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Belated Friday Poetry Blogging February 4, 2006

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Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

 ~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~


(Words From Under the Words: Selected Poems)


Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman February 2, 2006

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Just finished this the other day, and I’ll be seeing Ayelet Waldman speak next Thursday, so I’ll wait until then to write much. As a stepmom, I appreciated reading a story about a stepmother character who seemed pretty realistic. The fact that her baby had just died of SIDS seemed almost too much, though. I had a hard time believing it–one of those things that might happen in real life but be too strange for fiction, perhaps– and I also felt like it wasn’t necessary to the story. The stepmother experience itself was enough drama for a whole book. And while I am an pretty avid fan of her work, I was distracted, as always, by shifts in tone and bit players who seemed too vaguely depicted. I think I like Daughter’s Keeper better than this, but I still couldn’t put this book down.

Other books read lately: Confessions of a Naughty Mommy by Heidi Raykeil–loved this and will be writing much more about it on mamazine. Also Seeing Past Z by Beth Kephardt, which has some good concrete suggestions for helping kids as they’re discovering the creative possibilities of reading and writing. Starting Zadie Smith’s newest and finishing What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Literacy by James Paul Gee right now. My kids will be grateful for that last one, I’m sure.

Why I Don’t Believe This is a Post-Feminist World January 25, 2006

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Today in two of my classes we were discussing the possible roles that class, ethnicity, gender, and other factors might play in coming of age experiences. The idea that we’re all a part of a larger culture (and in my students’ cases, cultures) which shapes our decisions and attitudes is one that some students resist even thinking about at times, so I’m always anxious that this first discussion doesn’t get derailed by someone insisting that none of the factors play any role in his or her life. It can be tough to get a new group of students comfortable talking about these sticky issues which we seem to gloss over in everyday life.

It went well, though, in the sense that these students are well aware of the ways class and race and gender impact them. Several male students talked about how their parents had denied their sisters the chance to go to college while footing the bill for the boys (in these cases, the students telling these stories) to get a university education. Many of the female students, who are mostly from Hmong, Vietnamese, and Mexican immigrant families, told of having to fight with parents to be able to go to school since, as one young woman’s mother had said to her, “Why would we spend all that money when you’re just going to get married and have kids?” For the Asian women, the assumption that once a woman marries, she “belongs” to the husband’s family meant that a few students’ parents saw any education they gave their daughters as an imprudent investment in someone else’s family.

I’d be utterly depressed after years of hearing these same stories if it weren’t for the faces of those telling them: hopeful, often incredibly hardworking students who prevailed over low expectations and are here for the duration. Would I have gone on to get a master’s degree if I’d faced the obstacles so many of them have? I doubt it.

January 25, 2006

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Fresh Starts January 24, 2006

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I love January, for all kinds of reasons. In Northern California, it’s just as likely to be sunny and mild in January as it is to be rainy, plus the days are already noticeably longer. And, of course, my birthday is in January.

The other reason? Well, for me, it’s a month that’s been synonymous with starting a new semester for the past seventeen years as I made my way through college and my master’s program and teaching assistantships and then started teaching full-time. Today was the first day of the semester, and I taught three classes before noon–a big jump in productivity after my December/early January slothful lifestyle of reading books and blogs, watching DVDs, and picking kids up at school. I like the balance of downtime and intense work that I have right now. (I’ll try to stick to that attitude when the first batch of papers comes in.)

This semester I have more returning students than ever before, partly because of the way classes were scheduled, but also because several of my students from last semester wanted to continue on with me. It’s rare for me to have the same students twice, since I always teach the required comp courses, not courses majors take. I have to say it’s lovely, as we have a rapport that took months to create and which contributes to the whole class feeling more included from the very beginning. My university is large and sometimes impersonal, so it’s a real treat to get to watch this handful of students as they grow and mature as thinkers and people over the course of a full academic year.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Love, Work, Children by Cheryl Mendelson January 20, 2006

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It took me several days to make my way through this one, and at first I found myself resenting the way I had to slow down and make time to get to know so many characters, none of whom I liked all that much for the first hundred pages or so.

But it kept reminding me of Jane Austen, and I found I couldn’t keep from reading to find out what happened to these people I came to know–and like–better after a time. Yes, it’s essentially a romance in that all ends well for the good people. And yes, the line between good and bad is drawn pretty heavily in this book. But Mendelson’s characters raise questions about love and marriage and parenting and relationships with adult children and social class in a New York neighborhood in 2002 which will stick with me.

I’ve already put the first book in this projected trilogy (this is the second in the series) on hold at the library, and I’ll read the third when it comes in. And while I know some people hate it, I’m a total sucker for series fiction; I love the security of sinking into a book whose world I’m already familiar with.

My Feet of Clay January 16, 2006

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My in-laws took the boys to see the newest Harry Potter today, leaving Mr. T and me home with J, who has been playing Legos by herself for about two HOURS now. She’s a lot like V, who also loved (and still loves) to play on his own, even at an early age. I often think we’d have been the most arrogant, obnoxious parents on earth if we’d just had V and J–we would have believed it was our superior parenting skills which led to having independent, fairly well-behaved young children.

Thank god we had H, who revealed our feet of clay and humbled us way more than I’d really actually hoped to be humbled. (This humbling, it’s not a comfortable experience, I tell you.) He’s this incredibly loving, affectionate, intuitive kid–and he cannot be alone. Ever. He has almost never gone into his room and played with the many toys which live there (and which I threaten to box up and get rid of since they never get played with).

He likes playing with friends, with V and J, and on the computer. He also likes to watch TV, although that’s a far more interactive activity for him than it is for V and J. He rewinds, memorizes lines, acts events out and, thanks to Tivo, pauses commercials so that I can come into the room and see them. Having this kid who is so different from our other two has freed me from a lot of my previously-held beliefs about parenting, including the one about parents having a whole lotta control over their kids’ personalities.

Raising H, for instance, has led me to wonder if ADD kids may watch more TV because that’s how their parents stay sane and to think that the TV itself isn’t a causal factor but rather a symptom. H watches more TV than our other two kids. Now, maybe that’s partly because he’s the middle kid, and I was exhausted and pregnant for over a year, starting when he was 18 months old. V would go to school, and H and I would try the park and playgroups and then come home and collapse on the couch. Then J was born, and again H needed to be kept relatively quiet at times so I could get J down for naps.

But then again, V was also a toddler when I was pregnant and exhausted with H. V also had to be kept quiet while I got H down for naps. (Ha ha! That was a joke. H never took naps, unless you consider falling asleep for five minutes after nursing a nap, which I decidedly do not.) Well, whatever. At some point in H’s babyhood, I’m sure he slept and I needed to keep V quiet. The point is, V would let us turn off the TV, and he would go draw or read or play Legos or find something to do.

H just doesn’t do that, at least not yet. It’s not that we haven’t tried many, many times to bore him into playing independently. The reality for him is that he doesn’t want to be alone. Playing Legos in his room doesn’t interest him in the least, unless his siblings or friends are with him. This intensely shy kid is also a very social animal, and that’s a mix I think will serve him well in the future, despite the challenges he faces in overcoming that social anxiety.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood January 15, 2006

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I read The Handmaid’s Tale about fifteen years ago, but the Alito hearings, threats to Roe v. Wade, and my own all-consuming interest in perceptions of mothering led me back to Atwood’s book. I invariably come away from her writing feeling awestruck. Her language and ideas are so simple and pure and strong.

This book, of course, is terrifying. So much that she writes of happening in a future that seemed ridiculous when I read it as a twenty-year-old now seems scarily possible. The new wave of faux-50s housewives connects, for me, with the way Offred has such vague memories of recent history. I’ve said, half-jokingly, that it seemed like no one remembers The Feminine Mystique anymore. Maybe it’s more than that, though. Here’s Offred reflecting about her own feelings about her second-wave feminist mom:

I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Everyone Else’s Girl by Megan Crane January 10, 2006

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I picked up Megan Crane’s first book, English as a Second Language, at a bookstore last year when I was shopping with giftcard money. It was a light, fun read, which is what I was looking for. It’s hard to find those books–the not-insulting easy reads, I mean. Everyone Else’s Girl, her second novel, is another quick, pleasurable read. The main character learns to start figuring out who she wants to be, rather than who everyone else wants her to be, something I identify with.

Meredith, the narrator, is moving away from being the girl who smiles because people tell her to. Every woman I know has had that happen to her repeatedly, because of course good girls are always cheerful and pleasant. Last time someone tried it on me, I stared at him and said, “It’s not my job to smile for you.” I didn’t say “fucker,” but it was implied in my tone. Jesus. I could have been mourning my dead father or something. I wasn’t, but is it really my job to look cheerful for the masses? When I bring this up in classes, male students are always surprised when I ask how many people have been told by strangers to “c’mon, smile–it can’t be THAT bad” and every woman in the class raises her hand.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Fruitful January 9, 2006

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Anne Roiphe’s Fruitful: Living the Contradictions: A Memoir of Modern Motherhood

I’ve had this book for nearly ten years. What led me to buy it in the Capitola Book Cafe in my early twenties, on vacation with my parents and siblings? I was years away from meeting my husband, as well as from becoming a mother and stepmother. That purchase proves something I’m always conscious of–that having children was something I always thought about, worried over, was scared I’d miss despite how difficult I knew its real joys could be.

Roiphe gives me a clearer picture of the world my own mother grew up in, with its strict differences between what was expected of little girls and little boys. I see my mother–and myself– in this: “Most mothers have an additional mission, one that is barely conscious but is very important to us. We want to undo the melancholy of our own childhood in the childhoods we are creating. We can’t.” Of course, today I’d say more fathers also want that.

Roiphe feels left behind by second-wave feminism, despite identifying as a feminist and being more politically involved than most people. Her motherhood is what sets her apart, and the book expresses her discomfort with the black and white, all or nothing choices that era seemed to push. Her embarrassment about being a “breeder” in a time when that was seen as almost a betrayal of feminist values reminds me of so much my mother has said about her own early experiences as a mother. “We thought of motherhood as a thing one did on the side, a kind of private hobby, like playing the flute. We each made our own arrangements and struggled with the consequences….We suffered our maternal guilt house by house, woman by woman, the old-fashioned way.” Seems like we’re still fighting that battle to reduce isolation and build community, as mamazine and Mother Talk and other sites try to do.

Roiphe’s acknowledgement of how “we could have raised and could still raise the issue of men–men at home, men with their children, men as nurturers, men as fathers–and say what we believe, what we expect, demand more…” is another idea which seems to be getting more press these days, if only on mamazine and other publications. We stopped halfway, she says. The revolution isn’t over until men and women have the freedom to choose more balanced lives, ones in which family and work can coexist for mothers and fathers.

In a paragraph that predates Peggy Orenstein’s observations about how “mother managers” push other caregivers out of the picture, Roiphe writes, “It is hard for women to give up the special privilege of being mothers. The sanctity of motherhood, the respect it appears to get in our culture, the secret delicious pleasure of the thing is most important to us. If we share with men our momminess, we feel we might be exchanging what little turf we have in return for a handful of nothing. Makes sense.”

And later: “Men carry lots of heavy things. Let them take half our load of guilt in return for half the tender feelings we receive on a good day.” Many of the fathers I know are trying to do that. The struggle comes when jobs, health insurance, breastfeeding, unavailable/inadequate/unaffordable daycare, and other issues interfere with the dream of fifty/fifty parenting. Paid parental leaves for men and women, better daycare options, more flexible work schedules, and health care for all would go a long way toward making that possible.

“If I were to tell the story of my life it wouldn’t be about the conflict between being a mother and a feminist but about being a feminist mother and a mother feminist. It seems that the clash between feminism and motherhood is an artificial one….But it would be nice if the world outside her house gave a little bit of a damn about what went on inside.”

Roiphe also wonders if delaying childbirth is the answer to all our problems, suggesting that giving birth in our early twenties might be a better option physically for many, if societal support for families made that choice feasible. This is something I’ve often wondered, since having a baby younger was something now think wouldn’t have been the disaster I was sure it would be at the time. In some ways, waiting to bear children has made my experiences as a mother more fraught; I waited until I was “ready,” only to find that ready doesn’t mean perfect.

Roiphe gives such clear, brutal account of her own mistakes and experiences as a mother throughout the book. This is one I’ll be mulling over for months to come.