Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button on Life

Cold weather and a beautiful sunset over the Outer Banks.
Sometimes I just have to hit the reset button on life. Usually its a fairly easy thing to do. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and remind myself that the rest of the day is still ahead of me. Only slightly more difficult than rolling over in bed while still immersed in sleep to pound the snooze button.

Other times, the reset button just refuses to activate. No matter how many times I tell myself to hit it, the stupid thing just seems to be all jammed up. These are the days when every little thing seems to snowball, and the thought of just counting to ten and starting over makes me want to tell my inner voice of reason to take a hike to Antartica. On days like these, there's no starting over, just hoping the next one goes a bit better.

And that's where the vicious cycle starts. Everything I couldn't finish that day piles onto the next. I get stressed, eat a bag of potato chips for lunch and a stack of candy bars for dinner. I stay up too late, stressing about all the work I have to do the next day, then sleep in and get even further behind. I tell myself the only solution is just to work harder, and cancel all plans, date nights with my fiancee and any other enjoyable event so that I can sit and stare at my computer and lambast myself for all the work I'm not getting done Before I know it I'm hopelessly behind with work, tired, crabby and in a general no good funk.

That's when its time to hit that reset button for good. And I don't mean the soft tap, the gentle nudge into a quick reset. I mean hitting it with a sledgehammer and rebooting the whole system. This can be accomplished a variety of ways, but any way you go about it, it must have nothing to do with work, writing, school, or cleaning the house.

My favorite way of hitting reset is a mini-vacation. Just a few days out of town, not worrying about anything, and getting away from the myriad of stress-triggers of daily life. I'm lucky that I live a few hours from the ocean, so a quick beach trip is not out of the question. It's actually even better in cold weather, because rates are cheap, and without the distraction of actual swimming and sunbathing I am actually free to just sit around doing whatever my heart desires.

But although weekend trips are nice, they're not always feasible. A few other reset-worthy activities I've found helpful are: a fantastic date night that starts with a great dinner and ends with some sort of ridiculous activity, whether its sharing a bottle of wine on the front stoop at one in the morning, dancing the hustle in the kitchen, making a midnight sauna trip or attempting to teach the cat to walk on a leash (generally after that bottle of wine). Going out dancing or listening to live music with friends is a rare but excellent stress reliever for me, as is a marathon of silly tv shows or movies, a great hike including scrambling over rocks and generally getting muddy and dirty, or just a really good game night- as long as I'm winning!

Whatever the activity, I think the important thing is just to get out of my comfort zone and let loose. And promising myself not to check email, attempt to do work, clean the house, or even look at my laptop for the rest of the evening. Give myself permission to take time off and have some fun. As a constantly overextended workaholic, letting go off the thousands of pressures just for a night is necessary from time to time.

I always find that after a good night of hitting the reset button, the next morning everything feels clearer, brighter, and more doable. Suddenly that article rewrite that has been looming over me is a piece of cake. The nephew's latest respiratory infection is just another reason to keep the tissues handy. That research paper will get written, especially if it gets started now instead of later. My brain kicks into high gear, my adrenaline starts flowing, and most important, I realize that the reason that I pile so many things onto my plate is because these are all things that I really enjoy.

How do you hit your reset button?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Oh What a Winter It's Been...

Winter can be tough no matter where you are.
I've been away from the blog, and pretty much everything else for quite a while now. Even away from the snow and ice of upstate New York, it seems that winter just all-around stinks. Between colds, flus and everything in between, not to mention a pretty crippling bout with Seasonal Affective Disorder its been a pretty unproductive time for me.

Luckily spring comes early here in North Carolina, birds are chirping and a faint green tinge has definitely started to invade the yuck-brown landscape. So just to get up to date, here's a quick list of what I've been up to, what I've learned, and what's on deck for the rest of the year.

Top Five Things I Did This Winter:

1. Frontierville - In the midst of my doldrums, I became horribly addicted to a silly little facebook game called Frontierville. Spent way too much time clearing out the wilderness, planting crops and feeding the family. But on the plus side, my little homestead now boasts a doctor's office, trading post and tailor shop. Up next, harvesting 1,500 potato plants...Zynga, you're killing me!

2. Illness - This year was a wretched one illness-wise. Got hit with a nasty cold on New Year's day, which turned into bronchitis and didn't go away until February. Just when I got to the point where I wasn't starting my day with a fit of hacking accompanied by the loveliest of gunk spewing out of my lungs, the flu came knocking. My 2 1/2 year old nephew got it the worst, and wound up with pneumonia. Because my sister was busy with work and her new roommate has a daughter, nephew came to stay with me and my fiancee until he was recuperated. Trust me, a sick toddler that can't go outside to play and burn off steam is not fun.

In between playing nurse and entertainer to him, my fiancee and I both got our own cases of the flu. Fiancee was better in less than a week, my poor lungs that had just gotten over the bronchitis came down with another nasty infection. This time I finally dragged my uninsured self to the doctor, and got a week's worth of a new antibiotic that made me vomit every time I took it, but otherwise cleared things up. I wouldn't wish that flu on my worst enemy. Really high fever, delirium (I couldn't remember my own zip code or my daily medications at the doctor's office) and worst of all, horrible leg cramping that woke me up in the middle of the night every night crying in pain. Fun times.

3. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - This year was bad. I think that because of all the illness, I wasn't getting outside as much as I usually do. Lower light levels from being stuck in the sickroom did a nasty number on my brain chemistry. Sluggishness, exhaustion, inability to sleep and worst of all, a complete lack of interest in anything whatsoever. I vaguely remember spending about two or three weeks laying on the couch, without enough energy to even walk up the stairs to my bedroom. I stopped brushing my hair and my teeth. But I did upgrade my general store in Frontierville, so hey, some good came out of it all! When I started feeling a bit better, I did some research on SAD, and wrote a few articles. If anyone's interested, here's the links:

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder: People at Risk
The Relationship Between Seratonin and Seasonal Affective Disorder
A Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder in Children and Teenagers

All in all, I learned that depression is so crippling because the very nature of the illness prevents you from doing anything about it. It's really easy to tell someone that is depressed to get off the couch and get some exercise, but when just walking up a flight of stairs makes you want to faint, the thought of even walking on a treadmill for twenty minutes feels like climbing Mount Everest. Same for going out with friends, or even just picking up the phone and scheduling a doctor's appointment. I'll do it later, I swear. Let me just harvest this corn first.

4. Wedding Plans - It wasn't all bad news. One of the things that sent a faint ray of hope into my seratonin-deprived brain was getting going on planning my wedding. Originally, when we got engaged, I told me fiancee that I in no way, shape or form wanted to have a traditional wedding, largely because it seemed like such a pain to plan it. We compromised, and he said he'd do the planning if I'd just buy a dress and show up. Well, that seemed like a good plan until he went ahead and made a guest list without me. My inner control-freak and micromanager took over, and I jumped all over the plans. And its actually been a lot of fun.

At some point soon I'd like to start a wedding blog specifically devoted to wedding-related stuff. I've learned a lot about different aspects of the planning process, and wow, I can see why wedding planners charge so much for their services!

5. Did I mention my homestead? Because I've chopped down hundreds of fake trees, had two fake babies, hired a farmhand and built a church. If that doesn't say accomplished, motivated professional I don't know what does! I think my peanuts might be ripe, so I think I need to stop blogging and get on that...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dear Adulthood...You Suck

Dear Adulthood,

I'm sorry to have to say this (actually I'm not really) but I don't like you very much today.

I know we've had a rocky relationship over the past decade. While things have been a lot better in the last few years, and I was even starting to love you a little, today I just have to say it: Adulthood, you suck!

I resent the fact that you are always hovering over me. Every time I turn around, you're nagging at me that there's something responsible that I should be doing. Can't I get some space here? You always put your needs first, and I am the afterthought. Its always bills, work, laundry, errands. What about my needs? When do we get to drop everything on a Monday, play hooky from school, and gorge on ice-cream while watching cartoons? Why is it that we need to go to the store for toilet paper and cat food when I have a very real and very pressing need to go to the mall for a new pair of shoes? It's not fair. You're mean, and no fun.

Today, you made me do stuff all day long I didn't want to do. Did you ask me before you decided I would walk the dog, do the laundry, clean the bedroom, do schoolwork, do work-work, make dinner? No. Do you think I wanted to apply for that job you spent an hour working on an email response for? No again. You've been making me work for quite a while, and I have to say, I'd really rather just go back to the time when food just magically appeared in the cabinets and utilities were something in Monopoly.

You never listen to me. I can cry, whine, and scream waaahhhh as loud as I can and you just want to talk about your feelings. You make me eat vegetables. And exercise, which in case you didn't know, I really hate doing.

I also hate your stupid family. Your sister talks all day long about nothing, and your nephew is an obnoxious brat. I don't see why we have to do family stuff all the time like eat dinner together. I just wanna play with my friends. Plus, didn't anyone ever tell you we're supposed to get paid for babysitting? It's not supposed to be free, DUH. Your family is stupid. You are stupid. I would be a much happier person if we just cut this off and you got out of my life. Then I could finally do whatever I want, whenever I want, ALL THE TIME.

Maybe I'll like you again tomorrow. I usually do. See, I don't bother trying to be all "consistent" and "rational" like you. So we'll see. But for today, I don't like you. I will not be your facebook friend. If you had a dislike button, I would push it. So go screw yourself, cause I'm gonna go eat chocolate cake.


Anaya's Inner Child

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) In Remission: P.T.S.A.D.?

I think I just might have Post-Traumatic Seasonal-Affective-Disorder. If there is such a thing.

I lived most of my life in a certain gloomy and cloud-covered upstate New York city. Second only to Seattle in lack of sunlight hours, in my hometown Seasonal-Affective-Disorder wasn't an illness but a way of life.

Christmas tree in the city square during a storm.
October was a cold month. By the time Halloween came around, winter jackets, hats and gloves were already a wardrobe staple. I have many fond memories of trick-or-treating in the snow, my costume hidden under a parka. By November, the trees were bare, the wind was strong, and it was dark out by four o'clock. Christmas meant below-zero windchills and blizzards, with more of the same for the January, February, March, and April. Yes, April. The cold was bitter, the snow never-ending, but the worst was the sky. Day in and day out, it was overcast and gray. The local newspaper kept a running tally of the amount of days the sun managed to come out. One April, we had four days of sunlight, in the whole month.

One winter, I'd had a couple friends sleep over. Suddenly, mid-morning, the sun came out. No one was expecting it, it hadn't been in the forecast we watched religiously every night. The three of us were upstairs, when we heard a shout. "The sun! The sun!" Rushing over to the hall window, we pulled the curtain back, and stood there, basking in the weak, watery rays that managed to filter through the frosted glass. Immobilized, we just stood, feeling the faint promise of warmth on our skin, holding our hands up as if it was somehow possible to catch the rays between our fingers.
Winter work break.

Living in this type of climate, your body just shuts down during the winter months. Winter means hibernation, limited outings, social events, activity in general. Often I wouldn't see friends or neighbors all winter long, in the spring we'd emerge from our cocoons and ask each other how we'd fared the winter. Through a combination of old, poorly insulated houses and an incredibly greedy regional power company, no one could afford their heating bill. Turning a thermostat above 69 was sacrilege in most homes. My parents kept their heat at 65 during the day, 55 at night. Winter was cold, both outside and in. Winter was dark, and winter meant an endless succession of coughs, colds and flues.

In this kind of climate, Seasonal Affective Disorder was a joke. It was so much a way of life to become run-down and depressed in the winter, that classifying it as a disorder was like saying feeling tired when you hadn't slept was a disorder.

Eventually I broke. I just couldn't take it anymore. It wasn't so much the snow, but the oppressive cold, with no relief until spring. Once fall hit, I was just never warm. The cold would just sink into my bones, and only a really really hot shower could temporarily relieve it. It wasn't that I missed the sun, it was that I started to forget what it was like.

Typical late-afternoon street view in Central New York.
I moved down to North Carolina last November. Between the fantastic climate and the excitement of living in a new place I didn't have time for winter blues. When spring came, in MARCH of all months, I remember feeling giddy to the point of ecstatic just from walking outdoors. Finally, for the first time in my life, I was warm. My brain must have been overdosing on vitamin D, because even summer in upstate NY didn't bring that kind of sun and blue skies.

I considered myself lucky that I'd never have to go through another horrible northern winter, never have to sink under that weight of frigid despair again. So imagine my surprise when my body decided it would get ready for this upcoming winter by shutting down. Not as badly as in the old days. My mood is okay, none of that hopeless feeling that I don't know if I'll make it out the other side of winter-- just a complete physical shutdown.

It started with a cold. I was sick for almost a week, then got better. The next day, a new cold. This went on for a month, with varying symptoms, just to assure me that it was different colds, not the same one. Runny nose, stuffy nose, sinus congestion, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, fevers, nausea, migraines. Ugh. Then the fatigue settled in. Not only was I sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, but I needed naps on top of that. After just a few hours of being awake, I'd start to feel fatigue, especially in my legs, which would cramp up. The only relief came from laying on the couch with my feet elevated. I started feeling cold all the time, wrapping up in blankets all the time and wearing a winter parka outside to walk the dog, even in 40 or 50 degree weather. And the most frustrating thing was that there was nothing wrong with me besides a couple upper respiratory infections that my nephew brought home from daycare.

November in North Carolina.
Though I'm always loathe to admit it's all in my head, in this case it was, and is. After so many years of living with seasonal depression, and often the really bad kind, where I could barely function except to drag myself in to work, my body/head seems to have just gotten into the routine of it. While my spirits are still up this year, physically I'm so used to an annual shut-down that that's exactly what my body did as soon as the daylight hours began to shorten. And unlike in New York, where I was used to it, and prepared to fight it off as hard as humanly possible, here it just caught me unaware.

The irritating thing about SAD isn't just that it makes you feel "sad," it causes physical lethargy, weakness, and compromises the immune system. I guess I'm thankful to be done with the "sad" part of it, but I'd been really happy at the prospect of not having to suffer through another winter feeling physically dragged down. I guess that's just the way it goes though. And I supposed I've learned a lesson-- it seems that while our conscious minds are more than ready to forget the past, bodies are stubborn and uncooperative creatures of habit. It also is a relief to finally understand what is going on, it can be a bit scary to feel so tired and sick all the time with no discernible medical reason. There's also ways of treating SAD, that is, when you recognize that's whats getting you! So I'll be bringing on the sun therapy, vitamins, and exercise.

Well, that's a maybe on the exercise. And I'm tired of writing now. I think it's time to go put my feet up...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gender Roles in the 21st Century

Gender roles in families have been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to be a woman in a modern family, or a man? While it's safe to say that a lot has changed, women are no longer expected to be homemakers, and men do not have to take on the tough guy role, I don't know that we have all the answers worked out yet.

Playing dress-up. I did like the outfit!
In my own house, there are no clearly defined roles as to what is "female" and "male," especially as far as housework goes. I'm a lousy cook. Luckily my fiancee excels in the kitchen. He also takes care of the dishes, the sweeping and the mopping. I'm messy, untidy, and, I'll admit it, a bit of a slob. So my fiancee tends to do most of the general organizing and tidying up around the house. To make up for my lack of culinary ability and clutter-prone nature, I compensate by taking on the gross stuff-- I clean the cat litter boxes, clean the bathtubs, unblock drains, and do the heavy-duty vacuuming. I go on a monthly house-cleaning rampage, scrubbing all the places he misses, behind the sink drains, the baseboards, smudges on the walls, you name it.

Just to make things clear, my fiancee is every bit a "manly man." He's into cars, football, and golf. He eats red meat, and does all the stuff around the house related to tools. He is very confident in his masculinity, comfortable enough that he doesn't feel threatened by wearing the cook's apron. He also always takes out the trash. And I do the laundry.

The division of housework we've somehow fallen into works out pretty well for us. My fiancee doesn't feel in anyway emasculated by doing the dishes and the cooking, a well-ordered kitchen is something he takes pride in. I take a strange satisfaction pulling globs of hair from uncooperating drains, and none of our friends or family members seem to think that this sort of division is in any way strange. We're a modern family, I guess you could say.

The Boys, making turkey ruebens with homemade dressing.
When it comes to our two-and-a-half-year old nephew, who is practically our adopted child, my fiancee is the primary caregiver. Because my nephew does not have a father figure in his life, he gravitates to my fiancee, who showers him with love and affection. Yes, affection. My nephew is far more likely to come to my fiancee for a hug, to kiss a boo-boo, or a cuddle with a story. When we put my nephew to bed, he snuggles in with my fiancee every time, and usually requests a backrub or bellyrub.

Because of our home dynamic, my fiancee and I have decided that when we have a child, (which is still a few years off) he will be a stay-at-home dad. I don't feel that I have it in me to be the stay-at-home mom type, I'm afraid I'd go stir-crazy. I know that while I'd likely be able to do a passable job at full-time parenting and keeping a house, my fiancee would be far, far better at it. Being a stay-home dad is something my fiancee is genuinely excited about, while to me it feels like kind of a chore. And we are very happy with our decision.

So imagine my surprise when I started telling people about our plan. Reactions ranged from condescending to pity to shock. I was told by one friend that maybe I shouldn't have children if that was how I felt. "Some people just aren't cut out to have kids, maybe you're just one of those." I was told that men lack the innate ability to nurture a child the way a mother can. People questioned both my mothering instinct, and my fiancee's masculinity. Somehow I was less of a woman, and he was less of a man. I was very surprised, especially since I thought that it was now considered to be socially acceptable to have a working mom or a stay-home dad. Families are doing it every day, all across America.

What I finally realized, was that it is okay to do things this way, but not by choice. Men are only supposed to be the ones to stay home with the kids if that's just the way things worked out. Unemployment, finances, a career that is impossible to break from for the wife. Women are allowed to go to work, but there has to be the same justification. Then it's okay, because everyone knows that in a perfect world things wouldn't have to be this way. People are less likely to look down on you when they feel free to pity you. The problem with the scenario my fiancee and I have dreamed up in other people's eyes is that we're happy about it. We are choosing this way of child-rearing, and strategically planning to make it a reality.

It's not that I am uninterested in my home, or the prospect of raising a child. I'm very home-oriented and family oriented. I do take a lot of pride in our house, it has been a labor of love over the past year. I absolutely love being second mom to my nephew, he brings so much joy into my life. When my fiancee and I do have a baby, I'd like to take about a year of maternity leave, if we can swing it. I just don't want to have to feel tied into the homemaker role, especially when I am lucky enough to have found a man who is not only willing to do it, but excited.

It's still a ways away. I have to finish grad school, we have to do that whole wedding thing, and we'll likely take a few years for ourselves. I'd like to think that maybe by then, when my husband is pushing little Charlotte or Jacob on the swings at the park and I'm sitting on a bench making last-minute revisions to a proposal, the other parents will not look over and say "poor man, poor child, bad mother," but rather "they look so happy..."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Response to "Memoirs of a Bullied Kid"

I haven't been able to get Single Dad Laughing's Recent Blog Memoirs of a Bullied Kid out of my head. If you haven't read it, I urge you to do so. It's probably the best piece I've seen on the subject of bullying. Not only is there touching and poignant personal detail, but the solutions presented to curb the bullying epidemic are practical and have a deep degree of insight. Hats off to Single Dad Laughing for tackling this one! Now, I've got some stuff to get off my chest...

With the tragedy at Rutgers so fresh in all of our minds, the issue of bullying has been again pushed to the forefront of public discussion. Topics like cyber-bullying, internet privacy, negative influences of the media and lack of parental involvement become common buzzwords, while serious and honest conversation is overlooked in favor of hopping on any of the various bandwagons of blame. We as a society need to be having the hard talks, the ones that go beyond often empty and overly simplistic concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, tactics of blame and punishment. We need to cut to the core of the serious emotional issues at stake, and above all, teach our children and fellow human beings to treat others with respect, empathy, and compassion.

For those that say bullying is not a problem, or that it is just a matter of "kids being kids," I must wholeheartedly disagree. Sure, kids are always going to engage in some form of pack mentality. There are always going to be schoolyard disagreements, occasional taunting, or pranks and practical jokes. This is normal, and not likely to change. This is also not bullying. Bullying is all of these instances taken to an extreme degree. A bullied child is not the one-time wearer of a "kick me" sign, they are tormented mercilessly from the time the get to school until the time they get home. If technology comes into play, this can even be 24 hours a day. Bullied children can be ridiculed, insulted, hit, pushed, and shoved, the torments are many but the feelings that result are almost always the same: shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness, despair.

Bullying is abuse, usually verbal, and oftentimes physical as well. If a married woman was constantly insulted by her husband day in and day out, called fat, ugly, stupid, good-for-nothing, a whore, most adults in their right mind would counsel her to leave him. Especially if he began stealing or destroying her possessions, throwing objects at her, mushing food into her clothing and hair. Even more so if he started to shove her into walls, slap at her and hit her. Even a court of law would find these appropriate and acceptable grounds for divorce. So why do we tell the abused woman that she doesn't have to take it, yet calmly push our children out the door and into the exact same treatment? The only difference in the situation is that an adult abuser should be held to a higher standard than a child bully in terms of consequences for their behavior. For the abused, whether adult or child, there is no difference. It hurts the same. We should afford our children the same standard of basic human decency that we claim for ourselves. Fair treatment, and freedom from physical and emotional harm is not a right to be earned, but something that all people should be able to expect

Just as any other form of abuse, bullying has severe and often long-lasting emotional consequences. Anxiety, depression, self-abuse and mutilation, substance abuse, promiscuity, or just generally "acting out" are all common effects of bullying. Often these symptoms will not manifest until years down the road, when a lifetime of negative self-image is combined with outside pressure to succeed and find one's way in the world. The problem is usually addressed only on an individual, often internal level. Healing from the wounds of early childhood has become private battle to to be won, that is until the Tyler Clementi's and Dylan Kliebold's force us as a society to take a collective look at what is happening in schools across the nation.

So what do we do about bullying?  For starters, we need to stop hiding the uncomfortable truth and be honest. The more people that come forward to share their experiences, the more we can see the human face behind the buzzwords. The power of story can do amazing things for a culture. Stories teach us to be empathetic beings, and how to look at the world through the eyes of another. We also need to move the dialogue away from finger-pointing and the blame-game. We need to talk about emotions, for that is what is at stake. We also need to foster respect, tolerance, and compassion for one another, and that includes the bullies as well as the bullied. We need to stop sitting idly by and contenting ourselves that sooner or later the kids will outgrow it. The behavior they will outgrow, but the emotional scars will be carried for a lifetime.

Following the brave example of Single Dad Laughing, I have decided to share my own story, which is strikingly similar. I'll try to keep it brief, since I think I've worn holes in my soapbox by now, but no promises.

I was a bullied kid. For all the usual reasons, meaning no good reason at all. I wore glasses. My nose was too big. I was too, short, too skinny. I was a bookworm, which after a while came to be my only comfort, the only way I could disappear from the misery I was living. I was depressed, lonely, angry, and alone. I cried every day, often more than once. I used to pray that I would maybe someday grow up to look...normal. Just normal, not the hideous creature I thought I was. The bullying stopped when I went to high school. I was in a new school, with only a few of the kids from my elementary and middle, and by this time they just didn't care about me anymore. Yet I was hurting so much inside that I became a complete loner. Like Single Dad, if anyone asked me out, I thought they were making fun of me. I had a few friends, but wouldn't talk to them during school because I thought they didn't want to be seen talking to me. I did get over it eventually. I'm a relatively well adjusted adult now (I hope!), but like Single Dad, I never shared my story, not even my fiancee. Sure, I've told him that I was a bit shy in high school, that I was kind of artsy and didn't date or go to parties much. I've told him I didn't really like school, without saying why. But I never told him how I hid in the bathroom, the library, or the nurses office during lunch period for three years of high school, because I was afraid the lunchroom torture would start up again. I didn't tell him that I would cry myself to sleep because I thought I'd never be able to get married and have children someday because I thought no one could ever love me. I didn't tell him that if I had to sum up my childhood in one word, it would be "lonely."

The following is a quick excerpt from my memoir, which was the hardest thing I've ever written. It's not about anything really, except for how I felt through almost all my school years. I could only get it out in third person, and I've never had the guts to share any of it. The photo is a self portrait I did in high school for art class. I remember that when I drew it, I was hoping someone would be able to see the torrent of emotions raging inside me, because I didn't know any other way to let it out.

She wants to impose a little order on an inorderable jumble of real and forgotten memory. Shades of the past colored in pink tears, threadbare but cozy reading chairs. The feel of the floor vent whooshing blessed heat onto her chilled toes and up her legs, fluffing out her cotton nightgown, her silhouette like an undulating over-puffed marshmallow. She would later come to characterize that part of her childhood as abject loneliness dotted with flashes of color. Bright, happy moments, gleaming through the rest of the drab with a vivid transculence ready to betray the flat gray background lurking beneath. It was a backdrop of muted tones and worn threads. A thrift-store armchair, a car seat smelling of wet dog if you fell asleep with your face mushed against it. Cold morning air, rising before dawn. Alone, while the rest of the house sleeps. Brushing her tangled hair, crying into her peanut butter and banana toast. Stealing ten minutes to read before the bus. Losing her shoes, furiously thundering through the house in frantic search, her parents yelling, some people don’t need to be up so early and should be allowed to lie in. On the way to the bus, crying again, in anticipation of the insults that may or may not fling themselves her way that day. On the bus, reading again. Pause for tear. Pause for hope that today will hurry up and end itself, so she can go ahead and get back to her favorite book, armchair, heat vent, pink attic bedroom. Staring out the window, houses, driveways, bushes, sidewalks all colored the same dull grayish green whiz past or trickle like slow bitter honey around the cold metal window frame. The ride is interminably long, an hour crammed into the clammy vinyl seat. Mouth filling with saliva, she finds herself unable to swallow, motion-sickness due no doubt to the books she can’t seem to stop reading even though she knows it makes her stomach churn. It goes by too slow, but at the same time much too fast, blink and it’s over and she will be there, forced to face the day and its assorted cruelties. Blink and its over, blink and its just begun.
One day she wakes up on the bus. She has dozed off, face numb from the cold window imprinting itself into her cheek. She can’t remember what is for homework. Can’t remember, can’t jar it into focus. She tries to picture the chalkboard, the assignment written on it, the teacher’s nasal voice saying “Nowwww classs, your assignment is…” Nothing. Empty. Why is it all gone, where is the day? Look out the window again, trees, houses, cars, a fence, a dog stream between the frames. Blink. It’s morning. Only morning. It hasn’t happened yet. That’s why there’s nothing, no memory. Still an entire day to face…she sighs. She feels somewhat cheated, but she doesn’t know why.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Being a (Non)Parent

I didn't have time to paint my nails yesterday before class. Somehow I became too busy with about a billion different things over the weekend, all day Monday, and before I knew it I was jumping in the car and speeding out, using the commute time to pull together some semblance of composure that I hoped would pass for the real thing.

I know its a small thing, and about the last thing that should be on my mind. I've spent the majority of my life with unpainted, bitten, chipped, hangnailed and otherwise unbecoming fingernails, so why stop now? When I got engaged to the love of my life this summer, complete with a ring that's a family heirloom and nicer than anything than anything I ever could have imagined owning let alone actually being given, I resolved that I really was, for the first time in my life, going to take care of my nails. I went out and had my first EVER manicure, (such luxury!), and dug out my nail polish that's been coagulating on itself for the past three to five years. It sort of went along with a decision that my life is going to be more together, that I'll stop for fifteen minutes once a week or so and do something solely for myself.

Sitting in class for three hours, I had plenty of time to pick apart the ragged half-moon cookies the remainder of last weeks polish had receded into. I'd wanted my fellow classmates to see me as professional, polished (no pun intended), a woman who has her life together. But really life swirls around me in a chaotic turmoil of cookie crumbs, unceasing noise, toys strewn across the floor, and exuberant energy turning to fall-on-the-floor tired in less than ten minutes flat.

I'm not a mother, but I still have two children. The first is my much younger sister, who got pregnant as soon as she went off to college by her high-school sweetheart. They got married, it didn't work, and she came to live with me. My second child is her son, now just over two years, smarter and cuter than any two-year old monster should be!

A Rare Moment of Calm
I love my sister dearly, but she is a product of a different generation, and a person very different from me. Her daily activities are divided between MTV, those annoying Kardashian girls, and the rest of the time on Facebook. She has a lot of time for these activities, because she doesn't have a job, despite the fact that my nephew has been going to daycare all day for the past six months. So although she is now in her early twenties, I effectively have a two-year old and a teenager. But none of the concessions that the magic title of "mom" can bring, when you're frustrated, exhausted, baffled at the precosity of a two-year-old or the stubborness of a teenager who doesn't clean, or just don't have time to do your nails. I'm sure I'm one of many, stuck in this precarious position of being "mom," despite not having the title. Especially with the economic downturn, as so many are consolidating households in the efforts to make ends meet, grandparents, other aunts and uncles, sisters, family friends etc. probably unwittingly wind up in the parent role without the usual labor, delivery, and early stages of childhood just as I did.

I read somewhere recently, and I wish I could remember where, that society has no problem with the modern woman having both successful careers and families as long as they manage to still look good doing it. I wish! Whether we are real moms or just have kids at home, aunt-moms, sister-moms, grandma-moms, or Aunt Nana's (as I'm called), we betray the children in our lives in our appearance. Both what is there and what isn't, the smells of perfume or baby powder, jelly on our coats, dog hair on our shirts, the makeup we wear or don't have time to put on, the amount of children's toys at the bottoms of our purses, and, of course, the ragged and unpainted nails. Rather than the labels we are given, it is these small things about ourselves that constitute our identities. Instead of the hat I am currently wearing (parent, grad student, freelance writer, dog rescuer, cat lover, partner, confidante, sister, aunt, daughter), it is instead my faded and chipping nail polish that speaks volumes about my life, if anyone can spare the time to notice. Incidentally I just ran downstairs before publishing this post. My sister was drying her nail polish.