honesty

Covid City 8: Be Gentle, Please

March 23, 2020 7:30 am

My calendar tells me it’s Monday. This matters when it comes to my job, but as a parent here in Covid City where going out is not an option, there is no such thing as a weekend.

Case in point: M woke up at 6 am Saturday morning. L stumbled out of bed a couple of hours later and asked when we’d be starting circle time. After having spent the past week experimenting with various homeschool arrangements, Dave and I needed a break. “Today is a Saturday, sweetie,” I said.

“Oh right, it’s a home day,” L replied.

“Well, I guess every day is these days. But it’s up to you. Do you want homeschool today?”

L thought for a moment and decided no. But then, only minutes later, he launched into project time and from there proceeded to lead us through the full homeschool schedule: outside exercises, center time, lunch, quiet time, meditation, dance party, more project time. It actually all went very well; Dave and I were even able to get the laundry and cooking done. So what was the magic secret? Why had this day gone so much better than the others? And how could we make it happen again?

Later that night, Dave and I analyzed all the different options we had tried thus far and came to some excellent conclusions. Even though L had melted down when we’d let him take the lead earlier in the week, he seemed to love it on Saturday. Perhaps now that he had processed things a bit more, letting him lead would be the best move. We went through all the details and felt confident in our plans to replicate Saturday’s success going forward.

Sunday started out quite lovely. L led us through some project time while Dave selected a fun assortment of records. But then, out of nowhere (though it’s never truly out of nowhere), L freaked out and screamed so loudly he woke the baby up from nap. Dave reprimanded L, but I preferred a gentler approach and so interrupted him mid-sentence. This is definitely not the “united front” philosophy we have agreed upon. Dave was, of course, pissed off and left the room, which pissed me off. It took a while to calm L down, then Dave and I had to calm each other down. Meanwhile, the baby was still screaming from his crib.

And that’s when it hit me: we can plan, analyze, and schedule all night long, but the truth is, four people on lockdown in a small apartment are going to get mad at each other. We’re going to yell at each other. We’re going to laugh with each other, too. And in the end, we’re going to get through it with each other.

Homeschool with Dave = setting up a mini-recording studio in the living room.

Saturday worked because it worked. Who knows exactly why. What I do know is that I cannot make everyone happy and I cannot make every day go well even under normal conditions, much less in Covid City. Some days will be good. Others will not. That’s life, with or without the coronavirus.

Of course I’m going to try to create conditions that will foster happiness, creativity, and positivity during our days here at home together. Our child craves structure; when left to his own devices, he enforces it himself. But no matter what happens, I have to stop wasting so much of my brain space on trying to make every day as good as it can possibly be. Parenting in Covid City is weird and emotional and messy. Getting through the day is good enough.

P.S. My morning meditation self-care goal today is to drink more water. I am used to have bottle after bottle while I work in the office, but here at home, I am all discombobulated. Plus, the three of us keep leaving our glasses all over the apartment and then when the baby wakes up, we frantically stash them in weird, high-up places out of his reach, which are also out of our sight and thus out of mind. So today, I’m bringing back the water bottle.

Covid City 7: What About Me?

March 20, 2020, 10:00 pm

You know what? We’re actually kind of figuring it out over here. Things are still a mess, but we’re getting better at it. Or at least more used to it. Obviously I don’t like parenting in Covid City. I’m exhausted. I didn’t choose this. I would never choose this. But there’s no reason to keep fighting it; thinking about how things used to be or worrying about what will come doesn’t help. I’m overwhelmed, yes, but sometimes that’s just how it is. Sometimes we have to swim underwater for a while even if we don’t want to.

You know what else? It’s Saturday. We made it through our first week. We did it. We’re doing it. Good job, us! Good job, everyone!

Big realization: Dave and I left ourselves out of the homeschool schedule. In no way did we consider our own needs at all; we didn’t even include breaks for each other. Over the course of a weekend, I went from having a typical full-time office job, with lunch breaks and coffee breaks and talk-to-other-people-face-to-face breaks, to working 15-hour days with no breaks at all.

I have been so focused on everyone else in my family that I completely lost track of me. So, in addition to adding in at least one solid break and one shorter break every day, I’m also going to add in a two-minute morning meditation where I set a self-care goal for the day.

The idea behind this exercise, based on the practice of morning intentions, is to: 1. Take some space each day before the craziness begins to just be with myself for a minute, and 2. Focus in on one action that I can return to throughout the day to center and calm myself, to help myself find positivity, to remind myself that I am worth caring for, too. It’s simply a way to gather myself together each morning and focus my energy on self-love. The act of setting this goal is enough, even if I don’t come back to it later. But hopefully I will, and hopefully building this into my routine will help me practice better self-care as we adjust to the insanity that is Covid City.

I encourage you to join me in this activity. If you don’t know what to choose for your goal, perhaps something like “take a deep breath” could work, or “be nice to when I talk to myself in my head.” You can use the same goal every day, if you want. My one recommendation is to keep it specific; something like “relax” is a little broad and daunting. Choosing a simple act might feel more doable.

Today my goal is to stretch. So many of us carry tension in our neck, shoulders, back, and hips, especially those of us working from makeshift home offices and/or lugging babies around. I feel like I’ve pushed my body through the past week without considering it at all. What an amazing gift it is to have a healthy body! Particularly in these times. Today I want to be good to it, which means I’m going to get off this computer right now and do some stretches.  Maybe I will remember to do them again later, too.

What will your intention be?

Brain-Picking Guest Spot: You Can’t Handle the Truth by M.M. De Voe

truth

You Can’t Handle the Truth
 M.M. De Voe

So I’m curious what will emerge in one hour of barely-edited thought process. Becky offered a guest-spot here, and I was intrigued. She told me that the blog idea came from her opinion that there isn’t enough truth in the world.

I agree.

Everyone seems to be lying, from memoirists (eye-roll, James Frey – but WTF? Go Ask Alice was also fake?? Horrible!) to politicians (insert any name). And from fake news (love the new huge disclaimer on the Borowitz Report) to real news (“It’s not fake! It’s just biased!”) –so where to do we turn when we really want the truth?

Or do we really want the truth at all?

I remember being a kid and telling my mother exactly what I thought she wanted to hear. I got very good at this. I didn’t lie, exactly, but I definitely omitted all the details that would upset her and focused only on those that would lead to a more peaceful existence for both of us. It was a decision born of a lot of strife – at first I naturally told her the exact truth with no filters – but it would lead to her telling me what to do, and then we would argue, and usually someone would cry. The next time a similar event rolled around, I would tell her a more modified truth, until finally the omissions outnumbered the facts. But here’s what’s remarkable: at this point, our relationship smoothed out entirely. She was able to accept me as the person I was presenting to her. I was able to live my life without feeling constantly criticized by the one person whose opinion (ridiculously) still mattered to me more than any other. I didn’t want to disappoint her. And she really didn’t want the truth – we both wanted reality to match our expectations of what reality should be: a decent mother/daughter relationship without too much arguing.

My mom’s name is Veronika – here’s a photo of her and me. Okay not really. But St. Veronica is a lot like how she always seemed to me.

A mother myself, I hope my kids find a more open mind in me than I did in my parents (though to be fair, I’m sure those opinions bent from whatever their initial standpoints were!) —but I am not sure anyone is ever cured of the desire to own a reality that matches their hopes and dreams. It is crushing to hear that someone you once idolized has done terrible things (thanks Bill Cosby).

But is it better not to know?

I don’t know. We want the pretty picture. We really do. We crave it. It hurts us to watch all our heroes get dragged through mud, either because someone else exposed them or because they themselves simply became too much of a mess to contain their own flaws.

The truth is that all humans are flawed. We mess up. We make ridiculous, horrible decisions. We have skeletons in our closets. We sometimes LIKE the skeletons we have in our closets. But all of us ultimately want to be good people, don’t we? No matter our flaws, we try to balance things out. We try to atone for our weakness in one area by being strong in another. Isn’t this what humans do instinctively? We discover that the nasty cashier has forgotten to charge us for the milk and instead of telling her, we give a dollar to the next homeless guy we see? We are constantly readjusting our karma.

skeletonBut this post is supposed to be about telling the truth, not behaving in an honest way. (This hour-long limit is madness! You try it!) We want the truth while at the same time, we want the world to be a better place than it is.

So how can we get there without lying all the time?

Curated news feeds are not the answer. Deleting every Facebook friend or Tweep who ever disagreed with you politically isn’t a better answer than sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting La La La. We have to be better than that. But also: they have to behave like adults.

We have lost the skill of argument without attack. At a recent party, many of my friends were in a discussion about compromise and how instead of celebrating a hard-fought compromise, everyone from parents to politicians to corporate watchdogs denigrate the very idea of it. For some reason, instead of evolving as thoughtful adults, we are spiraling back into dichotomous thinkers, where there is no cooperation, there is only a winner and a loser, and heaven help you if you are perceived to be the loser.

We need to reestablish the value of negotiation, to raise the value of compromise.

How? Is there a solution? I don’t know. I just read all seven of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories to my kids and I was struck again and again by how stoic the parents are in those books. Nothing causes drama. Not when their daughter goes blind. Not when they lose the farm to locusts. Never. They face things practically and they don’t get hyper about it. They marry as early as in their teens, they move without transition into adulthood and responsibility, and then they deal with nature for the rest of their lives. They never indulge, but they also do not judge others. They live simply and are content with what they have. They celebrate success as humbly as they accept failure. I am smitten by this unflappable adulthood. Faced with images of one red-faced talking head after another, one screeching angry parent after another, I ache for a real adult. Someone who is a rock, that waves can crash upon and who will still be standing there. A Margaret Thatcher. Someone solid.

Is it our constant American ambitious dream to “have more” that fosters the dissatisfaction that leads to the constant lying? I am reading Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down and in it, he says that the downfall of our generation (and this was written decades ago and about Great Britain not America) is that it is no longer enough to make something or do something—we have to also BE someone. How do you “be someone” without gently reinventing yourself, the way I used to do for my mother? For generations, all of our celebrities were inventions. None of them was real. Natalie Wood? Marilyn Monroe? Elvis? Our graveyards are littered with people who tried to be perfect for the sake of society.

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The grave of the King – Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.

Didn’t work.

Humans are flawed. But humans also need heroes. A panicky thought: we as a culture have begun to celebrate flaws and horrifying actions and villainy, because there is no other way to find authentic heroes–? Is this possible?

Not only possible, but likely.

The truth is, we are all flawed and unless we celebrate the honest overcoming of those flaws, we will be duped into thinking that simply admitting those flaws is enough. I don’t think it is. Let’s look at children again. I want my children to trust me enough to tell me if they mess up, but I also then want them to be strong enough to try again, not just to wallow in their mess. I am there to support them in their attempts, and there for them when they fail. I would like our politicians to be equally honest: not to laugh off or celebrate their own wrongs, but to quietly face them and to actually try to be better next time. Carrie Fisher whose recent death hit so hard was a real hero: she never said overcoming her weaknesses was easy, but she did it anyway. And once done, she lived honestly both in and out of the spotlight.

At least as far as we know.

~

mmdevoeAbout the Author: M. M. De Voe’s short fiction has won or been shortlisted for more than 20 literary prizes including three Pushcart nominations and she has won multiple grants including the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, Fund for Creative Communities, Columbia Writing Fellowship, and an Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant for Historical Fiction with Gay Positive Characters. Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis, she holds a Columbia University MFA, and is the Lithuanian voice of OnStar.

~

Click here to learn more about this column and to read previous entries.

Good Grief, It’s Christmastime

xmaslightsI’ve come down with a common heart cold. Tis the season, I suppose. It’s hard when there’s so much holiday cheer everywhere; I want to be taken in by the bright lights and rosy cheeks and joy joy joy, and every now and then I can feel the magic of Christmas and it’s good, but mostly, this time of year depresses and stresses me. This was true before my mom died and is especially true now. Though honestly, it has gotten easier. This is Christmas #3 without her, and also Christmas Eve #3 without her, which just so happens to be her birthday. What a serious double-whammy, right? (Side note, she double-whammied me in a few ways: birthday/Christmas in the same two days, Mother’s Day/my wedding anniversary in the same few days, and back-to-school with new students/anniversary of her death in the same week. I swear that wherever she is, she laughs hard every December, May and September. Gotta love her dark sense of humor.)

Of course I’ve been sad today; tomorrow morning, my dudes, dogs and I embark on our holiday road trip to visit my family in Kentucky, and the packing and prepping have been endless reminders that she will not be there when we arrive. I’ve cried a lot. Not just a few tears but that horrible, throat-clenching, suffocating wail/moan that only grief can bring about. I described that feeling in the first piece I was able to pen (type?) after her death, and I have to say, while it doesn’t come nearly as often anymore nor last as long when it does come, it still sucks. But you know what? It doesn’t actually suffocate me. It feels like it will, it feels entirely possible to die from how hard it grips my throat and heart and guts and just all of me, but then it releases and I’m left with a lingering ache in my thyroid and a big, stinky Boxer dog licking snot and drool off my face. And I’m okay.

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So grief doesn’t kill us. That’s nice. And, as I said, it really does get easier. The most cliché phrase ever is also the truest: things do get better with time. Today I looked at a photo of Mom and Granny and me, and I felt happy inside. I also sang her favorite song to L and we smiled together when I finished (I couldn’t even listen to that song for a year after she died, much less sing it to my son). I also told him about how we’ll bake her favorite cookie recipes on her birthday, how we’re bringing back stockings this year because she and I always loved them more than anyone else (still can’t believe my family just dropped that tradition after her death. Are you kidding me? Stockings are better than real presents!). And, instead of giving into my exhaustion and lying around my apartment in a grief bubble all day, I bundled us up and walked across the park for a date with two lovely writermama friends and their wonderful, crazy toddlers, and even though I spent most of the afternoon lying around my friend’s apartment in a grief bubble, I felt so grateful to have such wonderful people in my life who not only accepted the state I was in but offered me love and support to get through it. Plus, the babies! So in the end, the majority of this day was truly enjoyable, and that’s a HUGE improvement over days of Decembers past.

xmascarolsBut can I please complain about carols for a minute? I’m not a Grinch, I swear. I love Christmas lights, especially the big-bulbed retro kind, and trees and ornaments and I even like gift shopping, but what the hell is up with Christmas songs? They’re just awful. The music is terrible, so boring and repetitive, and the words beyond cheesy. Plus there are only like, five of them, and these same five songs are redone over and over in equally terrible ways, and when I walk into a Duane Reade to get some baby Advil because L’s cold just won’t go away and Holly Jolly Rudolph is blasting on the speakers, I want to vomit, scream, and break things. And do not tell me that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is at least one of the better songs because that shit is rapey. The only thing that makes Christmas carols okay is David Bowie.

Thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far. It does feel good to get that out of my system. And while I do harbor a completely reasonable amount of anger directed toward Christmas songs, sometimes I just need to rant about something trite instead of the fact that Mom always wanted grandkids and died when her first one was only a few months old, her second one (my baby) was conceived just ten months later, and her third one shortly after. I’m excited to see my son with his cousins – that kind of bond is so special – but it’s just fucking heartbreaking that Mom will never get to see it, to hear it, to hold them in her arms.

But I must stay present and fully experience this visit, to keep myself from falling into that dark hole of my past and also because she is not here to enjoy this time and how dare I waste the beautiful gift of life on crying about death? Yes, little L will learn that his mama feels sad this time of year, but he will also learn the value of grief, the power of mindfulness, and the joy of family, including his Grandma Sandy.

For more info on this column, please read Brain-Picking Becky: Intro.

Brain-Picking Becky: Intro

usflag.jpegThe weeks since the election have been hard for me. I’ve thought about so many things but have struggled with writing them out. I know and love people who believe our country needs Trump, and I want to understand their position. I want to feel good about the future of America. But right now, I’m feeling scared and sad. I’m hurting over the fact that we elected a president who has no political experience and openly encourages sexism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia. I get that Clinton was an imperfect candidate and that the working class has been ignored and underserved. God, do I get that; I grew up in Mt. Washington, KY, with a hardworking, underpaid mailman as my father, and a loving, mentally ill mother who had to declare bankruptcy because of her medical bills. The bank took our house when I was sixteen years old, and the only reason I went to college was because I got a full scholarship. So yeah, I agree that this country needs a change, that it needs a president who will stand up to Wall Street, who will fight to support working and middle class people. But I just don’t see how Trump, a millionaire businessman, is that person. And even if he is that person, I can’t swallow the level of oppression he supports.

My mind has been running wild, and I’ve made a serious effort to limit my news intake, to read only reliable sources (like The Guardian), and to read articles written by people of many viewpoints, not just my own. Throughout all of it, I keep coming back to four basic ideas that our country, our world, needs more of: love, kindness, honesty, and art (in my particular case, stories and music). I wrote about the first two concepts in an open letter to my son in MUTHA Magazine, and now here I am embracing the other two.

I’ve prided myself on being honest in my writings. But the honesty I’ve shown you, dear readers, is a polished and slaved-over honesty. Being a writer with OCD is a strange experience, a magical curse of sorts. I heavily debate individual words, replacing them over and over as I reread a hundred times. Commas and semi-colons, too. Sentences get moved around, put back in their original place, moved around again. This is normal writer’s work to an extent, but my brain takes it overboard. Detail-oriented doesn’t begin to describe it; I forget to eat, I neglect my friends, my brain often gets stuck in weird, repetitive thought loops that I struggle to turn off, and I lose a lot of sleep. But, I have a healthy list of publications in magazines that I’m thrilled to be a part of, and these publications have allowed me to connect and converse with people I would otherwise never have met. And this connection is what it’s all about. However, it’s time for me to be more honest with you, for my own personal sake and for community’s sake. This level of editing not only drives me crazy (I should certainly dedicate more time to meditating and petting my dogs, not to mention the fact that I’m a mom of a toddler), but it also puts up an unnecessary wall between you and me. So allow me to introduce you to my new series, Brain-Picking Becky.

The main idea behind Brain-Picking Becky is that each entry will keep honesty at the forefront. I will not slave over editing and polishing them but will put them out into the world even if I don’t feel ready. They may be diary-esque and personal, or perhaps cerebral and wandering. They might be connected to current events or totally in the clouds. Each one will revolve around a topic I believe we as Americans need to be talking about, and each will bare my truth.

This scares me. But it also excites me. I want to reach out to you. I want to understand you. Please comment, send me emails, find me on Facebook and Twitter (a name like mine is hard to miss). Tell me if you disagree with me or think I’m wrong, and tell me why. This country needs people who can honestly talk and honestly listen, and I want to be one of those people.

 

We Need More People Like D. Watkins

d watkinsIf you don’t know who D. Watkins is, get to know him. He’s smart, brave, strong, funny, and dedicated to teaching kids and the country at large about the realities of growing up black on the streets of Baltimore. This drug dealer turned teacher and writer tackles serious issues head-on in a completely relatable way, even if you (like me) grew up in a very different place. But don’t worry, he’s not all drugs and death; you’ll definitely laugh a little, too. Read him, listen to him, be grateful for people like him.

Check out his newest memoir, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, and his 2015 release, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

Photo taken from NBC News.

“I’m Not Done Confronting My Own Bullshit on Race”

It’s encouraging to receive comments like this one from fellow writerparent Cari Jackson. People care. It might not feel like it, but they really do. If we keep speaking out, we can make a difference.

This is how Cari responded to questions about if we writers have a duty to start conversations about our country’s current crisis and how we can talk to our kids about racism.

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The Double Duty of Writing and Parenting

Art shouldn’t only be about self expression. Yes, that’s an important component, but I believe it is our duty as artists to also reflect on society at large, to spark conversations about important issues, and to challenge peoples’ way of thinking. As the famous Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei (pictured below) said, “I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” Most American artists I know don’t view their art as inherently political, but I agree with Ai Wei Wei that the act of separating art from politics is still a political act whether we are aware of it or not. Excluding politics from your creative work (or your Facebook page or Twitter feed) is a choice, and the act of making this choice sends a message. And, in my opinion, it’s a message that needs to be examined. I feel that we artists need to embrace our role as agents of change, as leaders, as cultural affecters, that we need to send a thought-provoking message to our audiences instead of one of apathy or avoidance. Artists have a special kind of power, and I think it’s our job to use it.

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As writers, it’s even more important that we embrace this role because our art is based upon language, something that all people use every day to communicate. We’ve studied, practiced, and honed this language, and no matter our genre, we are better at communicating than a typical person is. We must use our expertise and skill to begin conversations, encourage deep thinking, and urge others to talk about important issues. I’m not saying that every single piece we write needs to connect to a news article or shooting or Congressional bill, just that we need to be aware of the gift we have and use it to lead and guide others through important conversations. Or, at a minimum, we need to include people of color in our fiction, reference current affairs in our poems, and speak honestly about our own thoughts and feelings in our essays. Communication is an important element in fixing and healing our country. We writers have above average communication skills. Therefore we have an obligation.

Writers might have the obligation to inspire deep thought and motivate change, but one can always turn his computer off or shut her notebook. Parents have the obligation of raising a healthy, decent human, and they never get a freaking break from it. When you try to fulfill both obligations, you’ll question your sanity. But seriously, how do you talk to kids about race in a way that makes sense to them while also ensuring that they’re eating well and finishing their homework and going to bed on time? And then, after all of this, how the hell are you supposed to find energy to write? There are so many intricate layers and confusing double standards when it comes to race relations in our country. The day-to-day of parenting is already so grueling. It’s tempting to “preserve their innocence” and preserve our own sanity. But we must talk. Kids understand more than we realize. We need to have these conversations so that we can help them understand even more and encourage them to build a better future, but also so that we adults can hear what they have to say. Part of me thinks that adults are the reason this all got so shitty in the first place; sometimes I think we need to vote some kids into Congress.

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Hooray for peace and equality!

When it comes to conversing, my job as a parent isn’t that difficult yet. My son is only 15-months-old, so we’re obviously not having real discussions about anything, much less the layers of race relations. But I do talk to him in the inane way one talks to a toddler about respect, equality, the importance of peace and nonviolence and being kind and compassionate. I’m not sure how I’ll handle these conversations when he’s older and able to see that our police force and government don’t tend to espouse these same ideas, but I hope that growing more aware will not completely shrink his beautifully wide open heart.

I think a lot about white privilege when I think about these future conversations with my son. I won’t be answering his questions about why strangers hate him because of his skin tone. I won’t have to teach him how to behave around a cop so that he *maybe* won’t get shot. The fear black mothers live with every day is unfathomable to me. No one should have to hold that much fear in her heart. How do I make my son understand this?

In her essay, “The Conversation We Must Have with Our White Children,” Courtney E. Martin goes into more detail about this topic, citing specific examples of the advice parents give to their children of color and explaining why it’s important that our white children understand their black peers’ reality. But is this enough? Is it enough to teach our white kids to be aware of white privilege, or are we as writerparents supposed to instill a sense of activism in our children? Perhaps having these difficult conversations is a form of activism in itself. But is that enough? What will ever be enough?

Maybe being a writerparent actually makes it easier. Maybe embracing this double duty gives us a deeper understanding or insight. Maybe our honed communication skills will make these conversations smoother. Or maybe we can just email our kids our blog posts and then read their comments. Whatever method we choose, we really do have a double duty. Some days will feel like a success, other days a failure, but the true success is in trying.