Mental Hygiene

31 Jul

LilypadsLast Friday, I was gulping down my second cup of coffee, dressed uncharacteristically in creased slacks and heeled sandals at a meeting for work, sitting between a dear friend and a new acquaintance. They were catching up. I was taking it all in. And at some point, my new acquaintance referenced “mental hygiene” as an antiquated phrase which eventually morphed into “mental health.” I’m honestly not sure which phrase I prefer, but she dismissed “mental hygiene” as the foundational philosophy for electric shock therapy and other efforts to clean or sanitize the human mind.

I saw her point, sharing her disdain for our culture’s approach to mental health through the ages, and yet …

“Mental hygiene” also resonated with me. It suggested daily maintenance, frequent care and attention. It’s a phrase that could remind me to take those daily silent moments for myself, opening that deep, rich sense of myself with the same care and frequency I put into brushing my teeth, showering, or brushing my hair.

Did I find a new title for my blog?

For months, I’ve been hopping all over the place in search of a new theme for this blog of mine. Because Miss E now has an undeniable need for privacy, which means telling the stories of our more profound or transformative conversations feels to me like breaking her trust. She is experimenting with distance and intimacy. She is full-on tween. These are precarious days.

She is also nearing the age I was when my mom began to spin out, eventually shedding her role as a parent for many years…

Recently, I arrived home after a grueling day at work, calling “Hello!” as I unlocked the door. My two dogs came running to greet me. I pet them both on the head, cooing my love. Then I went searching for the humans. Kelly, my partner, was out with clients and our home was unbelievably, eerily silent. I walked down to the basement, where my eldest was sorting the chaos of her bedroom, working hard to make it peaceful and clean – and while she was lovely to me and kind, I had clearly interrupted. I tried to stay brief, sticking to: Hello. When is our company coming? What’s the plan for dinner? And finally – Is your sister here?

“She should be in her room,” she answered, shuffling her pile again.

Miss E had never in her life failed to greet me at the door, but I climbed the stairs, knocked on her Minecraft-decorated door, entered, and found her sitting on the bed with headphones on, iPod in-hand. I kissed her head.

“What?!” she said, scrunching up her shoulders. “I’m watching videos.” I hadn’t seen her in ten hours. At least.

Still, I nodded. “Okay,” I told her, leaning over and kissing her again. “I love you.” I stood straight and walked towards her bedroom door.

“I love you, too, Mom,” she said.

I told this story to my friend Helen the next day at work, this story of the first time I arrived home after a challenging day and my young one didn’t run to greet me at the door. She said it hit her right in the heart, which I needed to hear, and she said she’d been there with her kids, too, who are all grown now. “She’ll come back to you,” Helen assured me.

“I never came back to my mom,” I replied. I didn’t think it through; I just said it. But it was true, I realized as the words came tumbling out of my mouth.

So THIS is the trouble I’m having now, I thought. This right here.

… which brought me back to the idea of Mental Hygiene. And how writing for me is like flossing.

Flossing my mind?

Helen may be right. It’s possible. Miss E may come back. Or maybe she won’t go far when she goes. When she separates. I can’t predict.

After all, at forty-five, I am slowly coming back to my mom – imperceptibly perhaps, but STILL – I wouldn’t have predicted that.

And so I floss. And I brush. And I rest. And I write. As much as I can. For my own mental hygiene. Praying we’ll all turn out all right.

 

The truth about eggs

24 Jul

IMG_20140724_213440_582Writing guides a writer to what’s real. Or writing guides me.

“Write until you hit that nugget of truth,” we’re told.

Write.

Just write.

Kelly calls down the laundry chute to me this morning before work, “Roi, do you want me to make you some eggs?”

“Yes, please!” I tell her, looking up from the fitted sheet I’m folding.

“One or two?”

“Two, please.” Eggs are delicious.

I arrive at the table some time later. My daughter is gnawing on something which is not an egg. She’s reading, too. Breakfast in our house is rarely a family affair. We come and go from the table, pop in and out, sometimes only half-dressed, in search of a shoe, a necklace, a key, hurry through, distracted by the day’s to-do’s, by our books, and by our devices. Breakfast is rarely a family affair, but dinner is. At dinner, devices and books are banned.

But not at breakfast.

“Thank you so much, Honey!” I feel well cared for. It shows. Kelly smiles.

Then she asks Miss E, “Did you not like your eggs, cutie?” They are still on her plate, one tiny bite missing.

“No. You made them all runny. I don’t like that.” She doesn’t look at either of us. She crinkles her nose. She lifts the edge of her bitten egg white with her fork, lets it down again, and turns her attention back to her book.

I’m stunned, although I shouldn’t be.

“That’s good for me to know,” Kelly says. “I make them like that because you used to like them… runny.”

“I don’t like them runny,” Miss E replies without moving her eyes. Kelly nods. Because that’s the truth, Miss E’s truth, here, this minute. She does not like the runny eggs. And she does not like talking. Right now. To us. That is her truth and it’s clear, even before I sit down hours later to write it out.

A few minutes later, I ask her to please thank Mama for trying. She does. Mama seems pleased – which pleases Miss E, too.

Over time, I hope this sort of interaction becomes its own reward — this thanking, acknowledging, making people who care for you feel good. That’s my truth.

That’s my own truth about eggs.

And then I wonder… If we all tell our egg stories, no matter how mundane, amid the stories of spelling bees won, goals kicked into the net, gracious manners and lessons truly deeply learned … If we all tell the truth about eggs, will we see ourselves in one another? Will it make us smarter, wiser, kinder?

As bloggers, as writers, as readers typing in the comment box, as friends emailing with friends, can we build the elusive parenting village in this technologically (dis)connected world with stories as simple as fried or poached or scrambled eggs?

If we write.

Just write.

Just write our own truths about eggs.

On ‘steps’ and love and family. On trust.

9 Jul

DSCF0445One day during our decadent family reunion last month, I wrote:

I am not oblivious to the absurdity of taking my alone-time here in the middle of paradise, the ocean visible from our balcony, the whole family – all who are here – lounging in and around the pool, my littlest buzzing around like the fish she is, my big ten-year-old with her four-year-old cousin in tow. I’m not oblivious to the absurdity of my staying inside while the breeze blows on our balcony, while gleeful screeches and giggles waft up from the pool, while drinks and meals are mixed at the swim-up bar, while cousins and in-laws and steps get to know each other just a little more in safe, playful, non-threatening ways.

I am not oblivious, but family is complicated and I’m feeling a bit at sea, absorbed in a novel I’ve just begun about someone else’s complicated family emerging from grief, and the truth is, in my everyday life, I have such very little time alone.

Dad popped in for a visit, ready for his day while I sat in my pajamas. We chatted for easily half an hour, one-on-one. I wouldn’t have had that down by the pool.

Earlier, making coffee, waiting for it to brew, I had the most lovely, relaxed conversation with our eldest – breezier than our day-by-day chats, often held late at night or wedged between meals and work. I wouldn’t have had that either, if I’d gone down to be with everyone.

So here I sit, pen in hand, coffee beside me, next to my water camera and smart phone, while most of the family plays in the water below. This is where I want to be.

Family is complicated.

We live in Chicago. They live on the West Coast. We’re there for weddings, but never for courtship. We miss a lot of things.

On holidays, I’m reminded how little we know one another, and I find myself each time searching aimlessly for a way in, wanting to go deep, failing, becoming disheartened, giving up over and over again but never completely – never all the way – wishing, hoping, worrying over whether or not we will bond. They are close to each other and open to us, to me, to my partner, to our girls, yet I am somehow never able to connect, never able to meet them anywhere near halfway.

This time, it feels different. We feel different with one another. Closer. I am taking that in.

Sometimes I want to say to them, my family: My mother was never your matriarch. Where your mothers and matriarchs have taught you that family is everything, sticks by one another, helps and loves and supports one another, always and no matter what, I have to say this is an idea introduced to me later in life – in my twenties – by you. And my biggest fear when our matriarch passed was that I would lose all of you. Every. One.

I want to claim you now.

By showing up, being present, making it so. By calling, writing, making memories here. These are the ways we bond. This is how we stick.

So please do not mistake my absence this morning for a lack of caring. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But I need to rebuild inside myself. Stay quiet. Listen. Reflect.

I need to see you with fresh eyes from a place of security, of confidence, to approach you with ease, to accept what will or will not be, to make my desires known, to hear what you need or want, how you may like to play, to be present with you, to reach out and let go, knowing family always drifts back together, knocks up against each other again, forcing cracks and melding together in new places all the time because we are fused in the deep love our parents have for each other still, even now after one of them has gone.

As we lingered in the lobby on the last day, my brother Raúl said to me, “Roi, keep writing. I love reading your blog.”  So here I am, and here it is, for you, for all of you: My family, who I love. With all my heart.

How to Begin

26 Jun


DSCF0508How to begin parenting

when your child returns home

How to begin

How to begin writing

when your mind returns

after weeks of

… wandering off

How to begin

after stepping away

even for a day

DSCF0368

How to begin

telling your story

when yours

is intertwined

with the stories of

those you love

and theirs

are purposely

not visible

to anyone but you

How to begin knowing

Begin to parent

where your writing

will take you

is taking you

now

DSCF0410

How to begin responding

to that tug of passion

when you have so

carefully submerged

your

shall we say

pre-mom self

for so long

DSCF0631

How to begin

and when you begin

How to reach back

for what you need

or trust

it will appear

beside you

Begin to trust

along the way.

Boat Flowers Drinks BorderPhotos from our Family Reunion in Cabo San Lucas

<3

Image

My LGBTQ Family

2 Jun

P1000150This is my family – my LGBTQ family – see? We’re two moms there on the left.

Here, we are in the back of a pick-up truck in Guatemala, on the coast of Lake Atitlan, exploring the birth country of our youngest member. Our new bisexual friend Tania ( :) ) took this picture. We met her in the garden of the B&B where we were staying and she invited us to travel with her and a young guide, Casimiro, for the next couple of days. We were – all of us – delighted to do so.  Our day was lovely. Our trip was lovely. More pictures of our 2013 trip to Guatemala here.

This coming Saturday, Kelly and I will have been together twelve years. Our state began officially supporting marriages like ours yesterday. We haven’t done the paperwork yet, but it’s on the horizon. I promise to post pictures when we do – not of the paperwork, but of us signing on the dotted line to make our union, our marriage, our lives as a lesbian couple with two kids, a matter of public record. More thoughts on marriage here.

I am amazed that state by state, day by day, our country shifts, making us free-er to share who we are, wherever we are. I am impressed. I am excited. But we still need models and we still need to model for one another. We need to remember that life on our own terms is possible and beautiful, no matter who we are. We still need days like today, Blogging for LGBTQ Families Day, to remind ourselves and each other there’s a wide wonderful embracing world out there, whether or not we can see it right here, right now.

And we need to stand up for one another. For our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends, and for strangers, too. Because not everyone lives in a welcoming place, has a welcoming home.

This is how the world changes. This is how people begin to understand. By seeing our faces, hearing our voices, reading our words.

This is how the world changes. When we make ourselves visible.

And when we create a circle of safety for the people around us to make themselves visible, too.

 

 

 

 

Communication: You get paid for that?

29 May

DSCF0108My grandparents were celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary. I was young. Middle school maybe? Early high school? I was awkward, self-conscious. I didn’t know many of their adult friends, although family came, too, of course. Some family came. I think. The family who lived in town came. Right?

I remember so little of that party.

I do remember my love for theater came up in conversation again and again. I’ve always loved acting and I was good, pretty good, good enough that adults were forever telling each other how much I loved acting, bragging about roles I’d played, remarking how I wasn’t afraid to talk to anyone – which simply wasn’t true – and always inside their remarks lurked this assumption that my stage presence carried over into casual party conversation, which — without a raised platform or curtain or spotlight boundary dividing us — it did not.

Still doesn’t.

But during this party in Oklahoma, after I’d carried a platter around trying to make myself busy, after I’d run out of things to bring people, I remember this man who my parents may or may not have liked very much. He was studying Communications and I remember he said, “Communications,” with a capital C. I could hear the capital letter. This young man in college told my Dad, who taught college, that his field of study was Communications – during my grandparents’ 50th Anniversary Party — which also needs capital letters because people should be celebrated for making it through the world together for fifty years and loving each other so long, and I hoped one day, I’d celebrate 50 years with someone, too.

Now even if computer science has become IT for Information Technology, and Communications has been separated into twelve different degrees, at the time of this party, it sounded so simple: Communications. It sounded like exactly what I wanted to do. It sounded like simply distilling what one person wanted to say into its bare essence and then sharing it in a way some other (specific) person could hear. I wanted to know how to do that. Small scale or large scale, I wanted to try that on.

I remember my mom laughing about the idea of studying Communications – how does one study Communications? And even then, I understood her laughter wasn’t about him and it wasn’t about me. Her laughter was about her and how she, in her descent into depression, was beginning to feel that there was a wall – like the theatrical fourth wall I so adored – between her and other people, and to her, the idea of bridging that wall or breaking that wall or de-imagining that wall was so ludicrous; the idea of communicating beyond that wall was so incomprehensible that all she could do was laugh. I got that, even if I didn’t know how to express it yet.

I asked my parents later, “Does he really get paid for that? For Communicating?”

I was intrigued, and suddenly longed to Communicate for a living, with a capital C.

“Well, he’s just studying now – but yes, that’s his goal.”

I took a lot of detours and amassed a few more passions along the way, but eventually, that became my goal, too. Or my life. Or my life’s work.

Because that’s what I do now. I Communicate. For a living.

And my week hit a pinnacle this morning when I – who now shine the spotlight as much as I can on the good work going on all around me – had the spotlight shone on me as a Nonprofit Communicator here on the Nonprofit MarCommunity blog – a space where communication and learning and passion are given breath. And life. And care. And tending. Here. In an online community for my tribe.

I feel lucky because it feels like coming home.

Settling the Dice

22 May

Dice PopperI have twenty minutes in the hot sun.

My kid’s in yoga and I’m the one sweating. That’s just how our lives fit together right now – her in class and me in the car. Waiting.

Writing. With pen and ink. Filling stolen bits of time with words. Making the most of the moment.

I ought to be at the store buying pretzels.

For her tutor.

I digress.

The truth is, I’m mired in too many moods today to make poetry. Or prose. Or sense.

Perhaps you know the feeling?

What’s more – most of these moods are not mine. My partner’s pre-menopausal. (She’s using the word now, so I can, too.) And our youngest flung herself headfirst into her tweens some time ago.

It’s a magical combo.

You know those big families who have trouble getting a photo where everyone’s smiling at the same time? That’s my house at dinnertime. Our dinner table seats four. Sometimes six. More often three, since Grace is home for awhile but working nights – serving other people dinner, dealing with other people’s moods.

We’re adjusting.

To the hormones.

To each other.

We’re learning the new normal. We’re discovering – when all the words and worries, flared tempers, diminishing hope, when all the small talk and back talk and cross talk and just talk is stripped away – what each of us really needs. We’re learning to take what we need. We’re learning how to ask each other questions, too. We’re learning.

Do you remember those childhood board games where the dice were inside a kind of dome that you had to push down until all the dice popped up with a loud clattering sound and as a kid, it was fun to pop the dice over and over again if for no other reason than to grate on your mom’s nerves? (Not that I would have done that, Mom.) That’s my house. That was my house earlier this week, all loud and popping.

Until the dice settled and we went on.

We went on with the game.

We waited for the dice to settle, and then we went on.

Learning new rules. Making new rules together.

For this new game.

 

Photo discovered here. 

Lesson

10 May

After long bow
practice: tired hands,
proud spirit, cello case
zipped closed, music book
now shut, she stands and
bows to her instructor.
Breathes in.
Breathes out.
Complete.

Mother’s Day 2014

8 May

DSCF0116“I love you, Mom.” My ten year-old wraps her arms tightly around me. I feel her heart beating. “I’m glad I’m not an orphan.” My breath catches.

“I love you, too, Sweetheart.” I wait a moment. I kiss the top of her head. I imagine there will come a day when the top of her head is harder to kiss, but today, she is the perfect height for head-top kissing. “Why are you glad you’re not an orphan?”

“I mean I’m glad I don’t live in an orphanage. I’m glad you’re my mom. You hold my hand when things are hard, and take care of me.” She has stepped back a little, and is looking at me intently. She wants me to feel what she is saying. I do. I feel her. I love her. I smile. My whole heart melts.

“I’m glad I’m your mom, too.”

We talk about orphanages for a couple minutes – our conversation not hard this time, not deep or intense – we talk about people who care for kids in an orphanage, how they are and are not like parents, how many kids live in one space together and eventually, she tests an idea she’s tested on me before. “If you and Mama didn’t adopt me,” she suggests, “I wouldn’t have a family. I might live in an orphanage.”

She’s wrong, but how do I tell her? Before she was allowed to live with us, while we waited for the endless paperwork to clear, she lived with her foster mom. She never lived in an orphanage, and she never would have. It isn’t how the system in Guatemala was set-up. Not the system she was in. But how do I explain? I decide it’s only reassurance she needs today. Her probe for details and information feels different to me; this conversation is all heart. I go with my heart.

“Honey, your birth mom made a plan for you – she made a plan with an adoption agency, to make sure you found a forever family.” I go on to tell her how I feel we were matched intentionally. By spiritual guidance. By hands unseen. She likes this idea. I’ve never said this before, but it’s true. It’s how I see it. She decides – for now – that’s how she sees it, too. We are silent for a stretch, comfortably so.

“What does she look like? My birth mom?”

“We have a picture of her on the side of the fridge,” I remind her.

“Oh, right!” She runs into the kitchen and pulls down the magnetic frame. As I follow her, she is already removing the black and white photo from its hot pink frame. She hesitates. “Should I – I mean, do we –“ I assure her we have another copy of the picture, and I feel her hesitation give way to hope, relief, glee.

“Can I keep this one?”

“Of course!” I tell her.

She scampers off into her room to find a place for her birth mom’s photo right by her bed.

“I love you, Mom,” she says again, an hour later or more, before nestling into her blankets, ready for sleep.

“I love you, too, Precious.”

And there it is – my Mother’s Day complete, and it’s not even Sunday. Yet.

<3

 

Snapshot

1 May

photo album square on quiltMuch of my job this week has been selecting photos. For a report.

Good photos tell a story. They touch your heart. They offer a window into a rich moment in someone’s life. But it’s hard to find just the right photo, one that tells the story you need to tell right now.

Which got me thinking: What photo would tell the story of my life? My real life, with the dogs resting on my bed and the cats meowing to go outside? With my daughter sleeping in the other room and my partner out for drinks with a friend? With the computer on my lap in the bed? Which picture tells this story?

Is this even the story I want to tell?

Facebook has us telling stories like these all the time – but always with a zing, a twist, a joke, or a Deep Thought. Because otherwise, who cares about the dog now snoring beside me or the cat who thinks he’s a dog at the door? Could be any dog. Any cat. Who cares? So we frame it. We tell a story ABOUT it. We don’t post just the picture. Or – we rarely do. We embellish. We colorize. We crop. We enhance. We edit.

But I want the bold moment, unadorned. The reunion after a week apart. The first swim across the pool. The moment I first held my baby in my arms.

I remember the moment I first held my baby in my arms, of course, even without the picture. I’d been snapping photos for half an hour, but once I had her in my arms, really had her in my arms, having abandoned the camera, I wouldn’t let her go. I held her, I think, for a full hour, although my partner and our eldest were eager to hold her again, too. She was mine, really mine, and I was amazed.

But these unadorned mind-blowing moments, I rarely record in words or on film. They are simply what is.

So what photo would tell the story of my life today? Would taking a snapshot make it more or less important than it feels right now?

A computer on my lap. A dog at my feet.

On my night stand – A half empty beer can. My phone charger curled on a stack of books. A small square photo album stuffed with polaroids from 1972. Chapstick. A pen. Scrabble tiles that spell my name (Thank you, Jocelyn). A green swirly cup with a lid and a straw (if you have cats, you’ll understand). Cien quetzales de Guatemala. Reading glasses – the plain ones, not the ones I carry in my purse. A sliver of red Arizona rock. The book I’m reading now. My Droid.

Five pairs of shoes on the floor by my bed – my everyday Docs, black; some casual/dress shoes, also black, with grey stitching, which I bought years ago in Spain; bright orange slip-ons from Morocco; brown Rocket Dogs with small orange and green hearts all over, and gold skulls; tall black vinyl boots. And slippers with faux fur lining, probably fifteen years old now, ready to be replaced except they are – so clearly – my faves.

These objects tell the story of my life tonight.

Just as a tiny bedroom with white shelves all around, green carpeting, and a window I always kept cracked just the tiniest bit even in winter, told the story of my life as a child.

Is there a photo that tells the story of your life? What objects do you have close at hand?

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