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Archive for October, 2007

One’s secret name.

“To find out anybody’s secret name was a very powerful tool ….”  Simon Cox

This idea of secret names brings to mind T.S. Eliot and the secret names of his “Practical Cats” and Latter-Day-Saint women who can only reach the highest levels of heaven if their husbands are pleased with them, and call their secret names. I think we all have secret names, some hidden so deeply that we don’t even know them ourselves.

I have known a few people closely enough that their secret names were so familiar to me that I could hardly tell the sound of that name from my own breath. My youngest daughter I know that well, one dear friend, my husband, and one other whose memory I will leave sleeping for now. And my own secret name? I do know it, and can count on one hand the others that know it as well.

To be truly known is something I believe all people crave. I could be wrong; there may be those who revel in their separateness, existentialists who have no desire to connect. That is not me. Even as I fear rejection I want to be understood, listened to, studied, cherished, known. Maybe just because it makes me feel less alone, or maybe it’s a hedge against death. If there are others who truly know me, then wouldn’t part of me live on through them? It’s a thought.

I wonder if one can reveal one’s secret name through a blog?

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Seventeen years.

Yesterday was one of the anniversaries in my life. My father died seventeen years ago. I was eight months pregnant with my first child, single, staying temporarily with my mother (they had divorced many years earlier) at a yacht club in New Jersey. A friend had taken the train up to visit from Washington, D.C., and the three of us had gone on a hayride that night. We arrived late back at the condominium where we were staying, tired and laughing, and hadn’t been home long when the telephone rang.

Unless you are in the midst of a terrible fight with someone you love dearly, or waiting for news of a child out past curfew, the ringing of the telephone late at night is almost always bad news.  Do I remember exchanging worried glances with my mother when the phone sounded that night, or have I edited that into the memory after-the-fact? I don’t know this, but it feels true. Anyway, I was the one who picked up the handset.

“Sweetheart,” a voice said, “this is your Uncle Don. Your dad’s gone, Honey.” I know that afterward he gave me the few details he had on the massive heart attack that took my father, assuring me that no decisions would be made regarding the funeral until I arrived in the small town where my father spent his life, but I don’t really remember any of what was said. I know my mother and I cried, and I do remember being surprised that she was as stricken by the news as I was. I wonder if even then it occurred to me that I’d run out of time to make him like me.

My mother remarried just a few years ago after having been single for nearly thirty years, and in the swoon of new love announced to my sister (through whom I sent a message to my mother to please for the love of God to never say it to me) that with this new husband she had found the first love of her life; that she never actually loved my father, that she hadn’t known what love was until she met this new man. But I was there when she wept, inconsolably, for a man she had met and married so long ago, and from whom she had been divorced for nearly sixteen years, and I know for certain that she had, indeed, loved him. I don’t know if she would recant if asked, now that the bloom of her new marriage has faded, after a few years of sharp words and dirty laundry, procrastinations and the day-to-day grit of life together has worn much of the shine away, and I’m not going to be the one to ask. I don’t know why hearing, second-hand, that she had denied loving my father hurt me so much, but it did, and I think of it still.

My father wasn’t a ‘hands-on’ dad, or maybe he was, if you include the physical contact of corporal punishment. He was big on spankings, whether with his hand, or a hickory switch, or one of his shoes, or that all-time favorite, his leather belt. He enjoyed threatening with the belt nearly as much as using it – folding it in half and making a loud cracking noise as the leather slapped against itself. You knew it was going to be your hind end it smacked against unless you did whatever it was he was demanding at the moment. He also liked to smack you up-side the head at the dinner table, often hard enough to knock you out of your chair and onto the floor, but not tell you why. So you picked yourself up off the floor (knowing better than to cry, or he’d do it again), sat back down, and tried to figure out what you had done wrong. Were you holding your fork wrong? Did you forget to close your mouth when you chewed? Did you forget to say please, or thank you, or did you just look at him wrong? So you’d carefully begin to eat again, and like as not, he’d knock you out of your chair again. This would continue until you figured out what had him angry, or all the food was gone. Dinner wasn’t over until everything had been eaten. I often wonder if this contributed to the weight problem I have dealt with all my life. You never know.

My father had a cruel sense of humor, and his approach to his children was a punitive one. He believed children should be seen and not heard. He wasn’t much different from the fathers of the other children I knew, in that way. He cheated repeatedly on my mother, bought and sold firearms under the table, liked to hunt, got into fist fights and even beat people for money. And I hope he loved me. Women invariably found him charming, and he was handsome, green-eyed and dark blonde, like me, like my sister. My mother, who is French and Cherokee in heritage and looks, didn’t even resemble her children for most of our lives, though as we all age, I find that we look much more alike. I know for sure that I loved him, and will until I die. For better or worse, he was my father, and I so wanted him to notice me, to approve of me, to love me. My first child was born not long after his death, and I named her after him. I’m not sure what my beliefs are about the after-life, but I’d like to think he knows, and approves. Finally.

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A promised ride.

I have a recurring fantasy – no, not a fantasy, exactly – it’s more like an overwhelming feeling that flows over and through me, always when I’m driving, usually in the late fall, often during that brief, glorious time between daylight and night, when the air is cool and scented with water. Something about that rare moment feels like youth, and in that brief time I can nearly reach out and touch immortality. I can’t explain it any better than that.

I think it’s a memory that doesn’t belong to me, rather one I was promised, but that was never delivered. I grew up in a very, very small town in the mid-west. I lived there from birth through the beginning of seventh grade, moving away just when things were starting to get interesting. At twelve, I knew what there was to do in my small town once you were old enough to drive, or old enough to hang out with friends who could drive. You drove. You drove the back roads (of which I am fairly certain there were and are more of than front roads). And you got into all sorts of delicious trouble. I knew it was coming, and I couldn’t wait. In my imagination, the cute, bad boys a year or two ahead of me beckoned to me and whispered of things here-to-fore unknown, but incredibly enticing.

My best friend, L, and I would try to conjure up exactly what happened in those beat-up trucks and cars behind breath-frosted windows; we practiced kissing, too, on pillows and, sometimes, on one another, in the dark, under the covers. There had to be, we decided, more to it than that. And, of course, there was.

Then we moved. Two thousand miles away, to what seemed like a different country. There were boys there, too, of course, and trucks, and plenty of making out and steamy windows awaited. But it wasn’t the same. I think part of me is still waiting for that, for my turn to ride the midwestern backroads straddling the gearshift of an old Ford with oxidized paint and a bumpersticker promising something about missing his ex but his aim improving. So on those almost-chilly evenings, when I have the windows down and the air tossing my hair into my eyes, I take a different ride in my imagination, where we are always young, and I can reach out and touch my twelfth year as easily as this one.

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I had a bad day yesterday. In the waiting room at the dentist’s office, before my root canal (any sentence beginning that way tends to make me shudder), I took a phone call from the woman I work for. I work in tourism, and to cut to the chase, something I had neglected to do left six tourists standing in front of their hotel waiting for a tour van that was never coming, a driver/guide out $115, and cost my employer $360. She was not pleased. She didn’t yell at me, though; after we ascertained that I did, indeed, not make the call I should have made, she just said my name in the most disgusted way possible, then hung up. I was in tears. Had she yelled at me, I could have yelled back, but the way she did it left me nowhere to go. All during the root canal, tears would slip out of my eyes and down the sides of my face, and the dentist kept asking if I were alright. I tried to tell her it had nothing to do with the root canal, but probably didn’t communicate that well with four hands and a couple of metal instruments in my mouth.

I was needed at the office after my dental procedure, and was dreading calling her. I have seen how she handles people when she’s angry, and expected her to be abusive, and I knew I would not take that from her. So I was upset about having to quit a job I quite like, generally. I am always pleasant to her, no matter what my real feelings are, because I have known from the first few days of my employment that if she and I ever argued, and she spoke to me the way I hear her speak to others, I’d have to quit. And I didn’t think she knew this about me, but I think I was wrong. When I called after my appointment, she quickly went over how the morning had been, and then dropped the subject of the morning tour-that-wasn’t. Before I hung up, I said, “Thanks for not being really pissed-off at me.” To which she replied, “I am, I just know better than to say it to you.” And that was it. I sat there with my cell phone in my hand, half-smiling – she apparently knows me better than I think she does.

My experience yesterday morning also had me thinking about something else. My youngest daughter, H, is always in trouble with me, and with my husband. She is forgetful, willful, she doesn’t pick up after herself, is willing to perform no chore, including picking up her own room. She refuses to do homework, taunts her sister into unholy rages, and on and on and on. And we yell at her a lot. But I also use that tone with her, call her name in that disappointed, disgusted tone. And I remember thinking of her after talking to I on the phone, and thinking, oh, this is what H feels.

So I talked to her about it last night. I was exhausted, and after coming home and having dinner, I went up to bed. She came in for a snuggle, and I told her about my day, and how I wondered if that was what it felt like to her when dad and I treated her that way. She nodded yes. She said, “Everybody gets so mad at me, and I keep thinking somebody will feel sorry for me, but nobody ever does.” We talked about things we could all do differently, to keep her from feeling that way. Ideas included having her do what she was asked when she was asked, and ways we could let her know we were displeased without making her feel like she’d failed us as a human being. Getting homework done, doing a few things around the house, picking up after yourself – these things are not worth losing your sense of self-worth over.

Yesterday had its moments of grace, too. The dentist, who knew I was extremely frightened of having dental work done, was extremely gentle and supportive. My root canal was virtually painless. I had to work all day with my boss, and in spite of the morning, she was upbeat and positive the rest of the day. When I dashed home before going to pick the girls up from school (and then going back to work), I wanted to throw some red beans in the crock pot, expecting to have to wash it, and my middle daughter had already washed it and had it ready to use. For some reason, this specific small act of kindness touched me deeply. Picking up the girls, one went missing – H was supposed to meet me at a certain place, and she wasn’t there, nor was she anywhere near there. I drove around looking for her for as long as I could, then called my husband, who was calm and pleasant when offering to let me get back to work (already a little late) and him leave work early to drive uptown and look for her. No drama, just kindness (she was fine, just goofing around with her friends). S had made the final seasoning adjustments to the red beans, and made rice, and all had eaten when I arrived home, so no last-minute dash to feed my starving horde. I was able to eat, spend some time talking to everyone about their day, and go to bed. Seen that way, it wasn’t a bad day at all.

I need to work on being grateful for what I have, and less self-obsessed over every little thing that doesn’t go my way. Today is beautiful, still very warm, and I’m going to go out to my lovely pool and swim with the dog, one of my favorite things to do. This life is very good.

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Chanting.

My middle daughter attends a Kaikon on occasion with a friend, and is quite interested in Buddhism. She wanted me to know about chanting, and how it makes changes in people’s lives. The basic chant is “nom myoho renge kyo” and is said in a rhythmic, monotone way. My initial response was skepticism, but I’m beginning to wonder about that. I have been practicing the habit of chanting, and find that it has some immediate benefit to me.

First off, I have trouble shutting my mind down. I don’t know if this is something everyone struggles with, or if it’s more rare than that, but I have difficulty sleeping because I can’t slow my thoughts, it is hard for me to stay on one subject, even when talking to other people, etc.  I have found that I can hold a conversation while chanting in the background, and rather than being confusing, it actually helps me focus on what is being said. Chanting as I fall asleep helps me quiet all the stuff vying for my attention (notice I didn’t say ‘voices’), and allows me to let sleep come.

Today after work I had to make a fairly long drive out the old river road, and headed back to my house, I knew when I arrived I’d have a lot going on. Everyone was starving for dinner, which I’d need to make, and my youngest child needed intense help with a couple of homework projects. My middle child wanted to run some things by me for a class she’ll be teaching after school, etc. So I chanted with the stated intention of being kind and helpful and offering service to my family, and, I think, it helped.

Nom myoho renge kyo.

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There are so many things I want to do! So many lives I want to experience. I had recently decided I wanted to go back to school, finish my bachelor’s degree (hopefully in no more than a year and a half), and then see if I couldn’t get into the MFA program in writing. I have been pretty excited about this idea for several days. I’ve mulled over what the classroom experience might be like for me, now that I’m so much older, and whether or not my aging brain could keep up in a classroom full of 18 year olds, fresh from high school (I will definitely have a few introductory classes to take, particularly in the sciences). I decided I was all in.

 

This morning, however, driving out along the old river road, I began thinking about my life as part of my family, as the wife of my husband. We struggle financially, in large part because we have a very large mortgage on a house that’s about a third larger than we need. But if I were working full-time, we wouldn’t be struggling. If I made twice what I make now, if I were to bring home even $1k per month, it would make all the difference. We’d have enough money and then some. We could take care of all the things we have to put off now. And I began to wonder if this has been a big disappointment to my husband, in his life with me.

 

I remember when we were dating, rather than actually proposing to me, he said that he thought we both wanted a lot of things out of life that we couldn’t attain alone, on our single salaries. Romantic, yes, I know. But he was right. Yet out of the thirteen years we’ve been married, I think I have worked outside the home, not including comedy (which, financially, didn’t count at all) for maybe five years. And that’s being generous. I doubt that’s what he signed up for. When I brought up school, he said he thought it was a great idea. But when did he agree that his purpose in life was to enable me to make my dreams come true? What part of the deal was that?

 

But I am who I am, and I would/will be angry if I have to work full-time at something I hate, or worse, something I deem pointless. B is definitely a better person than I am, and he doesn’t indulge in resentment or jealousy, whereas I virtually make them my religion. What would I like to do, if I have to work full-time (which, again, no one is asking me to do, except me)? I guess I’d like to do something that involves travel. My children are old enough that I could be away for several days at a time without causing them much hardship. On the other hand, there is so little time until S is off into the world, and by the time she graduates from high school, the last one, the baby, will only have two more years to go, too. Both of which could ostensibly keep me at home until I’m fifty years old. Thank God fifty is the new forty, or I’d be worried . . . .

 

I don’t know many jobs that I could do that would have me traveling.  I’d like to go to Shanghai, and Nepal, and Romania. I’d like to go back to Ireland and Italy, but I’d like to see Morocco, too, and Africa. I’d like to go to Australia, and New Zealand. Hell, I’d like to see Hawaii and Alaska, for that matter. I keep wondering if I could do it in some travel agent capacity, or as a writer of travel books. Write honest travelogues about what happens when you take a mildly traveled middle-aged woman and drop her in Morocco, or Romania, or Nepal, bad back, bad knees, diabetes and all. Travel books for the rest of us – not the twenty-somethings, or the well-heeled thirty-somethings, or even the sixty-somethings who are fit and retired, but a real-life mom and wife who longs to see the world. I’d have a budget and my physical issues, limited language resources, etc. Hmmm. Wonder if it’s worth writing that up and shipping it off – maybe someone would buy into the idea. I’d need a catchy title. “My Mom Wants to See the World,” and have my youngest daughter do the forewords. “Third Age, Third World.” “The Aching Back Guides.” Maybe “Lazy Travel” and find the balance between the quickest, least physically taxing way to get someplace and the most financially feasible. It wouldn’t just be budget travel, it would keep in mind that a lot of we middle-agers (by the way, I despise referring to or thinking of myself that way) don’t have young backs and knees, and we do better with a nap in the afternoon, too. Too much heat doesn’t sit well with us, nor does too much cold. Maybe “Limited Travel Unlimited.” “See the World – Without Missing Your Afternoon Nap.”   “Long Naps and Bad Knees – World Travel for the Rest of Us.” Maybe that’s it. The “Long Naps and Bad Knees” series. “Shanghai – with Long Naps and Bad Knees.” “Morocco – Travel for Used People.” That’s not it, but I feel like I’m close!

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Sometimes it’s difficult to know when we are helping our children, and when we are hindering them. My youngest child, H, has mild learning disabilities, but her biggest handicap may be my willingness to help her even when she should be doing things on her own.

She is a procrastinator; I am fond of saying that ‘that little nut didn’t fall far from this tree’, meaning that I am a terrible procrastinator as well. And ever since H began school, even before we knew she was dyslexic, dysgraphic, and had attention deficit disorder, I would always save her at the last minute from the wrath (and poor grades) that went along with her not having done the work required. She’s in 7th grade now, not a little kid, and everything about her academic experience thus far has taught her that if she doesn’t do the work, Mom will step in at the 11th hour and do it for her.  This is not good.

But I also wonder how (effective? fair?) good it is to cut H off cold-turkey. Just announce that I will not be stepping in to save the day any longer, and stick to it – let her sink or swim on her own. Don’t I have more responsibility than that, since I’m the one who set the precedent in the first place? She has to learn to stand on her own. But I am reminded of my father, who ‘water-proofed’ me by throwing me into the water, over my head, repeatedly until I learned to dog-paddle. In one sense, it worked. I can dog-paddle like nobody’s business, and at least for the short term in a body of water, I will be able to move around and keep afloat (technically, because of the fat I carry, I float anyway, but that’s neither here nor there). However, I am terrified of putting my face beneath the water; it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to put my face under the stream of water in the shower, and that with my eyes scrunched shut, breath held, cloth at the ready to wipe my eyes. I’m terrified of having water over my head, and beyond that dog-paddle and a half-assed side-stroke, I can’t swim. Am afraid to try to learn to swim. I have a pool, for heaven’s sake, and I can’t actually swim in it. But I can by-God dog-paddle the hell out of the thing.

My point: I’ve been holding her above water all this time, whether I should have or not. Now, when it’s becoming imperative that she swim, would it do any good to just throw her in over her head? Or rather would stepping up the training, letting go more often, letting her know that while she has to swim on her own, I’m there just in case, be the more prudent course of action?

 Right now she has a very large, involved ‘packet’ that was due to be turned in to her science teacher this past Friday. Today is Wednesday. She lost the packet within hours of receiving it, and recovered it yesterday. Her teacher gave her until today to turn it in. Now, this was intended to be a three-day project, worked on in class and at home. H wound up with one night. And last night was not a normal one for us – we had her sister’s school open house to attend, where there is usually dinner provided. Last night there was no dinner, so we went out (to Taqueria Corona – so good!) for dinner after. Which meant we got home fifteen minutes before her bedtime. She was exhausted, and I told her to go to bed, and we’d get up early to work on the packet. Mistake #1: I did not look at the packet. At this point, I didn’t realize how much work would be involved. Mistake #2: Letting H do the work in the morning virtually never works. I know this, and yet I buy into the fantasy almost every time it’s suggested. Shame on me. So of course she was impossible to get out of bed, we argued, she sat sullenly with her science book and the notebook she’s supposed to be working in, and did nothing. When she went to eat breakfast, I checked everything out, and found that out of approx. 45 questions/definitions/activities she’s supposed to do to complete this thing, H has done one. One question.  *What is the difference between a eukaryote and a prokaryote? A eukaryote has a nucleus and a prokaryote does not.* One down, 44 to go. So far, so good.

So I advised her, against my better judgement (and I advised her of that, too) that her best bet was to fib and say she left the notebook in my car. Ouch! That hurt! Stop throwing things! I know it was a bad call. I regretted it as soon as I’d said it, but there it was, out there in the air, floating around, my voice, my advice: lie. And she will, too. Convincingly, I might add. Case in point: a few days after 9/11, H told a little girl that her sister (who was in high school and living at home at the time) was in New York when the planes bombed the World Trade Centers, and was in an elevator and crushed to death. Totally not true. The little girl told the teacher, and the teacher questioned H: was this true? She told the same story flawlessly. The teacher told the vice principal. The vice principal brings H into her office. Did this happen? H repeats all the gory details. The vice principal takes H into the principal’s office: this child lost her elder sister in the horrors of 9/11. The principal asks H to tell her what happens, and she does, in vivid detail. The principal calls me – why weren’t we notified of what this child has been through? And I must admit, there was a part of me – quite a large part, actually – that wanted to say, “Yes, well, we’re all quite devastated. The memorial service will be on Friday . . . .” It felt disloyal to tell the truth, but I did. Then they brought in a social worker since the child obviously had a problem with lying. I disagreed; I thought she lied beautifully. Besides, it wasn’t a habit, she was in second grade, and it was just an attention-getting mechanism. But I was aware then that my inclination was to save her, and the truth be damned. Again, not a good thing.

Back to the packet. She left this morning, and I have it with me now. I’m trying to decide if I should work on it for her or not. There is too much here to do for her to accomplish in one night. Maybe I’ll compromise; set up the format on the computer for her, and offer her multiple choices on some of the answer sections, just to give her a headstart. It ain’t the butterfly stroke, but it beats dog-paddling.

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