Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Essence of Life

One day I kept my [then] two-month old granddaughter, Piper, while her mom was at work and her dad ran some errands. She arrived snugly tucked into her car seat, eyes wide, not sure where she was or how she had gotten there. She'd been asleep in the car and apparently woke up while her dad was carrying her in. I've often thought about how it must seem to babies that they're continually traveling to Oz, because so often the people, places and things have completely changed when they wake up from a catnap. They're put in their car seat at home, they sleep on the road, and then they wake up in an entirely unfamiliar place. The looks on their faces seem to be saying that they're not ruling out munchkins or flying monkeys.

That day I stood over Piper and caught her eye, telling her softly that I was so glad she had come to see me. She smiled widely. And then the second after her father left, she decided to exercise her lungs. Big time. I reached to get her out of the car seat but I couldn't figure out how to unhook one major piece of the harness. The harder I tried, the harder she cried. I finally had to locate my glasses so I could see the blasted thing, but by the time I figured it out and sprung her she was inconsolable. She screamed. She cried. She stiffened her legs and clenched her fists. She pulled her own hair (which she had a head full of.) She sputtered and gasped and pushed so much air through those tiny baby lungs it could've inflated a moonwalk. Usually I was able get her quieted down within a few minutes, but this time she was not even remotely responding to my tricks. Five minutes passed. Then 10. Then 20. By that time I was afraid the neighbors might call Child Protective Services. Finally, after 25 minutes of non-stop shrieking her eyelids began to flutter closed, as if Tinkerbell had laid fairy-sized bags of sand on each lid. I rocked her from side to side while she was doing what my mother calls snubbing: sucking in tiny involuntary breaths that echoed the wails that preceded them. Piper finally succumbed to her siesta, and as I turned her over to lay her on a blanket I noticed the onesie she was wearing. It was decorated with colorful embroidery that spelled out two words:

"Love Me."

I stopped and stared. Amidst all the howling I hadn't even noticed it, and for some reason it hit me hard, as though someone had pounded me once with a blunt object. I stopped what I was doing and within a matter of seconds it occurred to me that we all arrive on this planet with those two words indelibly tattooed on our being. "Love me!" We crave it, so much so that as we get older it often drives what we do, what we reach for, what we demand. In America we are bombarded with messages - spiritually, materially, emotionally - that tell us we can be whole, we can be satisfied, we can be loved "if." In many church circles, it's if you follow the rules. According to advertisers, it's if you drive this car, if you wear this cologne, if you lose the weight, if you drink this beer. Sometimes our parents or family members tell us if we're "good" we're worthy of love, but if we dissent from the family "status quo," we deserve to be castigated and abandoned. Love is often conditional at work, at school and in various types of relationships, whether they're friends, colleagues, or lovers. No matter where it's coming from, the message is the same: If you'll jump through the hoop that's being held in front of you, you'll finally get what you came for. It's no wonder that we often get tangled up in things that promise to supply that precious commodity, but profoundly fail to deliver it.

Today my husband and I were in a crowded airport and I started looking at everyone I passed as though they were wearing a sign around their neck that said, "Love Me." And it was a pretty eye-opening experience. Among other things it left me feeling a little more compassionate and tolerant. Could it be that the people who are the most difficult are those who've not known much love? Might their unkind actions and obstinate ways be nothing more than their version of a 25-minute screaming fit? Certainly it's not healthy to tolerate abuse or to stay in close relationship with someone who is rude or obnoxious. And I don't think that our happiness should depend on how people treat us. But I wonder how often I would put my dukes down if I could just recognize that some people are simply angry and hurt because they're not loved well.

Image Credit: SharonaGott on Flickr
Licensed under Creative Commons

Friday, July 16, 2010


Climbing on the bed
I reached for the treasure
in the top drawer
of her dresser:
a blue velvet drawstring bag
resting in my hand
like a rare bird,
like a memory
eager to fly.

My transformation began
with the clunky, chunky bracelet
trimmed in rhinestones:
some as dark as sapphire
infused with an azure ocean
the kind where you can stand waist deep
and still see your feet.
It was a Caribbean vacation
for my wrist.

I riddled through her bulging closet
to find evening wear:
a long silky nightgown
a black felt hat with fishnet blusher
high-heeled shoes that slapped my heels like a flag in a furious wind.

Once attired
I stretched my arms toward the sky -
perched on tippy-toes
to reach the ultimate accessory:
her prized mink stole.
I wrapped it around my shoulders
and buried my face in the welcoming fur,
a simulation of the embrace
I regularly craved.

Afternoon soap operas
were my theme song
as I walked the tiny runway
in my grandmother's living room.
I was an eight year-old supermodel
fueled by the glorious certainty
that my presence on planet earth
really mattered
to her.

she looked up from the television.
The doctor's prognosis,
the woman's affair,
and the chronic ache for revenge
all droned on in the background,
but all eyes were on me.
All two of them.
And she adored me.
Each and every gaze
repaired a sliver of my brokenness.
Time stalked us like a shadow
hungry for years,
and before I knew it
she was gone.
But I still have the bracelet.
And I hope she somehow knows
that her fervent love
saved my life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I think nature has a lot to tell. From time to time I wake up and realize that I've been on autopilot, deafened by the demands of everyday living. A few months ago we took my mom to see Thornton Wilder's play, "Our Town." The plot is too much to fully go in to here, but to understand the context of the quote below, all you need to know is that a young mother, Emily, dies during childbirth. She gets an opportunity to go back to earth for one day, and immediately starts trying to think of the best day she ever had. Her guide strongly encourages her to select one that is uneventful and ordinary, but she persists in her quest to relive a special day. They finally agree on her twelfth birthday. She lands in her family's kitchen as they're getting ready for the festivities, though they cannot see her. She sees her brother and aches to reach out and touch him. She longs to hug her mother, to be back in the mix of what's going on in front of her. She sees the beauty of everyday, ordinary living. At one point she exclaims,

"Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
Then she turns to her guide and says, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?" He replies, "No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some."

And then Emily eventually returns to her "afterlife," painfully aware that she let the beauty and wonder of her once-mortal state escape her.

I can relate.

I wrote a song many years ago that starts out,

Winter turns to spring
And we don't blink an eye
The sun wakes and warms
As we pass on by
The mountains and the hills
Burst forth in song
Bellowing with beauty
As we hurry along.

That's the story of my life. In the chaos of everyday living I often completely miss the joys of living on planet earth. My family and friends are so precious to me. I can't imagine being in Emily's predicament, where I am no longer able to laugh, cry, celebrate with or hug those around me. But without a doubt, it will happen.

Since the dawn of time people have speculated and argued about what happens when we die. I wouldn't dream of trying to unpack all that here. But I do want to say that I think nature strongly hints that there's something beyond what we can see. Elton John's "Circle of Life" song from The Lion King comes to mind because it speaks of a life/death/life cycle. Here are some of the things that I've observed in nature:

• The sun. It rises (birth), sets (death) and rises again (birth.)

• Mortal sleep patterns. We wake up in the morning (birth) we go to bed at night (death) and we rise again (birth.)

• Regarding sleep, when we go to bed (die) we reside in an alternative world -- dreams. It's on a completely different plane than the "awake" space we live in, and other than the sketchy details that we remember (and soon forget) we have very little access to it. Think about it: every night we are ushered in to and "exist" in another world.

• Butterflies. They are born as caterpillars (birth), retire to a tomb-like cocoon (death) and then they emerge as a completely different creature (birth.)

• The seasons. Living things bloom in the spring (birth), expire in winter (death), and are reborn in the spring (birth.)

I know there are many more, but I can't think of them right now. I'll add them as they come to mind. Can anyone out there think of another example of birth/death/birth in nature?

Photo Credit: Daniel Garcia Neto
Licensed Under Creative Commons

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Learning to Talk

Here's a little video of when Piper (our two year-old granddaughter) was about 20 months old. Her mom and I were trying to get her to say stuff on camera. And despite our noisy attempts to extract words from her, she managed to think about what she was trying to say, and blurt it out. You can totally see the wheels turning in her head. She even asks her own questions (mom translates.)

I took a linguistics class a couple of years ago and one of the units was on language acquisition, also known as language development. I had never really thought much about how babies acquire the ability to communicate, and became pretty fascinated with the theories (especially because at the time my granddaughter was just learning to talk!) Experts disagree on how we "learn" to speak. Some theorists say that it's strictly learned or imitated, but that doesn't account for the fact that kids put sentences together that they've never heard. It also doesn't account for the fact that kids make mistakes in predictable ways. For example, it's common for kids to say, "I goed home" instead of "I went home." And they've likely never heard anyone use the term "goed."

Noam Chomsky, one of the most famous American linguists, believes that language is an innate thing, that somehow our DNA gives us the raw capacity to learn verbal communication. So a child who is born into a Spanish-speaking family will use the innate characteristics she has to learn the Spanish language, and a kid in Japan will do the same thing with the Japanese language.

I kind of believe that it's a mixture of innate ability and learning. All things considered, kids aren't given much information (i.e. stimulus) but they're still acquiring new words and phrases all the time. Yes, they hear us label things and learn to imitate that, but we don't teach them how to structure a sentence, they just eventually learn how to properly arrange nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc. And really, little kids can understand so much more than they can say when they're about a year old. If I say, "Haven, where are your eyes?" my genius little seventeen month-old granddaughter points right to them, even though she can't formulate the sentence.

Watching kids figure the whole language thing out can be so fun. A few personal examples:

• About three months ago Piper and I drove through Sonic. I was going to get her a kiddie ice cream, and I said, "Piper, which do you like better: chocolate or strawberry?" She replied, "No, I don't." She got strawberry; easier to clean.

• Last weekend Craig asked her if she was tired, and she said, "I don't tired."

• I recently went to pick Piper up so I could take her to the park. I said to her mom, "Maybe we can get ice cream while we're out!" Little did I know that Piper had asked her mom to pack some creamy yogurt in a cooler so she could eat it at the park. She heard me make the ice cream remark and had a startled look on her face, as if to say, "Listen to me!" I waited for her to formulate the sentence, and it came out haltingly, like this: I! Have! Yogurt! And then she smiled from ear to ear, because she was so proud of herself for telling me.

• Recently Piper spent the night with us. The next day she kept saying she wanted Popeye's.

Popeye's?? Fried chicken and biscuits??

Craig told her no, that we had stuff to eat at home and weren't going to Popeye's. She threw herself down on the ground and started crying. Later on I called her mom and said, "Do you guys take her to Popeye's a lot?" She replied, "Mom, she's saying "Pop Ice, as in the frozen popscicle things." Piper didn't have the ability yet to separate the two words, especially when there's a "p" at the end of one, and a vowel at the beginning of the other. The "p" and the "I" run together - try saying "pop ice" and you'll see that you do it too. The difference is that as adults we know to enunciate them separately if we need to.

Here's a video from a few weeks ago. You can see how much she's progressed. She even knows how to tell me that she's not going to do what I'm asking her to! Her phrase "No, I don't" has become somewhat iconic around here. I baited her to try and get her to say it, but when that failed I just flat out asked.