Irrational Reptile

With tough, leathery skin,
it’s a wonder she moves without notice.

Yet she skulks and slithers
throughout the mind,

the soul,

the psyche

leaving a trail of bad decisions in the name of self-preservation

Seeking only comfort and survival
not peace or progress

After years of hiding in the shadows,
she is an expert at skirting around the edges,
dropping pebbles here,
rolling beads of water down there,
until they gather in a puddle,
pushing behind the eyes
pulsating in the inner ear
an ache in the chest
an unease in the soul

Don’t trust this,
she says.
Run the other way,
she says.
And if you won’t listen,
she whispers ways to sabotage

All so softly that you don’t even question that her voice isn’t your own.

Mother as Refugee, Part II

Stemming from the author’s note I addended to my last piece, I have some more thoughts to share on the idea of mother as refugee.  I alluded to the fact that my musings obviously came from a very ‘first world problem’ place.  Even had I not used that actual phrase, there were many details in my post that gave me away.

Assumption: access to child care

To escape, i.e. leave one’s home, someone else has to watch the kids.  While many mothers may dream of it, the point is moot if there is no one to care for the children in their absence.

Assumption: a partner in child-rearing

Raising one’s children with a support partner – both emotionally and logistically – frees one to care for oneself, offers the space to do so, validates the importance of . . . an act which is exponentially harder without one.

Assumption: financial solvency

My piece presupposes that there is extra room in one’s budget for such frivolity as a fancy coffee drink.  Buying a coffee I could’ve made at home is a luxury I need to plan for in my first world budget.  It’s also a way to secure space in the establishment.  For mothers with low incomes, buying a drink in exchange for a seat isn’t even an option.  This also assumes that one doesn’t first have to pay for child care in order to get some time to oneself, in which case even an overpriced cup of coffee is a drop in the bucket.

Assumption: local resources/community

A latte at a coffee house as self-care is the ultimate example of white mom privilege.  Coffee shops – one really – are also the only places in my mostly rural town that are open in the evenings.  If the library happens to be open when I get the chance to escape, there isn’t a quiet section for me to hide.  I’ve resorted to sitting in my car in some picturesque spot, but that only works during daylight hours in warm weather.  Winter in the Northeast is not conducive to this.  In other words, place plays a large role in the opportunities available to mothers.  If there is no building, no business with availability that suits her schedule and economic needs, there is no escape.   

Assumption: home as a safe and comforting place

Perhaps home as it exists is a very triggering place.  Some mothers may associate their surroundings with abusive episodes or people who live(d) there.  The emotions elicited may be polar opposite to the relaxation response.  Others may be overwhelmed by the sight of dishes to wash or piles of laundry to process, a very real and overwhelming reminder of her daily duties.  Or perhaps others expect her to perform such duties when at home or consider her time squandered.

I cannot assume that I’ve done any justice to the situations I’ve described above.  I cannot presume what it is like to actually live in such conditions.  I only open them in an attempt to unpack some of my own privilege and honor the experience of every mother.

 

Mother as Refugee

For many reasons, I needed to sit on the couch yesterday and do nothing.  After a short while, it became clear that TV time with the toddler was not going to provide my needed respite.  Even snuggled under the same blanket, I was not providing her with enough [attention/snack food/video selection].   Circle all that apply.

It was just that kind of day.

She continued to want; her sisters added to the cacophony when they got home.  The toddler was a bit extra on the toddler scale, but none of them made outrageous requests.  By the time my husband got home and I stepped into the kitchen seeking an adult conversational release valve, I was all edges.  The last of a staccato flurry of requests nearly made me run screaming from the house.

That’s when an inner alarm went off.  I need a day off.  I need time away.

But the glaring alarm bells weren’t entirely correct.

What I need is time at home, alone.

I need a day off in my house left to my own devices.  To sit on the couch for as long as I want until I want to rise and retrieve a snack.  To watch a British drama until I cry and/or decide I’ve had enough.  To read, to write, to fill some of the pages in those adult coloring books I bought for self-care following the birth of the present toddler.  To sleep.  To stare into space.

But moms are not afforded that luxury.  I am never in my house alone.

In order to get a respite, I need to leave the house.

With respites few and far between, by the time I get one or my mental health sounds the alarm, I am usually in such a state of exhaustion that the ideal break would be crawling under a blanket and ceasing to exist for a while.  Except coffee houses don’t usually have a corner in which to hole up.  Plus, they have people.  To me, people-ing does not constitute a break.  And I can’t bring my own gluten-free vegan snacks to go with the yummy latte.

I encounter this same conundrum when I slip away to write.  Even if I don’t want to crawl under a blanket, there isn’t a quiet corner to be had.  Last weekend, I thought I’d come up with the perfect plan when I dropped off my ten year-old at a two-hour birthday party.  I’d go to the big library four minutes away, spread out all my materials on a big oak table on some deserted level, and get shit done.  Except the big library is closed on Sundays.  The sweet parking spot I snagged right in front should have tipped me off before I got out of the car.

So off to a different coffee house this time for a sweet drink not good for my blood sugar or wallet.  The convivial atmosphere was not good for concentration either.  Apparently 2 PM on a Sunday is the time to get coffee in this town.

If someone could figure out a way to provide moms with a hidey-hole to escape from the circumstances that won’t let them relax at home, it would be a huge success.  And if I can figure out a way to do this, consider this my official claim to the idea.

 

But that excuses the actual problem: that mothers are not allowed to shelter-in-place. 

 

They are forced from the nests of their homes by the demands and responsibilities that weigh on them there.  Not given the chance to breathe, they must take it.  The surface tension of the home, while a thin skin, must be broken through for a gasp of air.

And while the act of taking this time is choosing oneself, showing one’s deserved value – it is undermined by the fact that mothers are ousted from their territory, their home base to get it.

promenade-solitaire--1473171360frf

Richard Revel via publicdomainpictures.net

Should not the pyramid be flipped the other way?

Mothers work hard to make the house a home.  And yet, they don’t get to enjoy the benefits of that.  The soft blanket and pillows that grace the bed.  The way the sunlight spills through the windows casting the white walls a brilliant hue.  A quiet so sound that the click of the boiler can be heard far below.

Even if a step away gives a break, a breather, it is on foreign territory.  Any comfort it gives is not of the ultimate level.  It is not complete because it isn’t home, where one can be completely and totally oneself and off-guard.  Relaxation, yes.  Complete, never.

Mothers are forced to roam, choosing the least off-putting or triggering place to settle for an attempt at realigning and regulating their overwrought senses and psyche; adding one more thing to an already overflowing list of decisions and tasks which elicit the need to escape in the first place.

I don’t know what the solution is.  I don’t know what needs to change to honor mothers and their numerous sacrifices.  All I know is I wish I could just stay home, alone.


Author’s Note: The use of refugee here is as metaphor; it is in no way attempting to compare my ‘first world’ struggles as a mother to the very real and devastating conditions that true refugees face for themselves and their children.

Find Your Umbrella

Jennifer Butler Basile

This collection of items has sat on my dresser for the last year.  Plus a few weeks.  There was a rectangle of dark wood in the dust when I lifted it from its spot today.

It is a self-care kit I purchased at a holiday fair last year.

Our community has a fabulous youth task force that started in our schools and now focuses on the mental and emotional health of our youth at large.  Each year, they have a display at our district’s arts showcase, which is how I first learned of their work.

via Chariho Youth Task Force

In 2017, when they were launching their ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’ campaign, my heart sang when I saw these young people standing in front of their green screen of watercolor rain under a blue umbrella.  I, of course, jumped right in, my older two daughters sidling away as Mom started talking shop.

Finding my umbrella with two of my cooperative children / photo by Jennifer Butler Basile

Young people fired up and active about the cause I held dear to my own heart and psyche – I applauded their efforts, took their literature, and started following them.  The next year, I picked up their ‘Mental Health and Stress First Aid Kit’.

Last fall, I saw that they’d be selling ‘Self-Care Kits’ to support their efforts.  I went to this full-scale fair and bee-lined straight to these adorable bags emblazoned with affirmations.  Once home, I made my children well aware this bag full of goodies to destress and reward oneself was all for Mom.  I was even inspired to recreate the kits as Christmas gifts for two of my relatives depleted by selfless caretaking of parents.

I could see the value of these kits for these two women who sorely needed to take some care and time for themselves, I preached the virtues of self-care, I knew the therapeutic effects – and yet, my own gift bag sat unopened upon my dresser.

The idea of self-care for my-self has been in a box as well-defined as that dust-free square on my dresser.

I spilled the contents onto my bed today to take this picture.  Ironically, the impetus for their spillage was not to partake in their benefits, but to write this post.  It’s a long way round – and I don’t think I’m rationalizing too much – but writing this post, which could be considered ‘work’, was a radical act of self-care.  See, I was neck-deep in Christmas preparations today.  I baked three recipes worth of goodies, prepped two batches of dough for our weekly pizza evolution, and never got to the wrapping and other recipes still on my list.  I almost enlisted my eldest to watch her siblings while I continued on with my tasks instead of heading out to write.  I was so close.  I’m so tired with so much to do; so full of guilt for the things I should be doing.  After all, adults should pick the requisites and let the extracurricular fall to the side when time and circumstances dictate, right?  It’s only the responsible thing to do.

But there’s always something to be done and never enough time.  In my (our) frenetic world and with my unrealistic expectations and standards, I could never possibly get it all done.  Sure, there are certain things I must do before the holiday – but there is always tonight (or the wee hours of some night, as I usually roll) or tomorrow.  If I don’t put myself first at least some of the time, my needs and I will always come last.

And the spilling of that bag for this piece has led me to know its contents, to meditate again on the importance of self-care, given me a cup of tea and some quiet time.  And maybe just maybe reminded me that I’m worth it and need to make these times a priority.

Jennifer Butler Basile


Chariho Youth Task Force is a wonderful resource for exploring mental health – what it is, how to obtain it, and how to maintain it.  Explore these resources:

 

In the Mid-dle

I don’t know when it started exactly.

Perhaps as early as second grade when we had to cut out a construction paper bear and dress it according to our chosen profession.  My brown bear with peached fur of circa 1986 seriously-thick construction paper was clothed in a crisp white uniform emblazoned with a bright red cross on her cap.  My godmother was a nurse, a professional woman performing heroic feats on the daily.  I wanted to grow up and do the same.  I actually kept the bear for years and years, its rounded belly and little ears a visual reminder of a future I thought I had pinned down.  Then I learned what nurses actually did and how little I wanted to see or attend to blood and that plan went out the window.  In sixth grade, I had a folder of detailed drawings, ruled with my grandfather’s drafting pencils.  Architecture became my new career goal – until I learned how much math was involved.  In junior high, I began the self-awakening and introspection of adolescence and writing became and stayed my love, but it was certainly not a straight line from there.  There were – and are – many detours – self-imposed and otherwise.

But wondering about my future wasn’t limited to only possible career paths.  I was not one of those girls who played dress up and dreamed of her wedding day in a frilly white dress, but my parents were happily married and I assumed I would be someday, too.  Likewise, I never dreamed of being a mother.  I didn’t love little kids or clamor to babysit, but I did figure someday it would be different when they were my own.

Though at times I wondered – and worried – exactly how it would all shake down, there seemed to be a pretty clear progression of how life was expected to go.  Do well in school, get a part-time job and save for college, graduate and go to college, get a degree, a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, and – be fulfilled?

The entire first two (plus) decades of my life were so consumed with working towards these goals, it never occurred to me what would come after that.

My husband is three and a half years older than me.  He has hit many of these milestones just slightly before me.  He turned 41 a month before we welcomed our fourth child – and started shopping for a motorcycle.  I told all our friends that he was going through a mid-life crisis.  While it amused me to no end, there was part of me that wondered if it was true.  I began to wonder in earnest about what that clichéd phrase actually meant.

I hadn’t yet figured it out when I hit the big 4-0.  Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, or so the song goes, but it did mess with me.  Whether it was the extra introspection or society’s insistence of a shift, I did feel different.  It could have something to do with knowing you’ve reached the back end of your life.  That stupid ‘over the hill’ metaphor does have some potent imagery.  But my musings presented a different metaphor.

As I sat in the driver’s seat of our little standard-shift car, having just pulled into the driveway after a rare coffee date sans kids, I stared out the windshield at the garage doors and the bright light blooming over the roof and explained my theory to my husband.

The whole first segment of our lives, we are propelled forward by the steady string of goals we seek to accomplish.  Then, suddenly, we find ourselves in a state of slack.  We’ve pushed and pushed and pushed, ticking the boxes and striving for all those markers that make a life – or the conditions of a successful life we’ve been sold – and now we’ve reached them.  Completed most or all of them.  Our sense of forward movement is stalled.  And in that sudden, unfamiliar stasis, we take stock.  We look at what we have accomplished and how – or what we haven’t – and have to decide if we like where we are.  We may not recognize where we are, where we have ended up.  We may realize that pushing ever forward has made us miss the sights or alternate paths along the way.

Rather than seeing the second stage of life as a downhill slide on the other side of the mountain, I see a sailboat.  The first phase of life moves at a good clip, a strong wind pushing the sail straight out in a fully formed billow, propelling it across the tips of the waves, blowing our hair back and ruddying our cheeks with exhilaration.  At midlife, we are becalmed.  The wind drops out with no warning and the sails go slack, leaving us wondering if we’ll get back to port before sundown.  We feel a loss of control.  We look around and wonder what we did to find ourselves in this predicament.  We don’t know when or how we’ll start moving again or in which direction.

But the beauty of sailing, and midlife and beyond, is that we have the power to tack; to move in varied directions to get to a fixed point.  Or to change course completely.  We also have a bit more time to sit and float for a bit while we assess or wait for the next gust of wind to present itself.

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Becalmed by twjthornton

It’s strange and different, but the mind shift that comes with this age allows us to focus on what we want in a totally different way than when we were young and obsessed with success.  Now success means listening to what our soul is calling us to do; achieving what we can’t bear to leave undone.  We care less about what we’re supposed to do and more about what we want to do.  We are more willing to take risks to achieve our wildest dreams because we’ve lived one version of our lives for too long and it’s time.  And because we have some very wonderful things under our belt and wonderful people beside us.

I didn’t go out and buy a motorcycle, but I did look around and wonder, what now?  I won’t even get into how the total consumption of motherhood came into play; that could be, and perhaps someday will be, an entire book.  It’s scary that floating in this lull, alone and independent, means I am responsible for fashioning the next phase.  It’s also exhilarating if I keep breathing and don’t let fear take hold.  Two (plus) decades in, I feel it’s my time to pick the path.  I can draw on the examples of others, but know, deep down in my soul now, that the ultimate decision is mine.

There is nothing in the mid-dle about that.

Soaring and Grounding

As a child, I looked to the towering clouds, capped with billows, and imagined walking atop them like I’d watched the Care Bears do. I imagined that’s what heaven would be like when I got there someday. As a teen, Jonathan Livingston Seagull brought me such joy, such heights to which to aspire, the tips of his wings touched with light as he soared to such transcendent levels. As an adult, I watched birds glide on the wind, effortlessly floating above the rest of the world and its worries. I dreamed my own body could fly and always felt great disappointment when my legs started to drift back toward the ground. I gathered images and ideas for tattoos with silhouettes of birds, wings spread, to serve as a physical reminder of opening up, letting go, and ascending.

There is a line, though, where metaphysical musings turn into depression and anxiety.

I began to feel a great sadness watching birds wheel through the sky, their wide open wings and swooping motions a freedom I would never have. Watching the clouds edged with light filled me with a longing that I would never have the peace I imagined lived among their water crystals. No amount or configuration of ink etched on my skin would seep that sense of freedom into my soul.

And then as I sat on a shaded deck this morning, forcing myself to focus on a wisp of cloud and nothing else, staring into the middle distance, forcing all thoughts from my head or repeating a prayed mantra – a pair of birds streaked across, running a parallel line with the shore in front of me. Their pointed wings reminded me of the swallows with which I’ve been obsessed. They darted and swooped and disappeared behind a house a few doors down.

It occurred to me then that I can continue to stay focused on the peace and quiet in front of me while noticing the promise of freedom. I can long to be truly free, but that doesn’t stop me from embracing the joys in the here and now while I wait. I will not be free until my soul flies up to heaven, but I can open my heart now to accept what this life has to offer. I can use this time between now and then to wait and lament and be miserable or live in each moment mindfully soaking up what is there instead of not seeing it because I’m so fixated on what I don’t have.

Photo by Jennifer Butler Basile

Narrative War

My imagination was captured by Bryan Stevenson’s work and ideas once I read his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  I was thrilled when HBO developed a documentary following his story.  Fortunately, I was able to view it free of charge on their website (limited time, of course).  I stayed up till the wee hours the other night, watching it once the kids were finally in bed, sobbing in silence on the couch.  The stories Stevenson tells of his people, of the people wronged by this nation are so raw and real and ones, as he says, that must be told if any sort of healing and progress is to be made in our country and society.

Two quotes that hit me over the head:

In many ways, you can say that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war.  If the urgent narrative that we’re trying to deal with in this country is a narrative of racial difference, the narrative that we have to overcome is a narrative of white supremacy – the South prevailed.

 

The Civil Rights community won the legal battle, but the narrative battle was won by people who were allowed to hold onto this view that there are differences between people who are black and people who are white.

 

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Click here to watch the trailer:

Blossoming

Our task is not to learn how to be loving; the love within us is already full and alive.  Our practice is to melt the fear and armor that imprisons our hearts.  Then our impulses to love and our inclinations to be generous and kind blossom easily and surely within us.

from Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood

by Wayne Muller

Expectations

How many gentle moments do we poison each day when we cling to our expectations?  When we are imagining breakfast while we rock the baby, we miss the joy of rocking, we lose a precious moment with the baby – and we still miss breakfast.  When we simply rock when we are rocking, and then eat while we are eating, we become more open to the blessings available in the moment.

 Some expectations are extremely difficult to relinquish.  Some of us still expect our parents, friends, or spouses to finally become the loving people we always wanted them to be.  We think of how it might have been if only the right person or career had come along.  Some of us are still so attached to these hopes that we have not yet really begun our lives in earnest.  We are still patiently waiting for the world to match our perfect picture before we start.  How much longer can we wait?

 

from Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood

by Wayne Muller

Belonging

We may begin to feel our belonging in the breath – here we may take sanctuary, here we begin to feel our place in creation.  Taking refuge in each breath of our life, in each beat of our heart, we find a quiet place of belonging.  This refuge, this sanctuary, is neither given nor taken away by the chaotic demands of an unpredictable world.  This place belongs to us, and we to it.  It is where we make our home.

Wayne Muller in
Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood

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