Saturday, December 29, 2007

I can't think of a title for this post because they all sound like my mom's dying, but she's not (e.g. "Saying goodbye to mom," "Letting mom go home")

My mother left today to go back home to her retirement community. She's 82 years old, and doing remarkably well: she walked across Paris with me during the transport strike; she's talking about going to Istanbul with the elderly pack of "teenagers" she runs around with; she reads, goes to plays, symphonies, the opera. But there are also small signs that tell me she's no longer precisely who she was - mainly that she is more easily confused and dithering. Also, when she's in new situations she's uncertain,nervous, and dependent. My mother, who, by stubbornness and will, got the hell out of the stultifying debutante South and lived all over Asia; who, during my childhood, dealt calmly with snakes in the bathroom, coup d'etats behind our house, rioters destroying our possessions; who, when she and my father moved to Beijing right after Nixon established relations, worked in a Chinese factory as part of her language studies. It's very hard for me to see this woman even momentarily lost and confused. it whispers to me of decline, death.

Before my father died two-and-a-half years ago, I didn't truly believe that my parents would ever die. I mean, I knew it, in the way you know the sun will someday go cold; it would happen, but in a great distant future that had no real relevance to me. Which was, of course, especially stupid because my father had Parkinson's - an incurable degenerative disease- for fourteen years before he died. But, somehow, my fairy tale mind held on to a happy ending. So it shook me hard when he went into a sudden, steep decline and died.

Well, now I know better, and every moment with my mother feels incredibly precious. But, simultaneously, she's still just my mom - who gets on my nerves, whose nerves I get on. Nobody can push my buttons more than she can, and I expect I can do some extreme button buzzing myself. She loves me, loves my kids, and after a visit, loves to go back to her calm, orderly retirement community four hours away. I understand it. And yet it bugs the shit out of me because I want to have every minute of her that is left. But, of course, she just wants to be herself, and I have to let her, don't I? Even if she's 82, fragile and dithery, I have to let her focus on living. And I have to try to not focus on her, someday, dying. But every small goodbye, now - even, "Bye. Call me when you get home so I'll know you made it safely." - reminds me of the big goodbye and makes it hard, makes me sad, to let her go.

Friday, December 28, 2007

"If a bullet should enter my brain...."

Ever since Benazir Bhutto's death, I keep thinking of Harvey Milk who, like Bhutto, suspected he would be assassinated yet kept to his dangerous chosen path. Before he died, he tape recorded something he called a "political will." It said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." Doors, of all kinds, are still closed, yet because of his life, and his death, many more have been opened. I can only hope it will be so for Ms. Bhutto - that the insanity that led to her assassination will, in reaction, swing her country toward sanity. It does not seem to be doing so now, but only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What child is this...?

A cousin of mine, through marriage, is in China with her husband where they have just adopted a daughter. Reading her blog brings back so vividly our experience, fourteen years ago almost exactly, adopting our oldest girls. We had been through the misery of infertility, surgery to remove scar tissue, two pregnancies, and two miscarriages. One of the few things I've always known clearly about myself was that I wanted to have kids, and after going through all that, i was a basket case. After the second miscarriage, my husband - who is the sweetest, truest, and most patient of men - took things in his own hands and announced, "We're going to adopt." I know he wanted to be a father, but at that point what I think he really wanted was a his wife back instead of the pitiful creature who wept every day and could only go to the grocery store after 10 pm, when all the babies were safely in bed (so as to avoid more and public weeping).

We tried, first, to adopt from China, because I was born in Taiwan. But the bizarre, internecine world of international adoption made that impossible. Then, on a fluke, we tried an agency that had been working in Cambodia (where I had also lived). They were no longer working there, but were working in Vietnam. Two months later, we were on our way to meet our daughters.

I have to say that it is one of the weirdest feelings in the world, knowing there is a kid out there in the world that is your kid - that is being held for you, like a priceless artwork put away for you on a K-mart shelf - but that you haven't seen, touched, held yet. Pregnancy is a whole different thing; the baby is separate in ways, but also so directly part of you - eating your food, sapping your energy, making you waddle like a manatee on stilts at the end. But with adoption it's tenuous, theoretical, mystical. Yet every atom of your being is vibrating toward that little mysterious baby that you might, someday if you're lucky, hold in your arms. And if she's in an orphanage in the third world, as our girls were, there is the agony of knowing that a host of things - cholera, malaria, hepatitis, dengue fever, and untreated infection - could kill her at any time.

I'll post, some other time, about the joys of finally holding them, of our wild parental ineptness those first nights we had them, and of being terrified that they'd be snatched away from us, I'd lose my babies again, until the moment our plane lifted off the runway in Vietnam. But today, what I'm feeling most, is the unfathomable mystery, and though I'm a pretty earth-bound person, mysticism of it. Fourteen and a half years ago, a woman in rural Vietnam gave birth to twin girls. I wonder if any part of me knew, that day, that moment, that my daughters had just been born? Or was I just dragging my sorry ass through another sad day beating my head against the brick walls of pregnancy, and of adopting from China? Then, amazingly, the barriers evaporated, as if the universe had just been waiting for us to finally blunder onto the right path. A few months later we were parents.

My mother and I took the twins to the mall today. Thing 1 had to buy a Christmas present for her boyfriend. Thing 2 was sick of everyone copying the clothes that she and her sister wear. Grandma was buying and the girl was eager to blaze a new fashion trail, shake off those imitators. They're gorgeous, elegant young women who observe the world sharply and critically behind a quiet reserve. They are bright, artistically gifted, make good grades, and are popular. ' Why, thank you, yes, they are great kids. They take after my husband,' I tell people. Because they're our kids and I don't think about the fact that there was once a time when they existed in the world and I didn't know it. Or a time when they were orphanage babies with scabby infected cradle cap all over their shaved heads and eczema all over their faces. that when we flew home the American stewardesses looked at us with pity because the girls were so unpromising. That somewhere in the world, there is a woman who carried them in her, gave birth to them, made the wrenching decision to leave them behind in the hospital.

So reading my cousin's blog brings it all back and bowls me right over. This strange story, with its many twists and sad turns, that ended, at last, with the only possible, imaginable, right ending when I took them in my arms and held them, finally, against that place in my heart that only they could fit and fill.

Monday, December 24, 2007

I hope that light and love shine the way for you through the coming year.
namaste (The light in me honors the light in you),
Love, elizabeth

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tis the season to be....

I'm sitting here looking at our fat, happy Christmas tree. it's decorated with multicolored lights, and loaded with a mishmash of ornaments -some from my childhood, some from last week. it fills me with a pagan spirit of hopefulness that, here on this shortest day of the year, light will return to us after all. For me, Christmas does what it's supposed to do. It makes me happy.

My husband, on the other hand, is miserable this time of year. He always goes emotionally MIA a couple of weeks before Christmas. There are plenty of rational reasons for that; he's a naturally frugal guy, so he hates to see the consumer feeding frenzy, etc., etc. But that doesn't touch the heart of it. Even i can't know all the sad corners of it. But there's one image i carry with me. When he was a kid, his parents always went out to a party on Christmas Eve and got wasted (leaving my Husband home with is younger brother and sister). Then, on Christmas morning, they'd be really hung over, so they'd sleep late and my husband, a child himself, would have to keep the younger ones quiet and away from the presents for hours, till the parents finally dragged their selfish, sorry asses out of bed. It's hard for me to think of someone I love having to endure that. i wish I could go back in time and whoosh into their lives like Mary Poppins - bringing a basket of fresh, hot muffins for the kids to eat while I roust the parents out of bed, lecture them firmly on their many derelictions of duty, and make them see the error of their ways. But then my husband wouldn't be the man i fell in love with, the man I still love 23 years later. So the fantasy falls apart.

My kids all seem to have a fairly simple and straightforward happiness about the holiday. I'm pretty good about bustling around and making things fun - I make cookies, I welcome back all our old, tacky ornaments with glee each year. i'm good at thinking up presents people like. So it's rewarding to see them growing up with a happy healthy attitude. But I can't ever quite reach that little boy that haunts me, the one my husband once was, the little man looking after his baby brother and sister alone on Christmas morning. So I guess the only thing I can do is to be merry enough for both of us.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The company we keep

The United Nation General Assembly voted for a global moratorium on the death penalty. The vote was 104 to 54 (with 29 abstentions). Who did the U.S. choose to side and vote with? Iran, Iraq, China, Pakistan, and Sudan. Even Rwanda, now shamed by it's own history of genocide, voted against the Death Penalty! Shouldn't this tell us something about ourselves?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A little sip of my my own medicine

I read a quote last night that really struck me. It was, “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes” (from the Spanish/Jewish philosopher Maimonides). And I thought, "That's the problem with with this administration. THEY aren't open to truths outside their accepted sources. THEY don't listen." And I felt pretty pleased with myself and my own expansive openness. I even thought, "I might blog about that." So you know I'm getting shot down.

Well, today Thing 2 (one of my 14 year old twins) says, out of nowhere, "Mom, Mary is turning me into a republican." I snapped tartly back, "Oh no she's NOT!" Another friend was in the room at the time, and her parents are republicans. So I restrained myself and simply added, "I'll talk to you about why later." Now, I'm not (usually) an idiot, and I know the best way to create a focus for rebellion is to absolutely forbid something. But I am the deepest, dyed (pinko) in the wool, knee jerk, bleeding heart Democrat. My grandmother worked on the campaigns of F.D.R., Harry Truman, J.F.K., and L.B.J. Through her, I met John Kennedy in the oval office. I'll never forget him stopping in front of me and bending way, way down to shake my hand. I still have the dress I wore that day (forest green, peter pan collar, sash with a big bow in the back). Moreover, I truly believe that, right now, the Democrats are our country's best, maybe only, hope for a sane international and domestic policy. So you can see that if my daughter wanted to find one perfect way to rebel, it would be by becoming a Republican.

Later on, I was telling my husband about it, and I thought about what Maimonides said. And I remembered that there was that one Republican president.... Abraham Lincoln.... who had some pretty important truths he was working for. I do believe that if we are committed to hearing the truth, then we must be open to any source it might come from. Further, I really believe that the only way we can combat the climate of destructive partisan rancor that exists now, is by not accepting it or expressing it ourselves. And I was ashamed of myself.

But I'm still not going to let my daughter become a Republican.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Spy in our midst

There's a spy in my house. I found a little home-made book (two sheets of paper stapled together) on our dining room table. On the cover was written, "Private! Dare to open this secret book!" with a picture of a skull and cross bones. Clearly the handiwork of my eight-year old daughter. I think she meant to write "Don't dare...." but I took her at her word and, reader, I dared. (Of course I would have opened it anyway. Evidence in plain sight and all. And I'm super nosy.)

Here's what our V. Plame wanna be (but, I hope, without the unhappy ending) wrote:
1. Dad reads newspaper aloud to mom. Seems worried.
2. Now Dad is typing on the computer without stopping or blinking. Angry at computer. Holds his head murmuring. Eats a carrot.
3. Thing 1 and Thing 2 GONE!!!!!
3. Mom absorbed in work. Doesn't want us to read page on website. Suspicious.

Or maybe she's a Jane Austen wanna be. Because in four succinct lines, you have our entire life in a nutshell. My husband is home on sabbatical, writing a book. He spends a lot of time either worried about things in the newspaper and ranting, or working and "angry at the computer." He's also a health nut, so when he simply can't take it anymore, he gets up and takes it out on a carrot. My teenagers are always gone. Two minutes ago, they were babies and now they're "GONE!!!" I'm shocked too. And, look, there's me! Ignoring my adorable youngest, and sitting at this machine trying to write, pleading, "Honey, could you please not look over my shoulder? I'll be done soon, and then we'll do something fun. OK?"

Boring? Yep. "Suspicious?" Sadly not.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Shining our lights against the darkness

When I was a little girl living in Laos, I remember one day there was a commotion outside our house. We went outside and discovered that the sun was being eclipsed by the moon. A crowd had formed on the dirt road and many of the men had shotguns. My father could speak Lao (he never met a language he didn't learn) and found out that in Lao mythology it waas thought that, at such times, a huge frog is eating the sun. It sounds ludicrous here and now. But at the time - watching the strange dusk falling in the middle of the day, seeing flocks of confused birds fleeing to their roosts, hearing the wild dogs howling - it seemed entirely possible. As the frog took bigger and bigger bites out of the sun, men began shooting up into the sky, trying to kill or chase away the frog. I realize, now, that we were probably in some danger of being hit by bullets falling to earth, but it was an amazing thing to be part of. It was one of the great things about my father; he always charged headlong into the worlds we lived in, whether it was sensible or not. And he always took us along for the ride.

And here, on this gray December day, a world away from that sun-drenched place, it's afternoon and the sun is setting. The light is weaker and and the days shorter. The nights are long and cold. All up and down my street, my neighbors have wrapped their trees and porches in light, draped greenery on their snowy houses, brought trees indoors. If you look at it objectively, it's as logical as, though probably less dangerous than, shooting a giant frog in the sky. The Lao knew that, whether or not they shot that frog, the sun would come back. We know that, whether or not we drape our dwellings with evergreens and light the long night with artificial lights, the days will, eventually, grow longer again. But it's like knocking wood or saying "God Bless You" after a sneeze; we do it just in case.....

And it's incredibly touching to me, one of those things that shows us all in our most basic humanity - banding together in the darkness, shining lights to push it away. In Judaism there is the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one. In Christianity there is the star that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. In Asia there is the Lunar New Year, with people wearing red, the color of luck, and setting off fire crackers to scare away the bad spirits. All of us doing our bit to roll the world back toward light.

So whether you lit Hanukkah candles, are trimming a tree, or are chanting at a Buddhist altar - or you're shooting at frogs in the sky - I hope there is light enough, warmth enough, and love enough around you to push the darkness back for another year.

Friday, December 14, 2007

She makes me feel like a (natural woman)

This picture fromSquare America just makes me happy. Look at her, all chubby and fine and blissed to be in her own body. Hope she makes you happy too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Instant Karma's gonna get you

I am smiling so widely this morning. Remember James Watson, the Nobel-winning scientist who said Africans didn't have the same intelligence as caucasians? (See, if you want to jog your memory, my post The Ugly Past Creeps in . Well, "a molecular full-monty" was done on him and it turns out that he, himself, has African ancestry!

This is the man who also recently said, "there are many people of color who are very talented," but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." I guess you could say this is a case of the pot calling the kettle, well, black.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Score one for the gathers

History, as we know, was written by the guys with the spears. Or by their male descendants, at least. In the past, when scientists thought about our hunting/gathering forebearers, they thought mainly about the hunters. The gals back at home gathering roots and tubers so the kids could eat every day (as opposed to a meal of hunted mammoth once a month) didn't seem to count for much. But a new study (published in Nature Genentics) tells us that the thing that makes us what we are today (the value of which we'll debate at another time), the size of our brains, is a direct result of the gatherers. Humans produce a protein in our saliva that breaks down starch into glucose. The human brain runs on glucose. So it was those insignificant gatherering moms, feeding their kids on starches, day in and day out, that enabled the human brain to grow and us to become human.

Which throws into even starker contrast than usual, the true value vs. the societal valuation of the nurturer. I'm also absolutely certain that it was, and still is, not only those actual tubers and roots that contributed to human development, but also the emotional tubers and roots - the hugs, the cossetting, the crooning to sleep - those early mothers gave, and that we give still. And finally, this new study also makes me understand that here is a good reason I eat ice cream when I'm stressed and have to sort things out. ice cream=starch=brain food. Yay!!!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Happy birthday (yesterday) Tom Waits

I L.O.V.E. love this man.

Vitamin Z

It's a gray December morning - the beginning of a long, slushy, gray winter here in the rustbelt, the beginning of the S.A.D. season. Soon my neighbor Marsha will start saying, "I've got to get one of those full-spectrum lamps!" She and I agree on that every winter, but neither of us does it because it's just too icky to go out. Then every Spring we forget. But if a door-to-door salesman came down our street tomorrow, selling those lamps at a reasonable price, he could clear out his inventory on our block alone. So if I'm a little down today, a little blah, there's nothing out of the ordinary in that. Except that, in my family, every brush with depression is like walking near a precipice; as my mother says, depression doesn't just run in our family, it gallops. Here's an incomplete list of the toll it has taken on us. My great great grandfather - a mostly white man who had tried to help the Eastern cherokee - died in an insane asylum speaking only Cherokee. My grandmother's sister hung herself after having the flu. Her brother committed suicide too, (they say he had a forbidden love for an Asian woman. Eeek!). My grandmother's husband, my mother's father, committed suicide by jumping out the window of his law office.

When I was little, my mother used to tell me, among many other stories, the stories of these people. They were all had comfortable lives, people who loved them, reasons to live. Most often, she would tell me about her beloved father, driven to insanity at the end of his life because he was terrified he was getting alzheimers. And she used to say things to me like, "If you ever get the flu and feel like doing something 'bad' to yourself, promise you'll call me first."
"OK mommy," I'd answer. "I'll call you," not exactly knowing what we were talking about.

My mother also says, "It's not that the depression is so bad. It's the cure we choose that's awful." By which she means, when the door to the unthinkable is opened, it never closes completely again. Knowing my grandfather walked out a sixth-floor window one day, gives any height a double fear for me: 1. I might fall accidentally 2. I might fall on purpose. Because of what he did, I always know that "cure" is an option. So, ten years ago, when my middle daughter was diagnosed with autism, I followed my kin toward the edge, and had a nervous break down. Even though I had a wonderful husband and two beloved daughters, a comfortable life, and many, many people who loved and needed me (not least of all, my disabled daughter). The diagnosis simply snapped the ropes that held me to those moorings, and I drifted away into full, nonfunctional, depression. I remember lying in bed, unable to move because I was pinned down by an unbearable weight. It was like lying at the bottom of a dead ocean; and it wasn't so much that I wanted to kill myself. It was more that I wanted to stop living. It sapped all the love out of me. and it just hurt so damn much for my lungs to breathe, for my heart to pump blood.

But unlike any of my kin, I broke down in the age of pharmaceuticals. My doctor prescribed Zoloft, and within two weeks I no longer wanted to stop existing. Within a month I was able to remember love, to get out of bed and care for my people. So I am still here. I take my low dose of "Vitamin Z" every morning, because my mother was right; the depression is not so bad, and a very little bit of extra serotonin makes it all manageable. Which is not to say it's entirely disappeared. There are gray days and gray times when I hear my ancestors whispering. But I'm not afraid, anymore, that they'll pull me over the edge. One little pill, and magically, no one in my generation has taken that final step off the ledge. i don't tell my children cautionary tales of flu and ropes and the dangers of high windows. I tell them that I take a pill, that if they need help, they can take pills. And i have hope that the sad list of wasted lives ends here, with me.