Friday, November 23, 2007

What Passes for Grace

It's a holiday, we're traveling, and we're staying with family. I'm having difficulty loving and accepting those closest to me.

No, really.

I tried a couple of little "grace" exercises over the last couple of days. I didn't know what else to do. At one point, it was either that, or swill a Bloody Mary at 9 a.m. on the airplane and fall asleep later at a critical juncture.

My husband tries his best to make everything orderly and safe for us when we travel, which is lovely, but I respond to his Travel Personality with disproportionate irritation and eye-rolling. (Yep, he loves that.) On the plane from Seattle to Boston, we were seated a row away from each other, me across and behind him. (He had both the kids, I had a sweet young couple beside me.) At a moment when I was really getting into my inner rant about Matt's Travel Personality, I experienced a crossroads. I thought, hmm, I can continue to sit here and feel tense abou how tense I think my husband is, or I can do something else. What happens if I try a little metta meditation* on him? So I stared at his broad shoulder wrapped in an olive green cotton sweater I bought for him five years ago, and I breathed in the suffering he might have been feeling then (tension, anxiety, annoyance at bitchy wife), and breathed back goodness and peace. I did this until a flight attendant began squawking over the loudspeaker.

Then, you'll never guess what happened: Matt got up and started dancing in the aisle!

Ok, not really. Since we didn't interact for awhile, I've no idea if he actually calmed down then. But I sure calmed down. And that made me nicer. So I was one less person on that plane thinking bilious, vile thoughts. I was one more person in the world meditating, which meant I was causing no suffering at that moment. And this was all practice for me in contacting compassion for someone else when I really didn't feel like it.

And then later, when I really felt compassion for him, I offered to trade seats.

*metta is a Buddhist technique of meditation in which the practitioner breathes in the suffering of another person and sends back something positive, like liberation. It's also called "loving-kindness" meditation. This is my primitive understanding.

Friday, November 16, 2007



I’m single-parenting this week. It’s turned out to be better than I expected. I don’t have to confer with someone about every little thing, and I don’t have to wait around for someone else to do what they said they’d do. I just take care of business.

The down side is that I had to perform the manly task of hunting down a dead rodent in the basement. There was an unmistakable smell wafting up through the heating vents. Shit, I thought, how come every time Matt leaves town I have to deal with varmints? (It’s true. The last time he was gone for more than a few days, there was raccoon issue and the appearance of a hornet’s nest in the tree overhanging my car). Armed with Matt’s yellow rubber dishwashing gloves, long tongs, a plastic bag, and a flashlight, I went down into the basement to investigate. My son trailed behind me, holding his nose closed, asking me what the rat would look like, or would it be a mouse, and why was it dead, and how did I know it was dead? I pulled up a stepladder to the aluminum heating duct where I could see the corner of the big wooden rat trap hanging over the edge. I grasped it with my BBQ tongs and pulled it toward me until I saw the sad little grey lump matted with blood lying on it.

“Is that it?” cried my son, hopping from foot to foot and craning his neck toward the ceiling.

“Jonah, get out of here,” I said. “This is gross. I don’t want you to see this.”

“Mommmmmm, I want to tell you something-"

“I mean it!”

He ducked his head and walked out of the furnace room. I deposited the poor rat and its instrument of death into a plastic Safeway bag.

“Mom, it still smells out here,” Jonah reported.

I raced past him to run up the stairs and lay the animal in its final resting place. Then I had to go back and swab up the leftover gore.

After it was all over I felt victorious. I texted my husband that I had succeeded.

“Did you find the new rat hole and cover it up?” he asked me later on the phone.

“What? No. The old crib is leaning against the wall, I can’t get into that corner to even look. “ Who cared? I was a pioneer woman for God’s sake! I could do anything! I could probably rope a steer.

I’ve been living with my husband for nine years. During this time it has become clear that he and I are not cut from the same cloth, especially when it comes to dealing with, say, pestilence. His response upon seeing a rat leap from the top of a heating duct to the floor, inches from his face, was to yell and then rush upstairs to call an exterminator. Mine was to laugh hysterically and hold my hand over my heart. Left to my own timeline, I’d have called an exterminator several weeks later after sweeping up rat turds for too many days in a row. In this case, I was all about putting out the fire, and he was all about preventing one in the future.

This is as good an analogy for our respective upbringing as any. It’s no mystery that we found each other. It’s really true that opposites attract.

So while I missed him this week, I also enjoyed being my freewheeling self. My kids and I ate a lot of food on the fly. We went for dog walks at night and watched an extra movie or two this week. I let bedtimes go long when it made the kids happy. I would never do this if I were a single mom for real, because that would set me up for a nightmare, but it was fun to let things go a little lax this week.

Another bonus is that I didn’t have the chance to feel guilty about not being a better mother. I wiped my kids’ butts, I made their food, I read them 1,000 stories, I put their covers back on them at night, and no one was here to do it better.

That feels good.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Pick Up Your Shit

7 a.m.

Here's the scene: dirty white tablecloth on table. One green poker chip in the center. Salt and pepper shakers. Folded over section of yesterday's newspaper. Kid's brightly-colored plastic place mats askew as if fallen from the sky. One empty foil chocolate candy wrapper. One Matchbox car, blue, upside-down, occupants presumed dead. All six dining room chairs are pulled away from the table, like everybody left in a fire.

My entire house looks like this. I can't do anything about it. No force can stem the tide.

Sometimes I feel like my real job around here, if we are to be frank, is putting items back where they belong. Because really, that's what I do all day. I put away the laundry, the food, the shoes, the coats, the toys, the mail, the recycling piles, the stray scraps of paper, the kid art, the bulletins from school, and the dog's toys. Then there are my own things, such as the contents of my huge mama-purse which regularly get dumped on the counter because I'm in a fit and can't find my keys (Chapstick, money, ID, whatever). It's ongoing. We stubbornly keep taking things out and using them. But that's not the only cause of the constant mess.

My daughter is in a power-trip phase right now where she drops things on the floor at dinner and stares at me to see what I'm going to do about it. Typically, I stare back and raise an eyebrow. Then she yells, "GET MY FORK!" Then I look away and say, "You can get it yourself."

Can you guess how this goes over with her?

"No, YOU get my fork!" she says, eyes squinched shut, fists balled.

At this point, my blood pressure rises. Nobody likes being ordered around by an imperious three-year-old, but to add to my irritation is the keen awareness that if I'd ever uttered such words at home, I'd have been smacked and sent to bed immediately.

Anne Lamott says that when you overlook a kid's bad behavior, you injure them. "You hobble their character," she says.

I believe this. So, I don't want to overlook this behavior, but I don't want to smack Audrey and send her to bed. The alternate consequences we tend to employ do not often have the intended result, and they exhaust the whole family. Still, not knowing what else to do, I pull the same ones out every time.

In any case, picking up her damn fork is the last thing I want to do at dinner, since, as I mentioned above, I've been picking things up off the floor all day. Not to mention that I would hate to set a precedent that I'm Audrey's servant. So I'll be damned if I'm picking up that fork.

And so will she.

Hence the exhaustion, noise, and stress that will ensue.

I guess this is just life with kids. Why do I expect anything different?

Anyone have any tips, techniques, or sage words they would like to share with me? I could really use them.