Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Can our stories form a better future?

A writer of fantasy, fairy tale, or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his own knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him. I know that this is true of A Wrinkle in Time. 

- from Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Medal acceptance speech



I was reading A Wrinkle In Time to my daughter Analisa around the time of the Orlando attacks. It was one of her birthday books from her dad and me.

And now Istanbul, Dallas and Nice have followed Orlando.

The themes in Madeleine L'Engle's series strike me as appropriate as I continue to ponder with sadness and discouragement all these accumulating acts of terrible violence, and it occurred to me: how many great imaginative tales do we have from authors through the centuries that, in their own fanciful and yet startlingly clear-sighted way, encourage us as children and young adults to chase the best idea of ourselves, one that is strengthened by loyalty, hope, courage in the face of fear, and by choosing love and respect when hate is so easy, highly contagious and incredibly near, breathing down our necks in fact?

What might happen if we returned with renewed vigor to great stories and storytellers with their eternal themes of redemption, sacrifice, and love? Distracting, pointless apps, insipid cartoons and reality TV shows, and incendiary internet chatter cannot compete with what these stories offer us.

How much better could we be, I wonder, if we read these entertaining but necessary tales of good versus evil more frequently to our children - where the good, if narrowly, defeats evil precisely with the tools evil cannot comprehend or espouse: love, compassion, community, fortitude, friendship and selflessness, these lofty implements of right so contrary to the easy by-products of our own fear, ignorance and dejection.

(Survival of the kindest instead of survival of the strongest is an idea Dr. Amit Sood discusses in his book The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living as he explores the way our brains get trapped by fear, by our amygdala, in its own black holes and open files, sapping our love and contentment and forcing us always to threat assess like our prehistoric ancestors did. This undoubtedly leads to miscommunication, harsh judgments and violence, I think.)

I happen to feel that our imaginations are an incredible gift imparted to our race, and that they help us see truths about our universe that our common, impaired senses and faulty brains (just read the above mentioned work by Dr. Sood) cannot examine or elucidate fully. Some of these truths, I feel passionately, are best communicated through the epic works of fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and contemporary series like Kelven's Riddle by Daniel Hylton, my dad. I argue that these tales are meant to be told; they must be told for our good. And what a great and humbling thing it is to have such a story choose you as its storyteller!

How many nuggets of wisdom and beauty have I paused and marveled over while reading them? For instance, there is a beautiful part in the second book of L'Engle's series, A Wind in the Door, in which the cherubim character Proginoskes discusses with Meg, a teenage human girl, Namers and un-Naming and what they mean for the fate of the universe and particularly of her brother Charles Wallace:

"All I want to do," he was murmuring to himself, "is go some place quiet and recite the names of the stars..."


"Progo! You said we were Namers. I still don't know: what is a Namer?"


I've told you. A Namer has to know who people are and who they are meant to be. I don't know why I should have been shocked at finding Echthroi on your planet."


"Why are they here?"


"Echthroi are always about when there's war. They start all war."


And then later, explaining Echthroi further:

"I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming - making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn't need to hate. That's why we still need Namers..."


Un-Namers are a real thing in this world, it occurs to me, and we as a race need far more people who will Name others through acts of love, faith and encouragement. We need to name people Beloved, Worthy, Found, Redeemed, Part of God's Great Glory, United, Connected, Seen, Respected. Having Dignity and Talent. A Contributor. Teammate. 

Peacemaker.

We need more stories that model for us how to and why we must do so.

And please, please God...

...may there be an ever growing abundance of Peacemakers.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Summer's dream derailed and reclaimed (a little)


This summer has not exactly gone to plan. It started out much busier than we all would have liked, a continuation of the crazy school and sports year. And the kids got sick. Again and again. My youngest daughter is sick yet again. Because of the illness, I broke my long-standing summer rule that the kids must go outside and get exercise before any screen can be turned on. So the young ones fell into a bad habit of stumbling out of bed only to grab food to munch before one screen or another. And I fell into a bad habit of allowing it; it distracted them from their stomach virus symptoms and thus reduced whining considerably.

My eldest son reminded me of summers not so long ago, when the TV couldn't be turned on before a a certain time, when I made my kids play in the early morning sunshine after eating their breakfast at a table either within or out of doors.

He reminded me of this mainly because his younger brother adores video games, had the worst of the stomach bug and thus started playing video games at around 6 am daily. My oldest was pointing out the inequality, but it made me realize: boy, had my standards suffered!

So, after illness grew tired of toying with us, I jumped back on the better parenting bandwagon and forced all my children to play tennis and/or soccer with me in the back yard, and I got great exercise, too - was a superb role model of healthy habits, if I do say so.

We weren't quite living up to the ideal of the old, hot days. In my defense, though, there were less of them to haul outside in past summers; there was less complaining, less fussing at each other, and less resistance period.

Truly, I've tried this summer under persistently hostile circumstances that could turn Lord of the Flies at any moment!

Believe me, some days I have yearned to throw in the towel and take an eight hour nap until their father comes home, but I've done my time. I've played looooong stretches of poker with the kids during which I rejoiced with dancing, clapping and singing when my chips were finally gone. I've offered repeated games of mini pool, and then listened to my kids fight for the chance to play me first, nearly coming to blows with cue sticks and tiny, hard balls. I've read for hours and hours, and I have even forced my oldest daughter to read to me so that I could doze off and regain strength to face a few more hours of sibling warfare.

(Why don't my kids like each other? For years I made them watch all those PBS children's shows about loving your neighbor, being respectful and kind, using your creativity and helping your parents. And what did it get me? Children who fight with each other any time I force a shutdown of screens.)

Despite the initial busyness, I was grateful for my children's company after a rough first year at home with no little ones during the day. I felt like I had rediscovered my meaning in reading, playing, and laughing with them.

Then illness and infighting derailed us.

***************

I feel sorry for my city kids. I've felt this before. Earlier in the summer I was telling them about Paca's (my dad) rules for his kids about when we could start swimming in the creek (not before May) and about when we were to get out of the water for a break (when our lips turned blue). That creek was incredibly cold, but the stretch of it that ran under the culverts of Warf Road was all ours, a little slice of gurgling paradise beneath tall, broad-leaved trees. I reminisced about the rope swing, too - I miss it all still!

My kids don't have a creek or a rope swing. They don't get to run down a long lane and climb the bluff on Mr. Spann's property, or hike between his slow-moving cows to the blackberry patch. There are no nearby woods for them to explore, in which they can build forts from dead limbs or sit silently observing wildlife.

And I feel sorry for them. They don't have what I had, and I wish they did.

I tell myself that they have other things that come with being in the city - city pools with tall, twisting slides, more visits with friends, public parks, theme parks - but in my heart I think these are poor replacements for nature.

I wonder if they would agree?

Last week I took them out to recapture summer. We went to a riparian reserve in the city and saw dozens of bunnies and dragonflies, long-legged egrets and herons, and some beautiful, overgrown trees. And there was a cooling desert breeze that blessed our presence among nature's bounty.

And I saw them dig for "dinosaur bones" in a huge shaded sandbox. Even my 13 year old joined in, pitching sand over his shoulder as he cheerfully helped the little kids with their discovery. I smiled.

This is what it's all about, I thought.



Next, I'll write about how our family took a beautiful, if sometimes exasperating, hike to a lovely creek in the Arizona wilderness.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Anniversary

My husband and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We spent the evening at home over a simple meal of cheese, meat, fruit and crackers and an inexpensive bottle of champagne. We had cheesecake for dessert and watched the 1961 film The Hustler starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason on Netflix.

I was glad to be at home, but it wasn't what I thought I had wanted.

After arranging for a babysitter, I spent the days leading up to our anniversary trying to find the perfect date at the perfect location. It wasn't enough to go out for a nice dinner; what on earth would we talk about that we didn't already discuss at home? Seeing a movie was so ordinary. No, this was our 15th, and I wanted  an exciting celebration. I wanted to dance the night away. Unfortunately, the usual place wasn't open on Thursdays.

I tried to find another, even better location: a place not entirely patronized by single twenty-somethings or by pretentious party-goers who cared only about fashion and status; a venue not too dark, claustrophobic, or bizarre in its design; a DJ who would play music we might actually care to dance to. 

My husband, meanwhile, was researching other options in case dancing didn't work out. He and I got into little arguments as we searched for our celebratory place, growing more frustrated the harder we looked. It seemed neither of us really cared too much for the other's suggestions.

Slowly, as irritation mounted, I began to realize my priorities were all in the wrong place. Because it was our 15th, I didn't believe we could just dress up and have a few drinks and a steak dinner. It wasn't enough to simply be in each other's company. I wanted excitement, motion, electricity, a unique night to remember.

What snapped me out of it? The fact that my youngest daughter passed her stomach bug on to her little brother. As the day drew closer, it began to look less and less likely that the date night would happen.

Instead of feeling disappointed, I was relieved. My expectations had gotten out of hand. I was glad to be free of them, brought back to earth by children clutching their bellies and complaining of cramps. 

Ah, this is what it is all about, I thought. It wasn't about what dress I would wear with what heels, or which venue would cater to our kind of crowd, or whether or not we would eat a fancy dinner and pick up a bottle of Dom Perignon. It was about the family we had made together, and the fact that comforting our sick kiddos was more important than any night out - even on our 15th. 

I thought about my own parents and how outrageous my expectations had become in light of many of their anniversaries.

How many times as a child did I see my parents walk wearily in the front door on the summer evening of their anniversary, hot and tired from a long day working in the humid Tennessee woods! They sat in their old chairs in the living room eating a very ordinary meal, holding hands. Many years, we kids performed a sort of play or sang cute songs while wearing costumes for their amusement beneath a homemade sign that cried, "Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!"

They never complained about the meal or the entertainment all those simple years.

15 is just a number, I realized; a nice rounder one, sure - but just another step on the journey of love. Thankfully, love's journey doesn't require glitz and glamour and expensive treats. The journey is not about increasing expectations year by year. It's about recognizing and appreciating simple pleasures and blessings in your life, holding your children close while they cry or laugh, learning to place the good of those you love above your own good, and about gratitude for the years you've spent together building a family and being in community.

Just being together, it turns out, is more than enough. 

Nerdy girl and her man



Friday, May 20, 2016

Love and Oldies

Oldies music reminds me of my first true love.

My first love is also my latest love: Matthew.

We used to listen to "oldies" all the time while dating: The Guess Who, Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Mamas and the Papas, Chicago, Elvis. The oldies are even older now these more than 15 years later.

I used to sing These Eyes to him in his car or room after we got together...perhaps not the most appropriate song for a budding relationship...and he used to sing The Glory of Love to me over the phone as we managed being more than a thousand miles apart.

Maybe I find myself frequently listening to oldies again because summer is approaching, and that season most of all embodies the tone of music from a bygone, seemingly more carefree age. I associate it with our June wedding and our first months of marriage. But all this nostalgia with its back beats, harmonies, peppy tempos and teenage love homages has me thinking not just about the beginnings of love but about its evolution.

The honeymoon is never over, I believe. Rather, it's seasonal, too - a surprise vacation from the mundane, but one very hard to conjure or manipulate to your desired schedule. When it shows up fickle paradise must be recognized and embraced, clung to. You have to abandon all your hang ups and relinquish them to joy.

This bliss can be recaptured for a few moments when you spy your spouse being adorable, looking cute in his new Adidas soccer gear or realize anew that his smile as it ignites his large eyes is truly winning; it won you. Sometimes if you're lucky it shows up on your anniversary over a bottle of fine champagne. It can even show up when the kids are around, playful but skittish.

Fear never leaves love completely. It sneaks around at its vulnerable borders, a mischievous stalker ready to throw cold water over any situation. It will ruin these little returns of paradise, steal them away greedily, and chip away at trust. Fear would like you to keep your protective distance from your spouse, terrified of being hurt or lied to someday, scared stiff by stories of betrayal from friends and associates. It paints with messy, garish and broad strokes to highlight every imperfection, change and unknown variable as the years progress, as love progresses.

What, after all, is this mature love they speak of?

Sometimes you think Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' song If You Don't Know Me By Now is the most appropriate theme for your 15th anniversary... or 10th...or 20th.

Yet true love is still worth the risk and occasional heartache and irrationality. These eyes of mine still see my man and love him.

All this oldies music for me recalls an era of first dates, first kisses, first sparks, the first time we held hands while on the way to gamble at a horse racing track, and that's a bit of honeymoon recaptured.

That's the glory of love.



Thursday, May 12, 2016

Know Thyself

I don't know myself at all. Not one bit. Could somebody introduce us? I'm so elusive, so capricious.

This is a cruel discovery to be made in the middle of my life. I wish I had known it from the beginning. Not sure what I would have done with that knowledge....can be so indecisive.

It took all my precious children abandoning the home front for school and bigger adventures to wake me up in order to recognize the stranger in the mirror.

How do I not know myself? Let me count the ways.

1. I thought I wanted an immaculate house.

HA!

Turns out, no. No, I don't. Not nearly bad enough, anyway. I have more time now to pursue and maintain a well-organized and spotless home, but cleaning a house isn't fulfilling in the least. It doesn't bring joy, and, trust me, it never stays that way.

Don't get me wrong. I work hard around here. I do most of the menial jobs including taking out trash, but as my son Berto told me not long ago, "Get a life, Mom." He meant it kindly, but he most certainly did not mean that I should clean more. He was encouraging me to pursue other things entirely, because it already seems to my kids that all I do is clean, clear out and straighten up.

2. I thought I wanted peace and quiet.

Somebody rescue me....from ME!

Turns out that peace and quiet are unsuitable companions if one has a rebellious, disgruntled mind well-endowed with imagination. Peace has left the building. Quiet is a vicious, gnawing rat.

3. I thought I wanted to write a lot more.

Guess what? Shhhhhh. Come closer. Writing is work, too. And it requires you to wear your happy, industrious pants. Well, I blame peace and quiet for stealing my happy pants, so I was too petulant to write much. I barely wrote more this year at all when I think of all the opportunities I should have had if not for my bad temper.

Writing - writing anything as well as I can - gives me a high not unlike a mother feels after giving birth naturally. If I could have just pushed through, ordered my bad moods out of the way, I would have felt much better most of the time.

Will and I need to have a talk about teamwork.

But, hey, I'm writing now.

4. I thought all I wanted to do was stay home.

I have always been a homebody. I remember my sister Vinca visiting me just after I had my oldest daughter Ana. We only had one vehicle then, and if I didn't walk someplace pushing babies in a double stroller, home was sweet. Vinca asked me how I could stand it, but I had never minded.

Even while growing up, my older siblings were out working in the woods with my parents rolling grapevine wreaths, and I was home cleaning. Of course, home back then was on 98 acres of green, rolling land with woods and a creek, so it was greatly prized and smelled like honeysuckle and rich earth.

Home now is a great little place in the city with a fair backyard in which my family plays baseball and soccer games on weekends, but it is not enough anymore when my husband and children are away so much.

I am craving adventure for myself or at least new friends and more exercise. I feel left behind in a special cocoon I have made, and I want to struggle out of it. That means I have to abandon the fear that I will be spending too much money, time, or pleasure on myself. I have to convince myself that I am worth it.

But am I? Yes? Shesh, I sound like such a baby, already so blessed! Perhaps I'll just go and watch It's A Wonderful Life again.

5. I thought I wanted to pluck my eyebrows and dye my hair.

Okay, this one is trivial, but it shows I don't know my own mind even where it comes to my appearance.

I began to "shape" the eyebrows  when I was thirty-five. Now, I'm approaching thirty-seven, and I don't want to anymore. My eyebrows are somewhat unruly, artfully imperfect, but I have decided that each hair is precious. And anyhow, I hate false eyelashes and fake nails, have never yet dyed my hair - though I was tempted not long ago to abandon my lovely chestnut color to go blonde - so why train naturally errant brows?

**************************

My children have just two weeks left of school, and now that I have finally realized how aloof I am, I have so little time to try and forge an acquaintance with me. Perhaps I should make a bucket list of sorts: 10 team-building activities Hillary wants to do with herself before her children get out of school. There's still time for adventure surely.

Next year, believe me, I am going to have a game plan. I'm not going to enter into blind solitude again. I'm going to learn to flamenco dance or take guitar lessons so I can play in local coffee shops. I'm going to get involved with some creative group of people, find my fellow crazies.

And I am - I truly am - going to write a lot more. This I know for sure about myself: it would do my heart good.




Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Berto, soccer star and writer

I have felt sad now for a while and for many different reasons, some profound and some illusory.

Yes, I know that's a brilliant beginning.

At any rate last week was a rough week and so I didn't write one bit. A successful writer once said that a writer can't help but write - especially when depressed. But I find that is not so with me. I avoid it, in a slump. Perhaps the fact that I didn't have a play date with words made me sadder than I had to be, though. I think it very probable.

The definite highlight of that week was an evening spent with my son Berto, watching his school soccer game during which he scored his first goal of the season with an assist from his friend Danny. Danny was taking a penalty shot, and Berto saw an opportunity and begged, whispering and gesturing, for Danny to pass it back to him. Being a good friend and teammate, Danny did, and Berto made a beautiful shot high in the goal over the wall of opposing players.

We went out to dinner afterwards, just my son and I. Of course, it was semi-fast food, but what a treat for us to spend an evening together.

Then I had the honor of taking him to an awards ceremony for narrative, poetry and essay writing in his school district. Berto won first prize for essay in 7th grade. I was so thrilled to see his name on the first line in the program that I kept grinning and embracing him until he whispered, "Mom, I have friends here."

When he was called up to receive his ribbon, certificate, and the commemorative anthology of featured writing, I could have kicked myself for forgetting to bring a camera. (Only for the thousandth time in my life, such is my technology handicap and prejudice that I cannot even recall it's there for my use!) I hadn't even thought to ask for his Dad's smartphone, so like an un-evolved ape, I held up my son's simple phone but couldn't figure out how to snap a shot, and so had to nod my head stupidly to imply I captured the moment when in fact I caught it with nothing but my poor faulty eyes and brain. Only later did Berto explain that his basic phone was not a touchscreen.

We were going to sneak out after the essay portion since it was a school night, but I decided against it and explained to Berto that I thought we should stay to support and applaud all the writers. It gave me a thrill to see these young writers walk across the stage, to see the expression of their different personalities - some in heels with coiffed hair, some in bow ties and dress slacks, some still supporting the grunge scene, it seemed - and to hear their different writing voices.

The parents were asked to stand up at the end, so that their support and nurturing of these young creative people could be recognized. I shook my fists in the air like a prize fighter until Berto knocked them down. But, hey, even in his Mother's Day card he recognized me as his editor.



Friday, April 29, 2016

Family Reunion


We took a trip to Dallas in March, because my brother Nate was coming from England. I had yet to meet his twin baby boys, so I told my husband how strongly I felt about our family spending time with Nate's family, my sister Annie's family and my parents. I wanted Matthew to get to know Natie better, and I wanted my children to finally meet some of their cousins and to get to know cousins whom they had not seen in years.

Any time we travel to see family, I come home and mean to write about it, but then I don't. I feel incapable of writing down these memories well, and so the weeks go by.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I want to capture a portion of what our reunion meant to me, so I'm letting go of the pressure to be perfect and elegant while reminiscing.

Though we spent practically the whole time in my parents' small apartment - our whole big family packed in, drinking and eating together - very special moments happened.

* I heard Mom telling my sister-in-law Natalie about her childhood, sharing stories of time on her grandmother's farm peeling potatoes and feeding chickens, and Natalie was sitting by my mother's chair, wine glass in hand, listening intently.

* I got to change poopy diapers, rock babies to sleep, and feed them cereal for the first time in years. My brother Nate's twin boys Daniel and Antony were magnetic, sources of pretty much constant joy, entertainment, and challenges. Daniel seemed like the calmer one, but my kids swear that he stole toys and flayed his limbs just to rile his brother. Antony was a passionate and energetic little fellar who made us feel important when he begged for exercise, entertainment or consolation. My children volunteered eagerly to hold their cousins, passing them around with pride, kissing and smelling their heads (fountains of youth, Berto said). My mom soothed her grandbabies to sleep several times with a magic touch.

* My sister Annie spoiled everyone with bagels each morning like a bagel Santa Claus in scrubs, dropping boxes of exotic flavors off before beginning her busy days as an in-home-care nurse. Then most evenings ended with Annie, her husband Keith, Matthew and me sitting on her patio, laughing and sharing stories and exchanging advice.

* My brother Nate played soccer with my husband and kids on the apartment complex's tennis court. Needless to say, there were bloody injuries, and I wasn't allowed to play in my heels though I wanted to, but it was a joy to watch my husband and kids playing a competitive game with my big brother, laughing and talking smack. (Did I mention Nate lives in England? I don't get to see these games just any old year. It was like the World Cup)

* My nephew Andy and my daughter Gabriella hung out for the first time since they were babies, playing video games and eating regular meals on the patio.

* My nephew James, who has autism, sat down with and hugged my son Berto.

* My little golden-haired niece Nina played for the very first time with my own children: giggling, running and crawling on their backs, especially Berto's, and speaking with her absolutely charming British accent that my children tried in vain to imitate. Even simple phrases were special when Nina pronounced them with posh delivery!

* The grownups took turns making big family meals: delectable roast chicken, spicy, satisfying gumbo, spaghetti with meat sauce. My brother Natie was the chef more than anyone, including providing the last breakfast together before my family had to catch our flight. The prawns he sauteed one afternoon are something I won't soon forget.

* My son Berto went golfing with his dad and Uncle Nate. The pride on his face while listening to Matthew and Nate tell of how well he did as a first-time golfer, and his excitement while telling his own stories of the green, warmed my mother's heart. I saw him stow away the scorecard for a souvenir.

* Dad, aka Paca, cheered on his grandchildren as they played polar bear bowling on his computer. I'm not a fan of video games, but I was a fan of the time, guidance and regular encouragement my dad gave to his grandkids as he watched them play, showering accolades on them for guiding a chubby polar bear on an inner tube into pins. It was awesome.

* Dad gave me a few chapters of his new fantasy book to read ( send me more, please!) and discussed ideas for my own book. He also invited me with him to the store, and on the way there we had a conversation about some challenges I've been facing recently. It was a good conversation, and I have a sneaking suspicion Dad invited me to come with him just so we could have it.

* On our last day Dad played tennis with Daniel and Gabriella even though he wasn't feeling well, and the cousins blew bubbles on the court - even Berto - while Annie, Natalie and I talked one last time.

At the Dallas airport waiting for our flight later that afternoon, my oldest daughter Ana and I were bereft. I missed my brother and sisters, Mom, Dad, niece and all my nephews, but I really, really wanted more time with the babies. When we get to see my brother's twin boys again, they will probably be far from babyhood.

So Ana and I wandered around arm in arm, talking about "da Babies" as we called them. Ana said she missed her "fussy Antony". I had no favorites; I just wanted to hold each of them again!

Men can easily get over the absence of babies' company, apparently. Even though Matthew and especially Berto had held them a lot, they seemed to be alright after being torn from their presence. But our hearts were broken.

A couple of women heard Ana and I talking about the twins and caught Ana saying, "Mama, it's time to ask Papa to adopt a baby."

"Get a puppy," one of the women, dressed nicely in business attire, said to us.

"We have one!" I replied, laughing.

Much later my littlest, Daniel, told me he was praying for me to have another baby. He also had been delighted by the company of his baby cousins.

But another little one in our family? "It would be a miracle," I told him.