Lessons I Learned From My Father (Part 1)

American River,   March 2015

Self-Actualization. Sacramento River
March 2015

Last night, I hung up the phone with my father, and began to silently debrief the whirlwind conversation we’d just had. Anyone who has ever engaged in a discussion with my dad will know exactly what I’m referring to. He has this tendency to barrel his way through an issue in a no nonsense kind of manner, and then quickly switch to another idea before you’ve even have a chance to formulate a response to the first topic. Sometimes I feel like I’m performing verbal acrobats when I’m talking to him, although no manner of appropriate pause or clever interjection will ever make communication with him any smoother. It’s not that he’s insensitive or dismissive. Not in the least. It’s just that his thoughts are almost always two steps ahead of his words, so much so that he’ll literally hop up mid conversation and leave everyone rushing to finish their closing statements.

The question of “Where’d Dad go?” has become a running joke in our household, because if  family conversation or household activity pauses long enough, he’ll just quietly excuse himself to a more productive venture. Sounds peculiar, I know. But I promise you, his loved ones find it one of his most endearing quirks.

I used to be embarrassed of my dad. In retrospect, I see that it’s normal for children to be ashamed of their parents at one point or another as they are growing up. But my embarrassment had less to do with who he was, as it did with how I feared his uniqueness would reflect upon me, especially growing up in a neighborhood that had yet to know diversity.

My childhood was spent in a suburban utopia, complete with wide tree-lined streets, top-notch public schools, and neighbors that brought homemade cookies each year during Christmas time. My parents sacrificed many things to ensure that my sisters and I were raised in the neighborhood that we grew up in. I see that now. We often have gain clarity  as seasoned adults that we lack as carefree youth.

I was embarrassed of our old LTD cars, and dad’s hobby of tinkering with them incessantly. And I’m not talking about souping them up, lowrider fashion. I’m talking about FIXING them. They were constantly breaking down, and dad would patiently put them back together, garage door open, tools strewn across the driveway for the world to see.  “Why can’t you just buy something NEW?!” I’d complain, glancing enviously at the shiny station wagon my classmate was dropped to school in. But dad wasn’t about new. Nope. In fact one of my earliest memories is of our weekend trips to thrift stores, where my sisters and I happily pick out bags of mismatched toys from the 99 cent bin. That is until I was old enough to realize that my classmates ruthlessly bullied any kid that dared to wear threads bought at a second-hand store (This was all long before hipsters & Macklemore made thrift store shopping a trendy activity).

What I didn’t understand then, was that my dad’s own childhood profoundly impacted the way he operated as an adult. Though Sacramento was a long way from the dingy garage he lived in in East L.A., and even farther yet from the Texas cotton fields he played in as the toddler son of a migrant farm worker, he brought the principles of poverty with him even as he purchased his first home in Sacramento’s coveted Pocket area. Principle 1: Don’t buy new if you don’t have to.

I didn’t understand a lot of things back then. Like the fact that my dad was right when he told me to be proud of my beautiful brown skin, even as some of my peers were poking fun of my pigment and my surname. I couldn’t comprehend why my parents took it so seriously when, later, I reported that there was a severe bullying problem going on in the upper-grade classrooms of my elementary school. A problem that had all the tell-tale ugliness of race and class discrimination. When my dad insisted upon meeting with the teachers to bring the issues to light, I remember wondering if my folks were overreacting.

Back then I couldn’t make sense of why my father felt the need to repeatedly recount to my sisters and I, the lessons he’d learned as a young boy in East L.A. And why his standards for us were so high, in regards to both education and personal conduct. Or how he’d often sit at the dinner table after a full day’s work, starring into space at some far away memory that we were not a part of. On those nights, sometimes I’d catch glimpse of a tear sliding down his cheek. I didn’t understand that either.

A few weeks ago, my dad celebrated another birthday. He talked about the accomplishments in his life, as well as the struggles. And, like always, he ended the momentary bout of reminiscing on a high note with an optimistic tribute to all the blessings in our lives.

My dad has never been one to purchase frivolous things. New cars, designer clothes, custom accessories…they aren’t alluring in his eyes. Because of that, he isn’t much of a gift giver, not in the traditional sense, anyway. Birthdays and events roll around and it’s likely that he won’t go out of his way to buy something just for the sake of marking the occasion. Someone asked me recently if I’ve held onto any of the jewelry my dad bought me as a child. I laughed.

Dad never bought me jewelry, but he’s decorated my life with a thousand pearls of wisdom. I wear them proudly every day, head held high and the confidence  of knowing that I am equipped with the skills needed to gracefully navigate through life and all of it’s thrilling complexity.

On Functionality and Punchlines

download

“A little rain never stopped anyone…except of course those who never learned to dance through puddles…”

The other night my ex came by after work to drop off some stuff for the kids. The kind of belongings they always carelessly leave behind: that one crucial page of homework, the stuffed animal they can’t sleep without, or the warmest jacket they own (the night before the temperature happens to drop 10 degrees). It’s a good thing we live 4 blocks apart from each other.

On this particular evening, he walked in to find me running around the kitchen, attempting to balance a phone between ear and shoulder, while halfway  participating in a conference call. I might have been simultaneously loading the dishwasher. Or perhaps I was finishing yet another load of laundry. Actually I think I was doing all of these things. What I do recall though, is that there was a half chopped pile of vegetables on the counter waiting to be thrown into the chili which was patiently simmering away on the stove. I nodded toward the cutting board and he instinctively jumped in, finishing what was left of the dinner prep and confidently putting the lid on the pot while muttering a few cooking tips under his breath. This was the kind of thing that used to irk the hell out of me. Not the help, of course, but the constant need to correct whatever I was doing. Nowadays, it doesn’t irritate me in the least. In fact, it’s become a running joke between us, and I often find myself looking over at him during our interactions and thinking, “You know? I’ve really come to like this guy.”

Sometimes it takes prolonged distance to learn how to appreciate someone all over again. Years ago (long before ex and I separated) I had picked up a copy of Iris Krasnow’s “The Secret Lives of Wives“, which explores the many ways in which women find happiness in their relationships over the long term. The wives interviewed tell of everything from separate summer routines in order to maintain space and individuality, to open relationships and affairs. But the passage that I remember most was the one in which the author almost jokingly states,”I am like many aging wives, content for two days, sulking for four, frequently perched on the flimsy line that separates love from hate from a fistfight.”

Yes, oh yes. We knew that feeling well. And I despised it. No one wants to live in a state of constant fluctuation between frustration and contentment. Married or not.

Prior to our split, I had never known adult life as a single woman. And to be fair, at 22, he was almost as young when he met me. This isn’t me saying that people shouldn’t commit when they are of that age, or that couples aren’t capable of overcoming some of the obstacles we faced in our relationship. This is simply me stating that, for us perhaps, we didn’t have the space, opportunity, and freedom for growth that we both needed in order to self-actualize.

Now that we do, we’ve become better parents, and co-parents as a result. Which, if you ask me, is a really nice perk as it makes all interactions much more pleasant. We both trust each other’s parenting choices and decisions, as we know that we act with the children in mind. We’ve learned to check in with each other frequently throughout the day in order to remain on the same page as to their comings and goings, upcoming events, and small daily triumphs. There is no arguing, or resentment, or battles over insignificant things. Thankfully, we’ve moved past that. And I do mean thankfully.

Sometimes I start to think about how unconventional our situation is. It might, from the outside, seem impossible and foreign. But a few weeks ago, during a family reunion, I turned to see my parents (who have been divorced for 13 years), waltzing away on the dance floor. My mom’s head was tilted back, mid laughter. My dad wore his giant cheesy smile, the one that indicates that he’s about to drop a groan worthy punchline to some variation of a joke we’ve all heard before. I watched them dance past tables filled with extended family—all of whom are unique and non-traditional in their own way— and I realized why it’s perfectly normal for me to proceed in this co-parenting relationship the only way I know how: with love, and laughter, and cheesy punchlines to get us through.

You know, some parents get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time and they can become better people. Much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear.

-Mrs. Doubtfire

Sticks & Stones: Why I Write

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…”
-Joan Didion

Whoever came up with the saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” must have been out of touch. Sometimes words do hurt.

Not only that, they can infuriate, resonate, and bring us to tears. There are a few people in my life who have the ability to literally stun me  with a single phrase, and believe me, if given a choice, I’d rather those select few come at me with a stick or rock than subject me to one of their signature tongue lashings.

Thankfully, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at brushing things off. But the other day, when my ex reproached me with, “Get a life…” I have to admit, it irked me.

Because I knew with near certainty what he was referring to.

These days, the interactions between he & I are mostly decent, save for the occasional spat over schedule changes or share of costs in regards to the kids. Even those tiffs have lessened in their severity as time heals the wounds of our split.

I can’t even remember what brought on this particular comment, and 9 times out of 10 I’m able to tune out his verbal jabs without much thought.

But this one….this one was personal.

Without delving into too much detail over past arguments and the surrounding issues, I’ll just say that, during our separation, it came to light that he looked down on my time spent social networking, blogging, book clubbing, etc.

From what I could decipher, he viewed these activities as  pseudo-networking, grabs for attention, and a general waste of time. Despite the fact that they were instrumental in my connection with advocates across the nation who I’ve had the honor of doing impactful work to this day.

Granted, I became social network savvy during late night hours of the night while I was home with sleeping children and finishing my grad school thesis. I used these networks as an outlet for my creative writing thirst that I’d pushed aside while prioritizing research papers, lesson plans, and the day-to-day demands of mothering multiple young children.

Often, I left social functions early so that I could put the kids to bed, leaving him to enjoy the remaining hours of the gathering without young children in tow. Other instances, it was during the phases where he’d attend  things like Friday night (or more accurately, early Saturday morning) poker tournaments during which I usually camped out on the couch with laptop, textbooks, and a snoring child or two.

In any case, my thirst for writing was quenched in the solitude of such times, when my brain was burnt out on college course work, but stimulated enough to engage in other activities.

I began with MySpace debates, graduated to Facebook notes & statuses, threw in the occasional forum discussion, and eventually started blogging.

Writing is not a new thing for me. In high school, I was known to skip class and steal away to a nearby park, where I’d post up against a shade tree and furiously write away in my spiral-bound notebook.

The difference between my writing then and now is that now, I share.

Some people might say I OVER share. But the way I disperse my personal information (including  pictures and random thoughts) is representative of the way I share in general.

Much like my parents & grandparents before me, I’m a giver. I don’t take much issue with sharing my time, information, assistance, or possessions.

When I consider the most profound memories of my life, nearly all of them came during a moment of story-telling, unexpected disclosure, or midnight ramblings that took on a life of their own in the glow of a melancholy moon.

The single most powerful memory I have of my grandfather is the time he took me aside during a family wedding and told me of his rebellious youth, and the ways in which he finally centered himself again. At the time, I was a reckless, defiant little 14-year-old mess. But up until then, I had never heard the stories pain and suffering my grandfather endured growing up, and the way he expressed that in his adolescence. I was floored. And forever moved.

And to this day I can still feel his hands grasping mine across the brightly colored polyester table cloth as he pleaded with me to consider what effect my actions were having on my family, and the effect they would have on my life in general.

Stories. Memories. Spoken & written word. They enrapture me. I’m intoxicated by the emotion that creeps into a parents voice as they describe the moment they first laid eyes on their newborn baby. I’m humbled by the courage it takes for the families of my students to disclose their personal history, or current conflicts in efforts to come to terms with a complicated home situation.

It delights me when some random youngster at the park sits on the bench next to me & launches into an impromptu monologue, stringing together events and phrases in no particular sequence. (Given that this kind of thing happens to me pretty frequently, I’m convinced I must have TEACHER written all over me, even when I’m not in work mode).

We learn so much from each other through the passing on of stories…history, vulnerabilities, differences, and most importantly- similarities. Erin Morgenstern said it beautifully when she stated: “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

There are stories I have read, or heard, or perhaps told myself, that have given me the strength to push through stagnant periods in my life during which no other lifelines were present save for the hope breathed into me with tales of resilience and growth. Books whose well worn pages are nearly as familiar to me as the faces of my own children. And almost as treasured.

Yes, words can hurt. They also heal, inspire, and invigorate. And this is why I write. To relieve myself of day-to-day burdens. To laugh at my circumstances and take things less seriously. To reflect, and renew. To relate. To forgive.

Because each and every time I read a comical blog, listen to a touching recount of a random memory, or come across an emotionally raw article or broadcast, I’m inspired to pick up my pen and add a line or two to this collection of works that is life.

Roles & Realizations: Mother’s Day 2013

Image

“there are different ways to make a family. It just takes love.”

Several nights ago, my youngest children came home from an evening with their father a little later than expected. It was a school night, and I was irritated that they would be getting to bed late, thus making it likely that the morning routine would be difficult– as it is much more challenging to wake a tired child than it is a well rested one. The drop-off exchange was curt,  and as soon as I closed the front door behind him, I began directing each of my boys through their nightly routine…”Isaac, get in the shower, Jacob, make sure your homework folder is in your backpack!” As I turned to my littlest one, I saw that she was already bathed, and in clean pajamas, all she needed was to be tucked in. I instantly felt relief (one less task to be completed in an already rushed night), then, a profound sense of bitter-sweet gratefulness. “Who brushed your hair, Ava?” My daughter turned to me with those wide, round eyes of hers and answered, “Sarah.” I held her little head against my cheek and took in the scent of her freshly washed hair, holding back tears. “That was very nice of her.” And I meant it.

Since my ex-husband and I seperated, I have considered many things in regards to our newly aquired roles as co-parents. But until recently, I had not given much thought to the notion that someday, I would likely be faced with with the task of turning over the mothering reins, should he begin a new relationship. 

Before I continue, I want to reiterate what I wrote in an earlier post regarding our split…the decision to separate was ultimately made by me. Though in recent discussions, my ex-husband has also expressed his feeling that the split was a necessary move in light of our ongoing struggles. But with 14 years of history & 3 children between us, life after break-up has not always been easy. That said, the one part of this that has been much less trying for me than one might expect, is my acceptance of his dating. Simply put, my one desire in the aftermath of our spilt is that we come out happier and more balanced than we were before. If that means finding love with another person, so be it. 

So when my children began  coming home from their dad’s, chattering about Sarah and her daughter—whom they adore, by the way— I began to come to terms with the fact that there was a new someone in my children’s inner circle.

Im sorry, but initially, I was not as graceful about this new development as I’d like to think I was. It brought about feelings of defensiveness that I quickly had to put in check. There is nothing productive that comes from being at odds with your ex’s significant other, especially when there are children in the picture. 

When I picked up my little ones from their dad this evening, I brought along a small gift for the new woman in their lives. Not only is she the mother of a young daughter, but she has also bravely taken on the task of welcoming my three little ones into her life, into her home, into her heart. 

This Mothers Day, I am humbled, as I come to accept that there will be another set of hands to care for my children when I am not around. Another voice to soothe them, another shoulder to bear their weight when they fall asleep after a long summer’s day in the sun. It’s challenging…but in a strange way, it’s not. I have always lived in a community where women step in to support each other in the role of mothering. Sisters, cousins, friends, neighbors…they have all played a part in the rearing of my children. 

But the smell of an unfamiliar shampoo in my baby girl’s hair awakened the realization that there is a new mother figure in the cast of caregivers. A significant one. And I’d be lying if I denied that the thought alone can bring me to tears. But I also speak the truth when I say that I wish her the best as she becomes accustomed to this new reality of ours.

A little child shall lead them…

Image

“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”
  -Isaiah 11:1-10

 
In any given year, Winter Break is typically the highlight of the season. Two weeks off of work for me and school vacation for the kids, it is our time to celebrate, rejuvenate and reflect on the year that’s past. This, in addition to the holiday traditions; tamales, cookie making, light viewing, carol singing, parties, and family gatherings galore, make for an enjoyable end to December.  Festivities aside, one of my favorite aspects of the holiday season is the emphasis on the nativity. I was raised Catholic, and therefore feel a special connection to the story of the Holy Family…but in all honesty, it’s the story of Mary’s journey that really moves me.
 
Here’s this young unwed mother who, after much soul-searching (and a visit from an archangel), bravely carries her baby to term against all odds. Impoverished and shunned, she gives birth in the humblest of all conditions and in doing so brings forth one who become sone of the worlds most heralded prophets. Regardless of your beliefs or religion, you’ve got to admit the story has some appeal, especially to a former young mother such as myself.
 
A few weeks before Christmas, I found myself sitting in a church service next to my 15-year-old son  who was flipping through a pamphlet inscribed with a bible verse from Isaiah 11: 6-10 which begins..”A little child will lead them…” In an instant, I remembered the days during which I grappled with the new-found discovery of my pregnancy at the age of 16.  A time during which I prayed for an angel to guide me, a prayer that I quickly realized had already been answered. The little child within me WAS my angel. He guided me during those early days–motivating me to walk with purpose and integrity—and he continues to guide me now.
 
A couple of days after that church service, a gunman walked into a school in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were children. When I first read of the tragedy, it was in a report accompanied by a picture of a teacher running with her students, hands grasped, faces drawn, and it was unclear who was leading who. I was at work at the time, and the sounds of the kindergarteners in the room next door to me brought me to tears. By the time my own students arrived in the classroom, it was all I could do to keep composure. That afternoon, I relied on their presence to renew my faith in mankind. The horrendous nature of the days events were made more bearable by the children in my care, who constantly exhibit compassion and empathy toward one another, as well as unabashed love toward me and my staff. Without their energy, the afternoon would have been much more grim as details of the slaughter continued to be reported.
 
In the days that followed, my own community experienced its own rash of gun violence that left several dead, many wounded, and countless lives forever changed. In all, the last few weeks are a blur of many raw discussions, tender gestures, and fleeting moments during which I was reminded of how precious life truly is, how nothing is guaranteed, and how petty all the usual holiday stressors really are. Many tears were shed, often alone and out of sight from the children, but laughter was in abundance as well. As is often the case when there are children present, grief and sadness cannot take hold for too long before joy comes bubbling to the surface when you least expect it…a giggle brought on by some silly mishap, a spontaneous smile when a neighbor comes to the door bearing homemade cookies, and an infectious hum instigated by the memory of an all-too familiar Christmas song…
 
This season, though its hardships were plentiful (both personal & otherwise), I was lucky to be surrounded by an abundance of family & friends, and by children. Lots of them. And it is because of their company, that I was prompted to mediate upon the importance of being child-like. I am indebted to the young ones in my life who have led me to live in the present, focus on  beauty, and live free of grudges. Because I’ve found that in my darkest moments, it is child-like innocence, trust, faith, & love that illuminates the road ahead and ultimately leads us to light.

Teen Mommy Bandwagon

Seems like everywhere you look these days there is news of another Teen Mom, thanks in part to MTV’s popular shows Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant. Of course, anyone following mainstream media in the last decade knows that the current pre-occupation with pregnant and parenting teens is nothing new…every few years or so, some news story pops up that brings up the discussion once again (think: Jamie-Lynn Spears, Bristol Palin, etc…) Fact is, teen moms are easy targets in the mommy wars. What could be worse than a young (presumably single) teenager struggling with the newfound responsibility of parenthood? Step aside, working moms & formula feeders…a new bottom-feeder has emerged— complete with raging hormones, maturity issues, and an unquenchable thirst for partying, plastic surgery, and relationship drama. Or so the tabloids would have you believe. This blog is my attempt to tell another story. A story of unexpected challenges, and the beautiful outcomes that came as a result of some very hard decisions. They say that every cloud has a silver lining. This is the story of my silver lining: his name, is Elijah.