Identity crisis X.Y

I miss being young, light and pretty, when I was superficial and my own limiting factor, when I held life by the balls and lacked that awareness. I wouldn’t trade my current place for it, and yet I miss it. I don’t know how to be selfless enough to ignore my ego. I want too many things while also wanting less. I can’t forget who I was and of all I was capable. I know some of the offsets were unfavorable. I know many variables have changed, but the binary was easy and so gratifying. The always-in-flux complexity is richer and fuller, but awkward and so damn hard. I used to think I worked hard when really I was simply able to commit to a few things, tirelessly, and had the ability and enthusiasm to do so with ease. I didn’t know my needs beyond achieving. That made it all so easy. So. Fucking. Easy. Now there are friction, limits and constraints, competing factors whose rank is now my responsibility to assign. Elegance is replaced with fumbles. The clean is now messy. What happened to my innocence, my boldness, my naivete? I can’t resolve the contradiction of my ability to accept change when it comes to anything other than myself.

How do I let go of the former me and embrace this person I am at present? How do I reject can = should? How do I accept less (from me)? How is less defined, and why am I inclined to apply the binary view that less is negative, a detraction? Isn’t less sometimes more?

Dad’s Eulogy

This is the eulogy I read at my father’s memorial service on March 18, 2018. I did not edit it for grammatical correctness.

Thank you for coming today. I’m Mike’s oldest daughter, Mel(anie). It’s overwhelming and comforting that so many people care about my father.

It seems to me that eulogies often comprise a slew of compliments and favorable adjectives. I don’t know if those I’ve heard have been for truly remarkable humans, or if in one’s grief, people focus on all of the good about their loved ones. That would make sense. But that’s not my aim, today. I don’t think my father was the greatest human being on the planet or the most amazing father in the whole world. But he was my father, and I loved him, enjoyed him and accepted him even when I wanted to clock him. He was an imperfect human being who was both kind and short-tempered. He loved us, his family and friends and maybe drove them nuts at times. My dad was real. He was humble, hard-working and authentic. He did not aim to please those around him.

My dad held many jobs and roles in his 59 years: he was a miner, a steel worker and a maintenance supervisor. He was a councilman, a baseball umpire, a volunteer fireman and more. He had many loves and hobbies: his family, our community in Seward, bowling, Cellas cherries, Sheetz coffee, Centrum Silver, Pittsburgh sports, guns, archery, deer, fishing, poker, Bob Seger and Jim Croce.

My dad taught me everything I know about fishing. He was an outdoorsman for most of his life, and in the recent past still-so at heart. My dad taught me how to fish, camp, make Red Rose tea with milk and sugar, canoe and garden (or at least eat the vegetables from it). He taught me the injustices of an overprotective father who wouldn’t let me play baseball “with the boys” nor work in the garage. But he did teach me how to fix a popped bike-chain and to diagnose and repair a busted tube, which was pretty much everything I needed to know during my adolescence. He taught me how to start a fire, make mountain pies, shave marshmallow sticks and put the fire out when I was done.

I learned what conservation was before ever hearing the word. Dad taught me to turn off the lights, to use water sparingly while brushing my teeth and how not to litter. I remember driving into Pittsburgh one night to visit Aunt Anne after my great-grandmother had died. The city was bright with lights. I had thought to myself Don’t they know they’re wasting electricity? My third-grade self felt indignant.

My dad was loud. Whether barking out commands and expressions of exasperation, or laughing and engaging happily with those he loved, his voice boomed. It always startled me, even as an adult.

My father might have been a little impatient. He taught me that when caught in a battle-of-wills with an inanimate object, the best course of action is to swear, and to throw or otherwise harm said object. This lesson isn’t a fruitful one, but launching an object while telling it off sure does feel good in the moment. (Or so I’m told.)

Through my dad, I learned some complex lessons pertaining to the head and the heart.

I learned that acceptance is all there really is when it comes to loving someone.

And not mutually exclusive from that is the inability to make someone else’s decisions for them. My dad loved Budweiser and Marlboro Lights 100s. It didn’t matter how much we preached to him about their risks, asked him to stop or exerted the energy to be angry about these habits: he chose them anyway. As I got smarter, I accepted these choices as his, and alleviated myself of the presumed responsibility for him. And now I’m left wondering what drove him to such habits to begin with.

He taught me how to be married to one person through the messy and complex dance that is life. He wasn’t always the best at showing his love for my mother, but it was obvious in the way he worried about her. It was obvious when, after a procedure at the hospital, he held her hand tightly, and cried when she let go before she left for work.

My dad believed in God, and his faith was strong. Stronger than I could ever relate to. As such, I wanted to incorporate something biblical, and the first thing that came to mind was the passage from First Corinthians, Chapter 13: Faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

When I was a kid, Dad used to say he was the richest man in the world…because of us. I thought it was corny and weird, and I even thought he was BS-ing me a bit. But as I’ve moved through life, I’ve grown to believe him. And, I get it. He never fixated on what he didn’t have, and what he had was enough. He loved us, and he was loved.

My kids and I were excited to visit Dad last week in PA. I thought it would be the calm before the storm, that the kids could get some quality time with him before he withered away due to the cancer and the chemo. While driving to PA on Tuesday, my sister called and told me to take her off speaker. Once I had, she said, “Dad’s gone.”

Gone. Dad was gone. Dad IS gone. What does that even mean? Maybe it’s because his death was sudden and unexpected. Maybe I’m still in shock. Whatever the reason, I still can’t comprehend it. But I’m trying.

I know I won’t hear him say, “Hey kid,” or, “Yeeeeeeeeeeep,” or hear him bitching at Mom or admonishing whatever sports team pissed him off on the television.

My kids will never again say, “Hi Pap-pap.”

I won’t see him grow old or be further decimated by cancer or the chemo.

Thus far, all I can understand (partially) is that I won’t hear him, anymore. But I can feel him. I feel him in the necklace I’m wearing around my neck and in the music he loved. And I see him. I see him in the snow flakes, in the birds soaring through the air, in the deer tracks in the yard, in the river, in the trees, the animals, the sunrise….

No longer bound to his physical body, he is everywhere.

Patience and Compassion

I’m an impatient person. I have ALWAYS been impatient. (Ask my mom about the raging tantrums I threw as a baby.) I’m reminded of the time I expressed my impatient disposition to Tom T. during my time at GM. He said, “You can only manage your weaknesses; you can never truly get rid of them.” Throughout my life and experiences, and specifically, motherhood, I have, true to Tom T.’s sentiment, slowly learned to behave more patiently, even though I don’t always feel patient, internally. My children have definitely been my spiritual guides to patience.

Before my initial ascension of the Infinite Learning Curve of Patience, I often resorted to reducing things and people to stupid if they didn’t fit in to my vision of smart, right or whatever. I can’t even estimate how many times I’ve said, “That’s SO stupid.”

It’s pretty embarrassing to think about that, because now days I possess more compassion than I did before motherhood, and I am a recovering the-world-revolves-around-me type of thinker. Now, when someone doesn’t perform to my standards, the question I ask myself is Was my expectation was fair to begin with?  rather than What in the hell is wrong with that person? I also consider what a person might be going through and how they have been shaped throughout their lifetime, acknowledging that there’s far more I can’t know rather than do know about any given person (or situation).

Patience and compassion. Two gifts acquired along my mothering journey thus far.

How’s that for a paradigm shift?

Choose happiness

**This is a blog transplant from my private blog Positive from April 1, 2014, which I edited a bit for this post.**

My last post was very romantic, sharing accounts of intimate moments with my kids. But let’s be real, there are plenty of moments when I stare blankly while ingesting copious amounts of chocolate, listening to the kids scream and cry, hoping it will cease before my brain explodes. Or times when I see red because M just won’t stop hurting my other baby. Parenting is stressful, VERY stressful, and some moments/hours/perhaps even days/weeks just suck.

I think it’s important that mothers feel entitled to express their grief and tribulations as they raise their adults-to-be. Venting can be an effective mechanism to relieve stress, and sharing the woes of motherhood with others can be validating and most therapeutic.

As with everything in life, however, there is threshold, a tipping point beyond which venting frustrations becomes overly negative to the extent that it might spill over into other aspects of one’s life, parenting, friendships, and so on. Once upon a time it was my observation of people who were constantly annoyed or in combat with their kids that left me leery about wanting to become a mother, myself. Negativity, in general, is never attractive, and I didn’t want to hate my life or myself, not to mention my kids.

When I became pregnant with M and started a parenting blog, I chose to name it Positive as a sort of triple entendre: 1. the pregnancy test indicator was a plus sign 2. I made a commitment to myself to give my child(ren) positive experiences, and 3. perhaps more importantly, I was going to enjoy motherhood as a positive time in my life. I didn’t want my experiences to be like many of those which I had observed where parents seemed miserable and out of control of themselves and disconnected from the fact that they were engaging with children.

Our perception is reality
Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting that we lie to ourselves and pretend that every moment of parenting is fantastic. It’s not. I’m very much a realist, and I know there is frustration, anger, pain and madness. But I also know that the good doesn’t invalidate the bad, and that the bad doesn’t invalidate the good.

Being a realist requires having appropriate expectations, and I think this is what helps me the most. I simply expect and accept that we’ll have rough days. I expect and accept that my children will push boundaries and one another as they find their way out of wee-dom. I expect and accept that their capabilities and limitations (mentally, emotionally, and physically) are/will be in a constant state of flux, well into their teen years (and beyond). I expect and accept that I’ll make a zillion mistakes as I navigate my way through motherhood.

Accepting the ups and the downs is, in my opinion, the first step to being able to parent more positively (for everyone involved).

Perspective
When we know better, we do better (a little nugget of wisdom that I first heard spoken by my midwife). I accept that. I embrace it. I don’t really kick myself over mistakes passed. I’m much more inclined to look forward for a chance to do better next time. I’m also likely to look ahead (to tomorrow or even a few years down the road) to try to pull myself out of any funk I might fall in to.

I noticed a poster on the wall at the dentist’s office that said “Choose Happiness” and was immediately reminded of a friend, specifically because she told me that she cognizant-ly chose happiness during the aftermath of her stillbirth. I think of her all the time, how she still thrives in the face of great loss, the way she continues to live, mother, be a wife and a friend and a midwife, all the while enduring a loss that is truly indescribable and will never go away.

Choice. Perspective.

The way we experience life stems from our perspective of it. We do have a choice. We can be respectful to our children even when we’re livid. We can clean the slate and have a do-over. We can take a step back and calm down when we’re losing our patience. We can let go of anger and frustration and just be (wrong, right, or nothing at all). We can let things slide once in a while. We’re not always the best versions of ourselves. There are countless reasons to excuse one’s responsibility for their perspective. We can choose how we address and grow from the challenges that come before us.

I like to say that if we treat people like thieves and idiots, we’ll get thieves and idiots. I extrapolate this to motherhood as well: if I treat my kids like adversaries who annoy the shit out of me, what kind of adults can I expect them to become? What kind of relationship will we have decades from now? I try to roll with the punches. I apologize when I lose my shit. I adore and affectionately engage with my little guys as much as I can. I choose to be happy with them and myself, overall, rather than dwell on our collective mishaps. And when the going gets rough, I eat chocolate.

My boys

**This is a blog transplant. I originally published it to my private blog Positive on March 17, 2014.**

Gently and lovingly, I push back the furry, red curls popping out around his ears, smoothing them down, admiring the light glistening off his sweet head of hair. Admiring every curvature of his face and those gorgeous, enrapturing, blue eyes, I breathe deeply, slowly, recording every aspect of his beautiful existence to memory. He’ll never be this way again, this wobbly-walking, squawking, jump-in-my-lap-shower-me-with-cuddles cutie ever again. Sweet, sweet C.

Admiring the way he studies every movable object, determined to understand its inner workings, my heart swells. Today it was the lower rack of the dishwasher that C hulked away from the door and onto the floor. M put it back, moving it, examining the rollers, iteratively figuring out its proper position. After ensuring it rolled smoothly in and out, he asserted that he’d fixed it; not sure who was prouder, he or I.

At bedtime he approach C as I nursed him; he snuggled him, gently and sweetly, whispering goodnight before climbing into his bed. Brothers.

Sustenance for my soul.

Never again will my boys be exactly who they are at this time. Each day I balance romance against turbulence, love against frustrations, all in the name of appreciating and celebrating each version of my boys as they progress toward adulthood, lest I look back with regret at being too overwhelmed with the work and commitment of motherhood. It’s not easy. Nothing is sweeter than the sweet, nothing is as complicated, infuriating nor exhausting as the challenge. Neither invalidates the other, but romanticizing their cuteness, innocence, and wonderment is the very best part.

Puppy love

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I said goodbye to my Old Girl. Paris entered my life when my first puppy was dying of congenital kidney failure. She’d been with me longer than my husband and children. My confidant, gardening buddy and all around adored friend is gone.

Her birthday is in May; she would have been fourteen this year. Thirteen-plus years is a long life for a purebred lab, and I’m grateful she spent most of it by my side.

Her health had been declining for a while. It became evident that her hips were giving her trouble about two years ago. She was diagnosed with mega esophagus last summer. I had been conceptually inching toward her death, preparing to let her go, grieving her one moment at a time along the way.

I’d long-planned to let Paris help train a new puppy, and finally brought Pepper into our home last December. Paris was old, slower and a bit curmudgeonly at times, but still had a lot of spunk and was a wonderful, well-behaved dog with much to offer to a new one. The vomiting started a few weeks later, which was subsequent to the lack of appetite that didn’t resonate with me at the time. In hindsight, it seems that introducing Pepper was the pivot point where Paris decided she could finally let go.

When I took her to the vet for vomiting, x-rays revealed a significantly enlarged liver, likely full of tumors, which the vet presumed was cancer. It became immediately irrelevant, because bloodlabs revealed acute liver and kidney failure.

I had known she was declining. I had known 13.5 is old for a lab. I had presumed she’d be lucky to make it through 2018. What I had not known was that she was actively dying.

Shock overtook understanding. Miss Type A I-can-figure-out-anything-and-fix-it-just-watch-me immediately devised plans for supporting her liver so that she could feel better for as long as possible. Over the next 24 hours, however, I was able to release my death-grip on the fear of losing her and ask myself, “What is the point? She is old. She is dying. She is suffering. It would be for me, not for her.”

Everyone knows that dogs are nonjudgmental and selfless. Paris was also stoic and probably held out for me. The least I could do was let her go. It was beyond her time. I felt so bad for her. My heart was broken, but her body was on the verge of shutting down and that had to have sucked for her. There was only one thing perpetuating her suffering: me.

The anti-nausea meds helped her feel great for a few days. She was playing and spry, eating like crazy and back to stealing food from the kids with fervor. It simultaneously warmed and killed my heart; she was happy and herself, which were noticeable because she hadn’t been.

She and I had a heart-to-heart one morning while my husband and kids took Pepper for a long walk. Paris, on the couch, and I, on the floor, stared into one another’s eyes for what felt like eternity. I bawled my eyes out and my heart broke even more. She told me she was ready and I told her I  loved her but would let her go.

Her (presumed) cancer overtook the benefit of the meds after 3-4 days. We put her down six days after her diagnosis. Her last day was a rough one (my poor, Old Girl), but was preceded by a fantastic day where she played in the snow and with Pepper, ate well, seemed so happy and well that the thought of putting her down seemed criminal, even though I knew it wouldn’t have been.

A vet came to our house. The kids were comical. “So, you’re gonna give her a shot to kill her,” my five-year-old asserted. “We’re really sad but kind of glad because now Paris won’t be around to teach Pepper how to eat strawberries from Mama’s garden,” added my seven-year-old. The beauty of children is that they are honest, pragmatic, uninhibited. For them, a confluence of realities coexist. Perhaps they have a better handle on life than we adults do.

My oldest and I held on to Paris and cried the whole time. The youngest brought blueberries to share with the vet. My husband took it rough; Paris was his first dog. Our youngest didn’t breakdown until the vet left and the reality set in. He went to where Paris lay and cried his poor little heart out. Saying goodbye tore our hearts apart, but grieving together helped.

It’s impossible for me to list everything I do/will miss about Paris, but one thing I keep remembering is a time when my husband was traveling and my heart was a mess about our relationship. I plopped the kids in front of the television and hid away in my closet (which was also my office. Let the record show that my closet is technically a room. I live in a weird, old farmhouse). I curled up on the floor next to my oldest love, my unconditional friend: Paris. I lay there petting her, stroking her silky ears, staring into her amber eyes. I felt overcome with guilt. I neglect her all the time. I don’t pet her enough. I don’t talk to her enough. I used to walk her daily, but… kids. Yet in my moment of desperate need, she was there. She let me love her and she loved me back, despite how much I hadn’t given her. She held no grudge. Her puppy love helped my heart that day, and more profoundly, opened my eyes to the choice one has in regards to love in relationships: One can choose to accept and receive, even when not on one’s terms, or constrain, expect, victimize and resent. She taught me to do the former.

What will I do without her?

The first week was really difficult. I felt her absence viscerally. But the distractions and demands of children and a puppy finally forced me over the hump. I mostly feel like a normal person who experiences sadness regularly rather than feeling withdrawn, broken and a mess all of the time. (I still hate that she’s gone.)

But, I have a new puppy to love. She’s not Paris. There will never be another Paris.

Sigh.

Tears.

Ugh!

Luckily, Pepper is the world’s best cuddler. Her cute puppy-ness is helping my heart so much. She’s beautiful and incredibly smart. Antics such as thieving socks and chasing leaves across the snow bring joy and laughter. But, best of all is that puppy love.

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On Importance

Everything: institution, industry, sport, group, genre, etc. has its own history, heroes, villains, popularity, prestige, etc.

To be deeply involved in a given thing provides affiliation, connection, community. It’s important. It feels important. There’s an inclination to overvalue this importance.

To have been part of multiple things defuses this sense of importance. The limit ranges from apathy to an over-inflated sense of self-importance/hero worship/an overarching belief that it ought to be important to everyone.

I think it wise to be somewhere in between: acknowledging that every thing matters to someone and no one thing matters to everyone. That importance is relative, yet valid.

Romance trumps machine language

Spend some time on social media, reading or watching the news and you’ll likely find most things reduced to a bullet point, a Top 10 list or otherwise boiled-down nugget of proffered wisdom.

Is it that people no longer care to the think for themselves, or that they’re simply too inundated with the opinions and proof from everyone else that they mistake the consumption of said information for thinking?

We humans created machines to do repetitive, tedious, time-consuming tasks so that we could apply our brains elsewhere. And yet, doesn’t it seem as though we’re becoming more like the machines than liberated, sophisticated refined beings? Machines require a special language, binary in nature, reducing to combinations of zeros and ones. But people can handle romance, where romance is defined as “something that lacks basis in fact” and fact is defined as “a thing that is indisputably the case”. How many facts are there, really? I’m 37 years old (where a year is defined as 365 days except in a leap year of 366). I’m of the female sex. My dog is black (according to the cones and rods in my retinas and related circuitry in my brain). I like to think of romance as complex, something that can’t be measured or proven definitively. Society seems to have a fixation with proof, wanting to know the answer, the truth, as though such things exist. The problem with proof is that it requires simplification and assumptions, all which are value-laden and relative; proof is a proxy for thinking.

Michael Pollen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma wrote about soil fertility and a farmer’s perspective of its complexity compared to Big Agra’s oversimplification of and reliance on fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to grow crops. His words (below) are relevant to the theme of complexity versus binary thinking as they portray the importance of the complex and limitations of the binary, which can be applied to just about any topic meriting discussion.

“Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As [the farmer] was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.”

Science is often bastardized in today’s society in an effort to make a point or serve a political interest, when in fact, science as a course of study is anything but binary. A true scientist is one who devotes their career to exploring a subject and its body of literature, contributing to it, inquiring, collaborating with one’s peers, etc. In today’s society the fruits of science are often used to silence the opposition when the real root of science is inquiry, which leads to research to build on a long history of complex subject matter. A person who throws out a data point as a means of oppressing one’s opponent should always be questioned. Science never shuns the questioner, science has nothing to fear, because there is no end to science, not in any topic or of any subject matter. There is always more to explore, research, clarify, understand, apply, redefine, and so forth.

I invested a lot of time thinking about adults when I was a kid, the way they were responsible and knew what was right and how to do it. I couldn’t comprehend why my parents didn’t seem to fulfill my expectations of other adults.

One evening when I was nineteen and waiting tables at a country club during my freshman year of college, I experienced a pivotal moment, the kind that left me unhinged and reeling. The menu was pricy; the people who dined at Seasons At Hilltop those Friday evenings (the only night it was open to the public as it was otherwise a banquet facility) were successful, they had money. They were responsible and did the right things, according to my then-binary thinking.

A man sat at a four-top with his wife and two children, and upon receiving his meal, berated me for the preparation of his steak. I assured him I would resolve the matter, but that didn’t resolve his anger. He continued going off on me. I remembered wanting to say, “Do you think I cooked the steak? Don’t you know anything about how restaurants work?” Instead I offered him a complimentary dessert. When that didn’t satisfy him, I sort of checked out, lost amidst the thoughts drowning my brain, things like, “Wow, this guy’s an asshole—how can he behave this way in front of his kids? What is he teaching them by acting this way?” and “We’re fucked. The universe is fucked. There are these morons—everywhere—cloaked as adults, and…holy shit…we’re so fucked!”

My little theory (which was really a philosophy premised in security) that real adults behaved as they should had just been blown out of the water.

Ultimately I went to my manager and let her handle the irate (so-called) man, as reason and sensibility were lost on him and that’s all I was armed with (a common theme in my life for years to come). Sure, the epiphany stuck with me, but it took a long time for me to synthesize it and develop skills beyond what I knew (reason and sensibility).

I think back to that scenario from time-to-time. Most recently it was because I just sort of realized I’m almost forty. By almost I mean closer to forty than thirty. That means I’m one of those adults I perceived as a child and young adult. I’m supposed to know All The Things and do them right, all the time, according to my nineteen-year-old self. But I don’t. I can’t even know what’s right most times, and right isn’t really worth aiming for in many cases anyway. Implicit in right is definitive, black-and-white. Yet shades of gray are more prevalent. As I move through life, sometimes gracefully, most times awkwardly, I’m constantly reminded that everything is related, dynamic, iterative, and not at all definitive.

My thirty-seven-year-old self focuses more on being consistent with my values. On being authentic and honest. I’m patient instead of hasty in the face of the unknown. I have more questions than answers. I’m willing to be vulnerable where previously I might have felt embarrassed. I want to be someone who matters. Mostly I want to be a person my children do and can respect as they evolve into their adult selves. I make mistakes all the time. I apologize to my kids. I ask for do-overs when frustration gets the best of me. That’s my I’m-almost-forty definition of being a real adult. It’s far more romantic (and messy) than binary. My nineteen-year-old self would think it irrational and stupid. How naïve would I be to mistaken wisdom and an appreciation of life’s complexity for simplistic idiocy? As for my thirty-seven-year-old self, romance trumps machine language.

Black ink

I started keeping a journal back in 1998 when I stumbled upon a stray composition book in the desk drawer in a room I rented that summer. I used to write in any variety of ink color available to me. But upon writing the initial entry in Volume IV of my journal in August 1999, I started using black ink only. (Well, with the exception of a few entries in blue ink over the next two years, which conjured obvious disdain, evidenced by the entries that followed. Thankfully blue ink didn’t blemish journals beyond Volume IV.)

My absolute favorite pen to write with is the uni-ball Vision 0.5mm. I buy them by the dozen. Over the past few weeks I’ve had to chuck several as they ran out of ink. Little is more frustrating than straining to maintain consistent weight of letters as a pen nears its death. Then again, having to write with a ballpoint is equally if not more frustrating. (I’m a pen snob and rarely yield to using pens available to me at a doctor’s office or business; chances are I’m packing a uni-ball Vision somewhere on my person, and opt for that.) I bought another dozen today, and I’m not at all embarrassed to say buying a fresh dozen pens is as good a fix as drinking coffee or eating chocolate.

Here are my new pens, in all of their full-of-ink glory, stacked neatly upon Volume X; the five remainders from the previous dozen are off to the left, fearing their last letter.