The Matriarch has Retired

As if thinking of a stranger, I remember the days of lovingly peeling potatoes, listening to world music and preparing dinner for my family of 3. Day after day, I stood in the small kitchen and created delicious entrees out of simple ingredients, trying out recipes from books I’d borrowed from the library or bringing back old favorites along with the nostalgia that only food can evoke. I felt a certain humility, as if a cog in a machine, and that my role was to be the bringer of health – the one who thinks “what’s for dinner?” early on in the day. I was maintaining the sacred, traditional custom of the family dinner, confident that this act would keep our 13 year old off of drugs and out of some girl’s pants.

I prepared breakfast and lunch with the same reverence, standing on a support pad that chefs use, buying myself new dish towels and other sparky tools to keep my kitchen fresh and exciting. I would listen to NPR each morning, and my (unpaid) daily shift from 6-7am went something like this:

boil up water for rice and coffee/ make coffee to keep myself going while I do the other tasks/wash the dishes from the night before/wipe off the counters,so I can make room for breakfast/feel grateful that I’m doing this in a developed country, with electricity and running water/stare at the fridge/figure out what I can make them for lunch that will be

healthy
portable
cheap

“Mom, I need you to sign this paper that was due 3 days ago, and pay for something” my son would say, handing me a totally wrinkled field trip permission slip, a yearbook order form or some other paperwork that would demand mental focus and the writing of a check.

“Just leave it on the counter, I’ll get to it later. Out of the kitchen.” I’d grunt, in the nicest voice I could muster.

Scramble the eggs for breakfast/put toast in the toaster/check the rice/sauté up some veg/sip the coffee/think about the world/prep the breakfast plates/throw out the half-eaten lunches from yesterday. (Wasted food and energy – try not to think about it, it’s already 6:45… and they have to leave soon.)

A voice on the radio says, “Women’s work contributes to an unacknowledged, un-paid labor force, supporting the nation but somehow not integrated into the Gross National Product.”

“Breakfast is ready” I’d pronounce, placing the steaming plates on our 50’s style metal table with the mis-matched chairs.

“Thanks” one of them would mutter, as they stood primping in the mirror and planning for their day ahead, like you would say to a waitress or a teen at the drive-through, who I now had a new appreciation for.

Passing a mirror, I would see my frizzy hair sticking out, the mascara from yesterday smudged below my eyes, and my paisley mumu hanging off of me in what used to be a funky way. Now I just looked dowdy. I’d think about my day and what I needed to prepare, who I was going to see later, but there was no time for that now.

Next I’d whip through the lunch project, assembling today’s entree, all the while trying to remember to sip my (now cold) coffee and prepare my 10 daily supplements. I did this same routine every day for years.

Then I turned 49 and

all

hell

broke

loose.

I began to ride the emotional and physical wave of shifting hormones. The veil between what I thought and said had always come down during PMS, but now my brassy and intrepid edge was seeping out on a daily basis. Acting like a sacrificial matriarch annoyed me, as my decreasing levels of estrogen revealed a self-protective, guilt-less, woman with a clear voice.

A war had begun in my body, my mind and my apartment.

Maybe I should install a time-clock on my kitchen wall, and punch in every time I am of service.

“Hey, guys, I’m going to put a dollar amount on all of the tasks that I do each day.” I said one day at breakfast.

“Pretty funny baby.” my husband said. “You know we appreciate your cooking, your cleaning, how you show your love for us.” We had been down this road many times before.

I realized that no amount of praise or number of “thank you’s” could make up for the sacrifice of wifehood, motherhood, womanhood. Before this massive shift, watching my child at a soccer game and noticing his new haircut/clean clothes could give me a feeling of satisfaction. Now I was tired of being a bystander.

I saw time passing and with it, my spirit, my ideas, and my energy. All of that cooking represented unrealized creativity, as the food was simply prepared, ingested, and turned to waste.

I equated each meal with a potential:

essay

article

memoir

I wanted to invest my energy in creative projects that had an actual outcome. Like a man. My inner child was tugging at my shirt tails, begging for attention and a voice.

My un-edited anger seeped into other parts of our lives too. I began delegating housework.

“Mom, where is my black Nike t-shirt?” my teen son demanded one busy morning at 6am, “I asked you to wash it last night!”

The indignant tone in his voice surprised me and forced me to question the division of labor in our home.

“Why is it MY responsibility to wash, dry and keep track of your clothes?” I said, thinking this was yet another watershed moment in our mother-son journey.

I went to the store and bought 3 small matching hampers. From that day forward, each family member had to wash and dry and sort their own laundry.

Revitalized after letting go of that daily task, I made a list of other domestic paradigms I had unknowingly put myself into the center of, as the “woman” of the house.

Housework was taking away my time to write, think, meditate, be. Fantasizing about driving out of their lives forever on my motorcycle, I also knew that I still wanted to share my life with these male beings. Using my creativity to solve this middle passage challenge, I devoted every spare moment to writing, yoga, solitude and silence. Anger began to slowly dissipate, replaced by a new confidence and knowledge that I deserved to feel joy and a sense of fulfillment.

I began the journey of discovering, accepting and honoring my new self, and wanting to connect with other “older” moms like me. We were and are the new generation of women who are raising teens at a time when our mothers were grandmothers, watching as hormonal tidal waves uproot our homes and searching for a quiet desert island.

 

Walking the Camino – Six Ways to Santiago

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The documentary Walking the Camino – Six Ways to Santiago follows a group of tourists turned pilgrims, as they walk 500 miles across Northern Spain, in the ancient tradition of Christians who have followed this same spiritual path for hundreds of years.  Along the way there are albergues, or hostels, where those who are walking can stay for a very small fee.  You sleep in large rooms with men and women, eat communally and are basically thrown head-long into an international slumber party.

The walkers are a young woman with her preschool-aged son, a pair of senior men who are best friends, and some other young men and women who connect with each other along the way.  The mother actually has a stroller for her son, along with a huge backpack and some other bags, and they both walk (ride) the entire 500 miles!

There are many reflective moments where the pilgrims compare the Camino to the road of life we are walking down:  unpredictable, painful, exciting, humbling.  They speak of not knowing what will happen that day, where they will sleep that night, who they will meet, and how that is why they felt so ALIVE during the journey.

In one scene, the older gentlemen chat about what it is like to pack everything you own and need into one bag, and then start walking for the day.  They spoke about how the trail was their home.  Letting go of possessions enabled them to be free and live in the moment.

Watching this film, from the vantage point of my {mother-wife-teacher-owner of a car and a motorcycle-person with a schedule} perspective, I felt sad.  Living in hostels, on the edge, from day to day was my lifestyle for about 10 years and my current normal life has a repetitiveness that is mind-numbing, predictable, stifling.

I’d like to close with these questions, and I would love to hear your thoughtful responses in the comment section below:

How much do we need to sacrifice for our children/partner/success?

What is the price we pay for consistency?

Are our accomplishments truly significant, if all we are doing is training ourselves to sublimate our true nature, our inquisitive minds, or desire for connection and adventure?

How do you define success?

When do you feel the most spiritual?  The most connected to others and the Universe?

Join the conversation as we question the assumptions that are all around us, and work to re-define our own values, dreams, futures.

The PERSONAL is POLITICAL

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I work with students from around the world, as a private English language tutor.   I am lucky in that I spend my days in cafes, sitting at tables with students from Russia, Japan, Korea, France, Spain, Mexico, and other countries.

Some days we parse out which words are verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.  We construct complex sentences or we deconstruct abstract grammar concepts.  Other days they just want to chat, and we cover everything from politics, to history to cross-cultural communication styles.  These are my favorite sessions, when we can break down the barriers between us and get REAL.

Today, a young student from Russia asked me why I referred to myself as a “Radical Feminist” in  the title of my upcoming memoir –Experiments in Living:  How a Radical Feminist Endured Motherhood on a Suzuki TS250X.

I was happy that he had read my blog and was curious about my writing.

“Great question, which word are you asking about “radical” or “feminist?”  I asked.

“Well, I know what feminist means but radical makes me think you hate men.  It is so extreme.”  he said.

From there a discussion ensued that began with the liberation of African Americans and the MLK Movement.  I told him how many white people felt that any form of “Black Nationalism” or black power was a threat to or indictment of white culture.  We talked about how the liberation of one group does not have to demean or limit another, and how women’s liberation is about empowering women, not hating men.

My journey into feminism began back when I was 13 and going over to a boy’s house to play Monopoly.

As I was leaving, my mom said, “I know you are good at Monopoly, but let him win. Boys like that.”

I proceeded to purchase many houses and hotels,  and to buy up all the properties on the board.

I cannot blame my mother, whose rhetoric was steeped in her 50’s upbringing and the fact that she attended college just to get her M.R.S. degree.

I am not my mother.  I am not my grandmother.

Now that our son has turned 13, I can see how this formative time will set the foundation for many of his decisions and relationships.

Last month my husband and I threw him a birthday party.  Both boys and girls came to his “dinner and a movie” event,  which started at a local hamburger joint.  After eating, the boys all stood up to go and the girls started to clean up the wrappers and cups.

“Woah.  Hold the phone!”  I intercepted.  “Here’s how it works, boys, you ate the food – now you must help clean up too.”

My husband proceeded to assign duties, role modeling.

I re-direct and educate and empower and discuss and enlighten others on a daily basis about the role of women in our society, in our homes, in our schools, and at our jobs.

This is a daily choice and by having these discussions I encourage myself and others to question our assumptions about what it means to be a girl or a boy, a woman or a man.

Who decided that females must cook and clean for men?  Who decided that, in order for men to feel confident, women must be less than, demure, apologetic?

Any real man can handle a woman who is powerful,  and will support his woman in developing her intelligence and creativity.  He will see her evolution as an asset to his own life.

As women, we were born into these bodies and into this American culture at this period of time, but we do not have to accept others’ ideas about what that means for us, what we can (or cannot) do, how we should dress or what we should say.

We are free, and yet we also have the legacy of those who came before us, setting the stage for that freedom and remembering that the each day we make decisions and statements that show us:  the Personal is indeed Political.

That’s Not Funny

The blonde and the brunette (Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings), from CBS’s Two Broke Girls, were on the Rachel Ray Show yesterday.  Sitting in a booth that was part of a mock restaurant set, clad in stilettos and push-up bras, they were discussing their show with Rachel.  Kat, in her cliche way of acting like a raunchy urban slut who has no boundaries, referred  to her “crotch” more times than a team of football players in a locker room.  The “dumb blonde” (Beth)  giggled and occasionally denigrated herself, just like on the Two Broke Girls.  Rachel tried (and failed) to make a connection between their show and real life waitresses who are broke and have to deal with rude customers.  Of course real-life waitresses probably cannot afford designer jewelry or bleached out high-maintenance hair do’s, and certainly can’t schlep heavy trays around for an 8 hour shift, in 5″ heels.

They performed some kind of skit where all three “girls” had to get pie, dishes, water and silverware from a counter to individual tables, in record time.  It was ridiculous and didn’t do much to further the cause of respecting waitresses or servers.

Then they began a discussion of the comedic timing of the cast and the fact that the show is filmed with a live audience.  Beth referred to the audience as a “third character” and made more (sexual) jokes about playing off of the other members of the cast.  Rachel finally made a comparison between Beth/Kat and Carol Burnett/Vickie Lawrence, in terms of the witty reparte and improvisational creativity bouncing back and forth between the women onstage.

What?  Carol Burnett and Vickie Lawrence never referred to their “vaginas”, their “boobies”, or talked about their periods.  They never resorted to giving extremely graphic descriptions of their sex lives, while referring to cocaine use and stealing from their jobs, to get a laugh.  The writers of the Carol Burnett Show gave their actors unique and eccentric characters to play, who were involved in surprising and ironic situations.  The actors, who could rival the early Second City, interpreted the scripts with magical stage presence and pure wackiness.  Winning 22 Emmies during the 11 year run of the show, they were obviously doing something right.  Many of their laughs came from slapstick comedy or outlandish characterizations of stereotypes like the crazy grandma or a Southern Belle who is codependent on her family.

Modern television has taken comedy to a new low.  When we watch prime time TV with our 13 year old son, I have to keep my index finger hovered over the mute button.  Even I am embarrassed by the sexual references to “rods”, “parking my car in your garage” and others that are not fit to print.  Does our sound-byte-oriented, over-stimulated and unimpressed society need this much shock value to be entertained?  Remember when humor was related to irony or that statement that was so universally true that it was funny – like Jerry Seinfeld’s observations on human nature that made you laugh at yourself?  Perhaps I’ll just get Hulu and hide in the past, where it’s safe and Rated PG.

The Work of Parenting/Writing/Teaching/Loving

Ok, so Sunday, after a long week of work and going to AWP, I accomplished the following other tasks:

  1. filled my SUV  up with gas
  2. went grocery  shopping with my man
  3. took my kid to Gameworks  Seattle with his friend
  4. paid bills
  5. swept the floors
  6. did the dishes

Then, after all of that, and hearing numerous stories of school and work from my family of 3, I sat down to write, feeling like a balloon that has lost all of its air.

I remember, when our son was a year old and I used to take him in his stroller to a Barnes and Noble near our coach-house in Beverly, Chicago.  I would wear my head-wraps, buy my coffee, read a few pages at a time in a book that I couldn’t afford to buy and look at the other women in the bookstore cafe.  Inevitably, there would be a woman there alone, with make-up on, coiffed hair, and a cute outfit that took more than 5 minutes to assemble.  She always had a relaxed, reflective look on her face and I hated her.  Jealousy of her freedom and independence and matching clothes came off of me in waves that I would try to hide.

It’s different for me now, that my son is 13.  I still long for the luxury of staring at an open closet and wondering what to wear, reading a book from beginning to end and having my biggest concern be the state of my hair.  But I am a part of something more complicated and challenging and fulfilling and poignant now, my family.  These male beings who have been brought into my life challenge me to be more, to balance better, to dig deeper and that, if I keep it in perspective, can help me as a writer.

Our families inspire and challenge us, give us material but also take away our sacred time and mental focus.  Maybe the pressure of having less time forces us to write when we can.  Maybe the multi-tasking of parenthood makes us better at managing deadlines/ second edits, writing in our cars or while waiting at yet another sports practice.

Somewhere on those post it notes, ideas scrawled on a restaurant napkin and late night epiphanies lies a memoir, an article, a novel.  String it together and give it life.  Water it and listen to it and pay it as much attention as another school/work story over dinner.  We deserve this much.

Thoughts on AWP#14 Seattle

I attended the 14th Annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs  (AWP) Conference this past week in Seattle, and it was a  life-changing experience for me.    I took enough notes for fill an entire spiral notebook, and attended about 18 workshops/lectures over a 3 day period, along with navigating a crowd of 15,000 writers, editors, publishers and fellow book lovers.  I slowly networked in the massive bookfair, and met editors/representatives from Creative Non-Fiction, Bitch, The Sun, So to Speak, Phoebe, Boulevard Magazine and more.  I found out about VIDA, Hedgebrook, A Room of Her Own and other organizations that support women writers through workshops, lectures, retreats, fellowships and guidance.

I feel so supported in this journey of writing and publishing.  I feel I am part of this huge community now, and not just a woman sitting on her iPad in a Starbucks listening to The Caravan World Music Show on KBCS FM and trying to find her voice.  Even my Americano tastes better, and I can face down the blank page with courage and conviction that writing is a valid, serious,  and important way to spend yet another rainy Sunday afternoon.