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In Celebration of My Students

June 18, 2016

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A cool morning run.  Snails on the sidewalk.  Simon and Garfunkel playing in my head:

Slow down, you move too fast.

You’ve got to make the morning last…

Life, I love you.

All is groovy.

–“The 59th Street Bridge Song”

Tonight the rain nearly poured down on the class of 2016.  Thankfully, it stopped before we had to walk onto the football field.

I didn’t get pictures of all of my students but they all have a place in my heart.  They are extraordinary ordinary human beings:  resilient, creative, empathetic, curious, and compelled to make a difference.

I love you guys.  As Garrison Keillor says at the end of every Writer’s Almanac:  “Be well, do good work., and keep in touch.”

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Fear, Anger, and the Need for Dialogue

June 14, 2016

We are all afraid.

This past Sunday in Orlando, Florida.  So many levels of horror that I cannot read about it or listen to news reports of it. I have the privilege to process this pain in small bits so I don’t sink under its weight.

Horror for the LGBTQ community who always has much to fear due to the still-rampant homophobia.

Horror for the Muslim community, who fears backlash every time someone kills in the name of their religion.

Horror for anyone who is an innocent bystander–by which I mean all of the rest of us.

We are profoundly sad.  And angry.  And afraid.

But we don’t ask each other those questions:  What are we afraid of?

Instead, we turn to the echo chamber that is social media and express grief, yes, and outrage–but outrage turns into screaming: either at the choir who responds, “AMEN!” or at the “other.”  In this case, the “other” is whoever is on the opposite side of the gun control issue from you.

Anger is a powerful tool–helpful when it leads to strategic action.

Anger is unhelpful when it leads us to treat as The Enemy our friends and family members who happen to disagree with us over public policy.

I did this stereotyping activity with my students a while ago from the Public Conversations Project:

“As a ________, I think that I am viewed by _______ as having these characteristics, beliefs, or intentions: _____________.”

Their responses were honest, sometimes funny, often profound.  If I could sit with my family members and have the same conversation, mine would look like this:

As a person who supports gun control, I think that I am viewed by gun control opponents as:

  • wanting to take away everyone’s guns.
  • ignorant of or disrespectful of Constitutional law.
  • seeing gun owners as evil.
  • naive and believing that stricter gun control will eliminate gun violence.
  • hating America.
  • a bleeding-heart liberal and an impractical idiot.

None of these is true.

I believe the rights established in the Constitution come with responsibilities and limitations.  I know responsible gun owners and members of the NRA.  They are good people who want to keep themselves and their children safe just as much as I do.  I believe we need to follow Australia’s and Germany’s and the UK’s examples to make it harder–it will never be impossible–for individuals to amass assault weapons designed for military use.  (See this article from the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations for more info on how the U.S. compares to other countries.)

I want to know what my family member and friends who oppose gun control fear.  I want to know why they are angry.  Memes and snarky sound bites don’t help me understand anything.

Dialogue needs trust.  Trust takes both time and willingness.  My perception is that many people who support or oppose gun control are unwilling to engage in actual dialogue (as in deeply listening to and respecting a person’s experiences and viewpoints, even as you present and support your own).

Prove me wrong.

Screaming at each other means that we’re taking our angry energy out on the wrong people.  The real enemy?  Those who want to divide us.  Those who want conflict.  Those who know that while we spend time throwing a Facebook or Twitter tantrum, they are winning.  They are keeping us in fear.

We should be angry.  We need to react.  Intentionally and thoughtfully, with goals in mind.

Not engaging in social media fights (which I just did yesterday, even though I totally know better).

Not only surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us.

We can–we MUST–work together to defend ourselves.  Those who want to keep us in fear for their own gain will exploit any vulnerability we have.

Otherwise, it’s not a question of if this will happen to you or those you love, but when.

Identity, part 2: Going Home Again

June 9, 2016
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The headstone at my grandparents’ grave bears witness to at least five generations of my family who lived and died in the same few cities north of Boston.

Having spent his whole personal and professional life in the same city, my dad knows everyone.  Students who had him forty years ago in junior high hail him at restaurants.  He went to high school with former mayors and my childhood soccer coach.  He met his two best friends in first grade, and all three still live within a couple of miles of each other.

When I graduated from college, I did not even think about going home.

Never mind actually living with my parents.  I wanted to see what else was out there:  live in a different part of the country for maybe a couple of years and then settle within an hour or two drive from my hometown.  I don’t consider myself adventurous or risk-taking or even brave.  My gut told me that someplace new was the right choice.

Through my post-college years, I’ve discovered my inner West Coaster.  Despite my deep and abiding love for my family, I feel like I belong to a place far away from where most of them live.

For a while I felt like I didn’t belong in my hometown.  I didn’t fit in.  I felt like a black sheep in my family.  (Hormonal teen angst may have had something to do with this.)  I chafed against the old familiar streets, houses, sights that were so much part of my early life.

In early adulthood, when I went home for a visit, I returned to the same house just like I returned to the same habits and behaviors I had worked hard to move on from.  I became 8 again.  Or 12.  Or 16.

Now, having established my identity elsewhere, I have discovered that my fondness for my hometown increases as I get older.  Each time I go home, part of me still feels like a little girl again.  Especially with my extended family–and especially in the past six months for my two grandmothers’ funerals.

Except this time, that little girl cherishes the sense of belonging to family that has always been there, rooted deep beneath the blooming of individual identity and self-discovery.  The little girl who adores her aunts and uncles, who is teased by her cousins and brother, who trades sarcasm with the best of them, who knows that her tribe started with them.

That little girl misses her Nana and Grandma, Grampy and Grandpa.

That little girl is also the woman who has heard the wheels of time shift:  that my little girls and little boy are now the kids growing from the roots of this family, that we are the parents, and my parents and aunts and uncles are the grandparent generation.

When I visit the cemetery, I can see the line of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and on carved into concrete.  My name will not be among them.

Instead, that place is in me.  The person that I have become can go home again–not to stay, but to remember, and appreciate, and love the place for its part in who I am.

Almost all my cousins on one side

Almost all my cousins on one side (love you C. and D.)

High Five

June 5, 2016

My kids turn five on Tuesday.

There have been some rocky times around here, behavior-wise.  We’re working on things.  Like anger management.  Like impulse control.  Like “the grown-ups are actually in charge here.”

I asked the kids what they wanted on their birthday cakes. Their answers are highly indicative of their personalities.

I asked the kids what they wanted on their birthday cakes. Their answers are highly indicative of their personalities.

Yesterday and today got a lot better.  Here are some gems:

  • Theresa:  Mama!  I made you a fruit salad [drawing].  It has spinach, chocolate, strawberries, and blueberries.
  • On Jamie getting excited about various forms of transportation:  Audrey, sighing:  “My brother.  The elevator man.”
  • Alan imitating Theresa, who mispronounces “hoisin”:  “Would you like some ha-wa-zin?”  Jamie:  “It’s wa-zin.  The H is silent.”

And finally, a conversation in the car:

Jamie:  I have two god-dads. [Uncle Jeff and Uncle Colin]

Theresa:  Jamie, when you say ‘god-dad,’ you really mean ‘godfather,’ right?

Audrey:  It’s okay to say god-dad in the house, but in public it’s more polite to say godfather.

Birthday circle at preschool

Birthday circle at preschool

Saying Good-bye to Nana

May 30, 2016

Last Thursday, I delivered a eulogy for my Nana, who died at almost 96 after suffering with Alzheimer’s for 15+ years.  I wanted to share it here in case anyone wanted to get a sense of who she was or what she meant to me and my family.

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On behalf of my family, thank you for being here.  Even if you did not know my Nana well, if you know any of us, you know her.  Nana and Grampy shaped a large part of who we are, and we come together today to celebrate her.

In the Jewish tradition there is a saying when someone dies:  “May their memory be a blessing.”  After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and started living at the Atrium, I asked family members and friends to send me memories of Nana.  They used words like warm, caring, compassionate, loving, thoughtful, welcoming.

She would be the last to accept this praise, just as she was always the last to eat the holiday meal that she had prepared, spending most of her time leaping out of her chair to get something from the kitchen.  She would probably instead say “Glory be!” and “Now, dahlin’” as she recited another rosary.

Her mother died when Nana was 18.  Although she was not the oldest in her family of eight siblings, she was the one to take care of them all, including her father.  When she told me about this, she said,

“And my pa came to me, and he said, Anne, you’ll help me, won’t you?  And I said, sure pa, that’s just how I said it.  Sure, pa, I’ll help you.  And I did.”

She devoted the rest of her life to taking care of others.  Having lost her own mother, she found one in her mother-in-law and cared for her until the end of my great-grandmother’s life.  Her three daughters-in-law called her not Anne or Mrs. Ruth, but “Ma”:  a symbolic syllable of deepest affection.  When my brother discovered that he and AJ were pregnant with their first child, my mom asked them if she could be called “Nana”:  the best tribute we can bestow.

My Nana’s children and their friends remember her as the neighborhood mother.  Everyone was welcome in her yard and, maybe more importantly, in her kitchen.

One of the main ways she cared for others was through feeding them.  Tollhouse cookies, Irish bread, chicken wings, pickalilly, corned beef and cabbage…my cousins and I remember so many meals and snacks eaten at the kitchen table or on the back porch after a swim in their pool.  We gathered at their house for every family birthday, every holiday:  the grown-up table and next to it, the kids’ table set up for us.  She was used to feeding a crowd.  After making meals for her many siblings, when she and Grampy got married, I imagine him saying something like, “Anne, I can’t eat 5 pounds of padaedas!”

She loved children.  When my cousin Michael was brought home from the hospital, Nana held my hand and practically dragged me down the back stairs to run down the driveway to see the newest member of our family.  Many babies in Lynn and beyond were warmed by her crocheted baby sweaters or blankets.

For each holiday, Nana sent each grandchild a card with two one-dollar bills and “Love, Nana and Grampy” scrawled with thin Palmer penmanship on the inside.  When I was in college and brought home friends for Thanksgiving, she started sending them cards, too.  My first-year roommate said, “I remember when I first met her and she just welcomed me as if she had known me for years.  And every time I saw her after that, it was like I was one of her grandchildren.”

She nurtured the Ruth competitive spirit playing board games with us and Bingo for quarters.  She read books from the child-height bookshelf in the main room.  Her cookie jar perenially held peanut-shaped cookies that I thought only came from Nana’s kitchen–it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered you could buy them in a store.  She made sure each of us never forgot that she was proud of us, that we were loved unconditionally.

She and Grampy were the center of our extended family, the Celtic knot that wove us together.  They showed us what a solid, faith-filled and faithful marriage looks like.  Neighbors, friends of friends, parishioners at St. Pius were drawn to them. The mailman, delivery person, construction workers doing street maintenance:  they loved my Nana.  She brought them cold drinks, cookies, and friendly conversation.

She spent her entire life giving to others.  Now she has entered heaven to embrace her parents, her siblings, and her husband, and to be embraced by Christ and Mary and all her beloved saints.  She is free from suffering and at peace.

She leaves some tangible things:  Aunt Rea’s eyes twinkling with generosity.  Uncle Bill’s red(ish) hair and good humor.  Uncle Jim’s bear hugs.  My dad’s smile of pure joy as he plays with his grandchildren.

She also leaves the intangible:  the bond we have as Ruths.  Hers was a strong, centering influence in our lives, and that influence holds us together even without her presence.  She turned everyone she knew into her family; so we too take the memories and love from 214 Maple Street into our own lives, sharing Nana’s generosity, her fairness, gentleness, and patience, with everyone we meet.

May we love as fully.  May we serve as selflessly.

May her memory be a blessing.

Nana and Grampy at my first communion

Nana and Grampy at my first communion

Identity, part 1: Traveling

April 19, 2016

I’m traveling alone. The last time I flew, I met Elise in Denver and we drove to Aspen to visit Paddy and co. There were so many joys of that trip, and sadness.

Traveling alone is weird. I’m used to running an odd errand alone, or commuting alone, or even from time to time connecting with a friend without my kids in tow. But flying alone feels a little like missing a limb. My carry-on backpack is so empty without the three days’ worth of snacks and books and extra-things-just-in-case.

When I was a new mom, other new moms would tell me they felt weird going out without their babies.  They were so used to having to check on or hold or address the needs of their babies that when going solo, these moms felt like something was missing.

Not me.

I felt guilty, sure, but also free.  Like my old self.

Becoming a parent rocks one’s world in a way I could not have anticipated and still have trouble describing. Yesterday I met my college friend Pete and his wife and their eleven-month-old (super incredibly adorable) baby.  Pete and I connected briefly about the weirdness of getting up in the morning and having one’s child dictate the routine, rather than having our old adult agenda.

When I went back to work, there was so much chaos around my new job: crammed into the only available office space, lacking a phone number (or phone), starting a week into the school year.  Still, the instant I set up for my first class, I had an overwhelming sensation of being home.  Where I am meant to be.  Where people know me as a professional and not as “the mom of triplets” (which of course I am proud to be, but it’s odd to have that become my defining quality after over a decade of teaching).

Now my identity is so bound to my kids that I miss them like crazy already, and I haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.

My mom identity also has helped me look at others differently.  More compassionately.  Last weekend, we went to the crowded Tulip Festival and people-watched.  Today I walked the length of the airport to get to an empty security line, and noticed.  The people I used to silently mock for their pretension or their disorganization or their tackiness.

I mean, how do people look at me, corralling my troupe or in my Value Village playground-friendly fashion?

My new identity has become, simply, my identity.  More complex than it used to be. At first it brought confusion and instability; now it is its own stability and comfort.

I’m glad I miss my kids now.  It makes me appreciate solo travel and people-watching and working.  And flights without negotiations over Mommy time are refreshing when they happen.

 

 

It’s Not Me. It’s You.

March 30, 2016

It’s about routine, they said.

If you don’t have a routine, then kids won’t know what to expect, and they’ll act out.

It’s about quality time, they said.

If your kid is acting out, maybe it’s their way of asking for attention.

It’s about Talking So Kids Will Listen.  It’s about 1, 2, 3, Magic.  It’s about Emotionally Intelligent Children.

It’s about time parenting experts shut up.

It’s not us.  It’s the kids.

It’s two nights in a row of one kid throwing a screaming tantrum, throwing toys and running around–and last night, biting my husband on the shoulder–because it’s a rule in our house that you can’t eat dinner naked.

It’s fights with us at bedtime:  No, you can’t have more water because I have to wash your sheets several times a week as it is.  No, I already gave you plenty of hugs.  Your question can wait till tomorrow.  No, you don’t need a band-aid.

It’s about kids pulling the I don’t want to, I don’t have to, you can’t make me resistance to perfectly Normal and Routine requests that escalates said requests into crying and consequences.

[Incidentally, I bet my parents are rolling on the floor right now.]

We are doing everything we’re supposed to.  We have routines.  We have expectations (like, wash your hands before you eat).  We get push-back all the damn time.

And oh, of course, they are adorable–like all three holding hands with their friend Ella as they walked to Children’s Liturgy yesterday.  Of course they are hilarious–giving themselves and each other the giggles.  Of course they are super sweet–like Theresa, without being asked, giving Audrey her balloon on Saturday after Audrey’s popped.

And of course they are boundary-pushing, sometimes overtired, sometimes hangry, jealous, shoving, biting, toy-throwing little…people.

I started this post two weeks ago.  Then the brilliant Janelle posted this on Renegade Mothering the other day.  Spot on, sister.  With more cussing but more wit.

And there you have it.

 

Very Belated Post

February 26, 2016

I started this post just after Christmas over a year ago.  Which is only fitting, because it takes us many weeks to take down our tree and put away our decorations.  Anyway, happy holidays from us, 14 months ago:

Christmas Day with my little loves, on the ferry.

Christmas Day with my little loves, on the ferry.

On accentuating the positive:  having the 24-hour stomach bug had two upsides:

  1. It was like a cleanse, but took a lot less time.
  2. It involved a very tired Theresa being plopped next to me on the bed and saying, “Mommy, the only thing I want to do is snuggle with you.”  Good thing, too, because the only thing I could do was lie down and hug her.

Trip to CA:

Hanging out with some of our favorite people in CA (apologies to Maya, Noah and Mikey, and others I didn’t get pics of):

Lots of exercise:

And more moments:

Literature, Snow, Healing: A Meditation on Grief

February 24, 2016

My students wonder why all the literature we read is “so depressing.”  It’s hard to tell these teens the truth:  that much great literature, great art, great music are born out of suffering and teach us how to live with pain.

Some of them already know great pain.  They have lost parents, siblings, other relatives.  They endure deep betrayals, debilitating illnesses.

Not all pain has to do with death, but it has been much on my mind recently.

***

One morning last October I walked to our church to sit in our familiar pews among familiar faces and celebrate a funeral Mass for our friend Anne.*

Anne was 62 and had been suffering from several different serious illnesses.  She was a beautiful spirit, musical, laughing, genuinely interested in others.  Deeply prayerful and faith-filled.  I did not know her as well as I know her husband, but I knew her well enough to know that her spirit radiated generosity and kindness.  When she died, I wrote to her husband, who was and is devastated by the loss of his other half and true love:

And now death’s wake is only praise,
as when a neighbor writes and says,
“I did not know your father, but
His light was there.  I miss the light.”

(from May Sarton’s “A Celebration for George Sarton”)

The light that day in the church poured through the stained glass like honey, illuminating the faces and heads of those who received Anne’s love and loved her in return.  It shone on the lectern when the priest gave his homily focused less on Anne’s life than on her death.

“It was the most peaceful death I ever saw,” he said.  “She gave her love to her family members and graciously received their love for her.”

Her husband eulogized her as authentic–that she lived her passions.  In his homily, the priest told us to “take the best from her and make it part of the best of you.”

Anne’s daughter, herself a new mom, bent in half in her pew, unable to walk out of church after Mass.  Her suffering seemed a tangible burden.

***

When I was a high school student in love with great literature, I considered the idea of grief in the abstract.  Then when I was in college, my high school French 1 teacher was murdered by her husband, who then shot himself, with their 5-year-old son in the house.  I did not know what to do with the weight in my chest that wouldn’t go away.

After Madame’s death over Christmas break, there was a heavy snowfall.  Thick, wet snow bent in half the arbor vitae behind my parents’ deck.  My mom asked my brother and me to help with snow removal, so I grumblingly trudged outside in pajama pants and snow boots, heavy coat and gloves, to brush snow off the limbs.

As I did so, it occurred to me that what I was doing for the trees, my teachers and former classmates had done for each other during Madame’s wake and funeral.  Taking turns helping each other stand upright again after being bowed with grief and loss.  That this is what we are here for:  to help each other through the hard stuff.

***

Last week, I had a karmic moment with my friend Jen, who was our friend group’s point person during Paddy’s illness.  Paddy or his wife would send her information, and she would relay it to all of us, and flow messages back to them.  I called her to talk through my irritability, my lack of patience, my sadness.

She told me about how Paddy, from his experience losing his brother at such a young age, helped her learn her own grief process when her friend died years ago.  These strategies she now teaches to her students through her Writing to Heal classes.

In this way, Paddy, via Jen, is teaching me how to grieve.

I know that he would not want us to wallow in our sadness, to let it overwhelm us to the point of not being able to function in our families or in our work.  But it was healing to learn from Jen that it’s okay to have sad days, to let the sorrow come and also to let it go.

***

My yoga teacher loves the word “equanimity.”  I am trying to reach a place where equanimity rests–where grief and joy can coexist instead of being mutually exclusive.  Hamlet does not learn how to let his grief go.  Hester Prynne does let her grief go, but does not attain any sense of equanimity with joy, either.  Tim O’Brien turns his grief into “story-truth,” figuring out how to live with it.

That’s what we do.  We read great literature.  We listen to great music.  We look long at the mountains across the water as their snowcap glows in the winter sun.  We lean on our friends and family when we are bent in half by the weight of pain, and they help us stand up again.  We do the same for them.  And by being present to this pain, we may still experience our joys and loves in the face of loss.

“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.” –J. Krishnamurti

*not her name

L’chaim!

February 18, 2016

When I turned 18 on the 18th, one of my high school teachers told me that in Hebrew, chai means “alive” and can also stand for the number 18.

Twenty years later, I raise a glass in gratitude:

  • to my compassionate, hilarious, awesomesauce husband
  • to poetry, from Hamlet read in my classes to “Casey at the Bat” read at bedtime
  • to weeknight dinners with friends
  • to theater
  • to all my kindred spirits
  • to health insurance
  • to my students
  • to my teachers
  • to competent, supportive bosses, past and present
  • to letting go
  • to my children, whose initial foray into “Go Fish” was similar to their initial understanding of Hide-and-Seek:  “Do you have any fives?”  “Let me sort them.” [Kid spreads all cards from her hand on the table.]  “No.  I just have threes, eights, ones.”
  • to those whose memories are blessings

One of my very favorite quotes (from one of my very favorite books, To the Lighthouse) is this:

What is the meaning of life?…the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

–Virginia Woolf

L’chaim tovim ul’shalom (For good life, and for peace).  L’chaim v’l’vracha (To life and to blessing).

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