Protect your eyes

"The question is not what you look at, but what you see." -Thoreau

With parenting I find it's never the stuff I plan to be rewarding, fulfilling, or fun that actually is so. The cute Easter photo I plan for every year of the kids in their finery is a total flop with no one looking at the camera and chocolate stains running down Flynn's shirt. The unique dining experience at an ethnic restaurant is disastrous from start to finish full of whines and pulled faces, and in the end, hungry tummies. The surprise trip to a restaurant to get breakfast in their pj's freaks my kids out and makes them feel self conscious like they've been seen naked by thousands. Like most things in life the stuff that evolves naturally tends to be what's most awesome and authentic.

I was downloading some photos off our camera tonight and ended up entranced looking at the literally hundreds of photos Cleo has taken over the past couple weeks. She's been really interested in the camera lately and we've given her free reign with it. I'm so glad we did because the kids got an eye! Her photos capture a world I can't see that much of anymore; a world where every single thing is worth looking at. Call it the curse of adulthood this inability to truly see. The whole lot of Cleo's shots capture the completely mundane. There are almost no posed or even composed shots, just snip snapping away at everything that surrounds her without regard to some hierarchy of what image/thing/view is of value or prettier or more worth capturing. Car decals, her hand, cracks in the pavement, fabrics, the back of my head, city views...nothing is edited out and because of this the shots tell such a great story.

One of the central tenants of physics is that by observing something it necessarily changes that which is being observed. I felt that interplay in looking at Cleo's shots. By her singling out these random, mundane moments and objects of life and capturing them in a photo, she changed them, distilled them into art or memory or something altogether more, something that made me feel a connection to her, and to a child's world view. It was refreshing to retreat back to that place of easy awe. That's another uncanny truism of parenting in my experience...kids will always teach you the bigger lesson, not vice versa! So enjoy these photos. They are original Cleo Louise Harbertsons...and you'd better believe I'm keeping them.



I'm always grateful when I recognize layers aligning in life. The universe works hard to spell things out doesn't it? Since I'm gearing up for an entrepreneurial chapter in my life and starting my own business, I've been giving a lot of thought to the meaning of work. There are so many nuggets of wisdom out there that indicate that work won't be capital letter WORK if you are doing what you love or following what you are passionate about. I believe this and yet so few people I know seem to approach building their careers from this framework. The responsibilities of daily life, the educational paths we set ourselves on at an early age when our sense of self and the big picture is haphazard and fledgling, and the expectations we all have about standards of living seem to interfere. And lord knows many, many people never can identify or sum up their life's passion--too much soul searching involved! Too much risk!

So it was a relief to me when I happened to hear a nugget of wisdom about work recently that really resonated with me. Work= Worth. It's so simple, but most truths are. What I outwardly do in this world defines me, gives me my sense of self and the world's sense of what I bring to the table. It's my personal GNP. We live in a culture obsessed with this and I think it's why work that is hard to quantify such as motherhood or teaching receives so little attention. (Both are such broad investments, it's hard to see immediate results.)

Boiling the word work down to how I feel about what I do with myself is a lovely concept. Because truly it is larger than a paycheck or a certificate on the wall. My work on its best day should help me walk a path I want to be on. It should be urging me on toward discovery, toward goals, toward becoming more, toward helping myself, my family, and my community. And I think it's worth digging deep on this subject since for most of us work will make up a large majority of how we spend our lifetime. Literally work will take a lion's share of my life. Wow.

The Indian concept of dharma came up in something I was reading recently. In it dharma was described as the one thing you were born on this earth to do that you can do better than anyone else. It's the belief that every single human has something special, has a talent, a way of being, that is unique to them. If one can discover their dharma then they will find satisfaction, success, wealth, and end up helping others by following it. I guess it's akin to a life's calling. I love thinking about making dharma and work synonymous in my life. My dharma should lead me to my work and my work should lead to my dharma.

Living in a culture obsessed with material wealth is a definite hinderance to realizing work-dharma but I also think living in a culture that defines work as something we must do, or something we have to do to make ends meet is equally to blame. As an American I've connected with the ethos of the hard working man and the 80 hour work weeks required to "make things happen", to get the big pay day. These type of standards have led me to some belief that to be successful one must work hard at everything. Toil, sacrifice, labor these are the descriptor words I associate with work. And yet why do we need to have this hard work consciousness? What is the value in this? To me working too hard also means forcing an issue. No bend and flow, no flexibility. It strains. It imbalances. It is frought.

I have to believe that the dharma concept could make work seem effortless because I would be in alignment with what I do best, what I'm capable of doing almost without thinking. It's quite counter-intuitive to our Horatio Alger, pull yourself up by the bootstraps mythology, but I think there is something that rings true here.

Am I crazy? Probably. And lest my uber hard working grandmother be turning over in her grave, let's be clear that I'm not advocating laziness. Quite the opposite. What could be more galvanizing than the belief that simply by figuring out who you really are, you have figured out what you should do with your fine self. I'm not naive, I realize how inexplicably hard it is to take this stance in developing a career, and an entire life really. But ooo-eee wouldn't it be powerful if we all did so? Finding work that makes you feel your own worth-it's not an easy task by any stretch, but it's the kind of career I'd love to spend a lifetime in.


No nincompoops allowed!

I've had responsibility on the brain today. Awhile ago when I was at my lovely friend Sarah's I was struck by a sign she posted on her family's bulletin board.
"RESPONSIBILITY. Anything children can do for themselves and we do it for them, takes away an opportunity for them to discover how responsibility serves them."

I think this statement hit me because I so immediately believed its truth but also because I recognized how little I was following this in my own home. My children are now 7 and 3 1/2. They still have desperate moments of neediness but also increasing stretches of self-sufficiency where they are content to follow their own whims and desires without much of my influence. As a parent its a relief to be at this stage, to have a moment to breathe and to get to reap the benefits of all those days of nonstop attention.

And yet I find that a parental wean is now required on my part...those bare bones days of sustenance and constant need meeting may be past, but left in it's wake is a habit that makes me jump to fulfill their requests and wants. From the simplest yell up the stairs for a drink of water to cleaning up dirty dishes, crumbs, and playdough, I've done my kids no favors by being quick to do these things for them. It's not an accurate picture of life's demands and it certainly isn't an accurate picture of how I want them to function as older children and future adults. Every parent imagines their kid reaching for the stars, climbing toward future success and happiness. I never picture my kid calling me to wipe his ass at 12. And yet if I don't start requiring more of them now when they are fledglings, then how will the desire, the need, or the know how materialize when they are older?

We live in an ultra convenient world. And it's more than likely that all these conveniences and gadgetry are making today's children less than able to do for themselves. In fact I read a great op-ed piece awhile back called "Are we Raising a Generation of Nincompoops?" that brings these exact concerns up. I truly worry that my 7 year old really doesn't know how to tie her own shoes yet and that much of her life is experienced with the aid of a virtual interface. It is such a good reminder that I don't need to be another interface for my kids preventing them from having raw, hands on experiences that can be both rewarding and trying for them. There are enough avenues making their lives easier. I really don't need to make home life ultra convenient for them too.

I'm a believer that one of the best aspects of being part of a family is contributing to that family in whatever way I can. Contributing is a beautiful word to me because it implies an individual putting forth something towards a common purpose, to in effect become part of the larger whole. In my desire to be loving and attentive I haven't given my kids enough opportunities to become part of the larger whole. So I've vowed to make a change and have officially instituted a new weekly chore list that will earn my darlings a teenie weenie allowance. I instituted the plan this weekend and the new lists are on the fridge and already pock marked with check marks. I'm also going to consciously respond less to their demands-not ignoring mind you, but a loving "I think you can handle that" quip.

Happily I didn't feel much friction from either Cleo or Flynn about the new regime. I actually think they want increased responsibility. It's easy to forget as parents that kids (at least the young ones) actually do aim to please. Cleo already "invented" a new chicken egg collecting system and judging by the gusto with which Flynn can smooth a bedspread, I think I've got a little emerging neat freak on my hands. The true test will be mine, whether I can bite my tongue and my urge to jump in and respond in order to nurture the kind of self sufficiency that will take them into reality not kicking and screaming and apathetic, but already contributing, already full of life skills and esteem. I love to think what a future made up of those kids would look like...


Modern Pioneer

"There is a charm, even for homely things, in perfect maintenance." -Louis Auchincloss

I spent a lot of my weekend reclaiming my home. It seems that increasing busy-ness without hiring a cleaning person or someone else to pull my old weight equals disaster on the home front! Every single realm in my home dominion has been out of whack since the holidays. The laundry has been a continuous pile either on the dirty or the to be put away side. My fridge was emitting strange odors. The pantry was a pile of unorganized goods, my floors all had telltale crumbs from lack of vacuuming, and my car was looking like salt stain was the chosen paint color. It was all contributing to a level of disorganization that was making me internally grumpy and out of whack. Outer calm reflects inner peace right?

Every day chores are easy to put on the back burner when other fires need to be put out. But I have to say it felt really nice to focus on my home and making it livable again. It made me feel a much needed sense of respect for what I have around me each and every day. Plenty literally oozes out of every drawer and cupboard and I think it's easy to not see the forest for the trees sometimes. I have talked about the concept of stewardship here before and it's something I truly believe in. I should act as the steward for the things I have, responsibly managing and caring for the immediate world around me right down to the oil in my car and the crumby carpet underfoot. It doesn't send a very good message to my children, or my commitment to the environment, if I let my "toys" and plenty pile up or break.

My recent lack of stewardship and home management was also feeling like a black eye thanks to the book I'm currently reading called The Egg and I. Set in the 1940s and written about that same time, it tells the story of the hilarious escapades of Betty MacDonald, who married a chicken farmer and moved to the middle of nowhere beneath the Cascade mountains on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The book is a fun read thanks to the wit of the storyteller, but it also makes one mindful of just how much home improvement and conveniences have taken place since the farm days of the 40s. It makes me realize just how good I have it around my house, how absolutely doable housework and home management have become. I have so many time saving devices at my disposal. Washing machine, dishwasher, hot water to name a few! We have a leaky sink faucet in the kitchen right now and we've been turning off the water directly at the pipes under the sink until we fix it so we don't waste, and I found myself getting so annoyed with the hassle of having to lean down to switch it on to wash my hands or soak a dish....never mind the fact that this woman in my novel had to walk out in the pouring rain to pump herself a measly pail of freezing cold water! She then had to boil it pot by pot with a wood burning stove for any washing or bathing required. What is wrong with me?! How easy I have it peeing indoors and touching buttons to cook food, suck up dirt, wash and dry my clothes and dishes! I fear I would have made a terrible pioneer.

We do live in a more complex world in terms of other commitments and expectations-and I feel women particularly face this modern burden. Most of us are no longer one loaf of bread short of starving or one pair shy of wearing dirty underwear everyday. We have plenty to juggle. In the literal sense of the phrase. And I'm thinking in modern times that's more the appropriate definition of stewardship. Juggling the plenty, making it count and matter rather than shoving it in a closet or rusting in the yard unused. Today's home manager isn't up at 4 am letting rolls raise and hanging wash by the coals of the wood stove, but instead has to master time management both inside and outside the home and using the words I have enough. This role might not be as physically taxing or as linked to survival as the kind played by Betty MacDonald and the millions of other housewives and managers of the recent past, but I'm not so sure it isn't just as important to happiness and a sense of succeeding on the home front. Here on Summerhill Drive, I guess I am a modern pioneer.

(Above images from Corbis. com. Aren't they fantastic?)


Pep Talk

If you've been here awhile you may remember that every year I like to come up with some mantra that I would like to sum up the year ahead of me. It started with "kicking A" a few years back and progressed into just be better, then "keep your head on straight". I think I've finally settled on one for this new year. I have a lot of irons in the fire right now, so to speak. It is a huge time of transition for me personally, and I'd probably also say spiritually. The funny thing is that 2011 is also, according to numerologists and new age types, a year that represents a shift in focus and paradigm for the entire planet. We are collectively entering a new cycle of birth and growth. This idea registered with me because I'm feeling so much focus right now on creating and bringing about new growth in my own life and I sense that many of my peers are doing this too. The prediction feels right to me and it makes me extremely hopeful and excited about the year ahead for the whole lot of us out there in the world.

It takes a lot of energy to make things happen, to make life happen the way you'd like it to. I can't think of a more concrete symbol of energy than flame or fire. This is a year I'm going to need all the energy I can muster so I have decided 'STOKE IT UP' is my new mantra winner. It also makes me happy to use this phrase because it strikes a personal chord. My dad is the best fire master I know and I grew up with lots of family time around the fire and hearing "throw another log on the fire" and "stoke the fire, Alli", and now my kids regularly help do this job when they are at Grandpa's house. Anyway, this mantra feels really apt for the kind of life I want to lead in 2011. I love the word stoke and its inherent snowboarder-esque "I'm stoked" enthusiasm, but I also love that it's an action word. It is not passive; one cannot properly stoke sitting on one's ass, and that's what I need, what the world needs really, more action, less talk. A get 'er done sensibility.

I love to nerd out and watch those youtube videos showing chain reactions like this. It's impressive to see materially/physically the way one small action or movement can set a series of events in motion. It's the ripple, the domino effect at play. I can't help but believe that the choices I make in my life have this same effect on a larger whole. What I decide to do today makes tomorrow take shape. What I say to my children tomorrow effects what they will say to their children in 30 years. What I don't do or say can't ever happen, it can't ever become a ripple on the surface effecting the larger wave. It's nothing, a non-factor, and there's not much life in nothing as far as I can tell.

The truth of the matter is that we are all shaping our reality each minute of our lives. It suddenly feels very important to me to make the choice to stoke rather than to sit and watch and dream. I've done enough watching and waiting for now. I'm ready to fill a corner of the world with what I want to see.

All this self pep talkery makes me mindful of a wonderful quote by Goethe that is always at the top of my inspirato file...if this can't nudge to get in the zone of
action, I don't know what can....

"I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming."



You say it's your birthday...

My oldest child is fast approaching her 7th birthday. Next week I will have a 7 year old daughter! I find it rather shocking since that means I've been parenting, been MOM, for all that time; I've been on the clock and basically responsive and responsible for 2,555 days! It feels like quite an achievement for both me and Cleo.

Parenting is as dynamic and mysterious a process as photosynthesis, as far as I'm concerned. Parenting has shaped my heart and mind in ways that I certainly couldn't ever have predicted and it has challenged me to the breaking point on many occasions. I think one of the biggest perks, and certainly one of the most balancing principles of parenting is the way it humbles you. Daily I'm humbled by the humongous love I feel for my kids, one that seems to just keep exponentially growing. I'm humbled by all the mistakes and instantaneous regrets I feel when I mishandle or ignore something and watch the mood and problem spiral out of my grasp. I'm humbled by the way my kids seem to just keep loving me right through all those mistakes I make. And I'm humbled by the enormity of the task of teaching and caring for someone for a lifetime, knowing that whatever happens this relationship of being a parent to a child will define me and help define them.

Cleo as an almost 7 year old is so full of wonder and smart little quips that I seriously want to bottle her vitality and save it for some future rainy day when she's a teen, lying on the bed in headphones texting, dull eyes staring back at me. She can be rough and tumble or dainty and fancy. She likes dinosaurs and peace signs and owls. She is attracted to treasures and hoards small objects like, ahem, ancient skeleton keys stolen from Grandma Mia's house. She collects rocks and crystals, loves Scooby Doo, ancient Egypt, and anything macabre. I know I'm biased, but I think she's utterly fascinating. But don't get me wrong, I forget this important fact daily. I think sometimes I forget to see my own children, or maybe it's more that I tend to only see them as my children and forget to see them for themselves?

The monotony of routine as a parent, and the fact that you are responsible for creating a human who understands manners, grammar, morality, and kindness is what can make you numb to the experience. But boy, taken out of context, kids are magic. Watching Flynn walk around with his white elephant gift-a disposable camera- over the holidays was enough to remind me that everything he sees is of interest to him. The doorknob, my face, the toilet bowl. Details are interesting to kids, and as they age, I'm learning that they have such fascinating ways of putting all those details together to form a world view. I was telling Cleo a story about my youth at my Grandma Lou's the other day and she interrupted me to ask "so was all the world gray back then?" She was interpreting black and white photos and movies into her perception of the past. Isn't that interesting?

Taking the time out of my busy task mastering role to really just hang out with my kids and talk to them feels like a worthy goal. Over the holiday break I indulged and let my chatty Cleo talk my ear off while I tickled her back before bed. She's always talkative at this time of night but most the time I'm eager to get her down, get to my couple hours of uninterrupted freedom. Or I can only see it as a ploy to stay awake longer so I tend to cut it short and sometimes even get annoyed at her long list of topics she wants to discuss at such an inopportune time. But it was so fun to just listen to her with a free ear, one hungry to hear her funny thoughts and wishes. We have discussed things like why we can't be buried in our own backyard when we die, having cake shops next to each other one day and apartments in Paris where our whole family sleeps on bunk beds, why Arctic animals have white fur, and who the oldest person we know is. Our conversations have zest and depth and I think its because I'm really listening and entertained by what she has to say. I'm being present. And often I think that's the hardest thing to do as a parent and a busy adult with adult sized worries and preoccupations, but also probably the most valuable thing I can do for my kids. I believe giving attention to others is always a gift, but giving true attention to my children is as much a gift to me as it is to them. It gives me the chance to unwrap-present-like- the daily hard work and grind of parenting and transform it into a fleeting moment of discovery and connection. Who is this person I'm so driven to love and protect and nurture anyway?

My sweet father in law always wishes me a happy birthday on my children's birthdays. It's a lovely recognition of the fact that for all us parents out there on the day our children are born a new us is born as well. Our life divides, our heart multiplies. I've never felt that more than on this 7th birthday of being a parent. Happy Birthday to me. Happy Birthday, Cleo. I am one lucky lady to know you.


Be Still

Maybe it is because we're in the midst of the busiest couple weeks of the year, but I have been thinking a lot about the loveliness of home time, of staying in my pjs and making bread at 1:00 in the afternoon and just being with my own little family without a laundry list of to do's, parties, projects, obligations, and work shifts. I haven't had a day like that in a long, long time and I can feel myself teetering on the brink of exhaustion. My brilliant sister once described the difference between being an introvert and an extrovert as either feeling that social situations "fill you" or "drain you." I fall firmly into the filling up category when it comes to people, and being a pleaser by nature I have a hard time saying no to social engagements and I'm always interested in planning events where I can see those I love. I also think I'm always rah rah rah party because I spend a good number of hours each day at home with kids, insulated from outside connection. Getting out really means something to me, it's a break from routine, and I tend to thrive on it. But I also tend to create, plan, and commit to a lot of extra curricular situations that tax my family's resources both financially and in terms of our chance to be together as a family unit-2 parents x 2 kids.

I think it's pretty impossible to change what fundamentally floats your boat, so I know I will never become a hermit long term. But I do think it is time for me to hunker down a bit and get re-centered with my family. Last year I read about an idea on the wonderful crafty blog Inchmark about taking a week to "BE STILL" as a family. The idea is really just what it sounds, to make an organized and committed stab at retreating to do nothing and to enjoy that state of peace. Inchmark does this at the start of the holiday season, but I'm thinking the perfect time for my family to make this a yearly tradition will be the first week of the new year. It feels like an intuitive way to start off 2011 and I'm always happy to set a worthy goal right from the get go. I'm in love with short term, manageable resolutions that can wither after 7 days!

In our week of being still I plan to resist the urge to make plans, to go out to dinner, or work late. The week will give us a chance to read books out loud and privately, do puzzles, play with our new Christmas bells and whistles, and to sit by candlelight. I imagine some walks and maybe a few craft projects but lots of time by the fire, slow simmering soups, music listening, design magazines and Roald Dahl on our laps. No friends, no play dates, no errands, no outside activities, just me, myself, and mine own at home on Summerhill Drive.

It sounds pretty heavenly, right? I really don't mean to sound all bah humbug because I truly am looking forward to another glorious week of Christmas break with friends and loved ones and fun activities and parties, but I hope that knowing that the stillness is coming January 1 will help me to soak up the love, the bubbly, and the joy of this crazy, hectic, glorious season that much more. Turn outward so I can happily turn inward.....