Fragmented

Mom. Homeschooling parent. Physician Assistant. Teacher. Friend. Companion. Housecleaner. Ombudsman. Taxi driver. Cook. Handy(wo)man. Obtainer of All Things Needed. Finder of What is Misplaced, Gardener. Problem solver.

I feel fragmented.

Perhaps it’s the change in weather. The days are shorter. Many are cold and wet. It’s dark when I used to take my walks, the walks that assured me time to regroup and recoup.

Perhaps it’s the season. Holidays loom large. I’m starting to flounder with these days needing preparation: shopping, cooking, decorations, plans. Thanksgiving, just a month away, and this year the kind of Thanksgiving that doesn’t include my boys, a reminder that divorce splits families for good. They are, after all, what I’m most thankful for. And Christmas. With my Christianity gone, I’m struggling with the celebration we continue to do, which I say is for the boys but is really for all of us, ritual we need and want while wondering what means what.

Perhaps it’s struggles of my younger. He’s having a hard time, what with oncoming puberty stacked atop his Aspergers and plenty of anxiety on the side. I’ve been pulled in closer as support and stability, jobs a mom expects, yet to a level not anticipated at this age. And to see a child in such a state of hurt… It pulls me in and under, leaving me gasping for breath and wondering where that oxygen mask is. I can’t put it on if I can’t find it.

Perhaps it’s time, cut in too many tiny pieces to do anything but play Scrabble online, check Facebook, read the shortest articles in the New York Times (days after it comes), answer another question about another math problem, watch my younger closely –again or still — for signs of stress, check my email, and make lists of things that will never get done.

I like my jobs, both paid and unpaid. I feel generally competent at them, and I enjoy the interaction with my children, other people’s children, and the adults whom make up my friends and co-workers. I feel respected professionally, cared for by friends, and often appreciated by my children.  I’m less enamored with the tasks that keep us in food, clothing, and a relatively clean house, of course. But each task is entirely manageable. Together, they seem impossible. 

It’s not just the tasks at hand. It’s all the ones that need attention but aren’t getting it, little and big. The call to the university my older son likes, the one to schedule a day-long visit complete with classes. The presentation for church that will happen in just over two weeks whether it’s written or not. The writing that just isn’t happening because I’m never sure when I’ll be interrupted or because I can’t maintain concentration for more than a few minutes. The books on my nightstand that go unread because I can’t pay attention to them, either. The book that I’m trying to assemble, the one that requires a few hours — or even just an hour — each day of undivided attention I just don’t seem to be able to find.

I’m in pieces. I’m not depressed or anxious or otherwise suffering from existential despair. I’m just in pieces. And most of the pieces are good in themselves. While it’s a hard job, homeschooling my sons is a choice I’m glad to have made, to have continued to make, year after year. I enjoy (most parts) of my relationships with them, and while the stakes seem astronomically high when homeschooling an eleventh grader on the cusp of full-time college, it’s overall a good ride to share.

My professional endeavors — medicine and teaching/editing — feed me deeply. Some of that food is straight ego-stroking — the patient who tells me I am the one who truly listens to her or the young student who stops me mid-class to thank me for teaching him to write, noting he really likes our time together. But some of the professional satisfaction is the challenges of the work itself. Both require close attention to the person I’m with at the time. Both require dropping my own agenda at points, attuning to the patient or student and letting the rest drop away.

The personal encounters — those with my friends and fiancé — feed and sustain me when I’m struggling the most. But even these meetings seem smashed between What Comes Next — classes, cleaning, cooking, calming, driving duty, bills, calls, and chaos management. Too often, they are the punctuation marks more than the paragraphs in my daily essay. This fragmentation (repaired somewhat come next spring, when my dearest companion becomes my spouse) is perhaps the most painful. I love my children, and I enjoy and appreciate their company. But a homeschooling mom in her forties who also teaches the children of others starts to get a bit twitchy when days go by without substantive contact with those over the age of 30. I want conversation about things other than Minecraft, computers, comma placement, and tropical fish. (The last is interesting for a while, until the lists of fish are repeated.)  I love my children, and my older is learning to be a somewhat empathetic listener who actually asks how I am and listens for the answer. But still…

So tonight I’m writing, (almost) alone in my home, enjoying the peace sustained attention brings. The presentation/sermon is nearly done, needing only an hour or so of polishing and (likely) shortening. This cathartic piece, almost complete, reminds me of the threads upon which the beads of my life rest connect what can seem broken and unbound.  When I can connect those pieces and roles, seeing them as cohesive wholes and not tiny pieces of me, I’m more settled and more likely to find the time to finish the book, edit the essays, or even veg in front of a show (scandalous!). This sense of quiet and wholeness may not last even another half-hour, but for now, it is here. So I sit with it, feel the connections, and just breathe.

Magnifying Mirrors

I recently received an email from a friend in appreciation of a post on my homeschooling blog, Quarks and Quirks. I’d written about how our family has handled studying war. She commented on how things in my life seem to work out somehow noted her own feelings of parental inadequacy. (That’s certainly not my intent when writing about my experiences with the underbelly of life. Quite the opposite.) Ironically, the day I received that message I was struggling with a serious case of that same malady that day — the feeling like I’m getting it all wrong.

Okay, not all wrong. When I objectively step back and look at my life, I don’t see some overarching failure or anything close. But when I sit too close, I’m apt to see only what seems awry. It’s like staring at your face for too long with those magnifying mirrors: rather than seeing the whole face, all that stands out are the crevasse-like wrinkles, Mt Vesuvius zits, and errant wiry hairs. Eek! A short survey of that amplified visage can be informative. (Time to wear sunscreen daily and cut down on the potato chips. Oh, and put better tweezers on the shopping list.) Too much time studying the parts, and one begins to consider large-brimmed hats and oversized sunglasses as indoor winter attire.

I tend to tempt the mirror fates with long examinations of the minutiae of my life and relationships with others. My mind’s eye strays to predictable places: my boys and our homeschooling, my productivity outside of homeschooling, and the messiest places of my house and yard.  Regular, short looks into life are healthy, desirable even. It’s in these moments I see what is working and what is not. In those glances, I see the dust bunnies under the bed and the diversionary tactics that keep me from writing bigger projects. Those looks help me reorder priorities if needed and remind me what is important and what isn’t. (You will live another day, bunnies.)

The longer looks take my breath away and can reduce me to panic and tears. Attention to detail is good. Obsession about detail is not. With a bit of attention, I can see the pattern of my frustration with my teen, notice my parenting mistakes, and reflect on what part of our struggles is his responsibility and what is mine. With too long of a look, the relationship between us seems fatally flawed, with rents and rifts made by me forever damning him and us. I can shift from constructive self-criticism to scathing self-loathing in a few blinks. He’ll despise me when he’s older. He’ll run from this home and never return. I’ve ruined it all, and there is no redeeming this relationship.

Yeah, I’m good.

Fortunately, I’ve  peered often enough into the magnifying mirror to know that those panicky moments, hours, or days are more calisthenics of an overactive imagination, some inherited tendency to assume guilt, and a flair for the dramatic than reality. Not that the initial inklings of concern aren’t important messages that can inform me that my ways of being in the world aren’t working as well as I’d like, but perseverating on them isn’t useful for him or for me. It doesn’t even help the dust bunnies, who tend to get rather matted and muddy when exposed to tears.

Despite these mountain-into-molehill looks at my life and self, I’m generally optimistic. Like my friend noted in her email, things tend to work out for me. I think this is true for most people, although tallying success by the day is likely not the way to find this. Scorekeeping life a bad idea, and it’s far too easy of an activity for an introverted, internal, continuous improvement sort of person to do. The path from a single bad moment to a hideous month is short and leads to nowhere productive

So as self-flagellating as I can be, I’m not a believer in bad days. Bad moments, challenging mornings, trying afternoons, exhausting evenings, sometimes all in the same 24 hours, but not bad days. My viewpoint may be partially a product of semantics and partially protective, positive attitude. I’d hate to mark the day as “bad” at any point along the way, since each moment is a separate moment, and all those moments can’t really all be bad. After all, if we’re still all here at the end of the day, how bad could it have been? The label of a day negates the good, the amazing, the profound, and the vast majority that just is.

The brief look in the mirror shows what is. That’s the look that’s long enough to honestly assess the situation, assign responsibility, and ascertain a course of corrective action.  Too little time of self-reflection results in too little data to foster growth.  Too much time results in a serious magnitude of one’s actual affect on the world around them. It may be a miserable, jet-lagged, luggage-losing fiasco, but assuming one is the blame for all the world’s wrongs (or even all one’s teenage son’s misery) is an ego trip. Ouch.

And that’s part of why I write. I write to sort out what I see in the mirror. I write to give myself some distance from the magnified view I tend to see on sleepless nights or after difficult conversations. I write to see that generally the moments that make up life are fine. Perhaps they don’t all work out in the neat way I’d prefer. Perhaps more angst, drama, and failure than I’d like occur along the way. I write to sort the chaos, failures, missed opportunities, success, hopes, and joys and find that even at the hardest days, the latter three win out.

Namaste.


Alone

I’m alone more now than I’ve been in years.  Two evenings a week, my boys head off to their father’s home, and I receive silence not known to me prior to my separation and solidified by my divorce.  Generally, I like it.  Some of the evenings fill with a meeting a church, dinner with a friend, book club, or the like, but I’m somewhat stingy with these peaceful spots in my otherwise child-filled life.

Initially, the time overwhelmed me with its openness.  I carefully planned how to spend the time and often critiqued my use of these hours during and after the fact.  I had certain expectations, varying from week to week.  Read particular books, clean or sort part of the house, organize paperwork, meditate, complete CME credits, run errands, and so on.  I was constantly disappointed in my time use, chiding myself for wasting this precious time alone.

For more than half of the last two years, I’ve felt quite ambiguous about that time, hoping (wishing, praying) for a time when that quiet didn’t exist.  Not because I didn’t appreciate the solitude, but because I wanted my marriage to succeed. Married with children, the time alone may be rare, but at least I’d, well, be married.  And, oh, I wanted to remain married.

But I’m not.  And that’s for the best, given the circumstances.  I’ve grown to accept my single status and, in the process, luxuriate in every minute of those evenings (and part of a day) that I set the agenda for me.  As much as I love homeschooling and parenting my boys, 24/7 with no other parent in the house wears me out.  Those breaks give me a chance to regroup and center.

And the longer I’ve had these times to myself, the more I’ve loosened the reigns on my time.  I still walk into each free time with expectations of myself, but the critical voice judging my use of time is quieting, albeit slowly.  Blogging’s helped. I still set goals for these times, and I still fall short of those.  But blogging is always one of those goals of my alone time, and it’s one of my favorite parts of those quiet hours.  Sometimes writing helps me sort my thoughts or see progress I’ve made as an individual and as a mom.  It’s a creative process demanding truth and thought.  It’s pleasure, and it works better without an interruption every two minutes.

So I’m alone, writing away, and content.  The file cabinet remains a disaster, dust piles up on the lamp to my right, and I’m fairly certain something in the dryer needs folding.   Ah well.  I’m alone, writing, and loving it.

Potatoes and Lesson Plans

After a week of delaying, I finally found my way to the vegetable garden which borders our back fence. Unstaked beefsteak tomato plants sprawled lazily, their fruit rotting against the earth as soon as it ripened. The grape tomatoes weathered their neglect much better, and the harvest was plenty. The beets are almost ready, as are the carrots, while the basil flowered weeks ago and has begun to seed. Greens and cucumbers are in the past, memories of our taste buds as August comes to a close

As I cleaned up the rotten tomatoes, a red potato peeked at me from the ground. I haven’t planted potatoes for at least two years, so these guys are a delightful surprise this summer. A few weeks back, I stumbled upon a lone cantaloupe, another volunteer thanks to a compost pile that doesn’t heat up enough to kill seeds. These finds make the weeds from the same compost pile entirely worth it. These are gifts from the earth, reminders of summers gone by. Numerous volunteer tomato plants grace the edges of the compost pile behind our garage, giving gifts freely without care from anyone.

From rich soil came surprises. Some of what I planted with purpose and planning made took root and flourished, but the some of the best came from sheer neglect. As another homeschooling “school year” begins in two days, I feel the panic to finish preparing, to find the materials that will cause the best fruit to grow in my children. I’m knee deep in lesson planning sheets (largely blank) and curriculum and rather certain that it won’t all come together by Tuesday. Fortunately, the soil around here is rich, and the boys continue to grow and learn, plans completed or not. They have quite a bit in common with our surprise potatoes.