Tag Archives: parenting

Time’s Up



In Disgrace

God didn’t tell us, when he gave us children, that we’d have to give them back. There were times along the way when we’d have gladly let them go with any stranger who’d have taken them, but only till the tantrum wilted or the howling gave way to fatigue. When one had wandered from our vision, only to be hand-delivered by a supermarket manager with toddler in tow, wanting to know, Is this kid yours? we gave a heavy sigh and said, So it appears. We claimed them, even when we’d rather have owned twenty Saint Bernards, or when we heard about a friend confined to bed, in traction, and our sympathy was liberally mixed with envy.

What we craved was time alone without responsibilities or duties or demands. If now and then we asked ourselves Whatever were we thinking when we desperately wanted to conceive? nevertheless we smiled when they were sweet and when they weren’t we soldiered on. We had to. They were ours, no question, and we didn’t see the gig as temporary or ourselves as marking time until at last they flew the nest. We didn’t guard our feelings or take care to not get too attached. We gave them everything we had and then discovered fifty times as much would be exacted, so of course we gave them that and more.


Dream Come True

We never thought of keeping score, not even when we would have sold our souls for half an hour of rest, a solitary cup of coffee and a novel we could read a chapter of uninterrupted. None of us regarded children as investments toward a worry-free old age. We sacrificed, oh, yes, but not because someday we’d be paid back. Not once did we think All this stress and heartache will in some way be redressed.


The fact remains that God stayed in the background (as it seemed) when they had chicken pox, when they were two and terrible or in their teens with hormones raging. God was waiting till they ceased to need our constant supervision and until they had depleted every penny of our savings. Once they reached the age of understanding and had learned civility and kindness, when they finally were able to secure a job and make a living—that was how we raised them, wasn’t it?—then God said Time’s up. Never mind that we weren’t ready. Too bad if we didn’t know how much we needed to be leaned on. Doggone shame if we had cherished, way down deep, the hope that all the sleeplessness, the tears, the worry and expense would be redeemed. We had them when we had them, and we’re not allowed to keep them, so we’d better take up macramé or learn Norwegian.

Little Bit of Heaven

If we’re lucky, they might like us and decide to keep us close, to make a space for us within their grownup lives, their families, their work, their recreation. If they don’t, too bad. They didn’t ask to be here, didn’t sign a contract or accept an obligation. It was we who took them on, to satisfy a need as old as time, begun with Eve and Adam. And it’s not as if there were no compensation. We don’t get to keep the kids, but if we wish we can retain the lessons learned, the softened hearts, the lively spirits, the compassion. Best of all, we find, when all is said and done, that we ourselves are blessedly and permanently children.


Now I’ll leave you with a small suggestion: If you’re ever bored or lonely—Yes, I know, life isn’t fair, nobody cares—do what the children of the world do every day: Go out and play.

Artist Bessie Pease Gutmann (1876-1960) captured childhood innocence as beautifully as any of the Golden Age illustrators, with the possible exception of Jessie Willcox Smith. You can download A Child’s Garden of Verses with Gutmann’s illustrations at Project Gutenberg. The images below are titled Feeling, Tommy’s Wish Comes True, Nitey Night, Good Morning Little Girl, Unknown, Unconditional Love, and Sweet Roses.

Moments of the Heart

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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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Chapter 2, Part 1: Why We Need Poetry

This is important: All moments of meaning
in our lives are moments of the heart
. —Anonymous

[At a ] Mind and Life Institute conference… at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003, … Eric S. Lander, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology at MIT and the director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, pointed out that while Buddhist practices emphasize attaining increased levels of mental awareness, the focus of modern science has rested on refining ways to restore mentally ill patients to a state of normalcy…. “Why stop there?” he asked the audience. “Why are we satisfied with saying we’re not mentally ill? Why not focus on getting better and better?” —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living *

Art is always involved in events and circumstances that have significance and meaning. Arthur C. Danto, from Columbia University (by no means either a conservative or a Christian) said, “Art is getting across indefinable, but inescapable meaning.” This is a helpful definition, because he is saying that if in your art you are getting your meaning across in a way that is too definable, it is really preaching rather than art. Of course preaching itself can be an art form, but it is an art form that is and should remain distinct from the other arts. Art has to have a place for the observer to explore and wrestle with the message. If the meaning of a work is apparent, allowing the audience with little effort to say, “of course, that is what it means” and if the message can be simply stated in one sentence, the work is not art. You may have heard the famous statement by a dancer who was asked, “What did the dance mean?” She responded, “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” According to Danto, if an artist can enunciate the message in his work, perhaps saying, “Oh, that is Mary rocking the baby and putting him in the manger,” then the work is not good art. Art has to be, in some sense, indefinable—but in another sense absolutely inescapable. What we say and do means something. We are not just chemicals. That is why we must have artists. Artists are people who know that, in spite of what we are told by our culture, everything is part of some bigger reality. [p. 118] —Ransom Fellowship, accessed March 12, 2009

If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it

Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is “a parade of odd and wonderful events.” **

It’s that simple, really it is. So why do we need prenuptial agreements, social workers, car alarms, and the like?

Keeping our Selves intact

Babies are born expecting happiness. Insisting upon it. “I am hungry,” they wail. “This is unacceptable. It is not a Good Feeling.” Their wants and needs are identical.

Newborn babies broadcast their dissatisfaction to the world at large. They don’t know who or what is going to take care of the problem, but, by God, they are not going to suffer in silence. ***

Before long, they perceive that it is not the world at large that responds to their demonstrations of discomfort but rather that every meal has a pleasing similarity and comes with a bonus: warmth and softness, swaying, and other lovely sensations. Soon they discover that the warmth and softness are attached to Something — the same Something that comes to the rescue when they, the babies, are cold or when another, smaller Something has dropped a Tonka truck onto them when they were just lying there cooing and watching dust motes cavort in a shaft of sunlight. The larger Something has the power to ease their pain and restore their little psyches to equilibrium.

Eventually, babies learn that they don’t have to let out all the stops when their tummies are empty. A little less effort with a little more focus achieves the desired result. They sense that a partnership has begun with the meal-providing-Tonka-truck-removing Something, and they find even her presence reassuring. Sometimes they make hungry noises when they’re not hungry, just for the warm, soft swaying. Their wants and needs are becoming differentiated.

Once they know the routine, they are at liberty to look around, wondering if there’s anything more to life. Wow, is there ever! It’s a veritable parade of odd and wonderful events. In no time at all, their world consists of not merely needs and wants but Extras—discoveries, surprises, sometimes unpleasant (like this afternoon’s chickenpox inoculation) but more often delightful.

There’s that pink glow in the morning, for instance. Patiently — they don’t have any pressing engagements — they watch the pearly light move across the wall, brighter, warmer and — oh, wow — suddenly it’s yellow, and it paints the teddy bears and the striped wallpaper and it moves toward the bed and brushes the tiny toes with yellow warmth, and the babies talk to it, and it talks back. They speak the same Language. They chat like old friends.

The mamas and the daddies, who are in the next room, smile and listen to the delighted cooing and burbling. The long-forgotten primal Language stirs a joy that had become almost dormant, and they relax into it as if it were a featherbed. For them, too, time stands still, and if they do have pressing engagements, these are trivial next to the conversation of sunlight and innocence.

For many stay-at-home mothers, these are golden days, and gone too soon.**** In my own experience, there has been no more blessed time than the early months of parenthood… feeling the physical and emotional surge of pleasure when breastfeeding… having the almost godlike ability to supply everything the baby needs and more besides… bathing and powdering and dressing the baby in clean, soft clothes… covering her with a light blanket when it’s warm or enclosing her in a sturdy sleeper if it’s chilly… placing her cradle near a window so she can watch the sunlight dance among the petunias in the window box and ruffle the eucalyptus leaves on the big tree in the backyard… arranging my life so that there is nothing clamoring for my time besides caring for the baby, tidying up the house, and preparing dinner for the rest of the family.

There is a transient sense of power, especially with the first baby. I felt that her father and I would be able to keep her safe throughout her childhood, though I knew we could not, and should not, always shield her from disappointment.

And so, for a few months, the baby is the center of the universe. Her demands are met almost instantaneously.

If I am the baby, feeling the warm sunlight on my toes and listening to my mother hum as she folds my diapers (I am a baby who was born when mothers still laundered diapers), I am thinking that life is pretty sweet, and I smile and laugh a lot, and everybody else smiles and laughs when I do.

I have noticed, however, that when I am hungry in the dark of night, my mother is less and less cheerful and accommodating. Then comes the time when I wake up and cry, signaling that I am hungry, or perhaps just lonely, and my mother comes in and holds me for a minute and talks to me and maybe even gives me a little water, but she doesn’t feed me. She goes away, and I cry for a while, but she doesn’t come back. So I wear myself out crying, and I go back to sleep, and soon I don’t wake up at night any more.

Oh, wow! I can move! My bear is over there, and I am over here, but if I wiggle and squirm a certain way, I can get over there. There are other things over there, too, shiny things, and I reach for them, and my mother says, “No!” in a Different Voice. And for the first time I am thwarted.

As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that I cannot always have what I want, but I’m not sure why. Apparently other people have wants and needs too. I am playing with other toddlers, and one of them, Ethan, has a bear sort of like mine, and I try to take it but Ethan holds it tight. I want it, Ethan has it, so as night follows day, I bite him. Everyone speaks crossly to me and makes a big fuss over Ethan. I am not the center of the universe any more.


This is where parenthood gets tricky. How do you find the balance between giving your child freedom to explore and keeping him from hurting himself or someone else? How do you convey that his wants and desires are important and at the same time teach him to compromise or negotiate with people whose wants and desires conflict with his? How can you help him learn that it is in his long-term interest to suffer disappointments, failures, separations from his parents—delayed gratification, in short—when (a) he has no clear concept of the future, and (b) you’re still learning those lessons yourself?


Most parents accomplish all this, more or less clumsily, because their biological and emotional need to protect is at war with the imperative of allowing independence and teaching self-reliance. Ideally, they do it in baby steps, so to speak, letting out the leash slowly and gradually. Sometimes the lessons are sudden and brutal, imposed by crisis.


It’s comparatively easy for a child to learn to function within the nuclear family—the home team, as it were. If there’s only one ice-cream cup in the freezer, and both little Rupert and little Helga want the ice-cream cup, Daddy is not going to run out and buy another ice-cream cup. Rupert and Helga each get half, or Rupert gets the ice-cream cup and Helga gets the Popsicle, or some other arrangement is made that is not completely satisfactory but is better than nothing.


As the child’s comfort zone expands—she goes to play group, to school, to church, to the park, and to the supermarket—she has to adapt her expectations to ever-more-conflicting wants. The way her elders deal with these conflicts determines, in part, how much of her essential self she will surrender. Well-meaning but misguided Sunday-school teachers might convey to her that she must always consider the wants and needs of other people before her own. Since other people have unending and urgent wants and needs, she might conclude that hers are of no value.

Ideally, however, she will learn that she has God-given abilities that are pleasing to her and that meet a particular need of her universe—that she is here for a reason, and that in discovering that reason she will give and receive more joy than she knew the universe could hold.

*Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living. Harmony Books (New York) 2007. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. The author, a renowned Buddhist teacher, has, “with an infectious joy and insatiable curiosity,” integrated “the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience, and quantum physics” (per the dust jacket) in friendly, affirmative prose. The Joy of Living is a delightful, uplifting read and a demystifying guide to meditation.


***This is so whether the baby is born into a refugee camp, a brothel, or a middle-class family desperate for a baby to love. Though it is hardly universally the case, for purposes of this discussion our baby will be one for whom the basic physical and emotional necessities are available.

****This might be true for fathers, too, though the daddies of my experience have always been in a hurry for the babies to get big enough to play Bonk (the introductory version of Catch) and climb in tree forts.

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Finding Your Place in Creation

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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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Chapter 1: Finding Your Place in Creation

I created this course and book…

(a)  for individual readers who want to write and live poetically, and

(b) as a text for adult and advanced-student workshops in poetry-writing, self-discovery, and self-expression.


By reading and discussing the text and doing the assignments, you will learn to write poetry that is both artistic and disciplined; learn about yourself through poetry-writing; and write poetry to participate in your own creation (or “co-creation” or “evolution”).


It is my hope that this book will help you live a fuller, happier life. You’ll experience the joy of creating something worthwhile and giving beauty to the world—no work of art is really completed until it’s shared.


Beyond that, writing poetry can be a form of meditation. It anchors you to the here and now, freeing you from worry and regret. It helps you process your experiences and circumstances. It reveals inner feelings and desires.


It can even help you find your calling. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations (Boox X), “Everything exists for a purpose—a horse, a vine, even the sun. What then is your purpose?”*


From a Darwinian or a spiritual standpoint—take your pick—you are here because the Universe needs you, the way a meadow needs clover and grass and bees and earthworms. You are an essential part of the vast ecosystem. Your talents and deepest desires should guide you to your place in Creation.


Mistletoe, literally “dung on a twig” in the Old Saxon language, is spread through bird excrement, and it attaches itself to tree limbs where conditions are favorable. To the Druids, oak mistletoe was sacred because it was rare—mistletoe was much more common on apple trees.


Unlike mistletoe, human beings make choices that determine where they land and what they do.** If your wants, skills, and interests were not given much attention when you were a child, you might have grown up thinking they didn’t matter much. Perhaps you’ve made major decisions—whom to marry, where to go to college, what to study, what kind of work to do—more out of obligation or coercion, or to please others, than out of deep desire or a sense of calling.


Eventually you may lose touch with your wants. Parents, especially, find their lives governed by their children’s needs. Some choose parenthood with their eyes wide open—parenthood, for the moment, is their calling, and they joyfully make the necessary “sacrifices.” Or they find ways to integrate their own passion for, say, ballroom dancing or growing fruit trees, with child-rearing.***


It’s not uncommon to find parents, especially mothers, suffering from empty-nest syndrome when the kids are gone and the daily routine is no longer relevant. The house, so recently a hub of youthful activity, is too quiet. The freedom, once longed for, is too scary. Mom feels superfluous.


The universe still needs her, and it is prodding her latent talents and desires. Writing poetry is a way to bring her sleeping passions and creative energy to the surface, as a spring bubbling out of a rocky hillside releases water from deep underground into the sunlight.


This book has three parts.

Part I

Concepts of art, poetry, and the self. Here I try to corral an unruly herd of meanings into a more or less delimited vocabulary. You can’t just throw words such as art, poetry, spirit, ideal, perfection, growth, and self-knowledge at people without saying what you mean. We are talking about the nature of reality here, not the price of grapefruit.


My assertion that reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are “more real” and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs and the mail I keep getting from L. Ron Hubbard, even though I have told the postal service a thousand times that I am not “Margaret Campbell,” even though I have returned the items C.O.D. to L. Ron himself — is hardly original.


I draw from the works of Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Carl Jung, and Marcus Aurelius, and from quantum physics, the Old and New Testaments, and many other sources. I am indebted to whoever it was — I can’t find the reference — who wrote an article about Kabbalah describing how the universe splintered at the moment of creation, hurling innumerable shards into space, and how every act of kindness, or mitzvah, puts one of the shards back into its proper place, helping to repair the broken cosmos. And I am grateful to the Book-of-the-Month Club for sending me a book that I forgot to not order, The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher who has worked with western neurologists and physicists to investigate the science of meditation.

Part II

The poetry-writing section of the book, where readers and students will learn the forms and conventions and techniques of poetry and will practice using them. If you have ever taken a poetry-writing course, you will find little that is new or surprising in Part II except, perhaps, my tendency to go off-topic if a gust of wind through my open window carries the scent of something that might be the first drops of rain on a dusty road miles away, or it might be the washing machine overflowing again in the basement, and since it is much more likely to be the washing machine and I will eventually have to deal with it, I keep writing, as if rain on dusty roads were a metaphysical anomaly equivalent to rank upon rank of angels singing paeans in the sky.


You might find, also, that Part II focuses more on simile and metaphor, among the many devices that poets use, than your earlier poetry course might have done.

Part III

Poetry-writing as a way of knowing, expressing, and creating oneself. Because you will have read Part I, you will understand what that means, and you will realize that what you are reading here is not empty rhetoric meant to seem profound and important but is a preface to joy.

We will be working with a definition of poetry that, especially in Part III,  includes beauty as a criterion. We will learn to gather the loose, impotent, entropic bits of energy we possess and apply them to the intentional creation of beauty. We will be exemplars of our art. We will be inspired by the certainty that beauty and grace exist not only in the product of artistic endeavor but also in the endeavor itself.

* The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a lovely little fable about the way the Universe directs us toward our destiny.

** Obviously, some people, individually and in groups, have more freedom to choose than others. On the other hand, many people who live in free societies are unaware of the innumerable choices they do have. The real or imagined opinions of others—“What will people think!”—are a common, and often unjustified, constraint.

*** With tragic exceptions, most parents do the best they can most of the time, even when parenthood sneaks up on them unawares. I made a lot of mistakes but I rolled with the punches and loved being a parent because I got to be a kid a lot, because I like ballet recitals and soccer games and eau de sweaty-little-boy and little girls playing dress-up, and snuggling in a big chair with a storybook…. But I had my moments of resentment, martyrdom, fury, and attempts to escape. Fortunately, there was always someone around to either call me on it or pick up the slack.


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