Monday, August 29, 2011


It was supposed to be Consequences. The title. Choices was last time, and consequences come after choices, right?

Well, they do in the linear and just version of the world we inculcate in our children in school. The same one advertisers use to sell us products to protect us from the consequences we don't really deserve if we can purchase our way out of them.

The truth is, I'm not certain I believe in consequences, or at least not as a simple and direct result of choices. Life is capricious and fickle. Things happen, certainly, but who can point to why? Why is a story we tell. Everything is really just a story we tell, when we get down to it.

Identity, though. Identity is a question mark. An ever-moving target. An amalgam of choices and consequences, resentments and realities blended together like stone soup. A story told by a notorious liar.

Someone I've worked with for the past five years asked me what I'm planning to do next. When I told her stay home with my children, she sighed. I already mentioned you to someone on the hiring committee, she told me. The job has Director in the title, and the employer is a prestigious university. I'm honored she would think of me. I'm worried the years off will hurt me in the job market in the future. I'm a little scared of walking away after working my way up to administration from lowly part-time teacher.

Later she told me, via e-mail: I think you seriously underestimate yourself. I think she's wrong there. I might underestimate the value of my particular skill set in the marketplace; she may have a point there. But I don't underestimate my abilities. It's just that I know what else I want out of life. And there's so much else.

There was another job in the paper last Sunday: a list of all the things I love to do; all the same things I've been doing at my present job. The pay was approximately quadruple what I've ever made before in my life. I called, just to be certain, but it was just as I thought: it required a credential I don't have. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then a colleague told me: You should apply anyway. Not many people have the skill set they're looking for, and you do. If they don't find anyone they like, they'll consider you without the credential and give you time to get it. I tucked that information away in my mind, and did nothing while the deadline passed.

I have choices (and they have consequences, though they don't seem simple), but here's what I just can't choose: I can't choose a job where I leave my babies in the early mornings and pick them up late for dinner. I can't choose a job that takes so much of my brain there is nothing left for daydreaming. I can't choose a job that allows me to do good in the world at the expense of being able to do myself any good.

I don't want fingernails bitten to the quick. I don't want to be lost in the shuffle of constant thinking so that when my husband speaks to me I don't hear what he's saying. I know myself. I know my capabilities, and my limitations. There are choices that sound so tempting, but there is no hesitation in my voice when I ask myself if they are what I really want: No. Not now.

My boss hugged me goodbye and she said: I'm just afraid when I call you back with another grant you'll tell me no. That you're too happy where you are. I couldn't answer that right away. I still don't have an answer yet, although the conversation's long over.

This isn't about sacrificing myself for my husband, or my children, although it might look that way to some. My teaching assistant told me she won't work full-time because her household won't run well if she does and I thought: Your kids are in school now! Your husband can't help with that? We all judge. I mean, really, who am I to talk?

This is about choosing not to sacrifice myself to a job that would fascinate me, even as it ate me alive. This is about me, and my need for time to breathe. This is about working out my identity, which is more than just my work. It is, in fact, partly based on my willingness to walk away from work that doesn't suit my needs. To trust (in the face of some very real fear) that I will find work that does suit me, when I am ready to look.

And so I stir my own stone soup, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, added onto a base built of fairy tale fiction. My story about myself says this: She felt afraid. But she kept moving forward. The path was clear, but she didn't want to follow it. She forged her own, despite the fear.

My story about myself says this, and when it's very late at night and my children are asleep, when I look up at the stars I can almost believe it: She did just what she wanted, and she never paid the price.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


It's 1996 and I'm in the woods with a bunch of strangers, backpacking through rural Arizona. We're about to embark upon what's called a "solo," where we split up and spend three days completely alone: sleeping on the ground, fasting, drinking from streams after adding iodine drops to our water bottles.

This will change you forever, my guide intones. At the end of my solo I had streaked my face with mud and discovered a side of myself I didn't know existed.

I knew it wouldn't change me. All the things they say will change you: travel, falling in love, becoming a mother: they've only ever made me more deeply myself.

I spend those three days naked on a rock, looking up at desert trees, writing bad poetry and making lists in my mind: all the things I'll eat when I finally get out of the woods and back to civilization; my various perfect dream jobs, in order of likelihood of actual occurrence; all the religions I'd be willing to try out, knowing I'll never find one that fits. Then I plan my wedding dress, even though I'm not engaged, or even dating. I haven't met my husband yet; I'm decidedly single, just out of a long-term relationship that held on longer than it ought to. And I'm not a wedding dress planning kind of girl. I've never dreamed of that big day, never played wedding with my barbies, never particularly cared about weddings one way or the other before.

But here's what's inspired me: I bought a dress at the Salvation Army before the backpacking trip began. It's blue, with chiffon layers starting at the neckline and running all the way down to the floor. I want my Salvation Army dress remade in white for my wedding. My grandmother will do it; I know she will.

I don't meet my husband for another year after that trip. We're engaged within three months. My grandmother makes my dress: a replica of my thrift store find. My husband's grandmother makes his suit out of hemp; we order yards of it from somewhere on the Internet. We make our own invitations on homemade paper and the wedding is held in my parent's backyard. Our flowers are bought from the farmer's marker and stolen from farmer's fields the morning of the wedding. I make the arrangements myself, stick them in mason jars, and place them on the tables. My grandmother also makes the bridesmaid's dresses; she teaches me how to do the last one, and I stay up with her and sew the maid of honor's dress for my sister late into that summer night. The sky is dark when we finish, and I've made my first --and last, at least for the next decade, as it turns out-- dress.

Someone calls it a hippie wedding and I'm half-offended and half-amused. But of course, it was.

My father, a year earlier when he heard of my engagement, had asked: what's he going to do?

I knew he meant for a living; my fiancee was an art major with no job prospects after graduation.

I don't know, I answer honestly.  But we're smart, dad, and not afraid of hard work. We'll figure it out.

I can hear my father's grin through the telephone wire; he approves of that sort of answer.

The point is, we've always been the sort of people to look at a bright, shiny, perfect wheel right off the assembly line, glance at each other, smile, and say:  Bet we could reinvent that!

That's who we are. For better or for worse.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unpacking Privilege: Reality

This is Part 2 in a series examining privilege, and how it plays out in my life. For Part 1, go here.

I walk into work, fresh from a weekend of nursing my resentments. My tiny wounds --grudges borne carrying the weight of class consciousness around on my shoulders for years, though no one has asked me to do so-- blossom like blooms in May, fed by images of a life I imagine easier than my own. I'll be laid off at the end of this month; I'm going to be a stay-at-home-mom, but money will be tight, and I will have to juggle. I want to be a stay-at-home-mom with money that is not tight; I don't want to have to juggle. What I want is so very close to what I have, but rather than recognizing my good fortune, I feel slighted so close to the goal. Why can't I have just a little bit more?

My office phone rings. A student tells me her name, but it takes three times before I can make it out. She's practically whispering, and her voice just doesn't sound right.  

I'm sorry I didn't come to school last week. I'm going to come this week. We had a terrible week, our family, last week... her voice breaks off.

I've learned not to ask too many questions over the years. They'll tell me if they want to.

Some people think if you accept any kind of government aid, representatives of that government have the right to ask you any questions they want. To insult and harass you, to accuse you of lying. To insert themselves into your personal business, into your bedroom, into your very soul. To determine your worth as a human being before the eyes of God and the Government before they help you eat or feed your children, receive medical care, earn an education.

I'm not one of those people, so I shut my mouth, listen, wait.

My brother was shot in a drive-by, she chokes, the bullet went in his back and came out his face. I want to finish school, I do, it's just ... last week, I just ... couldn't. He's alive. I'm the only one he'll let near him. They released him, but I have to bathe him and everything. I want to finish though. I'll come this week. I'm sorry I didn't call. I didn't make any calls that day. I didn't answer my phone all day. But I'll come back this week.

This student is the only one who's been here longer than me. I've bought her Christmas presents, held her babies, taught them the letters in their name and listened to her fears about raising them in the same streets that claimed her brother years ago.

Once in parenting class we were discussing spanking, and she yelled out: If spanking worked, my brother wouldn't be running the streets the way he is! 'Cause I know he got his ass beat enough times, if it was gonna work, it would have by now! Shit, it MUST not work!

That evidence was far more persuasive than the research I presented, for many of our parents. They argued my research, loudly, point-by-point, but when she spoke the room got quiet. I saw heads nodding as they considered her first-hand evidence, anecdotal but no doubt echoed by experiences of their own.

I reassured her that it was fine to miss a week; that we'll be here this week, and then help her figure out where she needs to go next to finish her education. She's lucky, in that all her kids will be in school starting this fall. She can attend classes during that time; she won't need childcare. She has options. Lots of the others don't.

So if she's lucky, what am I?

I hang up the phone and pass the rest of the day in a pensive fog. My heart is heavy.

But I'm through feeling sorry for myself.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Unpacking Privilege: Resentment

I spent this past weekend with the kids so my husband could continue attacking our home repair projects like the one-man construction crew he is. I have home projects of my own to do: there are bags and boxes of outgrown clothing to store behind the attic wall, and other bins to pull out, unpack, fold, put away. There are baseboards to scrub and bins to buy; books to stack and art supplies to arrange. In the rush to make our home presentable before the start of the school year we've moved a lot of things up into our attic bedroom. These things need to be sifted through, organized, made sense of.

I need some time to make sense of everything, but there is no time. My husband has heavy lifting to do, and I need to corral the kids so he can get it done. This is the way our marriage must function, for now, --and this is neither the first nor the last time it will be so-- and both of us struggle with it. He doesn't want to be a one-man workhorse, and I don't want all my work to be pushed to the back burner until his is done. But this is how it is. It's temporary. It's going to get us where we want to go.

In between entertaining the children and attempting to mop the hardwood floors I tried to sooth the rough edges of my anxiety by perusing blogs online. Rather than finding any solace, I found myself resentful of the following things:
  • Beautiful houses (that do not need ridiculous amounts of work). (In my state of mounting resentment I was sure -absolutely sure!- that nobody but us owns a fixer-upper. Nobody!)
  • Expensive accessories, including, but not limited to:
    • purses (I have about 12 trillion purses upstairs that I own but never use, but no matter)
    • shoes (ditto)
    • jewelry (yep, ditto there too)
  • Pinterest boards of all types, especially those featuring:
    • clothing (I haven't bought clothing from anywhere but the Salvation Army since 2007; I'm feeling a bit peevish about it, can you tell?) 
    • home decor (I want new throw pillows. I can't have new throw pillows. This makes me grumpy.) 
    • anything nautical (get out of my face with your adorable beach house!) 
    • uplifting or inspirational slogans (if I wanted to be uplifted or inspired, do you really think I'd be sitting here feeding my resentments so voraciously!?)
  • And finally: anyone with any certainty about God and "his plan". (If God is involved enough that he cares about the minute details of your homeschooling curriculum then where the fuck has he been when it comes to the entire continent of Africa for the last several decades?!?) (And er, um, why do we have to fix up our own house instead of hiring a professional to do it?) (I think I somehow managed to think both of these things, with a special sort of resentment-fueled cognitive dissonance.)
    It was one of those moods.

    For Part 2, go here.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Diving In

    I used to be the first person to jump in the water, and the last one out. As a kid, I'd ignore my mother's repeated calls to get out of the pool and into the car. In college, while everyone else needed one more beer before they'd brave the ice cold lake --looked as big as an ocean from the sandy shore-- I'd be impatient, hopping from foot to foot, finally plunging in alone under the moon, feeling as free as I ever have floating in the indigo waves.

    We took the kids to the beach again this summer. My son's not much of a swimmer, preferring to putter around on the shore, digging in the sand, creating worlds with his shovel. My girl wanted in that water though. I'd take her deep and she'd struggle to get out of my arms, imagining she could slip into the deep green of the lake and slither like an eel into it's depths. I'd hold her tight, take her closer to shore, and sit down, letting the waves wash over us, feel the undertow tugging at our toes as the water washed back out to sea.

    She was fearless.

    * * *

    I'd never have quit my job; I loved it. It was perfectly tailored to my strengths and interests. It gave me an outlet for some of my obsessions, and the spiritual impulses I don't have anywhere else to put. Having had that, though: The Perfect Job, I find it hard to imagine settling for the Eh, It's Alright, I Guess Job. I sound spoiled as shit, saying that. I recognize that. People everywhere are scrambling desperately for the Eh, It's Alright, I Guess Job, or even the I Hate It, But It Pays The Bills Job.

    I'm both incredibly lucky and a little bit smart, and I've dodged that particular bullet. For the time being, at least. We're all just one global financial catastrophe away from ruin, right? I say lucky, because I don't believe most of us earn the grace we're given, any more than I believe that we earn our devastation. God may or may not have a detailed plan for each of us; I'll leave that to the theologians. But I'm pretty sure the bumper sticker got it right when it read: Shit Happens.

    I say smart because we bought a house in my husband's name, on his salary alone. Now, if he leaves my ass and takes the house, that won't look so smart anymore, will it? But when I lose my job and we don't lose the house, it looks rather brilliant. It was, brilliant or foolish, a conscious choice to set myself up for stay-at-home-motherhood, to prepare our family financially for that choice.

    A choice I never made, although I certainly considered it often enough, even while fortunate enough to have landed The Perfect Job. A choice that has been made for me now. By the scarcity of part-time, professional positions, and my antipathy for full-time work. By the large-scale layoffs of teachers in my area, the scarcity of work available even if I wanted it. By the high cost of quality childcare, eating more than half of my take home pay in the best of situations. By the Congressional cutting, cutting, cutting, and the way the trickle-down effect seems as certain as death and taxes when it comes to poverty, but never to work quite right when it comes to wealth.

    * * *

    My favorite part of diving into waves has always been the feeling of utter freedom as your feet leave the sand and your body becomes weightless. My favorite part of motherhood is the abandonment of What's Supposed To Happen Now and the surrender to immersion in What Is Happening Now.

    My favorite feeling? My very, very favorite feeling? The one I wish for my children, for myself, and for everyone I love to experience as often as possible?


    * * *

    It's so sad that my program has been eliminated. It's so very sad.

    But it's not that sad for me.

    This is why it's difficult for me to believe that God is stage-directing our every move, or that The Secret to life is as simple as Like Attracts Like. If God directed Congress to eliminate a GED program for parents so I could stay home with my babies, then I'm terribly sorry to be the one to call attention to it, but God is an asshole. And if I Secreted myself into unemployment because I secretly want to be home, and the collateral damage is a group of barely literate mothers who have even fewer options than they did a month ago, then I'm an asshole and should be banned from Secreting things into being ever again.

    So I'm left with bumper sticker pseudo-wisdom, luck, and smarts.

    I can work with that.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Warning: Adventure Ahead

    I can't help it. I like change.

    I should be sad, and mourning, and lamenting, but I can't. I'm furiously daydreaming, and tidying, and my stomach is full of those really, really good kinds of butterflies.

    It's like there's a free loophole in the universe by which I get to slip into a different fate. And I slipped!

    And *arms in the sky* WOOOOOhOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo.....

    I can't help it.

    I just really like change.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Late Night Moments of Joy

    I'm trying to balance the end of my job and the start of my something else, all at the same time, and what it mostly feels like is stress. Hustle and bustle, hurry and worry, if I don't cross this random finish line by that random deadline, all might be lost.

    We built a railing around our deck. My parents came, and my dad and husband did the job in a morning. Then they fenced in the final side of our yard. The homeowner's insurance said we needed the deck railed, and my son's strong desire to escape all arbitrary limits imposed upon him necessitated the fence with double locks on the gate, so we would have done both projects regardless, but now we've been forced to do them sooner.

    We got 300 square feet of patio pavers for free; had to rent a truck and take 3 trips to get them to our driveway. The boy and I stacked them high on pallets while the baby girl slept, and the husband returned the truck rental and moved on to addressing our electrical problems.

    The next-door-neighbor (thank you God!) is an electrician, and he helped us safely dig the live wires out of the ground. They used to run to the garage, before the garage started leaning like the tower of Pisa and had to be demolished. Then we got some light fixtures installed on our kitchen ceiling so the wires no longer hang like tree roots out of a hole above the stove. He knew how to make old wires work with electrical tape; an old Greek who knows everything about everyone, and lends a hand like he's family.

    Next will be a sidewalk with those free patio pavers, leading from the deck out to the driveway, so we won't have to tramp through the melting snow and muddy pathway we've used for the past three years. We'll be giving my dad another call for that project, and I'll be back on baby duty, keeping the kids out of harm's way so the men can work, and stewing in my worry about all the things I can't get done so my husband can be freed to do the heavy lifting I'm less capable of.

    But then last night he came in sweaty and exhausted, and I tossed the children in his general direction and said: The toys are all set up on the shelves, and this room is clean and complete. Let them play. I'll be mopping the floors and making the rest of the house look presentable.

    I took a break for bedtime, but then stayed up late into the night organizing board books by size, and setting out art supplies for ease of use. All of sudden, staring at my pile of sensory stories--those books babies can touch and grab before they can talk or read--my heart caught in my throat.

    I went in to find my husband taking a well-deserved break on the couch with the new nutmeg-colored cover, purchased to replace the old one with holes in the arms. I leaned down, and choking back tears, I told him: All I've had time to think about so far are logistics. Getting things in place, lined up, the stress of this whole process. I haven't had a minute to think beyond that. But Oh God! I am going to LOVE this! I am going to LOVE this!

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011


    The thing is, I want to write about everything you're not supposed to write about.

    I want to write about work. I want to talk about what I do, and what it does to me. And so I write, and then I disappear the post a few days later.

    I want to decipher the complex code that is work-life balance. How much of my identity is work? How much is motherhood? How much is being the specific child of my specific parents raised in the house where my father was raised, in a neighborhood that gets uglier every time I drive through it on visits to my hometown, the town where my parents no longer live?

    I want to name names and streets, addresses, and the state of my heart when I see my childhood home sinking into squalor as the ghetto I escaped swallows it whole. My sisters yelled at me when I called my parent's move white flight, and I tried to explain it was a sociological term, but it offended their sensibilities.

    How much of my identity is that I am my husband's wife?

    I want to unpack that rather imposingly large baggage (larger by leaps and bounds than the bags that sit unpacked on the dining room floor for days after we return from a trip) but I shouldn't.

    I shouldn't tell you how we fought today. Me, making empty threats to try to break through his refusal to acknowledge the plain, simple, fucking truth of what I'm saying. Him, with defenses so high they could protect Berlin, Gaza and the Mexican border, all without breaking a sweat.

    I shouldn't tell you how he sometimes lets me down on the big things: that dinner to celebrate my new job, the hospital stays after the births of our children, the loss of the only job I ever loved, a couple of Christmases. How I forgive him every time because I love him so deeply I can't tell where he ends and I begin. How he pisses me off and how he brings me to my knees, humble and grateful. How he makes me better, and although it's what I love about him, how I sometimes hate it while it's happening.

    How my mother, when I told her I was engaged, told me: Marriage will let you down.

    I want to talk about who and what and how is God. That's what I really want to know, if we're getting down to it. I want to know who is your God, and how did you find him?

    How much money do you make; what do you spend it on?

    What happens in your bedroom? What happens in your marriage, your divorce, your solitude?

    How do you feel when you drink too much? When you're scared?

    I want to talk about when you look at your babies and your heart stops dead in your chest. How do you catch your breath, right then?

    How do you do it?

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    To the Future

    I have to say it somewhere and it's too soon to go to Facebook, so here I am.

    My program has not been funded for another year. I'm out of a job in a month. Not sure what's next.

    I just got back from a long weekend at the beach. I had a post in my head about the bravery of my daughter in the waves and the wind. Then I spent most of last night in the ER with her after Little Miss Brave fell backwards on to her head on a hardwood floor and then threw up a few times for good measure. She's fine--spent most of the evening charming everyone in the ER. 

    But it looks like it's time for me to be brave. And smart. And a sober calculator of a risk-benefit ratio that resides in a future completely unknown. All the things I want her to be.

    Here's to the future. The scary, scary future that just might be more beautiful than anything we've ever seen before.