Thursday, June 27, 2013

Last night I dreamt I had cancer. Let the psychobabble begin.

Just to keep things light…. um…. last night I dreamt I had cancer.  The contours of my dream are slowly receding from my memory, the way they do, but I do remember this:  A distracted young female doctor gave me the news in a poorly lit office saying cruelly, “At this point I can usually reassure my patients, but I can’t do that for you today.”

I had some cancer below the belt and above the thighs in the pipes of my reproductive system.  It was something non-existent that my subconscious, drawing on distant memories of 8th grade biology, made up and probably called “cervical tube cancer.”  I remember crying a lot. I remember my parents crying a lot.  I remember them encouraging me to ask the doctor for more clarification, more specifics.  What was my prognosis?  What hope could she offer? What therapies?  When I did so, she gave me a book with the title “Dying: It’s Just Like Falling Asleep.” I hated that dream doctor.   She offered me no hope.  She only attempted to offhandedly soften the news of my impending death.

Then I woke up, the profound sadness from my dream lingering around in the pit of my belly.  Of course I was thankful for waking to my cancer-free reality, but the vestigial dream hurt clung on like a .....well… cancer, squeezing my heart.

I lay in bed feeling philosophical.  Why this dream?  Why now?  The panic from my dream led me to think that perhaps it was prescient. Perhaps my body was telling me that I did indeed have cancer.  But I dismissed that thought as too foofy, even for me, and anyway too fucking depressing to deal with before dawn.  So, I moved on to other theories.

Perhaps the dream was my “getting hit by a bus.” Isn’t that what people say? “Things are going so well, I’ll probably get hit by a bus.”  Maybe it was my subconscious bracing me for some impending disaster since my life was too precariously smooth for fate to tolerate.

Right now my life is in balance.  That’s not saying I’m ecstatic every day and don’t have frustrations and sadness.  But the truth about contentment is not that you walk around blissed out, but that you walk around in balance.  Bliss is what your 16 year old self hopes for, balance is what your adult self knows will truly bring you joy. 

Right now I have achieved that elusive equilibrium that so many modern people strive for.  I scratch my productive itch by working part time from home. I get intellectual and creative satisfaction through my writing. I spend a good part (but not the WHOLE part) of my day with my little loves.  I see friends every day. I practice yoga. I take Kiswahili lessons. I run. I cook. I enjoy my weekends exploring Kenya with friends. I have help. I’m continually learning.

None of it is too much, and none of it is not enough.  The trade-offs so many people have to make between all these facets of life, for me, are in balance. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud.

However, my inner harmony is subsidized by the fact that my husband is working more than full time at a very demanding job, and this means his life is currently out of whack. But.. um… let’s ignore that for the moment, and back to me...

So, my current theory is that my death doom dream is my neurotic sub-conscious’ way of telling me not get too comfortable in my comfortable life. But screw you subconscious: you just allowed me to spend half a day musing about how well balanced I am.  So, backfire! 

Unless of course I’m of over thinking the whole thing and it’s my body’s way of reminding me that I’m overdue for a pap smear.

Could be either...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Words I Thought I Knew, Until I Moved to Kenya

Living in another culture and attempting, however poorly, to understand and be understood another language makes you pretty philosophical.  I've written before about how the very existence or absence of a word in a language can be a window to that culture or even a window to the human condition. Of course the language I'm speaking of is Kiswahili and the culture is East African.

Except it's not.

The culture I'm thinking about is the one that includes people whose Christian faith is central to their identity, and the language I'm referring to is English, but with subtle and illuminating differences.  I'm embarrassed to say that at my ripe age, I'm really meeting and befriending people who have a strong Christian faith, for among the first times in my life.

I grew up in the outskirts of a city in a suburb that consisted largely of my people (Jews), whose religious identity is defined more by tradition than faith, and people who describe themselves as "lapsed Catholics" or "Christmas mass Christians."  No one in our neighborhood described themselves as a "strong Christian man/woman/boy" or talked about openly about their "love of the Lord."  No one ever comforted me with "I'll pray for you" or included "God's plan" in any philosophical discussions or ever uttered "the Lord Jesus Christ" in my presence. I probably would have found it strange if they did.

In college, that quintessential time of questioning and rebellion, this was only accelerated. I went to an east coast University, which probably took itself too seriously.  Discussions, among people of all faith backgrounds, was of pulling back the blinders that religion had hung and of all the devastation and conflict caused in the name of competing gods. There was an implication that leaving the future to faith and attributing the past a deity's plan was unthinking.  Unintellectual. Even harmful. And the strongest proponents of this line of thinking tended to be those who grew up in more religious homes.

But even then it seemed a bit like cultural prejudice to me. I didn't fully buy it. I knew, somewhere inside, faith could be a comfort. A saving grace.

But the point is, I really didn't have exposure to Christians of strong faith, and now that I do I'm surprised at the subtle differences in the use of the English language.  Two examples come to mind:

(1) Grace. When I conjure up images of grace, I think of elegance, fluid movement, and good posture.  But then I started hearing people say, "I wanted to treat him with grace" or "he showed me grace."  I have to admit I didn't entirely get the meaning.  I mean, I consider myself a pretty advanced user of the English language, but I was missing out on something that seemed to be pretty important to a lot of people.

I asked a missionary friend to explain the concept to me an she took the task to heart, providing a bunch of thoughtful examples. "It's when you show someone a kindness that that don't really 'deserve.'" she offered. She talked about how at times she has a short fuse with her husband and probably doesn't deserve the kindness he shows her in response, but he "acts with grace."  The most profound example, in Christian thinking, is Jesus dying for the sins of others.  It's not exactly compassion or kindness or turning the other cheek, but maybe something in between or all of those all wrapped up together.  Lord knows (euphemism when I say it), I could use some more of it.  And maybe now that I have a word for it, I'll actually have a behavior for it.  Maybe.

(2) Season. OK. I know what a season is, and I definitely understand it's use in the metaphorical sense, but I don't go around using it that way.  But more and more I hear people saying things like, "She was probably just going through a season in which she had difficulty/struggles/changes... "  Us agnostics probably say "time" or "period," but there's something nice about referring to it as a season. Season implies it's only a natural (even inevitable) course of events, that there will be a waning out of it into something different but also beautiful and useful in its own right. There's something to look forward to and cherish about all seasons.  You don't get that with "time period."

Don't worry mom, I'm still Jewish. I'm just finding it interesting that I have to go all the way to Kenya to meet different American cultures and learn something new and beautiful from our subtle differences.

Can think of any other words in the English language that different traditions use differently that has helped you see things differently?  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Focus on Assistance or Accidents?

On the way back from the airport, on the one main road out of Kisumu my car sputtered and stopped.  I was alone, having run out of the house quickly heading to the airport to collect our newly found lost luggage.  The car completely stalled, right in the middle of the road.  But not just any road.  This was a road used by impatient matatus, aggressive long haul truckers, and kamakzi buses, all jockeying to get ahead of each other on a narrow pot-holed road; a road flanked by throngs of people. A chaotic road.  My car stopped and wouldn’t start in a country with no 911, no publicly available ambulances and questionable medical care.  
Not the exact road, but not far off.
 I got out of the car to scratch my head and collect myself. By the looks of it, the situation was pretty dire. Angry drivers shook their fists at me as they yelled things I didn’t care to hear punctuated by “Mzungu” and maneuvered around the car.

My phone was uncharged and tucked into one of the suitcases in the back seat. My jumper cables, used just the day before to shock the car back to life, sat uselessly on my sofa at home. I was by myself.

But strangely, I wasn’t worried. And I didn’t feel alone.  The streets, like I mentioned, are teeming with people.  People who I knew would help me, as they always had before.

It wasn’t long before a motorbike driver took on my cause. He quickly gathered half a dozen men to try and push the car out of the road. No dice, the car was stuck in park. Still, there was a lot of gathering and discussing and problem-solving that was going on all around me and amid this, even with trucks careening towards me. I knew I would be OK. I was oddly calm.

News of my predicament percolated through the crowd. A few people helped to wave oncoming cars away from me. Others opened the hood to try and solve the problem, telling me when to try and ignite the engine.  Several turns of the key and suddenly she kicked back into life.

I won’t say people cheered, it was a petty drama in their day, but we were all relieved together.    

This was a perfect example, I thought, of the wonder and comfort of living in a country where this kind of help is simply assumed; where people sense and act on their interconnectedness.  Where you’re never really alone. And this is all true. 

But this is also true:  

The next morning Rukia greeted me with a solemn look at bad news. 

“There was a car accident.  All the passengers in the back of the car died.  The driver is at Aga Khan Hospital.”  She said, getting right to the meat of the tragedy. 

I asked her to back up. Who? What? When? 

Her neighbor had been driving the car, she explained. He swerved to get out of the way of an oncoming car, which had veered into his lane to pass a truck.  His swerve landed him in a ditch and the car rolled over. 

I’m not sure if the back seat passengers, also neighbors of hers, died instantly or on the way to the hospital. Again, there is no 911. No ambulances at the ready.  Still, strangers stopped their cars to take the wounded and dead to the best hospital in the nearest city.  

Rukia shook her head.  “The roads are too bad. Do you see this?”  She pointed to a deep scar above her eye that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. “The same thing happened to me years ago. The two in the back died, but me and driver survived.”

Statistically the most dangerous thing we do in this country is drive on the roads. The first year we lived here a boy we knew was killed by a motorbike accident.  11 people died in a matatu our friend missed boarding. There are endless other examples. We try to be careful.   

I’m not entirely sure what to make of all of this. The morning Rukia told me of the accident I was cheerily contemplating the first half of this blog post.  Maybe I’m blind to the risks of living here, too willing to see past them or ascribe positive intentions where they might not exist.   My husband would say I’m too cavalier about a litany of possible risks.  There are real dangers.  Dangers people are trying to escape when they ask in a number of indirect ways how we can get them to America.

Still, I don’t believe I’m entirely na├»ve to the dangers. I could list them off for you.  But the truth is I don’t want to focus on the risks (most of which I’m able to mitigate anyway as an expat from a wealthy country).

A friend of mine just told me this story:  Her therapist asked her to look around the room and count all of the red items.  “How may are there?” he then asked, and she responded confidently.  “Now how many blue?” he asked.  She had no idea. 

The simple point is that you choose what to pay attention to, and that becomes what you know and understand - it becomes your reality. But what you focus on is your choice.  I’m going to continue to focus on the good stuff.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

Can I really be a mother of teen boys?

I sat with my boys in yet another doctor's office waiting room, an endless ritual during our annual visits home from Kenya. In a rare moment in which they were both happily engaged, I sat back with a magazine folded in my lap, watching my boys. I took in the wispy hair on Emmet's head, barely moving in the breeze from the vent as he sat, legs splayed, concentrating on his wooden toy.  Caleb was engrossed in an elaborate fantasy featuring a plastic dump truck and a cement mixer.

As I watched my babies completely embodying their one-year-oldness and four-year-oldness, a mother entered the room, trailed by her teen-aged son.  A few minutes later another mom came in with a son who towered over her even as he bent over his iphone.  Finally a third mom-teen boy dyad entered the room.

I had lots of time and no semblance of propriety to stare at these almost men.  They were all Adam's apples and awkwardness.  They sat politely and patiently but with an aura of insecurity, with limbs that seemed somehow too big for them, the hair on their legs contrasting strangely with their soft still-boy faces.

I found my heart racing, slightly panicked to look into my own future like that.

I looked back down at my boys, so easy to love and uncomplicated.  Exhausting and frustrating, but uncomplicated.  I can squeeze them and kiss them and tuck them in at night without embarrassing them. In moments of pain or sadness they want nothing more than my embrace. I am still, for the moment, their simple salvation.  I'm not sure what I'd do with an older boy.  And, probably more to the point, not sure what he'd want from me.

When I was growing up, by the time boys were no longer icky, they were making me nervous and breaking my heart.  Somewhere in between all that they were huddled around video games, or sweating testosterone, playing games I didn't follow and hardly cared about.

I had lots of girl friends and we did girlfriend things.  We made up dances in my parents basement, we wandered around the mall and tried on scandalous clothes we had no intention of buying, we gossiped about which of these enigmatic people, boys, we had crushes on.  But we never really related to their world - their teen boy culture.  Even after we started dating, we preferred our own.

But babies and small children are different.  There's no great need to relate or even totally understand them, and they don't have a culture that excludes you.  Their gender is largely besides the point. The point is to smoother them in your love.

In fact just that morning I was playing a game with Caleb.  The one where I lie on my back, and give him "airplane rides" supporting his torso with my feet and holding his hands, giving me an inches- away view to his giggly bliss.  Amid staring love-struck at his baby teeth swimming in his "big boy" smile and squeezing his whole body next to mine, I spoke the truth of my heart, and said something child development professionals probably advise against: "Caleb, will you stay four forever?  I love you at four.  Please don't get any older."

Caleb actually paused his playful euphoria, maybe reacting to the desperation in my voice, and with an adult-like empathy that never fails to break my heart, said, "Don't worry mama. I won't get older for a very VERY long time."

"That's true, love." I squeezed him.

Even as I knew he was right, I refused to learn the lesson. I wanted to freeze that hug in time.

Back in the doctor's office. The nurse called Tom (teen #3) into the office. And he walked through that door alone.  Alone.

For some reason, as he bent through the doorway to face the doctor alone, leaving his mom to her magazine, I swallowed a lump in my throat.  At that point I realized, of course I'll always be in love with my sons.  They won't be the enigmatic teenagers of my youth.  They'll still be my babies.  They still exude their Caleb-ness and Emmet-ness, and I'm sure that's what I'll see.  I'll know just how to love them.

I remember saying at 2, "Please stay 2 years old forever."  The same at three, and now at four. Maybe it'll be the same at 15.  I realized that what I was truly afraid of was not the clumsy and secretive teen years, but of my boys walking through that door. Without me.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Want to parent like the French, Chinese, Dutch? Move to France, China or the Netherlands.

It's happened again.  Another tract about all the things other cultures have to teach American parents and how American parents generally have it all wrong. This one, going viral on the Huffington Post, is actually titled: "How American Parents Have Got It All Backwards."  The author, who has just released a book with this thesis, catalogs the myriad ways that other countries are raising more patient, higher testing, more independent, more resilient, more responsible, more humble, overall more excellent children.

The comments range from "Totally agree. American parents suck/raise indulgent brats" to "This is bullshit. Our country produces more creative, more dynamic, more entrepreneurial people, so what could we possibly need to learn" to "Whatever. Parenting, shmarenting. Stop over-thinking all of this and trust your instincts. Kids will turn out fine." And a lot of nuance in between.

But the narrative is always as compelling as it is controversial. It's fascinating to see how other people do things - especially when it clashes with our assumptions. And when that "doing things" is raising children, it's impossible not to relate.  We were all raised in some fashion, and some of us are busy raising others.  It explains the success of Bringing up BebeBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, and the newly released Baby Meets World.

But the missing piece in all of this "do as the French/Chinese/Dutch" parenting commentary is we don't live in France, China or the Netherlands. And so often these parenting practices are reinforced by a community and some may even be impossible without that broader reinforcement.

I can think of a bunch of examples, but here's one: I was very convinced by Druckerman's argument that French children cultivate the ability to wait, to delay gratification (one of the biggest predictor's of future success) because they don't really snack.  Mealtimes are sacred and "but I'm huuungry mom" whining is not indulged.  Forcing children to wait for meals also forces them to teach themselves self control which leaks into other facets of their lives.  And - bonus - ultimately mealtimes are more pleasant because children are actually hungry when food is finally presented.

Persuaded by this logic, I tried this.  It lasted two-thirds of a full day. We might enforce this strict caloric intake regiment, but our neighbors, friends and school do not.  In Kenya, if there's something cooking and a child wanders in the vicinity, they will be given a morsel and sent on their way. I couldn't get around it.

Same thing happened when I attempted to institute Druckerman's "kaka" permissiveness.  Again, she very convincingly explains that the French generally indulge a bunch of "poo poo" "ka ka" talk because they view it as a benign outlet of natural toddler naughtiness and choose to get worked up about more important battles.

I agree. But my expat friends generally do not.  So, we've had to backtrack on letting Caleb loose with the ka ka talk after watching his friends parents admonish their own kids for such clearly offensive potty talk. We might think it's no big deal, but that could translate into turning our sweet boy into the playground smack talker in relation to his clean-mouthed friends.


This is the crux of the problem. Americans generally parent as little islands.  We invent nuclear family rules that are sometimes reinforced, other times undermined and other times outright contradicted by wider society. We're constantly checking in with our friends and neighbors about what their children are allowed to do.  Can I give him a cookie?  Is he allowed to watch a cartoon?  Can I punish him for misbehaving?  What should form should that take?

But when everyone generally obeys the same rules, a lot of things happen.  First, you gain that oft sought-after "village" of support.  You can rely on your friends, neighbors, and relatives to help raise your children, confident that others are generally doing things the same way.

You also become a less neurotic parent, wracked with self doubt that the particular parenting philosophy you've adopted is somehow suboptimal compared the that of your neighbors.  There's simply not as much of a choice, so there's less to be insecure about. (And less insecurity your children can sense and then exploit to their own advantage.)

Lastly, whatever child-rearing strategy your "village" is adopting is a lot more likely to actually make an impact, to have an influence on behavior, because it's continually reinforced, sending your children a clear and unequivocal message about "the rules."

I suppose this is why French strategies work in France, and Chinese strategies work so well in China. In the US we have the freedom to make up our own rules.  But this also means we have the considerable burden of deciding, among a large array of options, what those rules might be and of being the sole enforcer and arbiter of those rules.  It might just be too much to ask.