An Experiment with Self-Improvement

On Monday, Baby E had her one year checkup. I often go to doctor’s appointments with a brief list of questions in my mind, and every time I make my mental notes, I am astounded by the responsibility entrusted to us as parents.

Before each of these doctor’s visits, I feel a little the way I did upon discharge at the hospital, when the nurse tells you everything that could potentially go wrong with your baby and then whisks you away in your wheelchair, holding a precious, burritoed bundle, to the unknown. Whoa.

Before my kids’ major checkups, I fear that I will forget to ask the most important questions, or that some huge, but yet-unknown-to-me parental failing will out itself at the appointment. I strive to look as presentable as the mother of two small children can, as though the doctor will take one look at my under-eye circles and the workout clothes I wear every day and deem me incompetent.

This ritual is ridiculous: no one is going to care whether I have on makeup or not at my baby’s one year checkup, and yet I give it weight, compensating for the insecurity that shakes my confidence and the confidence of almost every mother I know: getting it wrong.

As it turns out, Baby E was, and is, thriving. I remembered to ask all the questions on my mental list. She cried, but not too much, when they gave her her shots. We left, well-tended and on to the next thing. But the prep work that went into that appointment got me thinking about how all our efforts, in everything, reveal a little – or a lot – about who we are and what we care about, and where our insecurities lie. Since parenting is, for me, my most consistent gig, I began thinking about the rules I’ve set for our household, especially for Claire, and how those rules reflect on me.

A few, for example: C may only watch two hours of tv a day, tops; her treats usually have to be earned, not expected; she is only allowed juice (diluted!) once a day.

I know: some of you without kids are thinking, “What are you running up there, a prison?” And some of you with kids are thinking: “Are you kidding? TWO hours of TV? Her brain is going to melt!”

So, I’ve taken a couple of these rules to heart, just to see if I really believe in what I’m enforcing and if life will improve if I, not just Claire, abide by them. I never watch TV, so I’ve started limiting my internet access to no more than two hours of web and email, holding myself to the discipline of not checking email every time I pass my computer. It is amazing how much time can get sucked away by the internet, and how numb I often feel after too much time on Facebook or looking around even at interesting, engaging things online. There is a much richer life to be had in writing, books, folding laundry, cleaning out my closets, talking to friends, etc. and I feel more human when I participate in this sort of mundane, real life stuff. So far, so good.

Lately, well, OK, for my whole life, I have been terrible about drinking enough water. I would much rather have hot tea, juice, Pelligrino, or champagne. I mean, who wouldn’t? So, for the next thirty days I’m challenging myself to drink the recommended amount of water each day – 64 ounces. Honestly, I am kind of bummed out about this, since I really just do not like water that much, but if I expect my children to follow suit, I’d better get on board or change my tune.

This self-improvement/experiment at enlightenment may be kind of silly. As I write about it, it feels a little like a delayed New Year’s Resolution or Lenten promise. Its purpose, though, is sincere: Am I teaching my children, even at the most basic level, about who I am and what I really believe, or only about what I’ve been told to do? Let’s hope the former.

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Beautiful Time

By Nic-C

While reading the New York Times the other morning, I was distraught to find not one sampling of good news. Not one. Every ugly headline I read had something to do with destruction on both a global and a personal scale. And for days afterwards, columns of bad news piled up around me, rising like cinders, threatening to distort my world’s simplest joys.

More than that, the bad news made me think about the world we are handing to our children, to my children, and how I might help them cope with the onslaught of negative information and experience (i.e. middle school) that will inevitably come their way.

When I was growing up, I read and wrote poetry to process and lend beauty to circumstances that were not always the best, and some of my favorite memories of my father, a strapping, stoic farmer, are of his recitations of poetry at the dinner table – something that shaped my love for language and the comfort I’ve taken in it. So, I decided that I would help my family (and myself) combat the stress and uncertainty of each day with a few minutes each morning dedicated to the consideration/reading/hearing/tasting/smelling/seeing of something beautiful.

We call it “Beautiful Time.”

Now, this is a lovely idea in theory. And, actually, it’s a lovely idea in practice, except that our three year old has her own conceptions of beauty, and TV happens to be one of them.  Each morning, we drag Claire away from “Jack’s Big Music Show” to share with her the things we hope will eventually sustain her when NickJr. is a thing of the past: truly great music – not just classical, but rock, folk, country and alternative – beautiful, interesting art, and kind words, spoken and written.

For now, we recognize and give in to our children’s line of vision: we allow Claire to put on her princess dress and dance to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Major, even if it’s a harried morning; on occasion, we use her art as a “Beautiful Time” focal point; we ask her what she thinks is beautiful, how she feels when she makes something beautiful (“happy”), and what makes her feel loved. In this way, her perspective (and soon, Elizabeth’s) will shape our grown up perspectives on beauty in all its forms, bringing with it a peculiar joy and curiosity.

Absorbing artful sustenance for whatever lies ahead seems a good practice for anyone unwilling to surrender completely to the world’s painful realities. It can be a reminder of how best to process bad news – a lot of incredible art has been born of hard times – and how to find a center point of beauty and strength to return to in otherwise unwieldy chaos.

On Tuesday, we looked at a wood carving of a flower Andrew’s dad made when Andrew was Elizabeth’s age. It is one of his simpler carvings, but beautiful, and both our girls loved holding it and running their fingers across its intricate detail. Claire was so enamored by the idea of “Pete” having made the carving that she lingered longer than usual at the kitchen table, and didn’t even ask for the TV to be turned back on, allowing me, even, to read her a poem far above her reach, but filled with beautiful words. I’ve posted it below to give you your own bit of sustenance for whatever your day may hold.

From Blossoms

By Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Genius

On occasion, my husband, A, and I have conversations about what we would do if we had an inexhaustible amount of money. Since I will likely never have to make good on this, sometimes I try to impress him and say I would give away half and invest the rest. But if I’m honest, I tell him I’d spend a lot of it on continuing education, enrolling myself perpetually in classes covering everything from literature and art history to astronomy and biology. I would want to be responsible for completing a lot of interesting, difficult homework for these classes and to get a real grade, even if my grade ended up not being very good (see: astronomy).

I am not owning up to this so that you will think I am smart, but because it is (somewhat embarrassingly, strangely) true. There are just few things I love more than school, and there are few ways to recreate the joys of discovery found in a university setting once your time is up. Until now.

A couple of years ago, I discovered TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.   Each week, experts in their fields speak for twenty minutes on their newest discoveries, creations or innovations, and TED, God bless ’em, puts these talks on the world wide web for free. Like that favorite college professor, the presenters are all, almost without fail, charismatic, convincing and convicting. They cover fascinating topics you wouldn’t otherwise know or care anything about, and, before you know it, their passion for natural light or leadership or the printing of organs has hopped from their minds and hearts to yours in a matter of seconds.

The constant presence of the Web is, in my house, anyway, not always the best thing.  Like the Pied Piper, the charming, insidious chimes of our cell phones and the ever-presence of the internet and its relentless deluge of (often useless/empty) information,  leads my family away from one another, because family – even at the very happy, early stage we are in – takes emotional work and active investment, while our electronic “communications” allow us to function at B-level all the time.

But the makers of TED have somehow redeemed the internet for me, making it, in my mind, what it should be – a vehicle not only for spreading ideas, but inspiration, artfulness, intrigue, beauty and light in a world that shifts all too naturally into corners of desolation, defeat, cynicism and darkness. And although it doesn’t assign homework (am I the only person who’s disappointed about this?), TED does allow for the kind of interesting follow-up conversations that I crave, especially after a day of saying “no-no, no-no” to an eleven month old and “yes, of course I want to see how (big you are/well you can crunch your pretzel/beautifully you twirl)” to a three year old. Watching TED reminds me that there are still amazing and incredible things happening in the outside world, and it allows me to be a part of them – if only vicariously, for now.

To watch: http://www.TED.com

FirstWord/LastWord

Christmas Clairewww.keriecleveland.com

On Saturday morning, Claire awoke in a happy mood, babbling in her crib for a good long while before demanding to be taken out and given milk.  When she finally did “call” for us, Andrew and I were still feeling lazy, so we pulled her into bed  for what we hoped would be some nice baby snuggle time.

But our unmade bed is to Claire a fascinating obstacle course.  She crawls over stray pillows and random coverlet lumps as though she is an all-terrain vehicle, plowing through the rumpled sheets while making sounds akin to a sputtering engine.  In dim light, she finds our faces with her little hands and grabs hard at our noses, or slaps our cheeks.  Occasionally, Claire will face plant into a pillow and suck her fingers for a hopeful moment, but this is just a way to buy some time while hatching a plan for her next adventure. Always, she heads towards the nearest edge of the bed, which is 32 inches high – a number we know because we had to measure it after Claire, at six months, rolled off.

All of this makes for a less than restful snuggle. But it’s fun, and it delays the beginning of our inevitable morning routine.

At some point during Claire’s Saturday morning theatrics, Ivy sensed a good time and bounded onto the bed with us.  The baby, who was delighted, and completely unphased by Ivy’s tail,  giggled and squealed “EyeBee!” All other babbling we have been able to write off as just that, but the “EyeBee” we heard from Claire on Saturday was an intentional first.  She’d put two and two together.  Today, she did it again.  At lunch, I caught her passing  pieces of chicken and cheese to her new best friend, the vehicle for her first intellectual milestone: EyeBee.

Just as Claire ends 2008 with her first word, I end this year closing out “Joyful Things”.  Certainly, as I’ve continued to grow as a writer, this site has become a surprising tool in helping me suss out fake narrative voice – too many of my friends read this for me to go around putting on airs – and, it’s served as a constant reminder that writers are never truly out of ideas.

In closing, I hope this little blog has captured the wonder of the every day, that it has rung true, and that it has pointed to the power of paying attention.  In writing, I think that’s what we’re all after – or at least I am.  I’ll keep doing it, in a somewhat more structured way of Wandering at www.proximitymag.org, beginning January 1.

Proximity is a collaborative project with two of my writer friends, Carrie Kilman and Maggie Messitt, narrative journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and rural South Africa, respectively.  Each week, we plan to spend an hour at a chosen location in each of our cities (coffee shop, bus stop, restaurant, etc.) and write around that theme.  Later, we’ll ask readers to contribute their own posts in what we hope will become a global portrait of common ground.

I hope I’ll see you there.  In the mean time, Happy Holidays!

Next Year I’m Going Barefoot



Originally uploaded by NicaMom

For almost everyone I know, 2008 has been a year full of challenges.

One of my best friends kicked off the year on interminable bed rest, forcing her to miss her brother’s wedding. Another good friend’s aunt and grandmother died within weeks of one another. Claire’s arrival was certainly a joy, but in the beginning those long newborn days felt mighty hard. And then there was Ivy’s seizure and liver failure, Peter’s stroke and associated difficulties. Then, in the latter part of ’08, as we all felt we were coming out of the haze, another friend’s family was mugged at knife point. In the midst of all this, we have also faced down alcoholism, loneliness, a non-profit in financial crisis, a baby in need of a new heart, and two (very young) crumbling marriages.

As hard as it’s been, I feel fortunate that I have heard and felt all the stuff that’s shattered this year. I am fortunate to be a part of a community that doesn’t pretend that everything’s perfect when it isn’t, part of a group of friends that not only offers and delivers help, but also asks for it. And, in the midst of a year that qualifies for us as the most challenging on record, I’m thankful I still want to be and am sympathetic to others. There’s nothing like tunnel vision to fuel an already devastating fire.

All the bad news we’ve received in 2008 has also made the good news that much better. Claire, as she’s grown and thrived, has served up laughter and sweetness better than any healing balm – for us and for our extended family. Friends have safely welcomed five healthy babies this year. My niece, Madeleine, was born, and another good friend recently announced her pregnancy. I got an agent. Our friend John got engaged to a wonderful girl and set an April wedding date. America elected Obama (which made for good news for at least the voting majority). Andrew and I also worked in a much needed, baby-free vacation (thanks, Mom!), have been reminded of what is truly important in life, and – as a direct result of all the bad news that’s been going around – have closer friendships now than ever before.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been one of those “behind every dark cloud is a silver lining” types. Instead, I tend to wonder when the other shoe is going to drop, waiting anxiously for the next big thump. But this year – a year that has been full of big, jackboot sized thumps – it seems that everything that can drop has (even the stock market), and in spite of everything, we’ve found that there is still always something to celebrate … if not in our own life, in someone else’s.

This Thanksgiving, we were weary – as though we’d just survived a harrowing journey – but grateful, ready to head into a holiday season that would lead us out of this worn down year and into a brand new one.  We’re good stock – by which I mean we have determination and that we are fiercely opposed to any sort of prolonged sulking – so I am hopeful for a holiday season and a 2009 that has great capacity for joy.

Speaking of joy … although I will probably post a few more thoughts on Joyful Things before the end of the year, in January, you’ll find my writing (more of it, and more consistently) on a new blog named Proximity – a group project with two of my very talented friends from graduate school. The vision is still in the works, but the blog will be a mix of journalism and essay based on weekly themes, and it should be as entertaining as it is enlightening.

Saving Our Endangered Minds

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to peel myself away from my computer, forcing myself off email, away from the shamelessly addictive Facebook, and out of the comforting synthetic community of online print.

This painfully difficult exercise of going “unplugged” began with a creepy, guilty feeling.  I’d been wasting far too much precious time online.  I knew this without wanting to readily admit it, and while some of it could be chalked up to searching fruitlessly for good (as in, paying) writing gigs, I’d also spent my fair share of free time perusing online sales and eBay listings, nosing through long lost “friends'” pages on Facebook, and checking (and refreshing) my email as though I were expecting correspondence from Barack Obama, himself.

Like the addict I am, I lingered in denial for a while, telling myself that my computer habits weren’t that deplorable, that I still managed to get my work done on deadline, that many of the things I did online, like connecting with old friends, were life-giving, etc. etc.  But then, in an attempt to begin research for my book (which actually involved turning OFF the computer and picking up a real paperback), I began reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy.

Healy, a PhD in educational psychology, wrote Endangered Minds after noticing that her new generation of students didn’t seem to respond to teaching techniques that had worked for her for decades.  It wasn’t just their attitudes that were different; their brains seemed different, too.  Her colleagues agreed.  Healy approached several neurophsychologists and posed this question: Were modern lifestyles altering childrens’ brains in subtle, but critical ways?

Some of the scientists were hesitant to go on the record with Healy, claiming that yes – children’s brains did appear to be changing (and not necessarily for the best) – but that no one could prove it.  Others emphatically agreed with Healy’s hypothesis – pointing to the brain’s lifelong plasticity – and begged her to write a book that might lead to reform, better education, and a greater understanding of what today’s kids are up against.

Healy’s prose is smart and engaging. But what’s kept me reading Endangered Minds are her startling findings: material that was once used to teach middle school students is being used in high schools; standardized tests are easier now than they were in the sixties, but our childrens’ scores are lower; the practice of reading is nearly outmoded, which is bad enough, but students’ comprehension of read materials is also abysmal.  Teachers report that their students today exhibit more aggressive behavior, poor attention spans, and difficulty integrating what they learn in class with day-to-day experience.

TV is often blamed as kids’ greatest intellectual hazard, but the internet and video games are surely rounding the curve, as are busy parents’ lives – one can’t expect a child to know how to navigate his or her world without a parent to plot the course.  Kids’ brains, as limber and changeable as their little bodies, are being molded by electronic babysitters, things that whizz and buzz and blink.  No wonder black and white print seems so boring.

Fifty pages in to Endangered Minds, I felt as though a tiny light was being shined on my dark corner of online distraction.  If children’s brains could be remolded (read: warped) by excess media and a lack of life experience, couldn’t mine?

“Yes!” shouted a little internal voice.  “Keep reading!”

And so I did, finishing Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, picking up Atwood’s The Blind Assassin,  and plugging along through Endangered Minds (“assigned” reading, no matter how fascinating, always feels like more work than fun).

As I spent more time with books than on the internet, I began to notice a change in my own brain: my thoughts were deeper and more complex, and my ideas for essays and writing jobs felt less out of reach.  Reading more has revived my capacity for and love of language; it’s reminded me of why writing is important, and why what I want to write is important.  Reading has made me more certain of myself and my purpose.

Without my even knowing it, all that internet surfing had made me slightly cranky, unsatisfied, and uninspired, like an overtired child.  Now, after drawing some boundaries with Mac, I feel as though I’ve woken up from a much-needed nap.  I’m more alert and settled, eager to learn and to contribute.

While Dr. Healy’s book may sound like an indictment of today’s children and their families here, it’s not.  The purpose of Endangered Minds is to call attention to the shortcomings, and then to propose solutions – a vital read for anyone who has children.

But the point of this posting isn’t to get everyone on a bandwagon for the education of America’s children … it’s to encourage you readers to invest in the plasticity of your own unique and brilliant brains.  As the holidays kick off this week, find some time to turn off the television, unplug the computer and let your cell phone battery die.  Go off into some quiet corner with a steaming cup of something, a good book (that is, a book that is good by your standards, which means it holds your attention) and lose yourself in it.

It may take time to get into the habit (I haven’t quite kicked Facebook yet) – getting into any sort of daily ritual takes patience.  But once you do, you may find yourself seeing the world through a new lens, better able to sustain the blows life brings, and less obsessed with modern day immediacy.

New York State of Mind

For the past several days, I’ve had a hankering for New York City.

This happens to me, inexplicably, every now and then, usually in early fall or late spring.  I felt the hankering coming on recently, when “New York State of Mind” became my internal iPod’s constant soundtrack; it’s as if Billy Joel decided to set up his piano in my memory bank, refusing to leave unless I booked myself a flight from ATL to JFK.  (He hasn’t broken me yet.)  I’ve also been reading The New York Times in earnest – more thoroughly and with more interest than usual, and this has only intensified my curiosity and desire for the place: for its hustle; its literature; its rhythm.

Still, I can’t really explain this lingering New York want.  I’ve never lived there and have only actually visited twice.  I could not, if plunked down in the middle of Central Park, find my way to Times Square.  There are no favorite New York City sandwich shops in my memory, no quaint ice-skating-hand-in-hand-at-Rockefeller-Center moments in my past, no warm flashbacks of shopping in the city’s grand department stores with my mother, no great personal literary moments recorded at the New York Public Library.

But I do like the idea of such things, and I think that’s what keeps the hankering going: my life, imagined, in New York City. For the past few weeks, as I’ve felt my creativity take on volalitility not unlike our current stock market’s, I imagine that living within a community of writers, and among so many publishing giants, would keep me afloat.

When in a New York state of mind, I begin making excuses for the sluggishness of my Atlanta-based pen: if I lived in New York I would believe in (and be surrounded by believers in) my writing; the cooler weather/walking/cultural wealth would inspire me; if I lived in New York, I would be more hip and in the know, steps away from my (so far) very encouraging agent, and in the midst of general excitement. I spend valuable free time imagining paid writing jobs on subjects both literary and creative, museum days for Claire, runs in Central Park with Ivy, nights out in some great NY restaurant with Andrew –  and Billy Joel sings on and on.

But what I need is not New York.  I do not have, as one friend puts it, “itchy feet” for anywhere, really; we have a nice yard here, and no traffic to speak of on our surface streets, and it is quiet, which is, perhaps the most vital necessity to my concentration and creativity.  Like the imagined great office space and the imagined great book deal which, in my imagination, contribute so significantly to my creativity, the New York state of mind is just a diversion, allbeit a happy one.  It is so tempting to imagine myself anywhere but here in the midst of times that are challenging, or too day-in-day-out.  I wonder if the whole world doesn’t do that to a certain extent.  Maybe we are all living dual lives in our minds.

As I switched my closet from summer to winter this weekend, just before the hankering for NY hit, I came across a black cashmere sweater I bought just before my last trip to the city.  It was on sale, but still felt like a luxurious purchase, one worthy of New York in the fall.  But in the end, I think it did nothing to make me look anything but hopelessly Southern – in New York for a weekend, with no real sense or desire for direct belonging.

And so, I find myself reassured somewhat: I am who I am, and where I should be; however temporarily the cultural outcroppings of [the imagined] New York life woo me, they’ve got only peripheral bearing on my creative aims and successes.  Billy Joel, too, will fade in time. As he goes, I just hope he will leave with me some inspiration.