Beginning Today

A laminated sign that hangs on our cereal cupboard knob.
A laminated sign that hangs on our cereal cupboard knob.

Each morning the Plain Dealer is delivered to our doorstep. On school days, Hugo gets up at 5:30 am, starts the coffee, feeds the dogs and retrieves the paper. Because of his intense performance and rehearsal schedule, mornings are when Hugo does most of his homework. But first, Hugo reads the comics. Jules usually calls second and because Max is hurrying off to work, I let him read them before I do. Some days I don’t get to them until the end of the day and when that happens, I verify whether my horoscope panned out accordingly or not.

But now, on the dark mornings of winter break, the boys have been sleeping in and I read the comics while they still dream in their chilly bedroom over the garage.

On Monday, the comics dwelt overwhelmingly with New Year’s Eve and specifically with resolutions for the New Year. I had moved on to the other sections of the paper when the boys joined me one by one at the table with their coffee and cereal. “Have any of you thought of anything you want to do differently in the New Year?” I asked them. Nobody responded coherently and taking advantage of the relative silence, I went on. “We’ve had a wonderful year if you think about it: Claude has just finished his first semester of college, Hugo is doing well in Madrigals, band and school, Jules has just grown up in so many ways. We had Lyra this year, Max is in a good place at work, I’m writing regularly.” It would be fair to say that Leif has been tyrannical as a two-year-old, but kindly nobody did.

I also mentioned the dark events in the past month—the shootings in Newtown and upstate New York as well as the horrific rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in India. Violence and suffering are at the elbow of merrier holiday cheer this year. None of the victims could have predicted these events and taken preventative measures. Which means there is nothing to rule out similar events happening in our own lives. Thinking of the loved ones of victims of events known and unknown subdues my joy at what a good year 2012 has been for my family.

Less notably so too has the cold and flu season subdued our holidays. Often, I don’t catch the colds that the boys bring home and share with one another like a pocketful of tricks. I eat well, take my vitamins and wash my hands frequently. When I do fall to their viruses, I’m often last. I fell to the latest sinus virus two days after Christmas and, as Hugo says, it’s a hell of a cold. After talking with the boys about their resolutions, I took more medicine and by nine in the morning was back in bed. Lying there, I caught up on email with my phone.

When I go to bed, particularly in the daytime, I imagine a sonar implant going off in each of the children’s brains because within five minutes they start appearing in the bedroom I share with Max. The first to arrive on Monday morning was Hugo, still in his robe. “Go and get Claude and Jules, Max too, and tell them to come up to the bed,” I told him. Each Sunday, NPR sends me an email of the previous week’s most emailed stories, it’s a great feature and I highly recommend signing up for it. Once everyone had flopped onto our queen-sized bed, I read to them one of the top stories.  It was about a study of 9- to 11-year-old children who intentionally performed daily acts of kindness. These kids were found to be happier and more accepting of their peers than the control group. Furthermore, the piece mentions similar findings in studies on adults. (Random Acts Of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular : Shots – Health News : NPR)

“You know,” said Max, “I heard on the news yesterday about someone giving a Starbucks barista $20 to pay for the people behind him in line. One of those people also gave money and for most of the day everyone’s drinks were paid for by someone else.” I had heard that report too but then Max went on to tell me something none of us knew, which is that he regularly buys coffee for the person behind him at Starbucks. Max has a long commute to work and many mornings he stops halfway for a cup of coffee. “It makes a lot of people uncomfortable and I have to tell them ‘No strings, just let me get your coffee for you,’ but last week there was a man who came up and said to me, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but once when I was having a bad day, you bought my coffee for me and it made a real difference.’”

So instead of generic New Year’s resolutions, I asked everyone to think about doing random acts of kindness for a day or two and then talking about them at dinner. On New Year’s Day, Hugo shoveled the back parking area without being asked. Jules made bacon and pancakes for everyone for breakfast. Claude shoveled the sidewalk by the street, which is difficult because the pavement is uneven and the snow, much of which was plowed off of the street, is crustier. Max fixed a small wooden bowl my grandfather had made and my grandma had given me, which had cracked and sat in stacked layers on my dresser for nearly two years. But I who had initiated this kind act challenge, found it difficult to find an act of kindness to perform. I think the word “intentional” has me hung up. It seems like cheating if in an impromptu situation I am nice as opposed to planning a kind act. By day’s end, I felt as if I’d been generally nice but had failed to produce a planned act of kindness.

Human history is woefully stuffed with tales of aggression. Last month’s headlines were horrific, but little different than any month previous when considering all countries and not just our own. And the past is unchangeable. I like the political mantra Think Globally, Act Locally. I recycle, buy locally when possible, consider how the food I put in my mouth was raised and prepared. I always vote, I volunteer for campaigns and I give money to local candidates. I wonder if, along with environmental and political issues, random acts of kindness fulfill the grassroots goal of local action affecting global outcomes? I think most often I am a local optimist and a global cynic. Is Think Globally, Act Locally just a placebo to feel better about an individual lack of empowerment to change the world’s problems? Occasionally one person, like Dr. Paul Farmer who is the subject of Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, is able to change a segment of the world for the better, but few of us have the ability or desire to be a Paul Farmer. The best we can do is facilitate the Paul Farmers we know while ethically comporting our own lives. (Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World: Tracy Kidder: 9780812973013: Amazon.com: Books.)

Back to the Role of Parent

I stated in my first post that I do not want this to be a just another mommy blog, that discussed in these posts will, yes, be my family, but also questions on life and politics. But so often, if not always, all points swing back to family.

Family Is Practice

My children have been raised as Shambhala Buddhists and so far continue to view their spiritual development within that paradigm. They all know how to meditate, which is in some ways the equivalent of prayer in other faiths, and ideally done daily. While I don’t monitor them, I’m fairly confident that nobody in this house can claim daily meditation practice. What I do hear is from all of us is a desire to meditate more. It’s hard. Finding  15 quiet minutes in a house where seven people live, two of whom are babies, is nearly impossible when the sun is up. Yet those same meditation interrupters are the best teachers. Being a good parent means regularly putting the needs of your children ahead of your own desires. You desire sleep, but you stay up with a sick child. You desire listening to the radio in the car, but you listen to a Kindermusik CD for the umpteenth time. You want to react to your teen’s anger with equal anger but you don’t, or if you do, you later apologize with sincerity like you’ve not shown in an apology to anyone else. And for these and so many more examples, a fellow Shambhala Buddist once printed up T-shirts with the phrase “Family Is Practice.” One needn’t be Buddhist to understand this.

I would like to say that I am actively raising empathetic children who are growing into compassionate adults who will approach life with mindfulness. As their mother, I question my objectivity to analyze my sons’ qualities. What I do see is three teens (okay, Jules is still 12 ½) who enjoy their younger siblings. They are patient with Leif when he throws tantrums, they play with him in ways that border the worlds of adults and children and which Leif loves, and they pay attention to when he needs something, including a diaper change. All of them hold Lyra like she’s the best bundle of goodness they’ve ever come upon, which she is, but they’ve figured this out on their own. And that means they are considering someone other than themselves. Who knows if they’ll take that out into the world of their adult lives? I don’t, but I hope they do.

No Easy Pieces

I told Max before my last post that again I hadn’t written anything light and funny. “You’re Scandanavian, you can’t help that you keep going back to you inner Kierkegaard.” I don’t know if it’s my heritage or my personality, but I do brood. I’ve been working on this post for several days, contemplating the richness of my personal life and the contentment I see, at this moment, in all my children and my partner. All of this contextualized in the dark events reported last month.

True Confession: I love Facebook. I have issues from time to time with the policies of the company, but as a tool for communication, I embrace the technology. Before Facebook, family and friends rarely saw photos of my kids, as I’m just not efficiently organized enough for printing and mailing hard copies. With Facebook, I have stayed in communication with people who have moved away or I don’t see regularly. I have rediscovered old friends and become better acquainted with people I barely knew from my childhood. I don’t friend everyone and rarely unfriend someone.

When I checked Facebook this morning I found the following post written by someone with whom I went to junior high school:

I have come to the conclusion the only reason there are so many stupid people is that it’s against the law to shoot them!

Besides being profoundly tone deaf to the news, I imagine the person who posted this does not actually wish to shoot, and by implication kill, anyone. I imagine that this person had a frustrating day. Perhaps the traffic was bad getting home from work. Perhaps the cashier at the grocery store was rude. And, yes, perhaps someone did something stupid. I’ve been frustrated on days when things don’t happen as I want them to. Sometimes I can look past it, but other times it can put me in a foul mood. I may yell at the kids to clean the kitchen when asking them would have gotten the same, if not better, results. I withdraw in my own home, wishing to be left alone, which I will categorically tell anyone who tries to talk to me.

I don’t assume this person meant shoot people with limited IQs, such as my daughter. I don’t assume this person meant shoot people who aren’t college educated, such as my parents. I don’t assume this person meant shoot people with high IQs who have learning disabilities, such as two of my sons. I assume this person’s definition of “stupid” in this context was “anyone who prevents me from having what I want when I want it.” We’ve all been there. I imagine the people being called stupid were also not the family or friends of the person who posted. Random acts of kindness are easier given to those we know and love. It is harder for those we don’t know and harder still for those whom we don’t like for whatever reason. If there is transformative power in being kind, I suspect it is even greater when being kind to a stranger or an enemy.

This person’s post provides the perfect illustration of a commonly quoted Buddhist slogan:

Desire is the foundation of aggression.

It also causes me to think of my own language. At times, I speak with words that would convey a violence I don’t intend. For example, I recently said I wanted to pinch Leif’s head off when he was in the throes of a full-blown tantrum. And

My Random Act

I haven’t committed one that is intentional. Perhaps I will stop before speaking and think of what my words mean before I say them. Today is a new day full of promise and opportunity for me to do so. I hope anyone who reads this will consider doing the same. According to the aforementioned study, it may make you happier. I can’t tell you it will change the world, but the effects can ripple beyond you and your day, just as they did for the person whom Max bought a cup of coffee. Maybe acting locally while thinking globally is a placebo. But for most of us, it’s what we have to work with. Just try it.


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