Ok. Let’s start over

Listen February, I feel like I’ve been doing my part to restore our relationship.  I put some real effort into changing my attitude. I planted strawberries and asparagus and got my seed-starting plan together.  I even uncharacteristically bought a duvet cover for the tattered old comforter that we sleep with in the front room/living room/play room/office/second bedroom.  But you responded with………….illness?  Ok, Mr D came down with the virus last week so technically we could blame it on January.  But g’s all-night, screaming-in-pain event on the anniversary of his emergency surgery?  Dude, that was below the belt.

Yes, I know that he has a tendency to be dramatic.  Yes, I now understand that it was almost certainly sinus-related and he seems to be fine.  But I’m exhausted.  And, given the power of understanding to guide a relationship in the right direction, I want to explain why this exhaustion is much more than the absence of a single night of sleep.

You see, parenting a child whose survival is so tightly entangled with loss (What’s that? You’re right, you’re not to blame for the death of g’s twin and yes, I will talk to April about that one) is a particular kind of challenge.  It doesn’t matter that I understand how important it is to send him out into the world to develop coping skills and become strong.  Or the fact that I know that things happen and kids get sick and hurt.  Parenting g is a daily struggle against my desire to dress him in bubble wrap and arrange all the activities he could ever want right here in our living room.

Because I have never fully emancipated myself from the fear that I wouldn’t be able to keep him safe.  And yes, I see that for the most part he’s managing quite well.  I promise you that I’m working on it. I think I’ll get there eventually. But in the meantime?  Please go easy on me.

Ok February, let’s work this out.

Ok February, I know that you and I don’t have a healthy relationship.  For me, you have come to represent a hardship to be endured, one that I mentally parcel out into discrete milestones: the Superbowl (getting started!), Valentine’s Day (halfway!), the Oscars (almost done!), despite the fact that not a single one of those milestones carries any meaning to me personally.

I don’t know when this silent duel began but I do know that it reached it’s peak a year ago when g was hospitalized.  I’ll admit that I’m still struggling to forgive that offense.  And yet there is something about this year that makes me believe that there is hope for us yet. Maybe it is the fact that we’ve had something that we Californians can justify calling a “winter”.  Maybe it’s something about the way that I can detect the subtle changes in light quality in recent days.  But this year I honestly feel like I can see you for what you are, perhaps for the first time- much more than just a prolonged period of short days and nasty viruses, you are a necessary moment of transition, a critical passage in the progression toward spring.

It’s not only the toddlers among us who struggle to embrace the meaning of transition.  We all like tidy definitions- winter/spring, young/old. But life doesn’t comply.  And so I see now that you, February, and I have more in common than I previously understood.

This year I’ve decided to embrace you.  I hope to approach you as a time to prepare, an opportunity to act.  I have plans – for the garden, for my home, for my self.  But I’ll admit that I’m not terribly wedded to outcomes.  For better and worse I will probably be quite busy in the coming days.  To be honest, my “plans” have much more to do with our relationship than they do with any measurements of productivity.  I honestly want to repair some of the damage between us.

And I sincerely hope that you will be inclined to reciprocate.

The feminist blues

I am a bit of a chauvinist.  Growing up in the constant company of 3 brothers left me with an innate sense of female superiority that I have never fully shaken.  From my girlhood vantage point males were surprisingly simple, the whole of their interactions with the world seemingly defined by a clumsy approach to physical domination- a series of clashes and collisions set against a background of jackhammers and farting noises. And I have been convinced for as long as I can remember that the mold of human culture would be far superior if only a much greater share of the shaping were performed by the more gentle and considerate hands of women.

From this viewpoint it’s particularly hard to swallow the reality of gender dynamics. At some point I was forced to recognize that I had been cast in a role that expected little more from me than the embodiment of an ideal of sexual attraction.   I have always found this role, sexually alluring and domestically useful, to be sadly lacking in appeal, perhaps because it is largely defined by that same bungling male mindset that produces the instinct to approach every square inch of the planet with an excavator.

And nobody even bothered to come up with a second act.  After the natural fulfillment of sexually appealing (childbearing), there is nothing.  And so I watch, defeated, as many a woman struggles doggedly to remain desirable well beyond middle age.

I hit a wall when I began my journey to becoming a mother. My particular struggle was exacerbated by the inconvenient perspective that family and personal life carry an importance that justifiably rival professional life, a mindset that clashed heavily with the workings of an institution (academia) that fails to even recognize their existence. I remember looking to women faculty with children for answers to my internal conflict and being frustrated by their failure to respond- a failure that I now interpret in the sentiment- apologies, but I am too busy just trying to survive to begin to address the problems of institutional bias. I didn’t stay in academia, but I now know that if I had I would have felt exactly the same way.

During my time in academia there was something else that discreetly gnawed at me. It was a sense that the institution didn’t fully belong to me, that the values and rules that made it function were not mine. In many ways, this makes sense. Women did not build the institutions that define our public life. In fact, we weren’t even present during their construction. But it has only recently hit me that we have absolutely no way of knowing how they might look if we had. Would they really be better? Would they exist at all? The best that we can do is to imagine how we can influence their functioning as we move forward.

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When I was pregnant, I hoped for a girl.  I now understand that gender preference has everything to do with the baggage we carry as parents and nothing to do with the actual child but I couldn’t yet see past my own experience.  I didn’t know how irrelevant my expectations would come to feel once my had children arrived – here, boys, perfect!

Becoming a mother has expanded my old notions of gender, adding, as if it were necessary, a layer of even greater complexity.  Watching my boys through the lens of maternal love, I am learning to find a greater appreciation for all things male.  You might even catch me playing happily with an excavator.  But I also watch, disillusioned, as I recognize the power of gender bias falling on my children’s generation.  While I want to believe that we have the potential to make great progress by the time they come of age (look at how far we’ve come!), what I actually feel is resignation for the world that so likely awaits them.

Dazzled by the sophistication of the little girls in g’s class, I find that rather than feeling concern for the prospects of g and the many other little boys who trail along behind, I balk at the probability that those little girls will be forced to contend with a world that will narrow over time, all but shutting them out, while the boys will discover, though they hadn’t even thought to look, a world that is steadily widening to welcome them in.  I do my best to fight back the image of these talented young ladies becoming too consumed with concerns over the thickness of their thighs to perform the important work of trying to balance the overly male framework that confines us all.

As a mother of boys, there might even be comfort in all of this.  But I hold out a possibly naive hope that these little girls will one day succeed much better than I have in defining and imposing their own vision on the society around them.  Because I still believe that we would all be better off.

 

 

 

Fear and curiosity in 2015

2015  forced me to come to terms with one of the downsides of getting older.  I’m not referring to the various lines, spots and sags that increase with each year that goes by.   Nor am I talking about that pushy stripe of grey hairs asserting itself on my crown. What I am referring to is an unwanted increase in the companionship of that most paralyzing of human emotions: fear.

I now understand that I used to be something of an optimist.  I approached new experiences with curiosity and hope.  If I slept poorly the night before a big trip or important day, it was generally because I was excited.  Now, I spend those sleepless hours carefully cataloging all of the dangers and traps awaiting me, whether I can prepare for them or not.

I am aware that parenting has a large role to play in this change.  Being RESPONSIBLE for the impacts of ones decisions on little lives should lead anyone to consider the risks involved.  But, I’m afraid that my level of pessimism is starting to get out of control.

Fear was warranted early in 2015 when g underwent emergency surgery.  But it took months for me to understand what I should have known on all along- that kids are a hardy lot and we are fortunate to have access to excellent medical care.

This summer as we prepared for a vacation in Mexico, I thought of intestinal infections, road failures and mosquitoes instead of focusing on the potential of dreamy beaches and sweet towns.  In the end,  the beauty won out.

As our household income steadily decreased due to a strong dollar (G is paid in Euros), I worried about how we would manage instead of remembering that we have always lived comfortably below our means, a fact that makes us resilient.  And we have been just fine.

As Mr D was slated to begin preschool at a new place, I agonized over the likelihood that I had made the wrong choice.  I mulled endlessly over the slew of concerns that had presented themselves at the last minute.  But Mr D did wonderfully from the very first day and has thrived immensely.

And during this holiday season, as we prepared for a snow trip to Yosemite, I fretted over the rainy forecast and cold temperatures.  And then we had a wonderful time.

Over and over, 2015 showed me that my fears too often prove to be nothing more than a useless hindrance. I’m under no illusions that 2016 will be free of challenges but I have decided to clear some space for the possibility of good, even great outcomes. I’m going to fight this aging business in the coming year, a little Botox for the attitude. Because getting old is kind of a drag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatives

I am infatuated with alternatives. Alternatives to fossil fuels. Alternatives to plastic.  Alternatives to waste “disposal”.  Alternative food systems. Alternative housing.  Alternatives to work. Alternatives to marriage. Alternatives to divorce.

Alternatives to war.

In so many cases there is a different, less wasteful, more respectful way to approach our problems.  In alternatives I find comfort. In alternatives I find hope.

But within this very source of optimism lies an unfortunate truth, a collection of thumbtacks hidden in fluffy warm bedding.  One of the most detrimental, and often baffling, things about humankind is just how well we can understand a problem and formulate solutions and yet continue to engage in exactly the same, damaging behaviors.  The knowledge of a better way does not necessarily lead to the it’s pursuit.

Still there are dedicated people willing to abandon short-term comfort and approval in the quest for a better way.  And I have decided that the best thing any of us can do is embrace the belief that we have it in us to become one of them.

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A tribute to life as a family of four in 580 square feet

My parents are coming to visit in just a few weeks.  I generally look forward to this time, grateful for the chance to foster the inter generational relationship.  But family is a complicated matter and our interactions aren’t without their challenges.  The tension usually starts the moment my father steps foot into our apartment.  It took me a while to understand why he got so anxious and upset but it was easy to see that the longer the visit, the deeper his depression.

And then I finally understood.

My father comes from a very modest background and, growing up in a big city (Rome), space was not something he had in abundance.  He is proud of the life that he has built in the US, which includes a nice and spacious home.  And it makes him terribly sad to see his daughter return to the very place he came from, living in a small and modest apartment.

I, however, adore our apartment.

G and I moved here from a tiny studio just blocks away when g was an infant because we desperately wanted a separation – a barrier that would allow us the freedom to continue living and breathing inside even when the baby was (miraculously!) sleeping.  We wanted to stay in the neighborhood, close to public transportation and walking distance from all of our basic needs.  We didn’t want to spend too much money.  And we wanted a door.

This apartment met all of our criteria and more.  It even has a fabulous south-facing picture window, a mature lemon tree and is situated just across the street from a wonderful public park.  It is only 580 square feet but it didn’t feel too small to us.  It felt like enough.

And over time, though we’ve added a fourth human to the mix, I’ve come to appreciate it even more.  The low rent has allowed us to live comfortably on one small income (we don’t qualify for reduced school lunches in our community but we only barely miss the cut-off).  This apartment has granted me my time. It has also secured us access to all of the things that are important to us: great schools, wonderful parks and libraries, excellent fresh food and, most of all, a wonderful community of neighbors.  We never struggle to make it to the end of the month and never feel like we are unable to afford any of the things that we need. This little apartment has made us rich.

I did my best to explain this to my father on his last visit.  There is one very fundamental thing that separates us from the poverty that so upsets you, I told him, choice.  Our apartment is too large to qualify as “tiny” but, philosophically, we have a lot in common with the tiny house movement.  The concept is quite simple. By needing less you gain tremendously.  By living well within your means, you buy your freedom.

I am aware of the cultural implications of our choices.  Although I don’t place a high value on social status the way my father does, I know that most people don’t see things quite the way we do.  And, despite my awareness of the problems of over-consumption, I’m not on a mission to convert everyone to my way of life.  In writing this, I’m not attempting to make a statement about American greed or the excess of your McMansion.  I really only want to make a simple point, the same one that I think my father now understands.

You have a choice.

An argument in favor of elevating a little-known holiday

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Chances are that you didn’t even notice the passing of a minor federal holiday in the US a few weeks ago, unless it happened to affect you personally. Some people had the day off. Some schools were closed. There was no mail delivery.

Officially, October 12 is Columbus Day, a holiday commemorating the landing of Columbus in the new world. Since Columbus was Italian, Italian-Americans have seized the day as an opportunity to manifest pride of origin. Because G happens to work for the Italian Government, he has the day off every year.

g also had the day off. School, however, was not closed to celebrate the triumph of Columbus’ discovery of America but rather to mark Indigenous People’s Day, an effort to recognize the profound affects this event had on the indigenous peoples for whom this world was anything but ‘new’. As someone who spends more time than is healthy fretting about the exploitation of peoples and resources throughout the world, I truly appreciate the important message in this rebranding. But I think that we are missing something by simply reducing the discussion to historical winners and losers.
With a little help from my imagination I can imagine myself in Columbus’ shoes, peering out at the vast blue waters of the Mediterranean and contemplating an epic voyage into completely unknown territory, a few simple wooden vessels at the mercy of the winds – no fossil fuels, no satellite information or gps, no communication equipment or rescue helicopters, not even a stash of MREs. And I see myself high-tailing it back to Isabella to promptly return her money. Bad idea after all.

But Columbus set sail. I picture him as a kind of latter day Richard Branson, all bravado and oversized ambition, a testament to a deep human drive to explore and expand. And I have a difficult time setting aside my respect for this side of the human condition, even if it so often has negative consequences. I also have a hard time ignoring the fact that my community, the same one that first designated October 12 as Indigenous People’s Day, is characterized by a push toward new frontiers that bears a much stronger resemblance to Cristoforo than to the Indigenous Peoples he encountered.

I say this not to shame my neighbors but rather to hold all of us to a higher standard. In reality, the exploitation of peoples and resources continues unabated to this day, aided by ever greater use of fossil fuels and technological sophistication. But most of us living in the developed world occupy a hazy place in between, both exploiters and, increasing, exploited.
What I am proposing is that this day might serve as a very appropriate opportunity to recognize this uncomfortable position and therefore open it up to the kind of scrutiny that every day life doesn’t easily permit. If it sounds a bit unlikely that an official holiday in the world’s dominant power would be set aside to contemplate the pitfalls of dominance, I have to agree. But then again, I might find it rather unlikely that a small group of humans would navigate vast stretches of ocean inside simple wooden scaffolding with bedsheets.

About all that time…..

In my mind I’ve spent the weeks since the boys started school (6+ of them) fighting the battle against both the pressure to collect too many commitments and the risk of squandering precious opportunities to be productive.

In reality, I’ve spent several mornings battling the ants in my kitchen.

Which is to say that life hasn’t actually changed all that much.  If anything, it feels healthier, closer to my personal ideal of slower and simpler.  And I continue to be grateful for my ability to perform the function of the flexible rod, capable of shifting and bending when necessary to absorb the impact of constant fluctuations in the system.

I am content in this place. But work is very much on my mind. I continue to try and carve out a viable space for myself in a job that I began last winter.  It’s unpredictable and undefined, which is fitting for a job in the agricultural sector.  When there is work to be done, it consumes every last one of those wide-open hours.  And when there isn’t it just simmers on the back burner, allowing me to make slow progress toward finally getting my fall garden planted and my closet organized.

Financial demands dictate that I increase the time that I dedicate to the kind of work that comes with a paycheck.  And I’m ok with that.  But I really hope it doesn’t mean that I’ll have to give up this time completely.  Because I’ve already become very very attached.