I wish for the health and happiness of all beings, all inhabitants of this planet. May the land be happy…
May the water be happy…
May the air be happy…
May all the plants be happy…
May all the animals be happy…
And may all the people be happy.
Lately, the world seems to have fallen to new depths of misery. I’m sure ten examples have just popped into your mind. Into this awareness, I want to insert illustrations of the fact that at the same time, the world is more awesome than we can imagine. You’re having an experience that is very pleasant; you’re smiling; you’re happy. Suddenly, something happens that kicks it into another level. For example, my brother’s wedding reception. It takes place at the Winchester Mystery House, which is already very interesting and fun. Then, the Hora Loca begins to play and a new element is introduced….
We were not expecting that! Or that my 80-year old mother would join her on the dance floor. Here’s another…
I was working 5 different part-time jobs when I was offered a job as the Administrative Assistant at a conservation foundation. That meant that I would work in a farmhouse with just one other employee (the Executive Director) and help protect the natural environment. I took my camera to the top of one of the hills on our lands. It was the first day of June last year. The weather was perfect. The vistas were lush. And I was getting paid. Then, this swallowtail came by to welcome me.
The goodness of the real world transcends suffering, I have found. But you have to be open to receiving it as such. A simple, new breath can be the cherry on top of everything. Breathing in, I am alive. Breathing out, I am grateful.
If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.
While investigating a new follower, GYA today, I watched this YouTube clip from his May 17 post. Again, I had to ask myself about the source of my tears. (see my post Why These Tears? from 2 days ago) Watch it and see if you don’t have the same questions.
Okay, I’ll wait while you go get a tissue. Or watch it again. (I did both.)
I love his choice of song. It really puts the focus on the force of consciousness. What does your brain spend time on? Did you catch the comment by the one judge who said that it made her think that the things she worries about are “pathetic”? Pathetic. Sad. Sorrowful. Tearful. That we get stuck in negative and depressive patterns of thought surrounding circumstance is very sad to me. That there are other options, that we do have the capability to change our focus and probably our futures is the great joy. The tears are a double whammy. I am sad that seeing physical deformity and hearing the story of a child’s abandonment brings me to focus on depression by default. I am overjoyed to see that assumption shattered by the reality of a young man who enjoys love, the gift of a beautiful voice, and the opportunity to create a life that is satisfying to himself and an inspiration to others.
I hope that anyone reading this can take the time to IMAGINE today. Imagine the things you worry about dissolving in a broader perspective. Imagine your limitations transformed by the transcendence of judgment. “Handicaps” aren’t handicaps. Reality is neutral. You can make a positive or a negative judgment about them, and that will effect your experience of them. I really believe this is what we do with our enormous brains, but most of our culture thinks that’s metaphysical hocus-pocus and that quality of life is found in the nature of circumstances. “IF” conditions are right, you can be happy. Why not just be happy and never mind “conditions”? This is not my own idea, of course. It stems from centuries of Buddhist thought about suffering. I have only recently begun to see it illustrated in my Western life. So here’s the million dollar question: what is happiness and how can you discover it? My mother used to quote, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” If so, joy is everywhere. Happiness is everywhere. It’s already here, then. It doesn’t need to be discovered; it may simply need to be uncovered. “Cleaning the windshield” is what Steve sometimes calls it. Get rid of the crud that keeps you from seeing the happiness that is all around. Imagine!
So I didn’t get a post in yesterday. It was a hot, humid day at work; thunderstorms arrived just as we were leaving. I got home at 6pm, put my feet up for a bit, made dinner, and then prepared packages for mailing for the book business. By the time we were done, it was 9:30, and my eyes were stinging. I closed them and fell asleep. I’ve been musing on an issue for two days, though, and since I don’t work today (except for a voice lesson), I’m ready to give it some time and work it out in writing.
It happened on Saturday. I burst into tears at work.
It was late afternoon, toward the end of my shift. Families had been coming through in dribbles to look at the church. Since it was hot, I put a chair out on the landing in front of the door so that I could catch the breeze. Sitting there in my bustle, I suppose I made a good picture of a prim and proper church lady. A father and his two-year old daughter wandered down the road, leaving Mom and older siblings at the General Store. I invited them in and showed the little curly redhead the pump organ. She liked the sound of her voice in the echoing chamber of the empty church, so I played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (a good Mozart tune) and let her sing along. She took a look at my pin cushion balls, too, and held one until her father gently took it and handed it back. She never left the safety of her father’s arms during the whole visit. I walked them out of the church and settled in my chair to watch them walk back down the road, hand in hand. She stumbled at one point, but Dad righted her gently. That’s when I lost it. That sudden, rising swell of heat in my nose and the burning tears tumbling down were totally unpredicted. Why these tears? Why now?
Driving home with Steve, I began to talk it out and answer his compassionate questions. Where were my thoughts? What were my emotions? I remembered that I had been bored, hot, and feeling a bit lost and alone: all dressed up in an empty museum, wondering how I got there. Kind of disconnected and surreal. That father and daughter reminded me of my late husband and our curly-haired youngest. Seeing them walk away together triggered a sense of devastating loss. I will never see Jim again; Emily, now 21, will never be that young again. That manifestation of life is gone forever.
But I knew that. Why the tears? Why judge that as something sad? Obviously, I am still very attached to that particular arrangement, and perhaps not so attached to my current one. “Attachment causes suffering.” Somehow, I came to believe that my life as a wife and mother was very meaningful, very important, and it became a “secure” identity for me. Not hard to imagine how that happened. The thing is, it isn’t the Truth, wasn’t the Truth, either. It was a temporary condition. I enjoyed that condition, but Change is the nature of life. Conditions always change. One condition isn’t more meaningful or important than another. To be able to think about every moment of life as a valuable moment is a mindset that can set me free to live happily. I think of Hafiz, the Sufi poet, and his exuberant joy in living, not dependent on circumstances. I get sentimental about family life, but I don’t want to be the mother of a two year old, now. Somehow, though, that sentiment suggests that there is greater value in that particular model of life than in others, and that I am “missing out”. It’s just not true. It’s a kind of cultural propaganda. Hallmark and Focus on the Family and organizations like that profit from supporting that way of thinking. I love my children, but our life isn’t Hallmark any more. It was, once. It was nice, but it wasn’t the only and most important manifestation of living. Conditions arise, conditions change. Judging that one is “better” than the other can get me stuck and cause suffering. That’s not to say that I can’t think critically about my life and make changes. But I also want to be able to be happy in any situation.
I like my tears, too. They help me learn about myself.
Last night, we watched the 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Marty”, starring Ernest Borgnine. The year this movie was released was the same year my parents graduated from college and got married. My mother could have played the heroine, a gentle, intelligent young woman with a narrow Celtic jaw and a fabulously stylish but thrifty wardrobe. Except she was just 20 when she got married, and Clara in the movie is a dangerously spinster-approaching 29. Marty is “the stocky fellow”, an Italian butcher and a bachelor at 34. My dad was “that cute boy on crutches” who was a little soft around the middle due to a bum knee that kept him from vigorous exercise. The social game of the day in New York City was to go to The Stardust Ballroom, a dance hall “loaded with tomatoes”. Marty and Clara are the kind who get turned down for dances. He owns up to the fact that they are “dogs”, but awkwardly, tenderly, they begin to treat each other like real human beings. They speak honestly together while Marty’s Italian family covers up true emotions with white lies and secrets and his buddies pretend machismo. The two of them create a little oasis of sanity in the desert of social confusion. And it’s charming, really.
All of us who grew up believing “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skin smiles who married young and then retired” (Tara Mclean) might find a champion in Marty, who recognizes a chance for happiness in being himself, like Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof” who asserts that “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness”. Why does our society put so much pressure and competition into the process of discerning your identity and living authentically? I suppose that our economy runs on producing that neurosis. “You couldn’t possibly find love or happiness without our product!” Maybe there’s a lurking sense that civilization is actually advanced by feeding that neurosis in order to produce those marvelous, gorgeous, socially admirable types. God forbid that the misfits should breed. And so, the universal theme emerges: misfits and nerds are humans, too, and we all belong in that category, really. The “in crowd” and the “out crowd” are fantasies. We are ‘the crowd’, that’s all.
The Italian mothers in Marty’s neighborhood keep up this refrain: “You oughta be ashamed of yourself. 34 years old…when are you gonna get married!” Shame. God, what a horrible thing to put on someone. I am a mother, I oughta know. I used it enough. Now I feel like shouting out, “Never mind what I said before! Be happy!!” Aren’t we all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as we aren’t harming anyone? Ah, yes, it can get complicated. The pursuit of my happiness might impinge on the pursuit of your happiness. It happens. I can’t be a happy Italian mamma unless all my sons are married to Italian women and producing grandchildren that I can feed. Maybe happiness has to be a responsibility that doesn’t require someone else’s participation. Can I be a happy Italian mamma all by myself, cooking for myself, caring for myself, doing things I enjoy, entering into relationships by mutual agreement, not by obligation? Marty’s aunt keeps saying, “I’m 56 years old, a widow. This is the worst time of life. I’ve got no one to cook for, to clean for…” Marty’s girl suggests that she take up some “hobbies” and the old women stare at her as if she’s just shot a hole in her own forehead. God forbid I should take responsibility for my own happiness! No, make that “God require that I should take responsibility for my own happiness”.
Be happy, people! Live happy, love happy.