Apparently I Am Destroying Civilization

A recent Pew Research analysis revealed that 40% of U.S. households now have a female breadwinner. As you can see, Lou Dobbs and Friends over at Fox News don’t take this news well:

At first, I felt a little offended by the clip. After all, I am a woman and the breadwinner of my family. But then I realized that they say absolutely nothing about me or my family situation at all. For them, there seem to be only two kinds of families: a nuclear family with a male breadwinner, which is inherently healthy and stable, and dysfunctional families with impoverished single mothers and absent fathers. (You should also watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, of all people, take these guys to task on that point, in this epically awesome smackdown.)

The “analysis” of Dobbs and his buddies completely bypasses the salient point, clearly articulated in the PEW findings, that the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: “5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.” The jumbled, fallacy-ridden exchange skates over that distinction straight into apocalypse land, where the family is disintegrating, children are endangered, and men (or at least their balls) are nowhere to be found. There is no room whatsoever in their discussion for a man who chooses to be underemployed or forego employment altogether to be more present at home, because their notion of familial health depends upon a narrow, capitalist conception of masculinity: a man is someone who takes care of his family by making money.

Such assumptions about masculinity are rife in the Fox News clip – men have a “natural” or God-given role to protect, provide, be dominant, etc., and that is interpreted in exclusively economic terms; the definition of the Protector/Provider has become synonymous with earning a paycheck outside the home. Yet these talking heads seem oblivious that what they are defending as the “natural state” of humankind (nuclear family + male breadwinner) is a relatively modern, post-industrial invention.

Their high-pitched anxiety is not about what women are doing, but what men aren’t doing. In the world of Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson there seems to be no space for families or men who choose to “lean out” of the workplace and into the home, who resist the contemporary American myth of material wealth and happiness as correlative.

I’d like to add another talking man-head to the conversation — one perhaps worth listening to — who sees the domestic sphere radically different than Dobbs et al: Wendell Berry. Just this week, I read his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – an essay that ambitiously tackles a range of Big Ideas, from technology to capitalism to the sexual revolution. He raises enough fodder for twenty blog posts, easily, but I want to discuss the section in which he advocates the need for men and women to revalue the domestic sphere:

“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery [or house-husbandry!] of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise. […]

I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that “employment outside the home” is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called “quality time,” but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value.”

Berry is describing a fundamental shift in values here, where domesticity becomes central, rather than tangential, to the identity of both men and women, and the work of home-making and child-rearing is given comparable “dignity” to outside work that rakes in the dough. Of course many people, myself included, find their job outside the home to be very meaningful and satisfying, but I agree with Berry that employment within the home is significantly undervalued in our society, and that needs to change.

In my reading of Berry, it doesn’t matter who makes the money; the money is not ear-marked as “his” or “hers.” The prominence of the “breadwinner” role is displaced by what one might call the “breadmakers,” husbands and wives who both work to make their home stable, loving, productive — whether or not they are also employed beyond the home.

julian in grass

Backyard baby.

A couple of days ago, Michael and I began talking about the possibility of him continuing to be a stay-at-home dad. We were sitting outside on our back patio, steaks on the grill, baby wiggling on a blanket on the grass, a light wind blowing through with the promise of summer. It was an idyllic moment, and I happened to be paying attention – enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful.

Then, a thought occurred to me: if Michael and I were both working full-time, this moment wouldn’t be happening. He probably wouldn’t be home yet, and I’d be throwing something easy and boring together for dinner (my culinary skills are stunted at best). We’d have only a small window of time together before putting the baby down for the night. The fresh greens on my plate and the abundant backyard garden around us wouldn’t exist, because Michael wouldn’t have time to maintain them. Our life would be significantly different than it is now and has been for months.

It has always been the plan for Michael to start applying for teaching jobs again and go back to work in the fall. But suddenly I feel the need to ask, why? Why mess with something that seems to be working for us?

Of course, it’s not easy to shirk societal values. It’s scary to choose the option that gives us minimal savings, less financial security, less status. And it’s certainly Michael who is making the more subversive choice, who will have to routinely and awkwardly field the question, “So, what do you do?” The myths about masculinity so apparent in the Fox clip are arguably more intact than cultural myths about femininity. We’re accustomed to the mother who works outside the home, but not the father who chooses to work only within it – a reality acknowledged by the Pew Research findings:

While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.

Of course, Michael and I are privileged in the sense that living on one income is a viable option for us. According to the Pew Study, the median family income of married female breadwinners is $80,000 annually; I make just over half of that, but that is still enough to get by on, if we choose to live simply and forego middle class luxuries like eating out, going on vacation, owning a second car, and buying new clothes, cable TV, magazine subscriptions, etc.

leaning out

John & Michael: Dudes leaning out

I know that Michael and I aren’t the only ones wrestling with these decisions. I have many friends who are choosing to “lean out” – and some of them are men. My friend who sent me the Fox News clip, John Meindersee II, recently made the choice to work part-time in the service industry in order to be more present to his family and to invest in his “cottage industry” of designing board game apps. No doubt he could be making more money working full-time in the financial sector, where he’s worked before, but he and his wife, Caity, are deliberately choosing to live by a different set of values.

And just yesterday, coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers, Deja Earley, wrote about her family’s decision to leave her husband’s job behind and relocate across the country in order to pursue a more flexible, family-centered vision of The Good Life – even though this puts them in a more precarious position financially.

We are all new parents, we all have small babies, and we are all circling around the same questions: How to be more present to our children and loved ones? How to make a home? How to live a full life?

So maybe the talking heads are right. Maybe the social order is being undermined – not because there are more female breadwinners, but because some young families are abandoning the paradigm of the breadwinner altogether. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Advertisements

A Misfit’s Guide to Mediocre Blogging

blogging

Multi-tasking.

“I’m tired.”

Just now, after spending about thirty minutes getting Julian to fall asleep for the night, I turned on the kettle to make some tea, sat down on the couch, and typed those two words.

“I’m tired.”

Then, right on cue, as if he could sense that I was on the verge of productivity, Julian started crying, and I went back in to soothe him to sleep again.

What a perfect little microcosm of what my life is like at the moment. I’m all over the place. If writing happens at all, it happens in fragments between the napping and feeding and cleaning and folding and diapering and bathing and baby-entertaining.

This post, in fact, is emerging from the primordial ooze of notes that I tapped out one-handed on my iPhone in the dark with a half-asleep baby suctioned on one boob. That is what writing looks like for me these days. That is what life looks like.

My college roommate used to give me grief about being an “overachiever,” an accusation that rankled me at the time, but I’ve recently realized that she was totally right. She had me pegged. I’m an overachiever – a condition that is fundamentally at odds with the reality of parenthood.

I’ve been running myself into the ground the past few weeks, trying and mostly failing to do dozens of things at once — to be, simultaneously, a stellar mama/writer/wife/professor/blogger/homemaker. I’m in the throes of my second head cold in only two weeks. My left eyelid has been twitching for three days straight. I’m ragged.

Ergo, I’ve decided to make some changes. First, I’m going to train my hair to go several days between washes, so it will hopefully be less obvious when I don’t have time to shower. And, second: I’m going to become a mediocre blogger. On purpose.

By that I mean that I’m no longer going to painstakingly follow the 10 Commandments of Successful Blogging (of which there are only, actually, 5).

Commandments #1 and #2: Post 2-3 times a week. Post only on weekday mornings.* 

(*Because apparently only weirdos like me do most of their online reading on nights and weekends.)

This is probably my one chance in life to be a despot, so I might as well take it. Instead of holding myself to a specific number of posts for week, or specific topics, I’m going to write whatever I want to write, whenever I feel like writing it.

I can’t post 2-3 times a week. Let’s be real. My life is too unpredictable and chaotic. And sometimes, when I actually get a baby-free, work-free moment, I don’t feel like writing. Instead, I might feel like watching British crime drama from the 90s, courtesy of Netflix. (Plots were so much more thrilling when no one had a cell phone and everyone had a terrible haircut.)

No blogging schedule for me. I want to write when inspired, and when I have the time and energy to craft something meaningful. I need to give myself permission to take breaks from the blog when I need to, when life demands it of me, without feeling guilty or panicked that my readership will suddenly disappear.

Commandment #3: Find your “niche” and stick with it.

Ugh, the dreaded niche.

If a wry mommy blog married an ambivalent feminist blog in a Quaker church with an irreverent priest officiating, and a scattering of academics and celebrity gossip columnists in attendance, this blog would be the strange progeny of that union.

I used to worry a lot about this niche thing. When I wrote about being a mama, I worried that I’d alienate my readers who aren’t parents. When I wrote about feminism, I’d worry that I’d alienate the mommy crowd. When I wrote about faith, I worried that I’d alienate the feminists. And so on.

So I guess my niche is not having a niche. My blog is all over the map, because I am all over the map. I don’t feel like I belong to any one camp. None of the labels quite fit. But you know what I’ve realized? That’s probably true for many of my readers. Here we are, wandering through life, never feeling like we quite belong anywhere, and the irony is that the people around us, the ones who seem so secure in their identities and tribal affiliations — well, they probably feel like misfits, too.

I am a misfit. This is a misfit blog. The misfit blog of a despot who will write about whatever she wants and post on a Sunday evening if she feels like it.

I might write about baby poop. I might write about sexism. I might write about how depressing it is to shop for a swimsuit after having a baby. I might write about how The Bachelor is weirdly like a modern retelling of the biblical book of Esther. I might write about how I used to love my cats, but now they mostly annoy me, because my house feels like it’s teeming with whiny creatures who NEED something from me ALL THE TIME.

This is Mama Unabridged, right? Time to un-abridge myself.

Commandment #4: Promote your blog on social media.

Bleccch. This is the worst rule. The most effective, I’ll admit, but also the most soul-killing. My relationship with social media is truly love/hate. I love that it enables me to connect with interesting people and ideas, but I hate that it makes me feel like I’m in junior high again, awakening long-dormant anxieties about popularity and appearance and achievements and being part of the “in” crowd.

I have a Facebook page for this blog, and I occasionally post interesting links or anecdotes on there, but I honestly don’t do much, because I don’t want to be annoying. I know the Blogging Commandments say I should be blowing up your newsfeed with awesomeness multiple times a day, but, well, I’m too busy trying to find time to drink the cup of coffee that I have now reheated NINE TIMES since this morning. So…

Twitter is the worst. Most of the time on Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to myself in a crowded restaurant. Sometimes Twitter is interesting and useful. Sometimes it just triggers my outsider complex, which is why it can be helpful to buffer my tweets. (If you don’t know what that means, buy yourself a congratulatory drink and vow NEVER TO FIND OUT – just rest assured it is not something dirty, even though it sounds vaguely like Scottish sexual harassment. “Come on, luv, let ol’ Seamus buffer your tweets…”)

Long story short: I’ll keep using social media, but in sporadic intervals, with regular Sabbaths in between. I’ll do cameos. I’ll be that unpredictable sitcom neighbor who might burst through the door at any time, make a few wisecracks, and then disappear again.

Commandment #5: Write well.

I’m going to break all the other rules, but this one I’ll just bend. Being a mediocre blogger doesn’t mean I can’t be a good writer. I’ll keep the goal of writing well, with the caveat that sometimes I won’t. Sometimes, like right now, I’m just going to write crap and then post it. There is no muse here. There is only mucus and toilet paper – because, yes, I’m one of those people who views actual Kleenex as an extravagance.

But, in all seriousness, this is the only rule I care about. What I love about blogging is that it keeps me writing regularly, and it enables me to connect, even momentarily, with all sorts of people who—for whatever reason—resonate with what I write. That’s pretty cool. So, I’ll try to write interesting things for you to read. And sometimes I’ll succeed.

And now I’m going to break one last commandment by refusing to end this post with anything inspiring or poignant. Instead, I’m just going to end with a video of my baby laughing because his dad is waving dirty socks in his face. You’re welcome.

Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down

Last week I wrote an article for The Atlantic about feminism’s PR problem. Within a day or two, a rundown of my article popped up on The Spearhead, a publication with ties to the MRA (men’s rights activist) movement.  (If you’re unfamiliar with MRAs, feel free to read several different takes from The Good Men Projecthere and here and here.)

misogyny —> sad face.

The MRA movement has a fairly significant online presence and their antifeminism tends to manifest as blatant, hateful misogyny on the so-called “manosphere.” The Spearhead article itself, to be fair, is pretty straightforward and neutral in tone. While the author clearly hates feminism, he takes no potshots at me personally, even discussing his own parallel discomfort with the MRA label, which was interesting to read.

The comment thread, however, quickly derailed into an ad feminem feeding frenzy, exhibiting the woman-hating rhetoric that is so characteristic of the men’s rights movement.

I came across all this for the first time while breastfeeding Julian to sleep—he is a leisurely eater at night, so I sometimes resort to perusing the web on my iPhone. Being in this peaceful, banal setting made it all the more bizarre to suddenly stumble upon a slew of hateful words about me from a bunch of strangers. Here is a sampling, for your viewing pleasure (warning — strong language ahead):

Seriously, what type of mangina would want to marry a woman like this?

Never underestimate the cunning of women. To see women as children, unlikely to accept responsibility, is wise.

She’s an attention whore.

PR problem? Honey, you ain’t seen a thing, yet. Wait ’till MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way – an MRA separatist movement] starts to really bite, and all those cock carousel riders with their worthless “wimmen’s studies” degrees not only can’t find a beta to wife them up, but thanks to the economy they can’t find a job, either… It will only hurt more in the years to come. Squeal, you pigs, squeal…

Most men now know what a bunch male hating parasites women have always been … Seriously women, you didnt know have to burn your underwear to let us know how useless women are …

[Her students] are just sissies who have to put on their big girl panties. They are only seeking attention because once they left high school and got into the real world, they suddenly find out they can’t always have it all and their own way.

My take is that she’s just another fucked up idiot.

One commenter appeared oddly fascinated with me personally and linked to this blog for more fodder. He quoted extensive excerpts from my most recent entry, imposing a bizarre narrative onto the snapshot of my life I discussed. My husband became “Mikey, the poor schlub,” a “beta schmuck” who I married, because I couldn’t keep around an “Alpha bad-boy.” He attempts to paint me simultaneously as a feminist extremist and a right-wing religious “Churchian” who would pal around with the likes of Mark Driscoll and Glenn Stanton. (I’m sure Driscoll would be surprised hear that we are compatriots!) When I step back, it is actually fascinating to see him flounder to bring these two facile stereotypes into anything resembling a coherent narrative.

Initially—I’ll be honest—I was thrown off-balance after reading all this venom targeted toward me. I felt particularly disconcerted by the blog invasion, as if some weirdo with a grudge had broken into my house and taken a big shit on my couch. Of course, it was completely naïve for me to harbor the illusion (even subconsciously) that my blog is a private, personal space – it might be personal, but it’s online and open to any reader, including my charming MRA fanbase, and it’s been good for me to realize the full ramifications of that.

As I read these comments, my feeling of disorientation soon gave way to righteous indignation. I could feel my passion for feminism being rekindled, an irony that amused me. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, the malicious MRA types are often their own worst enemies. Their very existence fans the flames of what they most despise (feminism), while their overt hatred keeps them mostly on the fringes of culture, in an online “underground.”

manginas

manginas, plotting

That night, some of my dear friends and colleagues, who happen to be men, came over to hang out with Michael and me (sorry, guys, but being my friends probably means you are “manginas,” too). We spent a good portion of the evening brainstorming an epic blog entry that would skewer the MRAs! and rally the troops against sexism! We came up with some great ideas, and I sat down tonight intending to write that post.

Now that I’m here, however, I’m finding myself writing in another direction. While perusing various MRA articles and blogs over the past couple of days, I’ve come across some of the stories of these men, which typically involve broken marriages and families being torn apart, like, for example, the story of W.F. Price, the guy who wrote The Spearhead piece (who, again, wasn’t malicious toward me, although he does lapse into misogynist rhetoric elsewhere). For some of these men, perhaps many of them, their rage springs from deep pain. Feminism, painted in broad, clumsy strokes, gives them an adversary, something they can blame, something that can explain the implosion of their personal lives. And apparently, for many, the rage goes beyond feminism to womankind writ large.

But as I read these stories, my anger dissipated. I treasure my son’s close bond with his father; I can fathom the agony of being separated from one’s children and, not knowing whether these separations are justified or not, this gives me a point of connection with these men – one they would no doubt deny, but one that’s nonetheless hard for me to overlook. I began to realize that their nasty comments aren’t really about me at all. They have no idea who I am or how I really view the world. I was just their rhetorical punching bag of the moment, some faceless feminist on which to project their own fury and pain.

As I’ve processed this through writing, the power of the hate-fueled words has vanished. I don’t feel the need to skewer the MRAs – instead, I mostly just want to leave them alone, to let them stew in their manosphere and blow off steam. And another part of me wishes I could somehow dialogue with them, if I could find one or two willing to actually talk to me. I’m not trying to justify or exonerate the displays of misogynist words or attitudes, or play into the woman-bashing victim mentality. I’m just trying to remember that human beings are complex, and although it would be very easy for me to impose my own simplistic narrative onto all MRAs, and to attempt to dehumanize them, I don’t want to return the favor. Weird as it may sound, I want to humanize them. I want to see them as people.

More than that, I don’t want to unwittingly play a part in their “war of the sexes” script. Increasingly I am convinced that a primary hurdle to gender equality is the pervasive, entrenched notion that gender is a “zero sum game,” that men and women are perpetually at odds, that if one is winning the other is losing, that if one has power, the other is a victim. The “men’s rights” mentality feeds this dynamic, as do some of the more divisive and vitriolic camps of feminism  – which, by the way, is a fragmented rather than monolithic entity.

For me, feminism has never been about tearing men down. I first encountered feminism in the classroom of a male professor, and I’ve always known men who are proud feminists. Moreover, the two most precious beings in my life happen to be male. I want my son to live in a world where he is encouraged and allowed to reach his full potential; I just don’t believe that has to happen at the expense of girls and women.

Sometimes the best reminder of something is to encounter its inverse, to be shown its absence. My little foray into the MRA world has, somewhat paradoxically, given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the men in my life. While it’s important to be aware that this sort of blatant hatred of exists, it is also nice to be reminded that that’s not where I live; those aren’t the men that I know.

The men I know are real men. Strong and good men. Men who love and respect the women in their lives, and who are loved and respected in return. And they certainly don’t fit the facile “beta-male” straw man the MRAs love to construct. The men in my life are a diverse bunch: some are atheists and skeptics, some are conservative Christians and Mormons, some have high-powered careers, some are at-home dads, some are wealthy, most are not; introverts, extroverts, pacifists, sports fanatics, fathers, husbands, bachelors, gay men, straight men, liberals, republicans, vegans, hunters – these are not cookie cutter men. But there is one trait they do share: these men aren’t threatened by women’s success; their sense of identity and power is not dependent upon mastery or dominance. They don’t hide out on the Internet and take potshots at mommy bloggers.

Their masculinity is not so precarious, so fragile, that they must tear down women to feel like men.

I won’t let these bastards grind me down, because, honestly, they are doing a good job of grinding themselves down. And the good men in my life overshadow them.

Even if some MRAs find this blog post and, reading it through their misogynist filters, proceed to throw Molotov cocktails in the comments – that’s okay. Because I get to shut my laptop and revel in a life that is filled with love. An ordinary life, but one with an undercurrent of quiet joy. When I finish this post I will go into the bedroom to nurse my baby boy, to enter a perfect moment that is played over again each night. Right now, he’s sleeping next to his father, and I will get to curl up between their warm bodies and sleep, too. And that reality is something that no online thread can touch.

fatherhood is beautiful.

good men.

A Letter to My Younger Self on Her Graduation Day

Photo Apr 30, 3 21 34 PM

Me, before facebook was invented

Today’s a big day. You’re walking across campus toward the gym, toward the abrupt end of the familiar path you’ve been walking for years. This is what you’ve prepared for; this is the finish line that has glimmered on the horizon through all those years of schooling and dreaming. Today’s agenda is crammed, but tomorrow will open into the wild unknown.

Who will I be? Whom will I love? Where will I land? How will I make my mark?

You’re worried about a lot of things – trust me, I know – even though you’re trying to play it cool under that thin black robe. You are surprised at its flimsiness; you thought it would feel more substantial on your shoulders. You thought this day would feel more substantial, too, but it’s already gliding by.

You’ve smuggled a pen and a crossword puzzle torn from today’s Oregonian inside your sleeve, a visible sign that this ceremony is SO not a big deal to you. The puzzle is a lie, of course, an attempt to give your mind a red herring, to distract it from anxieties that buzz around your eyes like gnats.

You are worried about love. 

This makes you feel pathetic, and like a complete failure as a feminist, but it’s true nonetheless. You’ve fallen in love fairly recently. It’s a risky, fragile love, one sprung from the ruins of last year’s epic heartbreak, when you were emotionally decimated and had to pull yourself out of despair with several rounds of anti-depressants.

That heartbreak is still alive for you. The love dried up, but the taste of rejection remains in your mouth, at the back of your throat. You’re worried it will never leave, but I promise it will. You’ll gradually forget this guy who broke your heart. Not too far in your future, you’ll stop thinking of him entirely – aside from that occasional fantasy that you randomly run into him, on a day you look particularly a-mazing, and have a chance to tell him what a wonderful life you have now. You want him to know that he never really broke you. Which is true. He didn’t.

Photo Apr 30, 4 03 10 PM

Youths in love, amidst existential crises

And now this second love has appeared, even though you are still reeling. I admit, it’s hardly the formula for a healthy, lasting relationship: you’re on the rebound, and he’s in the throes of an existential crisis, living in a Portland townhouse with a bunch of other guys, who are also in the throes of existential crises. Everyone’s looking for answers at the bottom of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No one is showering regularly. It’s a bit of a mess.

He is a man at sea, and you’re on the shoreline, beckoning – trying not to look too desperate.

You’re supposed to go to France at the end of summer, to teach English to bitchy French youths in Rouen for a year. You’re supposed to set out on this adventure solo, untethered to anyone. But, secretly, you’re already thinking of not going, even though you won’t admit this to yourself – and certainly not to him.

Well, I like spoilers, so I’ll tell you what happens. You give up France for him. And it might surprise you to find out that, in a little over a year, you marry this guy. He gets over his existential crisis (for the most part) and starts showering regularly (for the most part). And even though it seems like a recipe for disaster right now, things turn out really well. Beautifully, in fact. You are grotesquely happy together. And you make cute babies.

After you get married, people will ask, “So how do you like being married?” And you’ll be unsure how to answer, because although you love being married to Michael, you also now realize how hellish married life could be if you had entangled yourself with the wrong person. You’ll think about the guy before Michael, how miserable you’d make each other, and you’ll feel strangely grateful that he broke your heart.

You are worried about God.

Or, more accurately, you’re worried about Not God. You’re worried about God’s absence.

Doubt is a source of fear and guilt for you right now, I know. Your faith was once like a completed Jenga game, a tower of smooth wooden blocks that fit perfectly together, no spaces between or unfinished tiers. This tower did not move – but neither did it breathe. It stood tall, but precariously so; if the wind came through, the blocks would be scattered. So you’ve had to keep the windows locked up tight.

This was faith for you – until you arrived at college, where someone said: Open the windows. Let the air in. Breathe.

You grew up confusing faith with certainty, and now that the certainty is gone, you are worried your faith has self-immolated in a final, futile protest.

I want to offer you some comfort. You’ll realize this for yourself in a couple of years, but I’ll go ahead and tell you now: this is not a real death. This is a rebirth. A startling bird of fire will rise up from those ashes. Your faith is in the midst of metamorphosis, unfurling from something rigid and immobile into something beautiful, mysterious, and uncaged.

You will grow to understand that to be human is to live in a state of unknowing, and the doubt you now fear is actually a vital dimension of your faith. 

You are worried about THE FUTURE.

Everybody is asking, “What’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” As if there is only one thing one does with one’s life. You don’t know how to answer that question, and that’s okay. You don’t have to know. You’ll do many things.

I’ll be honest, though. It will be hard to transition into post-college life, where you are not told, every three or four months, how well you are doing and how you should improve. You’ve been trained to live relentlessly looking forward; you’ve been taught to anchor yourself in the future, to root your self-worth in achievable goals and the approval of your parents, your pastors, your professors, your peers.

You have learned to live impatiently, anxiously waiting for that final moment of Arrival.

But it will never come. Or, what I mean to say is: that moment is always already here. This is it; you have arrived. Your “real life” doesn’t begin on the day you graduate, or the day you get married, or the day you become a mother for the first time. Those big moments are wonderful and exhilarating, but they flash and vanish. “Real life” is what happens in between.

If there is any piece of advice I can offer you, it is this (and I say this as much to myself as to you, because we still share many neuroses):

Don’t think of your life as a ladder to climb, rung by rung, toward an always-shifting terminus. Imagine a spiral, pinwheeling outward from the present moment, the murky past and the inchoate future swirling around you, inscrutable. You’re in the epicenter of that storm, and that is where you must learn to live, in the quiet eye of now.

Try, even just for today, your graduation day, to forget about the future entirely. Stop searching out there for that Holy Grail that will make you feel complete, because it’s actually right here, in the flickering light of the present. Look at your hands; you’re holding it already. Raise it high to toast what surrounds you before it all disappears, and take a long, soulful drink.

Then, go do that crossword.

Photo Apr 30, 3 23 03 PM

I’ve always had terrible taste in shoes.

 

What Would Captain Planet Do?

doreenA few years ago, when I was living in Scotland, I went to a psychic for a tarot card reading. Actually, I went twice, because the first attempt was a total flop. After staring deeply into my soul across a dingy card table for five solid minutes, the psychic told me she couldn’t see anything. I was blank. There was some sort of cosmic blockage.

She gave me my money back, suggested we reschedule, and I walked around for the rest of the day convinced that I was about to be hit by a bus – which, in the UK, is a very real possibility at any moment. Pedestrians beware.

I was in grad school at the time, in the throes of PhD research, and pretty much constantly plagued with doubt about whether or not I would ever score a tenure-track gig in a completely glutted job market. I was also working part-time in a little shop full of new age wonders, like enormous quartz phalluses and kitschy little books about angels by someone named Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.

It was in the tiny back room of this shop where I had the reading, from a local psychic who came in on Saturdays. I loosened up a bit on the second visit. I let my guard down, played along, and, unsurprisingly, she was full of insights into The Future. Not so much MY future, though; she mainly went on about my husband, how he would get a good job, be successful, how we would travel a lot (not a shocking leap, considering I was obviously an American living abroad). I kept waiting for her to get to the juicy details about my career prospects, but all that I can remember her saying about me is that:

1) I was an Egyptian man in a former life.

2) I was going to have three kids.

I’ll spare you the obvious commentary about how annoying it was that she assumed I was primarily concerned about Michael’s career. (Apparently she was not able to intuit the huge feminist chip on my shoulder.) I want to write about that last thing, her one prediction that’s stuck with me, the one about me having three kids.

You see, the truth is, I’ve always wanted to have three kids.

mash

Remember, O fellow children of the 80s, that charmingly heteronormative game MASH? In elementary school, when I played MASH at the back of the school bus with friends, I was thrilled whenever I managed to dodge the nightmarish scenario of having twenty children and living in a shack with someone TOTALLY GROSS, instead landing the utopian vision of marrying my cute crush-of-the-moment, living in a nice house, driving a jeep Cherokee (the dream car of my pubescent self), and having three children.

Three: the perfect number. A holy number. Or so it has seemed to me, the youngest of two, who always wished for another sibling below me on the totem pole.

Since having Julian, and discovering that I actually love being a mother most of the time, and I might even be sort of good at it, this Trinitarian vision of procreation has resurfaced. I daydream about us as a family of five, Julian as the caring older brother to two younger siblings. I picture a noisy dinner table, a house full of chaos and love.

Unfortunately, my reproductive plan has a slight hitch.

Maybe you also remember that movie 12 Monkeys? Where David Morse plays a scientist who attempts to purge the earth of human beings, because we’re pretty much just a bunch of parasites, sucking the life out of our planet? Well, there are some days when it’s not too much of a stretch for me to imagine that Michael could one day be that guy.

captain-planetMichael loves the earth. Maybe a little too much. He feels guilty every time he gets into a car. He is the reason we have a trash can that is a fraction of the size of our neighbors’ and yet never seems to get full. He is the reason we recycle. He is the reason we compost. I eat the organic vegetables he grows and the eggs from the chicks he raised, all on our little suburban plot. He weatherizes our house every winter; he installed a timer on our water heater; he programmed our thermostat to conserve energy. He convinced me to go with cloth diapers. While I love to take long, indulgent showers, Michael does that thing where he lathers up with the water off and only turns it on to rinse. Compared to the average American, he is Captain Planet (thankfully sans green mullet).

How does this relate to my baby dreams? Well, Michael is worried about overpopulation. Like, really worried. To the point where he feels that choosing to have more than two children would be morally wrong.

I have to admit that, although I understand his concerns on an intellectual level, I have a hard time not feeling exasperated at his dogged environmentalist principles – because, let’s be honest, whether we have one, two, or three children is not going to have any real cosmic impact. It’s only when you spiral things outward and say, “well, if everyone takes that approach…!” that you maybe get planetary doom and destruction.

Of course, this post isn’t really about tarot cards, or overpopulation. There’s another half-formed question lurking underneath all that, a question about how to live a simple, ordinary life as a finite being in a world that can swallow you whole with its brokenness.

Maybe you’ve heard of “disaster fatigue,” how people can only observe so much suffering before they experience a sense of paralysis or numbness, before they cope by not caring. I’m a master at this, particularly since becoming a mother. I shut things out. I disengage. I’ve written before about how I consciously avoid the news, even though that probably makes me a bad Citizen of the World. But I often feel a strong sense of moral obligation to dive back in, to educate myself on all the tragedies assailing humankind. Last week, I kept trying to force myself to read about Gosnell, thinking I need to know this. But I wonder: do I really? Do I need to be informed of every horror with front page potential?

And this question leads to another question: should the ills of the wider world always dictate our life choices? Should I curb my desire to have three children because of fears about climate change or overpopulation?

I like to watch Michael while he cooks. He moves around the kitchen easily, adeptly, despite our baby being strapped to his chest and the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. I want to tell him: care less. Be selfish, like me. Shut out the world. But of course, I love that roomy, guilt-ridden heart of his. I love that he gets mad at me when I throw a yogurt container away instead of putting it in the recycling. I love that he is someone who values the needs of humankind above his own. We need more people like him. That’s partly why I want to make babies with him, to grow a little tribe of humans who will choose, like their father, to live with intention and compassion — but hopefully without being crippled by apocalyptic guilt.

I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t care about the world, or the species, or humanity writ large. Caring is good. What I’m wondering is how that concern can and should translate into action. It’s hard to be a global citizen. It’s expensive, inconvenient, and perhaps, for Americans, nearly impossible to avoid being a human parasite on the globe. So what does “the good life” look like for us?

12 monkeysIn response to this last question, I tend to zoom in until the faces in my immediate circle spring into clarity and the rest of the world is a distant blur. Michael zooms out – way out – trying to gather the whole human species in his scope. I know that if I weren’t married to Michael, my carbon footprint would be exponentially larger. I likely wouldn’t make intentional, ethical choices about food and energy consumption on my own. I would not be a Planeteer. But maybe being married to me is what will keep Michael from turning into the deranged scientist from 12 Monkeys.

I pretend I’m wise sometimes, that I have things figured out, but I don’t. I might not be an angsty grad student anymore, looking for reassuring answers from a back-room psychic; instead I’m an angsty mommy blogger, jonesing for more babies, with an environmentalist husband who wants to save the world.

Maybe Captain Planet has an answer for us. Maybe we can clear some middle ground between my pragmatism and Michael’s idealism and build our home there. Maybe – WITH OUR POWERS COMBINED!!!  – we can figure out how to keep loving the earth, while also allowing ourselves to fully live on it.

…with three kids.