Monthly Archiv: February, 2015

Winter Party Plans

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Following the ancient customs of our people, I am planning a special event which will either be named, Winter Carnival, or, The Surviving Party.

For the opening ceremonies participants will wrap their winter outerwear in neon duct tape while listening to The Beach Boys in my kitchen. While singing a rousing round of, “wish they all could be California girls,” we will form a train and head for the chicken coop. We will drive the chickens from the coop into the sunshine, while serenading them with the chorus from Abba’s Dancing Queen. Participants will be free to dance in pairs or groups, with people or chickens, as the spirit moves them.

Other activities include:

Believe in the Green: guests will gather the ice scrapers from their vehicles and bring them to the garage where they will be painted green. Once dried, they will be planted in the snow symbolizing our belief that spring will come.

Throw it from the Roof :  Guests will add non-living items of their choice to a laundry basket to be carried up to the top of the roof and thrown down one by one. (This symbolizes the casting off of winter gloom.) Prior to the first throw, the roofer will lead the observers in a rousing chorus of, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Chef for a Minute:  Hot dogs and hamburgers will be available from the barbecue. Only males are eligible for cooking duties as chefs will be expected to cook topless. This symbolizes the determination required to survive the barrenness of winter (not to mention a little justice for the nasty habit of putting men in three piece suits all winter while women shiver in flimsy fashion of the day). Fully winterized spouses may link arms and sing, “it’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight . . . as encouragement if a chef is waning.

Keep the Party Going: Guests commit to going commando one day a week  (each day of the week must be spoken for) until the first buds of spring are visible through the snow. This symbolizes the casting off of winter restrictions. After the solemn commitment, guests may join in singing a chorus of, “Livin on a Prayer.” Whoa, we’re halfway there… take my hand, we’ll make it I swear…

Closing Ceremony: The child most resembling Pippi Longstocking will be placed on the pony’s back. They will be led from the field into the kitchen where the pony will eventually pee in shocking quantity. The result will be a fine symbol of the bitterness of winter. Misty will be given a carrot  by Pippi and led back outside while any of her symbols are removed because they are no longer wanted. From the cupboards every guest will receive a pot, pan, or plastic mixing bowl. Beating them loudly we will make our way outside. Still drumming, we will huddle together in a circle and howl at the moon. This will symbolize everything important that we didn’t have time to symbolize before. Any in tears may close with “I Will Survive.”

Date and Time TBA

Along the Way

 

IMG_1378-NB NEUTRE plus 1C plus 2C

I found child A’s 100% spelling test in the toilet and a very strange conversation ensued. Who did this?

No one.

Who knew about this?

Child B only knew a little.

Why did they do this?

They didn’t. Child B had balanced the test very carefully so that someone else would knock it in. Whoever did it should get in trouble, but they don’t know who that is. When Child B left the test was not in the toilet.

 

Girl Two is engaged in an “ing,” contest. The idea did not excite me. I envisioned my six year old chained to a chair wailing while I begged her to write down a fourth word ending in ing. Either I misjudged based on visions of a related child, an alien has invaded her body, or her teacher knew something I didn’t about ing words. Girl two has sat enthralled and almost dizzy with excitement writing ing words on three separate occasions. Her biggest worry when we left for skiing on the weekend was that she would miss on times to write more words.

I was invited for  Lego worlds expo by my youngest three. The designated explainer gave a long and detailed review of the intricate worlds. I thanked them and stood to leave. The kids laughed. That was just one person’s part, they said. I settled back in and tried to concentrate on all the plots and sub-plots. I stood again when the third explainer finished.

Thanks a lot for coming, said one.

She can’t go yet, said another. Remember about the test?

The Mom-is-tested-on-retention-of-Lego-villain-names did not seem like it could be fun but I was assured it was the best part. There were at least fifteen villains. There had been no advance warning so that I could sift out name information from discussions of battles, special powers, or castle fortifications. I failed the first time. They laughed if I called Banana, Asparagus, or Skeleton Dude, Donkey. They took turns giving me clues. I took the test a second time and passed. Somehow by the end it really was a lot of fun.

 

The Optimist is all legs and feet right now. He is happy at school but steps gingerly across the ice of his social world worried it will break with the weight of oddities thrust upon him by his parents. He punishes us with music played loudly on the piano. I stop him when I need to hear myself think, but there are worse ways to lose. My rattled brain remembers myself in another life doing the same thing. He’s on track to become a better musician than me. That makes me happy and keeps me from moving the piano to the garage.

For the Story Tellers

The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 - 1663)

The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)

I had naked tea last week. A friend and I talked storytelling (that wasn’t the naked part) and then sitting in a donut shop, we quietly told our own. Naked is better with a tea cup than without, but given one cup of tea and three places requesting coverage, it isn’t easy. If the tea weren’t so hot, the best solution may be to keep the cup moving in a triangular blur, but the thought of burning tea is scary, so you take your chances, keep what you can behind the cup, and trust that your uncovered self can manage an hour of exposure. (The value of a practical imagination for diversion in the midst of emotionally difficult subjects cannot in my mind be underestimated.)

Awake in the night with no tea to consider,  I wondered a question whose answer I have debated for years. Why do we tell our stories?

There are all the noble reasons people say they write . . . to save everybody else, etc. but I take those pronouncements with a grain of salt. They may well be true, but the only thing one can reliably say about preachers is that they preach.

Ten years ago and even five, the desire to tell my story was almost a burning. Then I put the pages in a drawer and gave them a time out. To my surprise, the words took to what I thought would be a brief sabbatical and requested an indefinite one.

Why now, I also asked in the night after my metaphorically nude tea time, do I want to forget my story?

The next morning I wrote a sincere list of reasons in favor of forgetting. It ended with, I don’t. I can’t. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

My desire for written memoir is either dead or deeply dormant, but that isn’t the same thing. I don’t wish to remember out loud very often. But sometimes is good. When the children of Israel escaped safely through the Red Sea, Miriam wrote a song to tell the story. She named the terrors of the past to be present to the joys of her new unfolding reality. Deliverance foresees a future. Telling our stories assumes we were delivered for a purpose.

Writer, Andrew Solomon tells a story of an experience in Senegal where he tried a traditional treatment for depression. At one point of the day long ceremony, he was asked to repeat the following:

Spirits leave me alone to complete the business of my life and know that I will never forget you.

I like that quote. It captures both my reticence towards gazing backwards for too long and my conviction that remembering is a gift. I found the musical celebration below after I’d written about Miriam above, but ending with it helps say what I’m trying to say. We may tell our stories with tears but telling them dares us to dance.

 

 

#Pilgrims Love Pilgrimage

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Pilgrimage is good. Especially if it involves a mountain.

Four years ago we were given an overnight ski package. Our youngest was two, I am not a skiing whiz. . . I left thinking I would enjoy it because the kids were enjoying it. This is now our fourth trip to the mountain and for all of us, it is a much anticipated winter highlight.

Our traditionalist children expect the order of liturgy intact whenever possible. We leave Friday in time to settle into our hotel suite before dinner. We walk across the parking lot to the same restaurant and talk about the stuffed monkey’s hanging from the ceiling while we wait for our food. We play our billioneth imagination game (Magic Fairy).

After dinner we swim. I fidget about hotel hot tubs and keep sending people back to the pool. My husband says it’s okay. To calm me, the children swear on oath that they are in perfect health. They take vows of fidelity to sleep, water, fruits, vegetables, hand washing, and sharing. I applaud the many tricks and triumphs of their water play.

At bedtime my husband gets out the map of the ski hill and the older ones make plans. The next morning I ferry out the early risers for breakfast. We watch cartoons on the lobby television until we can’t wait any longer. I remind all breakfast comers about their nutrition vows. I smugly allow a small danish pastry after winning the yes fruit, yes yogurt, no chocolate milk, no sugared cereal contests.

We check out and pack in. For the ten minutes it takes to get to the mountain the children fight because we aren’t there yet. We arrive. With a nod to the really irritated psalms, while everyone remembers how to put on skis, kids fight about who is going too fast or slow. I use this opportunity for ecclesiastical instruction about the danish pastry, which may be the reason we are fighting. Something to remember. But only if we care about having fun, and loving each other, and a happy life.

With that part of the liturgy complete, the kids take ski lessons while adults get in a run or two. The rest of the day is free. I pack a lunch (with clean tablecloth for the well used indoor picnic tables). The kids say almost nothing because everything is familiar enough that they feel safe, but foreign enough that it thrills them and fills them. They like being pilgrims.

On the way home we stop at the same restaurant. (Last year’s bids to change either restaurant were rejected.) For all I know they pick the same things from the buffet. We say closing litanies of brave deeds and success. A few hymns of wonder in the car and a prayer or two to live at the bottom of the mountain when they grow up and the whole thing comes to a quiet Amen.

Ash Wednesday’s Transportation

Ash Wednesday, by Carl Spitzweg, 1855-1860.

Ash Wednesday, by Carl Spitzweg, 1855-1860.

I have embarked upon a death by degrees. If I could work in an unheated laundry in the early morning hours with my hands raw from the scrubbing, or make cheese to sell with the milk I had squeezed by hand from the last drips of every neighbour’s cow for five miles, if I was doing something along those lines for my children’s education, I imagine a sense of pride would accompany my labours. Instead, I am nailed to a car for a very extended Lent.

If points A, B, and C, lie on a crooked line, we live at point B, with three of the children requiring taxi service to C, and the child of a thousand activities requiring taxi service to A. By week’s end, the chilly laundress and the determined cheese maker both have something in their hands that proves what they have accomplished. By the sweat of their brow they have obtained their children’s education. While it is true that my children could not attend their places of study without transportation, at the end of every single week, there is nothing to prove that I have done anything. My back aches a bit, my right leg is stiff, my toes at times numb, but only the laundress can decry her chapped hands. It’s not quite the same to say you’re achy because you went from B to C to B to A to B too many times this week.

An early Ash Wednesday is catching me up short. The cold of mid-February amplifies the monotony of duties and begs the question of their meaning. I am hesitant to hope for Lent’s promise. Afraid to believe that Easter will dawn in so short a time. Soon the weather station will have to invent a synonym for polar vortex to keep things interesting. Many days are cloudy, but not all. I went out the other day to almost brilliant sunshine. I turned my face to the sun as I walked and pulled the scarf away from my skin so that light could touch more of me.

Perhaps Lent in deep winter is good. Perhaps the effort it takes to believe on cloudy days that the light will come back builds something for which we have no proof. On Ash Wednesday we bow as a claim that what we bow to is bigger than our moods, disappointments, or even our dreams. Faith needn’t be felt at all times. Ash Wednesday accepts it wrestled to the ground, hogtied, and held by a large rock drug from the backyard. Bags of cat litter would also suffice. Light was and is and will be whether we see it or not. A thousand clouds of dull grey today, but tomorrow the sun will tear once again with ferocious glory through the skies.

We may need to jerry rig this year’s Easter dresses with battery powered sections of an electric blanket, but we’ve got forty days to sort it out. Ashes to remind us from whence we came. Ashes to pull us silently up, out of our forgetting and into a grand awareness of Divine transportation. Tirelessly ferrying us from B to A to B to C and back to B again while we learn our lessons largely oblivious to the driver.

Unheeding of thank you’s neglect, Ash Wednesday comes. With Love’s arms open wide, we are invited to march toward Easter’s hope.

Cats, Needles, and Countries

This image was released by the National Cancer Institute, an agency part of the National Institutes of Health

“Needle in a Haystack,” artist unknown. The image of this painting was released by the National Cancer Institute and is in the public domain.

I am writing while snuggling with a cat’s bottom. The choice of snuggling ends is the cat’s preference, not mine. Sadly, this is a rather excellent metaphor for the state of things. I am told some people come to the blog to feel cheery. If I disappoint, blame the cat. Her feline fanny does not allow my head to sit at any kind of normal angle. Soon, I fear, my chin will be forced into permanent fusion with my neck.

I don’t know for what purpose, but spam comments like the following sometimes knock at the blog door.

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I imagine moments when the spam enemies materialize into something I could fight with. I meet a spam creator in a dark alley and tie them to a wall. I set up three record players. Three genres to play simultaneously: Bluegrass, Opera, Techno something or other. Every hour or so I turn down the volume and approach the captive, kindly holding out the means of release. When the captive believes me enough to hunger for release, I walk back to the records and turn up the volume.

Saturday the Pope said that a momentary outburst is forgivable but that rancour is really bad news. In my head the sun burst forward from the clouds. I wanted a sweatshirt. Momentary outburst equals forgivable offense, it could say on the front. I support a liberal use of the momentary outburst, would read the back. Rancour is not something I think of myself as struggling with. I like to imagine my offenses (by “my,” I mean the other guy’s) named, numbered, noted and then magnanimously forgiven.

My very first response to the rancour quote was not actually about sweatshirts. First thoughts were about how much I wanted to show it to a friend who struggles with rancour and finds outbursting people distasteful. After merrily working through slogan ideas for my sweatshirt, by way of small reproof I advised myself to find a bit of rancour (however small) within my own walls. Visions of rancour regarding entrenched institutions, technology abuses, and materialistic culture pressed quickly forward followed by faces of persons. The needle I thought I’d be looking for in the haystack turned out to be a densely populated country. Which kind of ruined the quote for me. I felt like I’d finally made it up to the front of the line after a lot of standing around waiting for deliverance only to find out it’s the wrong stupid line. A sweatshirt with, I’m bitter about irritating people not changing, does not have the same victorious appeal. I’m not sure if it’s a sign, but the aforementioned cat bottom continues to bow my head for me. So maybe not on the whole quote sharing with friend thing.

Valentine Attempts to Ponder Human Love

Lovers on a swing painting from http://www.mypublicdomainpictures.com/2013/09/lovers-on-swing-painting.html

Lovers on a swing painting from http://www.mypublicdomainpictures.com/2013/09/lovers-on-swing-painting.html

Love is complicated at the same time it is simple. I have not had a banner week. Or two. Or so. You could say I’m not myself or you could say I’m experiencing my least put together self for far too many days in a row. Whatever you call it, the result is the same floundering me. I prefer public swearing to public tears. The first craves a showing; neither seem suitable most places I find myself. Privately I am acquainted with both.

I spent hours starting multiple posts about Valentine’s Day. It isn’t the most important date on my calendar. Hallmark irritates me no end. But for homemade cards from my kids and surprises from my husband, I like it. Valentine’s Day with a surprise candlelight breakfast from my mother is a highlight of childhood memories. Yet none of this was enough to save my multiple half pieces with no place to go.

My husband is halfway through some cataract surgeries. His vision is expected to be much brighter and I can’t help wondering what impact this will have on me and us. Will it be a good thing if he can see me better? Is life a series of ongoing cataract removals in order to really see each other? This is the kind of thing I think about while he ponders gas prices. And why our conversations have so many non sequiturs.

I am often the push behind the party within the family. I don’t have anything planned for Valentines this year. I might still think of something. Or I might show up and need them more than they need me for a little while. I don’t write about my husband very frequently. The depth of how I feel about him is difficult to access. On some days, his human failings drive me to distraction. On my worst days, there is nothing I want except to hear his voice, have him in the room, tell him it is so. In the movies this would be because when I pour out my heart, he pauses while the music plays, understands what I mean by what I do and don’t say, and responds with everything I both want and need to hear.

In real life, he tries very hard to understand me but sometimes can’t. Every once in a while he says exactly the right thing. More often he worries in the middle of my crisis that we need to change the oil on the car or that there’s a crack in the chicken’s water feeder. Always, he says I love you. Even if I know what it is, rarely can he fix the problem, but always and forever he waits with me. It is this in our marriage that I treasure above all, his unfailing presence.

I watch him and learn. When love cannot fix it, love waits. When love has no idea what to do, love waits. Love waits because it knows it can survive longer than whatever else is filling up the current spaces. Compassion, empathy, and a ready knight on noble steed to battle all, love waits.

Letter from The Optimist’s Mother

This year's school photo. Updated photo available upon request.

Hearty rejection of  unneeded (ergo all) advice a key platform

To Board of Directors, Optimist Club International

Dear Directors,

I would like to submit my son’s name for consideration as the next International President. He lacks many of the traits one might expect in a president (ambition, will to succeed, proactive problem solving) but this is in fact what makes him so perfect for the position. I don’t expect he’ll get much done, but I can guarantee that he’ll be able to speak at length about the possibilities of what could be done. And this is my point.

There’s not so much optimism as practicality in the person who works hard, plans ahead, and expects to achieve a goal. Far more exemplary of pure optimism is the person who plans nothing, does as little as possible (preferably at the last minute) and yet remains unalterably carefree, gently nestled in visions of the future’s bright and shining promise. My son is this latter model of a man and then some.

In truth of fact, if you were to pass him up, I am thinking of recommending him for use at a University. Someone somewhere is always doing a study of something. Sooner or later, they’re going to need a person such as my son to run through simulated interrogations, possibly a mock detention camp. While I would estimate his survival time under actual imprisonment to be somewhere around the thirty second mark, in a controlled experiment involving no physical pain, I would place his ability to withstand all manner of death threats in the number of decades. From experience, I can tell you the effect of warnings, ultimatums, and predictions of doom on his psyche is mathematically precisely zero. Explanations of cause and effect, biographical data from similar young men, personal life stories, the uninviting nature of certain outcomes, not to mention hot and smoky eternal quarters, all fail to permeate the most optimistic disposition you could possibly imagine. But will it be the Universities or you who snatch him first?

Recently, my son achieved an extremely high mark on an assignment which he had completed against his wishes. In the same course, he achieved a somewhat distasteful mark on the exam. Unlike the assignment, he was permitted to pursue his preferred style of low impact preparations for the exam.

Comparing your assignment mark, do you think, I asked him, that your lack of preparedness may have negatively impacted your exam results?

No, he said thoughtfully. I’m actually not sure how that happened. I think I did a good job. I really don’t quite understand it.

He went about his business (I think it involved tapping something repeatedly) cheerfully unweighted by past regrets of which there were none.

I share this little anecdote to underscore that in the spirit of the hopeless romantic, if you are looking for a true blue, dyed in the wool, flag waving (unless there is a watching option) optimist, I’ve got your man.

Sincerely,

The Optimist’s Mother

Irritation and Invitation spelled: s h a r i n g

A Group of Children Playing at 'Tug of War' in a Domestic Interior by Harry Brooker, 1891

A Group of Children Playing at ‘Tug of War’ in a Domestic Interior
by Harry Brooker, 1891

I wanted my Phys. Ed. classes to skate this month. An outdoor rink maintained by the township was available. As precaution only, I drove over to check the ice the morning of our first skate. To my surprise,  a foot of uncleared snow covered the rink. The township office said the man who cleared the ice only worked evenings and he’d been tied up the night before.

Was there anything else? Did I need to reserve the ice?

No, I said. No one will be there in the middle of the day. We’ll be gone by 3.

I called my husband . . . My father-in-law’s house and snow blower were nearby. I’d changed my mind about the usefulness of snow blowers. Was there any way he could leave work and come show me how to use one?

Helpful husband came. My lesson lasted two minutes. I had to do the whole rink twice, but I made it to the school in time to eat my lunch and load up kids. I was pleased with myself, a little tired, but pleased. On the way over I noted that the only child in the required helmet category who had forgotten theirs was mine.

We pulled into the parking lot to see hockey nets at either end of the rink. Three young men in their early twenties were on the ice just starting a hockey game. I might have been speechless at the irony (there was no way they’d be playing hockey right now if I hadn’t spend my morning getting the ice ready for them) but I had a cars full of excited skaters eager to lace on their skates and get started.

Negotiations were a little tense at first. Appealing to the generous side of sunshine starved strangers (just arrived to enjoy the warmest winter day in weeks) is not an easy sell. They bent a little. I bent. They bent. I felt like I’d walked into a remedial course on sharing. My first skaters were weak enough I knew we didn’t need the whole rink. I marked a middle line and we shared the ice with the hoodie lads. They got the ice to themselves when we drove to swap group one with group two. Hoodie hockey men agreed to give us the rink to ourselves for the older group.

It’s no wonder people fight over countries and resources. For a few minutes, I almost couldn’t see my way through to sharing a rectangle of ice on a glorious winter day. By the time we parted ways, we were new friends thanking each other.

Sharing is a terrible thing. Who knows why we tell our children to do it. Sharing means you don’t get everything exactly the way you want it. Worse, you have to admit that other people are as valuable and deserving of happiness as you are. Nasty stuff that.

And cheers to the hoodie men for making it work.

Team Sports

Baseball, by Henry Sandham, published by L. Prang and Co. between 1861-1897

Baseball, by Henry Sandham, published by L. Prang and Co. between 1861-1897

I’m jaded these days about North American athletics. They’re expensive and require significant time commitments. The possibilities for a kid from outside the system to play sports are shrinking. My love of sport has been largely set aside with my worries that as a culture we’ve highjacked it’s value and replaced it with something shiny that we don’t need, not to mention something that puts a major roadblock in the way of the family dinner.

When my son was in grade eight, we attended his first band concert. “Music is important,” said the director at the end, “because it teaches you that the whole is more important than the individual.” A lot of dark things have defended themselves with similar sounding statements. But it may be that little good has ever been accomplished without it. My brother worries that the concept of teamwork is becoming foreign for a generation of athletes raised to celebrate their individual achievements with group achievements a secondary consideration.

I have never coached a basketball team like the one I did this year. Of eleven players, one had played on a team before, one could dribble with more than one hand, two could shoot at a rate higher than 1/5. Few understood anything about the rules beyond putting the ball in the hoop and dribbling to move with the ball. They wore jeans to every practice. Not all of them could tie their shoes. Most could handle losing a group drill without leaving the gym humiliated and furious. None were in good physical condition or very interested in becoming so. All were on the team because the team was the gym class and at the end there was a tournament day.

I’ve never gone to a competition with lower criteria for success. Yet I don’t know how many times I have felt as convinced about the value of athletics. We sustained eight losses and one victory, but my eyes filled with tears more than once as I was reminded about the power of sports to do very good things.

Maybe I question clubs and travelling squads, but rag tag groups of people learning to bring their best for a common purpose is something to cheer about. Working together is the cornerstone of human existence. With great effort and patience, on a team we discover what it is to pass through a tiny gate to which sacrifice for another is the only key to the door. Ours own interests surrendered, we become something greater than we realize.

There is a difference between a kid in a t-shirt shooting baskets and the 4 foot player afraid of the charging opposition but standing their ground for the team. We witness in the latter something noble and our spirits soar. In sports, as in life, our moments of greatness depend on our willingness to be a team. Simple sometimes unobserved acts of sacrifice in which are hidden our potential for magnificence.