Ah, spring break?scantily clad humans cavorting in tropical places, drinking too much. Or: if you have children, a chaotic trip to Disneyland. No?Legoland.
Or, if you’re me, an entire week to yourself.
The way our calendar works, my spring break falls a week before the kids’, and if this was once a little frustrating (I want my trip to Hawaii too, yo), in the last two years I’ve come to see it as The. Best. Thing. Ever. Basically, I have a week of paid vacation while everyone else’s life trundles on. Of course this year I was determined to make the best of it: writing, organizing my house, a decent nap or two, some good books, a yoga class, a haircut, what-have-you.
I’m not always great at relaxing, though, and I’ve had moments this week of feeling like I’m trying so hard to take a load off that I’m not really enjoying the rest. But I’ve also been trying as hard as I can to find some spaciousness in the daily grind, and here of a Friday morning, I’m feeling pretty successful. Yesterday, I did something that always makes me feel like a million bucks: I drove up to a meditation center north of here for a two-hour yoga and meditation class.
And the topic of the dharma talk was wisdom.
Now, I don’t always resonate with the teacher. I like her classes, but at times I’m not on the same wavelength as she is. But yesterday, perhaps because it’s the end of a week of spring break, I felt like every yoga pose was a balm for the soul, every word out of her mouth, brilliant. At the end, she asked us to think about wisdom, and the ways we cultivate it. She reminded us that wisdom isn’t a set of knowledge you acquire; it’s a skill, almost like a way of approaching certain things with confidence. Somehow in there she circled to this notion of choices, how we can be wise about the choices we make, and how, in different areas of our lives we might feel we have a great deal of wisdom?and in others, very little at all.
In the abstract, it might sound a bit, well, abstract. But it turned out the talk was exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my life, this week, when I’ve been writing but also feeling quite muddled about the different paths my writing could take and whether I’m taking the right one. There’s this God-forsaken novel, and then there’s this still-unpublished memoir, but what’s really calling to me are these poems about motherhood, and instead of being the kind of wise soul who thinks to herself, Gosh I’m lucky to have all of this creative stuff spinning out of me, and maybe I just need to make a clear choice down one path and see what happens?instead, I’m the kind of soul who immediately goes to God, I suck. I can never finish anything. I’m doing it all wrong.
The other perhaps more surprising revelation was when she asked us to think of a realm where we did feel wise. Perhaps mundanely, I thought straightaway of my new habit of meal planning. Then I thought of child-rearing. I thought how actually, in the domestic sphere, taking care of my people, getting dinner on the table, dealing with an emotional 8-year-old and a baby who likes to bite, I feel pretty solid in my wisdom. I’m not saying I don’t make a shitload of mistakes, or have dark moments, or even that I’m necessarily a “good mom,” but I don’t feel angsty about my ability to keep things together on the home front. And I feel centered and grounded in this path I’ve chosen, like it’s the right one. Even if I second-guess a decision (time-outs for the biter? Something more holistic?), it doesn’t destroy me. I don’t spend hours worrying that I’m doing something wrong.
And wow, talk about luck. I have more than one friend, amazing, amazing parents, who struggle so much with it, who worry all the time about whether they’re doing it right. (I also have more than one friend having to make the kinds of choices for her kids that are beyond anything I would wish on anyone.) I worry about EVERYTHING, you guys?but, I realized yesterday, not that much about my parenting or my ability to provide for my family. I figure (as this imperfect but charming article suggests) that I’m doing pretty well, and that might be good enough.
It was kind of amazing to put these things side by side: on one, my ingrained belief that every other writer on the planet is doing it better than I am (don’t even get me started on the amazing Lauren Groff?if you haven’t yet read Fates and Furies, get thee to your local independent bookstore), and my sometimes pathological inability to see my own strengths, opportunities and choices. On the other, my realization that if someone ordered me, “Make a palatable dinner for ten out of whatever’s in your cupboards, while both of your kids are home, NOW?” it would be stressful?but I’d do it.?So now, of course, I’m wondering how I take wisdom from the latter, and contribute it to the former.
Maybe that’s a project for next spring break.
Where is YOUR wisdom? Where do you need more? Comment it up.
A hearty thanks to everyone who bought my book or came to my wonderful book launch at Octopus Literary Salon on March 10! I’m now suggesting folks buy it on Powells.com, since Amazon is still all messed up, or directly from me (link on my homepage).
My friend Mattison sent me this video the other day of her parents preparing a feast for Chinese New Year. Immigrants from China via Vietnam, they worked for hours?days?weeks??preparing the food. The level of food prep is astounding. There are scenes of her mom forming dumplings by hand, mixing doughs, frying little delicious-looking morsels. Dungeness crabs cracked with a sharp knife, individual?custards? Cakes??stamped with a fetching little chop, becoming works of art. Her mom lays an altar and burns incense over the food.
It is, in a word, beautiful.
I’ve been thinking about that video a lot, not just because it all looked so delicious. I’ve been a little obsessed with food prep lately. I’m the food prep maven in our house. I work less, I get home earlier?it just makes sense. And I used to be so good at it. L would play happily with some jars or measuring spoons on the kitchen floor?or, later, read a book or color?while I roasted veggies or whipped up a quinoa salad.
But Baby S would rather pull jars off the shelves and fiddle with the knobs to the stove. He?d rather dig through the trash. He?d rather open the one not-yet-baby-proofed cupboard and dump Cheerios all over the floor. He?d rather make a break for the bathroom and gleefully thrust both hands into the toilet. So many nights, five pm rolls around and I?m flummoxed. The baby needs to be picked up, and he?s very persuasive. Or he?s in the toilet. Or something has to come out of the oven and it?s not even safe for me to open the door because he?ll try to climb in. I holler for L to watch the baby for fivepleasejustfiveminutes but L has turned into a teenager that afternoon and demands a bribe (or flat-out refuses). Ben walks in the door and I hand him the baby and march to the fridge for a beer.
Well, for the first time in my adult life, I’m embracing that slippery practice of PLANNING MEALS. And hoo boy has it has helped. It’s turned the question of what the f&*k is for dinner? into “I know what’s for dinner, because I planned it over the weekend, muthas!”
So herewith, my Boring Yet Practical Tips:
Dude. Just plan the meals. I’ve been asking my family what sounds yummy to them and rolling with it. Weirdly, since doing this, I think we’re eating more vegetables and more variety.
Cook ahead of time.?Yes, it can be done. Last Sunday morning, I thought to myself, well, since I’m in the kitchen anyway, I might as well chop these two onions and throw them in a couple of separate pots and simultaneously make a pot of Indian dal with coconut milk and a grass-fed beef stew with root veggies. Dinner for two nights, done.
Shop once. This was a hard one at first, but easy to embrace when I got two credit card bills in a row that were almost double my (Bay Area!) rent. Ouch. The jury’s still out, but I kind of suspect all those frantic last-minute trips to the store, plus whopping Costco trips (we let our membership lapse, partially after reading this) were to blame. I’m trying instead to make a good list and go one time.
Cook with What You Have. That is, of course, the title of my brilliant friend Katherine’s blog and business. Just look at the photos on that webpage. I’m salivating. She even has a recipe subscription service. More than that, the ethos makes sense. Shop smart, cook whatever you want.
Cut corners, but not too many corners. I just can’t embrace Blue Apron and Good Eggs and all that jazz, you guys. If money is no object, and you’re working 80 hours a week, then by all means. For me, though, all the wasteful plastic packaging really got me down. And I’d rather just shop than have my groceries delivered, because then I know which stores I’m supporting.
That said, definitely cut some corners. Last fall, before they discontinued the crusts (bastards), I was all about the following dinner: Trader Joe’s gluten-free pizza crusts with Trader Joe’s pizza sauce and Trader Joe’s cheese, topped with greens or mushrooms or whatever you want. Salad. Easy. Yum. I am also all about rice bowls, e.g. a big pile of rice with a bunch of veggies and a fried egg on top. These are 20-minute dinners.
Definitely, definitely allow yourself to eat out once a week. (This article suggests you should do it even more!)
Being organized about feeding my family feels really good to me right now that I’ve got a million more things on my plate, like a new book and a book launch to plan. (Come!)
What are YOUR go-to food prep tricks, or true confessions? I’m all ears.
The other day, I asked my friend Sho, founder of my Indivisible?activism group, what political stuff she was working on.
“Honestly,” she said, “these days I’m mostly just trying to advocate for my daughter to get the school services she needs.”
I doubt she realized it at the time, but her response shook something up in me. It helped me answer some of the many questions that have been floating around in my mind over the past few weeks, these weeks of crippling wildfires and crippling hurricanes and crippling dread. I’ve been more engaged politically since this past election than I have in my entire life. But somehow, lately, with so much tragedy, I’ve been finding myself desperate to understand the best way to really be an activist.
When Sho told me that most of her activism time was focused on advocating for her own kid, it occurred to me: activism is personal. I mean, duh, right? But it is. We pick our causes based on what’s most pressing in our personal lives. I fought hard, for example, against the repeal of Obamacare. I sent texts I feared would be received poorly to my many relatives in Maine, lobbying them to call Senator Susan Collins. I contacted my own senators about a million times, too, even though I knew they were on the same page as me.
Why did I do all of that?
Because I have a pre-existing condition, an autoimmune disease I’ve had since my teens. I know what it’s like to be denied health insurance over and over again. You know what that makes you feel like? Shit. It makes you terrified that because you have this weird disorder where your hands turn white when they’re cold that you won’t have insurance when you have an unexpected heart attack or car accident. It makes you feel unhealthy, even when you’re walking around strong as an ox. It makes you incredibly grateful to have resources, like parents who could bail you out if you got a $40,000 hospital bill. It makes you deeply aware that most people aren’t so lucky. The mandate, under Obamacare, that people with preexisting conditions not be denied was a Godsend for me. Sure, Obamacare is far from perfect, but on a very basic level, it gave me something I didn’t have before: security. We often come at politics like this: this is what affects me, my kids, my community.
And I don’t think that’s all bad, as long as it doesn’t make us myopic. (Example: being staunchly anti-gun control just because no one in YOUR family has been killed in a mass shooting.) And if your life is pretty good, it might be tempting not to…do anything. But we’re in a time when no one can afford to sit idly by and not do anything
So what’s the best way to be an activist?
1) Identify?your issue(s).?My delightful friend Annie Burke is a huge champion for the outdoors. She organizes kids to, well, go outside. And so recently, fueled by this deep love for the outdoors, she started her own blog and weekly action list called The Sun Rises. You can sign up for her updates?here.?I love that Annie took something personal to her?environmental advocacy?and turned it into actionable items for good. What’s your biggest concern these days? What are you going to do about it? THAT’s where you focus your attention.
2)?Schedule your activism. There are so many campaigns happening all the time, and so many important causes. If you’re like me, you might get five to ten different emails a day urging you to call, write, tweet, donate, organize. When Trump came into office last January, and I decided I was going to fight like hell, I started doing so much activism I stopped writing, got behind on my schoolwork, let my house go to the dogs, and did crazy things like transport my kid in the Baby Bjorn to San Francisco at rush hour to stand in front of Senator Feinstein’s office shouting with a bunch of Berkeley hippies for twenty minutes before going home again. (If paid protest wasn’t fake news, I’d have made a bundle.)
The reality is that you can’t be an activist every minute of every day, and faced with that, you might just…stop doing anything at all. The solution? Schedule your activism. Join a group. Go to a Protest Playdate. Set aside Tuesday nights, or ten minutes every morning. Give yourself a limit: five calls per week, 20 postcards per month, twelve Resistbot texts per day. Whatever works for you, but just DO IT. (As I say to my students, with regard to turning in essays: it’s always better to do something than to do nothing.)
3)?Give money, if you can. Turns out money DOES make the world go ’round. While donating isn’t activism in the strictest sense of the word, if getting out there and raising hell isn’t in your wheelhouse, then support the people who do. Personally, I think that supporting local businesses, buying sustainable products, supporting organic farmers?all of this is its own form of activism. But donating to the political candidates of your choice, to organizations doing work you believe in, to your kids’ schools, to hurricane relief, to wildfire relief?even more so.
4) Remember ALL members of your community. I was pretty heartened, last week, by the incredible outpouring of support for victims of the Northbay fires. At L’s school, parents bustled about filling boxes with goods. “Donate” buttons cropped up all over. The Bay Area community rallied heavily around our friends up north. And while it felt like Armageddon here, I nonetheless had this sense that if we were all going down, we were all going down together. One incredibly important way to be an activist is simply to take care of the members of your community, whoever they are. That may mean remembering that even though your kid is doing great at his school, another kid with special needs might not be. Or it may mean that while your family feels welcomed by the soccer team, the one kid of color on that team might feel less welcome.
The most rewarding thing I did in 2016 was contribute to a gift drive for needy families by buying a Christmas gift for an anonymous junior-high aged girl whose younger sibling attended L’s school. Going to Marshall’s and picking out the fluffiest socks I could find, the cutest underwear, the games she’d asked for, and some other silly little things that would have made me happy when I was 13 is one of my best memories from 2016. And to put that in perspective, in 2016 I had the baby I’d been wanting for six years.?
5) Engage in self-care. Burnout? It’s real. We’re assaulted daily. We see evidence in our own communities of climate change, while elected officials deny its existence. We see vitriolic, nasty fights between our Republican friends and our Democrat friends on social media. We despair of America every being a unified country again. We learn that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator. We remember that our president is, too. It’s a lot. Add that to our personal and professional difficulties?a baby not sleeping through the night, a lost job, an argument with a partner?and it can feel like a little too much. The antidote? Take a break. Going to Esalen for six days might not be in my budget, but I’ve got my own mini-spa date in October planned (ooh! One in November, too). And practically every night, I sit with B on the couch and watch an episode of The Office.?We laugh. (We also fold laundry).
Most of all, we try to remember that we have each other, that we’re Americans, and that we’ll get through this. And then we get back to work.
How are YOU being an activist these days? I’d love to hear from you.
Just shy of his first birthday, planning for reflection and nostalgia, instead wham boom I?m in the hospital with a?bum appendix. The husband is away, unreachable, mobile stashed in the glove box of somebody?s car. I wanted this for him, a break from the work and the waves. I was not afraid to let him go. Even in the hospital, frantically phoning the school/the grandfather/the good friend/the nanny I am not even quite afraid, it?s not the right word?incredulous might do it. And, perhaps sickly, slightly relieved. Why? It makes no sense.
My milk threatens to dry up after the hospital stay. I blame Nurse Ratchett, reincarnated as a beautiful blonde named Shelley who refuses me fluids, who looks at the breast pump like it is a medieval torture device. It is clear she does not have children or want children or like children. This is okay; parenthood does not, in my book, an adult make. But kindness? Kindness, yes. She brings me Jello and broths so salty if I drink them my cells will shrivel up. She brings me a vomit bag which I fill and hand to her. (Later, in the 1200-word letter I write to the hospital, complaining, I say the best part of my stay was handing over the puke. This is true.)
A week later, shadows in the studio play off the green chair and make me think someone is passing by. I am writing again, or attempting to. My milk has come back slowly, so slowly. I hear voices telling me one year of nursing is enough, one year is good. But I could not take it from him so abruptly. Returning from the hospital, I was greeted by his outstretched fists clutched tightly in the ?milk? sign, his body tense, his desperate crying for me. There was no mistaking it. Why would I take this away if I didn?t have to?
When the husband finally calls from the road two days later, he too is incredulous. ?Hi,? is all he says, but his voice says something else. ?I?m okay,? I tell him, though I do not feel okay: my belly is full of fluid and air. I can feel them sloshing together, waves crashing on a ship?s prow. Later, after he gets home, we will spend six more hours at the Emergency Room. When did they stop calling it a CAT scan and call it CT? The contrast dye makes me have to pee, flushes me head to toe. The pedantic tech had assured me it would. I guess I was grateful to know ahead of time.
Fluid in the abdomen. Start of an abscess. Maybe. Shit.
?Antibiotics,? says Dr. James Starr, ER doctor. ?Three to four days intravenous, incompatible with nursing.? This is the first time I feel fear. Later, moments before they are hooking me up to an IV, he comes in to say stop. ?The surgeon says you can go home with a prescription instead,? he reports, and then I cry again for a different reason.
The pain is like needles. The pain is a dull ache. The pain is like needles. The sloshing gets lesser. The air passes through. The incisions are like angry little mouths, glued shut. I cannot get comfortable. The air lodges in my shoulder. The pain killers make me stupid. I take one a day, tops.
Let me see your scars, the eight-year-old intones every day. He tells me appendicitis is contagious. He tells me he does not want to get close to me. The first night home, I remind him to be gentle. As if possessed by the devil, he leans over to my belly and with both hands, presses. After, wailing, he insists it was an accident. I pretend to believe him. I tell him it is okay.
It was not an accident.
Someone brings soup.
Someone brings flowers.
Someone does my dishes.
The house is still a disaster.
By his first birthday, things are mostly right-side-up again. The mornings have grown colder. In California you watch for these subtle signs of fall. By mid-day it could be any season, but the mornings are crisp. We attempt a walk. In the bath the night before, I noticed my tailbone, jutting out. Three pounds lost in the hospital, all, apparently, from my ass. How many ounces is an appendix? Not that many.
Pounds lost: 3
Hours in hospital: 30
Babies un-nursed: 1
Size of inflamed appendix: 11 millimeters
Pounds of air pumped into belly: too many
Appendixes left: 0
The incident with the appendix cuts something with the baby. It is not so simple as that, for two days, waiting for contrast dye and antibiotics to leave my system, I can?t nurse. It is also that, in that time, I avoided him altogether, fearing his desire. Out of sight, out of mind, I told myself. Lying in bed while someone else takes care of him, I feel for a minute like I never had him. I could let my milk dry up, forget all about it. But I do not. Guilt, I think. When he resumes nursing he kicks at my belly. The two of them, these two boys, slowly batter me.
The eight year old, who has always been in control of his feelings, is acting strange. Mad. Reserved. Finally, I make him say it. ?I was scared,? he says. ?You never called me,? he says. ?I never got to visit you in the hospital,? he says. ?I was so worried,? he says. ?I didn?t know what was happening.? My love for him floods the room.
I?m sorry, I say.
I?m sorry, I say.
I played around with the style of this blog post after reading Jenny Offill’s amazing and experimental novel Dep’t. of Speculation, which I can’t say enough good things about.
For me, and I think for most, the writing life is feast or famine: years of not much happening, then little periods of publication or great strides on projects. And occasionally, it comes all at once.
To wit: I had two essays published this week, within minutes of each other. I’m thrilled. It was a nice personal moment in what’s been a very difficult week politically and globally. I think it’s important to mention that: wildfires in Oregon, the end of DACA, hurricanes everywhere?my heart goes out to so many people, right now.
So if you want a diversion, I’ve got two essays for you.
I kept the rejection letters because I was told to.
In my first year of graduate school, a professor described a poet who?d wallpapered the bathroom with his. Without questioning why one would want their failures staring them in the face while they did their business, I nodded gravely and made a note of it. Apparently, writers saved?and sometimes displayed?their rejection letters.
That first year of grad school I learned all kinds of things about ?what writers did.? For one, I learned to say ?I?m a writer? when anyone asked, because if you didn?t believe it yourself, then who would? And that night, I went home and started a “rejections” folder, eagerly awaiting my first one.
The second essay is completely different; it’s called “In Praise of Mindful Birthing,” and it’s about how I harnessed a technique I learned through meditation to get me through Baby S’s birth. You can read it over on Elephant Journal. Here’s a teaser:
Fast forward to week 40: I?m sitting on my back porch on a swelteringly hot day. I had a castor oil smoothie for breakfast, followed by a trip to a delightful sadist of an acupuncturist who made me stumble around her office with my feet full of needles. The doula has arrived, and so has my friend Steph.
The candles have been lit.
On the stereo, sacred music by Hildegard von Bingen plays.
I am in labor.
I don?t have time to think about how different this birth is so far, with my candles, my team of women, and my sacred chants, because I?m breathing. I?m having a contraction, in fact. It?s painful, but I don?t think about the next one. I don?t panic waiting for the pause.
And?there it goes. I look lazily around the yard. A bumblebee nuzzles the late summer flowers. I can almost see the pollen on its back as it lifts off. A hummingbird stops by. My feet feel hot on the deck. The birthing ball beneath me sways lightly.
I am not in pain, I think to myself?not at this moment, anyway.
I’d love to hear from you! Got a question or comment? What’s YOUR experience of rejection–or giving birth? Drop me a line, below. And follow me on Facebook, where I just might read aloud from one of these essays a little later today.
Confession: I get really annoyed when people bandy about the phrase “carpe diem” or otherwise remind you to live each second as though it’s your last.
Sure, if you’re some privileged, white, yoga-going, money-possessing, unemployed, free-spirited amazing soul, that probably works for you. The rest of us, however, are?working, raising kids, going to school, and fighting the good fight.?It’s just not practical?or very pleasant, to my mind?to act like death is imminent so we need to freak out and cram everything in NOW.
That said, I’ve been really loving the mantra I picked up at a women’s meditation thingy I went to a while back: There is all the time in the world. The phrase, which is kind of like the opposite of “carpe diem,” has been getting me through some tough moments of late. The thing is, and this is mostly positive?I’m just wanting MOAR of everything as I emerge from my first year postpartum. More writing, more yoga, more time in nature, more music, more quality time with my kids, more political engagement, more relaxation. Is this possible? Probably not; there are only so many hours in the day. But instead of focusing on the lack of time, or being a maxed out, American mom on the brink, I’m focusing on this idea that there’s enough time to do it all. If something doesn’t get done today, it’ll get done another day. It’s deceptively simple, and sometimes, anyway, it works.
Here are some ways I’m voicing my?new mantra:
Sure, spend only ten minutes on the novel. When it gets to feeling crunchy, don’t force it. Take a break and work on something else.
Go to yoga on a Monday even if it means an hour less of writing. Likely, the calming aspect of the class will make you more focused, anyway.
Sit still and watch Baby S play without panicking about what’s not getting done. This will be a blip in the scheme of things. Besides, it’s a real delight to watch him go.
Be in control of your space, but don’t panic if things feel a little chaotic on the domestic front. You can correct them later.
I feel kind of ridiculously new-agey as I write this, but I’m really finding the idea of there being all the time in the world revolutionary.?I’m so good at telling myself I’m not good enough, that I don’t work hard enough, that I suck. But if I attempt to approach the world with just a little more space, I find myself a little more spacious: more open to creative ideas and opportunities, more open to joy.
One thing?I want less of in my life? Social media. I’m really addicted right now. Some of it is fun?my Facebook author page, where I post articles and photos and updates of my new life with two kids, has been a fun venture. And I’m tryyyyying to pin all my blog posts on Pinterest (follow me!). But it’s too easy to give “all the time in the world” over to trolling friends’ status updates and depressing political news. It’s easy to see time spiral down the drain.
And another thing I want less of? Drinking. We spent every night of our vacation back East on the verge of tipsy. It was fun, but unsustainable. When we got back we teetotaled and ate vegetarian for a solid week (stay tuned for “A Week’s Worth of Vegetarian Dinners”! I also want MOAR food writing, and cooking, in my life). It felt really good to clean up a little, to emerge into my favorite season?trying to find my own way to carpe diem.
What are YOU wanting more and less of in your life? I’d love to hear from you.