Thursday, October 30, 2014

33/40 in 40: Know Your Weaknesses

33rd in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years.

We all have weaknesses, shortcomings, and blind spots. When I was younger I hadn't honed down my personality well enough to see them, though, and so I was always getting caught by them. Our major weaknesses are often described as strengths gone awry, and of course that's what mine are.

I like to learn and do new things. So I often fall prey to doing too many things. I volunteer and then realize I've overcommitted. I wish for the day when my no is just a gentle no thank you and my yes is a real yes that is well thought out and relaxed in its yesness. There are so many things I like to do and so many things, frankly, that I am passably good at. It's hard to say no. I am trying.

I love to talk and listen and converse and be friends. I'm an extreme extrovert. Not in the idea of life of the party crazy extrovert, but in a quieter, somewhat more demanding way. I need people around me and I need them all the time. And this can lead in two directions. Either I get nothing done because I stand around and chat, or the person I've caught in my web of talk dies of boredom or suffocation or oversharing. I try to catch the look in their eyes now and realize it's time to shut up, go home, go to bed, go back to work, whatever. But the next moment I can chat again, I do, but I try to keep in mind that these other people and I both have things to do. I am trying.

I love. I have recently been made aware of the fact that I am extraordinarily emotionally permeable. I pick up on other people's emotions and, if I'm not careful, I make them my own. People talk about boundaries and I can't even figure them out (I'm an ENFJ and I'm told this is the reason why). I try and fail to establish and maintain boundaries for myself--I'm great with boundaries for my kids, for instance, but not for me. This lets me live life in a dangerously invigorating close-knit honest crazy damaging way. I have learned that I gain energy from other people, that I kind of feed off people's happiness and sadness and being in touch with what other people around me are doing, feeling, and thinking is the only way I can live without becoming extremely depressed and disconnected. But it's dangerous and it can be a trap--so I'm learning to keep a net between me and other people. Not a bubble. A net. I've learned the weakness and I'm trying to work around it. I'm trying.

It's taken a long time to come to terms with these things, along with other ones that are more minor but definitely present (I have a somewhat addictive personality; I need affirmation more than I should; I have a great sense of humor that gets me in trouble; I like bad boys; I get bored easily; I let my mouth get me in trouble, sometimes even on purpose). It's not easy to admit that you're flawed, somewhat deeply, in several ways. But I like to think of these things as one side of the coin. None of them is bad, really--it's not like I torture cats or use heroin or something--they just go along with my crooked teeth (how can they be MORE crooked now?) and my messy house. They make things small doses.

Tame it down, Bridge, tame it down.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

32/40 in 40: You are a role model

32nd in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: You're a role model even if you don't want to be.

I was sitting at my aunt Gracemarie's table. When I think about all the time I spent sitting at her table in college as a poor forlorn college student, I realize she was a role model for me. Her table is part of why I have my table. But that's not what I'm saying about role models. I was sitting at her table and she was asking about my plans with Jake, getting married, planning a wedding. And she got off on a tangent about her own son's hasty wedding to his pregnant girlfriend, which was one of those "happily after all" kind of situations. They're fine. But she brought up a mutual cousin, who was about 10 years older than I was, older than her kids. Kyle and his girlfriend had lived together for over a year before deciding to get married.

And Gracemarie was angry about this story. She was angry because, well, she is very conservative on many fronts, but also because Kyle and Natalie were people her kids had looked up to. She felt as though they should have guarded their personal lives better, or ideally, not shacked up before they got married. There was a vague accusation in the monologue: Kyle and Natalie's disregard for our family's moral standards had made it easier for her son and his girlfriend to disregard them. And then everyone else.

I left that conversation, twenty years old, a little confused. Kyle and Natalie were not my role models, since I was on the fringe of my extended families. Gracemarie's son could have made better, wiser choices. Were Kyle and Natalie really part of his decision making process?

As I've gotten older, though, I realize that I show up as a role model in a variety of places I wouldn't have expected. My girl scout troop, for instance. My classroom. I see myself as a bit of an unhip boring white chick with crooked teeth and 30 extra pounds. Surely no 8th grade girl (or boy) looks at me and thinks about their future lives.

Then I thought about Donna Peacock. About Joe Weber. Br. Stephen. Coach Viers. Unlikely people who were role models in ways they never could have seen back when I was 12 and 13 years old.

I sit in my living room and watch Troy watch me parent. I sit at a table on a girl scout field trip and watch the girls watch me and my coleaders talk about our lives. I listen to my sister-in-law talk about coming to my house when she was in college and how the house and the people in it were a kind of home for her.

What I do is important. How I am is important, even if it's only a vague notion in the back of Jack's mind when he gets to Marquette or Loyola and thinks about my stories of Jesuit universities and where they led me. Even if it's just Iris or Bree or Eliza realizing that one's shortcomings do not have to hold you back. Even if it's just a niece or cousin somewhere along the line who chooses to get an apartment in the city or breastfeed or think about school choice or start a garden.

I laugh loud. I talk a lot. I drink coffee and linger and say four-letter words more than the typical role model. But even though I don't think about myself that way, I am a role model. And I better pay attention.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

31/40 in 40: Take Time

31st in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Take Time.

The hardest moment as a teacher is the pause between asking a hard question and getting the answer. It's so hard, almost impossible, for me to wait. To live in that moment of not knowing. I want to give them the answer, but they only learn if I wait. I have to take time and know that they are doing the work they need to do.

The hardest moment as a parent is taking the long view. So many things I want for my kids and want to share with my kids and want my kids to do, and I have to remember that they don't have to all happen right now. Ease into it. Don't hurry it all up.

The hardest thing about being married to Jake is that he understands how to take time and I don't. He often quotes Sports Night, "There's nothing a woman likes better than making a nice little list." I like to plan. I like to have things scheduled and decided. I don't like having things up in the air. I don't like wasting time.

Except that I do like that. Every time I do take time, whether at the table or in the car or living room or friend's house or classroom, it is right. Sometimes it's magical.

I have to remember that life ain't only supply and demand, as Amos Lee sings. It's why there are corporal works of mercy AND spiritual works of mercy. We need to feed the hungry but we also need to spend time with them. And allow them to spend time with us. We need to satisfy that hungry heart as much as meet those basic needs. We don't live here as consumers and producers. We live here as people.

Live gets busy. It's easy to lose sight of long summer evenings on the porch, of winter afternoons with tea at the table, and just want to get it all done. I remember going to church meetings years ago that started with prayer and being frustrated by the time we were wasting. As if he could read my mind, the pastor pointed out that prayer before meeting never, in his experience, lengthened the meeting overall in the end. Putting our minds and hearts in the right place, spending a moment breathing in this space together as companions before getting down to business actually made the business easier to do.

Recently I'm finding that turning forty or having too many obligations or simply having several health problems come up at once means my time is short and I am often exhausted. I told friends the other day that I'm realizing I can do three things in a given day, and one of those things must be teach. I can drive kids to soccer and make dinner; I can go to the store and clean the kitchen. I can't do all four of those things any more in a day.

I almost listed I could choose to make dinner and talk with a friend until I realized that talking with a friend costs me nothing. Taking time with another person costs me nothing from an energy point of view. I have to keep taking time.

Reading over this project, I am realizing that I keep talking about cutting tomatoes and sitting at my kitchen table. Sitting on the porch chatting with a friend. It reads like that's all I do--stand around and chat, waste time with other people while things need to be done. Mary vs. Martha again. And it sounds ridiculous.

Except that it's true.

Gonna waste some time with you
And let this world go
Keep my heart idle

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

30/40 in 40: Sing

30th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years. Sing.

I sing. I don't have a great voice but I sing anyway. Just like I'm not the best artist but I draw and paint and fool around with different media anyway. Just like I'm not the best writer but I just keep writing.

I have to sing. Whether it's the Dead's "Brokedown Palace" played on repeat in my car after my aunt died, or U2's "One" sung too loud and too angry when I came to the decision it was time break up with Johnny from high school. Amos Lee's "Windows are Rolled Down" with tears falling down my cheeks, my own windows rolled down, heading somewhere in the middle of the night that I'm not sure I want to be heading to but I find myself caught up in it all again and again.

I go to a Catholic church where people sing, which isn't every Catholic church out there. I sing my heart out at mass on Sundays. At my school, also Catholic, my middle school students aren't as interested in singing. So I sing anyway. Not planning to stop.

I sing in the car, sometimes mortifying my 13 year old. I sing along with friends who don't care if they can sing either. I've sat at my kitchen table with not enough left in the bottle, singing "Life by the Drop" and realizing it maybe was starting to be about me and the young man sitting next to me. And singing it anyway. There's always tomorrow, the reckoning.

God it's good to be here walking together my friend.

My aunt Maria died in 2006. She had a rare genetic muscular atrophy and had been in a nursing home since the late 80s. She died the week of that freak storm that knocked power out all over St. Louis. Her home parish had no power, so we had the funeral at the little funeral home chapel. She had few contacts beyond family, and my cousin Amanda got up at the end to sing Amazing Grace. My friend Ann says you never do for your own--never sing at your family's events, funerals, weddings, any of it. It's too close at hand. And Amanda couldn't do it.

But we could, together. Amanda. Chris. Kay. Me. My uncles, my father. All these voices sharing the same root, blended beautifully together without ever having to practice. I left there thinking, we are made to sing together. Sisters, cousins, aunts. Our voices belong together.

We should all sing.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

29/40 in 40: Pray

My new-found faith/my broken heart: 29th in a series of 40 things I've learned in these 40 years. Pray.

I'm a Catholic. I'm a Benedictine Oblate. I teach in a Catholic school and I go to mass pretty regularly and pick up the Christmas trees each December to put in church and I have been on my knees in front of that altar alone in that beautiful church, not knowing where else to turn.  But I'm not alone.

Tonight, a Jesuit I follow on Facebook posted a picture that had this simple message in it: the thing you seek is what's making you seek.

God keeps pulling me in.

Gretchen says she's been following my faith life/journey for a long time, and finds it fascinating. I can't step outside this time and see it that way. She talks about seizures and hyper-religiosity, and I think about gift.

That's what an oblate is, after all. That's what the word means. Gift.

I have to think about it as a gift, the nagging thoughts in the back of my head, the same ones that tell me I should floss more or read to my kids, they tell me to pray.

I've never been a fan of memorized prayers, and many of them I simply don't know. My colleagues know them and I listen to their beautiful words, but they do not sink in. What's the one that goes o sweet o clement virgin Mary? I just don't know. They are lovely but they aren't my prayers. I can't even manage the new English translations of the creed. I still get tripped up on the God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God (we mention God twice, which heresy were we trying to squash?).

But I'm a Catholic. Some of them are in my head, and the mass ritual is one long prayer, of course, one I cannot find my way around.

But I'm an oblate, and there's something about compline that resonates at just the right vibration in my soul. I was a Benedictine before I had a word for it.

But I'm bone-crushingly busy, so I often stand with Anne Lamont. The three prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow. My Help is always cautious. My Thanks is always intertwined with Wow. And I keep in my heart her other words, so much a prayer: the three things I cannot change are the past, the truth, and you. The past, the truth, and you. The past, the truth, and you.

I pray to saints. I love St. Anthony and St. Rita and of course I wear that Benedictine medal around my neck. St. Drogo is important to my everyday life. I pray to people I hope are saints, like Dorothy Day and people no one sees.

I think about the sentiment behind Just For Today, and I often remind myself that I CAN'T, but God CAN, so I think I will let that happen.

And in the end, I've marked these prayers in my heart and on my skin in black ink:  

Let them be. 
It's fine. 
You can sleep in the hayloft.
Don't give up. 

The reminders and the prayers and the words bleed out of me without end.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

28/40 in 40: Build Family

28th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Build family. Rebuild it too.

Whatever the reasons, some clear and some obscured, I grew up without an extended family. We lived all over the country and came home to St. Louis for funerals and the occasional Christmas. I did not hang with cousins during long summers of grandmothers taking care of kids while mothers worked. I did not learn from aunts and uncles, I did not babysit younger cousins. I didn't know the good stuff and I didn't know the hard stuff. I was on the outside.

And it was fine. I mean that. It was fine. I had plenty of friends and babysitters and family friends. It was fine.

I moved to South City as a young adult, just out of college, newly married. We bought our house early in our marriage because we knew we wanted to get that started before we were saddled with kids, I mean blessed with kids, and had a harder time affording it. Lots of luck landed us on our block, which gradually filled with other young families. Many of them had close family ties, but many of them did not.

We became each others' extended families. Our children became each others' cousins and part-time siblings. We adults became grown-up cousins and, I believe for some, adult siblings. We said truthful things to each other that usually friends don't say. We babysat when mom was in the hospital and dad was freaking out. We shared garden produce and had barbecues and drank too much and told each other how important they were. We built family.

Concurrently, my cousin moved into the neighborhood a few blocks away. She had twins and wanted to breastfeed. Guess who knew about breastfeeding and was able to help out with that? I babysat some during the summertime. Then her mom died. I was a bigger mess than I felt necessary, considering that I hadn't grown up with family. But I was kind of a mess, and I started seeking out connection with my other two living aunts. We went out a few times with my sisters and cousin and my mom (other side of the family). I heard the stories I hadn't lived. My sisters shared some of ours.

We started to rebuild family.

Facebook helped more than you might think. I could stay in touch with an aunt whose husband has early-onset alzheimers and whose son is on the autism spectrum (and therefore, ya know, she's kinda busy). I can keep track of cousins and chime in when things like shootings happen in our neighborhood. Right now a cousin is exhibiting the same symptoms of the thyroid condition I am constantly battling. It helps me stay in touch and offer advice and commiserate.

I am constantly intertwining myself into new roles as well. When Troy introduced me in the bar to those union guys as “this is the mom I wish I'd had” it made them see me with new eyes and, frankly, see myself with new eyes as well.

Family is what you choose. It doesn't matter whose blood is mixed with whose. But there is something special about looking across your pint and seeing the same eyes looking back at you. Build it. Rebuild it. You won't regret it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

27/40 in 40: Keep Learning

27th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Keep Learning

My tagline over there says I like to learn. And I do. I love to learn new things and try my hand at them. For a long time my job description on Facebook was Jill of All Trades, because I was (now I'm a Roustabout, long story, remember the Carnivale?).

I love learning about how one, if one cared to, might lay concrete on an overnight pour on the Blanchette Bridge. I love to read about and then listen for regional dialect in a friend's speech patterns (and then blend them into my own speech). I like finding out about the history of street names in my city, or how to knit a cable sweater. The rules of grade school volleyball. How different countries express linear equations.

I have a collection of untranslatable words. I know how to tie-dye. I know where to buy cigars in St. Louis (although I wouldn't). I know a little sign language, a little Spanish, a little more Russian. I self-diagnosed myself with Hashimoto's Syndrome before the doctor did. I know a lot about quilting. A lot, actually—the how-to and the history and identification and so forth. I know quilts. I can french-braid your hair and make a pesto cream sauce and tell you the history of the doberge cake.

It makes me a good team player at trivia nights, and a good writer of trivia nights, frankly, because I have lots of things to draw from and learn at the same time (medical mnemonics and national parks and architectural trends of the 19th century and airport abbreviations? No problem!). It does not help me make a ton of money, it does not make me a better friend, it does not make me a good person. But it makes life fun.

I want to know more about fly fishing and forest ranger jobs and fault lines and I have internet friends I could go to for that. If I ever chose to move forward with writing and consider publishing, I have people to learn from. Right now I'm considering, very strongly, getting my high school math certification. So I'm reteaching myself trigonometry and then will do that with calculus. (Khan Academy is awesome).

Life is short and I want to know stuff and do stuff while I'm here. I don't want to just consume and be done with it. I want to create and learn and do. I like to learn. I think when you stop learning? You stop living.