Buddhism. The ocean. Me.”

He stopped, leaned back, and smiled at that thought for a moment. Then he snuggled back in and continued.

“All the art you’ve ever seen in museums. All the music you’ve ever listened to. Not just me but everybody you’ve ever known or loved. All the trees and flowers you’ve ever seen or smelled. All the places you’ve lived. Dogs and dolphins and other animals you loved. Blue sky. Clouds. Rain. Storms. Hurricanes. Your reflections.”

“My reflections?”

“Yes – both kinds. The ones you’ve actually seen and.. your thoughts.”

And that one. That one from my son, inspired by Fred Rogers. That’s a reflection I want to keep forever.

 

More Fred, because even if you think you outgrew him, you didn’t:

His touching 1969 Senate hearing testimony in defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes his reading of “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

You can watch or listen to most of his songs on the PBS web site.

Fred’s goodbye on his final program, which is especially sweet for parents who grew up watching him.

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Tract for the Day of the Dead

One of my first official acts as a newly minted 40-year-old was to help my mother pronounce my stepfather dead after a prolonged and terrible brain illness.

It was dawn on the morning after my birthday and it was harder to be sure of this than you might imagine. He left this realm the way a flashlight dims – flickering into a barely perceptible glow before extinguishing completely. We called hospice. A nurse came to confirm our suspicions and called the funeral home. I watched my five-year-old son touch his grandfather’s cool face and arms before he asked me “how do you know for sure?” The undertaker arrived. I remember moving a clay bust my mom made of my stepfather’s face out of the foyer, because I had a sudden and vivid fear that the gurney carrying his body would snag the pillar it was on and smash it to bits. They took the body and left an artificial rose on his bed.

And then I helped my mother organize his funeral.  He was a spiritual man, but not at all religious. There was no minister to call for assistance. We arranged to use the chapel in the funeral home. My stepbrothers and brother and I each committed to deliver a eulogy – four in words, one in classical music. But we felt we needed to wrap the service and burial in some kind of formality, so my mother and my future ex-husband and I dug our way through books and books of one thing we knew my stepfather had faith in – poetry.

We ended up selecting pieces by Wallace Stevens and George Santayana.  But my mother had heard the most from my stepfather about his admiration for Imagist poet and New Jersey physician William Carlos Williams (also mentor to Allen Ginsberg).  We pushed through volume after volume, looking for something of his that one of us could read. The first poem we found related to death or loss began:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

So that hardly seemed appropriate.  Actually, we laughed at its total inappropriateness. Fresh grief can be like that – manic and grimly hysterical. Then there was another poem. It felt too raw at the time, so we didn’t read it either. Williams was left out of the funeral. But that other poem is still with me.

Last week, I completed training to be hospice volunteer for the organization that took such extraordinary care of all of us before and after my stepfather passed. We have had (I have had) several other losses since then, and none of those experiences have felt alike.  The training made me think more deeply about all of the pressure valves people blow open and seal shut in dark times or mourning, the crazy emotional acrobatics and contortions that can lead to accepting — or never accepting — a loss.  For some people, cracking a single emotion may take remarkable courage. Others (like me) may expectorate feelings with more persistence than we are usually able to muster to wipe down the kitchen counters.

I like Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins “I measure every grief…” because of her stark consideration of several ways that grief may manifest and her conclusion that its very existence is something that unites us all. Death, loss and everyone’s inevitable experience of them at some time bind us like quantum physics, the interconnectedness of Buddhist philosophy or Walt Whitman’s beautiful line from Leaves of Grass – “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

When someone dies after a long illness, particularly one that seems to strip away the person that you knew in pinpricks and bold strokes, it can take time to recover; time to begin to remember them well.  My stepfather was an intellectual, an elitist, even, but a brilliant and loyal man. He inherited me as his very first daughter-like person when I was 19 and while I know I flummoxed him at first, we grew into a relationship that ended with the intimacy of hallucinations and dying.

And I have him to thank for the fact that I’ve read a lot more William Carlos Williams in the last two years than ever before.

I’ve always loved the rituals around Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day, because they give memories a chance to breathe within us. We can make offerings to the people we’ve lost, remember the parts of ourselves that they gave us.

I think my stepfather would have liked it if this poem had been read at his funeral. It would have been bold. But I think, rightly, that it might have been too raw for those who were grieving for him. So I make it as an offering to him, and anyone who needs permission to feel anything at all they need to feel, today:

Tract
By William Carlos Williams

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ’s sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that’s no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I’d not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker’s understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
Go now
I think you are ready.

****

I remember you, Stephen.

Love,
Tracy

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