Winning

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Photo by ANDRIK ↟ LANGFIELD ↟ PETRIDES on Unsplash

 

I’ve taken a long, intentional hiatus from this blog.

For one thing, there’s a lot of incredibly wonderful writing out in the world these days, and I find I spend most of my time reading it. I’m reading really excellent journalism, fiction, narrative nonfiction and books on the craft of writing.

Sometimes – actually, too often – I read tweets. On my better days, when I’ve tired of reading long form, I read Real Simple or Southern Living, or I just stare at beautiful things on Instagram. I’ve been writing, too, but not for public consumption – not yet, anyway.

In the midst of this reading and private writing, I’ve also been mothering my quickly growing children – children who are, suddenly, no longer babies. And I’ve seen the emergence of a theme, perhaps, a national epidemic.

Unlike so many things today, this isn’t something that can really be politicized, although it certainly contributes to our country’s fractious conversations. It isn’t something I hear a ton of parents debating. It isn’t something that people feel obliged to discuss as right or wrong as it applies to privilege or lack thereof. It just rests, as an undercurrent, beneath the surface of all that is and, according to now, ever will be.

I’m talking about winning.

There have been plenty of studies and articles pointing to teenagers who are over-committed, anxious and stressed. Lots of books have been written about grit, determination, and character development. Doctors and psychologists insist that it is okay for kids to fail – that parents should let them fail.

All that’s fine and good, but I’ve found it flips the issue upside down. If we feel compelled enough by a study, essay or article, we’ll do our damndest to apply the wisdom. We will work hard, really hard, on letting our kids fail with the same fervor we pursue so much of what characterizes our highly-curated lifestyles today.

Our kids will be the failingest kids in the country … and gritty … and determined. Why? Because we’re Americans. We can win at failing, too.

If you look at what’s trending in today’s media, so much is about who’s winning and who’s losing. Everyone has to choose a side, and there is no middle ground. This is an element of today’s culture that I find so exhausting and anxiety-provoking that it makes me want to throw my iPhone in the Harpeth River and let it sink to the bottom.

What our obsession with #winning tells me about where we are as a country is that we are truly, deeply failing, and failing in a way that actually matters. Our collective failure, laid especially bare over these past several months, is a failure to embrace nuance and teach it to kids who need most to understand it.

Nuance. It’s one of my favorite things, really. It’s a reading between the lines, an effort to understand. Nuance offers a holistic approach to life. It requires critical thought, a second, long look. Nuance is useful because, truly, nothing – nothing – is ever, actually, as it seems.

If we lose our ability to acknowledge and appreciate the depth and dimension of all that is at hand, we lose. End of story.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing my children’s lackluster athletic pursuits. The fault of this lies squarely on me. My oldest, now nine and a half, has the form and physique of an athlete. She looks like she was born to do something – to run, scrimmage, or cartwheel her way down a field in pursuit of some big win. She’s tried out a few sports: pirouetted down the soccer field and catapulted her way through gymnastics, sprinted through the water in summer swim team. She’s taken piano and guitar.

But because of my reluctance to upend our entire family’s routine, I haven’t pushed any of these extra-curricular activities, and have even found myself dissuading her from a few based on the time required.

Now that she’s decided that she genuinely loves to swim, I’ve allowed her to pursue it, but, at nine, she’s gotten a late start, and while many of her classmates are on competitive teams, she’s still perfecting her form.

If I didn’t embrace nuance, this could be really hard.

Parents take a lot of pride in their kids’ accomplishments. And the dedication and determination of many young athletes truly is remarkable. Many of these kids are more disciplined than mine are, but there’s a trade-off, too, and that’s what keeps me from turning our weekends into a circus.

Our pediatrician sometimes looks at me curiously when I say my kids (9 and under) are only casually involved in after-school activities. “They’re active, though, right?” he says, knowing me well enough now to anticipate that they’re not spending their afternoons in front of the TV.

Active, yes.

Winning? No.

Because, here’s the thing, and this is what slowly came to light following my middle child’s most recent well check:  What I thought had everything to do with scheduling actually also encompassed this larger conversation. I don’t like today’s insistence on winning; I reject the constant pursuit of prestige to an abnormal degree. I want my kid to be a kid, in the old-fashioned sense, where her interests and passions grow from tiny seeds, not trophies.

Do I think this means my kids will never do anything of value? That they’ll never learn to be disciplined, or to find their passions, or that they will fail so constantly that I’ll be the winningest mom in allowing her kids to fail in the history of the planet? Of course not.

I trust that my kids will find their way, that they will insist on pursuing the things they love when they find them. We will encourage them to move their bodies for the singular joy of moving their bodies. We will expose them to opportunities that might lead to participation, but not push them to try everything, in search of the one thing where they can, with some level of certainty, win.

Plenty of you out there grew up enjoying competitive sports and probably have a different perspective on this than I do, and that’s fine. Your kids are probably more athletic than my kids, too. They may receive real joy from their three practices a week, and you might be able to impart invaluable wisdom to them thanks to your own athletic experiences. That’s great.

Or, you might be a parent who has intensely determined kids who have found a passion that you don’t quite understand, and yet, you’re going with it because they love it. And I’m okay with that, too.

All I’m saying is this: what if we promoted experience and participation over success? Our kids are paying attention. If we champion the gray area a little bit more, it won’t lessen their discipline or determination, but it might make them kinder, more compassionate human beings. And heaven knows we need more of those right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope Restored

  
Last night, my kindergartner performed in her school’s holiday pageant. For weeks, she has been singing her heart out to “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” as well as – curiously – “Hickory Dickory Dock” (a favorite). She asked me to ask her music teacher for the song lyrics so she could practice, and practice she did – while doing perler bead art and taking baths, while perched in her booster seat and as a means of blessing at the dinner table. 

Historically, Elizabeth takes on the Cindy Brady game show stare when on stage. She is a fan of neither crowds nor strangers. And, I suspect, like me, she has trouble learning anything auditorially. To this day, I cannot recall most song lyrics, lines from movies, or very much in the way of learning that I haven’t written down. 
So, my hopes for this Christmas pageant were only that Elizabeth would enjoy it – and that there would be glimpses of her true joy on stage. In all her past performances, Elizabeth has only mouthed a word or two of the assigned songs, looking uncharacteristically glum in the process. 

It turns out, though, all that practice paid off. She sang her heart out, smiled and giggled and, as one 2nd grade friend said after the show, “looked just like a firework.” Elizabeth still didn’t know ALL. the lines, but that was OK, because she was SO EXCITED about being there, and she knew that’s where she belonged. 

Parents always tear up at things like this. And I think it actually has less to do with the sweetness of such an event (although it was very, very sweet), and more about the way it restores our hope in the future, our belief in all that is truly good and truly important. 

Watching 100 five year olds celebrate the magic and light that composes their worlds makes it easier to believe in the magic and light in our own. 

And the reason children give us so much hope is that they represent the very best of everything – our best effort, our greatest love, our undeniable wealth in the only things that matter. 

As I looked at that glittering stage last night, so overflowing with excitement and the grandeur of childhood, I felt an upswell of joy that’s eluded me for some time. I recognized again that the reason we feel so passionately about the wonderful and terrible things happening in our nation and our world is that we desperately want to bottle up this kind of joy and freedom. Which is a little bit of a problem – because joy and freedom are best unbottled. Our kids need to see US overflowing with hope no matter whatever crazy things, out of our own control, are bringing us down. (I am in no way suggesting this is easy; I am suggesting it is a goal worth reaching for.)

So the questions I’ve got running around in my head these days are:  What am I imprisoned by, and how can I walk towards freedom? How can I support a more joyful, care-filled existence for anyone who comes in contact with me today? If I can change just one person’s day for the better, why wouldn’t I? 

It was only a Christmas pageant. But it was awesome – a ridiculous, adorable, celebratory thing that reminded me, again, that we can all be united, despite our differences, and that hope is still very much alive. 

  

A Break from the Bad News

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There’s a lot of bad news going around these days, so much, in fact, that it seems to be drowning out the usual, frantic hum of the holiday season. Today, I listened to experts on NPR’s “On Point” debate gun control in light of the Sandy Hook anniversary, closely followed by another news program during which I learned that 78% (wait, let me spell that number out – seventy-eight percent) of Syrians do not have access to clean drinking water. Seventy-eight percent! And then someone said the words “President Trump” and I almost threw up in my car.

This is the kind of bad news that makes me feel so powerless I just want to curl up in a ball and look at old copies of House Beautiful and reruns of “Fixer Upper” all day. It’s the kind of news that makes me want to gather up my children, lock my doors, and bake cookies and paint paintings and lovingly read books with them until we’ve all had our fill of magic and simple joy. It’s the kind of news that makes me wish narratives, once established, can be erased. Clean slate! Let’s start over! But, of course, they can’t.

I don’t want to be someone who hides from the world’s realities. I have friends who don’t watch the news as a measure of self-protection, and that’s something I completely understand but can’t quite bring myself to do. But I do need a break from the bad news sometimes, and I think everyone else does, too.

So, I’m starting a little initiative of my own. In the past couple of weeks, my social media postings have been a little, shall we say, intense. I’ve been sharing articles that highlight a few things I feel really passionate about – protecting our nation’s children from AK-47s, for example, and trumpeting love and compassion rather than fear and desperation.

And while I am still super passionate about these things, I realize that my sharing about them contributes to the strident dialogue and disparate national conversation, so I’m going to take a little Christmas break and post, daily, something uplifting, something beautiful, something that reminds us that the majority of the world is made up of humans rather than monsters – artists, thinkers, dreamers, people, young and old who are courageous and wild and creative in the best and most extraordinary ways. I’m counting this as a Christmas gift I’m giving to myself, and I hope that others might join me.

Several years ago, my husband and I started this thing called “Beautiful Time,” in which we’d sit down for breakfast and share a thing of beauty with our little girls. They were tiny then, and while we all loved the idea, with the arrival of our third child and the overall chaos of our household, we couldn’t keep it in our routine. This initiative of mine may just bring it back, though. We all need a little beauty to warm us up from time to time.

A friend of mine unearthed this Wendell Berry poem the other day and posted it on Facebook, and I’m sharing it here again. May you find a place to absorb the peace of wild things today.

The Peace of Wild Things

BY WENDELL BERRY

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Sunlight and Shade

About a year ago, I added over nine hundred followers to this blog thanks to a post entitled “A Letter to New Mothers,” which appeared on Freshly Pressed. The baby I was so eagerly anticipating when I wrote that essay started kindergarten last week, and leading up to her first day, I felt restless – not so much with worry, but with wonder. What had I done with her for the last five years?

When my first child went off to kindergarten, I had poignant flashbacks of all the fun things we’d done together that I was going to miss – leisurely trips to the zoo, spirited library story times, play dates with friends now scattered across several area schools, and a few who’d moved out of state.

Elizabeth and I kept a very different preschool rhythm. She was happy to play quietly in her room alone or with me, happy to draw or make perler bead art, happy when left with her own imagination to tinker with things that may or may not appear to be toys. She loved an occasional outing, but rarely demanded one.

In the days leading up to kindergarten, I found myself feeling guilty for not having more zoo memories with her. What had we done? We had gone to Target together, where she’d tried on every pair of sunglasses that struck her fancy. We’d drawn with chalk on our driveway and used up several giant sized bottles of bubbles. We’d overcome a year’s worth of furious temper tantrums brought on by the arrival of her baby brother. We’d gone to the grocery store, to buy shoes, and to pick up dry cleaning. We’d curled up on the couch and read book after book, pulled out the baby pool, eaten popsicles, and imagined the most elaborate stories a preschooler can muster.

At the time, it felt to me that I was taking the easy way out – schlepping an ornery two year old and a nine month old to the zoo is no way for a young mother to keep her sanity. (I know, I tried.) But the truth is that the reason being at home felt so easy was that there was really no other place E wanted to be.

Home, not the zoo, or the library, or the playground with a dozen of her friends, is the place where our hearts were sewn together, and, it should come as no surprise, the place where E wishes she were – right this second.

Kindergarten has been in session for a little over a week now, and every day at drop off, or at some point during the day, she’s cried. I’m not talking about a little sniffle. When Elizabeth cries, she gives it her all – true teenage heartbreak channeled by a five year old. After several days of this, I called a counselor I know, and he said, “You know, the problem with society today is that no one wants anything to be hard. Hard is OK. Hard can, in fact, be great.”

I hate it, but I agree with him. If I pulled my girl out of kindergarten right now, it would send the wrong message. She’s big enough and brave enough to know that some things are hard, but that they’re still worth doing.

Confidence is a bear of a thing to cultivate in a child. According to experts, saying “Good job!” too much can eventually have an adverse effect on self-esteem; telling kids they’re smart, rather than hard workers, can make them more anxious about their performance; correcting their bad behavior, rather than effusively praising the good, can make them feel like they never do anything right. Our knee-jerk reactions, like wanting to give Elizabeth another year under my wing, are not always the right ones.

I miss snuggling with E on the couch and hearing her little voice up the stairs, but I don’t want to snuggle her to defeat, or to love her to the point of not knowing what she might accomplish in the face of a challenge. I don’t want her to consider herself a hard worker because I say she is, or for her to measure her worth based on how many times her dad says “good job.” I want her to consider herself a hard worker because she’s carried the load and felt the satisfaction of having done it her way, to know in her heart that whatever she feels pleased to have done is, in fact, as good as it gets.

For the past week, when I’ve tucked Elizabeth in, she’s told me she doesn’t want to go to school, that she’s “not ready,” and/or that she misses me. As painful as all this is to hear, it gives me the opportunity to tell her the truth – something she can return to in five or ten years when other, possibly bigger things, are getting her down – that it’s my job to believe in her, even when she doesn’t believe in herself. I say it, and she looks at me like she’s studying a page in a book:

“What does that even mean, Mama?”

It means that I can see the spark inside her that she’s too clouded over with bewilderment and mommy-wanting to feel. It means that I’m going to pull her along until she can see the beauty of her own mind unfold, until her confidence finally takes root and becomes the thing that takes in sunlight and gives her shade. It means, and this is what I tell her, that I love her, and that she’s going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way quite yet.

Find Me at AHA

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Art House America is a wonderful nonprofit for whom I have written several essays in the past. I am proud to be part of an organization that that seeks to inspire its readers, and whose aim is “Cultivating Creative Community for the Common Good.”  Let me know what you think of my essay, “Eulogy:”

http://www.arthouseamerica.com/blog/eulogy.html

I can’t remember a time when I’ve worked so hard at getting every word just right!

Strange Fashions

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I spent last weekend with some of my closest friends in the mountains of North Carolina. We’ve been getting together on an annual basis for nine years now, and although we don’t all live within driving distance of one another, we are as close as we’ve ever been.

These ladies all vetted my would-be husband and then stood beside me when I married him. They helped me say goodbye to my dad, heralded the arrivals of each of my children and have otherwise served as fine, funny, encouraging friends ever since I’ve known them.

I couldn’t be more thankful, especially this year, because I’ve found myself in a bit of a morass when it comes to today’s fashions. I am 5’2″, with what could be described as athletic/curvy/stocky legs; I have a penchant for high heels and cashmere, fitted shirts and a clear delineation between my torso and my lower body. The thing that’s going on with leggings, tall boots and long, chunky sweaters? To someone built like me, it feels downright immoral; after spending a lifetime taking exacting measures in fashion to counteract an unadvertised body type, the act of even considering “skinnies,” tunics, Uggs, and blanket coats is just reprehensible.

And yet, I feel an odd pressure to try and (finally) embrace it, maybe because we just bought a mini-van and I don’t really want to look the part, or maybe because I live in such a trendy city, where plenty of people, older than I am, have no qualms with donning a fedora and/or wearing screenprints with skull and crossbones.

I happily pegged my pants and wore a lot of hairspray in the eighties. In the nineties, I’m pretty sure I asked for Jennifer Anniston’s haircut, and I may have worn a vest. But in the 2000s, I settled nicely in to a closet filled with classic sweaters and universally flattering boot-cut pants, none of which were made of leather. I hardly ever came across another person and cringed, thinking how terribly out of style I must look. But then the fashionistas broke out the tall boots and skinny jeans, Lululemon came to power, and people, real people, started wearing it all – and my whole “pearls and cashmere” thing was blown to pieces.

This past weekend, my friends and I discussed several things: school choices for our children, baby naming, dinner ruts, work/life balance and, of course, the current fashion trends. Now, I should be clear that all the girls with me last weekend are a lot more on-trend than I am, but the general consensus was that much of what we see happening out there is, at the very least, difficult to identify with.

After a discussion about the right and wrong ways to wear the styles today, I started feeling a little braver, though. I resolved to update in the most timeless way possible, and on Monday, before the feeling wore off, I rushed to the mall.

After sending my friends a variety of selfies from the dressing room, in which I am making ridiculous faces in the mirror while trying on clothing that makes me look like a potato, we reached an agreement on a few things that were deemed not so far outside my personality that I should not buy them. I have boots now, pants that are skinny enough, but not obscene, and a few tops that, according to people other than me, might be described as flattering.

My husband was out of town when I went shopping, and since he returned, I’ve worn some derivation of this new style – what he has referred to as “strange fashions” – every day. I’ll admit that it’s nice to have a few new things to wear, and that it is good not to feel so stuck in 2008. But I won’t feel I can own this look for some time, if ever.

Fashion has a way of pulling even the most confident women into a delicate state of vulnerability. We hear a lot about the dearth of real body types represented in the media, but very little, really, about how clothing trends are chosen and the aftermath for those of us at the mercy of people who design clothing for ladies who weigh about as much as an average American 12 year old. As a woman, I find this exasperating; as a mother of two girls, I foresee a lot of long talks in dressing rooms, and I hate that they, at some point or another, are going to feel their worth is in the clothing they wear, or how they wear it.

If you see me out and about sporting my new style, know that I am pretending, at least a little, and that underneath that voluminous sweater I’m wearing, I’m holding my breath, waiting for a new trend to spike.

Freshly Pressed, and Thoughts on Being Super Mom

In the past year or so since I’ve let my blog go dormant, I’ve gotten a few notifications from WordPress. Sometimes they included legitimate comments from readers, but the more occasional ones were all spam, and I thought the email I received from the site a little over a week ago would be no different.

But it was. So. Different.

Krista, an editor at WordPress, somehow found an essay I wrote over two years ago. She liked it so much she wanted to feature it on Freshly Pressed. This digital age is a funny one, and for a minute after I read her email, I thought, “Oh, ‘Krista’ is probably just a computer, trolling sites for key words.” But then I read her email again, and she actually sounded like a human being, who had actually been moved by my writing.

When it hit Freshly Pressed later that week, I started getting comments, and “likes” and reblogs, and followers that trumped my previous numbers several times over.

All this attention for something I wrote such a long time ago has made me feel like I’ve woken up in a room filled with bright lights and party hats. As soon as I sit up, everyone shouts, “Surprise!”

I didn’t know how much I needed that kind of attention, but I did! It’s set my brain on fire.

All around me, the world is loud. My children are loud. My husband is loud. My tea kettle is loud. My new phone, because its speaker is not yet clogged with apple sauce, is loud. My dog has acquired a barking problem, and I’ll be damned if she is not loud. My own thoughts are loud, too.

But for the last year or so, I have been quiet – not writing, barely investing in reading – because if there is anything I want right now, it’s quiet. I want my brain to be quiet, my life, especially when I am alone, to be quiet. Pictures instead of words, if you please.

One could say from all this talk that I am depressed, or not coping very well with the chaos that is life with three young children, but the reality is that most of the time, I love my life. I am deeply grateful for everything in it, painfully aware that in just a few years, I am really going to miss the noise and the mess that trails after my children at every turn. I breathe in the sweet smell of my two year old every night, and I revel in how simple it all is right now. No one is begging for an iPhone; no one’s rolling their eyes; no one is sneaking out, or getting bullied, or having their hearts broken. It’s pretty great, really, in the grand scheme of things.

But my thought life, and therefore, my writing life, does suffer. Until this week, I’d been willing to let that go as an inevitable consequence of the season. It had kind of fallen into the mini-van category: a necessary evil that makes life for a mother of three exponentially more convenient.

The convenience of not writing, though, the luxury of all this quiet, has its consequences. And while I am not exactly sure what all of them are, the sum of their parts equals Not Good.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about modern day Mommy Culture – how our life as mothers has somehow become so defining that it’s supplanted our core identities. Until my third child arrived, I felt I was able to hold most things in balance. Since then, I have (mostly unknowingly) been asking myself the following questions: “Do I want to be: A Mom Who Writes? A Mom Who Exercises? A Mom Who Volunteers?” Etc. etc. — As opposed to being a person who does all of those things and also happens to have a family.

The article in the Times came down pretty hard on our culture, and perhaps rightfully so, but I would also argue that all the Super Moms out there are knowing parties in the madness they’re perpetuating. These high achievers want to be the best, and it doesn’t matter if all we’re talking about are cake pops and class party logistics. They’re women who have had their dreams deferred (and sometimes derailed) by the process of parenting, and like everyone else, they’re desperately fighting the demons of insecurity.

I don’t have it together enough to be a Super Mom. I’m kind of a mess, really. But I feel for them, because I kind of know what they’re going through, and I wish for them that they could just take a deep breath and stop. Their kids don’t actually want them to be crazy.

My kids don’t want me to be crazy, either. Occasionally, I have been – and I am not using the term ‘crazy’ as a colloquialism when I write that. But as I have quietly been making my way through the past year or so, I’ve started to mix a little bit of my old self back in with the new. I started exercising after an embarrassingly long hiatus; I’m taking turns editing this awesome new lit mag; I felt the freedom to sit on a porch swing at the beach house to finish the last few chapters of The Goldfinch, while the dads manned the fort. Maybe writing again, more often, is next. We’ll see.