Thursday, March 1, 2012

A boy and his dogs

Our youngest son, Aiden,  has always had a deep connection to the animal kingdom. He's an empathetic soul and naturally inclined to being a  compassionate caretaker.
Aiden loves all animals, but he has a special affection for dogs. He was the little kid with the big DK Book of Dogs tucked under his arm everywhere he went and he’s the guy who knows the addresses of all the dogs that roam our neighborhood (and he is always willing to round them up & take them back home). Protector of the runt, the lost and the lame! That’s Aiden! At the moment, our small house is home to 3 cats and 3 dogs. Aiden is responsible for bringing 4 of said critters in and they are all as devoted to him as he is to them. Even my own dog chooses to sleep with him!

3 dogs & a boy in a bed!

When Aiden was barely 15, he really wanted to try to find a job. With the economy the way it is and the fact that there are a lot of restrictions placed on the work schedule of anyone under the age of 16, I didn't have high hopes. We started out looking at Craigslist, just to see what was out there. Interestingly enough, there was a lot of work at doggy day care facilities. “I would be good at that, Mom!, he said. And I knew he would be, if someone would give him a chance. We wrote up a letter of introduction that included his interest dogs in & his responsibilities for his critters at home. I talked him through the basics of business introductions and he set out on his bike with his letters in hand. He must have dropped off 10 letters that first week. He asked for the owner or manager & shook hands and each of them. He had some great stories to tell about meeting those people and, within a week, he had a job!
The man who hired him was impressed with Aiden’s initiative and his obvious interest in dogs. I like to think that taking a risk on a young kid with ambition paid off for Richard. Aiden has worked for him at Austin Canine Central for almost 2 years now. It's a great job for a kid his age, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. He has his weekends free and plenty of time to pursue his other interests during the day, but 5 days a week is a big commitment too (at least in unschooling terms!). The job has it's upside: he gets to play with dogs! and it's downside: he has to clean a lot of dog crates! but he enjoys all of it. He works with a great group of people that he genuinely likes (all of whom are at least 40 years older than him) and he's learned a lot about caring for and training dogs. He’s proud of the work he does and people appreciate him for it. More than once, we’ve been out and about and someone has approached him to shake his hand and thank him for taking care of their dog. It makes him feel good, to be recognised and appreciated, but "the glory" is not the reason he sticks with his job.

I wish I could tell you that Aiden planned to go on to be a veterinarian, or even a dog trainer, but, at the moment, he has his sights set on professional BMXer (did I mention that he’s a 16 year old boy?!). Whatever he does, I couldn’t be more pleased about his first work experience. As unschoolers, our focus has always been, do what you love and the lessons will follow. Aiden’s love of dogs led him to a first job that he enjoys, where he continues to learn about a subject he's interested in, in an environment where he is valued and appreciated. Who could ask for a better life lesson than that?!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The process and the perfectionist

We are in the middle of a bedroom shift at our house. We needed to paint the bedrooms and that meant moving everything off the walls anyway so a shift didn't seem like too much more trouble. Our youngest, Aiden, (16), had been in the smallest bedroom in the house and, since he's most likely to be at home the longest, and honestly, really needs the most space (energetically & physically!), it made sense to move him into a bigger room and give his older brother the smaller one (which has it's own bathroom, which equates to more privacy so, it worked out for everyone).

Boxing up Aiden's room was no small feat! Aiden is what I refer to as a sentimental hoarder.  Where he gets it, I'll never know! (snigger! see my making room for the piano post for full disclosure). Packing up his room was like a walk down memory lane: stuffed animals, toy cars, jewelry, his extensive knife collection, the  broken skateboards (he can tell you exactly when, where & how each of them were destroyed) and the artwork: boxes & stacks of drawing pads & journals.  Aiden hasn't drawn anything in years but he's got the goods to prove that he used to be really into it!
I always thought he was a great artist. He had a really unique & edgy style. But Aiden has always been a very active and social kid and, at about 10 years old, that became all encompassing. There was no longer any time for artistic pursuits because the great outdoors called. Hiking, climbing & exploring near our creek with his friends gave way to skateboarding and then bmx biking, both obsessive hobbies. If he wasn't actively participating in them, he was watching videos or reading magazines about them (the bmx thing should not be in past tense here, it is still very much his passion).

And, art wasn't hard to let go of because he was often irritated by his process. Aiden is one of those people who thinks he should be able to do everything really well, right from the get go. I gather that there are a lot of people in the world like this (a form of perfectionism) but I am not one of them. I'm all about the process of learning. I like how the spark of an idea and the flow of creativity can lead you somewhere you never imagined going! As an artist, Aiden was always frustrated. The images in his head did not match up with the images on his pages. It drove him crazy! My assurance that it was the same for me was of no comfort to him. In his mind, he was no good and so, he abandoned it.  And then, all these years later, while boxing up his room, he starts going through his old drawings. "Hey, Mom, you know, I was a pretty good artist!". "Yes, Peanut, I always thought you were..."

Last night, I walked into the family room to discover him, BMX video on the TV and sketch pad in hand, drawing! "I think it looks like a toucan" he says to me. I ask him what he was going for "nothing in particular" he says, "I just felt like drawing." "It's a cool drawing!" I encourage. "Yeah, I kinda like it." he replies. And for me this is a huge milestone! No drama or frustration. No expectation of outcome. Just the pleasure of drawing.
Will it lead to something more? A desire to study art? Who knows! For me, it's not about that. Like I said, I'm all about the process of learning and, in this case, the spark of a new idea (I was a pretty good artist but I couldn't see it at the time) opens the door for all kinds of self reflection, and perhaps, a new attitude in his future explorations. When you don't have an expectation of how something should be, it's easier to enjoy the process and appreciate the outcome, whatever that might be.
And that's a great life lesson!

Friday, January 27, 2012

The legacy of LOVE

I thought a lot about how I was going to raise a family long before I had one. Most of the ideas I had were reactionary; I was going to raise my kids differently than my parents raised me! As a young woman, I was resentful towards my parents and blamed them for all of my insecurities & issues. I thought they were critical and uncompromising. Even mean spirited at times. From a young age, they seemed to disapprove of  everything about me!

Of course, I was born a rebel. My mother likes to say that my first word was "why?". And the standard reply, "because I said so", was a bitter pill that I could not choke down without struggle!  It couldn't have been easy for my middle class, conventional parents to handle a first born child who hated shoes from day one & preferred a yellow chenille bedspread, wrapped sari style, to ANY real clothing. That is, until I became a teenager & I discovered vintage clothing and thrift stores! Oh the embarrassments that ensued (it was the 80’s...enough said)! "Why can't you dress like a normal person?!" was often followed by, "You look ridiculous". Those statements really hurt. "Why does it matter so much, what I wear? Why can't you just accept me for me?"


As a young woman, what I failed to recall about my childhood was that I was rarely made to change my outfit or denied the abstract painting or yoga class I so desperately wanted to take. I flitted thorough hobbies and often lost interest before the course I was taking was finished. That had to be frustrating for them! Yes, my parents were often negative and voiced their opinions freely, but in truth, they rarely stopped me from doing what I wanted to do and they financed most of it. Their words were often hurtful, but their actions...their actions were accepting. Confusing? Yes! And it was so easy to be blinded by the negative! And yet, even in those teen years when I hated them because I felt so rejected,  I knew that I was safe in this world because they would always be there for me. How could I know that and still feel so wounded? At the time, I doubt I would have been able to acknowledge it consciously. It wasn't a head knowing, it was a heart knowing. If you understand what I mean by that, then you have surely felt it. If you don't, my wish is that you will be blessed to know it in your own life very soon.
It's an amazing thing to know that someone will always have your back. To know that you are loved so completely that you know in the depths of your soul that you will never be alone in this world. I've met an awful lot of people who can't say they have that, who can't even begin to understand what that feels like. I know I am blessed.

In many ways I've raised my kids in reaction to how my parents raised me, unconventional rebel that I am. We're a family of free thinking unschoolers. Artists & hippies. My husband is offended if someone calls him a liberal, (because he's a radical). None of us ever wear shoes if we don't have to. My youngest son, Aiden, dyed his hair for the first time when he was 6 and he grew it long when he was 9. He has a unique sense of fashion, not unlike his mom (and, not unlike my mom, his choices sometimes make me cringe!). He's a risk taker and tortures my worried mother heart with his skateboarding & bmx biking!  My oldest son, Ari, has a more quiet nature, my introspective, artistic photographer. I often wish he would be a little more daring in life (and wear better fitting jeans). Both my boys curse more than I'm comfortable with and they can't seem to put a toilet seat down to save their souls!  Just like my parents, I don't always like my kids' choices and sometimes I ache with worry over assumed outcomes. But they are good kids; kind-hearted and compassionate young men who I am honored to parent.  


I don't like to argue and I try to choose my battles wisely (at least I think I do, my kids might tell you otherwise!) But, when I feel I need to give my opinion, I try to do it as gently as possible, with the understanding that it's simply that, my opinion.  And when I have to "lay down the law", I try to be compassionate, even when they badger me with “why” over & over again: "I know you really like this outfit but it isn't appropriate to wear cut offs and cowboy boots to your aunts wedding. You only have to wear the long pants for 3 hours and then I promise you can put the cut offs back on." Or "I know you really want to travel across the country with that awesome bunch of skateboarders but you're only 14 and I feel that's too young for you to be traipsing around the country without me. I'm not going to discuss it any more at this time. If you're still interested in a few years, we can discuss it again when you're 17".  I never liked being criticized by my parents and I try not to criticize my kids (or anyone else for that matter).  That isn't to say that I'm not opinionated! I just acknowledge that, in most things, my opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s.

Do I wish my parents had been less critical? Yes. Would it have made a difference? Who knows! Fact of the matter is, I like who I turned out to be and I have my parents to thank for that.  I reacted to their criticism by working hard in my own life towards a nonjudgmental attitude. I try to  focus on the commonalities I have with others, instead of focusing on the differences between us. I think I am a better person because of that.

My parents weren't perfect (goodness knows, none of us are) but they did their best. Often harsh and sometimes hurtful, but just below that murky cloud of disapproval, was an ocean of true, unconditional love.  That is the legacy I choose to acknowledge and pass on. And even before I got around to figuring it all out, that is the  foundation that I built my life on.

Me and my Dad

                                                                                           Mom and me



Saturday, December 3, 2011

Making room for the piano

I am hard pressed to find something I don't love in my living room. It's small & cozy & filled with things that bring me joy; my primitive art collection, my Virgins,angels and old dolls and my artifacts; rocks, pods & such collected from around the world.
It's not the family room; we have one of those too. Big, loud, filled with teenagers & technology. I don't spend much time in that room outside of movie night.
This is a room without TV. It's my quiet cozy part of the house. My "room of her own", where I read & write and relax. Where I am often alone. It's where I am right now.

My living room hasn't changed much in the last few years; a new feather in the vase or a small owl painting, nothing major. I got things right where I wanted them & I called it done. Why mess with perfection!

One of the things I've been working on in my spiritual practice is movement. I like to stagnate. If still is comfortable than stagnate is more comfortable, right? I think that's what my lizard brain expected. More is better, right?...well, stagnate is not really comfortable at all. It's numb. It's safe in a really unpleasant way. It's the opposite of living fully.

Now, my living room is anything but safe or boring LOOKING. It's a veritable oasis of interesting!
Still, energetically, it had gotten stagnant. I knew it. I'd been thinking about what to do about it. I was worried that anything I might do would make it less than it already was. I was worried about change.

And then came the opportunity of the piano!

My dear friend, Sue, also has a small & cozy "room of her own" but she is anything but stagnant! I have seen that room incarnate in many ways over the last few years! It was a dining room (where more scrap booking took place than eating!) and then a music room. And then a sitting room with a piano in it. Now it's going to be even more cozy and have a small, flue-less fireplace. The fireplace needed to be where the piano was so, the piano had to go!
Sue had some reluctance about letting go of the piano. She's the sentimental sort (we have that in common) and there are a lot of memories attached to the old piano, but her daughter, Katie, was the only one who played and she is off at a conservatory in New York and will probably never live at home again. And Katie is not the sentimental type. She didn't need her mom to save the piano for her. Sue knew the piano wouldn't sell for much so, before listing it on Craigslist, she decided to ask the mom's in our email group if any one wanted it.

When I saw Sue's email, I didn't think much of it at first. No one in my family plays the piano! But then I couldn't get it out of my mind! I grew up with a mom & sisters who played, but I was never given the opportunity to take lessons. Still, I loved hearing my mother play. She always played show tunes and lots of Christmas carols. My husband expressed an interest in playing too, but he never had the chance to learn as a child either. We would have gladly bought a piano when our kids were young but they gravitated to guitars & ukeleles and drums...rock & roll stuff. Still, I kinda wanted that piano!

And then I thought of my living room and I knew how to break the cycle of stagnation. I would take the piano and maybe, just maybe, if you bring a piano into the house, someone will play!

Making space for the piano meant moving a lot of stuff! In a room where I believed I loved everything, I had to ask myself, "how much do I love this"? Could I let this go? Did this have to stay?

Art shifted on the walls and all the objects at rest on my beautiful drop leaf table had to be relocated. There was no longer space for that table or my big, distressed leather wing back chair. It wasn't easy letting them go from the space, but I did (change is good, change is good). Inspired by movement, I went further than the wall that the piano would sit on. Under the window, where my houseplants sit in the sun, I replaced my mother's tea cart with my grandmother's trunk.I shifted the sofa & bookshelf, just a little, to open the space up more and decided to feel the room out, just for a little while, without my enormous primitive farm table/coffee table.
                                            Lolly in the big leather chair, next to the drop leaf table

I made space & the piano came in. Energetically, it felt great! And everyone was so excited to have a piano! I discovered that my youngest son had been teaching himself to play at his girlfriends house. Who knew! He favored these delicate little music box like tunes; so opposite of anything he listens to! And, within hours of it's entrance, my daughter & her boyfriend were learning to play John Lennon's "Imagine" with an app they found on the iPad. Imagine! That sound drew me out of my bedroom and back into the living room. My room. The piano room. A room I so often sit alone in, where now, one of my near grown children was sending me a message. A message about the power of change. Imagine....

Monday, November 7, 2011

haiku for a busy day

into the juicer:
lemons, lettuce, kale.
mason jar of hope.

grounding meditation
brings clarity and focus
so why do I resist?

Shouldn't I be in
the studio in overalls?
A luncheon, really?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Every Last Dimes

I have a little tea tin on my dresser that I fill up with dimes. I sort the dimes out of the rest of the change in my pockets at the end of the day and I tuck them into my little tin. It's almost full right now and I'm getting excited. You see, when the tin is full, I get to give them away. Where they'll go next, I'm not quite sure. What I do know is that I'm giving away my every last dime so they have to go!

Cute, right? I learned this from my Grandma. When I was a young woman, whenever I visited her, my grandmother would give me her "every last dimes". Right before I was about to leave, she would reach into her sock drawer and pull out a baggie full of dimes. She'd press the bag into my hand, plant a kiss on my cheek and whisper, "You are so special and so deserving that I want to give you my every last dime!" 
So sweet!   It was rarely more than 20 dollars but it was such an awesome sentiment! I treasured those dimes like I treasured her. I never spent her dimes on anything "regular" like groceries or bills. Her dimes were spent on a nice meal, or flowers, or some special trinket at the flea market that I would have otherwise never allowed myself to buy. Her dimes were given in a special way & I understood  that. I honored that.

I know my tin holds about $50 worth of dimes. Over the years, I've given my "every last dimes" to all sorts of people and organizations. The homeless man who's always on the corner with his 3 legged dog and his funny cardboard signs, an elephant sanctuary, a garden club, and a friend who needed a little extra money to treat herself to something nice. Sometimes, I know where they'll go before the tin is full and I get excited by the prospect of watching it fill up; anticipating when I get to give it away. Other times, I drop the contents of the full tin into a baggie and take it out into the world with me to see where they want to land. Some purpose always shows itself. And always, I do this in my grandmother's name, to honor the woman who gave me the gift of giving away my "every last dimes".

Sure, my family has our favorite charities. And my husband & I have tried to instill the importance of giving back (both of time and money) in our kids. But no one knows about my dimes. It's something I do quietly. It's not as much about giving back as it is about paying it forward. A little something extra for a stranger, an organization, a friend. My every last dimes.  I hope one day I'll get to press a bag of dimes into my own grand kid's palm, kiss their cheek and let them know they are deserving of every last dime. And I hope I can have the same impact on that child as my grandmother had on me. My sweet Grandma & her gift of every last dimes...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The healing power of "Radio Head"

My life has always had a playlist. I get songs stuck in my head & they loop over and over and, mostly, I enjoy it. I call it "radio head". I'm one of those people who really relates to; I mean, really responds energetically to, music. Maybe that's true for everyone, I don't know, but it's true for me. And because it's true for me, I learned years ago that I had to be careful about what I listen to & when. If I'm a little down about something and I go off & listen to Joni Mitchel's Blue, I can slip into the quicksand of depression so fast it's hard to pull myself back out! So, I've learned not to indulge, not to wallow, unless I consciously want to (and sometimes I really, really want to).

I learned pretty early that music could bring me down but it took me a lot longer to realize that I could do the opposite. That I could lift my spirits (and raise my energy) by playing music that inspired me & made me happy.  That realization made house cleaning sooo much more enjoyable! If you come to my house & you hear disco coming from the bathroom, rest assured that I'm in there cleaning! Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples can turn the drudgery of "what's for dinner?" into soul food! If you are lucky, you will hear the music coming through speakers caressing my less than "queen of soul" vocal abilities. But many times, it's just me, singing along to my "radio head". If you live with me, you learn to live with it (the alternative being that you go hungry or have to clean the bathroom yourself!)

I recently discovered another use for my "radio head" that has literally transformed me. I am studying the spiritual philosophy of the Toltecs. You may have heard of the book, The Four Agreements? That was written by a Toltec shaman, don Miguel Ruiz (I highly recommend this book! so simply put and profound!). Anyway, a big part of the work (at least for me) is getting past the mind chatter, or mind "vomit" as my teacher so delicately puts it.
Now, I don't know about you but my mind loves to spin a story! I'm a wife, a mother and a chronic worrier. My mind can conjure up a worst case scenario so fast it would make your head spin! Honestly, I should write for the Spanish Telenovellas! If my husband doesn't return my calls for a couple of hours my mind will have him dead on the side of the road.  My kid is late getting home; abducted. I'm not kidding! It's that bad! My head will have me standing over my beloved's grave or standing in front of the cameras pleading for the safe return of my child, before I even know it's happening! Can you imagine what kind of stress it must put on my body to have those stories play out in my head? And, if you didn't catch it on your own, my stories usually have me in the staring roll of victim! I'm left alone, I'm standing over the grave....
All my stories aren't so telenovella. I have your basic, run of the mill victim rants too. There are the ones that I use against myself, "I screwed it up again! How can I be so stupid?"  And the ones I use to distance myself from others, "how could he leave his dirty dishes on the table AGAIN after I've asked him countless times not to!?!" These rants are actually more insidious than the worst case scenarios because they're harder to catch, and before I know it, I'm really pissed off at myself or my kids and I'm spiraling out of control. YUCK!
So, a few months ago, during my class at the Toltec Center, our teacher was talking about techniques to quiet the mind. People often think that meditation is the only way and those same people are often quick to say, "meditation doesn't work for me" and then they give up (have to admit, I was one of those people!). "Mind vomit is a habit. You just need a new habit." She asked us to take a few minutes and try to come up with an idea; something we could do when we realized that our mind was running amok, something to stop the "mind vomit" in it's tracks.

Now, I dont really know where my idea came from; I'm not really good at coming up with ideas in the spur of the moment and, honestly, when this one hit me, I thought it was just plain silly. But we were going to go around the room and share and I was sitting to the left of the teacher and there was a good chance that I was going to have to speak first (which meant that I wouldn't be able to steal anyone else's idea).

And that's how it went down. I had to share first, so, reluctantly, I went with it. What had come to me was this; every time my mind went into overdrive, I would shut it down with a little ditty that I had learned as a kid from the Muppet Show. It doesn't have real words, just silly sounds, and it has some positive memories associated with it for me. It's the Manamana song. Do you know it?
It's these 3 monsters, and one of them starts singing "Manamana" & then the others chime in with "Do do de do" and then they go around again. But then the Mana guy goes off on a tangent of Manas until he's reeled back in by the other two. Like I said, silly! But it got some good feedback in the circle and I decided to actually give it a shot. I would try to override the mind vomit with silliness!
And you know what? It worked! I mean it worked really, really well! At first, I was only using it to override my negative self talk (that was what we had been specifically working on in class), but very quickly I learned to use it to shut down the judgmental voice that bitched internally about other people. Once I got intentional with my Manamana song, I became aware of a couple of other songs that have been in my top10 "radio head" playlist for a really long time, just waiting to be put to good use!

One of them is John Lennon's Mind Games. Great song! There's only one line from this song that's part of my radio head, "Love is the answer...and you know that, for sure". It's like a beautifully melodic mantra. I can play it over and over in my head and never tire of it. It lifts me up. It brings me peace. Sigh....The other song is "Shake Your Groove Thing" by Peaches and Herb. They hardly belong on the same playlist, I know! But I have very eclectic tastes and they both really works for me. And Shake Your Groove Thing can shake off the mind vomit (okay, that imagery is kinda gross!) and draw in some pretty powerful energy really fast! Both these songs were already programed into my radio head but now I was realizing that I could play them whenever I wanted. I could use them to override the mind vomit!
Look, I'm not saying that my mind never goes into overdrive and that I'm living a completely centered and grounded existence. I wish! I'm really new to this "living with intent" stuff and I'm working really hard at it. But hard isn't always hard and sometimes it's actually fun! Faster and easier than I'd ever imagined possible, my mind chatter has quieted. I AM more at peace inside myself, and, hey, I've actually started listening to some guided meditation and it's working for me! I CAN learn to quiet my mind!
And you know what? On the days when I can't seem to keep the mind vomit from creeping in, I now know that I have tools. And that's when I turn on my radio head (with INTENT!) & get my GROOVE on!