Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why I did not make my daughter do her homework

When my daughter was in high school, she stopped doing her homework. Just like that. Just quit. Oh, she did SOME of her homework. The art projects, the essays, the short films she made about books she'd read. She just quit the "stupid" stuff (her words, not mine-though looking at the worksheets, the reviews of reviews, the busywork that offered nothing to stimulate the mind, the imagination, the soul, I had to agree. It was stupid.)

As her grades started to slip, her father and I tried several methods to encourage, coerce and bribe her to resume but she persisted. That's when it occurred to me to ask a different question: Why?

"It's pointless and I just won't do it any more," she said (and of course I am paraphrasing.... but that was the gist of the thing.)

And, instead of grounding her or taking away her allowance, I said, "That makes sense to me," while silently cheering: You go, girl! The homework (I saw it) was pointless, and stupid and boring and lame - insert any adjective that means: This is a waste of time that makes my stomach hurt when I do it. And instead of making excuses or lying or getting sick,my daughter was taking a stand: This soul-deadening activity sucks and I refuse to do it.

I knew my daughter. She was never a slacker - she worked her butt off on any project that engaged her interest - but she was always a truth-teller, standing up for herself, speaking from a core of deeply held values - and I wasn't about to do anything to squash that.

Within a year, this same impulse led her to quit high school - but she did so with a clear and focused plan: To enroll in a GED completion program at the local community college.

It was the best decision she's ever made. The teachers and classes she encountered there reenergized her love of learning, and every class - including Math! - captivated her full interest and effort for which she received almost straight As.

It prepared her for the program she's in now - an intensive, four-year film study program.

Someday, she may have to learn that you cannot quit everything that bores you (though I still question that assumption). Maybe, she'll have to face some dull job that is all about the pay check. But maybe not.

The world is brimming with opportunity, with flexibility. Looking back, I'm so glad we didn't force our daughter to do her homework. I'm so glad we asked "why" and when she answered, I am so glad that we listened to her.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Whatever...

A riff on anxiety with much less proofreading than I usually do (which, as you will see, is a good thing)

This post began when I left my iced tea, without a cover, on a little round café table on my way into the bathroom. Before I’d even entered the stall, a vision of my iced tea, just sitting there - abandoned and vulnerable - flashed into my mind. Why, anything could happen! Someone could come by and drop a packet of poison in there! Someone might innocently pass, incubating plague of one sort or another, and sneeze. What was I thinking?

I turned right back around to get it. But, at the door, I stopped: Why there were much worse risks bringing an open cup into the bathroom! Germs, untold substances, on every surface if I took it in the stall with me. If I left it out here on the bathroom counter, we were back to the same anything that could happen to it sitting, all exposed, out in the cafe. I was frozen at the door. And, though it only took a moment for the cycle to run its course, it was agony, a brutal, gut twisting moment that I've experienced every single day of my life.

But something new happened. First, I lifted off, an omnipotent observer, watching myself go through the usual back and forth, yes and no dance. There were the same dance steps - the worry, the indecision and the other worry, I really had to pee.

And then, much to my surprise, I saw her give a little shrug and think:Whatever.

And from my perch, above it all, I smiled.

I’ve changed.

My whole family struggles with anxiety – suffering, analyzing, anticipating, worrying, and wringing our hands over each minute and preciously examined detail of our experience to the point of exasperation… for some people.

Like my son’s ex-girlfriend, who once slapped the dinner table, exploding, "Don’t you people EVER stop analyzing? Can’t you just, for once, talk about the weather?"

As she stormed away (to the bathroom, coincidentally) to cool off, my kids and my sister and I looked at each other, truly baffled. We LIKE talking this way. Doesn't everyone?

Still, we agreed, just for now, for her, to try and launched into a discussion of rain, snow, world weather patterns and by the time she returned to the table, we were discussing, in our worried and obsessive way, global warming.

Still, recently, somehow, I am not worrying. Wait, that's not entirely true. See? I'm worrying about having written that. So it's not over. But it's better - I'm worrying less - and that’s been a great relief to me.

I still agonize about the condition of my home – a constant irritant – and I worry about whether I will ever be able to finish a book project (because this worrying manifests in my work as such acute perfectionism that until each sentence is crafted, proofread, fine-tuned, spell-checked, reconsidered, remastered, and finally, laid upon the page like a strand of precious pearls, I cannot let anyone see it.

But even this is a big improvement… really it is.

It's gotten so I can forget to take my vitamins or come to yoga practice a couple of minutes late or even, eat a piece of cake once in a while without spending the next 12 hours weighing myself. Look! I'm even able to NOT close a parnethetical phrase - as you will surely have noticed I've done (See above open paragraph after the words "book project")- and not be compelled to go back and close it.

What a relief.

This “whatever” approach isn’t carelessness, it’s a life raft, a flotation device, an inflatable dinghy helping me navigate the anxious world in which I live. It is also a carefully cultivated understanding that: Things happen and that, when they happen and that I am strong, capable and smart enough to handle them.

But there's something else brewing: A deeper knowing, a bit of faith that whatever happens, whatever comes, will bring with it another opportunity to learn something about myself. I've grown comfortable with challenges - knowing, finally, that each roadblock is evidence of a stuck place or boundary inside of me, a stuck place or boundary which, when challenged, will yield some new understanding, some gift, some wisdom.

With this understanding comes a grander and perhaps, most stunning to me, knowing: That all of this – the challenge, the boundary, the pain, the struggle, the discovery and the uncovered plastic cup of amber tea left alone on a café table - are part of an unfolding story: My biography, my sacred story. And it couldn't turn out any other way.

Earlier this week, I reported a conversation I’d had with my 21-year-old son Max in a blog post. Later that day, I went back and deleted it. If you were one of the lucky few who read it in the original post, skip this paragraph. If not...

We were sitting in a cafe and I was talking about my mother, his grandmother, who’d just had open-heart surgery. I was wondering if there was more we could be, should be, doing for her (more than the six hours a day I was spending at her bedside, the drive from her hospital to my dad’s nursing home to keep him posted; the reading and responding to the countless emails and phone calls from loving friends and relatives; the advocacy and coordination with her many doctors, nurses, surgeons and dear best friend to make sure my mother did not receive one ounce of the wrong medicine or endure one unnecessary procedure or spend one hour unsupervised.) That kind of more.

“Mommy,” he interrupted. “All of this wondering, ‘What should I do? Am I doing the right thing? What do I have to do tomorrow?’ is anxiety. The truth is, there's nothing to do. The only thing we can do right now is address what’s before us, right now. All we can do is enjoy our tomato soup. Things will sort themselves out. And if they don’t. All we can do, still, is enjoy our tomato soup.”

My little boy had become a natural, self-taught, Eckhart Tolle - sitting at a cafe table dispensing wisdom.

He's right, I thought. And I shrugged it all off - all the angst and love and guilt and worry. "Whatever," I smiled. Then we enjoyed our tomato soup. Well, to be perfectly honest, he was having the soup. I enjoyed (but I mean REALLY enjoyed) my iced tea.

And now, without proofreading or rewriting or spellchecking this post, I am sending it off and going to yoga… and if I arrive a couple of minutes late this morning… whatever.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The best seat in the house

“You have the best seat in the house,” she says, walking past my table. She’s right. In a cozy corner beside the bright, floor to ceiling window, the fireplace blazing at my back, the only thing missing from my location is an outlet for my laptop- but I’ve got at least two hours of charge.

Normally, I cherish my solitude—and today, when I've been caught up in family drama for two solid weeks, I need it; I must put out a blog post, a book chapter AND a magazine column by tomorrow.

So when the words, “Come sit with me!” come out of my own mouth, I am stunned. And when she, who clearly has other things to do herself settles a few feet away on the slate bench by the fire, I know something is afoot.

I know because yesterday I asked my angels to send me some high voltage signage. Not the usual feather or penny from Heaven they send. Something BIG! And the signs have been coming fast and furious ever since. I know because... well, sometimes I just know.

She pulls her knit wool cap from her head, revealing cropped hair, bright eyes. We chat about the cold, the new year, how long my laptop battery lasts.

“Almost all the way to California, about four hours,” I say.

“Funny, you should mention flying," she says. "I’m flying to Puerto Rico next week. I’m afraid.

“Why?”

“There’s so much more danger now.”

“Is there?” I ask. “Is there really?”

She blinks. “Of course,” she says – and suddenly we are talking about terrorism: The man who set himself on fire on a plane mid-flight and, with flames licking the ceiling, just sat there ready to be consumed himself. She mentions a report she read which observed that all three times terrorism has been prevented in the air, it’s been because of the passengers – not the security guards, not the crew. “I will bring my dark sheet,” she says.

“Your what?”

“A bedsheet in a dark color,” she says. “In my carryon bag. I’m too small to tackle and subdue anyone but I can throw a sheet over someone’s head from behind and hold it. That I can do.”

“My hope is that you never have to,” I say. “To me, the fact that you are this afraid…”

“I never was before,” she says. “I was an EMT. I faced down all kinds of danger. But this…”

I take a deep breath. I pull off the cloak that makes me look like everyone else. “I write a column about angels,” I reveal. “In the past five years, I've read 10,000 stories – real stories from real people all over the U.S. and Canada and... I believe that we’re protected.”

She blinks, considering me and the huge and uncontainable thing I've just handed to her. I can see the wheels spinning, gears shifting: Is this woman crazy? she's wondering. Can I trust this?

I shrug. I smile. This is my job now- and I know it- I am a witness for the reality – the REAL life, boots on the ground reality – of angels.

Still, I am surprised, no amazed, when she reveals, "Something happened to me... many years ago..."

She was just a kid, barely twenty, driving on four bald tires. On a highway, no one else on the road she heard a loud “bang!” and suddenly, her car was sailing, out of control, right off the road, down an embankment, where it smashed, head on, into a tree.

“I really hit my head. I didn’t realize quite how hard at the time. I was dizzy and nauseated… I had to get out. But when I stood up beside my car, I began to swoon. Suddenly this man was there… A tall black man. He was driving a truck, a huge 18-wheeler. It was right there, beside the road. I kept telling him, ‘I don’t know what happened…’ over and over. ‘Your tire blew out,’ he explained. ‘See?’ He showed me the tire fragments on the blacktop beside my car. And I understood then."

And that's when she passed out cold. Five hours later, she woke up in the hospital.

“Where’s the man who brought me in?” she asked doctors, nurses, admitting staff. No one had seen him. There was no record of how she'd arrived.

I tell her this is typical of angelic experience. The angels arrive, lend a hand at an accident scene or hospital bed, then disappear without a trace.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s too….”

“Bizarre, incredible. I know,” I say. “I used to think so, too.”

“It’s just that, I’ve always wondered who he was. How did I see the shreds of tire on the road when I was standing beside my car, down at the bottom of the embankment? How did I even see the truck from there?”

"The angels can transcend space and time," I say. "Every day I read a story like yours – they need a truck, they can make one. What they don't seem to be able to do, I don't think, is move us through space and time that way. They transport us in cars, emergency vehicles, big trucks and deliver us to real hospitals."

“If I believe this,” she says, “it becomes a life changing event.”

“Don’t believe it. Ask for proof."

She laughs nervously.“What do you mean?”

“Ask them: If this really was an angel, send me a sign that I can’t miss. Send a sign that proves it.”

“I’m afraid to," she shudders. "It’s too huge. Too big. If I believe this, it changes everything.”

After she leaves, extending her hand, saying, "I am so very glad I met you," and we exchange email addresses, I sit and think for a very long time.

This is the second time I am guided to talk about terrorism on the blog. The first time, I kind of shared around it. But this time...

... And I want you to know that I am afraid to write this, afraid to post it...

But here it is:

We need to stop being frightened. We need to turn toward the light. Wait, that won't make sense yet. Let me start over...

The media has us so scared – and so does our government. It’s not their fault, not entirely. I mean these things are happening. They’re real. It’s just that there’s a whole lot more going on that’s NOT terrorism, NOT people setting themselves on fire or turning themselves into bombs on busses, in shopping malls and subways.

Everywhere, all over the world, babies are being welcomed into families with such joy; and doctors are healing illnesses; and scientists are inventing the most remarkable contraptions to make our lives better, easier, richer. All over the world, people are falling in love, reaching out to help, baking brownies, designing jewelry, building houses. All over the world...

But we hear so little about this now.

We hear about violence and war and terrorism. And every time these stories are reported – dripping with portent and dread, flashed on the screen with photos of carnage and sobbing mothers, in tones of alarm and warning. The fear amplifies, spreading into our cells, dread souring the belly of the world. With it, the feeling that the world is a scary place. We hole up inside our houses and become more fearful. And every time this happens, a little more of our freedom is chipped away.

And though it may seem as if the terrorists are doing this to us - the truth is, we are doing it to ourselves. With our fear of them and, increasingly, of each other; with our mounting panic and the feeling that the walls of the world are closing in, it isn't the terrorists who are keeping us afraid: It's us - and the way that we can't stop fearing them, can't stop thinking about them.

When my daughter was little the one thing she was afraid of in the books I'd read to her at bedtime, or the movies we allowed her to watch was, as she called it, the "lurking bad guys."

This is what terrorism does to us. It makes us fear the lurking bad guys, even when they aren't there.

I keep asking myself: If these stories were not reported at all – or were restricted only to newspapers and other print media where they can be discussed with more breadth, within the context of the larger story that unfolds under and around them, without the dramatics - would we be less safe? If the great magnifying lens of the media turned away and refused to give these people any coverage, would they have any power at all?

I am not suggesting that terrorism is the media's fault. I am not suggesting, either, that we should ignore it. I am saying that we need a better, more responsible way of reporting it.

“Look at your story another way,” I told Rosemary* today. “Three times, Americans rose up and acted: Americans who’ve grown up safe and protected, insulated from war, from terror. Three times, people who, in the past, might have just sat there trembling, rose up and took action. This is a very promising sign to me.

She nods. “Me, too. But we have to protect ourselves.”

“Of course we do. But rising up and protecting ourselves doesn’t have to move us toward fear. It can move us toward outrage, toward determination, toward courage. It can even move us toward hope.

Because that 'rising up' spirit comes from hope - it comes out of such a deep and passionate love of life that --damn it - no one can take it from us. There’s a lot of juice in that. A lot of power. But there's something else here too... Every single day, thousands of flights take off and land without incident. Millions of people travel freely all over the world, every single day. We have to remember that.

There is a much wiser, much wider force in the world than terrorism; a knowing that runs much deeper than this fear. It's ages old, bedrock, ancient wisdom. It's an interconnected All That Is which, whether you call it God or the Collective Consciousness or the Universe or Baba or any other name, is not going anywhere.

On 9/11, before the first tower was hit, the birds in my yard, an hour north of Manhattan, stopped singing.
“How odd,” my husband said, when I pointed it out to him.
An hour later, my friend called and I turned on the TV and watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. I thought of the birds then, wondering: How did they know?

Four years later, before the tsunami hit the beaches of Southeast Asia, when all of the animals ran for higher ground, again I thought of the birds.

Today, after reading 10,000 letters, I am thinking of the birds again. But this time, I know exactly how they knew.

And so do you... because you are a part of All That Is, too.

This year, 2010, a year with the same four digits as 2001 – a two, two zeroes and a single one – rearranged, I am asking: How can we, also part of this interconnected web of wisdom, tap into this wisdom? How can we rearrange the way that we meet the world? How can we live through this time of terrorists and tidal waves without driving ourselves crazy with fear?

I ask and I ask.
And I get the same answer: Turn toward the light.

Today, right here, right now, I can look at this café where I sit, this fire behind me, this window, open on a bright blue sky and ask, Is it scary here? I can tell the truth about it: I have the best seat in the house.

I am not in a falling building, nor seated beside a burning terrorist. I am sitting here with this lovely woman with bright eyes and closely cropped hair and she is telling me a story about angels. This is my life. And it is not scary at all. Not today.

Even though my mother is in the hospital fighting for her life; tubes in her neck, arms strapped down so she does not pull off her oxygen mask; even now – is the world a scary place?

I think it's a miracle...
.... that I was there when she fell against the stainless steel counter in the cafeteria at my father’s nursing home. She could have been alone.
.... that we live in a country where when we dial 911, they arrive in seven minutes, administering nitroglycerine and soothing reassurance. She could have been alone.

Right now I have a choice: How do I see this? I look at the sky and I don't see any planes falling, burning, exploding. I see a brilliant blue sky, clouds curling across the horizon and a flock of birds circling, circling.

I see a miracle.

If we live in fear, they have won. If we give away our thoughts, our hope, our joy - we have lost our freedom.

Because of the extraordinary experience I've had these past five years, I know that angels are everywhere - there is probably one in this café with me now orchestrating, somehow, this meeting with a lovely, bright-eyed woman who is about to fly to Puerto Rico with her dark sheet. I know they will be on that plane with her. I know they will be with me when I drive home tonight. And last week, when a man leapt across two aisles to tackle a terrorist and snuff out a fire, the angels were there, too.

This week, the angels are crowding the corridors of the hospital where my mother sleeps and heals - and I know that they won't let her (or any of the other patients in the ICU) be taken before their time.

But even if there were no angels at all - even if it were just us on this bright green and blue planet, even if we were spinning through space all alone, I know this: Good outnumbers evil by the billions; love outshines hate every time; and even the dimmest light can chase darkness from a room.

The thing is: We're not alone. The shining light--the God, Baba, All That Is - that lives in my heart, and in yours, connects us to something so much brighter than any darkness the terrorists could ever dream up.

Right now, if we all turned our attention toward that light and began to ask: What’s working in the world? Who is doing something remarkable? Who has a story of brilliance, of inspiration, of courage to share? that's the question the world would begin to answer.

It's not magic. It's not mysticism. It's science. The thing you focus on increases; the thing you ignore, dies off for lack of attention.

So let's get out there. Become a light warrior! Ask everyone you meet, What’s great in your life? What's new? Who do you love? What makes your heart sing? Ask your media outlets to cover the great stuff, the triumphs and successes. Insist that they turn their powerful light on what’s right in the world.

Insist on noticing that you are sitting in the best seat in the house. This is the only way to beat back terror; the only way to chase away darkness - by blasting it with light. And all it takes is this moment, right now, when we turning our attention away from fearful thoughts and images that are not ours, back to the light.

When we own our own thoughts - and the hope and love that live in our own hearts - only then, will we be truly free.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wings 2

I know that I need to put up a new post today, something to welcome this beautiful new year that's opening out before us.
But I'm not ready--or able--to write it. Not yet. Not today.

You see, this Monday, five days ago, my mother had open heart surgery... and I'm not ready to write about that just yet.

But I found this piece, written for the blog but never posted. So, belatedly, here is my Thanksgiving post. Because right now, I have nothing but gratitude that she is still here.

------

Thanksgiving, 2009

When I woke up with a migraine on Thanksgiving, I was so sad... at first. Then, I got mad and determined.

I swallowed an ibuprofen, avoided all food triggers - pretty much anything but water - and packed my string bean casserole into the car. Before we got onto the parkway, I purchased a bottle of Coke at the deli. It's the only thing that helps.

If you've had a migraine, you will understand that this was the pre-migraine stage, the part where you can walk, talk, drive. The part where you appear to be functioning but behind your eyes, you are having a staring contest with a sneaky and industrious phantom that is hovering, just outside your field of energy, looking for an opening.

My daughter Katie and I had left home several hours early so we could visit my father before the feast.
As we approached the bridge, I noticed, "I'm talking a lot today. Sorry. It happens when I have a headache."
"I don't mind," Katie said. "I love listening to you talk."
"Okay, sorry,"
"Don't be sorry. You can tell me things."
"Okay, sorry about the sorry," I said.
And we both laughed.

At the nursing home, we found Dad sitting in a sunny alcove, reading Katie's screenplay which she'd sent to him by email.

"You're early," he said. "I wanted to have read this before you came.
"That's okay, Grandpa," Katie said. "You can read it later."
"I want to talk about it with you," he said.
"Why don't we act it out?" I suggested.
Dad brightened. "I can play the young man," he said. "I can do that."

When my father was in his sixties, he'd joined a small NYC acting company. Studying plays, memorizing scenes, he had the time of his life. He appeared in two or three plays a year and though he has cerebral palsy, and was shaky, he was a good actor, really convincing as an estranged husband, a retired postal worker...

We read our parts, moving through the dream laboratory Katie had created, where a young man and a young woman slept and a group of scientists watched, trying to figure out what they were dreaming about and explaining their findings to a group of journalists, who were touring the lab.

Then we had a lively discussion about consciousness, dreaming and love and I stopped several times, to write down something we'd said.
"You need a tape recorder," Katie observed. "That way you could participate and the conversation would flow better."
Of course... I know. But it feels as if we're running out of time.

On the way to my sister in law's house, I told Katie that my sister's therapist had suggested that when she starts feeling anxious, instead of trying so hard to figure out why she's anxious, instead of trying to reason her way down to the center of the thing, she should just... change the subject.

And then we arrived.

Each time we step into my sister-in-law's Thanksgiving kitchen, I think: A year is a long time between stories. Things happen.

Family holidays are a field of land mines.
"You ever gonna finish that book? How's your father? Are you making any money?

Family holidays are a field of joys.
"I've been waiting to tell you something." "I love that hairstyle on you." "Here, let me pour you this wine. I chose it with you in mind."

Family holidays are a field of open wounds: We're waiting on the lab results. Sorry you lost your job. I heard you broke up. Oh, sweetie.

And all the while I am thinking: Fucking migraine, As I listen to the stories around the artichoke dip, the migraine keeps pushing people out of the way. I appear to be functioning. But behind my eyes, the migraine is trying to spill all the water in my body onto the floor. I feel as if I am being boiled, slowly, like a lobster, inside my own skin.

(And by the way, I never would have paired string beans with cranberries and sage under normal conditions.)

At the table, when the call, "Everyone say what you're grateful for," began, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I swirled it around in my heart like a pearl, selecting words so it wouldn't be too long, too short, too trite.
Matt's sister began, "I'm grateful for all of you."
My husband said his, "I'm grateful for two wonderful colleges giving my children a great education."
And then it was my turn...

"I know what amy's grateful for," my mother in law called from across the chasm... er, dining room. "She has a radio show!"

Oh, fuck.

A field of land mines, joys and wide open wounds.

"Radio show?" someone asked.
"What's it about?"
"What station is it on?"
"Can we listen to it on Long Island?"

You know how it is. Everyone looking at you.
The pearl slipping away as you find yourself trapped between two panes of glass: For there is no way that a person can get away with saying, "I do a radio show about angels" and keep living in he real world with all the normal people.

Which is, of course, the thing at the bottom of all of this. The grain of sand at the center of the pearl. The thing that is, I suspect, causing the stress that triggers the migraines. This wrestling match that I am in, right now, with my soul.

Because every single day, I am moving closer to the moment when I am going to have to show myself for what I have become. A newborn creature who has been pulled straight through the top of her own head, centimeter by painful centimeter, emerging, dripping wet with a pair of enormous, colorful wings that will be impossible to hide beneath my sweater.

So I changed the subject. (kinda)
"Im not going to talk about this" I said, surprising no one more than myself.

Everyone blinked.
Then, they moved on.
My son, Max, said, "I am grateful for my excellent genes." And everyone, sharing those genes, laughed. And I was able to slip out of the room, just in case I started to cry.

But I didn't cry.
I locked myself in the bathroom and looked into my own eyes in the mirror and laughed.
I said, "There you are!" to myself, in a voice that was loud enough that I would hear it.
Then, I came down and I told my husband, "I have to go home now."
To which he responded with such tenderness, such concern, that I did cry.
"Mommy," our son said."You don't have to feel guilty when you are strong."
And I hugged him. And I said, "I want to say what I'm grateful for now."

And then, I let it float up... my precious pearl.
"I am grateful beyond boundaries for everything," I said. "I am filled with a gratitude so vast, so wide that I don't know where to begin. And I know that this everything is God - filling my heart, filling my life, and though I feel like I may burst apart, I am still grateful."

"I love you, Mommy," my son said.

Katie left with me, "So you won't think mean thoughts about yourself all the way home." And we stopped at the diner, because I hadn't eaten. As we talked, Katie 'changed the subject' several times, gently guiding me back toward hope, toward light.

By the time we got home, my headache was almost gone. I stood outside watching Katie build me a fire and we sat around it, wrapped in blankets, flickering with light, until Max and Matthew came home with leftover strawberry shortcake, my favorite dessert.