Open Your Mouth, Solve Your Problems

It’s funny how the advice of a sex columnist can help you get to a happier place with your youngest child’s day care.  I’m sure we’ve all had this experience, right?

See, I have this thing about food, particularly food that my offspring puts in their respective tiny mouths.  Categorize under my long list of “tiny, hardly-worth-mentioning control issues”, but I’ll stand by this one as a battle I’m willing to undertake … at least in the early years… at least most of the time.

I had temporarily forgotten a) that I cared so much about my children’s food and 2) that I had agency to address it until recently, when I remembered Dan Savage’s often incendiary, always hilarious and spot-on column, “Savage Love.”

Let me explain. When my twins were wee —  back when I had vim and vigor and no grays and would do things like carefully freeze the baby food I’d made them in ice cube trays – they grew up eating all kinds of “growing foods.”  Sure, it took a little special marketing: green beans were magic wands, broccoli were baby trees, kale chips were, and still are, Shrek chips – but it worked.

It largely worked because I kept them home over half the time until they were 4, and we were surrounded by a supportive organic/healthy food environment in Northern Virginia, so they didn’t see an Oreo until kindergarten.  Don’t get me wrong – they now have the shaky pupils and micro-attention span of any other red-blooded 3rd grader badly in need of either a starburst fix or a 28-day lock down sugar-rehab.  But they are sane and healthy and so far, no one has premature boobs or type 2 diabetes, and for a little while there, for just a little while – it was the land of (no growth hormone) milk and (raw, local) honey.  I’ll never forget us having a playdate circa 2010 and Henry running from where I was in the kitchen to where his friends were in the playroom and excitedly shouting, just like that kid on the Stouffer’s Stovetop Stuffing commercial, “You Guys – My mom’s making ASPARAGUS!!”

Crickets.

I think I remember one kid putting down a Lego reeeeeallly slow.

When the baby came along 6 years later, and I was all out of vim, much less vigor and ice cube trays, and we were all eyeball deep in Oreos (albeit the Newman’s Own brand), I decided that store bought organic baby food, free of corn syrup and dyes and weird ingredients, would be enough.  In the land of good enough parenting, this was still a win.

When August began at our wonderfully diverse daycare and preschool, which serves children with developmental disabilities as well as those that qualify for early head start – I loved everything about it except the food.

I spent a year complaining to everyone who stood within earshot of my kitchen island about the fact my 6-month-old with four teeth was fed a Poptart. I got into that weird, crazy controlling place – passive aggressively trying to fill him up on yogurt and homemade applesauce at home, so maybe he’d be too full to eat a breakfast of Lucky Charms at school.  I even asked my pediatrician to write that he wasn’t allowed to have high fructose corn syrup because he had a condition called “healthy baby.”  But the only thing this succeeded in doing was making me have short, sharp teeth.  I then remembered a particular Dan Savage column, and its salient message: You have a problem? Open your mouth and solve it. Say what it is you want, offer a solution, make it better.  Period.

I went into the day care director’s office the next day and asked if I could help her by forming a parent’s committee to revamp the school menus. “Oh, would you??” was her instant reply. With no resistance, with total support, a few other parents and I renegotiated with the vendor, changed the menus and inventory, brought in organic milk from a local dairy, and found funds to build a schoolyard garden.  Help rose up all around me like so much Louisiana kudzu, other parents bringing shovels and wheelbarrows, some offering herbs and pots, the administration and teachers leading the way.  I’ve no doubt there was some serious luck and magic and good timing at work.  AND – speaking up and being willing to work activated all that good juju.

Even though I knew I got lucky, it was hard to believe my unhappiness with the daycare’s food could be so simply remedied by my addressing the problem and being willing to help fix it.  What was more surprising: that it worked — or that I had become so used to thinking about myself as impotent in the face of my frustrations to be surprised that it worked?

I think one of the reasons that Open Your Mouth, Solve Your Problems can be such a hard task for so many of us is because we feel so damned overwhelmed so much of the time.  I’m overwhelmed in the produce section of the grocery (what were the 12 fruits and vegetables with the heaviest pesticides?), in my kitchen (wrapping up a work email, trying to throw together a dinner lickety-split so that 80% of my family can hurry up and reject it), at the macro-level (that my town has one of the worst health profiles nationally is as much a function of deeply, generationally institutionalized race problems as it is of poverty) …. And y’all, that’s just on the subject of food.

This is one of the reasons the price of pinot noir has skyrocketed and Barnes and Noble now has an entire section dedicated to adult coloring books.

But Dan Savage says just start, just open your mouth, and start by being honest and clear with yourself.  Nevermind he’s often talking to a 23-year-old bi trying to sort out sex-positive experimentation or redefining “saddlebacking”, the message still resonates.  We kvetch plenty, but do we try to take the issue to the table and say, “hey – here’s the thing: This isn’t working. Let’s fix it, together. I see the following two options…” ?

Not for me.  I find it far easier to silently seethe and bitterly resent you for not reading my mind.

This can be big, scary, heroic stuff.  To move toward the thing you want (and are acutely, and sometimes, painfully aware is missing).  When I’ve lost something important, I don’t want to look for it – I’m so afraid I’ll confirm my fears its gone. I move away, try to ignore it, but like a bad tooth, my tongue seeks it out over and over.  When I feel like something in my life is not working, I talk endlessly about it, for years, to anyone foolish enough to ring me up or sit across a table from me.  Or I purposely talk not at all about it, but think and obsess about it constantly.  I might address it, sure, but only in fits and starts.  I can’t escape these things, but I can understand first hand so well how we all try to.  Until there is an Open Your Mouth breakthrough.

I have a dear friend, whose decided she’s going to have that baby she’s been yearning for, with or without a partner. She’s going to huge lengths, flying in from far away by herself for fertility treatments, having the incredible audacity and bravery to hope (which of course means she will become a mother, one way or another).  She’s opened her mouth, she’s walking out the hard road of solving her problems, she’s turned towards it instead of away from it. She’s my hero.

Life is a momentum game. But we have to try in this very soldierly left-foot right-foot left-foot way. We have to walk towards the pain or the loss. Towards even our own miserable kvetchiness.  “What does it mean to lean in to grief?,” a friend once mused aloud to me.  We only know it by its counterfactual, by what it’s not.  We know it means not moving away from it.  It means not Fearing Paris.

Fearing Paris

by Marsha Truman Cooper

Suppose that what you fear
could be trapped
and held in Paris.
Then you would have
the courage to go
everywhere in the world.
All the directions of the compass
open to you,
except the degrees east or west
of true north
that lead to Paris.
Still, you wouldn’t dare
put your toes
smack dab on the city limit line.
You’re not really willing
to stand on a mountainside,
miles away,
and watch the Paris lights
come up at night.
Just to be on the safe side
you decide to stay completely
out of France.
But then the danger
seems too close
even to those boundaries,
and you feel
the timid part of you
covering the whole globe again.
You need the kind of friend
who learns your secret and says,
“See Paris First.”

15 More Minutes

I’ve had a hard time writing lately, first because life got busy, and then because I fell into something of a hole.  I’d been wanting to resurface but was empty handed, so it surprises me that I finally felt the avenue open on such a horrific weekend.  I have nothing new to say about the desperate need that we choose to NOT be the country that allows – or even facilitates — its own citizens to be shot and killed when they are out with friends at a night club, or in a movie theater, or at an office party, or in Bible study, or walking through a mall, or sitting criss-cross applesauce in circle time on jungle animal-alphabet themed carpet in Ms. Victoria Leigh Soto‘s first grade classroom.

Orlando is horrific, all the more so because Pulse was a safe haven for the area LGBTQ community. But my horror comes from behind a cottony wall of numbness now. Which is even more horrific, actually.  Something broke in me after the Sandy Hook massacre. If we aren’t the kind of people that make a change when tiny children are murdered en masse in their classrooms, then what could possibly move us to action? It was so inconceivable that I had to wall off part of myself after that to still find optimism and hope, much less grocery shop and chit chat with cashiers. My kids can’t help but hear when shootings make the news (which is every other week, it seems, and that’s only if the number of victims is greater than 4 or 5). The first question they ask is “Were any children killed?”  They are afraid to walk their dog down the block because someone with a gun might be rounding the corner. They actually fear for their lives. Not from lightening strikes or Great White sharks or giant hornets with lasers on their heads, as I did at their age, but from a lone gunman opening fire in, say, their pediatrician’s office.  Where will that level of stress that they now walk around with be stored and metabolized in their bodies?  Yale School of Medicine recently published a report that found when children are faced with unpredictable stressors, over and over, it actually leads to significant health problems as adults. From eczema to asthma to chronic fatigue and even heart disease, kids who’ve faced chronic, unpredictable stress undergo biological changes that cause their inflammatory stress response to stay activated.

After San Bernadino, my daughter said, “Maybe if you wrote that we are scared, people would realize that children are afraid and pass laws to make it harder to get a gun.”  It breaks my heart she thinks the world is so good that lawmakers must not know children like her are scared, else there would be reform. I would so rather her be focusing that amazing strategery of hers on how to get Lauren Faust to read her letter about a new idea for a My Little Pony character (seriously, Ms. Faust, read the letter. It’s a fantastic idea).

Anyway, I’ve got nothing new here, friends. Nothing profound.  I’m as blindingly sick and sad and pained as you are, as everyone around me and everyone – thank god – in my Facebook newsfeed.  But what I can offer is this: I can at least come out of this little hole to reach out and connect by posting this week.  I can show up and talk and say “me, too,” and be in community. I can be a part of what is, inarguably, a rich and diverse community, where every single human life matters.   And — this is key — we matter in concert, together.

Why write? Why create? Why call a friend when the phone weighs a thousand leaden pounds?  Because hauling up our nets to the surface, to share, to find that there is something there of worth for someone else, is finding worth for ourselves.  Especially when we are in pain. The grief of this world is so much heavier when held alone.

Poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht in her brilliant book, “Stay” does a remarkable thing – she lays out the secular moral and philosophical arguments for choosing to not take your own life.  Her two primary arguments boil down to 1) you can never know what your future self might think or feel or do, and, critically, 2) we are all deeply interwoven and interconnected to each other.   Suicides, then, are deeply harmful with long lasting effects, because in pulling yourself out of the fabric of community, you’ve irreparably torn and damaged the fabric, maybe even leading to more suicides.  As Hecht put it, “if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.”

I’d argue that pulling away and silence and even numbness can be almost as deeply harmful and just as long lasting. Especially when the headlines read like they do. Especially when our nation is teetering on such a frightening precipice this election season. We have to show up, actively, for each other; we have to stay in the conversation, even if we can think of nothing more to say.

We go to radical self care in these times, we participate in community – not because we have no other options, but because it is the only option that makes sense.  When we persevere a little together, when we can walk a little further, shoulder to shoulder, and share and rage and cry and maybe even laugh, then we are stronger. We become a community resilient and loving and brave enough to hold hands, not the community that didn’t take action when first graders were mowed down while reading Knuffle Bunny.

A few weeks ago, I had the incredible good fortune of climbing a mountain on my birthday with 8 of my dearest friends. We started out, not really sure we could make to the summit – a frozen lake at nearly 10,000 feet up a mountain path made more challenging by alternating hard packed, soft and then melting snow.  These friends, who had flown in all points on the compass to be with me that weekend, despite their own busy lives and own personal suitcases of tough stuff, were willing to dance and laugh and cook and talk, and ultimately tackle a mountain.  We weren’t prepared. We were in tennis shoes instead of waterproof hiking boots. We didn’t have snacks or walking sticks. And to everyone we met coming down the mountain (who were armed with those things along with skis, a clattering of camping pots and a 4-day beard), we asked – “How much further to Crater Lake?”   Everyone, to a person, said: “15 more minutes, tops.”

After hiking nearly TWO hours after the first 15-minute lying Grizzly Adams, we reached Crater Lake. It was breathtakingly beautiful, almost as gloriously stunning as our relief and sense of accomplishment. We sat on a log in the snow, surrounding by a 360-degree pop-up book of soaring, sharp mountains, and lobbed snowballs in the lake, hollering out our intentions of what we wanted to take away, back down the mountain and into our lives. It was one of those experiences that I would trade for nothing, one that is permanently etched and will be a wellspring to draw from for a very long time.  And yet, I would have never had done it if that first person we met would have said, “Oh Crater Lake? It’s a painstaking 1 and a half, maybe 2, hours up a tedious mountain path.”

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I don’t know what the next four years are going to hold for our country and what that will mean for the issues and people I love.  I don’t know how many more mass shootings will destroy lives and families and break hearts nationwide and terrify children into fearing public places.   But maybe if we take it, together, in 15-minute increments we can move forward.

Here’s my own short term commitment:  This week, I can post a blog again, because when I haul this waterlogged net of rocks and crab claws up to the surface, perhaps there is something of value mixed in there for us both.  I can finish creating a Tinker’s Lab for Henry, who is desperately needing a little space of his own and a vehicle to express himself. Maybe this is week August will really cross the potty training finish line (inshallah). And I will get good productive work done, plan that weekend away trip for Steven and I, and, importantly, put in the time to reach out to a couple of friends who are hurting, as well as write another G-D letter to my congressperson urging gun reform.  Oh, and I’m also going to a fermentation cooking class on Wednesday night.

I don’t know what your own 15 minutes look like, but let’s stay connected.

We can climb a little further together, and then maybe a little further still.