Thursday, September 30, 2010

All My Friends Have Issues

Some time last year, I was sitting in a workshop for people who struggle with anxiety and depression. The lecturer said something that -- for a moment -- actually caused me more anxiety. One of the best weapons that you have in your arsenal against crisis, he said, is a network of safe, sane friends.

Still in the workshop, I flashback to a recent coffee night with one of my best girlfriends. If a stranger at the next table had been listening, he would have thought that we were a couple of the biggest neurotic, naval-gazing narcissists he had ever encountered. It's not uncommon for coffee with friends to sound like this -- a therapy session with two patients and no doctor. In fact, among my nearest and dearest, we joke that mutual craziness is what brought us together.

So suddenly, I panic. I've got the goods on these friends of mine, and they aren't always sane. And neither am I. Between us, we share a little OCD, some codependence, a few compulsions, and a dash of irrational fears. So should we immediately call off the relationship and go out into the world in search of someone totally together who is willing to take us on as a charity case?

But then the lecturer began to define his terms: Safe and sane means: someone who is honest, willing to admit their own faults, able to both give and take from the relationship, and above all, interested in personal growth.

Whew. Sigh of relief. I was recently asked a question in a game called Girl Talk, "What one characteristic do all your best friends share?" My answer was "self-awareness." I am so blessed to have a tight circle of friends each of whom are deeply committed to growing in their friendships, marriages, motherhood and in their faith. It's fabulous to be around them because they are always experiencing some new self-revelation and I get to witness it, and, more often than not, learn from it as well.

I went home that night, thinking about my network and their issues, and asked my husband, "Honey, do I have issues." Hubby, who obviously adores me and thinks the sun rises and sets in my big brown eyes, laughed his head off. Later, he said that was one of the most ridiculous questions ever asked in the history of human interaction.


One doesn't like to generalize about so many people at once, but I believe the world is divided not into those who have issues and those who don't, but rather, those who know they do and those who don't.

In any relationship -- friendship, romance or otherwise -- there comes the point when some major weirdness is revealed. And I'm not talking just slumber-party kind of revelations like the person talks in their sleep or has to brush each of their teeth the same number of times. I mean like significant oddities and fears. One of mine might be, for example, that I have to do deep breathing exercises for quite some time before adding up my receipts and writing them into our monthly budget; this reveals a deep seeded money issue I've had since college.

Way back in the perfectionism of my 20s, I was more tempted to hit the eject button when I reached the "issues" stage in my friendships. But now, as I said before, I've got the goods on a few girlfriends of mine. And you know how I feel about that? Privileged. I'm very blessed to have the kind of friendships where I've been let into the inside of their lives, close enough that I'm privy to their fears and concerns, their doubts and anxieties, as well as their deepest joys and triumphs.

They know quite a bit about me, too. Recently I confessed what I felt was a major but somewhat concealed character flaw to two of my best friends, and they both said, separately, "You know, I already knew that about you." What grace abounds in that kind of relationship. I don't want to jump ship before we get to those deep waters!

At the same time, I'm a little more careful about who I let all the way in my own life. I come back to the safe and sane requirement: If you've got issues, but you don't know it, or know it but don't want to admit it, or don't want to change it a little, or can't even laugh about it -- well, good luck and God speed. But we shall never share deep soul connection. However, if you ever change your mind, and feel like coming clean, let me know. We'll save you a spot at our table.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Deadlines, Lifelines

I lost yet another precious thing last week, continuing a theme of frustration in my life over a few characteristics God has not seen fit to change in me -- yet. No matter how many systems I implement, I still lose things -- shoes, coupons, earrings, cell phone headsets -- with startling regularity.

This time it was my Command Central Notebook. At any given time, I always have a spiral notebook in which I keep my housewifely to-dos, my Bible study notes, my guest lists for upcoming parties and on and on. This particular notebook had all my notes from the MOPS International Convention, notes from an important meeting with my prayer coordinator, a list of gifts for everyone on my steering team.

Worst of all, it was a notebook that I kept the year I was pregnant with Olivia, and the first couple pages I had left in, because they had nostalgic lists I had made. They were called "What to pack for the hospital" (so funny that I felt I had to write down "camera" and "fuzzy socks") and "Things to Do Before She's Here!"

The second list included Martha-Stewart-like efficiencies such as "Buy paper and envelopes for birth announcements" and "Make lullabye CD." But also, bizarrely, "Dust all window blinds." Note to other housewives, never, ever, order wooden window blinds in every room of your house. They are impossible to clean, and I'm not sure I've done it since before Livie was born.

As I ponder my "Things to Do Before She's Here" list now, before it fades from memory, I think about how having a baby feels like a major deadline to meet. I think that nesting instinct is about getting all things in order so that you can bring your baby into the best possible world.

In the last year, two of my best friends have had babies, and I watched them as they experienced the same biological compulsion to get things in order. Not only did they feel they had to have their houses clean and the crib bedding washed, but they began to try to reorder several relationships: work out issues with their parents, their in-laws and their husbands. They wanted to tie up financial lose ends. They tried to problem solve ahead of time every possible issue that could arise during the actual birth, and minutely planned childcare for their older children.

I reminded both of them, kindly I hope (but odds are it didn't come across too well), that life after a baby is born is in fact -- just life. The baby's arrival feels like a deadline to meet, but the baby will come and just become party of "life as you know it" the ordinary continuum of day running into day. But that's not how women think and feel, especially hormonal women.

In exhorting my friends, I was absolutely the pot calling the kettle black. Because in truth, I live my life from one deadline to another. At all my children's milestones -- their birthdays, starting school, etc., I get these urges to get all of my life in order, and make idealized lists for myself about what must be completed. Like, "Before Sophia starts school, I will clean out all the kids' closets and organize every piece of clothing in their drawers." Or, "Before Livie's birthday, I will re-pot all the plants in the backyard, make her a birthday shirt, and blog a 300 word essay about her."

If I had a boss, he might love this about me, and call me self motivated and goal oriented. But in real life, or at least my real life, there aren't really any finish lines to cross. What would be a valuable office skill is a crazy-making tendency for a stay-at-home mom. Yes, I get a lot done. But there is a cost to it. In trying to make everything look perfect before Christmas, or Halloween, or start-of-school, I can miss the joy of the actual moment. Hubby pointed this out to me the night before Olivia's baby dedication at church, as I was busily sewing matching felt broaches for the girls to wear (which, ironically, I forgot to pin on Sophia the next morning).

What I like about setting deadlines is the adrenaline rush, and the satisfaction and sense of control from meeting the deadline. I must miss this from my days in the publishing business: that gritty-eyed, caffeine-induced hyper-aware state when you're racing against the clock to get your story done on time. Now I just do this at my sewing machine instead with thread flying and scraps all over the kitchen floor. Now as a mom, the cost is not only my own sleep deprivation and an acid stomach, but whiny, neglected children and less connection with my husband. Dear readers, will you remind me of this as the holidays approach? I can feel myself beginning to ramp up with ideas of what should be done and decorated.

But far more damaging to the imperfectionist, joy-filled lifestyle I'd like to be living, though, is the personal growth deadline. Does anyone relate when I say I set goals for emotional growth? By Christmas, I will be happier. My daughter is six years old, so I should be more equipped at handling temper tantrums. My faith should have less holes in it. I should be more patient. I should be less insecure in my friendships. I should have less anxiety.

Let's focus on the last one for a moment. Last year I attended a series of workshops for people who struggle with anxiety and depression. You know what one of the most fundamental principals was? Don't set emotional time lines or deadlines for yourself. In the moment, deadlines feel like a way to manage anxiety because they give you a sense of control. But in the long run, they cause more anxiety, because they are essentially artificial, unnecessary and usually unrealistic.

Recently a wise friend told me that there are things she wishes were different about herself, but she's learning to be comfortable with the way God made her, and is trusting Him to change her in his own time, possibly just one characteristic at a time. This resonated with my spirit. It made me want to take a deep breath and say, "Okay, one thing a time Lord. If I'm meant to get there, you'll get me there." And maybe by the time I'm 70, I'll have learned to stop losing my notebooks!

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
--2 Corinthians 3:18

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Supermom Strikes Again

I am a rational woman. I know my limits. I believe in that being relational is more important than being productive. I am not a perfectionist. I do not need to impress people. I know how to laugh at myself.

But, I have an alter-ego. Her name is Supermom. And unlike most super heroes, when I put on my mask and cape I do not fly around the city saving lives. Instead, I fly around my house, usually my kitchen, wreaking havoc and snapping at people.

Today we had plans to meet friends for lunch and beach time after church today, and yesterday I offered to bring dessert. I had planned to make my super-easy mini cherry cheesecake recipe with the Nilla Wafer crust on Saturday night, but I fell asleep on the couch instead.

My mild-mannered sensible personality, upon waking up at 10:30 p.m. and wiping drool from the leather sofa, would then have decided to pick up cookies the next day after church. But when I woke up this morning, Supermom arrived on the scene. Upon realizing that I had not bought Nilla Wafers, I decided to make graham cracker crust. Upon realizing that I had lost the recipe, I called my mom, who told me graham cracker crust would not work. So, I sent my husband to the store to buy Nilla Wafers.

At this point in the saga, it's 7:30 a.m. and Hubby and I have one hour to shower, dress, eat breakfast, pack for the beach and make cheesecakes. Again, Sensible Mommy would abort.

But once Supermom is in mid-flight, she does not abort. Cape flying, Toddler at myfeet whining for licks from the spatula, I got the cheesecakes made, realized I'd bought blueberry and apple instead of cherry topping, glopped it on anyway, threw it in the cooler, and got in the car in a bad mood.

On the ride to church, I was not in the mood for worshiping. I was not in the mood for lunch with friends. All I wanted to do was go home, clean up my messy kitchen, and go back to bed.

This happens to me on Sunday mornings more often than I would care to admit. I depart for church having snapped at every member of my family for no good reason. But my Supermom alter-ego is usually to blame. Usually I tried to do too much, look too nice, cook too fancy a breakfast, or generally push the limits too hard. Also more often than I am happy to say, I walk into church wearing my Supermom cape and a sour expression. And always, always, my sensible, relational self walks out, and usually, apologizes to her husband.

This morning the sermon was about learning to number our days so we can gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). Basically, Moses is beseeching God: give us a sense of how short life is so that we will give our time to things that are important.

Sitting there, I thought of Jesus' friends Martha and Mary. Every Christian woman has heard this story. Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing dinner, and Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet, listening to him. Martha stomps out and demands that Jesus tell Mary to get up and help her make dinner. I love Jesus' response: "Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed. Your sister has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her."

Martha had a Superwoman cape, too. And two thousand years ago, her cape did the same thing that mine does for me: it makes her cranky, makes her worried, and makes her snap at the people that she loves. She loves Jesus as much as Mary does I'm sure; it takes great trust and intimacy to speak to someone the way she spoke to him. And if that sounds wrong to you, think about who in your life gets your sharpest words. It's always your family and the people that make you feel safest. But she lost her way in the details of all she thought needed to be done.

I've heard the Martha-Mary story tons of times. I've taught lessons on it. I've encouraged teams of volunteers working under my direction to be Marys rather than Marthas; to put their relationships with God and people ahead of all the little unnecessary things women tend to add to life in the name of caring for people. But the simplicity of this story still brings me to my knees. The accomplishments will all pass away: the meals I make, the stellar confections I concoct, the projects I sew. The only eternal things I have are my relationships, with my husband, my kids, my friends, my Lord.

So teach me Lord, to number my days, so that I may spend them well. And stop me next time I get out my cape.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meditations on the Delicate Chicken

My Olivia, aka Livie, Liv, the Delicate Chicken, is turning three officially tomorrow. While I was driving home from vacation on the 101 a few days ago, listening to her chatter with her doll named Bath Baby in the back seat, I wrote this for her in my head.

Olivia was born the year I turned thirty. I had quit my job in preparation for the pregnancy and birth of Baby Number Two, but Livie took her time coming. She was conceived about a year after I was more than ready to be pregnant.

Her coming was miraculous. But she was also born into Mommy's sadness. When I talk about that time now, I say that I had postpartum depression, but truly my 9-month period of intense anxiety and depression really started when I was eight months pregnant with Liv. But God, in his graciousness, gave me a gift: an incredible bond with Olivia, this intensely sweet, extremely mellow cuddle bug who was Mama's Girl from the get-go. She was my solace; I would just stare into her blue eyes and feel at peace.

At three, there's fire in those giant blue eyes know, and it's bittersweet. I love to see Livie come into her own, which at three means the developmentally appropriate willfulness we mothers adore so. When I found out I was having a second girl, I was worried. My first-born (here comes some bragging, but I'm also being objective) was so intensely intelligent, strong,and beautiful I wondered how her sister would be able to keep up. Sophia could command a room at six months old.

But Livie does not need my pity, now, friends. She got her Daddy's thick lashes and somebody's full lips so beauty is not a problem. And though she's more one to hide her light under a bushel, when we're alone, she chats up her mommy and astounds me with her vocabulary (I love her use of the word "also") and observations. She's also a little scrapper. If I have to break up a wrestling match between my daughters, it always because Liv has started swinging elbows and delivering pile drivers.

She's afraid of heights, but not animals. She will wrap her arms around a horse's head or lay down on one of our neighbor's big dogs. I think her inner calm puts animals at ease. They see her coming and sit down. Our next door neighbor's cat will let Jeff and Livie pet her, but Sophia and I can't get close.

She's also afraid of new adventures. When we took her kayaking, the boat rental guy said, "Well, I guess I'll know where you are the whole time," because of her ear-piercing screams. But we're learning that if we push her past that initial terror (its ugly for the first five minutes) those experiences become the ones she talks about with pleasure for weeks afterward.

She loves her baby dolls and stuffed doggies. Each one gets carefully put to bed each day and then she comes and shh's me so I won't wake them up. She has great dialogues with them, too, when no one is listening.

Livie is a slob. Her room is a giant mosh pit of pillows, tiny plastic ankle-turning doll accessories, books and dress up clothes. She's happier when she can dig herself down into a pile of toys like a pig in mud.

She has a disgusting little scrap of a receiving blanket named Night Night, that goes with her everywhere, to her daddy's distress. "Mommy calls it my stinky rag," she told someone recently. "I like to suck my thumb with it."

She loves pajamas, even for nap times, and would rather not ever get dressed. When she does get dressed, she wants leggings and a spin-around dress every day.

She's my kitchen helper when I'm baking. "Which part is the Livie part, Mom?" she asks, as she eats powdered sugar straight from the bag.

She eats. All. The. Time. She's skinny as a rail but she never stops snacking and gets her own trail mix and crackers from the cupboard when I'm not looking. She has a sweet tooth too, and would eat cake until she threw up if I let her.

She loves her little friends, especially Grayson and Isabelle, and is pretty good at sharing, which I believe is easier for the second child. She also adores Sophia's best friend Olivia, who we call Big Olivia, and holds her hand whenever possible.

She is naughty and sneaky. She creeps into her sister's room and takes stuff from the coveted Barbie box just like she pilfers snacks. I'm working on this.

She likes to be funny. Like Daddy, she can make us laugh like no one else, but she will not do it on cue, only after she's very comfortable with everyone in the room.

Though she's Mama's Girl, I think she got mainly her father's genes, because she looks just like him, and so many aspects of her personality are like Jeff's. Especially the way she only performs to small audiences. I look at her and see my precious husband reflected back, and feel like she loves me the way he does too: with an intense loyalty reserved for her inner circle.

And just like her daddy's love, I take hers to my heart and feel enormously blessed and humbled to be on the receiving end.

Happy birthday, Olivia. Mommy loves you.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Luxury of Roughing It

I have decided that the ideal vacation is one in which I am surrounded by beautiful scenery, but have less luxuries than I do in my own home.

I came to this conclusion as I lay in my husband's inflatable boat in the Big Sur river. Just down a sandy bank from our oak-studded camp site,the river widened into shallow water that bounced along sun-drenched multicolored stones. There I tied the boat to a log and drifted on my back, drinking a Diet Coke, eating a package of peanut butter crackers, and reading my new favorite book (Blue Like Jazzz by Donald Miller -- more on this in other blogs). This is a heaven I hadn't known existed: a perfect, unglamorous way to completely unwind. And yet, even as I lay there, miraculously undisturbed by any small human for 45 minutes, I could still think of my own house, where awaited me a Temperpedic mattress, an indoor toilet, and a front-loading washing machine. Thinking about home from the camp site, I felt a little stab of joy.

If I were staying at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, which I have been fortunate enough to do before, my encounter with nature would have been much less organic. It would be packaged in a well-framed view from an upscale teak lounge chair, the exact placement of which would have been determined by a team of designers. In my hand I would have a $15 gin and tonic. And even though I would have been laying on an Egyptian cotton towel instead of a rubber raft, my pleasure would not have been so complete. At the luxury hotel I would be conscious of the richer, more well-dressed people around me. And I would not be thinking of my little condo in Irvine as a luxurious heaven. When I'm at the Biltmore I never want to leave. Camping, after a few days, and I'm ready to go home.

In general, the camping experience was so much better than I expected. When Jeff and I spent a few days in Pfieffer Big Sur ten years ago, we were not very well prepared. What I remember most clearly is shivering late at night in my inadequate sweater, trying to read by the creepy light of a small fluorescent lantern. There was poison oak surrounding our site, and we were both totally paranoid about being infected by it, and practically stripped off all our clothes every time we entered our little tent to avoid contamination.

But this time around, we came prepared. Thanks to the Andersons, who have been giving us camping gear for Christmas for years, we have an eight-person tent, a propane lantern, a stove, and a coffee maker! Thanks to the state park personnel, who have trimmed up the poison oak, we had clear paths to the river without danger of contracting itchy rashes. And thanks to long hikes and tons of sun exposure, my kids slept soundly in the tent every night, so I got to read by the fire with Hubby by the light of our heat-giving lantern.

Truly, it was one of the best vacations I've ever been on. I loved being totally unplugged -- no cell service, no e-mail -- though the things I wanted to blog about kept me up at night. As I wrote before leaving, I was afraid I'd feel like camping was just another day in the life of a housewife, but without running water. I discovered that when I don't have a phone call to make or an e-mail to answer, and the kids have dirt and rocks and trees and squirrels to occupy them, I can cook and wash dishes with a lot less angst than usual. But again, I could still think about my sink at home with a pleasant sense of anticipation.

I have to make the obvious observation that being out in nature -- truly in it, not just looking at it from the deck of a luxury hotel -- is an amazingly restorative experience. I don't think of myself as particularly materialistic, vain, or competitive, but camping I realized that I must be, because it was so freeing to be out in my raft not thinking about my hair or the cut of my swimsuit. (It must be confessed, however, that I still found myself coveting this one cute No Cal mom across the campground from us, who actually had on a plaid dress over her requisite jeans and t-shirt, and I wished I was a hip as she.)

As I type this, my six year old is sitting next to me, sighing with impatience. How dare Mommy get up at six a.m. to blog, and not meet her needs? I told her Mommy doesn't come on duty until seven. Welcome, home, Amanda. It's 7:02 and your time is up. I'm off to prepare breakfast on my full-sized stove and my sink with running water. While I'm at it, I'll think of my campsite, and get a little stab of joy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Husband is Spiderman

There's a great steamy scene in one of the Spiderman movies where Spidey rescues Mary Jane, and then she peels back his mask and kisses him in the rain while he's hanging upside down. Later in the saga, she's feeling a little blah about her real-life romance, and tries kissing her very nice fiance upside down while he sits on the couch, just to see if she can recreate the spark.

I always feel a little sad for the fiance in that scene. Even though he's a great looking, nice-mannered guy, there's no way he can compete, and not just because his rival is Spiderman. Kissing someone you've kissed one hundred times before is never going to give you the adrenaline rush that kissing a superhero with a secret identity -- upside down and in the rain no less -- is going to give you. That kind of thrill just usually ain't for the committed relationship folks.

Which is one of the reasons that I really love going camping with my husband. Because when we're camping, Jeff gets to be Spiderman. My domesticated man, who mainly divides his time between a desk job and pleasing the three females in our household, doesn't get to be his warrior self very often.

But when we go camping, he gets to do the man-versus-wild things that guys love. Not only does he have mad packing skills (the amount of gear he got into our car was truly a feat of modern engineering--see photo), but he can make fires, erect tents, lift heavy things, climb rocks, power and steer our kayak single-handedly, and all manner of masculine things that are fun for me to watch him do.

Our biggest thrill during our time in Pfieffer Big Sur camp ground was shooting the rapids in the river. Granted, the river is only about five feet at its deepest, and while we venture down the river, we often have to get out and wade, pulling our inflatable boats to deeper waters. But at the top of the campground is a series of pools, with boulders that form fast-flowing falls. Jeff set off on his own one afternoon armed with inner tube and paddle to ride in these dangerous waters. He came back elated.

We followed him up later that day to cheer him on. You can hear me screaming, "Go Spiderman!" on our home video. It was quite thrilling to watch him slalom through the rocks and dash down the rapids, and the heroism of it was only slightly diminished by the fact that I had pushed six-year-old Sophia down one of the same falls a few hours before.

So, out of a very fruitful family vacation, one of the best things I gleaned was that more adventure in my husband's life means more passion in our marriage. So I want to make sure he gets more manly outdoor experiences, especially on days that don't end with us sharing a tent with both our children. Because he is my super hero, and I don't want to forget it.