How Did I Get So Lucky? (Psst-you did too).

I'm thinking about my good fortune, and how I can help balance the scales.

I’m thinking about my good fortune, how others may not be so lucky, and what I can do to help balance the scales.

Let’s face it, life is pretty darn good.  Most days my biggest complaint is that my kids are bickering.  Not hunger.  Not lack of water.  And something deep inside me feels intensely guilty about that.  Having been raised with fundamental ideas about justice, this seems to fly in the face of everything I know.  Living with a 9 year old also who precisely recognizes fairness also makes me feel disproportionately well off.  Like when she asks, Why does that man have to live outside?  After quietly whispering *shit* to myself, I open my mouth and hope the right words come out.

My favorite journalist/writer is Nicholas Kristof.  He writes for the New York Times and co-wrote Half the Sky with his wife about how the mistreatment of women in the world is the central moral issue of our times  (I know, you already love him, too).  His contention is that when we see large amounts of sick, war-torn, disenfranchised, powerless and victimized people, we retreat into being overwhelmed and go into shut-down mode.  But if we see ONE person, one child maybe, we can access our compassion more readily.  And that’s what I’m trying to do.  What a lot of us are trying to do.  Feel compassion, act on it and quit feeling like shit that I live in a nice house and drive a nice car and live in a free country.  Damn it.

When I look around or talk to my friends, I can often see them doing the suburban dance.  Meaning, they are busy, busy, busy.  Me too.  Guilty as charged.  But I wonder sometimes if the reason I am doing it is to somehow make it alright that in comparison to many folks out there, I have won the fucking lottery.  If I slow down, if I say “no,” if I take a break and enjoy some down time…does that mean I’m not grateful?  Does it mean that I am somehow keeping myself insulated from suffering?  That people will think I don’t care?  That I am preventing the proverbial other shoe from dropping?  Of course not.  But that is sure as shit how it feels.

Still, it’s tough to reconcile the good fortune so frequently seen in the suburbs compared to those in other parts of our country and the world.  SNL hilariously put this into focus with White People Problems.  Sometimes, don’t you hear yourself saying shit and going…umm…really?  That’s what you are complaining about?  Some that I have heard recently are:  depressed dogs getting Prozac, lack of weekly recycling service, needing to clean out the refrigerator because there is too much food in there, being inconvenienced by red lights and where to build the new vacation home.  Now, I am certainly not immune to this kind of complaining.  After all, I did have to stop and get gas on my way to yoga while I was not working or taking care of children.  What a pain in the ass.

For me, the best way to balance the scales is just to give.  Not necessarily money, just giving.  Spending an afternoon at your kid’s school.  Volunteering at the Food Bank.  Walking around the neighborhood and picking up trash.  It’s not hard to find need.  But what is hard is knowing your limits and when you are done.  And frankly, this is where a little self compassion comes into play.  You know, take some oxygen before you give it to the kids.  If you aren’t sure how you rate on self compassion, there’s a great quick quiz here to try.  Most of the time, I can forgive myself for messing up.  For not being the best listener.  Or being impatient.  Or just plain being selfish.  But, with Martin Luther King Day coming up on Monday, I hear his words in my ear:  Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” And then I remind myself.  He didn’t say “now” or even “weekly.”  He didn’t even say how.  That is up to you.

When my daughter asked me at age 6 why our souls were born here and not in a place that was at war (think the Congo or Afghanistan), I didn’t know the answer.  I still don’t.  But maybe I don’t have to know the answer ( I am much better at asking questions than giving answers anyway).  I don’t always feel this way.  But when I get that nagging sensation, I know that it’s time to go spend some time folding and sorting clothes at the outreach.  It’s time to share in some community writing.  It’s time to go to the zoo with the kids class.  Whatever the reason, I’m here in the suburbs.  Living, sharing and raising some young humans.  Bad things can happen.  But I can do some good.  It’s time.

Do you feel lucky?

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the sweet photograph.  I am lucky to know her.

 

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I confess. I didn’t work out today.

I'm thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I’m thinking about exercise, guilt and time.

I didn’t go to the gym today.  My gym shoes lie dormant in the shoe closet, festering in dark silence.  My yoga mat sits neatly rolled up in the corner.  The pad of my index finger did not sit on a screen to check me into the gym.  My dog did not pant gratefully, then flop onto the cool tile after a run.  My speedy green road bike hangs on it’s hook, its odometer stuck on the same number from my last ride a few days ago.  Still and peaceful in my drawer, my heart rate monitor awaits it’s next challenge.  But my brain?  Ah, my brain.  That’s been going a thousand miles an hour.

The clock now reads 7:47 pm, and I am still thinking about where I could have squeezed in a workout.  (Okay, dammit!  Not “thinking.”  Obsessing.)  In the 45 minutes I had before I picked up the kids?  Could I have gotten up early?  I should have gotten up early.  The mental space taken up negotiating, fact checking, brow beating and ass kicking has been a workout in and of itself.  I mean, seriously.  What a waste of time.

Now, I grew up Catholic and my husband is Jewish so we are no strangers to guilt around here.  But my fellow suburbanites also carry around a fair bit of guilt themselves.  They work too much.  They don’t exercise enough.  They don’t make enough money.  They should be more crafty, more creative.  More interesting.  Less critical.  More kind.  More productive.   They should take more classes, go back to work.  (I swear to you all overheard in one happy hour).  There are multiple structures in your brain which are responsible for how you perceive and process guilt.  What motivates one person is different than what motivates another, but we are all profoundly and universally influenced by community.  This means that if your friends and community didn’t exercise, it would be a hell of a lot easier to hit the snooze button rather than get up and go to the gym.  Conversely, this is often why groups like Crossfit and for me, my yoga community, are intrinsic motivators.  You think about who you will see and who will miss you if you don’t show up.

In suburbia, if you see other people making good money, working out/looking fit, having good marriages and managing their time wisely, you want to do it too.  It’s a testament to my social network and neighborhood that there are some pretty hot 40 somethings (with great lives to boot).  So that’s probably why I feel bad when I miss a workout.

Personal blame, like when you are a lazy ass and don’t work out and beat yourself up for it, is mitigated in the subgenual cingulate cortex by the limbic (primitive and emotional) region of the brain.  These layers of emotion, blame and guilt make for some very busy collaborations.  It also makes sense to me, given all the stuff your cranium is processing, that you would be exhausted.  At this point, you should do yourself a favor.  You should, as my grandma used to say, shit or get off the pot.  For me, I should either not work out and chalk it up as a rest day or I should just go work out and be done with it.  Today, I am choosing to call it a night.   And I’ll tell you why.

First of all, it was a great day.  Beginning with a fun field trip with my 8 year old daughter, followed by getting some errands done, doing some writing, talking with a friend and ending with some real magic, it’s okay that my day didn’t include breaking a sweat.  Also, rest days help the following day to be stronger and better.  Maybe it will help that nagging knee pain I’ve been experiencing.  Maybe I’ll tackle an 8 or 10 miler tomorrow with my pup.  And you know what else?  There is SO MUCH more time in the day when you don’t work out!   I got my paperwork organized for work tomorrow, got my daughter to swim lessons on time, grudgingly mailed the taxes my hubby thoughtfully prepared, wrote a note to my sister-in-law and did some yard work.

As for the magic, the picture below was a rainbow we saw right out my front window tonight.  We would never have even known it was there if my neighbor hadn’t called to tell us to look out our window.  Thank you, neighbor.

Thank you, community.

No more guilt for me.

Now that's a little suburban magic right there.

Now that’s a little suburban magic right there.

Thanks again to Barbara Paulsen for the image at the top of this post.   She continues to inspire me with her creativity.

A Letter to my Mom (from your 43 year old daughter)

I’m thinking about moms, yours and mine.

My mom visited here a few weeks ago.  She lives far away (2 planes then a 2 hour drive) and I don’t get to see her very often.  She is, of course, getting older.  Usually when she leaves, I feel sad for a day or two but this time it’s lasting much longer.  When I think about her, my eyes get a little fuzzy with tears and my throat feels like something resembling a clamp has tightened onto it.  So many of my friends in suburbia are worried about their mom, whether it’s concern for their health or safety, and my mind is filled with thoughts of them and of my own mother.  So here goes, and I hope you indulge me in a little shameless adoration of my mom.

Dear Mom,

Ever since you left, I have been thinking a lot about you and the things I want to tell you but either haven’t had the courage or the time to express.  So, put down your coffee and your to-do list and please listen.  No, I am fine.  The kids are fine.  Stop worrying, just listen!

1.  Please take care of yourself.  You are my only parent.  It makes me nervous when you do things that might put your health in jeopardy like delaying a doctor’s appointment or climbing on a roof (yes, my mother would climb on a roof.  I’ve seen her do it).  You are important to me!   It terrifies me to think of something happening to you.   

2.  I’m sorry for all the times I hurt you and made you worry.  You know all my most embarassing moments and STILL you don’t write a book and tell everyone about them.  Even though it would be hilarious.  I’m still sorry I screamed at you after that perm that made me look like a poodle.  Being stupid came easy to me.  It still does, sometimes. 

3.  Please tell me I am doing a good job with my kids.  I am aware that they are great kids, fabulous even!  But hearing you say it is monumentally important to me.  Even though you are the same person who let Dad tell me to pee in a bucket in a moving vehicle because he didn’t want to stop on our way to our summer vacation.

4.  Enjoy your life.  My one persistent thought that makes me feel better about not living close to you is that you are happy.  I can see it in your face when you talk about Jim and your garden and where you live.  So many of my friends wish their moms had someone to share their lives with.  I am grateful you are not lonely, but could you be less mushy-gushy-lovey?  That freaks me out a little.  Thanks.

5.  Stay active and engaged.  I know I can always talk politics with you, or movies or books or whatever.  I know you still take a bite out of life, use your brain and care about learning new things.  It used to bug me that you are so annoyingly cheerful, like your answering machine message which for years had “Don’t worry, be happy” playing in the background while you virtually sang your message.  Seriously.  Or the way you always approached strangers and exclaimed what a glorious day it was!  I remember wanting to hide behind a rock.  Now, I am just proud of your quirkiness.

6.  I value your honesty.  It would be out of your comfort zone to criticize me, which I TOTALLY appreciate.  But you can give yourself permission to be honest with me about things that are hard for you.  Things you are scared about.  Things you want to talk about.  I can handle it now, I am not a kid anymore.  You can trust me.  You have helped make my arms strong enough to carry you when YOU need it.

7.  You are one of the most important people in my life.  Sometimes it takes me too long to get in touch with you and my busy life keeps me from connecting.  Always know you are a priority to me.

8.  My children treasure you.  Thanks for being the kind of grandparent that the kids actually want at their birthday parties.  Not everyone can say that.  Your newsy and thoughtful letters, the way you are completely absorbed in their stories:  these things are priceless to them.

9.  Thank you for the lesson of living with less.  We didn’t have much growing up.  There were many times we went without.  Even though my own children have much more than I had, the grace with which you lead us in the difficult times has strengthened my resolve to not spoil my kids.  You taught me that love is what sustains, not pricey gifts or impermanent comforts.  You taught us that a simple hubcap could be the best Christmas present ever.

10.  Thanks for doing the tough shit that you didn’t want to do.  You and Dad cleaned my Catholic elementary school on the weekends so Jen and I could go there tuition-free.  I will never forget how it must have felt for you to do something like that, the commitment you had to making a better life for us and the shame I feel because of how embarassed I was at the time.  Your sacrifice humbles me.  Also, thanks for reading all my work even though I say fuck a lot.

11.  Even when the three of us make fun of you, it’s because we love you.  Let’s face it, mom.  You are hopelessly easy to make fun of.  It’s almost impossible for us to resist the way you twirl up your hair into a bun, your Christmas sweaters, your endless written lists/schedules, the way you sit 3 inches from the steering wheel,  okay I’ll stop now.

12.  I wish I had gotten some of your best qualities.  I regret not acquiring the ever elusive traits that I sincerely wish were passed onto me genetically:  red hair, the ability to repair a toilet/build a room single-handedly/fix virtually any broken object, the ability to sew/mend/crochet, your organizational abilities, your patience and most importantly your faith.  Not just religious faith.  Your unabashed, maniacal, divinely inspired faith that everything will be all right.  As evidenced by your willingness to fly to see my first born child three days after 9/11 /01 on a nearly empty flight in a nearly empty airport.  I was never so happy to see anyone in my life.

I love you, Mom.

Readers, tell me why you love my mom too!  Or your own mom for that matter!

Allow me to introduce Barbara Paulsen, I will be using her phenomenal photos in my posts (including the two above):

“I’ve been a scrapbooker for ages, but when my husband gave me my first iPhone I became a photographer.  I took an online course in 2010 called `The Slice of Life Project’ by Darrah Parker and this course, along with meeting countless other people in the photography community, began my adventure into iPhoneography.  I want to document my big, beautiful, messy life, right here in the suburbs.  And, my hope is that you will recognize a piece of yourself (the magic in your own life) in my photos.  Enjoy!” ~mthoodmama photos by Barbara Paulsen

Things I Feel Guilty About

I recently read an article in Real Simple magazine about a God box.  The author tells a story of her mom, a devout Catholic, who has a “God box” where she places her hopes in mini letters addressed to God.  These letters were hand signed with either simple requests such as choosing the right flooring or biggies like being able to sell a house.  Since I read the article, I have been tossing this idea around in my head.  The idea of the box is captivating to me, but not in the same way as presented in the article.  Because, you see, my problem is a little something called guilt.

So, in the dictionary, guilt is defined as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime or wrong *pay attention here* whether real or imagined.”   In my own body, it can feel like wind getting sucked out of me, nearness to tears or a dull ache.  Avoidance of guilt is a motivator for many of my actions:  volunteering, donating to charity at the holidays, being there for school activities etc.  But it seems to swell up inside me for a multitude of reasons not strictly limited to parenting.  It just seems like there are so many things we are supposed to be that I am not.  Maybe it’s my monkey brain talking but damn, that is where I need my God box.  It’s to let go of all the shit that’s holding me back.  Maybe I should take the God part out, though.  Because there may be cursing involved.

Imagine, readers, that this is the online version of my Let It Go box.  Feel free to email me or add your own.  All these guilt inducing states are my own, and it is my sincere hope that by writing them down, I can let them go.  Depending on your own frame of reference, that may be by being whisked off in a gentle breeze, or alternately by swirling down a toilet bowl with the rest of the, well, you know.

Things I Feel Guilty About:

I like carbs.  I never even considered a low carb diet or anything related to living without bread.  It is just not an option.

My mom and sisters live on the East Coast and I don’t see them enough and I miss them.  Terribly, but not enough to face Continental Airlines apparently.

Not being “present” with my children enough.  This language has become very popular lately, and I know I could do more to make this happen even if it’s just 10 minutes a day.  But I also find all the pressure to do it annoying.  Were your parents present with you?  Mine sure as hell weren’t but their love for me was unquestionable.

Leaving the house when the kids are home to go and do something I really want to do.

Not living in a war-torn country, having to beg for food or feeling in fear for my life on a daily basis.

Not working full time.  Not being a stay at home mom.

Being really stupid when I was young.  Making bad decisions.

Feeling jealous when I am in other people’s really really nice houses.

Not walking my dog every day.

Not walking my dog most days.

Being stingy with compliments.  I could do a lot better.  So many times I see people that look great, hear them say something witty, or am in general impressed by their awesomeness.  But I don’t tell them so.  I feel bad about that.

I like to be alone, really truly.  It makes me happy and recharges me.  Wait, scratch that one.  I don’t feel guilty about this anymore.

I have more than one flushing toilet to choose from in my home.  Most of the world couldn’t say the same.

I am not on the PTA.  This is a big one for me.  I am happy to help out and do so frequently, but just can’t bring myself to join.  Feel really bad about that one.

I feel guilty that I do things to avoid feeling guilty rather than some higher purpose or true altruism.  That’s fucked up.

Spending time with my husband is my lowest priority.  After all, he can drive himself around,  he doesn’t need help with his homework and he doesn’t have problems with his friends.

My hair color costs more than what some people have to spend for an entire month’s groceries.  That’s disgusting.

Not feeling grateful on a daily basis.

My grandmother always said that a good wife was a “chef in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom.”  I am my own incarnation of each, but probably not what she had in mind.  Oh well, she was crazy anyway.

Not being playful.  My husband is so great at this, he will toss me a cantaloupe in the grocery store from across the aisle.  That’s fun!  I wish I could be more fun.   Fun is fun, why am I depriving myself?

Feeling the desire to do bodily harm to the kids who tease my daughter on the bus.

Not calling my mom enough.  She is so nice.

Letting days go by without thinking of my dad.  He’s been gone for 17 years and his memory gets more and more fuzzy.  I want to keep it alive more.  I want my kids and husband to know what he was like.

Not speaking up more.  Maggie Kuhn said, “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” I feel bad about doing myself that disservice.

Gossiping.  Subject of upcoming post.  This is another thing I don’t necessarily feel too bad about until other people say it’s bad.  Then I feel bad.

When I get caught up in consumerism, spend, spend, spend.  Then realize I have been sucked in by a very sophisticated marketing machine.  I just realized I need to write a new post:  Things That Piss Me Off.

OK… God.  Grew up Catholic.  Catholic school, not a great experience.  Married a Jew.  No spiritual home except the one I have created for myself.  My kids are lucky that they have experienced both religions, but I feel so guilty they don’t have one to call their own.  In my attempt to keep them open minded, I may have fucked up and really confused them.  Outcome uncertain.  Big one for me.

I say no alot to my kids, and I feel guilty in the moment.  But overall, it’s empowering.

Yelling.  Enough said.

There are certain things I like to do in the yard, and certain things I don’t.  I pay someone to mow the lawn and pull the weeds.  There I said it.

Peter Walsh is very needed in my house:  I am disorganized and have lost things for myself and others in my family.

I ate Hallween candy out of my daughters’ bags.          Like you didn’t.

If I am not doing a thousand things at once, I feel guilty.   If I don’t carry something up the steps that needs to go up anyway.  I have talked on the phone while driving.  I recite spelling words to my daughter while cooking dinner and listening to the radio, etc.  You know what I’m talking about.

I could go on and on, but will spare you as I am quite sure you have your own list.  In case you’re interested, here is the link to that Real Simple article: http://www.realsimple.com/work-life/family/relationships/inside-god-box-00000000045743/index.html I am going to go back and read it again, and maybe this time I will learn the art of letting go.