Three weeks after the summer solstice, we once again walked the trail, this time in a surly mood.
Two weeks after the summer solstice, two days after Alton Sterling was shot to death in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one day after Philando Castile was shot to death in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and just hours after twelve police officers were shot and five killed in Dallas, Texas, my children and I took a walk in the woods.
I’ve been doing these yoga practices and meditations from Kelly McGonigal’s “Boost Your Willpower” four-week online program, and I find myself thinking of California.
I know that part of this is because it’s cold and snowy here in New England and part of it’s because Kelly was one of my instructors for yoga teacher training when I lived in California, and her voice and image are tied for me with the memory of riding my bike to the California Ave studio where I did my training, yoga mat bungee-corded to my bike rack. I remember the cool of the pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks and the anxiety I felt each time, wondering if I could maneuver my bike around the metal bike barriers or if I should walk it around the barriers instead.
When I think about California, I get a sense of home and a sense of hope. I have no idea if these are personal to me or if these are common feelings people have about California.
The home feeling comes from the landscape, from the golden hills against the blue sky, from the dusty eucalyptus smell and the dry air, from the way the rocks meet the coastline. I spent my first ten years in California, and then four and a half years in my mid-20’s to early 30’s. I’ve spent more time in California than I have in any one state; it makes sense that it would feel like home. When I’m gone from there, I miss it. It is so different from the rolling New England countryside. It is so different from anywhere else I’ve been.
The hope feeling is a little tougher to trace. Maybe it’s just the effect of living in a place with so much sun or a place that was founded by people who put all of their possessions into a wagon and headed west in search of fortune or adventure or freedom. Or maybe it’s because the last time we moved there my husband was about to start a postdoctoral fellowship and I had quit my corporate job and was trying to make my way as a doula and yoga instructor. Maybe it’s because that’s where I gave birth to my first child and began my journey as a mother. Whatever it is, I get a sense of possibility when I think of California, a sense that anything can happen there.
I’m not a fan of earthquakes or traffic or yuppies, and the cost of living is just oppressive, but still. To hike through redwoods whenever I want to or to pick citrus fruits and pomegranates and persimmons from the trees in my neighborhood or to be around so many people who are confident that they have the ideas and drive necessary to innovate and change the way people all around the world connect with each other.
It’s taken some time away, but although I can think of lots of reasons to live other places, I remember why so many people can’t imagine living anywhere else.
NaNoWriMo Day 9 Word Count: 15,712
The prompt from NaBloPoMo today is about the time you realized your home was different from other people’s homes.
I think I might have come to this realization rather late. Until I was in ninth grade, we lived in military housing. Our houses were essentially identical to everyone else’s except for the current resident’s decorating preferences. Donna who lived next door in San Diego, her favorite color was red. Her house reflected this year-round, but at Christmas time, it was very apparent. Her tree was covered in nothing but red lights, red garland, red tinsel, red glass balls, and a red star on top. My friend Lisa’s mom made those plastic canvas yarn art things and displayed them in every room. I remember one on a table in the living room that looked like a series of geometric shapes but when you looked at it the right way, it said, “Jesus.” An early version of a Magic Eye poster. My friend Precious’s mom was from China, and because I was only there during birthdays and other celebrations, I got the idea that there was always a bowl of red hardboiled eggs on her table.
These were differences, but they all seemed rather minor. They were, after all, things that we could have at our house (in fact, I spent years trying to get my mom to let me dye a dozen eggs red and put them in a bowl on the table).
When I was in ninth grade, we moved to northern Virginia where the military housing was limited. We rented a house in a subdivision in suburban DC. There wasn’t an enormous amount of variety between the homes (I recall four different models, 2 colonials, a cape, and a split-level ranch), but there was more variety than on base.
It was while we were living here that my mom started work at a pet shop and began to bring her work home with her. She bred mice in the basement. I’ve blogged about this before. Fancies, not feeders, although I’d bet that many of them got fed to snakes and monitor lizards anyway.
At first, I enjoyed showing people the mice in our basement. I thought they were cool, and I felt rather proud of them. I brought one of the neighbor girls with whom I waited at the bus stop to my house one afternoon. We’d just come in the kitchen door and set down our bookbags. I was getting ready to take her downstairs to show her the mice when I noticed that she was looking around at our house.
“Well, you did just move in, right?” she said, a justification in response to a query that hadn’t been spoken.
“Right,” I agreed, even though we’d been there since May and it was almost December now. She caused me to look at my house with new eyes. I saw the clutter. I saw the dirt. I saw the baby gates set up at every doorway to keep our elderly and mostly incontinent dog off the white carpeting (although if you put white carpeting in a rental, I think you’re just asking for trouble). I noticed the smell of mice wafting up the basement steps.
I was incredibly embarrassed.
I still invited friends over, but I knew enough after this to feel ashamed of my home.
As an adult, I have a fear that I might have a genetic predisposition for hoarding behaviors (my mom got rid of the mice a long time ago; now she has cats), so I try to stay on top of the clutter and not have too many pets/kids/collections/decorations. I do okay most of the time, but I still have this lingering anxiety that someone will visit my home and find that the nicest thing they can say is to offer a justification for why my house is “like that.”
Upon the return of his son, Jack, from a 20-year absence, Robert Boughton, the patriarch of the Boughton family, finds with some surprise and considerable anger, that he has become old and frail. He has worked his whole life to build a home for his children, especially for his wayward son, and he’s finally realizing that home isn’t a place where children stay; it’s a place children leave.
“All of them call it home, but they never stay,” he laments.
Glory and Jack, who have both returned home to try and make themselves whole again, are discovering something similar. Home isn’t a place where one can make oneself new; instead it’s a place where one reverts back to childhood habits and relationships without even meaning to. It’s a place of waiting and hoping but not of changing. To change, one must leave. And even then, the prospects for change are limited.
Robinson interwove this book beautifully with her incredible (and Pullitzer Prize-winning) Gilead. I was delighted (in kind of a dark way) with how my opinion of Jack changed in reading this book and seeing Glory’s view of him from the opinion I held of him seeing only Reverend Ames’ impressions of him in Gilead. Throughout most of this book, I really, really didn’t like Jack. He’s very manipulative and selfish. He calculates all of his actions based on how others will think of him or how he assumes they do think of him. “Truth” is a relative term to him. The nature of personal possession is similarly slippery in his estimation. He seems incapable of imagining that anyone could have a motive that doesn’t relate to him. Throughout his life, he’s refused closeness and comfort while condemning those around him for being distant. He makes choices that are almost guaranteed to result in failure, and then he uses the inevitable failure as further proof that he can accomplish nothing. And he pulls his family, especially his sister and his father, along with him, all the while insisting that he doesn’t want their concern or their love.
He’s just a jerk.
But he’s also this very tragic character for whom I can’t help but root even as he seems bent on failing, no matter what.
Glory, Jack’s sister, still the “baby” of the large family although 38 years old, still loves her brother and seeks his approval just as she did when she was five. She tries to anticipate his needs, she lights up when something she says makes Jack laugh and is despondent when he’s upset. She’s something of an enabler. She’s pitiful in her own way, but at least she’s self-reflective. She knows she’s pitiful, and she chooses to allow herself to be hurt rather than lose the tenuous connection she has with Jack.
With my description of the book as being about a jerk, an enabler, and an old man mired in self pity, this doesn’t sound like a terribly glowing review. Home admittedly is heart-rending and frustrating. But it’s also delicately and expertly written. And most of all it’s True in the capital-T sense of the word. I was thoroughly engrossed. This, I thought, is how families work. I have the sense that I can get insights about my own familial relationships reading Robinson’s work and perhaps grow more adept at recognizing the beauty in those relationships rather than only seeing the hassles and disappointments.
During the past week, I’ve been shifting my perception a little so I spend more energy on what I want in my life than on what I don’t want in it. Sure, I’d still like less stuff. But I want to focus less on the stuff and more on what purpose I want my material possessions to serve.
I often think of our entire upstairs as unnecessary space. There are two small bedrooms upstairs. We use one bedroom for our TV and our futon and for my husband’s clothes so he doesn’t wake up me and the baby when he gets ready for work in the wee hours. The other room I called my “craft room” but that just meant I had my sewing machine in its case on a big old table I salvaged from an art school that was giving away a bunch of stuff. Other than that, the room is basically for storage.
Last week I got tired of wishing we had a smaller house and decided to start thinking of how this house can better match what I want. Around that same time, I remembered how, for many years now, I’ve wanted a little spot of my own to meditate or practice yoga or just cozy up with a book. Incredibly, my brain connected these two thoughts.
The result: Mommy’s Room.
In this first picture you see, from left to right, Ikea curtains leftover from our place in California, antique trunk my mom refinished and gave to me when I got married, yoga mat in the bag I made for it years ago, rocking chair we bought used when I was pregnant with my daughter (with the tags still on the cushions because I’m not entirely convinced it’s legal for me to remove them), little storage thing leftover from our broken Ikea desk. Inside are a bunch of sewing supplies and a drawer full of incense. On top is my little buddha/altar thing. Then there’s an empty wine rack I’ve not yet been able to bring myself to part with and the very edge of our little kitty tent that the cats sometimes actually use for its intended purpose (sleeping). On the wall above the altar is a photo we bought in Asheville, North Carolina, one of our favorite places on earth (remember, though, I’ve only left the country once and that was to visit Toronto).
Here’s the view from the other side of the room:
This includes the big salvaged table, my sewing machine with pending sewing projects stacked on top of it (my husband’s pants and a set of curtains I intend to make into two sets of curtains), my yarn stash (part of it), my little sewing/craft tackle box, my Rosetta Stone Latin American Spanish and headphones (because I still think I might one day learn Spanish), my mug of chamomile tea (actually my husband’s mug. I bought it for him for Christmas, but I use it five days out of seven), the baby monitor (in case my husband needs to call me for backup), the book I’m currently reading (Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser), my journal, and my laptop.
If it had a steam shower and a kegerator full of gluten-free beer, it would be even better, but I actually like it fairly well as it is. I might try to find a different place to store my yarn and sewing projects, though. No need to stare at what I’m not doing while I try to relax.
And to think, last time I had my own room it was decorated with tapestries, a Pulp Fiction movie poster, and overflowing ashtrays. The only elements shared by both this room and my room then are incense and used furniture.
My mom just visited for about a week and a half, which gave me the chance to observe perfectionism in action from the outside. Usually I’m just trapped inside, observing my own actions, which isn’t nearly so enlightening as watching from outside.
The way my mom’s perfectionism manifests itself during her visits is in non-stop projects. Those who have been reading the blog this past week or so have some idea of the frenetic levels our home-improvement (and “me”-improvement) binge reached. I get the impression that when my mom looks out at the world, she sees all of the things that are wrong with it. Then she focuses in on the things that she might be able to change and gets to work. I can recognize this because this is pretty much what I do (less with the home improvements and more with the self improvements, although I do move furniture an awful lot and used a caulk gun for the first time last night instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour).
This is where my perfectionism gets in the way of my happiness, I think. In addition to interfering with my sleep and causing me to ignore (or attempt to ignore) my children, the underlying belief driving all of this fault-finding is that things just aren’t right. There’s something wrong in my surroundings and there’s something wrong with me. There’s a related belief, which is that if I can eliminate everything wrong with my surroundings, that the wrong things in me will disappear, too, and vice versa. When I feel stressed and I get that “wrong” feeling, I immediately retreat to perfectionism. I make lists, schedules, routines. I track my food intake and develop rules for my eating. I either avoid social interaction or my conversations are peppered with long pauses as I attempt to say just the right thing (or at the very least to avoid saying the wrong thing). I can keep this up for a few days or as long as a week, and then I start to falter and quickly descend into chaos, from where I then lift myself out via perfectionism and the cycle begins again.
What’s interesting to me is that the chaos I feel inside doesn’t seem to show itself on the outside. We had dinner out with some friends from North Carolina last night whom we hadn’t seen in seven years. I don’t know how we got to it, but at one point the other three adults at the table all emphatically declared that I am very organized. I don’t often feel organized. I wonder if this suggests that the chaos and disorder I feel are mostly on my insides but because I don’t recognize that reality, I try to eliminate the chaos by changing my outsides.
My mom’s visit was like an orgy of perfectionism. Oh, look! This thing I’ve not done anything about because, you know, I’ve got two kids and I’m homeschooling…I can complete it and 15 other things I’ve not even thought of doing because my mom’s here to help. It was awesome and it was exhausting and now I’m trying to let myself down easy so I don’t drop into a pit of disappointment at my relative lack of productivity.
So here’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to follow my own advice and Not Jump to Solutions. When I feel that “wrong” feeling, I’m going to just sit with it. I’m going to observe it, take note of it, and just move along. I’ve got my decluttering, which I think will help to relieve some of the pressure that builds up when I just need to pull out the stove and clean behind it at 11:30 at night. But I’m going to do my best to avoid going to extremes and focusing so much on cleaning or on scheduling or on finding the perfect spot for the coffee table that I ignore the underlying feelings and beliefs that are driving my need to change things.
Last night I had a dream that I was in charge of planning nine weddings that would take place over the course of three hours. And I still had my kids to take care of. I had all of these favors and table decorations to assemble and the kids kept walking off with things I needed. I would stare at these tables covered in supplies and try to reason through how to get everything put together before the weddings began. Two of the weddings were for people I knew and one was for myself (the other six were for people I didn’t know). I updated my Facebook status (in the dream) saying that I was getting help from my friend in fixing my hair for my wedding. I remarked that it was something of a lost cause. My friend was getting exasperated with me because I was so clueless about how to pretty up my hair for an important occasion and because I kept trying to do more prep work for the other weddings. Then, even though I’d not finished all of the things I’d planned for the first wedding before it began, I saw that everyone was having a great time and the bride looked gorgeous. I cautiously considered devoting the rest of my energies to preparations for my own wedding, which was the last of the nine.
I don’t know. I think this dream just reinforces the importance, for me, of paying better attention to my own needs and improving my skills at observing and caring for myself. Most everything else can pretty much take care of itself, or at the very least won’t fall apart if I’m not in complete control 100% of the time. Another bit of my own advice comes to mind: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.
Like Alice, however, I always give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.
Another day of getting ship done. (Yes, I said “ship.” I feel self-conscious writing gratuitous swear words, so I opt to pseudo-cuss.)
Today we finished re-covering the chairs (see yesterday’s post for pictures) while the baby napped and my daughter played on pbskids.org.
We put up the double curtain rods and hung the sheers while the children clung to our legs.
We cleaned and organized the garage while the children dug in the garden (insuring that there are no bulbs planted in that section), watched the dogs next door, pretended to talk on the phone, and helped sweep.
We re-hung the portions of the alphabet that had fallen down in the dining room while the baby dumped crackers and crayons on the floor and my daughter collected box elder bugs outside.
And I made peach cobbler while my daughter was at flute lesson with my husband and my mom took my son to see the digger working on some part of the brand-new house that’s being built down the street. (No photo available of the cobbler. We ate it before I thought about photographing it, and I didn’t want to photograph it after we’d eaten it.)
My mom’s got two Post-Its filled with to-do and to-purchase items for tomorrow and the trunk of the car is filled with glass recycling and give-away stuff to drop off on the way to gymnastics class in the morning. Rumor has it I may own a skill saw (?) and a label maker before my mom’s visit is over. I feel considerably less trepidation about the latter than about the former. But up until now, we’ve been using a hacksaw for all cutting needs that can’t be handled by scissors or pruners, so perhaps another tool might be a reasonable idea.