Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Meaning of Life...or Whatever

On Tuesday, after I dropped Ben off for his first day of school, I had a clearly defined plan for how I was going to spend my two and a half hours--the first two and a half hours that were officially mineallmine with both of my children occupied with schooling.

For whatever reason, burritos are the one thing my children veto every time I suggest them, and they are otherwise spectacular eaters, so I acquiesce.  So, first order of business was to eat my modified burrito (chicken bowl with a tortilla on the side) in the sunshine on the sidewalk in front of the mall Chipotle.

Several days earlier, my friend, Jody, had posted a quotation on Facebook that read “We were made to be the things that he is: forgivers, redeemers, second-chance givers, truth-tellers, hope-bringers. And we were certainly, absolutely made to be creators.” (s. niequist)”
After a quick google, I discovered Shauna Niequist and her book BittersweetAfter reading a couple of the excerpts from her website, I immediately placed her two books on reserve at the library.  

I had waited to start the book because my evenings had been consumed with filling out beginning of the school year paperwork and watching reality TV (hey, my brain was fried). So, part two of my big I-have-time-to-do-whatever-I-want plan was to leisurely read my new book while enjoying my meal.

Really great plan, right?  Yeah, until I started reading and realized that literally every page was going to make me cry.  I did not apologize to the two gentlemen sitting at the table next to me, who were probably utterly grossed out by the tears and snot dripping down my face.  Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but almost--I kept getting that choking feeling in the back of my throat, and I tucked a napkin on the inside of my glasses to line the rim of my bottom eyelids in an effort to catch the tears before they fell in my bowl.  

There was a time in my life when I laughed at Scott people who cry in movies.  I have been told there is a block of ice where my heart should be.  By multiple people.  But there is something about becoming a mother that opened the flood gates for me, and now these public crying fits seem to be standard operating procedure, which my friend, Erica, has assured me is completely normal.  And I believe her because she wouldn’t lie to me.

So, as I placed check marks in the margins of the book over and over again, I broke one of the rules I made for my alone-but-not-lonely time--I got on my phone to order the books to own (because I didn't want to get arrested by the library police for writing in their book).  I decided when we signed Ben up for this two-days-a-week class, I would have three rules because I am terrible without rules.  Aside from having a high need to have a plan, I need boundaries--like an electric fence with a shock collar to keep me from deviating from the set plan.  So, I made these three rules:

  1. No internet.  Especially no Facebook.  I was not going to watch my time disappear while I browsed other people’s baby pictures and “Liked” Ryan Gosling memes.  No.  I have plenty of time to do that at night when I am catching up on SYTYCD and folding laundry.
  2. No cleaning/organizing.  My kids are at an age, where I can very easily be productive (moms of wee ones--the day will come, I promise!).  So, the laundry and the vacuuming and the cleaning pee off the toilets--all of that can wait until a time when they are jumping on the trampoline or playing Legos in their rooms.  I will not be productive during my five-whole-hours-a-week.
  3. Some writing every day.  And this--THIS is the big one.

I am a writer.  (See how nice that looks in print, right there for all the world to see?)  But for the last seven thirty-two years, I have done very little in the way of writing with a purpose.  Several months ago, I attended the Storyline conference with Donald Miller, and above anything else he said, the thing that stuck with me most was this: if you want to be a blogger, write blogs.  If you want to write books, write books.  (That’s the Leia paraphrase, of course, but I think he would be happy with my version.)

In that moment, my body reacted in the way my mind couldn’t--I got sweaty pits and goosebumps all at the same time.  Because here’s the deal--I want to write books.  I write blog posts because I need an outlet for all the things that spin through my head on a day-to-day basis.  Consequently, the immediate gratification of getting a message from someone that says anything from “That was great!” to “I so needed to hear this today!” is what makes me feel connected to the rest of humanity on those days when I feel like an island (in a bad way).

I don’t begrudge my children or the time I’ve spent being thebestmomintheworld so far.  In fact, I believe being a mom is the greatest gift God has ever given me and the greatest gift I have to give the world.  Mothering--nurturing, caring, training, loving--is the most natural thing I have ever done.  But I really, really believe that the second greatest gift God gave me was my ability to write, and it’s a gift that has been sitting dusty on a shelf for far too long.

I finally feel like I have reached a season when I can focus on writing without feeling like I am shorting my kids or husband in an unfair way.  Because that’s what this season is about for me: 1. Working on my marriage, 2. Raising human beings, and 3. Pursuing writing as a viable career.

I wish you could feel the pit in my stomach right now--the one that is pummeling my gut and screaming, “WHAT IF YOU FAIL?”  Well, then I fail, I guess, but this is the moment in my life when I am saying, I am going to try anyway.

Shauna Niequist outlines beautifully the struggles that ensue when you are trying to write a book in her chapter titled “Knees or Buns.”  She talks about how when she is eating at a restaurant with her three-year-old, she gives him the choice--knees or buns.  Anyone who has ever dined with children will get this reference right away--I, in fact, have said a variation of this thousands of times, something like, “You can’t stand in your chair.  Pick one--on your knees or on your bottom.”

She goes on to compare writing to the situation with her son.  She writes, 

“What I learn, over and over, is that writing isn’t hard, but sitting down in the chair is really, really hard.  So at this point, I’m working at a three-year-old level: knees or buns?  I can sit anywhere I like, but I have to sit down, and then the hardest part is over...Creativity isn’t easy, and it isn’t something you turn on like a light switch.  My inbox will tell you that the world is full of writers who don’t write, painters who don’t paint, dancers who don’t dance.  They want me to tell them something, ostensibly a secret something that will get them up and moving again, creating again.  My reply is always a disappointing one: I don’t know what to tell you.  Sit down, knees or buns.  But then, I tell them something else: do it for the feeling you’ll have when you are done.  Making art doesn’t have the instant payoff that most things in our modern lives do, but like all things that really matter, the big payoff is invisible and comes much later.”

So, here I am.  On my second day without children.  On my buns.  Because she’s right--writing isn’t hard, not when you know with every fiber of your being that this is what you MUST do.  And whatever the payoff is, I am going to just live with this right now--the idea that I have five hours every week when I am going to do EXACTLY what I was made to do.  That, in itself, is payoff enough.  For now.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

First and Last

A few weeks ago, I was running errands with the boys in the back seat.  Out of the blue (a phrase synonymous with many things kid-related), my six-year-old, Will, asked, “Mom, when was the first Monday?”

These are the kinds of questions I do not know how to answer.  Why is the sky blue?  Let’s look it up.  What is God?  Got it.  How are babies made?  Sure.  But, when was the first Monday?  I don’t know.  I just don’t.  I mean, technically, I’m sure I could track down the answer by figuring out when the calendar was put in its current form, who made these changes, and when the vernacular became “Monday,” but even then, it wouldn’t start to answer his question.

His question at its root was not about Monday.  It was about marking time, finding a beginning, making sense of the world around him.

We have chickens, two of which have turned out to be roosters--roosters who like to crow every morning sometime between 6:00 and 6:30--roosters who are going to be traded with the farmer for hens before I wring their necks.  This morning, the red numbers on the clock glowed at me--the light screaming 6:23, mocking me, laughing and saying, “Your alarm is set for 7:03!  Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!”  I sat up, not unhappy, on the first morning in a long time that I’ve had to set an alarm.  Why?

Because today was Will’s first day of first grade.

We homeschooled for kindergarten because (long story short) it made sense at the time, and over the last week as we prepared for going to traditional school--gathering school supplies, buying new shoes, picking out fun snacks for lunch--I found myself counting down all the “lasts” we were sharing together.

Our last summer movie night.

Our last day of waking up with no alarm and staying in pajamas.

Our last sushi lunch at our favorite restaurant.

Last night, as we left meet the teacher, I asked Will if he had any questions. He grabbed my hand to cross the street and said, "Can you walk me into first grade tomorrow? And for the rest of the days until I get the hang of it?" Yes. Yes, I can. I wanted to ask him the same question back.

This morning, Will stumbled out of his bedroom at 6:37, far too early, saying, “The rooster woke me up.”  I scooped him up, no easy feat these days as he is quickly approaching my shoulders in height, and carried him back to bed.  I climbed in next to him and pulled the sheet up around our necks.  He pulled my arm around his head to rest on my shoulder and said, “I wish Daddy could be here tomorrow.”

“Me too, buddy.”  Tomorrow is Will’s seventh birthday, and Scott is deployed.  Unfortunately, this is not the first or last important day that we’ve been apart. I snuggled my six-year-old, on the last morning of his being a six-year-old, and asked, “What do you think about turning seven?”

He yawned, his morning breath invading my nostrils, and answered, “I will fun faster and be better at video games, and I’m not sure what else.”

And in that statement, you see why he is my hero: his future is full of possibility, even if he’s not sure what it holds.  

A little over a month ago, one of my dearest friends found out she was pregnant with her first baby.  We stayed up late talking, when she confided in me her anxiety about motherhood, the bittersweetness of closing an era of her life.  I assured her the bitter would fade, leaving only the sweet, after the first time she looks in the mirror and sees her belly starting to swell.  Or perhaps after the first time she feels the fluttering feet or hiccups from the inside of her abdomen.

I had a conversation with a recently divorced friend who confessed over beers that he slept with a woman on his birthday, the first since his divorce--a woman in her forties.  He laughed, thinking about how his ex-wife is still in her twenties, and added, “I’ve never even slept with a woman in her thirties!”

I pray daily for a friend who posted a picture on Facebook of her first visit to her baby’s grave, just days after her baby took her first and last breaths.

I spent time with three different friends while home in OK last month who marked six, seven, and eight months since taking their last drink.

Another friend posted a picture of her daughter’s laundry from her first weekend home from college.  A few of months ago, we didn’t know what that day would look like for them as my friend was starting her first round of chemo for breast cancer.  What a joy it was to celebrate her last treatment and announcement of remission right around the time her daughter moved into her dorm room.

We measure our days, whether we mean to or not, in firsts and lasts.  It is one way we attempt to measure what life is, what it means.  We take pictures, we keep records in baby books and journals, we make every effort to celebrate and mourn the passing of time by creating benchmarks.  These benchmarks are not just plot points  on our timelines--they are memories of joy and sorrow and everything in between.

When we got home this morning from dropping Will off, I asked Ben what he wanted for breakfast.  He replied, “Fried eggs,” and then added, “Can I play Wii?”

I answered, “Sure.  Just while I cook the eggs.  Then, you’ll need to come to the table to sit with me while we eat.”

As I cracked the eggs into the skillet, I heard his tiny voice, speaking aloud to himself, “I’m going to be Mario.”

Ben, the second child, the little brother, is always Luigi.  For the first time, he gets to be Mario.  And that, friends, is when I started to cry.  Every first marks a new beginning, even the tiny firsts.

I sat down at the table with Ben to eat, and he asked, “Can I have some toast?”

Ben likes toast.  Never in my memory do I ever remember making toast for him.

And then he asked, “Can I have some jell-o on it?”

Translating the three-year-old speak, I took the strawberry jam from the refrigerator and grabbed the loaf of bread from the pantry.

Today, I ate eggs and toast with strawberry jam with Ben--just Ben--for the first time.  And it was lovely.