Wednesday, October 31, 2012

If God Be With Us

“Answered prayers,” reads an email I received from someone, who like me, didn’t suffer in the latest round of storms. Lately, my email box and Facebook pages abound with posts of thanks to God in regard to escaping the damage of Hurricane Sandy. I read these posts, consider the suffering and distress in the northeastern states and have to ask this: Do you think the residents in those locations didn’t pray? Surely, you do not think God listened to your prayers and not another's to the degree that he swung his cyclonic force into the path of those others. 

Last night, I considered this with my husband, who read to me Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” which was initially censored from publication and finally printed posthumously in 1923. Mark Twain’s point, illustrated by a preacher leading his people to pray for victory and a man who rose to the pulpit to counter that prayer, was that one could be construed as unwittingly praying for the destruction of others and their property. I turn this over in my head and remember  Katrina. There are stories of a family friend sheltering his daughter from the sight of bodies being retrieved from Lake Ponchartrain. Didn’t those people—drowning victims, the residents that suffered loss and damage, the men and women called in to provide relief—pray? My parents’ own home filled with turbid waters and was destroyed, yet we all prayed for that not to happen. Did someone's desperate prayers for safety send that storm to us and not the Carolinas? Aren't both sides in a battle praying for victory, saying, "If God be with us..."?

I appreciate prayers of gratitude, but I do not credit God for sparing me when there exists the suffering of another. I sometimes wonder, what the purpose is in prayer and God at all—not doubting the existence of the divine unnameable force that is the ultimate connection in all things living and not, but simply doubting why. I weigh what appears to be, depending on the situation at hand, God’s sense of humor, irony, grace, and karmic energy. These days, I pray differently than I did years before—before I watched Katrina’s flooding of my hometown while two blow-hards behind me said that New Orleans was Soddom and Gomorrah; before I divorced and had to decide which path was the right hardship to bear; before my first mother-in-law died of lung cancer within three months of diagnosis. These days I simply pray this when faced with the potential of blight: Please Lord, give me the wisdom to know what to do, and to have the courage to act upon it.

It’s a funny thing about prayer. It’s an innate reflex, something I draw upon frequently as a method of reflection and sourcing good will. Just when I think there is no purpose in it, I find myself humbled in the cool, grey thoughts of a soul’s private shared space with God. I find myself asking, but first seeking the right words in hopes I do not errantly pray selfishly. While I love the wonder that is God and the wisdom one finds in Biblical books, I wince at the thought that God listens to a chosen few in chosen moments. Yet I persist. Is that not faith?

A friend at work came to see me today with prayer requests, something that I find humbling and sweet—and they are the prayers I have an easier time making known to God—prayers for health, prayers to find the best way to diagnose a mystery pain. They are the things that don’t throw someone else under the bus, so to speak. When she came to me with her requests, I mentioned my questions about prayer. My friend, who just retired from years of serving in the music ministry of her church, said that what God really wants is for us to talk to Him, to have that relationship. She said, “He already knows what is in our hearts.” 

The truth is that I think about God all the time. I wonder all the time and look for His guidance. I look for questions and answers alike, and ponder the mystery that some say is simply the most powerful love—love for all mankind, love as though you are one particle in an infinite solution of teeming life—rolling around and clicking, connecting, and bouncing off others in non-stop flow. I wondered recently if I should pray to feel that kind of transformative love for all people, something that would make me vulnerable. I started to pray for this and stopped. Perhaps, it is not my job to ask for a gift too big to bear. So instead, as I watch the world spin around me, with its hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and human struggles, I will again say what I know to be true so far: Please Lord, give me the wisdom to know what to do, and to have the courage to act upon it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mother of a Boy

You ever read those italicized notes at the end of an article that describe the writer? There will be some brief mention about what that person does for a living (along with the writing because so few of us can actually live off that) and a little tidbit about her family life: Judy is the mother of an active boy. Every time I read "active boy" I wonder why not just say what it really is: Judy is the mother of a boy. It's superfluous to add "active" really. There is no such thing, therefore no clarifier is needed. Just saying a woman rears a boy should instantly draw feelings of empathy from the reader.

When I learn that an expecting mother is having a boy, I reach out to her in mercy and compassion. "Hold on to your hat," I say. Forget any nice-looking furniture you have, any freshly painted wall, any nice-smelling bathroom. Get ready for all the science projects he'll bring home, like the pet worm my son and his friend tried to sneak in the house last week. Get ready for the fact that while you are trying to cook dinner, he is flushing three toothbrushes down your toilet (yes), hosing his sister against her will outside, or, having found a blue ink pad in your art supplies, he is using it to stamp geometric patterns on your flagstone path in the yard, your minivan, and the neighbors’ brick edging that trims the path to their home. And by the way, it took me days to figure out that it was permanent ink— I had my son scrub it off with a toothbrush and detergent. I should have made him use one of the toothbrushes I had snaked out of the toilet from the first incident I mentioned.

Yes, to say that one is the mother of a boy is description enough. One day at church, there was a woman sobbing outside the doors to the building. She was being comforted by a friend. Concerned, I walked over and asked if they needed help. “It’s ok,” said one woman as she held an arm around the crying one, “She is just raising boys.” No kidding.

We have countless stories about the wild boys among our family and friends. My grandmother tied her second-born to a tree so she could complete chores in peace. An Indiana friend of mine once came home to her son swinging on a rope like Tarzan from the second floor interior balcony of her home. The other stories I have, especially a host of them about my son’s birth father, aren’t even fit for print. While some of these boys I knew grew up okay, others didn’t. My grandmother on her deathbed still obsessively worried about at least one of her sons. I supposed that happens. The people I worry the most about though are the mothers. We are exhausted from cleaning up the damage.

A friend of mine, whose little boy has similar difficulties to my Tiny Man's, described his recent suspension from school. She asked me how she was supposed to keep going—how much could she really take. The next day I walked up to her office and told her Tiny had just been suspended from after-school care. We laughed. It’s the best we can do. Mothers take all our children’s faults and eccentricities to heart. We grew these creatures. They came from us. They are extensions of ourselves. When we see them do things we wouldn’t do (because we were girls), we become unglued. And we need other mothers to sympathize with us because they understand. When I tell men what my son does, most of them say something like, “I did the same stuff.” My husband appears to be an anomaly in this department, the worst story about him being that he jumped off the top of the refrigerator once in a while, usually with his Dad waiting to catch him and encouraging it. At least Tiny is incredibly sweet and affectionate; it’s what has kept him alive this long. By the way, among the things I did to ground my son for his having misbehaved enough to be suspended, I put him in time-out in his room from after school let out until supper time. He could play alone with his own toys—no friends, no TV, no Wii, no dog, no free-ranging it outside. He made do. I caught him emptying buckets of water out his bedroom window to amuse himself. There is no rest for the weary mother of the boy.

While all mothers deserve medals for the hell their boys put them through, there are those of us who deserve special awards for raising a hyperactive boy.  In a recent ADHD article I read, the doctor described raising a child with this disorder as raising a child times five. So, if you are going to call a spade a spade, here it is. This is what my byline should read: The author is an editor, a blogger, and an artist. In addition to bringing home the bacon and trying to maintain snippets of a creative life, she is married to a handsome, brilliant academic and skydiver who she fears could die any day, leaving her solely responsible for her son with ADHD and his sister, who is often grossly disappointed with her brother’s misconduct.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Computer Funk

I would blog more, but my home computer is such an issue that I can't do it all that conveniently right now. Pages take forever to load. I keep typing, but the cursor remains in the same place for long periods of time, then a whole line of text appears which requires editing for typos. I go back to do that, the cursor "backs up" the text again. Pages freeze. Things quit working. So pardon me for not having a whole lot going on here for this week or next.

Yes, I ran a virus scan, updated my protection, and defragged my harddrive. It's still a pain. And no, I am not buying a new computer. This is the most ridiculously expensive year I have had in a while. Eventually, when I have the patience and time, I will sort out matters.

In the meantime, I'll get back soon. I have hosts of craziness to document....

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Commonwealth: Casseroles and Culture

Virginia. It's beautiful here--virgin forest crawling across much of it, shrouding what once sheltered Native Americans and the first colonists. There are still areas of those early settlements that remain preserved, and others, of course, have expanded into contemporary urban populations prideful of their legacy. The English left their mark in a rather distinguished old-country accent, long Os rounding out the speech of the locals whose families weave back to the first peoples. Careful in speech as they are, they are even more careful with the establishing of relationships; it is hard to break into even common society here, and the presence of some of us as transients remains exactly that. Too, the proximity to the culture of the true northern states has ebbed away some of what could have been a hospitable reputation in one of the most elegant states in the fifty. I love living here, but find it curiously confounding. Southern, yet stand-offish. I simply shrug and say to newcomers, "Virginians!" and they say, "We've noticed."

This summer, our household survived two people having surgery; first for my son, then me. Where I grew up, my household would have been blanketed in casseroles and other steaming dishes for days. One or two visitors would have delivered a bottle of wine (when not for the patient, highly recommended for those providing care!). Deep and mid-southerners do more than check on us, they do not believe that the patient is fine, and show up anyway. So with my son's surgery, I hit Mommy-exhaustion by Day 3 of recovery, and when irritated by something his out-of-state father did at that time, I said, in a fatigued tirade to him, "And dammit, I need a casserole, and no one has brought one!" The mind-set of the Virginian is that distance is best, and if you need something, you'll ask for it. The trouble with Deep Southerners like myself is that according to our own traditions, we dare not ask. But, I guess you could say I am learning; right before my surgery, my boss asked me what I needed. I looked at her and said, "A casserole." And she sent one--had it delivered by a local catering company--something my Louisiana girlfriends found uproarious.

While Virginians wish not to intrude upon you unless asked, they think nothing of making oddly direct observations, things my mother would have chastised me for, and often did, in our soft-spoken household. Last year, a parent of a child in my son's class bumped into me at a local eatery. She knew my son, but she and I had never met. So imagine my shock when she introduced herself and said her boy had said Tiny was in frequent trouble at school, and that she had asked him if Tiny was mean, and the boy had said no, that he was actually a nice kid. She told me this, and I thought--if I were permitted in my upbringing to say it to a stranger--"You're shittin' me." I remained speechless for a moment and invented something gracious to say. It's what ladies of the Deep South do instead of saying "You're shittin' me" which we are so clearly thinking.

In Missississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee, if you would see a stream of neighbors coming and going from a gathering near your home, you wouldn't just be invited, you'd be recruited. There is a wonderful scene in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, when a Georgia local knocks on the door of the visiting New York writer for ice, and then brings him to a neighboring bash. He isn't used to this. Apparently, Virginians aren't either. And more than once have I watched a parade of adults and children entering a neighbor's home for parties while waving to us on our porch. I have adapted to this now, too, and have begged my children to just stay inside and avoid any tension. I have taught them households have borders and not everyone should be included all the time. In fact, I have grown to even like this a bit. Keeps things small, manageable even, when it's our turn to host an event. There is something to be said for becoming Virginian.

Nevertheless, where I grew up, we took new people under downy wings of conversation and comfort. We want you to be all right. We ply you with Mama's chess pie and Daddy's cocktails. We send boatloads of prepared meals to the ailing. (Note my favorite quote from my first mother-in-law when she was dying of cancer--she pointed to all the fruit baskets her Florida friends had sent. "Have some fruit. We have fruit out the yang.") We are afraid new people are lonely, left-out, excluded. In Virginia, no one wants to bother you. Or they can't be bothered. In the deeper southern regions, it bothers us that you might be lonely. We 'd rather die than overlook the potential of good company anyway. So imagine my surprise at my office when, in my first days there a year and a half ago, no one came to see me at lunch, ask how "the new girl" was doing, and invite me down for company. I felt terrible. Eventually though, I adapted. When I want company, I head to the group table at the cafe on my floor, when I don't, I eat in my cube. These days, I have too much work anyway.

It is hard to make friends in Virginia. Sure, people are nice here. But having you over is an earned position, not a casually-made offer. A workmate asked me recently if I was going to visit with friends one weekend. "I work and raise children," I said, "I have no close friends in Virginia." He was shocked, "But you are so friendly!" he said. Frankly, I have learned that is probably the cause, as my social tendencies in the very first office I was in here three years ago made me a bit of an outsider. The vibe in that office had been more morgue-cum-library, and I just didn't fit. Being an emotional trainwreck didn't help either, but that story is for another day.

In Lousiana and Mississippi, we had constant events and company. Extended family was a part of daily life. In Tennessee, I had a social schedule that the Queen of England might find exausting. It was moderate in Indiana, and earned after two years of residence there. I maintained many busy nights of fun dinners in Georgia. Here in Virginia, it is different. I lived here six months before my husband and I were invited to anything (with the exception of drinks with his first boss, who used that time to hit on me in a surprise alone moment, so that shouldn't count). Living here has groomed me to choose even more carefully those I might befriend, people who can understand and tolerate the complexity of our step-family arrangement, heavy travel for the kids' visitation, my husband's two jobs, the kids' activities, and a very nuclear family-centric life in general. Maybe, Virginia has been good for me in that way.

The other day, the phone rang with a kind and eager request for coffee and chatter from a parent at my daughter's school, an accomplishment of earning trust. "Who was that?" Tiny asked. "A friend," I said, "Mommy has a friend in Virginia. High five me."

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Despicable Cheese Food

This post is long overdue. Most people who know me well are familiar with my aversion to American Cheese Singles. For the rest of you, I write in the hopes of dissuading you from further American cheese consumption.

The package reads CHEESE FOOD, not CHEESE, because it isn't really cheese--it's cheese-like (or cheese-ish). Like I said to a lady at work last week, cheese is to cheese food as dog is to dog food. Makes you wonder right there, doesn't it? Would cheese even eat this stuff? My ladyfriend said that her reluctance to eat American cheese is that it is nearly the same consistency as the plastic that wraps it. Therefore, I ask, where does the cheese end and the plastic begin? It's damp, clingy, tears easily, resembles a sort of flexible plaster. It is an unnatural yellow. I find it fascinating that it may not be legally sold as cheese, but as a cheese product.

People here in the States melt it, fling it on burgers, eat it plain from the plastic wrap. They might, given a little prodding, use it as poster adhesive or a devil-be-damned bandaid. I have bought it for guest children, the kind of kids who only eat chicken nuggets from the frozen foods section, and once the children went home, got rid of this cheese imposter, and flung it into the deep well of the outdoor trash, where it could rest in peace.

Somehow, this stuff is worse on eggs than on meats--not sure why that is--and I have more than once staunchly returned burgers and breakfast biscuits with the complaint that I absolutely specified no cheese, and yet here it was, an insulting yellow on what was already an artificially and overly-manipulated protein product. Enough is enough, I say. With so many fabulous cheeses out there, why do we persist with this one?

My kids have inherited my distaste for American cheese, which we have all extended to another amazingly artificial American food product, Cheese Whiz. Can't eat that either, but I have to credit it for its appearance in my favorite line from Loser, a song by Beck: Get crazy with the Cheese Whiz! Apparently Beck also has the 411 on this cheese--as getting crazy with it would be all that you could do.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Meatal Stenosis and the Recovering Weenie

This summer my son had surgery for meatal stenosis, a narrowing of the urethra that makes urination difficult. The solution was to cut him a longer hole than the one he had. (This is the point in the story that most men, when they ask about what happened to my son, start running away or dancing with their hands over their privates.) Tiny Man was so exhausted with the pain of trying to pee properly that he couldn't wait for surgery. Like the doctors had promised me, I promised him that he would be all better in two to three days. Insert buzzer sound here and ring the BS alarm.

Recovery from surgery to the meatus is painful. It took much longer than the promised three days, and on top of that, due to a reduction of immunity when under anesthesia, he developed tonsilitis and ear infections. When he wasn't burning up my couch with high fever and scaring the hell out of me, he was crying because he had to pee through his newly cut incision. He missed almost a full week of school, would tire easily, and would get sore just walking around. I saw that his healing instructions from the surgery center said he could return to riding his bike the day after surgery. I took one look at my son and his wounded weenie and forbade him to use the bike or play with his rough-housing neighbor child until I was sure he was better. In the meantime, my son would stand on the front walk, wait for neighbors to walk by, and say, "Hi. I just had surgery on my crotch. Do you want to see?" Between nursing his wound and preventing him from exposing himself to strangers, I was exhausted.

Two weeks later, my son complained of itching, so at the follow-up I inquired as to the reason for the discomfort. "Those stitches," said his doctor, "likely get uncomfortable. Are you still putting neosporin on them?" No, I explained, because I had been told to only do this for about four days. The doctor clarified, "Apply it twice a day for a month or more. Those stitches can last for up to two months." Seriously? Why are we never told not just the RIGHT  information but ALL the information? The stitches lasted most of the summer and my son's energy level was negatively affected for at least three weeks of the start of it. Across July and August, he still occasionally complained of pain when urinating. Now, he seems back to normal and the odd symptoms that led us to the doctor in the first place have stopped: constantly showing others his weiner (hence his dismissal from riding the bus last year), peeing in public, wetting the bed or the floor, complaining of pain, and urinating with a stream strong enough to put out a small fire. Unfortunately, he still is fascinated with wanting to show me his weenie. "Look!" he says proudly, "Want to see how much better it is?"