The Rest of Your Life

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You’ve probably heard someone say at some time, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” It’s the kind of comment we expect in our hard-charging, Type A culture. There have certainly been times in my life when I feel as if my to do list will never get done unless I burn the midnight oil. But the older I get, the more I recognize the wonderful restorative effects of rest.

Just today as I walked past the local library,  I overheard a mother explaining to her three young children that there would be a mandatory rest time when they got home. “Why?” the son wanted to know, with something of a whine in his voice. “Because Mommy needs some time to herself,” was the answer.

I had to smile, remembering so many times when my house was filled with young children, and it was all I could do to use the bathroom in peace. But I can also remember being a little girl myself and absolutely detesting both nap time and bedtime. Because I had a hard time falling asleep, I felt bored and trapped in my twin bed or on the rest time mats we used in afternoon kindergarten. Worse, at bedtime, not only would I not be sleepy, but I would imagine that the shapes and lumps I saw in the dark were ghosts and monsters.

As is true with many aspects of life, you never know a good thing until it’s gone. So many times in my adult life I have longed for just a 30-minute nap to get me through the day. More times than I can count, I would find myself on the couch reading to one of my children in the middle of the afternoon, and my eyes would always start to droop magically during the third picture book. Three’s a charm, I guess.

Ironically, after your children grow up and you retire from your hectic job, you find yourself awakening at four in the morning or at numerous times during the night. Sleep starts to elude you just when you actually have the time for it again.

But I think it would behoove adults, both young and old, to consider the benefits of a good night’s sleep and the occasional 40 winks on the couch. Study after study has shown that lack of sleep can cause weight gain, health problems, and both industrial and driving accidents.

Let’s not make that comment about sleeping when you’re dead a prophetic one. We all need rest where we can have time to ourselves to relax, sleep, and dream. Our to do lists – sometimes even our children – can wait.

Too Much to Dream

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(The Dream, Salvador Dali)

The other night, my husband was shouting in his sleep. He sounded like a character in an action thriller. When I woke him up to calm him, he said that he’d had a nightmare, one of the few he’s ever had in his life. Throughout our marriage, my husband has insisted that he doesn’t dream, and I have insisted that everyone dreams, but he may not remember his.

Dreams are freaky glimpses into the unconscious. Over the years I’ve had scary dreams, recurring dreams, and the occasional erotic dream. In many of my dreams I have to climb or traverse a great height. Sometimes I am in an unbelievably high roller coaster that terrifies me. I also often dream about being lost or losing something I need.

It’s interesting to try to interpret what my dreams mean. For example, the online “Dream Bible” explains my fear of heights in dreams as a fear of success. In truth, though, I am just afraid of heights, so dreaming of them is probably just a reflection of that anxiety. Indeed, psychologist Patrick McNamara, PhD., states that there is no validity to most dream interpretation. In Psychology Today, McNamara claims that so-called dream interpretation is usually very subjective. He does, however, believe that one day psychology will be able to crack the codes of our dreams and find the meaning therein. (“The Folly of Dream Interpretation,” July 29, 2013)

Why we dream is also something of a mystery. There are theories that dreams are a way of restoring the mind to balance, an indication of stress or anxiety, a way of spurring creativity, or even markers for some neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia.

The other thing that fascinates me about dreams is how normal they seem while I’m in them but incoherent when I remember them upon waking. As an example, last night I had the following dream: I was in a big city and stopped at a Walgreen’s to buy underwear for my daughter. While I was there, a man offered to sell me silver dollars, which I have actually been planning to get from the bank for an Easter egg hunt. There was no underwear in my kid’s size, so I left to find another Walgreen’s. Somehow I was transported to Minnesota, where my sisters live, and I thought I was there for my niece’s wedding, but it turned out she was actually already married and pregnant. She got angry when I said we were going to “par-tay” because she couldn’t drink. Next thing I knew I was on the sidewalk, and my husband was walking toward me with a mouth full of teeth that had fallen out. I was alarmed and then even more so as I noticed that I too was losing a few teeth. (The Dream Bible would say this indicates anxiety about getting old. No kidding!) We decided to head to the hospital, but my husband wouldn’t listen to me about which direction to take. We drove past an old nightclub called Limelight and found ourselves in a pitch dark neighborhood. Then we came upon some glamorous and glitzy part of the city I had never seen. I awoke before we ever reached our destination, which is a recurring aspect of my dreams.

Dreams remain a fascinating mystery to me. But I am convinced that they are an indispensable safety valve for the brain. When I was in college, I would pull all-nighters to cram for a test or write a paper. On those occasions, as I would finally allow my body to rest, I would start to have waking dreams, sort of hallucinations as my overtaxed brain slipped into sleep.

As for my husband, he remains convinced that he doesn’t usually dream, and that belief will probably remain until the next time I awaken him for shouting in his sleep, “I’m gonna blow your f#*!ing head off!”

 

The Invisible Mom

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In the 1980s television series thirtysomething, the character Elliot Weston complains to his best friend and business partner Michael Steadman that they have become “invisible to teenage girls.” That remark really resonated with me as a new mother whose body was now a soft and nurturing landing place for my infant daughter instead of a curvy and sexy one men might find attractive.

That feeling of invisibility has changed over the years as my children have grown and I have experienced a different way of being invisible to teenagers. As a mom, I’m sort of like Mt. Everest – never-changing, solid, and just there. Immersed in their world of Snap Chat and Instagram, my kids seldom really notice me, except when they’re hungry or need money.

I’ve felt that same sense of invisibility in the hallways of the local high school. On the few occasions when I have been there during the school day, I will be walking down the hall and hear all kinds of profanity being shouted between teens who are blissfully unaware of the middle-aged woman in knee-length skirt and sensible shoes. It’s a bit jarring to hear, as is the sight of boys and girls canoodling in corners. This is their world, and I am just a vapor floating through it.

Still, there are some benefits to being invisible to teens. As frequent chauffeur for my kids and their friends, I have the ability to be a fly on the wall, listening to their teasing, gossip, and teenage patois, all while being perfectly unseen. The only way to break that spell of invisibility in the car is to interject my own comments, so I have learned to be the silent specter getting a glimpse into the teenage world.

On my recent visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, puppeteers did a skit depicting the story of a man gifted with a cloak of invisibility. Thus clad, the man was able to escape Death, who roamed the Earth ceaselessly in search of souls. Harry Potter himself uses the cloak to defeat the powers of evil represented by Lord Voldemort.

Invisibility can be both blessing and curse. It can hurt to be ignored by others because everyone wants to feel important, to feel recognized. I sometimes get annoyed or hurt by my kids’ seeming indifference. But invisibility can also be a gift, wherein one can be a spectator in life, observing, noticing, and learning.

I’m keeping my invisibility cloak handy for that next chance to gain insight into the world of my teens and their friends. Who knows what fascinations I may find?

No News Is Good News

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My daughter is on spring break this week, so we are enjoying the beautiful weather in sunny Florida. Yesterday, we spent the entire day at a theme park, away from real life and immersed in the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and King Kong. So it was jarring to come back to the condo and hear the news emanating from our television set.

When I am away, especially in a relaxing place like Florida, I forget about the outside world. The daily newspaper doesn’t arrive here, and I’m not in my regular routine. Instead, I am slathering myself with sunscreen and hitting the beach or pool with a water bottle and a good book. It’s a great, albeit temporary, existence.

My husband the news junkie never likes to be far away from the world’s events, so I make a conscious effort to avoid the TV and tune out the radio in order to take a break from the news. As much as I care about what is happening in my country and in the world, I sometimes need to get away from the constant strife that is the bread and butter of journalism. After all, I’m not the president, so I don’t need to deal directly with any major crisis that might occur.

Taking a break from ordinary life is restorative. Here I don’t have my mountains of paperwork, house to manage, school schedule to monitor. Relationship drama and family squabbles seem very far away. My biggest decision is what to choose from the restaurant menu. I am separated from home by a time zone, but more importantly, from a mental and emotional zone that, short of a life-threatening crisis, I can choose to ignore for a little while.

Still, there’s no place like home. After a week of lounging in la la land, I will start missing my bed, my neighborhood, my friends, the routine that grounds me, the news that sparks ideas for my writing. But for now, no news is the best news of all.

 

The Spectacular Now

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Chicago’s Art Institute recently announced that it will soon be displaying the world-famous painting known as Whistler’s Mother. The portrait, known as the “Victorian Mona Lisa,” features the simple composition of an older woman sitting in profile and looking ahead. While most portraits depict an individual head on, Whistler’s painting almost looks as if he were catching a glimpse of his mother in repose.

What strikes me when I gaze at Whistler’s Mother is her absolute stillness. While most mothers are busy doing, this portrait seems to capture a woman simply being.

In our modern age, it is a radical move to practice simply being. While life can only be lived in the present, human beings persist in either dwelling on the past or looking to the future. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it,

The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

Pascal’s statement reminds me of playing pretend with my siblings when I was young. One of our favorite games was called “Journey,” in which we pretended to be pioneers getting ready for a journey out West. But our play consisted entirely of preparation: collecting our stores, readying the wagon etc. We seldom, if ever, got started on our journey.

I am particularly prone to this future-leaning tendency. My mind is always scanning the horizon for what comes next. I need to plan. What items does my daughter need for school? What holiday do I need to prepare for? What am I serving for dinner? I make notes and lists for myself. Obviously, some planning is necessary. We can’t simply hurtle from one moment to the next without being aware of our schedules. But we tend to be so fixated on the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.

My family drives through Michigan on a regular basis to visit relatives in Detroit. Our goal is always to get there as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have often fantasized about getting in the car with my children and starting the drive, but instead of high-tailing it to the Motor City, we would stop whenever and wherever we wanted to. A detour to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or a winery or the now-closed Kellogg’s Company attraction, Cereal City: we would take our time and just enjoy being together.

What is more likely to happen nowadays on a trip with my children is that they will be submerged in their music and their smart phones, barely glancing up to notice natural scenery or the skyline of a new city. Last fall we brought my youngest with us to visit her brother in college out in California. We tried interesting her in the look and feel of the campus, but she was 2,000 miles away, communing with her friends back home.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have diversions, especially for young children on a long car trip. But I feel we have lost something in the process: an appreciation of the here and now. For my part, I would like to practice the stillness and “being-ness” of Whistler’s Mother. Perhaps her age-old wisdom would help me dwell in the spectacular now.

Facebook Fast

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As the penitential season of Lent begins, I as usual will give up my beloved sweets of all kinds: coffeecake, cookies, chocolate etc. But I have also decided to follow the lead of some of my friends and abstain from spending time on Facebook.

Facebook has been a blessing and a curse in my life. It has been great to reconnect with old friends, see photos of their families, and even get into some pretty serious conversations. I have learned so much more about many people I know than I ever would have in casual conversation at the supermarket or on the soccer sidelines.

But Facebook has had some drawbacks, and I feel the need to take a break from it. One of the most obvious drawbacks is how much time it can suck out of your day. There are many days when I spend little time on it, but others when I check it compulsively several times a day, adding up to hours spent on the social media platform.

There is apparently some evidence that spending time on Facebook can lead to depression. This does not surprise me. The reason given for this phenomenon is that it can be depressing to compare your life to all the wonderful things your friends are doing, what they are wearing, how cute their children are and the like. None of this particularly bothers me. I am not that competitive with others when it comes to social standing, looks, or just how much fun someone else seems to be having.

What I find depressing on Facebook is mostly the political divide that has become all too evident since the presidential election campaign began in earnest back in 2015. It is discouraging to see so much animosity on both sides and to realize that no matter how many meaty articles one posts or how well-considered one’s argument is, our friends on the other side of that divide are unlikely to come around to our way of thinking. Even the sheer exposure of current events that I see in my news feed every day, with or without commentary, can really get me down.

So I will be spending 40 days in the internet desert. I will still be posting on my blog, which automatically loads to Facebook. But I myself will not be scrolling along to see what’s up in cyber world. It is my hope that this Facebook fast will give me renewed energy, more time, and the chance to focus on my spiritual life, which is the purpose of Lent.

Christmas Memories

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242AB00E00000578-2881290-image-a-28_1419262681192.jpgAlthough I am mostly a forward-looking person, at Christmas I enjoy indulging in a bit of nostalgia. As a writer, I have always appreciated the Christmas vignettes of well-known authors, such as Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the poet Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” In that spirit, I’d like to reminisce about my own childhood Christmases in a family of 13.

Christmas Eve seemed to take forever to arrive. After weeks of thumbing through the dog-eared pages of the Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas wish book, we kids were beside ourselves anticipating Santa’s visit and the toys we were dreaming of being placed magically under our Christmas tree.

Just a few days earlier, my father had bought a real balsam fir from the local tree lot and set it up in our basement. He’d wound the colored lights around the tree with the patience of Job. Then began our painstaking job of hanging the tinsel. Strand by strand, we hung each piece just so on the branches until the tree shimmered. Finally, we were allowed to hang the ornaments, many of them homemade by us and Dad, who loved art projects, paint by numbers, model airplanes and the like. I still have a couple of the sorry looking satin ball ornaments I decorated years ago with the bare minimum of flourishes. Art was never my strong suit.

But baking was. My favorite Christmas activity was baking cookies with my mother and sisters. Our table was covered with cookie pans, colored decorations, flour and the cookie press, which made adorable and delicious little spritz cookies that looked like trees and stars. My mother would color some of the dough green and red for an added festive touch. While we rolled and decorated and baked, we listened to Christmas songs on the hi-fi and sang along, attempting harmonies we’d learned in chorus class.

In school we cut out snowflakes and made cards with a lot of glitter and thick white paste from a jar with a plastic stick. We visited the Nativity scene at church and noticed that the manger was empty, awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas. We sang the traditional carols of the season and lit the Advent candles each week – first one, then two, then the pink one, and finally all four in a circle, the four Sundays of waiting for Emmanuel.

In our big Catholic family, religion was central to our identity and to Christmas. Before we were even allowed to peek at what Santa had brought us on Christmas morning, we would bundle off to Christmas Mass. It was so hard to sit through an hour of prayers and songs, kneeling, standing, and sitting. All I could think about was my present under the tree. Even the arrival of baby Jesus in the manger couldn’t distract me.

The night before, Christmas Eve, I had found it so hard to sleep. I lay snug in my bed near the hissing radiator and strained to hear reindeer hoofbeats on our roof. I was sure I’d never fall asleep until, all at once, a filtered light shone through the curtains and onto the snow-ladened yard, and I knew Christmas had come at last.

All eleven of us kids sat at the long table in our breakfast room and choked down food, scarcely noticing what it was. We dressed in our red velvet jumpers, each of them painstakingly sewn by Mom. Our hair was brushed, and our patent leather shoes shone, and we passed the closed basement door longingly, knowing that Santa had come last night and deposited the mother lode down there under our tree. Into our galoshes, our coats, and our mittens, which were attached by a clip to our coats so that they wouldn’t get lost, we ventured into the cold and piled into our station wagon.

After Mass and the riot of 13 people removing all their winter outerwear (and, of course, hanging it up neatly), it was finally time. We lined up in the kitchen from youngest to oldest. My dad opened the door and went down the basement stairs with his camera so that he could film us coming down. Then pandemonium. We galloped down the stairs with shrieks of glee and ran to our spots around the tree.

The mountain of gifts seemed enormous. In reality, we each received two or three things. Our excited chatter filled the room, and my parents wearily watched us from a couple of easy chairs. Dolls, toy cars, games, soft and cozy pajamas. One year my younger sister and I received a joint gift – a beautiful dollhouse with tiny furniture and a little family. I still remember my favorite piece from that dollhouse: a red velvet chaise longue. It seemed so elegant, as if a rich family resided in that toy mansion. After sufficient oohing and ahhing over our gifts, we checked the socks we had hung by the fireplace. Invariably, there would be plenty of hard candy stuffed inside and, at the bottom, a perfectly round tangerine.

Later on, we would have an early Christmas dinner in our dining room and then visit relatives. After a long, full day, we would go to bed and sleep heavily, our days of waiting and longing finally fulfilled. And in the morning, if we were lucky, there would be snow to play in. And I could start dreaming – of my January birthday!