Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Chasing Your Muse

I love to write. Words give me a sense of both freedom and control in a way that nothing in my life ever has (or ever will, I suspect). I spend as much time writing inside my head as I do writing on a computer screen or on a page. And when I don’t get those words out and into some written format, they stay in a confused jumble inside my head and drive me crazy.

So the fact that I haven’t been blogging much over the past month or two is making me feel very sad. And incomplete. And lonely. And guilty.

I will admit that my 40 days of Lenten blogging both excited and drained me. I loved the exercise of having to write on a given topic (one not of my own choosing) every single day. I loved the challenge of taking a photograph based on a phrase or concept and then having to write something about it. As an intellectual challenge, I found it thrilling, and exciting, and invigorating. And yet, at the same time, finding time to both write and take an appropriate photograph was a very difficult challenge. I often felt a sense of guilt, as if I were abandoning time spent with my children in favor of time spent writing a blog entry. Every day was a trade-off; every day I had to give something up in order to find the time to write a blog.

For 40 days, I struggled with a sense of guilt, a sense that I was spending time on something frivolous when I should have been focusing on my children. My children, who give me a sense, not of freedom and control, but of purpose and meaning. And the fact that I had been neglecting them in order to write also made me feel very sad. And incomplete. And lonely. And guilty.

But aren’t both writing and parenting a trade-off? Don’t they both require a kind of separation, a kind of breaking away? Writing requires breaking away from the world around you and giving yourself time to get inside your own head. And parenting requires breaking away from all the demands of everyday life (laundry, showers, grocery shopping, making dinner) to focus on your children. Both are continual, constant demands. Neglecting either of those roles, writer or parent, results in a sense of guilt, or lost time, or missing a moment that will never happen again. Both the muse and the childhoods are fleeting.

I spent the 40 days of Lent responding to the muse; I spent the days since responding to the children. And now I am trying to respond once again to the call of the muse, but hopefully without sacrificing too much time with my children. I am trying to let my children be an inspiration rather than an impediment. I am trying to blend both my passions by letting my children serve as my muse and my inspiration.

And that is truly what my children are: an inspiration. They inspire me to be not only a better parent, but also a better human being. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be…careful before you say, ‘Listen to me.’ Children will listen.” Even when I don’t mean for them to watch me, to imitate me, to learn from me, to listen to me, they do. They say what I say and do what I do. If I mutter a nasty remark about another driver, my son will ask me about it. If I criticize my daughter about something, she will repeat that criticism. I don’t get to pick and choose the behaviors that my children imitate. They imitate everything they see, so I need to be careful – and aware – of what they see.

And because of that, I continue to write. Because I want them to follow their muse. I want them to chase their passion. I want them to do what they love, even if they find that it requires sacrificing something else. I want them to learn – from me, or from anywhere else – that it is worth giving up some things in order to do what you love, what excites you, what you have passion for. I want them to find their own muse, and to follow her. Because wherever she leads them, it will be a wonderful place. 

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Monday, May 11, 2015

What I Really Wanted (and Got) for Mother’s Day

For the past week, I’ve been seeing articles up the wazoo proclaiming lists of “what moms REALLY want for Mother’s Day.” The lists often include “nots,” like not chocolate (ugh, the calories), not flowers (ugh, the allergies), not horrible children-made meals involving burnt toast and germy scrambled eggs complete with bits of shell (just plain ugh). But one of the most popular “wants” is actually wanting to get AWAY from her children.

Oh, the irony.

But I understand it. I totally do. As much as I love my children, I’ll be the first to admit that they can be exhausting, especially for a mom like me, who could be described as “tightly-wound” (and that’s being generous). When I’m with my kids, I’m hyperconscious of their every move. I want to be sure they’re not being too loud, that they’re using good manners, that they’re not getting in the way of people around us, that they’re not annoying anyone, that they’re not touching anything they shouldn’t, that they’re not getting into trouble, that they’re not wiping their nose on a stranger’s sleeve. 

So what I want to get away from on Mother’s Day is not my children; it’s being IN CHARGE OF my children. What I wanted for Mother’s Day this year was the chance to enjoy my children without having to worry about taking care of them. So when my husband (who had also read all those “what moms really want” articles) offered to take the kids somewhere for the day and leave me alone, that’s what I told him: I want to spend the day together as a family, but I don’t want to be in charge of anyone except myself. So that’s exactly what we did.

After church, we went out to lunch, and my husband ordered for the kids. (I will admit that I couldn’t help myself and I prompted them both to tell the waitress their orders and to say “thank you” when she brought their food. Some habits are hard to break.) He dealt with the mini-meltdown that resulted when he told them it was time to put the Kindles away and eat their lunch. When we got back home after lunch, he put my daughter down for her nap and helped my son put on his swimsuit, and he was the one who was responsible for making sure he was safe in the pool (not an easy job with DangerBoy seriously overestimating his swimming abilities). When my daughter woke up, my husband brought her down and got her ready for pool time, then supervised both of them while I lounged in the sunshine, enjoying watching all three of them as well as the random cat who wandered by and joined me in lounging in the sunshine.

It was the best present I could have gotten. It reminded me why I love being a mom so much: it’s because I really do enjoy my kids. And when I get a moment to shed the stress of constantly watching over them, keeping them safe, teaching them how to be pleasant, mannerly human beings, I realize how much I really do enjoy them, and how much I enjoy being their mom.

And isn’t that what Mother’s Day is for?

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

R.I.P. Familiar Stranger

I once read a comment that home is where you see familiar strangers: people that you don’t know, but that you recognize. The neighbor who always walks her German shepherd at 7:00am. The mailman who waves at you as you head off to work. The cashier at Dunk’s. The guy down the street who mows his lawn wearing Bermuda shorts and green crocs at precisely 6:30pm every Thursday all summer. You don’t really know them, but you recognize them.

When I was growing up, back in the 1970s, before political correctness, when mental illness was something to be laughed at or feared, there was a familiar stranger whom everyone in town “knew,” called Crazy Mike. Rumors abounded about Crazy Mike. Some said he was homeless, some said he was a Vietnam veteran whose mind had snapped during the war, some said he was a dangerous lunatic, some said he was a harmless loudmouth, some said he was just a lazy drunk. I often saw him walking around town, occasionally coming into a store, sometimes muttering to himself, often yelling at anyone who confronted him, but always leaving peacefully when asked to by store managers. When I was in high school, I worked in one of those stores – a store that happened to provide free coffee to customers. Mike came inside frequently when I was working, often wandering around with his coffee in hand, muttering to himself. He made me a little nervous, but any time I caught his eye, he’d give me a little nod of acknowledgement, and continue on his way. The only time I ever saw him yell at anyone was when he was out on the sidewalk and some teenagers started hassling him. I never saw him yell at a customer inside the store, and the managers – even a couple of them whom I didn’t consider very nice – only rarely asked him to move along, and always made sure he had a fresh cup of coffee before he left.

I never saw Mike sleeping on the streets at night, so I figured he had either a home or a shelter to go to. Although he was unkempt, he was rarely truly dirty, and occasionally appeared with a fresh haircut or a trimmed beard, so apparently he had some resources for – and interest in - hygiene. I was curious about his story, but I never bothered to find out what it was. I was afraid to ask. And I was not alone. Most people guessed about his background, or assumed they knew what it was, but very few people ever bothered to find out the true story, or to be sure that Mike was getting the help he needed.

Yesterday, Crazy Mike was found dead on a city street. And suddenly, but slowly, we are finding out at least some of the true story of his life.

Michael Nicoloro was, indeed, an Army veteran. He had parents and a brother who lived locally. Mike did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder rooted in his service during the Vietnam war. He took medication for it – sometimes. Sometimes it was stolen from him, sometimes he simply refused to take it. Who knows what exactly was going through his head over the last 40 years? Was he aware that something was wrong? Did he want help? Was he contented with who he was? Was he afraid of his demons or were they just a part of his normal reality? Most of us don’t know, because we never asked. We looked at Mike, and only saw the crazy. We didn’t see the man behind the crazy. We didn’t see the man before the crazy. We never tried to make the familiar stranger not a stranger.

I pray that Mike is now at peace, his traumatic memories gone. I pray that his family is comforted after their double loss – not only the loss of Mike’s life, but of his chance to be mentally healthy in this lifetime. I pray that Mike’s story will make me, and all of those who “knew” him, think twice when we look at someone who seems crazy. Every crazy person has parents, and a past, and a story. Every crazy person is a person, despite the crazy. Every crazy person deserves to have their story told.

I only wish that Mike’s story had been told sooner. Maybe then, he’d have become familiar instead of just a stranger.

Rest in peace, Mike. Rest in the peace you never found here on earth. Rest in peace.

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