The Five Year Plan

Image by woodleywonderworks

My sister-in-law visited this past weekend and, in the midst of chatting about important things like the kids, plot developments on Grey’s Anatomy, and her new puppy (I’m not a dog person, but this little guy?  Cute.  Very cute), we got to talking as we often do about our short-term, long-term plans – where we see ourselves in five years.

Five years ago I was living in Connecticut, teaching history to highly motivated, high achieving high school students at a highly competitive prep school.  One of my classes that fall was Russian History, a seminar in which I taught my seniors about, among other things, Joseph Stalin’s Five Year Plans.  That semester Five Year Plans were all about collectivization and industrialization, catching up and getting ahead.

I never imagined what my own Five Year Plan had in store.

How could I have?  I was childless.  I was a teacher.  My husband was a PhD candidate just starting to hear about interviews at schools that might one day hire him.  I went to yoga four times a week.  I coached basketball.  I ate leisurely dinners with my husband and my friends.  I sipped coffee slowly.

How could I have foreseen that today, just five years later, I would be living in the Midwest, with my college professor husband and our three (!) kids, working as a part-time work-at-home writer?  (A writer!?  Where did that come from?)  That I would drive a minivan full of car seats?  That I would be a devotee of weekly date nights?

Looking back at that younger woman, I wonder what her dreams were.  I suspect that I am living many of them.  I know I am living others she never conjured.

It’s remarkable – isn’t it? – the way our lives unfold in scripted and unscripted ways.  We dream and we plan and then we find ourselves in places beyond our imagination.

Who knows where I will be five years from now?  I look ahead and see some likelihoods, some possibilities, and some not-even-considereds just starting to shimmer around the edges.

Instead of leaving a comment on today’s post, please take a moment and visit Big Little Wolf to learn about the important work she is doing to help raise money for a life-saving kidney transplant for Ashley Quiñones, aka the Kidney Cutie, aka the sister of Kelly Miller of The Miller Mix.

Is there anything you can do to help Ashley dream of a Five Year Plan of her own?


The Honor System

Image by The D34n

Last week I was talking on the phone with a friend who recently moved away from our small Midwestern town.  We were catching up on the start of the school year and her family’s adjustment to life in a new place, sharing stories about the different customs that seem to be attached to different communities.

Regaling me with details of her kids’ Halloween costumes – a ladybug and a Clone Trooper – she also shared with me an incident from their night that disappointed her and her kids.  Returning from their twenty minutes of trick or treating, they found the giant bowl full of “fun size” Snickers and Milky Ways they had left on their front steps labeled with a “Please take one” sign completely empty.

There weren’t many kids out and about at that early hour, my friend told me, so some of the trick or treaters had clearly seen this unattended candy bowl as a motherlode and filled their plastic pumpkins to the brim with ill-gotten loot.  Like her, her children – seven and four – were dismayed that the other trick or treaters hadn’t followed their request.  Where were these other kids’ parents, we wondered, perhaps a bit quick to judge.  Didn’t they notice when their ghost or butterfly returned to the curb weighed down with chocolate?

Our conversation got me thinking about the idea of an honor system, about what we can expect from our neighbors, and shook loose two memories from my past.

When I was little, an eldery woman in our neighborhood sold tomatoes from her garden on a card table set up in her front yard.  The quarts of tomatoes sat on the table and customers were expected to take their tomatoes and leave their money at her door.  I remember my mom pulling over in front of her modest house; she would take a container and bring the money up to the door of the house, maybe leaving it on the stoop if the gardener wasn’t home.  I remember wondering if anyone ever drove up, took tomatoes, and fled the scene, leaving the woman in the lurch.  It is a sign of the G-rated nature of my childhood that I imagined this as an unfathomable deed.

I then thought back to my years of teaching.  In my last job before my kids were born, I taught at a high school where the students had to sign “I Pledge My Honor” and their names at the bottom of every piece of work they turned in.  I was never convinced that the gesture had much meaning, attached, as it was, so mindlessly to every history term paper, math problem set, and 9th grade homework assignment.  My suspicions were sadly confirmed when a girl in my AP European History class turned in an essay – copied verbatim from the AP website – with the pledge and her name elegantly signed on the bottom.

I have always been a rule follower.  I would have only taken one piece of candy.  I would have always paid for tomatoes.  I would have never plagiarized, let alone signed my name to a pledge promising that I hadn’t.  And examples of people not playing by the rules – especially in a community setting, when your misdeed clearly affects someone else – bother me maybe more than they should.

But I’m left wondering about reasonable expectations.  I’m convinced that the gardener of my childhood could reasonably expect her tomatoes to be safe from produce thieves.  I’m convinced that my AP history student should reasonably be expected not to cheat on her essay.

But is it reasonable to expect sugar-hyped kids not to give in to the urge to horde candy?  It’s certainly fair – certainly reasonable – to ask them not to, but is it really so surprising that my friend and her kids returned home to find an empty bowl?

How do you model honor and honesty for your kids?  What do you think of honor codes in schools?

Two Years

Image by Ray_from_LA

You are a young woman. You are a middle-aged man. You are childless. You are a mother of five. You live in Cambodia. You live in Chicago. You are a marketing professional. You stay at home with your kids. You want to be a writer when you grow up.

I met one of you in person at a suburban Starbucks near where I grew up.  I shared iced coffee and dreams with another of you on the Upper West Side. I talked peanut butter cups and writing with one of you over lunch this summer.  I enjoyed my first weekend away from my three children with two of you earlier this fall. Some of you sent me handmade gifts when my daughter was born this winter. Some of you I only know by a mysterious moniker or a coy avatar.

But all of you – all of my blogging buddies – are my friends.

Little did I know when I wrote a hasty but heartfelt comment on one of your blog posts two years ago that I would be typing my way into a digital community – one that has supported and challenged me with each letter I write and each word I read. When I found myself living in a new town trying to navigate a new identity as a mom, I reached out to you and you welcomed me. You laughed with me. You let me laugh at you. You asked the right questions. You gave me the right answers.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that it takes a village to raise a mother. And you – you virtual and very real friends of mine – have helped raise me.

On this, the two year anniversary of Motherese, I thank you for your friendship.


Image by lotyloty

Lately I feel like my life consists of piles.

On the ledge next to the staircase: triaged mail.  Thank you notes to write, bills to pay, correspondence that needs attention.

On the kitchen counter: child art work.  The preschool apple unit, the bear unit, the pumpkin unit.  Worksheets with handwriting practice.  The number 1, the number 2, the number 3.

On the floor of the pantry: detritus. Dust bunnies, Goldfish crumbs, green sprinkles.

On the coffee table: New York Times crossword puzzles.  Abandoned.  Semi-abandoned.  Complete.

On the couch: borrowed Halloween costumes.  Too small.  Too big.  Just right.

Next to my bed: books.  Christmas gifts from 2009.  Loaned from friends.  Borrowed from the library.

On the chair next to my dresser: clothes.  Clean and draped.  Clean and folded.  Semi-worn and tossed in a heap on top.

Next to my desk: more books.  Read and annotated.  To be read and to be annotated.

In our playroom: my children’s piles.  Legos, dinosaurs, blocks.  Highlights magazines, library books, puzzles.  Couch cushions and Pillow Pets jury-rigged into a fort.

Outside my window: leaves.  Rusty red, sunburst orange, being raked by the kids next door.  They gather them up and then leap into them, scattering them into the air and then back down on the ground.

Dispatching their piles without a care.

I’m jealous of those kids, not only because I am inside working while my kids nap on this magnificent – perfect really – autumn afternoon.  I’m jealous because they seem to know how to get rid of their piles.  If only I could get rid of mine so easily: lifting them lightly onto my palm, making a wish, and blowing them away.

Piles or no piles, I am one of the lucky ones.  I know that.  A majority of working mothers say that they would prefer to work part time.  That is my preference too – for now, at least – and that’s what I get to do: I work part time, from home.  I get to spend lots of time with my kids and I get to do work that I love.

But what I haven’t figured is how to deal with all of those piles, how to keep track of the rest of the stuff that makes up a life.  All of that household management that I used to sneak in between naps and meal preparation and my turn in Candy Land.

I’ve heard it said that you can have it all, just not all at once.  But I have to disagree; you can have it all: you can have a family and a career.

And, apparently, piles.

What’s in your piles?  Are you an efficient household manager?

The (Bargain) Price of Freedom

Image by blue2likeyou

On Sunday afternoon, I bought myself 60 minutes of Freedom.

I clicked on a small icon on my desktop – a clock with a shield in front of it. A pop-up window appeared and asked, as if it were the simplest matter in the world:

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

Hmm, I thought to myself.  All three kids were napping – hallelujah! – and my husband was upstairs, watching the Eagles and the Redskins, ready to attend to whichever child woke up first.  And there I was, just me, alone at my cluttered desk in the basement.

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

60, I thought.  60 would be enough to get some writing done before I had to get back upstairs to fold laundry, to wipe runny noses, to start chopping the onions for the soup.  60 was the right number.  Less than I wanted, maybe more than I should have asked for on that rainy afternoon with a house full of sick kids.

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

I entered “60.”  I clicked “OK.”  And just like that: Freedom.

Or a 21st century version, at least.  Freedom, you see, is a computer application that disables your Internet for as long as you ask it to – up to eight hours!  My iPhone upstairs, Freedom running on my computer, my kids asleep, my husband on guard.  Just me and my computer-rendered-typewriter.

And here’s what I did:  I opened up a Word document with an old, ailing essay and polished it up.  I wrote.  I edited.  I added some words.  I took others away.  I tried to shape a story out of a collection of anecdotes.

While I was writing, my monkey mind prattled on as it always does.  And my right little finger twitched toward the Alt key and my left index finger toward the Tab key so that I could escape from my writing into the wilds of the Internet.  To shoot off that email to Stephanie about dinner on Saturday, re-categorize last week’s blog post into “parenting” and “writing” instead of “living,” update my homework assignment on Meagan’s Facebook page, check the YourTango writer’s guidelines to see if this essay would be a fit, look up how to spell contrapposto, look up the definition of ad hoc to make sure I was using it properly.

But Freedom wouldn’t allow it.  Freedom kept my fingers where they were and my eyes on my essay.  And, oh, the liberation – the freedom! – of being able to just write – no chance – no excuse – to stop.

I first learned about Freedom from Dani Shapiro at our writing workshop at Kripalu.  Afterward, my friend Elizabeth pointed me toward an essay Dani had written about it and about the ways the rabbit warren of the Internet threatens to derail her writing.  First an e-mail, then a thought about a chest of drawers in the novel she’s writing, then a form for summer camp.  She writes

Had Jane Kenyon (or Virginia Woolf, for that matter) lived long enough to be told to build a twitter platform, she might have resisted. She might—as many of us do—have found ways to build a fortress around herself, a cathedral of peace and silence. She would have emerged from that cathedral…only in her own time, and at her own bidding. Or so I like to think. Yet, whether rose quartz, blindfold, earmuffs, spiral-bound notebook, or a small cabin off the grid, still, we all need help, sometimes. The noise in our heads is growing louder, and louder still. We all have good days and bad days, don’t we?

I feel like I need that help Dani writes about.  And I’m grateful to know that Freedom can be mine for the bargain price of $10.  I’m still in the midst of my free trial now and am certainly tempted to shell out the money for the full application.

But I’m left wondering: how free am I really if I need to pay an invisible man inside my computer to grant me what my will power can’t?

Do you have will power where the Internet is concerned?  How much would you pay for freedom?

The Waiting Game

Image by me'nthedogs

I am bad at waiting.

And there’s good reason for that, I think.  Indeed, there is a way in which my whole pre-parenting life was an exercise in gaining independence and then control over my life.  I followed my parents’ rules and my teachers’ directions.  I studied hard and got the job I wanted.  I lived on my own and ran my own classroom.  Boom.  Independence and control.  And in these settings, I grew accustomed to things happening at my own pace.  Yet I now find myself at a moment in life when I am playing the waiting game far more often than I’d like.

My inherent impatience reared its ugly head when I was first trying to get pregnant.  It was hard for me, conditioned as I was as an educated working woman to being in control, to surrender to the fact that there is no rushing pregnancy.  Either it happens or it doesn’t and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it (other than the obvious, ahem).  And if it doesn’t happen, you’ve  got to wait a month – a month!? – to try again.  You mean planning and effort and good intentions don’t seal the deal!?  How could this be!?

And the challenge of impatience has extended right into motherhood.  When the pace of my days is largely dictated by the health and whims of three very short people.  By the chronic cough of my four year old.  The snail’s pace at which my toddler eats.  Whether or not my daughter takes a good nap.  Sure, I can outline a skeleton schedule for each day, but my kids determine the ways that the skeleton breaks, its bones fractured by an early wake-up or a bad dream.

And now this impatience has surfaced again in my writing career.  I send my essays and query letters off into the ether and then I wait.  I check my e-mail every hour, then every half hour, then every five minutes and, somehow, the responses don’t come any faster.  Eventually they trickle in: a question, a no, a yes.  But in between the sound of crickets can grow deafening.

And I’m left wondering if this parental crash course in patience has really left me any better at playing the waiting game.

Are you a patient person?  How do you occupy yourself when waiting for someone or something?

The Woman on the Bike

Image by godber

I see her every time I run.

While on the homestretch of my workout, I see the woman on the bike approaching from the other direction.  Sometimes I even hear her before I see her, the sound of her slender wheels cutting through the water on the trail announcing her approach.  Her chin-length hair curls out from under her olive green newsboy cap.  She hunches over the handle bars, her over-sized t-shirt billowing around her small frame as she pedals.  Two large saddlebags hang over her rear wheel.

She never looks up, keeps her eyes trained on the trail ahead of her.  She doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t gaze out at the cornfields on her left or the changing foliage on her right.  She looks straight ahead.

The first time I saw her, I turned and smiled and called out my standard “Good morning!”  She did look at me that time, but didn’t return the greeting, just turned back to the trail and pedaled on down the road.

Like me, most of the other folks on the trail – runners, joggers, walkers, parents with strollers – look up when they pass a fellow traveler and offer their own form of greeting: a smile, a nod, a cheery “Chilly out this morning!”

But she never does.  Even if she and I are the only people anywhere in sight, she keeps her eyes focused ahead and speeds past me as though I am nothing more than a deer in the woods or the bark on the tree.

And for some reason I take this personally.  I decide that she’s rude.  Or odd.  Or antisocial.  That she has an attitude problem.

I don’t stop to think about why she doesn’t smile.  Or even make eye contact.  What might be weighing down her shoulders, what load she is carrying in those saddlebags.  Maybe she just wants to be left alone.  Maybe she wants this chance to work out a problem in her head with only the trees and squirrels for company.  Maybe she is biking toward something she’d rather be headed away from.

Are you the kind of person who makes eye contact and smiles at passersby?  What do you think this tendency says about you?

Do you ever make up back stories for strangers?