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We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”


– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence,” delivered April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City

Pleasure Bank

Muffin Bank

The hunger for sensation collapses into craving.  The call seems to rise up from somewhere inside my flesh.  It is deafening.  My mouth obsesses.  Sweets, yes, and the feel of pastry on the skin of my tongue.  Nothing satisfies but the hook is in and pulls me from my desk, my book, my deeper pleasures.

Usually it’s in the form of a chocolate chip muffin from the supermarket.  It might be a bagel, a cinnamon roll.  Reason is useless.  Already eaten a complete lunch?  The craving hollers through a swollen stomach.  Had a slab of banana bread for breakfast three hours earlier?   It might as well have been last year.

The sugar high and inevitable crash are unwanted, the extra calories weigh me down.  Keeping a supply of baked goods in the house would be disastrous, so I don’t dare make them at home.  This means I purchase piecemeal, dropping somewhere between $1.50 – $3.00 a day to feed the craving.

I understand addiction now.  It never made sense to me before, not viscerally, how a person could turn repeatedly to a substance they knew was doing them in.  Why not quit?  How hard can it be just to stop?   Because I kicked smoking and drinking years ago, because I work out daily and stick to my job and my commitments, it all seemed so simple.  The real challenges in life are about cultivation — building capacity, learning skills, growing a web of community.  Those are complex processes that require creative attention and the involvement of other people.  But quitting a bad habit?  Straightforward.  Just stop.

Now here I am on this day just like yesterday just like last week last month last year, wasting money and loading up on “treats,” feeling like crap about my finances and my health, and then soothing that distress with more store-bought sweets.

Just stop isn’t so simple anymore.

The hunger for sensation is much more expansive than this collapse into craving.  It is a hunger to feel something other than worn out and confused.  Almost any positive feeling — curiosity, awe, enthusiasm, playfulness, flow — would fit the bill, but they are as distant as rescue.  Self pity takes over.  I am bared before a bright wall of need.  A mass of slavering humans behind, a vertiginous climb ahead.   Affirmation and joy seem impossibly out of reach.

What’s within reach?  Immediate gratification.  Pleasure in the form of chocolate and a buttered crust.  I heed the call and feed the mouth.

I’ve just swallowed the last crumb and tossed the empty paper sleeve aside.   The rush of comfort is over.  Scurrying right in on its tail is the next craving (more more more).

This pattern is a broken record.  My needle is stuck in a groove on a particularly ugly note.  I know this in my body, my mind, my wallet.  What I am doing is not working.  But hating myself for being stuck is ridiculous.  The only way out is through, and the only one to take that step is me.

So here’s what I did.

I made myself a pleasure bank.

The images made their way up and out of old calendars and magazines.  They capture art and dance, play and color.  They are bright reminders of what else these moments on earth can be, what we all are if we are able to tap that hidden spring.  I fashioned the box from bits of cardboard and cut a slit in the top.  No bottom, no way out, not yet.

Every day that I forgo the pastry, I drop $1.50 in the bank.  When I went to the movies with friends and everyone else bought candy and soda, I skipped the Twizzlers and later popped $4.00 in the bank.

It’s been a couple of months now.  The bank is heavy with coins, stuffed with bills.  When shopping at the supermarket, I have to wheel past the glass cases of muffins and donuts.   At work, I pass right through the maddening baked warmth of Einstein’s bagels each time I enter or leave the building.

Almost every day since the pleasure bank took up residence on my bedside table — not every day, of course, because I’m still a mess of needs and hungers, but almost — I’ve steered clear of the pastries

What will become of the money?  Ideas glimmer at the edge of imagination, but the final Pleasure has yet to materialize.  It will be a non-food gift to the spirit in whatever form this flighty spirit might take.  Maybe a sports massage, the 90-minute decadent kind.  Maybe dance lessons.  Maybe a down payment on a piano, a night at the theater,  a day at a water park with Bug.  The container garden could use a few decent flowerpots to replace our plastic cast-offs.  These tired feet could use a new pair of shoes.  Maybe the cash will go into the IRA to nourish the long-term pleasure of a stable retirement.

Whatever blessing the money takes, it’s a double pleasure to know that alchemy is an art (or maybe vice versa?)  When turning one life-sapping habit into another, it is possible to make gold.


 

Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.


– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.


 

Ecdysis

Honeysuckle and waning moon. Outside
the door, freedom leaves
boots of alligator
teeth. They only fit you

when you take off
your skin
shaped name. Slice along seams
and peel back your tattoos,
those catalogues of cravings.

Permanence
is the chorus you memorized
and forgot
someone wrote. Before it
was,
it wasn’t.

You don’t go. You stay.
The going one is a stranger
with motives
unclear,
blood type
unknown.

 

Crouching Aphrodite

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.


– Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

The gait is an oddity.  You scoop now, or maybe swoop.  To walk forward, you have to cover distances along the vertical, an axis you’ve rarely considered. It is as if one torn hinge down below popped a hasp hidden along an adjoining edge.  The door swings upward now.  You must believe in this way of opening.  You must be willing to shift the fulcrum and lean against places you thought were solid.

Adaptation reconfigures the concept of self-reliance.

You are unable to chase down your wild one.  You find people who can. The children of the neighbors whose names you vaguely remember, they invite you because you invite yourself.  Their friends come, chatter and thump, with chocolate glass and athletes’ names stitched onto their backs.  Meat hisses and blackens over a grill.  Your little man plucks a fallen tree from the ground and hurls it across a blossoming acre of sky.  The other one rips a PVC frame from a soccer goal and turns on him.  They tear around the side where ropes and fence posts swallow them up.  Inside, girls scream.  Grease pops, a baby reaches with his crystal mouth for a slice of fruit left on raw wood.

You scale concrete steps and marvel at mechanics which you thought your birthright.  Undeserved, as is every blithe entitlement.  Fleeting, as is every aspect of the truth you trusted enough to ignore.

Pain is a flavor like coffee gone cold.  Good coffee, though.  Oil gleaming on jeweled beans.  Smoke at the edges.

Your joint is a broken tongue slipping around the memory of speed.  This is a small inconvenience.  You are grateful in a wholly unexpected way to those who have tripped over this earth in imperfect bodies.  All the ones who have scrabbled with impossible latches that bar the way to gardens too narrow anyway, or too terraced.  You thank them for every smooth paving stone, every ramp, every handrail.  You are ashamed of your earlier blindness, that disability of of the unimpaired.

The lips of those who see your hitch at first pucker with scars.  Then they chuckle them loose.  “This is just the beginning, you know.”  They are your comrades in arms.  In hips, ankles, in sciatic nerves.  Together with these allies in mortal combat, you watch an enemy front advancing over the horizon.  It moves fast.  It swells in on your flank.

Defeat is inevitable, a foregone conclusion.  You resist nonetheless.  You hold it off and clutch at your inch of territory even as it shrinks in your grip.

You lift your arm and ride its arc.  It will go too, soon enough.  It is here now, though, that crescendo, that cascade.  You lift your ears to the buzz (engine, wasp, feathered wings dipping then gone) and let heat squirm against your bare face.  This wash and flurry grates awake sinew that in its younger, uncracked state felt barely anything all.

You may return to ignorance.  Luck, they say.  This could heal without blade, just a dimming of pain, a steady return to familiar physics.  You welcome the liberation of your attention.

But you know better now.  You know that luck never holds out.  Bones will hollow.  Fluid will vanish from the eyes and reappear in lungs, in ankles, in tiny bubbles scurrying through veins.  Forward motion is a fleeting state.  As is independence.  As is hubris.  Soon you will need bodies stronger than yours to escort you across your days.  The same will happen to your children and neighbors, to your heroes, to everyone you’ve ever loved.

Like the shattering of childbirth, this crack and shift will fade.  Like childbirth, its footsteps will echo.  Its ghosts will walk your body’s locked corridors.

Keep all the hinges oiled.

Hold the keys close.


Image: Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum)

Boy Swing

After another night of ignoring, hitting, and name-calling (the kiddo to me, not the other way around, thankfully) and a morning with even more of the same, I’m lost again.  Serious anger is roiling around inside my son.  His cold fury manifests as prickling hands and words.  He seeks to  needle.  He seeks split the seams and set fire.

I recognize my tendency to respond to my son’s daggers with my own verbal stabs.  I roar.  I exert dominance.

These choices escalate the war.

Recovering from a recent hellish family trip to California, I posted this:

Bug’s had nine years to become the person he is.  I’ve had 42.  If I hope to cultivate healthier ways of being in our family, I’ll need to do it one itty-bitty step at a time.

I’m trying this now.  Seeking out and attempting tiny new approaches.  Even if I have no idea what or why or how, I’m trying something.

In the spirit of taking tiny steps, I choose this morning to read about natural and logical consequences.

From Alyson Schafer, “Positive Discipline: Signs your ‘Consequences’ are Punishments in Disguise”  in the Huffington Post:

A logical consequence must include three distinct qualities, and if any one is missing, it’s a punishment.

1) Related
The consequence must be directly related to the child’s behaviour. This is what makes it logical. Most importantly, the child must be able to see the connection. For example, if you don’t put your clothes in the laundry hamper, a logical outcome is that your clothes won’t get washed when it’s time to do the laundry. If you tell that same child that they won’t get screen time — one of our favorite things to confiscate — if they don’t put their clothes in the hamper, the child’s perception is that their parents are using their personal power to be mean and make them pay for their mistakes.

2) Respectful
Anytime you show a child disrespect, you are being punitive. (Quick test: Would you speak the same words to a friend or a coworker? If not, chances are it’s disrespectful.)

3) Revealed in advance
The child must be given all the information up front so they can make clear choices in their behaviour.  For example: “If you would like to eat, you need to stay at the table. If you get down from the table, you are excusing yourself and we’ll accept your choice and see you at the next meal. Please know there will be no food until that time, so when you get down, you’re done.”

In short: “Stay and eat or get down and wait until the next meal to eat — your choice.” But parents must be sure to actually follow through with implementing the consequence. Too frequently we simply threaten the consequence and the child fails to learn.


Photo from The Good Men Project

We tell ourselves the story that we have triumphed over the (official) racism of the land. We say, “It was awful then.” Then we twist ourselves into logical contortions to explain or ignore mass incarceration of Black men, the economic marginalization of communities of color, and a whole continuum of institutional racism.

In the post-civil rights era, newer forms of racism present formidable obstacles because they recruit and rely on our belief system about racial equality and egalitarianism. They hold that we exist in a meritocracy, and any consideration of race in policy or access is itself indicted as racism.  The new forms are more insidious than the public expressions of white supremacy so easily identified and vilified as racist.  Our shared narrative is a public expression of racial equality.

Meanwhile, we move ever further from welcoming any approach that seeks to rectify structural conditions of inequality.

We import the idea of meritocracy and lay it on top of these conditions. One example: we continue to base the funding of our schools on local property values. When students from those schools have chillingly different outcomes and opportunities, we attempt to understand it by placing it in a behaviorist frame, which obscures the structural imbalance.

We claim that because the law changed, society is fundamentally changed.  This is a fallacy.  The racial caste system is evident across the social and economic landscape.  The gaps exist in housing, health, incarceration, the accumulation of wealth, job training and discrimination.

We retreat from addressing the legacy of harm as we try to embrace of picture of inclusion or diversity.  We are confused and ineffective.  We have to be honest about the legacy.  If we have uneven playing fields and then function as if we are a meritocracy, we are doomed to continue reproducing the conditions that lead to those inequalities.


 

– From a talk by Tricia Rose, Professor of Africana Studies and the Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.