Monthly Archives: February 2011

Trail Mix Mama

Does an image from your past life ever flash across your mental screen?  You know, from those days gone by when your life was more your own, whenever that was, when you could go alone into the bathroom to do your business without small people screaming and banging on the door, when you had the time and energy to follow a sudden inspiration, when you had the freedom to arrange at least part of your life to go just the way you want it.

Yesterday, in the midst of the multi-tasking madness that is my daily routine, I was muching a few cashews, purchased purely because my husband and kids like them, when I suddenly remembered that I used to carry around trail mix in my backpack.  I would buy the ingredients separately from the bulk bins of the health food store: almonds, walnuts, dates, sunflower seeds, raisins, cashews.  I’d combine them into a big jar, and then I’d pour a couple of cups worth into a plastic bag and carry it around with me as a snack (or emergency survival tool!)

Why do I not do this any more?  I think the reasons shed much light on why I don’t do a lot of things I like to do anymore:

  1. I often can’t afford to buy quantities of expensive nuts and things
  2. Small children can choke on nuts, raisins, etc. so I couldn’t share my concoction with everyone
  3. I have to coordinate mealtime/hunger management with the entire family, so I am not at liberty to simply quench my own appetite whenever I fancy a nibble

Hank and Hank's Mama - 2007


What do we give up to set off down this path of parenthood?  What things that literally or figuratively feed us as individuals do we let fall by the wayside so that we can do what’s best for the new unit, so that we can harmonize with the new group we’ve created?  Which parts of me have disappeared into my existence as my children’s Mama, and someday, when those children no longer need me as much, which parts of me will still be there?

The Goal of Sainthood

The eyes of the saint make all beauty holy, and the hands of the saint consecrate everything they touch to the glory of God, and the saint is never offended by anything and judges no man’s sin because he does not know sin.  He knows the mercy of God and he is on earth to bring that mercy to all men.” — Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation

Spencer Butte - Eugene, Oregon


The idea of the saint was very important to me as a child raised Catholic.  I enjoyed the organized system wherein individual saints are patrons of different things (my mother has been known to suggest that I pray to St. Joseph to help with our housing issues – we will be moving into our new home in about a month).  The relation of saints to worldly categories resonates for me in the same way as Jung’s archetypes, the Kabala and the correspondence of Tarot cards to various aspects of reality.

In addition, being female, I understood even as a child that sainthood was the only real power and status that women could ever hope to achieve.  I didn’t particularly want to martyr myself or suffer to the extremes that these women were said to have done, so sainthood wasn’t really a viable option.  But it was at least, unlike popehood, a possibility.

St. John's River - Florida

When I first read this quote by Thomas Merton, the image it presented amazed me.  That a saint’s job might not be to suffer horrific trials and be tortured to death with a pitiful smile on one’s face, but it might be simply to see beauty and acknowledge it as holy.  It might be to embrace all things as reflecting the divine.  It might NOT be to adopt a holier than thou attitude and spend one’s days pointing out faults, but to spread love.  To turn one’s back on evil, fear and judgment and walk always toward joy.

That everything one senses throughout the day glows with the spark of divinity!  That everything to which one reaches out becomes deep connection, an experience of sacred Oneness!  That no one can offend you, because you are open at all times only to love, acceptance, joy and peace.  To know through true union the love of the Great Spirit and to serve as a channel of that love spreading across the world.

Beetle and Bean

The job of saint when seen through Merton’s eyes still seems impossible, but even the attempt to fulfill it may be worthwhile.

If you find this Merton quote inspiring, please share your thoughts!

Bureaucrats on Vacation

Bureaucrats devise complicated procedures to follow, forms to fill out and deadlines not to be missed or else.  They compartmentalize the entire operation so that every cog-worker in each cubicle performs their own clever function, with their own little stamp of approval.

And then they go on vacation.

"Did I forget to put the date next to my signature, sir?"

Or they require “proof” or “documentation” or “confirmation” from some other bureaucrat on vacation.

In any event, there is at all times a self-designated indispensable pencil pusher somewhere, lounging on a beach, stirring their Mai Tai with the scissors that could have cut the red tape from around our throats and laughing at the peons back home who are now up sh*t’s creek without that paddle that some bureaucratic idiot set as a requirement.  And then we peons miss that deadline that they themselves have set.  And we are penalized within the system that they alone want to perpetuate.

Is this a fun way to earn a living, I wonder?  Does it make vacation that much more amusing?  Does a bureaucrat’s sense of self-worth derive from the false importance of their ultimately meaningless little function?  Or are they caught in the trap as well?

The Pain of Joy

Shadows and Light - Grand Canyon, 2007

I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, which keeps me mindful of sensory experience, the fleeting nature of thoughts, interbeing and the simultaneous possibilities of suffering and joy.  Our animal nature instinctively wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so the idea that we might accept both of these in order to reach joy takes some getting used to.

Parenthood has taught me a lot about accepting the paradox of opposites emerging from the same situation, existing in the same space and time.  Among other mind-blowing revelations surrounding my first child’s appearance on this planet, it occurred to me that as I gave birth, I also gave death.  We cannot bring a person into the world without simultaneously condemning them to face their last breath someday.  The pain of joy!

So philosophically I’ve understood the idea of the connection between pain and pleasure, but my body finally truly got it the other evening.  I was driving to teach my Spanish class and mentally reviewing the events of the day, which included some wonderful news from several members of my family.  I began to feel proud, relieved, excited, happy.  Instead of judging these feelings as “good” or “pleasurable,” I just felt them as they welled up.  I quietly watched how my body was responding to these emotional thoughts.  (Somehow I kept driving too… not the best situation to get distracted by an awareness exercise, but that’s about the only quiet time I get these days.)  My eyes were tearing up, my chest was squeezing tightly, my breath was shallow and strained, my head felt like it was going to explode.  From my removed perspective, I realized that it felt exactly like grief.  This overwhelming wave of happiness resembled exactly my recent experiences with crushing sorrow over the loss of my Grandma, except that normally I would have labeled it “good” and so it would have felt amazing.  When it is about something “bad” then it feels awful.

I’m not sure what to do with this new physical awareness. Does “good” become tainted with “bad”?  Having seen the man behind that curtain, do they both become irrelevant?  Is there no longer pleasure or pain?  Can we trick ourselves into thinking “it’s all good!” and avoid pain forever?

The Overlook - Grand Canyon, 2007

Is there a new place to dwell, a mountaintop above these paradoxical dualities, where we can see something more true and real than animal emotions and senses which flash hard and random like lightening through our conscious minds?

Attachment Parenting At Every Age

My situation is unique.  True, every family is special, but I think the typical family in the US seems to consist of two kids, maybe three, spanning no more than 6 years apart from oldest to youngest.  These aren’t real numbers, I’m just speaking from observation.

Garth (14) and Gwen (1)

For me to have five children makes me strange right off the bat.  But for the span between oldest and youngest to be 17 years, puts me pretty far off to the side of normal.

Something that occurs to me again and again: by the time most people have teenagers, they are done talking and thinking about babies and toddlers.  There isn’t much interaction between the newer Mamas and the more experienced Mamas because they all seem to seek out parents at a similar stage of development.

Hank (3) and Rose (18)

And as much as the parents of older kids don’t feel the need to relive the younger years, I think perhaps the parents of younger kids don’t really want the more experienced ones around anyway.  There is an idealism that might be necessary to new parents that older parents just cannot stomach anymore.  The new parents in the 21st century are determined to forge a new path, and there are a lot of old paths that could use some serious detours.  But the weathered edge of cynicism of experienced parents might tarnish the vision the new parents strive towards.

So what do you do when you’re new and experienced?  As a Mama who could currently join a parenting group for a child at just about every stage, I feel like a fly on the wall who gets to listen in on everything.  And I often don’t know what to say to people.  When they see me with only the baby, they’ll say, “Just wait until they’re teenagers, then you’ll be in for it!”

Olivia (8) and Hank (3)

Why do we try to scare new parents with horrible scenarios of the future?  No wonder they don’t want to listen to any of the things we could tell them that might help.  Or if folks see me with one of the older ones, they’ll say, “At least you’re done with all the diapers and terrible twos!”  Why would we feel relief to be done with a time of simple joy and unlimited promise?

And so I enjoy the company of other parents, being the comrade of whichever stage parent I happen to be hanging out with at the time, keeping mostly silent except to talk shop about the age of child currently at hand.  I feel lucky to be running the entire gauntlet of ages at present, occasionally looking up from my juggling act to see the big picture – seven individual paths crisscrossing within the same household, running vaguely parallel but each following its own unique rhythm, contributing its own distinct sound to the harmony (at times discordant!) of our life together.

I’m In Love

We took a second tour of the house we will be buying.  The first time we hadn’t even been accepted into the Habitat program yet, so I just made a quick run through to get the general idea.  I guarded myself very carefully against getting attached at all.

Home - Where My Heart Is

On the second trip through, months later, everything is far better than I remembered it, and I let myself fall in love.  A place in my heart that has ached for a place to call its own, to baby and cultivate and treasure through the years, has been healed.

Like an extra huge surprise present on a birthday that is already bigger than you’d ever hoped for, there is a dishwasher in the kitchen.

Where I will feed my family

If I weren’t such a gasbag, I’d be speechless.

Movin’ On

Here is the house I sit in, preparing for the big move.

The House with One Bathroom for Seven People

Of course, currently there is no green grass or sunflowers; it’s just bare winter brownness.

Our tentative closing date is March 30 on our Habitat house.  A house with TWO bathrooms.  And five bedrooms.  Here’s hoping the squish factor will diminish significantly.

So I’m in the list phase right now.  I’ve got a list for stuff to get rid of, a list of stuff to do, a list of stuff to buy, and a list of stuff for my husband to make (he’s into woodworking in various permutations, including furniture and cigar box guitars.)

In addition, we’ve still got 100 sweat equity hours to get done, classes every Thursday, monthly budgeting, and meetings involving lots of paperwork.

I want to pack.  I want to move boxes.  I want to do something that involves physically making this happen.

But for now I will sit with my lists and my spending plans and my dreams.  I have a feeling that the rest is coming like a speeding freight train.

Feel free to jump in and share your home buying or house moving experiences during any of my homebuyer updates.  It’s supposed to be one of the more stressful events in a person’s life, and the stories we create as we live through these events make up part of who we are.

Dixie Comes Home

We got our van (named Dixie) back today after a week and a half, two new tires, a new torque converter, a fixed leak in the engine somewhere or other, and about $800 spent.

Dixie When We First Got Her in 2008

Besides the return of mobility for 6 members of the family (my husband absolutely needs his car all the time for his job as a journalist), I think he and I might get something else out of this: a new way to handle stress and the interpersonal conflict that often results.

The van had been making horrible whirring and rubbing noises for awhile and I’d been getting more and more scared about what it might be, to the point where I’d drive down the road and terrifying images of wheels flying off and head-on collisions would pop into my inner vision.  (A word of advice: tire rotation is worth it.)

When I talk to my husband about potentially expensive issues, many times we end up having an argument.  Nothing serious, but nothing pleasant for either of us.  One of the downsides to being poor is not having the luxury to calmly discuss matters which threaten to sink you further into the hole you try every day to climb out of.

But does it have to be this way?

After I’d transferred the car seats to the van this morning and prepared to go home from the mechanic’s, I gave my husband a hug and kiss and thanked him for handling the problem for me (I don’t dare try to deal with mechanics because I’m sure they would overcharge a small, polite woman like me.  Whether this is a valid concern or not, all mechanic-dealings go through my husband.)  I felt truly grateful that he had listened to my feelings and took action to make things better.  And I could tell by the look on his face that he was relieved it was over and also feeling good that his family could now be carted around in a safe vehicle.

As I was driving home, an idea came to me: what if, the next time we need to discuss some expensive issue, we could first take a minute to picture the contentment and satisfaction of that moment hugging in the mechanic’s parking lot, visualize the chill in the air, the thin layer of snow on the world, our connection as a married team who can face anything — together.  Might the conversation go smoother?  Might we avoid feeling panic over the prospect of spending money, when we can remember what the end result can be?

Now all I have to do is remember to try it.

Do you have any creative tricks to remind yourself and others of connection and success, to smooth out a tense conversation or situation, to bolster confidence and encourage a spirit of cooperation?

The Dharma of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

I’d issue a spoiler alert, but I figure since the movie has been around for 65 years, you’d have watched it by now if you wanted to.

I’ve never paid close attention to this movie until we just recently watched it as a family.  I always had it in my head that it’s just a smarmy, overly-sentimental Christmas movie.

But upon closer inspection, it appears to embody the Buddhist idea of finding joy in the midst of suffering.

When the main character comes back home after his nightmare hallucination with the angel, he is no longer depressed or hopeless, and yet nothing has changed. He doesn’t yet know that his daughter is feeling better, his house is still drafty, he doesn’t know that his money woes will be resolved, he doesn’t even know that he won’t still be jailed.  The only thing that has changed is his point of view.


I want to learn how to do this, sans angel.  (Or, if I need an angel, fine, but be quick about it.  I don’t have hours every day for rambling what-if scenarios.)

Can I approach every situation being grateful for all the wonderful things about it, while dealing intelligently with the not-so-wonderful things about it with an eye toward possible solutions?

Can I leave aside the oh-so-cool cynicism of my youth, the existential angst that insists the only things worth noticing are the things that prove that nothing matters? (Definitely not present in the movie, but something I think we as a culture picked up along the way in the last part of the 20th century, and something that colors our perception toward the negative.)

Can I embrace the positive at risk of being accused of Pollyanna-ism?

Can I acknowledge and then leave aside doubt, fear, worry and regret and remain open to what is?

Using the Negative

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” — Kenji Miyazawa

Lao Tzu says that we must feed the good and the bad will wither and die.  This approach feels right to me, as I see so many people stuck in the “bad,” whether it is being trapped by worry or feeding negative fantasies until they come true or even talking obsessively about the “devil” and what he is trying to get them to do.  If we pour our energy into the positive, we cultivate the positive, and the negative has nothing to feed on.  (Why the “devil”-obsessed folks don’t just turn their attention to their faith in Jesus I cannot understand.)

So the negative withers and dies.  Compost!  It is still usable.  The idea of turning to the positive is a helpful reminder, but to turn our backs on the negative permanently encourages a dangerous denial; we don’t have to be afraid to look the dark side in the face and use it for good.

I think I have resisted optimism for so long because it seemed pathetically passive, to be a weak pawn clinging desperately to happy thoughts against the raging storms of chaos that toss us all around.  I could never understand how it could be better to be clueless about how bad things really are and to pretend that everything is okay.

But to be optimistic in the face of the suffering, the horrors, the pain of life, what courage and strength!  True optimism does not deny the negative, it simply acknowledges it, refuses to feed it, and converts it to positive energy to move forward along the path.

Cynicism and pessimism, which I used to think demonstrated a brave, bold acceptance of reality, I now believe are signs of defeat, of allowing the negative to swamp you and take over your life.  It is a cowardly surrender to despair.

There is suffering.  The negative does exist, and you will meet it on the path with alarming regularity.  But it is not the Way.  If we keep to the Wise Way, we will find love even in the midst of pain and sorrow, and our hearts, minds and wills can follow that light through any darkness.