It's universal

The conversation went something like this:

"Hi, hello, nice to see you!"

"Yes, hi. How are you?"

"Fine. We're on our way to to visit a kindergarden."

"Oh yes, I am on way to pick up Max at the kindergarden here in Oberkassel."

"Really? We tried to get in there but it was full. And now we can't find one that is close to our house."

"Oh, but there are two families leaving. One is headed to Switzerland and the other to Munich...I will tell them you are interested and...."

And so it went. You can fill in the rest. And though I simplified it for translation purposes, you get the idea. Seems there is no room in kindergarden in Oberkassel and San Francisco. I felt right at home as overheard these two moms talking, while I waited for the S-bahn today. Frustration and a bit of worry lay below the surface of their words and I wondered if this is simply the newest topic amongst moms everywhere.

Universal motherhood indeed.


For my dad

My mom took this picture. I just found it. The nugget was only a few months old. Now he's walking and talking and way too big for that pram. Its the nugget with my dad. Its at the cemetery that looks out onto the Pacific Ocean, where when I was nineteen, we scattered his ashes.

Today is his birthday. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his death.

Back to back - joy and sadness, as if to be a yearly reminder to never forget that they belong together. And then in full circle. Today marking the beginning and tomorrow the end, in perfect metaphor.

But what happens between today and tomorrow is a lifetime of memories like sardines on saltines afterschool, his bellowing voice at my brothers' soccer games, perfectly creamed onions at Thanksgiving, the life size leprechaun he crafted for my 3rd grade classroom, the collapsible and mobile picnic table that I found unbelievably embarrassing and the way his left eyelid kind of dropped and slanted over his eye.

And between these two days I think of this poem that was written 2 years after he died. I remember it because none of the other books and cards that were given to us in condolence in 1994 made any difference - they focused on the end and the finality of his life. And for me, focusing on the end and the fact that it was too soon or too tragic, meant we didn't focus on the life. And well, that just wasn't good enough for me. And then somewhere I read or heard this...

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not how much we own;
The cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,
And more often wear a smile
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?

The Dash by Linda Ellis

This post is for my dad
Jonathan Rutledge Tower
June 28, 1939 - June 29, 1994
Because I am part of his dash


Summer reading

I was really envious of other moms when I heard about the great books or movies they were able to enjoy while breastfeeding. I had a very matter of fact little baby who didn't spend anymore time nursing than he needed to get nourishment, so I didn't have endless hours in a rocking chair. And somehow he managed to need my full attention so phone calls and texting were out too. I meditated instead. Well, attempted to meditate. Call it new mom meditation - breathing and simply trying to be it the present moment.

So for the first time in a year, I have read a book. Actually, I have read three books. And none of them were about infant sleep, developmental milestones or starting solids. Halle-freaking-uia! It may be however, that I am extremely late in my book reviews and these books are old news. If that is the case, scroll to the bottom and send me a comment about what book I should pick up next!

I have been nursing Traveling with Pomegranates: A mother-daughter story since December. It was a gift from my mom for Christmas. She usually gifts me some sort of reading material about spirituality, so I was excited to get something lighter and easier to digest. Or so I thought. The irony is that this book is indeed a book of faith and spirituality. But it is also a book of relationship and truth telling and coming into one's own, at 20 and at 50, and probably several times in between.

The story is co-authored by Sue Monk Kidd (of The Secret Life of Bees) and her daughter Anne Kidd Taylor and their journey of self-discovery. I nursed it because I have a 15 month old tornado who keep me busy and when I try to read at night, I usually only make it through the first paragraph. But I think I also nursed it because it is a journey of insights and awakenings and I needed time to process how their story affected mine. I saw myself as the daughter and the mother, as the young woman searching for her path and the older woman full of self knowledge about the needs of her creative self. I underlined wise insights and "aha" moments. I even googled Anne and with great interest watched the video of the commencement address she and her mother gave after the book project was complete.

I nursed this book because I too have a mom and we have a sometimes complicated relationship.

I nursed this book because it is a journey about travel in one of my favorite parts of the world, experiencing and finding the Divine feminine and for one young woman, becoming a writer. It was this synchronicity that I paid attention to and savored as I approached the 1st birthday of my baby boy and began to wonder what it is I want to become.

During my three days "off" a few weeks ago, I let myself buy a book in the Tassajara bookstore. I could have gone for something about everyday mindfulness or learning how to really live in the present moment, but I was struck by the cover of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and I will be the first to admit that I always judge a book by its cover.

I read the whole book in three days - by the pool, at the hotsprings, to kerosene light before falling asleep. It is compelling and pulls you in - but I realized I pushed myself to finish because I knew once I headed back up into my world, it would take me months to finish.

The back cover tells very little. On purpose I suppose, so I will do the same. In short, it is a story about what can happen when you stop communicating in your marriage, the dark and festering side of humanity and the inner voice that sometimes pushes you do the right thing, no matter what the consequences. It is not light and fluffy, but it is honest and hauntingly real and even a bit hopeful.

And now here in Germany, I have gotten the chance to read book number three. My mother-in-law is an avid reader of books in English and she usually has a stack waiting for me when I come to visit. Not able to indulge in German television (which I really love to do when I am here) because the TV is in the room where the nugget is sleeping, I have ample opportunity to read.

So in this week, I started and finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Again, its a story about being in relationship. And again, its a story about women being in relationship to other women - as strangers, as mother and daughter, as employee and employer, as friends. It is a story of two sides and unlikely connections. Its a story about standing up for what you believe in. Its a story about women: the good, the bad, the ugly, the unpleasant, the vicious, the generous, the benevolent and the triumphant.

But, it is just a story. I am fairly certain that many of the pop-culture references are not dated correctly and the use of stereotyped language and socio-economic circumstances is fairly extreme. I am a white woman who grew up in California with no domestic help so I don't have a reference point or any clue. I can only choose to see this book as a snapshot of an important and utterly appalling time in American history.

{Side note: I mentioned my proclivity for judging books by their cover and if you click on the link you will see a different cover for The Help. It threw me when I searched for the book on Amazon because to me this yellow cover doesn't work with the story at all. But I see how it could be more appealing on the shelf...I am really quite curious how and why the 2 covers were designed so differently. What do you think?}


Just because

A few questions worth thinking about....from one of my new favorite blogs Annekata. Grateful to Oma and Opa for taking the nugget to the park yesterday so I could indulge in answering these questions, just because.

1. If you could have a dinner with a famous person (alive or dead) who would you choose?
Can I choose not famous? Because I choose my dad. I was 19 when he died. I was not old enough or mature enough to have become friends with him and I there is so much I want to know.

2. Where would you have that dinner?
Balthazar in New York City

3. What book written (in the last 300 years) had a real influence on your life?
First, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood because it was the book that changed my relationship to reading. And second, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert because it saved me.

4. If you could live anywhere, in any time, what place and time would that be?
I often think I was born into the wrong era. I have a romanticized view of life in England during the time of one of Jane Austen's stories. On the other hand, I could easily imagine living amongst the rice fields of Bali, no specific era in time.

5. What season would reflect you best?
Summer because it is acceptable to be barefoot all the time. Winter because it is introverted and quiet and prone towards melancholy.

6. What do you wear when you don't want to think about what you wear?
My favorite pair of jeans, a white tank top, a gray sweater and ballerinas. Or if they happen to be appropriate, my cowboy boots.

7. What does craft/making mean to you?
It means a complete detachment from time. It means creativity. It means working with my hands. It means contentment. It means joy. It means making a mess. It means having a space of my own. It means pride. It means making something with my own hands.

8. If you project yourself into the future. Is there anything you would like to achieve in the next 2 to 5 years?
I would like to write something for a magazine, either printed or online.


Frozen in time.

Sometimes the camera just isn't available. Sometimes the lighting is just off. Sometimes you just have to write about a moment so that it never disappears.

Tonight, I had a nugget who woke up at 10pm and couldn't go back to sleep. We were still outside indulging in the heavenly summer weather. I let him join the party. Having already played in his sandbox in his pajamas and eaten his first piece of Apfelkuchen, I knew my attempts to get him back to sleep would be in vain.

And on his own, he waddled up the stairs in his misbuttoned onesie, to Opa's open door.

And then, when I was back downstairs, I looked up and through the spaces in the stairs, saw a calm and motionless nugget, sitting in Opa's lap. And both, were mesmerized by the World Cup game playing on the screen before them. Opa pointing and explaining off-sides, nugget pointing too and making some inaudible comment. And I just watched. And listened. And smiled.

I tried to take a picture but the angle and the light were against me. I tried to make a video, but I didn't want to disturb or the end the moment in order to capture it for later. I tried to end the novelty early to do a much needed diaper change, but once in my arms he squirmed his way back into Opa's direction and imploringly held out his arms. I think we had one really happy Opa and one really happy nugget.

And besides, what's the harm in a little Apfelkuchen, a little World Cup watching and a little going to bed late anyways? We're on vacation and life is too short to miss out on moments like these.


The official jet lag cure for toddlers

Exhaust them.

Take them to the zoo, put them on Opa's shoulders, let them eat their first ice-cream, let them hide with the big boys in the sand, let them skinny dip in Oma and Opa's back yard and let them stay up until 8:30pm.

And that's how you get an excitable and curious 15 month old to sleep through the night again.

Happy mama, happy baby. At least for today.


A visit from the Stork

There is a darling tradition here in Germany of hanging out a clothes line of baby clothes in the first days after a new baby is born. I first saw this tradition in Bavaria several years ago where the line was actually strung across the narrow cobblestone street - from one high window to the opposite side - marking a sort of threshold and welcoming. It was sweet then, as it is now.

Not sure it would have the same affect though if had tried this at home in California.


Just imagine

Imagine you were walking down Mission Street and you got to Monument and you realized the store was maybe not so stroller friendly. Imagine instead of walking away and waiting to return without your baby load, that you could simply grab you little one into your arms and leave the stroller parked outside.

Just imagine.

I know that I am not in a big city at the moment and that perhaps in Berlin there would be fewer or no buggies parked outside small shops, but this is just one of those little subtle differences that I notice about Germany and the US. Small town or not, there is friendlier atmosphere towards mothers, no question.

Just imagine.


Jetlagged in Germany

Up at 2, asleep at 5. Awake at noon. Wondering where the day went.

And so it is the question: Force the transition or let it happen naturally? It is an easy question for an adult and depends utterly on one's plans and situation. It is a whole story when dealing with a toddler. For a couple of days, I simply let it be.

Now, I think it is time to take some executive charge. Firm yet flexible, just as any mom should be when it comes to baby sleep.

What is different this visit is that I have time on my side. Time to take things slowly and let them settle. Time to just be here instead of frantically trying to fit jetlag, Kaffee und Kuchen and all the mandatory friend visits all into the same 10 day period. No, this time there is time and I have just now realized what that means.

It means no rushing, no stress, no needs to be a certain way, now. And, I have to say I didn't mind indulging in a bit of German tele late last night, as the nugget sat quietly for a few moments at my side, cradling the 3 remotes I was letting him hold. A little WM (Spain vs Honduras, I think), a little Golden Girls with bad dubbing and almost all of a reportage on the life of Michael Jackson called: Michael Jackson, a life not black or white. It made me think about all the midnight wake-ups that happened when I was little and all that my Oma had to offer was 3 channels, 2 of which stopped at midnight and the other that ran either infomercials or lusty lady phonemercials. Made me appreciate the 30 channels, CNN World and actual shows that I now had access to.

But it was getting later and I was determined to get the nugget to sleep before 2am. He acquiesced without much of a fight, seems he would like to be back on a schedule as well and I was left to be nostalgic. I lay in the room that I get to sleep in upstairs, thinking about sitting on my Oma's couch with my little brother and my half-asleep mom, who somehow managed to sleep while we were wide awake at 3 in the morning. I guess she knew she didn't have the luxury of sleeping in until noon.

And now, as a mom, I completely understand why.


For him

What used to be sad, isn't sad anymore.

What used to be about not having is now all about having.

What used to be about my dad is now about his dad.

And his dad, well, we both really like him a lot.

To all the dads, far and near, happy dad's day.


Flying time : 9+ hours

"I am not going to sugarcoat this for you - this is not going to be fun. But it will be over, at some point, so just keep that in mind." - a mom-friend on flying alone to Europe with a toddler

But I did it - I got on an airplane with a 14 month old, by myself and flew from San Francisco to Frankfurt. And it wasn't that bad. I am glad I don't have to do it again, but my pre-trip assumptions of utter hell were simply assumptions. He slept, I sort-of watched 2 movies and we made it to Germany quite unscathed.

What surprised me was something more subtle. Having a bassinet reserved meant we were confined to the seats in the bulkhead. And there we were - three families, fives kiddos (3 babies in 3 bassinets, the nugget included), two dads, three moms (including me) , one portable DVD player, several pacifiers and a whole lot of patience. And from the moment we all were able to pre-board together, I assumed a sort of allegiance. But in fact, it seemed the exact opposite.

It felt like 9 hours of the comparing mind show down. My baby is sleeping. Hers is squirming all over the place. Mine is eating. Hers is coughing. Mine is not making a fuss. Mine won't go to sleep. Mine just woke up because hers was crying. She is watching a movie. Mine won't sit still. And so on.

There was no sisterhood of the traveling babies or divine secrets of the ya-ya moms-on-the-go. Nothing. Nada. No nods of recognition or support or "we're in the trenches together, sister. hang in there". I smiled a few times but my smiles were met with a sort of "who the hell are you" look, so I simply slouched back into my window seat and stop trying make friends with women I would never see again. But it made me feel alone - more alone than the fact that I was actually traveling alone without my husband. It was a feeling that had started somewhere in the security check line in SFO when the unhappy woman in uniform snorted at me to "move away from the table" to keep the line moving and ended only when a young man at the Frankfurt airport was the first to help with the stroller and escorted me and the nugget to the special elevator. I suppose air travel has become more about personal survival than communal harmony, with little room for random acts of kindness.

Too bad really, it might make 9 hours in an airplane, for the next mom and her toddler just a little less terrible.


Wabi sabi what?

Sometimes you learn about something and it makes the unclear clear and the indescribable, describable. That is what happened when I learned about the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi a few years ago.

I am writing about it now because our new rental house is wabi sabi - imperfect and quirky and aging and uneven. But it fits us. It lets us be ourselves and live the way we want to live - surrounded by the knowledge that other families have played and eaten and laughed and cried here before us. And the imperfections are comforting.

Wabi sabi is : the gentle patina of age : living modestly + simply : being satisfied with what is : living in the moment : accepting that everything changes, all the time : seeing the beauty of things as they are : small moments of celebration : imperfection

Wabi sabi is not : a design style : looking messy + unkept : plastic : disposability : stagnant : mass produced

In a home, its about mismatched plates, the patina of aging photographs, wildflowers, frayed edges, solid wood furniture and earthern clay walls, for example. It is not decoration or interior design, but a philosophy for living.

In this age of information overload, we can become overwhelmed by this quest to get it right and do it all. Wabi sabi suggests that by identifying with the imperfections, predictable/unpredictable changes and constant movement of nature’s cycles and rhythms, the unique traits of each individual become apparent and ease the pressure of living a perfect life.
If we can accept the imperfection and constant changes in nature and in our own lives, we can perhaps find a bit of happiness. In short, its about being the perfect imperfection.

Books about wabi sabi:

The wabi-sabi house : robyn griggs lawrence
Wabi sabi simple : richard r. powell
Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers : leonard koren
Living wabi sabi: the true beauty of your life : taro gold


Doing, doing, doing. Stop.

image from SF Zen Center Website

It took almost 24 hours to really get there. Not geographically and not physically - that only took about 4 1/2 hours stretched over 2 days. But mentally, the transition from the world out there to the world in there took hours and a few soaks in the indoor plunge and several long breaths and a whole lot of mindfulness.

So it was around dinner on my second evening at Tassajara that I really arrived. And when I did, I really did.

I could never really turn off the "my baby is with grand-ma for the first time and he is not here with me and I get to sleep 3 nights without him and my husband is at home" voice but instead of fighting it, I just sort of let it be. That is simply my chatter or at least the topic of my chatter and I knew that it would be with me the whole time. What I did not reckon with was the subtle physical ache that not being with the nugget caused. It was not extreme - just enough to feel the tugging at the muscles of my heart, like a reminder that freedom means something new for me. Something new that I have not yet figured out and am still trying to define.

So I let the missing be there and let myself talk about him if I felt the need, but mostly I just did what I wanted, when I wanted. And that, was simply divine. I was going to say kick-ass but somehow that didn't seem to fit this story about this sanctuary for the spirit, but really, that is what it was. Having 3 divinely decadent vegetarian meals prepared for you is also not bad, nor are the baths, and the freezing river, and the pool, and the supremely silent evening meditation. Different from my practice, and certainly more formal, the evening zazen (Zen meditation) was a reminder to me what it means to sit in community. To sit in silence, with others, and simply be.
Let's just say, that second night provided the deepest and longest restorative sleep that I have had in a really long time.

Thursday morning came as expected and I was indeed ready to return to my family. I was ready to be with them - not necessarily ready to be back in the world of the doing. Transporting them into the valley would have been the best solution - wonder what the residents would have done with the nugget? He is walking Zen, most of the time. Maybe I'll try that next time.

Just as I had come, I returned to the world of the doing via one hair raising, rugged road and simply let the ease of the last few days settle in. When I arrived at the dance studio, grand-ma and nugget were beaming - I am not sure who had had more fun. And when he saw me, I knew I had done the exact right thing for the both of us, by simply taking care of myself.

For more information about Tassajara, the Zen Mountain Retreat, affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center, please follow this link.