Struggling through with joy...
Struggling through with joy...
I want to write about the shooting in Boulder. I’m confused and angry and heartbroken and I think writing about it will help me sort out how I feel.
I lived in Boulder for 12 years, through college and most of my young adulthood. The town itself, it’s personality and values, shaped who I am today.
But it’s too raw. I feel powerless, I cannot hear more about thoughts and prayers and personal freedom. I am stunned that so many people believe they have the right, the need, to own a gun so powerful it can mow down innocent citizens stopping in a grocery store for a few things.
I can’t focus on anything for long. I sit outside while my children dig in the dirt, reading my book and only half-understanding. I start making them lunch three times. It takes me 30 minutes to get a load of laundry in the washer.
My mind pings around and wanders.
I think about hands, the way our veins make a map on the front and back of our hands, the way it feels to hold different kinds of hands: small damp hands that are always warm, strong hands used to working, old gnarled hands that foretell the future of my own fingers. I think about the tenderness of our frail human bodies. When I find I am forgetting the humanity of others, this is what I think about. Hands. Eyes. That which makes us unique. I want to recognize the humanity in others, even those whom I find reprehensible. I want to let go of my judgement and hold their hands, to look into their eyes, to find some way to understand. I want to listen, even when it is hard.
I think about the people who were killed. I hope they have tremendous peace now. I ache for the grief 10 families have been plunged into. Their peace will be long in coming, if it ever returns.
I wonder how it is we’ve become so hateful that we can live with this kind of depravity.
I discover I am still not afraid to go to the grocery store. I still want to raise my children to be independent. I still want to trust other people. I want to believe in the goodness of most people.
I don’t know how so many opposing ideas can exist in my mind. I’m exhausted by it.
I pray, and I meditate, and I read to my children.
I will write about Boulder, really write about it, but not yet. Not now. For now, I will sit with disorientation, sorrow, anger.
I will not continue to be a person who accepts that this ugliness is who we are in America, even when I see it very clearly is who we are.
I will let my rage simmer into action, empathy, some small hope that something can change.
When my son was a toddler one of his favorite stories had the recurring line The zoo is loud today! When we read it to him he would make the sounds of the animals in the picture.
That’s how I think of my mind when I meditate. I’ve been meditating almost daily for two years now. The zoo of my mind is still loud. I return to my breath over and over, as the gentle voice on my meditation app guides me to, and over and over the cacophony of my thoughts leap and fly around my mind. What should I wear today? What if one of the kids wakes up sick? Did I remember to email that parent? I better not forget foil at the store.
The zoo is loud today, I think, and return to my breath.
I would give up this fifteen minutes of silence every morning, but the magic of how it’s transformed my inner life is profound. I’m still neurotic but I’m making wary friends with my neurotic thoughts. They aren’t me. They’re just things that ping around my mind. I am not an anxious person. I just experience anxious thoughts, then let them go. Some days, I let them go millions of times in one day. Some days, they nearly drown me.
I’ve learned there is a beginning and an end to every feeling. Everything changes, all the time. I’ve learned to accept this.
Which has led to so much more acceptance: of aging, of the subtle details of my life, of difficulties and joys.
Which has led to so much more recognition: of my blessings, my privilege, the love affair between two doves who live in our backyard tree. I see the tender way they groom each other while I wash dishes. I notice what I never saw before.
I am dependent on the time, every morning, when I sit down with the zoo that is my mind. The monkey thoughts careen around, then slow, as I breathe, and breathe, and breathe.
Last night I found myself falling into an old habit, and I’m wondering what it means. It isn’t really a bad or good habit, but indulging it can have long-term repercussions.
I was finishing up some computer work for school and I thought, “I’ll just see what animals are up for adoption at the local humane society.” My elderly chihuahua snuggled into my leg and mumbled. My husband snored with the cat on the couch. No one needed to know what I was up to.
Before I met my husband, I was an animal shopper. I checked the humane society adoption pages the way other people use Tinder. As I got older and the prospect of marrying and having children dimmed, I indulged my deep love of animals in my classroom and my home. I had a rabbit & a snake (never in the same cage), a tiny hedgehog, a sweet bearded dragon named Fred; a mean cat only loved by me, a dear old hunting dog afraid of loud noises, and my sweet and trembly chihuahua. I am a person both selfish and nurturing, and taking care of pets satisfy urges in both areas. Dogs, especially, fill that spot in some of us that needs a little extra attention and love. Their devotion, their excitement at seeing us every damn time, briefly convinces us we’re just a little more special than the rest of humanity, even when our dog shows the same excitement over a dead squirrel.
By the time my husband came into my life I had two dogs and space in my heart for a cat because my old meanie cat passed away. N, however, is not an animal person. He would never have a pet on his own. He is a man of activity and intellect. He’d rather be out hiking and exploring or reading and writing than sitting with a dog on his lap and a book in hand. Dogs make him sneeze and he finds pet fur annoying.
He is also a man of acceptance, and he knew my pets were part of the package. When I came home from work one day and saw him walking my dogs, I knew it was meant to be. He got me a cat for Valentine’s Day one year. She has six-toes on each foot and no teeth, and she’s perfect. He takes our old chihuahua on short walks ‘to keep her joints loose.’
I don’t know what’s making me pet shop now. I have zero intention of getting us a pet. OK, I’ve considered a house rabbit or a parakeet, but we’re too busy to care for more pets and it would be very upsetting to the two old girls we have. My kids keep talking about wanting a puppy or a kitten one day, and I promise them we will get one when our pets go to the great pet beyond, while my husband sighs and silently agrees. I think.
I am remembering when it was only the dogs, cat and I. My life was a little lonely and much simpler. I had a lot of friends but no one to really take care of. The dogs and I would walk for hours on the weekend, and one or two times a day every weekday. They liked to nap and cuddle, to eat horrifying things and vomit them up, but they didn’t put demands on my time like the ones I have now, precious young demands who hate napping and enjoy cuddling and terrify me when they vomit.
I also want to share the experience of getting a new pet with my kids. I want them to feel how it is similar to falling in love, but without the horrible rejection and breakups that so often come with love. I want them to experience the way you can’t wait to get home to see your new pet, to learn what each head cock and ear flick means, to sit together and watch the world go by or explore new trails. I want them to learn the way you think about them even when you’re away from them.
There is no exploring with my dog now. She is so arthritic she can barely make it to the end of the block, and we often end up carrying her more than she walks. The cat is still spry but she’s no kitten. And yet, these are my girls. They’ve been with us, with me, through huge life changes, and they’re still here, purring on my head at night, snuggling into my leg when I grade papers, watching my children play in the backyard. I'm in no hurry to see them go.
I’ll continue to pet shop the same way I look at houses from time to time. It fuels a hopeful fantasy of a life yet to come. Then, I’ll close my computer and pet my dog’s balding white head before I mix the cat her nightly canned food soup, glad for the companions who have accompanied me into this next phase of my life.
I have a little secret I don’t share with many people. I kind of like Mondays. Not on the same level I like Fridays, of course, especially Fridays-before-a-break-when-I-have-two-hours-of-plan-time-and-my-husband-is-picking-up-the-kids-after-work-so-I-get-some-me-time Fridays.
I like Mondays for the opposite reason I like Fridays. On Mondays, it is a little easier to be the better version of me. To abstain from lunch dessert, for instance, and only have one little dish of jelly beans after dinner instead of two, or five, or seven. I usually wear a better outfit on Mondays, and I’m WAY more likely to exercise. I’m often still smiley by 5 p.m. on Mondays, more likely to handle discipline problems with kindness and humor. I’m able to focus after work instead of slumping in my chair and thumbing absently through the piles on my desk while I shovel apple slices in my mouth because I’m dehydrated and starving. I’m fresh on Mondays.
Mondays mark the end of weekend debauchery, which in middle age includes activities like staying up until 11, maybe having 1 ½ glasses of wine, or extra dessert. I often eat red meat and cheese on the weekend, sometimes even French fries. I watch too much t.v. with my husband, and we make fun of our local newscasters because they look about twelve years old. It’s not nice, but it’s the weekend and we like to let our hair down a little before we fall asleep on the couch.
Then Monday comes, with its fresh hopes, and although a pandemic year has meant a lot of Mondays that leave me saying the phrase that starts with W, T & F, (nothing starts a week off wrong like quarantining) they’ve mostly been fairly good. Sure, I’ve had some rough-reentry Mondays, where we crash into the week with our tails on fire and wonder what the heck just happened. Even so, I’m often rested enough from the weekend to shake off the effects of a crash landing and march through the rest of the week.
While we all like to toast glamorous Fridays, I’d like to raise a can of cucumber-mint seltzer to all the good and ordinary Mondays in the world. They keep us on track, and I’m thankful for it. Here’s to you, Mondays.
I taught for 13 years before I became a parent. Although I tried to be sparing in my advice, I did advise parents, often because they asked. One thing I always told them was to let their children read what they want at home. Don’t try to make them read chapter books too early, I said. Let them read Captain Underpants and comic books. Home reading should be for fun and relaxing.
Becoming a parent humbled me in teaching and in life. I’ve never thought I had it all figured out, but having kids revealed just how challenging and individual small humans are.
Thankfully, my son is well-behaved and sweet and likes school most of the time. I feel so lucky to be his mom, which is something moms say but I really do. It’s a joy to watch him learn and grow.
Sometime between kindergarten and first grade reading clicked for him. In spite of the pandemic shutdowns and an entire quarter of online kindergarten, he became a reader. We worked with him, of course, to learn the nuts and bolts of reading, including lessons with his retired-teacher grandmother. I heeded my own advice and only did it when he seemed interested. Because I’m a teacher and his father is a librarian, books are in abundant supply in our house, and we read to our kids all the time. His grandparents read to he and his sister all the time. They love books because of this.
On a recent trip to the library, however, I found myself doing what so many parents do: pushing him to be the reader I thought he should be. T. immediately found a LEGO book, then a Star Wars graphic novel. He draped himself on a kid-sized couch and started reading, oblivious to the world around him.
“Don’t you want a chapter book?” I asked. He ignored me.
I darted around the shelves of the children’s section, choosing a book or two of my favorite authors and selecting some I thought might appeal to him.
“What about one of these?” I asked, putting the small pile next to him.
“Uh-huh,” he said, not looking up from his Star Wars comic.
I thought teacher thoughts. He’s ready for chapter books, I thought. How can I teach him to hold on to text when he just keeps reading graphic novels and LEGO how-to books?
Then I thought: Oh. My. Goodness. I’m turning into an a-hole parent. Putting my agenda on him.
He glanced at the pile to please me. “I’m just not interested in these right now, Mommy,” he said politely. Then he went to the computer and searched for LEGO Ninjago books.
And guess what? He read all weekend. He read his books, then the picture books his sister chose, and the Sunday comics. He read so much that we had to take his books away until he agreed to get dressed and brush his teeth. He loves to read, and that is all I want for him. Reading is a refuge and a comfort for me, and I want it to be the same for he and his sister.
It will be, if only I can take my own advice.
My daughter trots in at 6:10, hair wild and eyes squinting against the light. “Can we write?” she asks. She’s caught on to my daily writing habit and I swear she wakes herself up so she can be a part of it.
We move out to the couch where there is more room for us, and I type while she sits with her journal in her lap and her purple pen scribbling away. She’s four and loves to write in what looks like pre-school cursive. She makes grocery lists. We need tortillas and coffee, she informs me, but no milk.
She peppers me with questions and observations. “I didn’t like the egg drop soup,” she says. “M. doesn’t sit in circle time so the teacher gives him a puzzle.” A pause. “Do T. and I get Covid shots?” I can hardly complete a thought or a sentence.
I am frustrated and touched by this time with her. In the past she preferred being with her father in his office, sitting on his lap while he typed or playing with trains on the floor. Now I’m the main event, and while I miss my time alone with my thoughts (a lot) I also recognize the preciousness of this time with her. My teacher brain revels in the idea that this is good for her development of fine motor and language skills, but I also know she might hate writing by the time she gets to school (please, no!) Nothing is guaranteed. My mother brain reminds me how fleeting these frustrating days are, how these small moments build bigger bonds.
I love her deep brown eyes peeking out from the maelstrom of her bangs, the serious way she gazes at me as she tells me about the little kids who cry in her preschool class. I wonder if she’s ever one of those kids, my beautiful and moody girl. My writing partner.
For the past three years I have purchased a planner that includes a habit tracker. In fact, I paid more for this planner, it was so important to me to create and maintain good, new habits.
There is a lot of room for improvement in the way I live. No one ever ever observes me and says, “That LaReina is a real type-A person. She knows how to get things done.” They might say, “That LaReina really knows how to create a fortress of books she wants to read around her bed,” or “Boyo, LaReina is an ace at ignoring piles of laundry and baking cookies instead. Look at how she’s left that pile for three weeks! That’s impressive.” So I decided, three years ago, to put real, consistent and precise effort into improving.
It’s worked to some degree. I meditate every day. I’m on time to work more often than I’m not. I exercise at least a few times a week. The laundry is still a problem. Earlier this week my son wore a shorts/warm up pants combination that was questionable in terms of fashion, but clean.
This week, though, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and I’m not completing the habit tracker. I haven’t even cracked open my trusty little black planner. I ran out of time to do it Sunday night (laundry) and avoided it Monday. I grew rebellious Tuesday, thinking “Eff that habit tracker, I’m not doing it!” And here we are on Wednesday.
All hell has not broken loose. I’ve still meditated every day, and on Monday I walked two miles. I feel kind of free, not having to visit my habit tracker and think, “Can I fill in a half circle for exercise if I did a brain break with my students?”
It turns out I have actually developed some good habits. It turns out it’s ok to take a little vacation from self-improvement. Next week I’ll get my little black planner out again, and I’ll keep trying to improve. This week is acceptance week
I always struggle with time, but it’s especially bad lately. I think I have what my mother calls a ‘poor time concept.’
This weekend I learned about a Japanese concept of pause in a podcast, but it’s greater than a pause. In the podcast it was explained as arriving at a place early enough to take a look around, or having the time to just be with a poem after you’ve read it. I long for this kind of time but I don’t know how to cultivate it.
Nearly every moment of my day is scheduled. As a teacher, I am working from the minute I walk into my classroom until I leave it. I know of teachers who take a short walk at lunch and I used to sit in the lounge to eat, but none of those things seem possible now.
How do I work this concept of pausing, of having bubbles of time to simply be and experience before moving on to the next thing?
Instead I find myself angry and resentful of all the things that take me away from bubbles of time: demanding children, colleagues who constantly open the door between our classrooms, meetings, the need to prepare decent meals or fold laundry. I sometimes feel as if I am drowning in my obligations to others an never meeting everyone’s needs, least of all my own.
Then I feel incredibly selfish. I chose motherhood and teaching. I adore my demanding children, who are demanding because of their age.
I don’t have a solution to this problem of time. I keep searching for advice, but too often it comes from people who are not in the same situation I am in. I think, perhaps, the solution is to suck it up and make time. Get up 15 minutes earlier. Gently close the door between the classrooms sometimes. Read the poem and sit, just for a minute, before making dinner.
Find the time. How do you find the time?
For Lent I have given up inactivity. And wine, some weeknights, and social media. Coward’s choices, if I’m honest. It is not so hard to give up wine and social media. I love to move, so giving up physical inactivity is not truly a sacrifice.
It is the inactivity of my spirit, of my conscience, of my soul that I want to let go of. As the forty days of Lent wear on, I find what holds me back is not a basic laziness but fear. I am afraid.
Sunday morning fear kept me from answering a knock on our door. We have complained about our newspaper carrier a few times of late. The paper arrives midmorning or not at all, and now she has started putting our paper with the neighbors. My husband had just called again and let them know we had to walk to our neighbor’s house to get our paper for the past three days, and when I heard the knock I spied a pink fleece hood. I was certain it was the newspaper carrier coming to yell at us.
I entreated my husband to open the door. He’s good at getting yelled at and dealing with people who are a little unhinged. He does it all the time at work, and sometimes at home. He lumbered from his office where he’d been working, opened the door, and there stood a young Black man wrapped in a pink fleece blanket, holding a book from the free library in our front yard.
His smile and eyes were wide open. “Can I just take this?” he asked, holding up Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
My husband nodded. “Yeah, man, take as many as you want. That’s what it’s there for.” The young man nodded, smiled, and I yelled weakly from behind my husband, “You can have as many books as you want!” He nodded again as he descended our front steps, taking just the one book.
Fear kept me from opening the front door and having that interaction. I was so touched by the young man’s consideration, which my husband pointed out was wise self-preservation. Our town is not always friendly to people of color and I’m sure he had reasons to be cautious. All the same, I’d missed out on a sweet interaction because I was afraid.
And if it had been the newspaper carrier, I could have handled it. I’ve learned to deal with irrationally angry parents and enraged four-year-olds, after all.
Fear has kept me quiet all these years quiet. I silenced my voice because I feared being ridiculed. And surely I would’ve been, I will be, but fear and silence become their own burden far greater than the sting of rejection and ridicule.
I’ll keep giving up inactivity, a little bit of wine and Facebook. They are good sacrifices to make. Maybe I’ll give up a little fear, too.
Recently at bedtime my husband sang, “There were five in the bed and the little one said: Roll over, roll over,” and my son lifted his eyes from the book he was reading and grinned. T hopped up with excitement and started singing along, quietly. Now that he is seven and officially a reader, he often ignores this part of the bedtime routine altogether to bury his head in one or another of the library books that litter the living room.
When he was a baby, T loved this song. I sang it to him every naptime and every bedtime. I held him and sang it when we had a hard night, because it was one of the few songs I could sing in-key almost all the way through. The song was often a surefire way to comfort and quiet him.
I sang it until I was hoarse on a long trip home after my uncle’s funeral. Because I was the youngest and ostensibly had the best eyes, I was the primary driver on that trip. My aunt, uncle and mom took turns sitting next to T and playing with him as we drove over the continental divide, through the ski towns of Colorado. Our trip to my uncle’s funeral was all the winter beauty we take for granted, filled with vast blue skies, the bright white snow of the mountains a sharp contrast to the evergreens.
The trip back was what we’ve come to expect living in Colorado: a winter storm moving out ahead of us, the roads icy and snow-packed, and no choice but to move forward. I needed to get back to work, and everyone just wanted to be home. The trip stretched from five hours to seven, and we were driving in the dark with a tired, cranky toddler and four exhausted adults.
As we finally descended from the mountains and through the canyon that leads to our town, T had had enough. It was dark and he’d been in his carseat far too long. He was sick of not being able to move and having his schedule upended for days. He cried and cried, and I sat behind the steering wheel, sweating, unable to do anything. We were still at least 45 minutes away from home.
“There were five in the bed and the little one said: Roll over, roll over…” I started. He grumped a little but started to quiet as my mom stroked his little chest. The outlines of the mountains around us faded as I sang and sang. I looked in the rearview mirror and my mom nodded to encourage me to keep singing, so I did. My uncle dozed in the seat next to me.
I had driven these roads so often in my adult life I could nearly do it in my sleep. I lived on the opposite side of the state for 20 years, only moving home after my father died and I married. When I got the call that my father was gravely ill, I drove through this canyon alone in my ridiculous sports car. It was silent as a tomb. I couldn’t bear listening to any music and there was no one to sing to, no one to comfort. Just me, driving toward a whole new life I was ill-prepared to live, letting go of my father and finally becoming, at 36, a real adult. His death marked the beginning of a slow, new phase of letting go: a few years after he died, his sister's husband passed, and then my mom’s brother.
This is a blessedly slow phase. My mother is a daily part of our lives, and although I haven’t seen my aunt and uncle much because of the pandemic, they are near, providing love and encouragement and occasional presents from afar. They are with me, in this new life: motherhood, middle age, marriage.
The surest thing I know is that life is never all one thing: it is never just grief and no joy; it is never just burden with no relief. I’ve felt at times that it is, that I can barely pick myself up and go on, but distance gives me a fuller picture. The blessing of the nurse who held my mother and cried with her the day my father died; the man who reached out to me in my grief, let me cry and rage and stare out the window for hours at a time, and married me; the prayed-for son fussing in the back seat next to his doting grandmother and great-aunt. His spitfire little sister who reveals my impatience and capacity for joy. The calm that comes with the aches and discomforts of middle age.
The remembrance of a song that carried us through to home.