“Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

One reads the classics because

Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*

Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”

…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.

For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued upI read and re-read the classics.

book novel Of Human Bondage coverLast month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.

The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:

“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”

I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.

With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:

Phillip needed a caregiver.

He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.

He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.

Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.

Continue reading

The “trivial” work of motherhood

I must write about trivial matters because my job is trivial. I am, after all, “just a mom.”

Of course, there’s more to trivia than the casual reader might suppose.

When the idea for this post came to me, I thought my point was a common one. That is, that without the mundane yet necessary chores done by the unsung, ordinary worker, the hungry and unclothed genius could never accomplish great things.

I was failing to grasp my own point.

Trivial has come to mean “not important.” Merriam-Webster’s definition for kids states just that: “of little worth or importance.”

A deeper reading of trivial‘s etymology—it comes from the Latin “crossroads”— underscores exactly what I sought to express.

excerpted from Merriam-Webster

Mothers are “trivial” because they are the only tangible link between every human being and all others. I am literally the crossroads between my husband’s family and that of my birth. My body made possible a new line of human succession, like that of every biological mother before me.

And, this is mere biology. Any mammal could do it. It hardly bears mentioning, let alone an acclamation.

Except…

We are the nodes in humanity’s network of biological interrelationships. We tie the web together.

Everyone bears a mother’s mark at the umbilicus, the scar where the physical tether was broken after birth. The rending of this vital connection must be followed by emotional bonding with some dedicated caregiver*, or an infant fails to thrive.

Everybody has a mother.

How trivial she must be!

*Though, at this moment, I am particularly in awe of the notion of birth mothers knitting the entire human race together, let no one read this post as a denigration of foster- and adoptive mothers and other parents-by-choice. Parenting is a monumental task; everyone who undertakes it with dedication earns an equal measure of my respect.

Rescue! Lost dog finds his way home

There won’t be too many posts that I begin like this: I was a hero this morning before breakfast.

I’m being hyperbolic*, of course. I was merely helpful. I did, however, have the opportunity to ease a lost little dog’s obvious anxiety, then find his way home, and I did it before drinking my coffee.

I’m pretty sure the dog felt I was heroic.

I was startled by a flash of movement outside the back door. It’s a private, fenced yard where no one should be at 7:30 on a weekday morning. There was a little white dog padding anxiously along the perimeter of the house and yard, shivering and unhappy.

He walked up to the patio door. His eye contact said, “I see you, lady, and I’m meant to be in there with you. Why aren’t you saving me?

I called out to the rest of the household.

“Have you seen this dog before? He looks lost.”

Response: “Are you sure it’s not a cat?”

A fair number of neighborhood cats perch on the fence, but, no, this guy is a small white dog with some black markings and a powder blue collar.

I’m not a veterinarian or anything, but I felt confident stating this was a dog.

Someone more interested in dogs than I went out slowly and spoke kindly to him, but it was pretty obvious this frightened the little animal more. I was still the recipient of a lot of canine eye contact.

“Yes, lady, I’m looking at you.”

I never thought I had any dog whispering (canine telepathy?) powers before today, but I trust my interpretation.

We offered a bowl of water and someone went looking for an appropriate treat to lure him close enough to read his tags.

With a sigh, I sat down on the cold ground and the shivering pup edged his way nervously around the dog lover–sitting still and patient on a patio chair, hoping to help–and right into my lap.

The dog’s body language said it all:

Finally.”

Deep sigh.

I am allergic to dogs, so I usually speak to them politely while avoiding physical contact. They often resent my abject failure to pet (clearly knowing it is their due for having the grace to be domesticated and accept the often thankless task of being man’s best friend.)

Today, there could be none of that.

With my reassuring warmth relieving the chill of the morning, the tags on his collar were read, a neighbor’s phone number discovered, and, a few minutes later, a joyful reunion with a family member orchestrated.

His name is Buddy, and he was a rescue, and he is afraid of men. I know a few humans who share similar characteristics.

So I was Buddy’s hero this morning, bright and early, before my coffee. Like most moms, I live to serve. (Sort of, and with a bit of a giggling snort for that overblown statement.)

At least it is fair to say that, as a mom, I work to meet the needs of those smaller and less powerful than myself every day. Today, that small being was Buddy. Happy as he was to see his family, he definitely threw me a backwards glance. He was grateful that I eventually listened to him, and gave him what he needed.

I don’t know why Buddy picked me to be his hero this morning, but I was pleased to find I could rise to the task, allergies and all. Rarely are we so graciously asked when we are called to serve.

* Hyperbolic as an adjective relating to exaggeration, of course, but wouldn’t it be funny if I meant “being like a curve that is formed by the intersection of a double right circular cone with a plane that cuts both halves of the cone?” Even more fascinating: Merriam Webster states the the first definition predates the geometric one by more than a century (15th century vs. 1676.) Can that really be true? I feel that a great deal more research into this word is now warranted.

Summer morning snapshot: mother saying goodbye from a fishing cabin

Just before 6am, chilly in an unfamiliar bed in a rustic fishing cabin, I try to burrow deeper under a strange, thin blanket, and I listen as my little guy leaves the house with the men.

He’s small for his age, barely the size of an eight year old, though he’s actually nearing the end of his elementary school years. How does he qualify for manhood?

Answered easily enough: by waking at dawn without complaint, and by catching more than his fair share of last night’s dinner. So far, he has out-fished Grandpa, 15 fish to Grandpa’s ten.

With my older child gone away to camp and the younger snapping on a life jacket and struggling valiantly to lift–by himself–the smallest Igloo cooler, there are no small bodies left to join me for a morning snuggle. To warm the child, of course, but also very much to warm my heart.

There are no softly snoring or sleepy heads peeping out of heaped blankets that I can kiss on my way to put the kettle on.

I tried to go back to sleep, but there’s nothing that can fill the vacant space where my babies should be except writing this down, letting it out, making room for them to grow… and, eventually, to go.

There’s the heartbreak of a mother’s job well done.

Blessings by the minute, from the playground into sleep

By school pick up time—around 2:30pm, so hours before many people even think of finishing their days—my reservoirs of energy are nearly empty. What used to be an afternoon lull is more often, now, my afternoon collapse. It’s the most persistent and insidious symptom of my autoimmune condition.

Afternoon delight? Fugeddaboutdit!

The work of a stay-at-home mom may include some flexible hours, but school pick up time is not among them. The kids are done when they’re done; someone needs to go get them. There are a few dads driving up in the daily rotation, but most chromosomes in the car pool lane are XX.

Add me to that list of who’s who.

playing outside - 3

Outdoor “play equipment” doesn’t have to be expensive or complex

One of the things I like best about my son’s school is the emphasis placed on time spent playing and learning outdoors. They aren’t quite as adamant about it as our preschool was—there, kids went out, rain or shine, unless there was a truly bitter freeze or risk of lightening strikes—but the value of free time, active play, and exposure to fresh air and sunshine is respected.

So, while I’m often running on fumes by 2:30pm, I bring a book, I pack a thermos of tea or an appealing snack, and I just generally prepare myself for a comfortable wait so my little guy can stay longer with his friends and play even more after school. It may only be a half an hour, but what a precious 30 minutes for a kid.

I’ve read that child’s play is currently endangered. I tend to agree that this is a grave loss for the kids in question and society overall.

On a beautiful spring day, it isn’t much of a sacrifice to allow this time for my child to release some of that seemingly boundless energy. My arthritis doesn’t flare as often on moderate days, lessening the cost of pain. In the absence of rain, I can move around and avoid getting stiff from sitting in the car. I get to socialize today, too, with other moms and some lingering members of the school staff, all of whom take advantage of the beautiful weather to linger outside.

DS2 and his knot of friends are involved in a complex dance of running, falling down, enacting simulated agonies, then jumping up to do it all over again. Some of the girls join in at times, weaving themselves into the game, then drifting away to huddle under a different tree, whispering their own solemn secrets. They start a new adventure by climbing a large, horizontal tree.

playing outside - 2

An admittedly awesome tree, some string, and a lot of imagination sparked this adventure

“Watch out for that poison ivy,” they advise me when I come closer to take a picture. After confirming I’m not there to take my son away, they quickly re-submerge in their play. They stop only when a preponderance of mothers appear, all ready to go home.

There seems no possible sweeter moment for me, as a mother, than this one, until later, after a tick check and bath, after dinner, after fun, when the little guy is lying asleep nearby and I’m restless and reflective. His breathing is deep and even with no sign of the nocturnal asthma that sometimes harries our nights.

No doubt the fresh air and tree climbing contributed to his deep, peaceful slumber, even as the memories of the same disrupt mine.

He’s so big, now, my little boy, but still so very small. My love for him swells in my breast like a wild thing rearing up to escape its confinement in a cage. It is ridiculous how much I adore this child. I’ve always found it easier to really notice this while he’s quietly sleeping.sleeping - 1

The night air drifting in the window is still soft and smells of spring. Many hours remain for slumber, and there’s more play in store for tomorrow. It’s time to tuck this unbridled passion for a silly little boy and his winsome ways away, and attend to my own dreams.

Mom is my Dungeon Master: D&D role playing games as family hobby

Full-time Mom, new blogger; add Dungeon Master to my illustrious titles

I avoided doing any housework this weekend. I also missed making a daily post to this blog for the first time in nearly two months. Why? I am now the Dungeon Master (DM) for the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) Starter Set adventureLost Mine of Phandelver.”

Most of my free—and some rather expensive—minutes for a week and a half have been spent on this endeavor. Even with a ready made campaign, being a DM doesn’t come cheap in terms of time. I hadn’t even played a game of D&D since the 1990’s. The learning curve was steep!

Phandelver game DM view of cave Wolf room 3

Spoiler Alert: Don’t look too closely if you’re planning to play Lost Mine of Phandelver as a PC

What’s a Role Playing Game (RPG)?

Not sure what a role playing game (RPG) is, exactly? Wikipedia and others can explain them in greater detail, but start by imagining a shared group storytelling experience that follows a set of rules to impose some structure and some interesting randomness on the proceedings.

The person conducting the story and acting as “referee” is the Dungeon Master (DM); every player contributes to the overall story by describing what their player character (PC) does in the context of that story. The DM can use a “campaign” (story) written by someone else like I did this weekend, or she can create a scenario, world, or universe uniquely her own.

If you are imaginative and enjoy other table games, RPGs could prove a similar source of fun for you and yours. It is time consuming, though. I spent ten hours this weekend around a table—during two evening sessions—with my family and some good friends. That’s in addition to the hours I spent preparing earlier in the week.

Everyone was fully engaged and having fun, including a pair of middle school aged kids playing with their parents. That’s a coup according to this mom. Aside from getting to bed late on a school night (oops!), this first family foray into RPGs proved a great success.

I can’t really take the credit for initiating the game, though. I do, however, emphatically accept the kudos for working my butt off to give everyone a good time.

Read on to find out what got us started. Continue reading

The unexamined wife is not worth living

Almost everyone has a mom—and thank heavens for that! So it’s easy to remember what your mom did, and think you know what I do as a stay at home parent. Making assumptions about how I ought to spend my time is also popular; everyone is an expert on the shalls of house and home.

  • I shall keep an immaculate home
  • I shall cook tasty yet healthy meals every day
  • I shall nurture and guide my children to grow into superior adults
  • I shall keep myself up by exercise, diet, and fashionable dress

Cleaning supplies 12.40.36 PMFortunately, the only negotiation that matters over my job description is between my husband, my kids (as non-voting constituents), and myself. As with most complex topics, I consider every presumption ripe for investigation, and every given, suspect. A modern life differs markedly from historical norms, and the contemporary house offers its occupants radical improvements and newfangled problems to negotiate.

Maybe I don’t get the clean towels folded and put away before they’re used again, but I manage the finances and do our small business accounting and taxes; I’m not a good nor cheerful cook, but I’m doing a bang-up job educating an unorthodox middle school student according to a curriculum of my own devising.

Occasionally, I’ll still encounter a form where checking a box labelled “homemaker” is my best match. It’s kind accurate, in the sense that my being available at home goes a long way toward defining the atmosphere and function of our collective family life. This is the most traditional role I assume: I am the heart of our family home; I set the standards.

Homemaker snuggles up awfully close to housekeeper, though, and anyone who’s passed through our doors is probably aware that I approach household chores with an attitude of “maintain basic hygienic standards whilst avoiding as much cleaning as possible.”

If I’m brutally honest, I’ll admit that my self esteem is tied up with the state of my house. Sometimes, the mess bothers me. On the other hand, I’m philosophically opposed to the notion that a woman carries the full burden of a presentable home, so I fight to reject this sense of shame. Besides, the latter position requires less frequent dusting.

Our social circle includes several stay-at-home dads. While their daily efforts to simultaneously manage children and keep a tidy home are similar to mine, none of them seem to internalize failures in this area the way I do. Undoubtedly, these men have their own, equally irritating, internal critics and crises, but they don’t appear to see themselves reflected in the same distorted way by their kids’ messy rooms.

I have a creative friend who excels at caring for her family, but she doesn’t always conform to a Martha Stewart meets Donna Reed standard of motherhood or housewifery, and she feels a failure. How can this be when her husband, children, and pets are healthy and happy?

I know and love fellow stay-at-home moms whose lives are replete with Pinterest-worthy projects and well-ironed linens, home-canned organic produce and hand-knit baby clothes. These efforts are valiant, creative, nurturing, and worthy, but they are not the only valid expressions of the good wife or mother.

Instead, I would suggest setting one’s own course of purposeful actions based upon deeply held values, carefully considered. Externally imposed societal expectations are sometimes valid, but sometimes mere figments.

I hope it rings crystal clear in every post that I write: I am in no way seeking to redefine roles for anyone but myself. If I am nudging you, the reader, it is only to think for yourself, seek for yourself, and then define for yourself your own goals and ideals.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.

What about the unexamined wife?