Category Archives: Memory Filter

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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