November 13, 2013 § 10 Comments
“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine, too.” – Scout, from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
My most recent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird was my first reading as a parent – at least as a parent with children old enough to talk – and Atticus Finch is my new hero.
Atticus, father to Jem and Scout, the children from whose perspective To Kill a Mockingbird is told, is one of the fairest men I’ve come across in literature. He has always been a hero: for defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1940s Alabama; for his calm in facing a mob of his own friends and neighbors; for his reluctance to claim the title “One-Shot Finch” dispite his marksmanship skills, and for subsequently laying down his weapon because “he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things.”
He has always been a hero for these reasons, but now that I’m a parent who struggles with equipping our children to navigate their world, with knowing what to talk to them about and when, with gentling them into the inconsistencies in human nature, with teaching them to treat people with respect and fairness, and most importantly, with how to model right behavior to them, Atticus Finch is my hero all over again.
Atticus respects his children as individuals and as equals. This is not something we normally do as parents. We often put ourselves above our children, trying to make them mind, to do our bidding because “we know best.” Atticus, though. Atticus knows that sometimes the children know best.
“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses, didn’t it?… Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.”
Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus respects his kids by talking straight with them. He answers their every question without flinching. When his eight year old daughter, Scout, asked “What’s rape?” Atticus “sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” He did not dodge. He did not shroud the topic in mystery and discomfort. He defined rape for her, and if she’d had any follow up questions he would have answered those, too.
He reacted with similar equanimity when Scout started swearing. When at the dinner table Scout said, “Pass the damn ham, please” to her uncle, Atticus told him, “Don’t pay any attention to her, Jack. She’s trying you out. Cal says she’s been cussing fluently for a week, now.”
But the thing I love most about Atticus as a parent is that he not only respects his children and their right to be themselves – he allows Scout to read the newspaper even though her teacher prescribes against it, he permits his kids to hear the verdict in Tom Robinson’s case despite his sister’s wailing protests, he allows them the freedom to be children rather than forcing them to respect their “gentle breeding” by making them “behave like the little lady and gentleman” they are - no, not only does Atticus respect their right to be themselves, but he encourages their exploration and independence because he recognizes the preciousness of children, and what a great gift they are in teaching us, as grownups, how to be humane. When Jem struggles to understand the injustice served to Tom Robinson by his own friends and neighbors, people he thought were good folk, he says to Atticus,
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”
Now, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a parent, I have been humbled by yet another layer of its wisdom. Now, when I am struggling as a mom, when I’m not sure what answer to give, or which battles to fight, I will ask myself, What Would Atticus Do? And then I’ll know what’s right.
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – a woman, a man, and a non-Caucasian author. To follow along, click on the Andrea Reads America tab on the left.
November 9, 2013 § 8 Comments
I fell asleep last night to the soft sound of our daughter snoring next to me, and I woke up to a small warm hand stroking my back. I turned over under the poofy down comforter to face her, and there was her smiling chubby-cheeked face buried in my husband’s pillow, her swim meet hair snarled all over her forehead and chin and the muted gold pillowcase. “Good morning, Mommy,” she said. Happiness radiated off of her, that she got to sleep in the bed with me. “I love you,” she said, and petted my arm.
This is a big weekend for our kids. Our 9 year old son is off with Dad in Richmond for a soccer tournament. They drove last night, and ate Five Guys cheeseburgers, and watched TV in a hotel room. While our daughter and I lingered this morning in PJs, they got up early and donned fleece hats, thick hooded sweatshirts, coats, and gloves for an 8:30 am soccer game on a crisp, 35 degree morning. You know, father son stuff.
Mom and daughter, on the other hand, sat side by side in a booth at The Olive Garden last night. I people-watched – a young man with delicate bone structure and wearing a suit smiled sweetly at his date; an exhausted married couple leaned over constantly, picking up food and toys that their young children threw on the floor; two silver haired women with bifocals sat on the same side of a table, and after 20 minutes the people they were meeting finally showed up, the woman with spiky hair and tight jeans and high heels, and who placed her phone face up on the table so that she could monitor it during dinner – while our daughter played word games on the kids’ menu. We ate ravioli, then sundaes, then drove home, threw her towels and suit into the dryer, and crawled in bed together to read. You know, mother daughter stuff.
And this morning, instead of layering in winter clothing, our daughter is suiting up in her H2Okies competition swimsuit, a black speedo with a turkey (Hokie bird) footprint on it. The suit is only about 12 inches long for her tiny 7 year old body. She swam a 200 yard individual medley in it last night, the first she’s ever attempted, and though we were able to wake without an alarm clock this morning, and we don’t have to leave for another 3 hours, we’ve already marked her arm for the events of today: 50 fly, 100 breast, and 50 free.
We will spend all day at the aquatic center, then come home to pizza and a movie. We will snuggle in bed reading, and wake up without an alarm, and mark her arm with another four events tomorrow, while Dad and son bundle up in Richmond for more soccer.
These days are my favorite part of parenting. These days are what it’s all about.
November 4, 2013 § 16 Comments
I apologize for writing about writing again, but I’m having a moment. A moment of feeling crushed by Friday folders filled with requests – money for the art fundraiser, canned goods for the food drive, volunteer hours for the PTO, donations for the fall festival – and workload stresses for my professor husband, and soccer and swim tournaments, and party planning and gift triage (wish-list management, shopping, ordering, returning) for both kids’ upcoming birthdays smack in the middle of holiday season, and endless requests of “Mom, can I have a pear? Mom can I have a bandaid? Mom will you take me to Target? Mom, can you cut this tag? Mom, what’s for snack? For lunch? For dinner? Mom, can I have a piece of Halloween candy?” all piled on top of all the normal everyday demands of laundry and groceries and cooking and cleaning and ironing and play-date scheduling and initialing homework and driving to sports, and everyone wanting and needing and requesting, including me wanting for myself – I want to write – and I’ve got nothing left to give. To anyone. Anymore.
In the face of this, I’m having a moment. A moment of I can’t do it all. I can’t write and do everything else. I can’t fulfill my role of supporter with any kind of grace while also dedicating fully to my “writing career.” As I develop my skill set and hone my craft, I want to go deeper, but as CEO of the household, I have to pull back. And if I can’t go in all the way, I figure why go in at all.
I was thinking this way, thinking of giving up, thinking “I’m silly for even considering myself a writer, of saying I’m working towards a ‘writing career’ – it’s not a career if nobody’s paying me!” when I heard Angela Duckworth speak in a recent episode of the TED Radio Hour. The episode’s title? Success.
In her talk, Duckworth, who is a recent MacArthur Genius grant recipient, explained that IQ wasn’t a predictor for success in her seventh grade math students. This was curious to her. If IQ couldn’t be used to predict academic success, what could? She began studying other groups – military cadets, rookie teachers, salespeople – asking in every instance, “who is successful here and why?” Over and over again, she discovered “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success and it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ.”
What was it?
“It was grit.”
Grit. A favorite word. It’s in my lexicon.
As Duckworth explains:
Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long-term and then working very hard at it.
My husband and I have talked about this before, that it seems that talent and aptitude do not guarantee success. Though I feel he has both in spades, when everyone in our families made a big deal about his PhD, he downplayed his talents, claiming the degree was not an indicator of intellect. It merely indicated that he had endured. He had a career goal, and the PhD was required to achieve that goal, and so he just kept going until it was done. He didn’t give up, even when it was really, really hard.
The same was true for me with distance bike rides and triathlons. I’m no athlete. Phys Ed class brought down my GPA in high school. But as a young adult, when I committed to the AIDS Ride, to raising $2000 and riding my bicycle from North Carolina to Washington DC, I didn’t give up. I didn’t complete the 330 miles at the front of the pack, but athlete or not, I started, and I didn’t quit, and so I finished.
And when you start something, and you don’t quit? You finish. You succeed.
I have the same passion for writing as I did for those athletic events, only I don’t have as much time to dedicate as I’d like. I’m chomping at the bit. I want to take it to the next level. I want to write and write and write, I want to spend 3 or 4 hours a day writing, I want to pursue ideas that require concentration and focus, I want to run with it. But I also want to be Mom, and I can’t do them both and do them both well, and that makes it really, really hard. It makes me want to say I can’t run with this, what’s the use, this isn’t working, I am Mom, not writer, I quit.
Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. – Angela Duckworth
I’ve completed an Olympic distance triathlon. I’ve birthed two babies without painkillers. I’ve been a stay at home mom for ten years and have not thrown a child or myself out a window. I can do slow and steady. I can endure.
When host Guy Raz asked about how we might build perseverance, Duckworth replied, “believing that change is possible inclined kids to be grittier.” By knowing that change is possible we can believe that persistence will pay, we can acquire grit, we will recognize that even when failure seems eminent, we can succeed on the other side because failure is not a permanent condition.
I know change is possible. I know that every situation is temporary, including these Mom years, when our kids are young, and they need me. My perceived failure as a writer is not a permanent condition. The moment I’m having? The one I mentioned in the lead of this post? It will pass. In fact, in the time since I began drafting this piece on Saturday morning, and now, as I finish it up on Sunday evening, it already has. Change has already occurred. I no longer feel like quitting. And as for the sprinting? I don’t need to race. I want out of the gate, but I can keep warming up for a while first.
I can do slow and steady. I can endure. One day, maybe ten years from now, maybe fifteen, I will get to the point where I no longer feel the need to put quotes around my “writing career.” I’m gritty, damn it. I will succeed.
How gritty are you? Take Duckworth’s test here to find your grit score.
October 17, 2013 § 28 Comments
“Hey Mom, are trees living things or living beings?”
Our nine year old son looked into the forest then up at me as we hiked side by side along a gurgling brook. His dad and sister walked a few steps ahead of us. Upstream was the Glade Creek Grist Mill in West Virginia, a rustic wooden building with a pitched roof. Today its wet planks were framed by yellowing autumn trees.
“I guess that depends on what you mean by living being,” I said. “I think of a being as – ” I tried to think of words that would be familiar to him. I failed. “As a sentient being – something that has a soul.” The path was littered in gold, red, and toast brown leaves, and I kicked at a drift with my leather hiking shoe.
“Personally, I think of trees as living beings,” I told him, “but I think a lot of people probably think of them as living things.” Our son looked up the mountain into the dripping forest.
“What’s a soul?” he asked.
I sucked in a big breath. “Oh boy,” I said. Up ahead, our daughter twirled a red maple leaf between her thumb and pointer finger. “Your soul, if you believe in souls, is…” I struggled to find words. “It’s the part of you that makes you you.”
“You mean like your personality?” he asked.
“No, the spirit part. The part that is left after you die,” I said, then immediately knew what was going to come next.
“So like a ghost then!” our daughter said.
This was difficult.
“Not quite.” I searched my brain, trying to find language to describe souls to a seven and a nine year old.
“Your soul is the parts of you that aren’t physical,” my husband told them. “Your feelings, memories, friendships. The emotions you feel. Love.”
Our son tilted his head. “But isn’t all that stuff just your brain?”
I looked up to the trees again, hoping for some help. There was no wind. They were not talking.
“Yes, that’s one way to look at it,” I said. We like to give our kids a suite of options when it comes to spirituality and religion, to let them know that there is no hard and fast answer. No agreed upon truth that works for everyone all at the same time, and that they get to choose what they believe. “Some people believe that what Dad and I are describing as spiritual – feelings, intuition, love – is purely physical. A series of chemical reactions in our brains, nothing more.”
He kicked at leaves, thinking. I was still stuck on the soul thing. I wasn’t satisfied that we’d explained what a soul is.
“Remember when we talked about reincarnation?” I asked. The kids had asked about religion several months prior, and I told them I thought there are as many paths to God as there are people on earth. Then, in typical over-informative fashion, I gave them synopses of several religions of the world: Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, Wicca, and Islam. The concepts of reincarnation and karma resonated with them more than the idea of heaven and hell did.
“Remember how I said that when you die some people believe you go to heaven or hell, or in the case of reincarnation, you might come back as something else – another person, or maybe a bug?” I said. “The soul is the part of you that would go from one life to the next, that would go into that bug after your body died. It’s the part that would carry everything you learned in each incarnation.” I gestured uselessly to my heart. “The spirit part.”
My brain hurt from the effort of describing this. Soul, sentient, spirit. How do you explain these things? “But reincarnation is just one idea. Brain chemistry is another.”
“So nobody knows the real answer,” our son said. “What happens when we die, whether our feelings are just our brain or part of our soul.”
“Nope. It all depends on what you believe,” I said. “Nobody knows for sure.”
The leaves in the trees rustled a little. Not much, but enough to remind me of our son’s original question.
“I think mostly people think humans have souls, and maybe animals have souls, but I don’t know that a lot of people think of plants as having souls. So most people would probably call trees living things.” I looked up at the green and orange and yellow and red leaves, and the strong trunks with rough or papery or chunky bark, and I saw how all those trees were nestled together as a community on the mountainside, gathering sunlight, being beautiful. I thought about the times that I have felt one with the whispering forest, when there was no doubt in my heart, or mind, or soul that trees are part of the same absolute that I am a part of, that we are kindred.
“Do you ever feel a connection to nature?” I asked our son. “Like, in your heart, a feeling that doesn’t have words, you just feel it when you’re out in the woods or by a stream or something?” It was my last hope, in this “thing” versus “being” discussion, that he would know what I was talking about.
“Yes.” He said this without hesitation, and I knew he would get it now.
“Me too,” I said. “Sometimes when a breeze blows through and the trees sway and their leaves rustle, I feel like they are talking. I don’t know what they are saying, but they are saying something.” I looked up to the forest again. “In their tree language.” Our son giggled. “I feel connected to them somehow, like they have spirits, or souls, or whatever you want to call it.”
“So when I think of trees,” I said, “I think of them as living beings and not just living things.”
Our son’s eyes flared with understanding as he looked up at me. “Yes,” he said. His body relaxed with the contentment of a seeker who has found the answer he sought. “I think you’re exactly right, Mom.”
October 9, 2013 § 15 Comments
“The only time I have anything interesting to write is when I go on vacation.” (“No way,” “That’s a bunch of crap,” from around the room). John, in my critique group, was talking about how he has a hard time coming up with new material in his regular life. “You know, on vacation everything is new and exciting,” he said. “It’s the only time I see things with fresh eyes.”
I knew what he was talking about. It’s a lot easier to write about something new and exciting than to write about something old and ordinary. Or maybe easier isn’t the right word. Obvious. The world is much more obvious when it’s novel, which then makes it more accessible. We are more apt to note it when it smells different, when the scenery changes, or when the people are unlike the ones we interact with in our daily lives.
“What do you do in your regular life?” someone asked John.
“I’m a contractor. I remodel kitchens and stuff like that. Nothing exciting,” he said.
“I think that sounds pretty cool,” I said. “I don’t know anything about remodelling. I’d love to read about the houses you renovate around here – what they looked like before, what they look like after, and how you transform them.” I pictured a sledgehammer to cabinets.
“And the people you remodel them for,” someone grinned. I saw a young, upper middle-class white couple, both Type A personalities, wearing pressed button-down shirts and polished pointy toed shoes, pointing and gesturing in the kitchen doorway as they give John his instructions.
John looked around the table at us. “Really? It seems boring to me. Like, who would care about this?” Then he chuckled and gave a different description of his customers than I had imagined. “Well, the clients are interesting,” he said. “I’ll give you that. Women have disrobed for me when I walk in the door.”
“That really happens?” I said.
“I would read about that!” someone else said.
“See?” Les said. “You could write a blog: The Handyman of Love,” and we all laughed. John looked thoughtful and scribbled a few notes on his notepad.
This is a constant struggle for bloggers and personal essayists, to consider their life experience interesting enough to write about. They live it every day. It is ordinary to them, and it is difficult to see what could be interesting about the minutia of their daily lives.
A few weeks after the Handyman of Love writer’s group, I drove by the corn fields where I had been certain on a recent run that the Children of the Corn were going to jump out and get me, and a tractor pulling what looked like a tiny red barn was – reaping? I watched from a stoplight, and my mind filled with questions. What is the machine called that’s cutting the corn? What is the action called that the tractor is doing? Reaping? Harvesting? Threshing? All of the above?
The traffic light turned green, and when I arrived at the school to pick up our kids for dental appointments, I said, “Hey guys, they’re cutting down the corn.”
We had watched the corn grow all summer, gauging its height with each passing week. “Do you think it’s as tall as you?” I said to the kids in early July. “I think it’s as tall as you, Mom,” they said to me in early August. “Look how tall it is now!” I pointed in September. “It’s even taller than Dad!”
Our son’s face lit up as he bundled into the car, “I want to see them cutting the corn!”
I explained what I had witnessed on my way to the school. “There was a green tractor pulling this, this,” I had no idea what the thing was called that the John Deere was pulling. “This red think that looked like a miniature barn.”
We crested a rolling hill and I could see the corn fields. “The tractor drove along the edge of the corn,” I said, “and it pushed the stalks forward, and cut them, then I saw stuff shooting backwards into the little barn.” I gestured with my right thumb, pointing it backwards over my shoulder to show how the stuff shot. I wished I knew what the barn thing was called. “Leaves and ears of corn it looked like,” I said, my thumb still pointing backwards. I wished I knew what the cutter thing was called. How to name the process I witnessed. “And after the tractor passed, the corn stalks were gone. Just broken stubs in the ground.”
I put both hands back on the wheel and looked out the window. I didn’t know the process well enough to describe it to our kids. I didn’t have the right words. This everyday ordinary event to the farmer was a complete mystery to me. Every step I tried to explain to our kids it was in my face that I had no ideas what words to use – “red barn thing” – or how to explain the process. The farmer, if he were a writer, might think his work, driving a tractor around the edges of a cornfield, making the square smaller with each turn, was too common sense, too mundane to bore or insult his readers by describing it.
But something I learned from both John (the handyman of love) and the farmer (with the red barn thing), is that one person’s plain old everyday life is new and unknown to another. As a writer, I must constantly remind myself of this. Every time I sit with words and think, this is obvious, everybody knows this, I remind myself that nobody else has lived my life, nobody else is inside my head (y’all should be thankful for that – it’s crazy in there), and that if I am to write well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.
Last weekend, after we cleaned the dinner dishes and were getting ready for our Friday night ritual of watching Merlin together as a family, I said, “Let me take my makeup off and then I’ll be down.“ I started climbing the stairs.
“Can I come watch you?” our daughter asked. She’s seven.
I stopped on the staircase and sighed a huge sigh. I just wanted to get this done and be downstairs on the couch with the kids and a blanket. “Really sweetie? It’s not that exciting.”
She hung her head. “Okay.”
The mysteries of John’s life as a handyman, and my ignorance of the process of harvesting corn popped into my head, along with my own constant reminders when I’m in writing mode to not dismiss everyday details. It occurred to me that this end-of-the-day routine is totally mundane to me, but our daughter never seen makeup removed before. It is new and interesting to her.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said. “Of course you can watch.”
We walked upstairs together and she leaned in the doorway to the vanity sink while I put my hair in a ponytail. I grabbed my blue Estée Lauder bottle and pumped cleanser into my left palm.
“What’s that?” our daughter asked. Until this point in her life, she had only used a bar of soap to wash her face, even when she played “makeup” and had to remove it.
I turned the bottle so I could read the label. “Take it Away Makeup Remover Lotion,” I said. “It’s not as harsh as using soap.”
I dabbed my right finger into the dollop of cleanser and explained, “You should always wash makeup off at the end of the day.” I dabbed cleanser on my forehead. “It’s not good for your skin or your eyes to leave it on.”
“What makeup do you have on?” she asked.
“Powder, blush,” I dabbed my nose, my cheeks. “Eye shadow, mascara,” and I dabbed my right eyelid, then my left.
“What about eyeliner?”
“Nope, no eyeliner today,” I said.
“What is eyeliner?” our daughter asked.
So many things I take for granted. “Eyeliner is the makeup you draw on at the base of your eyelashes,” I told her, “to line the shape of your eye.”
I rubbed the cleanser into my skin as she leaned in the doorway. Her hands were in her hoodie pockets and she rested her shoulder and head against the door frame. After I rinsed my face, I explained the cream for the puffy bags under my eyes. I read the labels from the tiny tubs of my Lancôme free samples – “Génifique youth activating concentrate,” I said in a fake French accent. “That means it’s supposed to make me not wrinkly,” I said, and we giggled.
I screwed the lid on the final moisturizer and I kneeled down to our daughter’s level. I felt closer to her after sharing this little everyday ritual that I take for granted, that before had seemed so ordinary it wasn’t worth explaining. There’s a certain intimacy in taking part in someone’s daily routines that I didn’t appreciate until that moment. “Why did you want to watch me take off my makeup?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I didn’t know how you did it,” she said. I hugged her, and as we walked downstairs together to watch Merlin, I realized that like contracting and farming are not obvious to me, my life is not obvious to our children. They do not already know all the things I know as a 39-year-old woman. As with writing, where I constantly remind myself to not dismiss everyday details, as a parent, if I am to parent well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.