Friday, August 27, 2010

Beast for Sale, Answers to "Guilt"--Call Now!

Guilt is a curious beast.

That said, I should include a disclaimer that this post includes Mild Rant, Strongly Held Opinions, and Possibly a Trace of Household Elephant Influence. Know that if you read on, you may disagree with me, or find me more obnoxious than usual. I just feel like I should warn you before I get rolling…

And no, nobody said anything to me (conversation? Um, no, that door seems to have closed), nothing happened. I just had to put thoughts into words in response to an article I read.

Anyway, guilt is a curious beast.

I am the oldest child in a large Irish Catholic family. I can fill pretty much EVERY stereotype ever held about random guilt! Any gaps in my own resume of anxious failure are filled by society’s emphasis on perfection. The problem is, the Path To Perfection seems to go in competing directions.

Parenting books tell me I shouldn’t have let my kids watch Barney in preschool, now they will never learn. Other parenting articles tell me an hour of Sesame Street a day is a good thing. My kids need enrichment activities to remain competitive, no they need “down time” to fully develop. I should have gone back to work when my kids were younger to support our family more, no, I should have been happier about staying at home. My kids need to have a Catholic education, no, my kids need the resources of public schools, no, good moms home school! My kids should never eat carbs, my kids should eat whole grains only, we should never have sugar, a balance of treats makes for a healthier soul…ack!

What’s a girl to do?

This girl tends to generally just wallow in guilt over roads not taken or roads taken badly. As I’ve gotten older (and more glamorous!) I have found some peace with my choices, or I’ve accepted the bad ones and tried to move on. I am far, far from a perfect parent. I am impatient and quick-tempered and messy, I’m apparently sometimes funny, I’m a good cook, I NEVER wear mom jeans, and I take great joy in life’s little cool things like a woodpecker in the back yard or a blimp flying by my house. I have great, normal kids. They make me insane, they fill me with joy. I figure my screw ups as a mom will only give the kids really interesting material for a therapist down the road.

Despite my pile o’ imperfections, I know I have to just tell the voice of guilt to Be Quiet and let me live!

But guilt is big business. Between magazines and newspapers, internet articles and surveys, book tours and talk shows, we are all constantly bombarded with ways to Make Our Lives More Ideal. Conversely, we are bombarded with a message of “if we only did things differently, life would be better”. From fashion shows to home design critiques, our society is jam-packed with criticism and blame.

But REALLY, bad things happen, sometimes with painful randomness. Blame really isn’t always productive, especially when there’s no restitution to be found, but in our litigious culture that’s a difficult attitude adjustment to embrace.

My Elephant is waving at me.

I’ve discovered in the last few years since our Household Elephant joined our family that I have NO ROOM for guilt about the random painful bad things. Random bad things Happen. Blame doesn’t help. Guilt doesn’t help. There’s no room in the stages of grief for random guilt and blame.

We need to make healthy choices. Certain things are no-brainers. Try to eat right, exercise or at least stay somewhat active, keep our minds active, act in a way that respects others and us. Within those parameters, there are a lot of good options for how to be live an emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy life.
But sometimes, even when healthy choices are made, catastrophe strikes.

It isn’t anyone’s fault.

Cancer isn’t anyone’s fault.

Ok, there are environmental realities and disasters that have created clusters of illness. I’m not referencing those. And I know science has shown that certain things do put people at a greater risk for cancer; still, placing blame on someone for their illness is never a healthy sociological choice. I’m talking about everyday folks getting cancer or brain tumors or diseases that force them to face life a different way.

It’s not their fault.

I have a lot of friends in the cancer community. Too many. Most of these friends are in the pediatric cancer community, although I lost 2 grandparents and my husband lost one grandparent to random, horrifying cancer. Several good friends are battling adult cancers now, and I am continually inspired by their grit and determination to Show Cancer Who Is Boss.

Their cancer is not their fault.

Pediatric cancers are particularly horrific, and leave parents feeling horribly helpless and wracked by a sense of “how did this happen?” Science is working on trying to figure that out…but to blame lifestyle or parenting is cruel and scientifically inaccurate (EGADS! The kid ate a chicken McNugget! Call Child Protective Services! )

To sell guilt about “if they had lived (fill in the blank “Wellness Business”) lifestyle” this wouldn’t have happened is deplorable. To sell quasi-science as a panacea is appalling, especially to these most vulnerable of people.
It also removes mercy from the equation. If someone is suffering, isn’t the healthiest choice for me, the friend, relative, or acquaintance, to encourage, support, and help? How does finger pointing create anything positive?

We probably all should live healthier lives. But to say that anyone who has cancer probably “wasn’t living a (fill in the blank “Wellness Business”) lifestyle” is ghastly and judgmental. It’s also bad science (which is a whole ‘nother rant for another day). It closes doors, it casts aspersions, it brings despair, not hope. Such proclamations feed the curious beast of guilt, and “otherize” the person suffering.

In so many areas of life, we really are all it together. We can’t have “other”. We need to be “we”, not “us and them”. Only by standing together can we face the darkness. Selling guilt, blaming cancer on those suffering from it, puts me over the proverbial edge.

I think the best plan for “Wellness” springs from the idea of solidarity, of standing together in all our differences, embracing the moment we’re in and fighting through it together. Guilt and blame are never healthy choices.

At least in our home, we have a far scarier Beast to battle than random guilt. We simply can’t let guilt about the Beast take hold here, or we will be lost. We made NO BAD CHOICES when it came to our family; I have zero regrets about the genetic implications of our current crisis. If I let guilt in, healing recedes far down the road to madness. We need to embrace the moment we’re in, even if it feels like hugging a cactus, and make the best of things.

I am deeply grateful for those many, many people who HAVE joined in solidarity with us, who accept our situation even though it defies reason, who encourage us and look out for us, and never, ever blame us for the catastrophes we face. With you, we will beat the Beast.

In the meantime, I know there’s so many of you I haven’t talked to recently…I feel really bad about that… ; )

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Anonymous Chocolate and Other Mysteries of Life

Your moms all said it at some point: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. Generally, I suppose this is a good approach to life. But sometimes, there just ISN’T anything nice to say. Nothing. For days and days, not one nice word pops into your mind.

It’s been that kind of season here. I have an entire dictionary’s worth of NOT nice words floating about in my head. But as mom/wife/sister/daughter/friend, silence isn’t often an option. And when I do start talking, the unprintable torrent can
easily spiral out of control.

Likewise, I don’t expect anyone to come up with Hallmark-esque cheerfulness for me. Sometimes there just isn’t anything nice to say.

I am really, really trying to keep this from becoming a blog about our pet Elephant, the one that stays in our living room and takes away all our nice things to say. But he has a compelling way of getting into all of my business. And when he shows up, all other little things tend to go wrong, which does not help my vocabulary.

Since I have nothing nice to say, I tend to hide, and type, and wander around my house, thinking unspeakable things about that blasted Elephant in his ill fitting muumuu, sitting on my couch and leaving crumbs Everywhere. I know people find the Elephant disturbing, some find the Elephant super confusing, people who know my family well find the Elephant very upsetting. Heck, I think a few folks I know like to ignore the Elephant. I wish I could. Instead I hide, and hope that things will work themselves out.

For the record, for everyone who ever has a friend with an Elephant: we know there isn’t anything to say to make it better, there isn’t any good word that will take the Elephant away…that’s ok. We appreciate any kind word, any little word that lets us know you care. If you can’t talk about the Elephant, that’s ok. We understand. Just being a friend is good enough.

I deeply appreciate the friends and family who shop with me, or drag me out of my house (even as the Elephant is yelling after me), or just talk to me about zucchini. Really. It’s enough.

And then, sometimes, there is a brilliant mysterious moment…

Enter Anonymous Chocolate.

The box arrived with no return label. It was big, and it contained a Styrofoam cooler. I was intrigued. I have kind of a problem with internet shopping (oh, Amazon, my downfall!), but I have managed recently to mostly limit my purchases to books and supplies for school. Certainly uniform polo shirts would NOT come in a cooler.

With a squeak the lid released from the bottom…and there was the Biggest Hershey Kiss I ever saw, full of little Hershey Kisses…next to the biggest Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups I ever saw.

Yes, there was almost an angelic “aaaaaaaaah” in my kitchen.

I lifted up the ice packs, squeaked the rest of the cooler out of the box…there was NO paper, no invoice, no record of who sent this pile o’ joy in a box.

I looked around, as if someone would pop out from behind a door and say “ta da! Surprise!”…but of course no one did.

After a suitable few minutes of almost unspeakable awe, I turned to that bastion of information and networking, Facebook…while folks “liked” my status, nobody ‘fessed up to sending this delight.

My daughters came home from Grandma’s and were instantly agog. My older girl kept trying to figure out WHO could have sent the box.

Finally I had to explain that Someone wanted to do something sweet (!) and kind for us WITHOUT letting us know. We just had to accept the joy and love this Anonymous Chocolate represented, and say a little prayer for whoever sent it to us.

Anonymous Chocolate is a rare delight. The very rarity of it makes it even MORE delightful. There’s something kind of unnerving about it, but in a happy kind of way. Not only was this chocolate anonymous, it was GIGANTIC.

I have to admit, we haven’t eaten it yet. It is sitting majestically on our kitchen counter, a testament to someone who maybe didn’t have anything nice to say either, but used the universal language of a hidden act of kindness to express love.

Thank you, Anonymous Chocolate sender. That chocolate is so big it does sometimes obscure the Elephant…or at least lets us know that whatever happens, we are not alone in this season.

And that is something nice to say after all.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Cleaning out my Closets

the picture is my 8 year old's bed. note the shoe box lid and the softball mitt... ?

I find shows about hoarding inspirational.

I know, that’s alarming. My husband, a Neatnik par excellence, is appalled that I watch these shows. Granted, our house is cluttered, but we don’t have 57 birdcages or paths carved between boxes or mountains of garbage anywhere. Except in my teen’s room, but that’s another story.

Still, when I see these sad shows about people who are paralyzed by stuff, I feel motivated to clear out the clutter I don’t even know I’ve held on to. While my spouse claims Nothing In This House is His, as soon as I try to purge baby clothes or stuff that the kids owned when they were tiny, or the tattered copy of Raisin in the Sun he had to read as a freshman in high school, Mr. Neatnik turns into Mr. Sentimental. So I have to use my motivation while he’s at work.

Since my last post I have been once again trying to make progress against years of closets being so accommodating to my emotional inability to get rid of some things. I also suspect that in a previous life I must have survived (or not) the Great Depression, I always feel like Things Could Be Useful. Just often enough, they ARE, and this simply enables my mini-hoard.

Back in November/December I dug through old boxes of fabric to find the material I used to make maternity clothes when I was pregnant with my teen & my tween (now maternity clothes are Super Cute, not so much the case in the mid 90s)…and I used the dang floral and knit stuff to make American Girl doll clothes for a Christmas gift for my girls. Voila! A Rationale for my Hoard!

Still, I really, really like things to be clean and neat, and my brain functions MUCH better when the clutter levels are low. But just because I’m motivated doesn’t mean my KIDS , aka Heaps, Spreader, and Squirrel, are all equally on board with my Tidy Plan.

I find, too, that cleaning out closets really is a trip down Memory Lane. Some memories are happy ones, like finding my teen’s first Yankees outfit (in newborn size…it is so adorable), or discovering a ticket stub from a long ago trip to Broadway. Unfortunately, there are a lot of hard things hidden in closets. Maybe that’s why one famous rapper refers so darkly to cleaning out his closet. He wasn’t talking about cute outfits and ticket stubs, but the scary, hurtful things that we bury.

I hold onto stuff. I know it. Sometimes by holding on to THINGS, it helps keep pain at bay. But healing requires facing things, too. To quote a song my daughter is blasting in my house at this very moment, This is Where the Healing Begins…where light meets the dark.

Recently life has kind of raised the Joystick of Smite at our family again. I think every family has this experience at some point, we just kind of specialize in long drawn out smite. Either way, I now have a tv style deadline to de-clutter. I finally got the little baby clothes down to one sentimental bin (although there might be one more in the attic. Oops), I organized all the gift wrap, managed to fit the baskets for next year’s big fundraiser INTO a closet (instead of all over the basement & guest room), cleaned out my sock drawer, aka The World’s Most Futile Task If you Have a Hungry Laundry Room that Samples Socks…I have been busy, when I’m not wandering vacantly around my house pondering smite.

The point of all of this is that I finally at least attempted to de-clutter The Box. Probably every family has some equivalent of The Box. Even here it’s really a white basket, one see-through file thingie, a few books, and 3 magazine holders. The Box is like mixed martial arts. Some of it’s cool to see, but there’s a punch or a hidden kick that’s gonna come when you least expect it.

Honestly, the magazine holders only got a cursory glance. Some of them I had organized a few years ago, filing one failed plan after another in manila folders, bringing at least paper order to emotional and physical chaos. There are a few old calendars which I didn’t open. I know what’s inside, the daily record of a particular season of our Long Smite. The medical info in those magazine files stay.
The slant board, Braille work book, and foam Braille cell got put in the top of a closet. I don’t need those now (although the slant board would likely still be helpful), but I NEED to save them. Those are evidence of a small miracle, of eyes that literally were nearly blind and now see. Not perfectly, but they see. The Braille stuff stays.

Facing the white basket with the see-through file thingie and the photo box was bittersweet. In this box are the emotional records of our first active go-around in the Long Smite. Cards upon cards…scribbled pictures on hospital letterhead…notes from a pre-Make a Wish shopping trip…a Braille Mother’s Day Card…a picture of SpongeBob for a friend who succumbed to the same smite we fight, as well as elaborately stickered posters that same friend made for my daughter. A manila envelope full of addresses for thank yous I never wrote, to people all over the world who sent hats to my little girl.

A week ago, when we returned to the hospital, we brought a bag full of unworn hats from that time to donate to the kids in the clinic. Another bag waits for winter.

Admittedly, I did have the thought that perhaps bringing unused hats on a scan day was a bad idea.

Still, the Box holds more than cards and pictures. There’s pain in the Box, for sure, but there’s so much love. Love from people we didn’t know, love from friends we only know because we share the same pain, love from family and acquaintances, love from people who just happened to hear about that kid who needed encouragement and thought they should do a good thing.

When I look in the Box, I see the goodness of people that sometimes is so hidden in modern society, in berserko style Jersey traffic, in customer service calls gone awry. The Box holds goodness and love.

My child wants to look through the Box again. Hopefully in looking there SHE can draw the strength she needs for whatever lies ahead. Again to quote that loud song, “grace collides with the dark inside”…the Box does have grace within. I truly hope this IS where the healing begins. The Box stays.

I guess I’ll stick to purging t-shirts and working through the multitude of scrunchies in my girls’ room, and leave the Box alone. Maybe my spouse will finally let me get rid of that copy of Raisin in the Sun…