Thursday, December 31, 2009

Inward, Upward and Forward: My Year in Review and My Upcoming Hopes

I am looking forward to the next year for the simple reason that I illogically like years and days that end in even numbers better than I like years and days that end in odd numbers. This is why we were married on the 24th of October, and not the infinitely easier to schedule 25th (which fell on a Saturday). And 2010 has such a great ring to it, no? Twenty ten. Twenty-ten is so very Hollywood-sounding, so modern, so shiny and new. Not everyone is drinking the year-naming Kool-aid: My friend Erin is going with Two-Zilch-One-Zip. That just rolls off the tongue, no?

For some reason, despite all the of media coverage and endless “best of the decade” lists, it didn’t really hit me until last week that we are ending one decade and beginning a new one. Surreal. The 00s or aughts or whatever we as country never really named it is coming to an end. It was a sweeping, epic decade for me: I quit drinking and quit smoking and got married and went through infertility and miscarriages and had twins and got two Masters degrees. I was given a niece and a nephew, and through Nicole another three. I learned more than I can possible recount in this post without boring readers to tears. And I achieved a happiness and a content-ness that I never knew was possible. Bottom line: This decade I have settled down without settling, which is a very good thing.

And while this may not have been the most momentous of years, it was quite good. Without further ado, here is my annual wrap-up post:

Inchoate Personal Philosophy, Part One: Random acts of kindness need not be sanctioned or ordered by others. I have officially retired the phrases “Let me know if you need anything” and its partner “let me know if there is something I can do” and instead will just do something. Anything. Because more often than not, people are not good delegators, and the smallest of tangible gestures — especially in times of need — are appreciated much more than my sentences filled with promises of gestures that I have every intention of delivering on, but then don’t.

Inchoate Personal Philosophy, Part Two: Nothing permanently bad can happen to us. There can be nothing but an eventual happy ending, even if we have to walk through fire to get there. Believe me, I can worry and fret with the best of them, and this year I spent my fair share of time in a fugue of what ifs. However, I started asking myself, what is the WORST that could happen? As long as my family is healthy and safe, there is nothing we can’t get through. This was put to the test this year, as the economy spent another year on the down side and there was always that underlying threat of, will Nicole lose her job at a major bank? You know, those banks that were too big to fail, but kinda did anyway? Will she be layed off, like millions of other people? She did indeed make it through all those rounds of layoffs. Yet how many days did I waste in a panic state, borrowing worry for no reason at all? So now, when worry creeps in, I determine the worst case scenario and figure out how we will survive it. It brings me instant ease. These days, I stress more about the micro issues (What will we have for dinner? Did Maddie’s tick bite turn into Lyme disease?) then I do about the macro (Where will the girls go to Kindergarten? What if Nicole loses her job? Where will we be in sixteen years?). One day at a time and all that.

Most Illegal New Habit: I have become a shoplifter, of the accidental variety. Navigating my giant stroller through the stores while trying to keep the girls’ hands off of everything and still managing to pick up everything on my list proves to be challenging. I am always stuffing food into the canvas bags I bring and on the stroller top and in the basket under the stroller. Sometimes I let the girls hold things because I will do whatever it takes to keep them calm and occupied in public. They need to hold a gallon of milk? Be my guest. Checking out becomes chaos and occasionally I forget that Avery has a giant box of Cheerios on her lap. Or that a $20 package of chicken is laying across the top of the stroller. And the best part is, the cashier never seem to notice either. She lets me shuffle off without so much of peep to me. Before anyone starts calling authorities, I do indeed go back and return what my children steal. 99 percent of the time. The funny thing is when I do go back, the cashiers are always like “Dude, why did you come back to pay?” I guess accidental shoplifting is one proven way to keep grocery costs down.

Best Lesson Learned From a Children’s Show: This important lesson is brought to me by Yo Gabba Gabba: “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Now you have patience.” In some of those moments when I feel like a women on the verge, I do just that, and it works. But let’s be clear: I spend much more of my time in an impatient state and many times I am too impatient to practice what I am preaching here. That’s something I need to continue working on.

Things I Am Happy To Leave Behind: Bye-bye recession, hellooooo slow economic recovery. Also, I am happy to have a particularly bad week in August waaaaay behind me. And a fond farewell to the two giant and painful cold sores that adorned my upper lip this past year for a couple of weeks. I have never in my life had such bad sores. I looked like a bad Botox victim.

Double Indemnity: Speaking of that awful August week, I have finally figured out that I can’t try people for the same crime over and over and over and over again. That, I guess, is the cornerstone of a hard, unforgiving attitude. And I am oh so good at it. I don’t know why this is just occurring to me now, but I can say, definitively, ok, universe, I hear you. Message received, loud and finally clear. Now I need to work on moving on (aka, forgiveness, which I can admit is very hard for me) and leaving past transgressions in the past; to not be shocked at present transgressions, and to fully anticipate future transgressions. There is too much good out there to waste time on the bad.

Biggest Holy Crap Moment: We bought a house in Northampton. This house, which we looked at years ago, before the girls were around, was fated to be ours. And yet another lesson on the positive side effects of patience. Now, every Friday night after Nicole gets home from work, we pack up the car and our fun little dinner canteen with four individual dinners (I hate fast food, so stopping on the road at a random drive-thru isn’t really an option) and head two-and-a-half hours north for the weekend. After 20 years in the city, I am finding my country-side. Our lives now are a study in opposites: The loud, fast-paced city during the week and the quiet, slow-paced country on weekends. It is awesome. The girls love it, too. And it may include bears in the spring and summer!

My Family, Government Approved: After a long and sometimes annoying and very expensive process, Nicole officially adopted the girls. She is legally their mother, in the prying eyes of Big Brother (though, let the record reflect, I am grateful that I can make catty comments about my government without being jailed. Go America!). It took the government years, lots of red tape, and all that money to acknowledge what we already knew. But I am going to try not be bitter and instead focus on the positive: No one can take the girls away from Nicole. And her name will be on their birth certificate. Take that, people who hate my family.

I Never Thought It Would Happen, Part 1: I am losing a taste for chicken. And keep in mind that chicken is the only meat I eat. That means my food choices, already limited by my extremely unforgiving palate, are going to be further reduced. I don’t know why this is happening. Take tonight: I made chicken parm and spaghetti for Nicole and the girls, but I roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions and put those on bread, then added cheese and broiled it, because I didn’t feel like eating chicken. Nicole says I will be completely vegetarian within a few years. That may be true. What I do know for certain: I will never in a millions years be able to go vegan. I love cheese and pizza too much, and will accept no substitute.

I Never Thought It Would Happen, Part 2: I have begun reading books electronically. I swore I never would. But what do I know? I also said the internet would never take off and in college I wrote a review of an early No Doubt album with the headline “There’s No Doubt They Lack Talent.” I can read so much more and so much more effectively with the Kindle. So when I am summoned to watch an episode of Sesame Street sandwiched between my two toddlers, I can be reading my book too. Sorry, Big Bird, but you lost your luster years ago.

Best Movie: I haven’t seen too many movies in the theater this year, but my favorite was Precious, by far. Up in the Air was worth seeing too, even though I have strong memories of getting popcorn sick after that movie. And there is a special place in my heart for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which earned the honor of being the girls’ first in-theater movie. (the book is much better, naturally).

Best Movie I Didn’t See But Will on DVD: I am a sucker for feel-good movies like The Blindside and for documentaries like The Cove. Both of those are on my short list.

Most Watched DVDs: Curious George movie; Elmo in Grouchland; Elmo’s Potty Time. I did manage to slip in Love, Actually on Christmas Eve.

Best Books: Grand total read: 27. But I also read a lot of samples through Kindle, which I ended up not downloading. Right there, the Kindle proves its worthiness: Under previous circumstances I would have bought the book and started to red it and tossed it aside if I didn’t capture my attention. Lit by Mary Karr was by far the best biography I read (sorry Melissa Gilbert and Tori Spelling, but Karr defined this genre, so it stands to reason her third book beat yours by a landslide). The Hunger Games was compulsively readable and completely unlike any book I usually read, and so is the sequel. Cutting for Stone was sweeping and epic. The Phsyick Book of Deliverance Dane was page-turner. I was lucky with my picks: I pretty much enjoyed almost every book I read this year, with the exception of two. I would so love to join a book club.

Biggest Musical Surprise: So I like Taylor Swift. And after watching the Curious George movie approximately 175 times I came to enjoy Jack Johnson. I also liked Rob Thomas’ new album. However, this year proved one again that I am a musical creature of habit, and will listen to Patty Griffin an Erasure and 80s music and Melissa Etheridge and Pink and my other traditional and not-so-traditional favorites over and over and over again. I did one six-mile run listening to NIN’s “Head Like a Hole” on repeat and another one listening to Dido’s “Here With Me.” And yet another study I contrasts.

Most Listened to CD: Carrie Underwood’s Carnival Ride, for the second year in a row. The girls love this CD, as we have been playing it since they were born. They even ask for it by name. Needless to say I am beyond sick of it. And yet, Nicole and I are going to see Carrie live in March!

Healthiest Habit: My morning breakfast smoothies, which I started in August, inspired by my friend-of-two-decades Molly. This new breakfst instantly ended my an awful cycle of not really eating breakfast or wondering every day what to eat. I blend fresh and frozen fruit, milk, Chia seeds and the magically delicious Amazing Grass green powder. It really starts my day off well and it totally fills me up. And I kicked my coffee creamer habit: Sadly, no more of the delicious (but fake) vanilla creamers for me. I switched back to milk in my coffee. It only took a couple weeks to re-acclimiate my taste buds to just milk. But it was tough. I also cut my coffee consumption from, oh, six or so cups to just two a day. But I seem to cycle with this: I will go through low coffee periods and then I will experience months of high volume coffee drinking.

Running up That Hill, Still: I continued running, upping my average from four miles a day to six miles a day, six days a week. I did a 5K in Northampton on a chilly winter morning, too, which is kinda a big deal for me as I am an indoor treadmill runner and not used to the hills and hard pavement and vehicular traffic.

Unhealthiest Habit: I am still not drinking nearly as much water as I should be. I neglect going to the dentist this year. And I could be better about using sunblock. There’s more, but I am trying not to dwell in the negative.

The Year of New Electronics: We acquired an alarming array of new electronics this year. Most were gifts: A GPS for Valentines Day (bye, Mapquest); a new computer for our anniversary (bye, creepy gray sick Mac screen); and a Kindle for my birthday (bye, books as we know them). My brother gave us a Blu Ray player (which, thank goodness, will also play our DVDs). My mom gave use a digital indoor/outdoor thermometer (so fun!). And then there is the iPhone. I love it more than I ever thought I could.

Brush with Fame: Madonna thanked me; Angela Landsbury breezed past me in Whole Foods; Jane Fonda hugged me.

Favorite TV Show: Mad Men, The Office and Survivor were on my Tivo list. The girls are enjoying Sesame Street, Curious George and Yo Gabba Gabba. Oh, and Spongebob, much to my chagrin.

What I am Grateful For: Nicole, Madeline and Avery, which I am sure goes without saying. But it is nice to writ it down every once in a while to remind myself about what really matters. Not to get too new age-y, Indigo Girls-y or anything, but I think family is fate. Every big and little decision and important and random event in my life lead to us. I am lucky and happy where I landed.

What I am Grateful For, Part Two: I wouldn’t be able to get through life without my friends. To wit: Today I received an email from a friend with this message: “I am here for you. I love you.” Which is exactly what ones needs to hear (and feel) from friends. There are some friends I speak with every day, and there are others who I check in with less regularly. But I feel grateful to have reached the point with some friendships when you know, no matter what, they are there. I’ll be the first to admit that I am needy and require a lot of attention and can be easily hurt, but the good news is, I understand that about myself now and I get over perceived slights lightening quick.

Relationship Lo-lights: Date night? Alone time together? What alone time together? Nicole and I spent a pitiful amount of time alone. Sure, once the girls go to bed around 7, it is just us. But that is not the same as spending time together out, doing something, creating new experiences. And besides, we both use that time to unwind and read and take baths and teach online classes and relax. All before our crazy early bedtime, like 8:30 for Nicole, and usually around 9:00 for me. However, I do read usually till ten. And my alarm goes off at 4:20 so I can go to the gym, so there is a reason why I am in bed so early. Still, we need to find a way to connect more regularly as a couple and create those aforementioned new experiences. Alone.

When Did They Become These People?: The girls are little walking, talking, thinking beings. They use complete sentences. They say thank you and please. Avery is a mushy, loving, cuddler, who lays her head on our shoulders and asks to be tucked in. When Maddie cries, she hugs her and comforts her, patting her back and saying “It’s ok, Maddie.” She can whistle, and does often. She loves to wear stretch pants and pajamas. She insists on helping pick out her outfits each day, which leads to some pretty interesting outfits: In other words, outfits that make me cringe. She loves to dance around and is starting to sing: Just yesterday she sang the entire Twinkle Twinkle song! And she has the best laugh. Madeline is so independent in so many ways. She is easy going and very go-with-the-flow. She loves sets of things: A pack of cards or a stack of puzzle pieces. She can stack blocks about 20 high. She knows her alphabet and numbers to 20 in English and to ten in Spanish. Her good moods are infectious: Seeing her happy is just contagious. And she has the best smile, the kind that lights up her entire face.

Just So You Know, It Isn’t All Sweetness and Light: The girls ARE two and a half, after all. Avery has learned how to whine. Where? I have no idea. But she can whine with the best of them. And when Maddie gets mad, watch out. She has this cry/screech that hurts my ears. And both will fight over the same stupid toys. A random toy will sit in the middle of the living room for an hour but as soon as Maddie decides to touch it, Avery is screaming MINE. And vice versa. I do feel that a lot of the power struggles between them and me lies in communication issues. After all, they can’t quite express themselves fully yet. So I am white-knuckling it through the rough spots and hoping for even keel soon.

Aging is Just Great, Isn’t It?: 
I suffered a nasty ankle sprain in July. Thank goodness I had a few leftover Percoset, the wonderful masker-of-pain. I had to follow up on my enlarged thyroid, which, of course, had me worried about the big C word. And then there is the little issue of my heart beating irregularly, which could lead to a pacemaker in my future. Nice.
Future Medical News, Perhaps?: I signed up to be a bone marrow donor, prompted by a post Unwellness wrote in the late fall. My cheeks have been swabbed and my DNA is in the system. This means I could get a call that I am match tomorrow, or I could get a call never. I had thought about doing this for years, but always had this worry, what if I died while under anesthesia? I thought about it and realized that I have not heard one story about people who have died donating marrow. And I am pretty sure the media would be all over that story, if it were common.

And Even More Medical Lessons: When you doctor tells you don’t in any circumstances stop taking Lexapro cold turkey, she means it. I tried and it was awful. Silly me, thinking I knew what I was doing.

Reunited and it Feels So Good: I was reunited with my childhood nanny, which turned me in a blubbering idiot. When I saw her a cascade of randomly strung together memories fell out of my mouth: “And I remember your hands always smelled like Vaseline. And you had croutons in Tupperware. And that macramé you had all over the house. And your giant boat of a Cadillac. And your dog Taffy. And how you touched my check in such a loving way. And how you let me open your junk mail, which I didn’t realize was junk mail.” I wish so badly that she lived near me now because I want her back for my own kids. I didn’t realize how important she was to me and what a part of my childhood she was till I saw her again. I was also reunited via Facebook with my middle years summer nanny. She was this hot-to-trot tanned, blonde California girl in short shorts and tube tops who I idolized as a child. She was so creative and caring and loved to write. She would take me on walks to a local pond where we would both bring notebooks and just write. And such my love of writing (and career path) was born. She taught me the sign language alphabet, which I did indeed use once in my life to communicate with a deaf person who needed help registering to vote. She was so patient and kind and loving. Funny how we overlook the role models right in front of us sometimes because we are too busy lamenting how someone isn’t being a role model. I am happy to have renewed contact with both.
Looking Inward: I had a particularly rough week in August (see the secret blog entries for a recap). But there was a silver lining to that awful week. I reached a turning point, a rock bottom and a realization all at once. There was no where to go but up. And slightly away. Just goes to show that good things can come from bad.

Looking Upward: Hello, burgeoning faith. I thought religion was like ice skating or golf and new languages: Unless you start at a very young age, you can’t turn pro. It’s not that I am a Godless person, or ever was, but I lacked a religious foundation and upbringing. I found that I must create one myself, and that I *can*create one myself. So faith and me and religion are not a lost cause. This past year, something clicked in me: Something I can’t quite explain yet, but this feeling, this belief, this undeniable knowledge that random luck is not soley responsible for the good things in my life. Call it God or karma or the Universe or whatever: But there is a force, even if it is just the force of forward motion. And that bad things are not just a scattershot from an ill will gun. I spent the fertility years thinking how terrible life was, how unlucky I was. But, looking back, I was fortunate then, too: Fortunate to have Nicole and a relationship that was able to survive that stress; fortunate to realize that we can survive tough times and come out the other end; fortunate to have friends who carried me through that awfulness; fortunate to have discovered a community online that I still rely on and turn to. There is always a thread of a silver lining, and sometimes it can’t be untangled until way after the fact.

Looking Forward: I am not really a hard-core resolutionist, but this is what I want to see happen in 2010:

• I miss my memory-book creating days. Before the girls were born, I used to create something akin to scrapbooks. Well, they are more like captioned photo albums. But I loved doing them, and loved looking back on them. This year, I want to start them again.

• I want to run a 10K and maybe a 15K. And if I win the NYC Marathon Lottery in March, I may undertake training for a marathon. The chances of my winning are very slim. But who knows? I am letting fate decide if this is the year I try to run (...and walk....) a marathon.

• I want to continue phasing out processed foods from my diet and the girls’ diet. And drink more tea, because, apparently, this is good for you.

• I want to learn, really learn, the fundamentals of good photography. Each week, I want to focus on a new topic and then use my friend Google to research, read, review and learn. I think I may have roped a friend in on this too. Who needs fancy photography school? Everything we need to know is out there already.

• Nicole and I will be doing our annual first week cleanse diet. Nothing but brown rice and veggies and fruit smoothies, oh my. I think we usually make it five days. But I love the routine of it.

• The other stuff, I will figure out as I go along.

As I teach my students in one of my online classes, big goals need to be broken down into smaller, attainable goals. And steps need to be taken every day to reach said goal. So that is exactly what I will be doing these first few weeks: Figuring out how and when are why and all those other logistics.

And now begins the… Twenty Teens? The Teens? And it kinda blows my mind that in another decade, we will be saying the 20s. Cliché as it is, I must point of that time flies at an alarming rate, and I am sad that these moments are passing by. Each one spent angry or bitter or hard will be one I regret on my deathbed.

On that morbid note, Happy New Year to all of you! Enjoy the night, and the champagne, if you can! I am pretty sure this year, like the recent past ones, we will be ringing in the New Year sound asleep. And that is just fine with me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Important Days; Important Outfit Selections

Today we head downtown to court and take the final step in this long, expensive and somewhat arduous process of second-parent adoption. That means, as of around 3:00 p.m. today, in the eyes of the state and the country, Nicole will officially be considered Avery and Madeline’s mother. Which is ridiculous, since she has been their mother from the get-go. However, I do understand why this is emotionally significant for Nicole, and definitely important should I meet an untimely demise and if bitter people contested my will and demanded to have custody of the girls, so in the end, all of the flaming hoops we had to hop through are worth it.

I had it in my head that I must buy a camel-colored pencil skirt and camel-colored sweater for this all-important adoption day. Surely that is what people wear to adoptions. Or perhaps, this is what people wore to adoptions in the 50s. I then ping-ponged through a selection of similar type outfits, all in monotone colors and all a bit on the conservative side. If I am going to be in a judge’s chambers, I want to look upstanding and muted. I settled on gray pants and a pink turtleneck sweater. I showed the girls my outfit and Avery protested: “No, those are Mommy’s pants! Mommy’s work pants!” Indeed my outfit choice is much more aligned with what Nicole wears. I am the skirt/dress wearing mother. But today I just felt like wearing pants. I find it surreal that at just two-and-a-half years old, Avery is already picking up on details like that.

I will also be wearing a lot of green. Right about now I am regretting using green food dye when I was making Christmas ornaments the other day. My fingers are still stained and nothing will get this ink out. I guess my red nails and green skin look a little festive, at least.

The organizer/planner in me is a little annoyed that this adoption appointment is smack dab in the middle of naptime. Let’s hope that napless toddlers plus new environment does not equal complete chaos.

Thanks so much for your tradition ideas, and keep them coming, if you have them! Already I am working on weaving in so many of the ideas I have read. I love the Christmas pajamas hanging on the door on Christmas Eve!

Avery is really embracing Cause-Cause. (Santa Claus, Avery style). She grasps the all-important concept that he will bring presents and eave them under her Christmas tree. She has asked for a teddy bear. Madeline enjoys ho-ho-ho-ing. She speaks of Santa as well, but says little of what Santa can do for her. Avery continues to be the big taker of the two of them. I am fine with that, as long as Madeline’s speech isn’t considered delayed. Just when that panic starts to creep up she will say something like “no touching my ear, Momma” and then I feel like all is well. (She has a boo-boo in her ear and does not like me to inspect it).

Less than ten days till Christmas!

Pictured above, they love love love the snow. They had so much fun in it last weekend. After an hour we managed to tempt Avery inside with the promise of a handful of chocolate chips. Madeline came in, literally, kicking and screaming. We don’t have sleds yet, so they got on their tummies and slid down mini hills in their snowsuits. Clever girls! That picture of Madeline protecting her boo-boo ear cracks me up.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I Ain't Too Proud To Beg (For Your Favorite Traditions)

Thanks for indulging my trenchant observations on religious journeys and God and faith. I appreciate all of the comments and emails. I love hearing your stories, and learning about where your faith — or lack thereof —comes from (both are fine in my book) and what faith means to you. For me, now, believing there is something out there brings me a sense of peace and comfort in a way it never has before. Thinking there is a some sort of force or spirit or guiding light makes life’s difficult moments easier to get through. And it is nice to have an extra recipient of thanks for the good. At the very least, faith provides practice with giving thanks and asking for help. Who couldn’t benefit from that? And I have a feeling that strength, patience and faith — my personal trinity of trouble spots — can all be cultivated through and with and during this sort of journey. The funny thing is I thought that I gave up on any sort of spiritual journey and it turns out I never even started.

But now, more on some of my personal gods on earth. This is why I love Mary Karr and her new book, Lit: “Joy, it is, which I have never know before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing because its focus exists outside the self — delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving.” What a great comparison of three seemingly similar emotions. Isn’t that something to strive for? To feel that sort of joy? Not just satisfaction and not just contentness. Nor just pleasure and excitement. But pure joy. Lately (and over the years) I feel like I have had little pockets of that sort of joy. And I ride that little wave as it crescendos and crests and then pounds back down to reality. I am not sure it is possible, without major drugs, to live in a state of extended joy. But those pockets, when everything feels so right, feel so good.

I am not above trying to create such joyous moments either. Manufactured joy might lack the genuiness of spontaneous joy but I will take and make what I can get. This is where I need YOUR help (and you get a special pat on the back if you can say that like Dora the Explorer). I love the idea of creating special traditions, and I am not above stealing yours. Here are a few that I have read about already and plan on stealing and incorporating into my life (or already have):

• I read somewhere about leaving a trail of glitter by a window to indicate that the tooth fairy came. How perfect is that? Of course the Tooth Fairy leaves a glitter trail!

• A friend emailed me a great idea: Leave carrots out in the snow (or, on the chance that it is not a White Christmas after all, on the bitterly cold earth). After the kids go to sleep, chomp them into bits and scatter them around to make it look like the messy reindeer indulged. That is a nice add-on to the tried-and-true cookies for Santa routine.

Carey wrote about keeping Christmas presents at a sane level by buying kids something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. Four gifts, (plus stocking stuffers) seems rational, as my first inclination is to go crazy and spoil the girls with tons of presents. That said, we have been pretty low key about gifts for them around here and encourage relatives to wrap up recycled toys of their own children as presents.

• Nicole and I go to this place on the eve of Christmas eve every year. We have been doing it for 7 years now. It just isn’t the Christmas season without our annual farmhouse mac and cheese and chicken and leek pot pies.

So help a girl out and tell me some of your favorite traditions that I can weave into my own life!

Pictured above: Nicole and the girls bird-watching. Avery is quite the pro at using her “noculars,” just like Mommy. Also pictured, speaking of eyewear, have you been to Sunglass Hut lately? I swear they are not paying me to say this but they have this great new system set up where you can try on glasses and then email the photo to friends or post it to Facebook! How great is that? Also, it really helps to look at the pictures to determine what looks good on you and what looks ridiculous. I liked these glasses, but balked at their almost $400 price tag. I ended up with a pair of Ray-Bans that I love. Of course it is rainy all day so I won’t be going outside and wearing them. And finally, Annie and I at the Northampton Hot Chocolate 5K. I surprised myself by running the whole race without taking a single break! It was freeeeezing! And I experienced one of those little moments of joy when, as Annie and I walked together after the race, I saw Nicole slowly making her way toward us with a bundled-up girl holding each hand. Endorphin rush plus good friend plus wife and kids plus hot cocoa in a mug warming my hand equals mini moment

Monday, December 07, 2009

Let’s Talk About God and Jesus and Religion and Me, Shall We?

I am no Jesus expert, but I bet if Jesus had a choice, he would rather be associated with the American/Canadian holiday of Thanksgiving and not Christmas. Even the most faithless and heart-hardened of people will start at least one sentence with “I am thankful for…” on that day. But Christmas is all about Santa Claus and presents and Christmas trees and little penguins and polar bears with pom-pom hats on and, in certain parts of the world, apparently, figgy pudding. Doesn’t exactly scream “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” to me. Poor Jesus, he gets lost in the commercial-y, tinsel-y shuffle.

Maybe it is the time of year and the crèches I see springing up in front of churches in the starting-to-look-a lot-like-Christmas land of Massachusetts, but I have been thinking a lot about God and Jesus and religion these days. It is an understatement to say that I was not raised in a religious family. In fact, I was (am) so uncertain of my religious roots that I would frequently ask “Wait…are we Protestant or Lutheran?” I am pretty sure I got a different answer each time I asked. And I am still not sure: My grandparents’ funerals were in an Episcopal church. What? I was never baptized, which is something that bothers me to this day. I am so shaky on some of the basic tenets of religious study that it is embarrassing. Who was John the Baptist and why are there so many churches named after him? What are the differences among the major religions? And what is the deal with the Holy Spirit anyway?

I have wispy memories of going to Sunday school as a child. But all I can conjure up are piecemeal memories of little paper Peanuts cups filled with sickenly sweet Juicy Juice fruit punch and store-bought cookies in earnest arrays on paper plates with paper doilies. While the adults were upstairs robotically singing hymns and dozing through sermons, we were downstairs coloring pictures of Jesus in his trademark pose: Serene smile and arms spread out, with animals and children at his sandaled feet. In the spring we would run around in the cemetery. I can still see those yellow and purple crocuses peeking out of the season’s last remnants of snow; such tenuos life amongst so much death. But this plus singing “Jesus loves me, this I know, cuz the Bible tells me so” does not a believer make. And I don’t think that was the purpose of Sunday school anyway: I am pretty certain my parents (who did not attend church) used Sunday school as a free babysitting service once a week and not as a place to build a religious foundation.

Most of my friends growing up were Catholic, and I was jealous of that. As a person who loves rituals and routines, I longed for — and still do — the weekly church visits, the stand-kneel-sit-kneel-make-the-sign-of-the-cross directives and the Midnight masses on Christmas Eve. There was an invisible thread that connected them. I wanted to be on the inside jokes of religion; to be allowed to complain about how I have to go to Mass on Wednesday night; to talk about how awful a certain sermon was. To be able to talk about God and say “Thank God” and “bless you” after someone sneezes and not seem like such an imposter. I would go to church with my friends and go through the motions and even take communion (which apparently is not allowed?) and think “I can be a part of this!” I was the religious equivilant of a garish American in Paris, wearing a beret and nibbling a croissant and smoking Gauloises cigarettes (inhaling the French way, of course) and talking Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and thinking “Wow! I really blend!” A part of me felt like people could see right through me and I stuck out like a sore thumb.

In college, I took a course on Christianity. I thought this would be a piece-of-cake class; a guanrenteed A. I finished the two-hour final exam in twenty minutes, and not in a good way. I left the essays blank and guessed on the multiple choice. By the end of the test, I wasn’t even reading the questions; just coloring in random letters on my bubble sheet and praying (ha!) for the best. Surely God would help me with this? I did not study for it and barely paid attention in class and rather cockily assumed that I would somehow just know everything. I think I expected the fill-in-the-blank portions of the test to be questions like “______ is the son of God” and “Dead people dressed in white with wings and carrying harps are called ______.” After the final, as fear of failure (and existential religious doubts) started to seed itself and sprout like a weed, I went back to my room and drank a 40 ouncer or two of Olde English (that extra “e” at the end of “old” is how you know it’s old) and ate a packed of string licorice, followed by vegetable tempura for dinner and an Erasure dance party in my room. I don’t think I need to go into details on how that evening ended. Where was God when I needed Him? Certainly not helping me avoid that awful hangover or pass that test.

When I am the beneficiary of something miraculous (blessed? So many concepts have a reliogious word and a sanitized word to describe them), like the birth of two healthy girls after a long road of trying, or the beneficiary of something amazing, like a vacation home in Massachusetts, I want to get down on my knees and thank God. I want to think He is responsible for it for all the good that comes to me. But if I give him praise for the good, then I also have to blame him for the bad, right? Is that not the old-as-the-ages question? Is the God who orchestrated my miracle babies also the God who presided over my miscarriages? “I damn you to three dead babies [insert gavel pound sound and lightning strike].” What kind of God would do that? On a less self-centered angle, what kind of God would let a billion people starve to death every year? Was God on vacation when millions of Jews were killed during the Halocaust in the most atrocious ways for believing in Him in their own way? These are the things I have a hard time reconciling in my head. It is easier to assume that my girls the results of an expensive boxful of drugs and intramuscular injections and a team of extremely capable doctors. And my vacation home is a tangible representation of Nicole’s hard work and not God’s handiwork.

That said, I am not God-less. I am not atheist. I don’t believe in nothing. The only proof I have for the doubters of my personal version of faith: My email password is a message to God (and, no, I can’t share it, since that would obviously render my email account vulnerable). But I am also not a follower of organized religion. There is not some neat slot for people like me. I feel like a poser among the faithful and an outcast among atheists. I can see both sides, but my views rest somewhere squarely in the middle. I think God is good God. I don’t think he hates me because I am married to a woman. I don’t think he gave me miscarriages to punish me for some transgression, minor or otherwise. He forgives and forgets. I don’t believe in the devil, but I believe in devilish qualities, like greed and selfishness and self-centeredness. And I don’t believe in every word of the Bible because it is in my nature to question everything I read. My friends and I sometimes have a hard time piecing together stories that took place twenty years ago. I can’t remember the name of the main character of the 700 page book I read a month ago. Believing every word of stories written thousand of years ago? Hard to believe there isn’t even a modicum of artistic license/hyperbole going on there. I’d like to think if the Bible were rewritten now, it might include passages that support gay marriage. Just like if the Constitution were written now, there might be some more parameters about the right to bear arms. Alas, both are open to interpretation, which, unfortunaletly. Usually leads to death, destruction and war. Not very God-like.

But while I don’t subscribe to any one organized religion, I like to take comfort in the some of their slogan messages and cliches: That God won’t give me anything I can’t handle and that I am never alone and that I can let go and let God and that He is everywhere. In the details, indeed. That Footprints in the sand story brings a tear to me eye every time. I like to think I can pray to God to help find the answer to a perplexing problem. After all, isn’t praying just deep thinking? I like to think there is a pre-determined framework for my life; that there is a plan for me; that my life isn’t just a random string of events. That I am exactly where I am supposed to me. That Nicole and Madeline and Avery were destined to be mine. That my friends are my friends for a reason. That I am here for a reason. Isn’t is comforting to think there is a plan? Isn’t it comforting to think there is something behind it all? How great if we all could believe in a force completely, the way a child believes so fully in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. Even if we die and there is nothing there, what harm does it do to spend our lives surrounded by a benevolent force? Even if it is just a farce? Believing in something doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend a life.

And I think Jesus was really cool. My friend Jen was telling me how she describes Jesus to her kids, and it is a beautiful image. He was a man who loved and forgave and tried, even when people hated him, didn’t believe in him and, in the end, killed him. Now that is a good person. There is a cold woman who lives in my building who refuses to say hello to me and everyone else, and when I see her I am filled with mean thoughts of “I hate you!” OK, maybe “hate” is overstating the case, but I think we can agree that Jesus and I wouldn’t have the same thoughts here. I match her scowl with my very own and turn away from her the way she turns away from me. Not very Jesus-like of me.

Jesus seemed easy-going and so very Zen and not terribly preachy, even though he was a preacher. What a skill that is! If he were alive today, he would be the guy friend who would insist on coming over to my house when I had a bad day and cheer me up with a pint of Haagen Dazs and a bag of Herrs Sourdough pretzel nuggets (feel free to amend this image with your own treats). He would watch a cheesy Lifetime movie with me and after the movie and salty/sweet snack, he would reassure me and tell me that it will all be ok. But I don’t pray to Jesus, and I don’t know why. I pray to God. But the idea of Jesus makes it a little easier for me to feel God.

Praying does not come easily to me. When I pray, I feel like a mic-less background chorus voice on the giant Metropolitan Opera stage. Does He even hear me? Does it matter? I feel silly sometimes, talking to someone who may or may not be listening. I feel like it is too selfish to pray for myself. And yet, when I have gone through difficult times and my friends tell me they are saying a prayer for me (my friend Jen and her toddler twins would every night), I am filled with such hope and honor and sereneness and gratitude. When random strangers smile and say “God bless” to my children on the street, I say “thank you” and mean it. When I was going through infertility and miscarriages, I prayed for strength, patience and faith. And that, if you look carefully, is in order of easiest to hardest for me. Strength, yes: I can be strong, physically and emotionally, mainly through my ability to live in denial. Patient: Ehh. I have never been one to wait my turn. I even have a hard time waiting the one minute for my Airborn tablet to fizz up in my water. And faith? I have been let down and knocked down enough in my life to make believing in things I can’t see a tad difficult. So I prayed to God and asked for those three things and not for a baby. And in the end, I got two babies. How can that not be an answered prayer? Regardless of whether or not there is a God, that is indeed an answered prayer.

I am reading Mary Karr’s latest biographical masterpiece (she is amazing), called Lit. When I was getting my hair cut recently, I tore through about 15 magazines. I can’t remember which one I read it in but there was this Mary Karr quote about how a friend challenged her to pray every day for a month, guaranteeing it would change her life. She thought it was ridiculous. But she did it….and it did. I am hoping she touches on that in this book.

Religion is not just about my personal quest/satisfaction/curiosity anymore. I want to raise my girls with some sort of religious foundation. I want them to grow up appreciating the views of different faiths and, when they are old enough, decide for themselves whether they want to formally declare themselves a part of a certain religious family. Or not. I want them to know that Santa isn’t the only reason for Christmas. And not just know that, but also feel it. I want them to adhere to the fine print of most religious groups: Do unto others… and love your fellow man… and judge not. Share. Love. Give. Forgive. Repeat.

But, as I said to a friend recently, this will be a challenge. It is like saying I want my girls to grow up and love eating sushi, but I never take them out to Japanese restaurants while they are growing up. It isn’t going to happen organically. How are we going to do this? Nicole is a lapsed Catholic and I am ignorant Protestant/Lutheran/Episcopalian whose personal religion fits into no category. Nicole does nurture a very academic interest in God and Jesus and religion and religious studies. There is always a nonfiction book about religion on her nightstand and she listens to the NPR religion podcasts. She has more religious morals than almost anyone I know. And yet together we have not figured out a plan. We don’t go to church, since we aren’t a card-carrying member of any religious group and also, if I am being truthful, because trying to wedge in a few hours of group worship each Sunday seems impossible. But even though I don’t want to sacrifice our precious weekend time for that doesn't not make my commitment to God and religion and a growing faith any less. I can find my God where I want.

My religious education, which never quite got off the ground as a child, is starting to take flight now. As I said earlier, I think about God and Jesus and religion a lot now. I am trying to figure out how I can be baptized and not be a member of a particular church. I am trying to figure out how I can be a part of some religious community. I am trying to figure out who God is to me. Is He the first responder? Or last resort? Or everything in between? One thing I DO have figured out: He is something to me. And right now, that is all I need.

There. I feel better getting this all out.

And if you need any proof that there IS a God: My children slept to an improbable 9:00 a.m. today, which gave me time to pound out this post. Hmmm….

Pictured above: The stocking are indeed hung by our chimney with care. Reindeer? Check. Snowmen? Check. Christmas trees? Check. Jesus? Ummm…. Missing in action. And, the house in the snow! And a picture of ice on trees. Let me warn you: I take a lot of pictures of ice/snow on trees, and I will post them. And the girls and their cousin.

Friday, December 04, 2009

When an Extra Hour Feels Like a Present

Here we are in December, on the final countdown to Christmas. We have started talking about Santa Claus with the girls. Avery in particular seems to have a preliminary grasp on the concept: Santa will bring her surprises. And Avery love her surprises. Right now I am lucky because even a gummy bear vitamin qualifies as a surprise in her book. I know we won’t get away with so little in the near future, but for now, it works, and I will be working the low-key angle, the “here is a Post-it Note!” surprise as long as motherly possible.

I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. I like the magical/good will qualities that everyone else does, as well as the anticipation. And, of course, the gifts. But, paradoxically, I don’t like how presents become the main focus. I don’t like the commercialism, the buy buy buy mentality that I can easily fall prey to. Like if I don’t own that snowman candle then Christmas just won’t be Christmas. I don’t like battling the throngs at toy stores to hunt down gifts for nieces and nephews that are sure to disappoint them within a week anyway. I’m not a fan of the massive, slow-moving, picture-snapping crowds in New York City, making simple errands a battle of me and my giant stroller vs. the masses. But despite all that, it really is the most wonderful time of the year, as the song says. I am really enjoying it. And I am looking forward to New Year’s Eve. Even though it has been a long time since I have been able to stay awake till midnight, I am a sucker for that turning over a new leaf feeling that a new year brings.

As an early Christmas present to me, the girls are sleeping an hour later than usual. Instead of getting up around 7:30, they now lounge in their beds till 8:30, or later. I have so much time in the morning that I barely know what to do with myself. We still put them to bed by 7:00 every night, and the only thing that has changed is that Avery has become the consummate staller. Ten minutes after their door closes, Avery is calling for us. We go in (I know, I know) and we are greeted with her issue du jour: Current favorites include “I need my kitty” and “My nipples are gone” (she is obsessed with her nipples) and, that old chestnut, “I need water.” Of course, Madeline is up for the duration of Avery’s Need Cycle. So technically, while they are going to bed at 7ish, they aren’t getting to sleep till closer to 8. And that is pushing their wake-up time.

I am counting down the hours until we leave for Massachusetts, as I do every week. The thrill is has not worn off yet. Tomorrow I am running a 5K, which I am hoping won’t be so hard since I run more than that each day on the treadmill. But outdoor running is very different, so I am prepared to be humbled. My brother and his family are also coming up, with a U-hual of things from their basement. Since our furniture hasn’t shipped yet (another few weeks) I am happy for anything we can get! I want to get a Christmas tree and take the girls to see Santa, but that might wait till next weekend.

One Christmas present it looks like we won't be getting: Legalized same-sex marriage in New York. Way to eff that up, New York elected officials. Color me bitter. I didn't go to any protests, and I feel kinda bad about that. But it all just feels so futile. Which, of course, makes me what to beat a hasty retreat, because I generally don't like to undertake anything I can't succeed at. I guess that is one of the things I need to be working on next.

Pictured above: Be honest: is this the artwork of a future serial killer? Or a future Kandinsky? Avery has a very distinctive drawing style. She literally vibrates as she creates these masterpieces! Her style is quite different than Madeline’s, which is the typical toddler giant scribble. Also pictured, Avery in her crib. She likes to sleep with all of her friends, a veritable nest of stuffed animals. And finally: A stack of letters. I send the girls a copy of every Christmas card and birthday invite or holiday card that we mail out. When they are older (or moms, hopefully, themselves) I will give the the whole stack. It’s fun that they are postmarked. I think it will be a wonderful memento for them one day, to be able to go through all of the messages and pictures.