How does Anne Geddes do it???

Sweet Girl wanted a photo of our kitten CoCo siting inside a pumpkin with her head peeking out.  OK, we can make this happen, right? We got a good size pumpkin at our nature center’s patch this weekend.  We enlisted Mr. B to cut the top off. (See Exhibit A below.)

We scooped out the insides and separated the seeds.  CoCo tried to help.

While they were roasting in the oven, we had our photo shoot.  We used my bedspread as a backdrop. We put a toy inside the pumpkin and the best we got were two cats with pumpkin heads.

At one point, they both came over to sniff and lick at the catnip spray we tried using.  (Side note, they are not exactly best buds, but they have their moments when it’s felines united against those crazy humans.)

On to the chair that CoCo was resting on.

We tried placing a treat on the outside rim of the pumpkin, but she just walked around to snatch that.

So, my friends, we had to Photoshop several different photos and the best I could do (without spending more than 10 minutes on this) is below.  You have to fill in the rest with your imagination.

Oh well.  The roasted pumpkin seeds were yummy.  We used butter and salt.  🙂

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Update on where I stand: art, parenting, and mindset

HUGE thank yous to each of you for your loving comments and support. I have printed each one out and have them posted nearby where I can always see them for motivation. It feels so validating when people mention to me that they are reading my blog.

I have taken advantage of the chaotic nature of our situation to pull back significantly from my volunteer roles for Sisterhood and for other organizations.  If that were my job (and it was full-time work), you could say I’ve taken a 3-month vacation.  After unpacking and getting settled with the apartment, we have been meeting with various contractors to decide how to proceed with the house.  The front lawn is finally cleaned up and there’s nothing in the house except a few light fixtures we will ultimately store in the garage.  Also, cleaning a tiny apartment is loads easier than cleaning a house with lots of clutter inside!

I’ve met with a couple of therapists just to make sure I’m thinking clearly and handling the stress alright.  (I am.) One is a “parenting coach,” who I am seeing for Sweet Girl’s resistance toward stepping out of her comfort zone, her general anxiety about leaving my side and leaving the house, and other skills we want her to develop.  It’s going very well.  I’ve gotten some great tools for setting new limits and SG has responded very positively.  SG has been resistant toward change in general and very rigid in her thinking of what she wants to do, with whom, and when.  It really helps me knowing that this therapist sees that pattern and understands that she has been particularly exhausting and needy for a lot of years.  Having a partner (besides Mr. B, a huge asset in a partner) in encouraging her growth and independence is helping me change faster and be more consistent.

One thing I learned just this morning is that kids need help to develop that inner voice that helps them to calm down when they are upset.  I’ve done some breathing exercises with her in those meltdown moments and we have talked afterwards about what she could try to think about while she’s in the middle of being upset, but the best tactic is to verbalize and model our own thinking when we are upset.  Another thing I could do is ask “How can I help?” which shows that I can’t do it for her, but I’m there to support her.  It can be hard to step back from being overprotective, especially when your kids want you to be that way!

For example, one thing SG does that drives me batty is tell me about every little trip or bruise she gets.  Next time I bump into something or cut my finger, I will say out loud, “Ouch! That hurts.  Well, I’ll be more careful next time.  I know I’ll be ok.  It will go away very soon.” Another thing she’s been doing over the past 2 weeks is tell me she misses me… when I’m sitting right next to her. Or after school, telling me she missed me all day. So I will say, “I missed you too, but I thought of you a bunch of times today and knew you were ok, I would be seeing you soon, and you were doing what you are supposed to be doing, which is building your brain in school.” Both will help ease her out of a victim mindset and toward more of an empowered one.

With the house sitting empty waiting for our decision, we have been considering many options.  Maybe we put it back and sell, moving to an empty lot or a new house in a different neighborhood. As long as we’re doing that, what’s to stop us from moving anywhere else since we don’t love Houston? I am fairly sure we’ve decided that our original choice of location and school are the right ones for us now still, so that mental gymnastics period is over, thank goodness.  What we want is what everyone wants really – good schools and nice neighborhood and friends nearby. Those things we have, but what seals the deal is that we have family right here.  We can’t give that up for somewhere with better weather or landscape, at least not right now.  Once you start questioning one aspect of your life, it’s easy to examine everything under the sun… job, lifestyle, clothing, number of children, what-if’s… I am so glad that’s done with.

I am creating art and that has been fantastic.  My art room got packed up by many volunteer hands in a matter of a couple hours, and I didn’t get to choose what I might want in the apartment.  I hadn’t been focusing on art for a few months, so I didn’t think I would need any of those supplies.  However, the urge to create has been very strong.  Take away the volunteer meetings and projects and tasks and I have a lot of free time on my hands! I’m loving the space and time to sit at the dining room table with some new supplies I’ve accumulated and just get messy.  I pack it all back up before I get SG from school because 1) we need the table to eat dinner in this small space where anything messy can’t be hidden and 2) I don’t want her to paint or do anything messy in such a small space.  Yes, I’m a control freak and I only feel peaceful when my surroundings are calm and neat. I’m ok with that.

Another thing I’m doing is protecting myself better.  For example, this morning I went to my annual well-woman checkup, ran some errands, then met with the parenting coach, so I am taking some time this afternoon to write and work on some art.  I need to balance the serious with the fun. I looked at Facebook and read all kinds of negative news: sexual assault accounts with all this “me too” business, predictions on when there will be an impeachment and how the VP as president would be it’s own crisis, more global disasters. I could easily internalize it all, but I am making myself shut it off.  There is nothing I can do right now about someone else’s past, the political mess, and the world at large. If I do or think too much, I get mired down in worry and sadness.  I honestly believe that keeping myself upbeat and putting out positive energy helps a great deal.

We have been excited about the Astros being in the ALCS and hopefully the World Series.  We are ecstatic that Fall has finally arrived in Houston just this morning and will be staying for more than one day.  I’m looking forward to getting outside to walk and attend fun events on weekends.  I’m trying to set up some play dates for SG to get to know some new friends and for us to spend time with other adults and do some new things around town.  (I have given in SG’s tendency to not be able to fall asleep with a babysitter and simply stopped going out… and am changing that right away.  I think she’s ready, and if not, she will figure it out.) We are meeting with our architect this afternoon to look at some options for our new design.  Things are moving along…

We can always look at any situation from many different angles.  Peace of mind is really important for me right now.  Just as children need boundaries to feel secure, so do we.  I don’t want to make any more huge decisions. I don’t want to get taken down by negative news stories.  I don’t want to take on anyone else’s stress.  I want a light heart and free time.  I want to make dinner for my family and tuck everyone in at night by recapping happy days well spent.  I want to look forward to fun events and trips.  We could just as easily be complaining that the apartment is too small or the house is going to take a long time to build, but by focusing on the tiny things we can do to improve our day-to-day situation, I have been able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I really appreciate the blessings and thoughts and wishes for magic wands.  You guys are THE BEST!

Posted in Behind the Art, Creativity, Home, Motherhood, Self-compassion | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

How do we live in the present moment if we can’t let go of the past?

Looking at loss through a Jewish lens

 

Stress is caused by wanting the present moment to be different from what it is.

Go ahead, read that sentence again.  I’ll wait.

We wish someone weren’t ill, the traffic would move faster, our boss would be less exacting.  We might wish to be doing something else entirely.

It’s so easy to be pulled away from the present moment, reminiscing about past experiences and either longing for their return or unnecessarily re-experiencing a trauma.  Oppositely, we spend time anticipating the future and conjuring up all sorts of imaginary scenarios that may never come to be.   But “the now” is all we really have.  We have this very moment to shape or to simply notice what is.  And then it’s gone.  We let it pass in order to welcome a new present moment.

I can’t even guess how many times in the last few weeks I have wished that our house were still exactly as it was pre-storm.  And even now, I still halfway believe that living in this apartment is temporary and we will be going back home in only a matter of time.  I think it will only be when I can let go of our house that I will be able to “move on.”  I don’t know how to do that yet, though writing about it here helps me a great deal.

A friend advised me, after reading yesterday’s post, to liken this grieving process to the unexpected death of a loved one.  First come shock, followed by denial, longing that it weren’t true and that the person were still with you.  I am stuck in this phase right now.  I suppose eventually it will become easier to accept what has happened, let it go, and be content with good memories, especially as new experiences come.

As an empath, I sometimes have trouble separating myself from the narrative of a book or a movie.  I lose my present surroundings and truly feel that I am in the world of the story.  It seems as if it’s happening to me.  It can be emotionally difficult for me (and for those who live with me).  When I was woken up that recent August morning to the reality of water slowly seeping into our house, I immediately recognized the same feeling of internal panic as I’d experienced in reading books about war or survival or watching any movie’s chase scene… “Mayday, mayday… the worst is here… instant action needed… life forever changing right now… you only have moments… go!”

It’s the surprise and absolute shock of this situation that makes it difficult because there was no time to mentally or emotionally prepare ourselves for such a large change.  It’s not like we methodically sorted and carefully packed each room and then put our house on the market, straightening up every time there was a showing.  We had no 60-day wait to close, nor a thoughtful search for a new home.  In this situation, our intentions had nothing to do with the change brought upon us so suddenly.

I’m hung up on this thought that I want to go home. I want to walk the 3 blocks home from school with my Sweet Girl, carrying her backpack and listening to stories about her day. I want to unlock the door that sometimes needs a little extra push, and start preparing dinner while SG does her homework at the kitchen table, getting her little finger prints on the glass each time and almost always forgetting to put away a pencil or a folder. I want to hear the mailbox lid make its familiar clunk when our quirky mailman, Bruce, drops in the day’s letters.  I want to sit in our sunroom and watch the rain as I write this.  These moments were all perfectly imperfect.

* * * * *

There have been many times in history that people have had to quickly pack up a few belongings and leave their home, possibly forever.  There are several recent books published about the Underground Railroad, describing the risks people took to gain freedom and escape persecution.  The current Syrian refugee crisis is another unfortunate example.

I often think of the multitude of Jews who, not very long ago, were woken in the night by SS soldiers and forced to leave their homes in a matter of minutes with whatever they could carry.  Their homes were overtaken and could not be reclaimed after the war.  I also often ponder the Passover story many times a year.  When I was a child, my grandfather would lead the kids around his house with a sack over his shoulder, enacting the story as if we personally were escaping from Egypt and a life of slavery.  And now, each year, at some point during our Passover seder, we go around the table and we each mention what we would take with us if we had to leave our homes and lives behind.  It evokes humorous responses from those under 5 years of age, but consistent answers from everyone else.  We would take our loved ones, our photo albums, and sometimes something that belonged to a family member who is no longer with us.  We are hanging on to a collective memory.

Exile is a theme that repeats itself often in the Torah.  Adam and Eve must leave the Garden of Eden.  Moses spent all his life in exile.  Then there were the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, all the way up to the Nazis, who used violence to drive the Jewish people from their lands.  Jews have been exiled from England, Spain, France, Italy, Vienna, Russia, Germany.  (One source cites 109 countries we have been kicked out of, not that there’s a contest we’re trying to win.)

Such blind hatred of one people or another has never made any sense to me.  When I heard Brene Brown speak a couple weeks ago at the launch of her book tour, she described it with the metaphor of a circle.  The ability to imagine any one group of people as not fitting in or not belonging inside the circle is what allows a mental shift to take place.  You somehow symbolically place any group you want outside the circle of inclusion, normalcy, and “everyone else” and don’t allow yourself the mental ability to redraw the circle.  It’s a short thought experiment but a very dangerous tactic.  It’s simple to conclude that if they aren’t inside the circle as we are, they must not be human.

I can only imagine what it must have been like during the destruction of the Second Temple.  First, the dedication to fight for what you most treasure, along with the trauma of failing and watching its destruction.  Then either having to flee from all you know or perhaps being able to walk through the rubble and wonder how it could all change so suddenly.

The Jewish People are resilient.  Time after time, country after country, we have taken our traditions and started again.  Worship and routine may have altered, but the community ideals remained and people kept their faith and found new ways to adapt.  The quicker they were able to adapt to change, the more their new communities flourished.

I feel gratitude for the stories of our shared past.  If an entire People can undergo this experience of sudden exile over and over and over again, I can do it too.

The random destruction in the path of Harvey’s waters is no comparison to purposeful hatred and violence.  In fact, we could even say that the flood waters called forth countless people to reach beyond themselves to engage in helpful actions and community service.  In Jewish tradition, this is called tzedakah.  It’s not a choice; it’s simply what we do.  It’s not “charity,” but creating “justice” and doing what is right. It is a moral obligation to reach beyond our own needs and care for our fellow brothers and sisters.  More than only money, we give of ourselves with our compassion and our heartfelt recognition that the other person needs something to “make it right again.”

Throughout the time of slavery before the American Civil War, during the Holocaust, and most likely in every instance in human history where there has been unfair oppression of anyone, there were many individuals who stood up to “do the right thing” and helped despite the certainty that they would be severely punished for it.  But reading about it in a history book and witnessing tzedakah in action (and what’s more, being a recipient of it) are completely different.

As I sat in synagogue this year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it struck me that almost the entire service reminds us to focus on our actions.  We ask God for help, we are grateful for our lives, and we praise God for many things, but the prime focus of these Holy Days is on our free will, our human hearts and minds that make choices every single day. Did we stand up to injustice? Did we welcome the stranger into our home or our conversation? What do we do, what actions do we carry out, with the gifts we have been given? We read that what will come in the year ahead directly corresponds to our actions.  We humbly recognize that we are not perfect.  Therefore, we spend serious time remembering our failings of the past year and searching for ways we can move into the future having learned from those mistakes.

The Jewish People (and this is the case for many cultures and religions) frequently and purposely invoke our collective history as a lesson in how to live.  We remember the stories of generations before us because their experiences teach us strength, wisdom, humility, faith, and they help us to shape our values today.  We are a People with a long collective memory, often seeking lessons and meaning from our past.  Interestingly, given our track record, we don’t tend to look toward the future much, nor do we all agree about what that will look like, because our focus is on this moment right now. The concept of tzedakah reminds us that there is much to do right here, right now.

The blessings of my present situation are almost too many to count.  Yes, we had a forced exile of a sort in a panicked situation, but we had no violence or hatred.  It was unexpected, but we now have the luxury of peace and healing and there is no rush to move forward until we are ready to. And unlike the historical examples above, we had overwhelming love and support in the days following the storm and we still do now.  We can return to our destroyed house as many times as we want to look around and to try to make sense of what has happened.  This grief is not for the loss of a unique soul and their treasured life, thank God, but for a collection of inanimate walls and floors.  How’s that for perspective?

We really did choose what we said we would, having to rush out at the last moment: my grandma’s hand-stitched Sabbath tablecloth, my great grandmother’s rolling pin, photo albums and meaningful artwork, SG’s blanket, a little food for the journey.  It’s reassuring to know that those annual hypothetical answers were rooted in truth.

We appreciate those moments that give life meaning.  We notice the budding leaves in springtime and the first orange leaf in fall.  We savor another birthday as an opportunity to acknowledge growth and life experiences and to attempt to begin a cycle anew. We decide how to shape our days, our seasons, our life, as if time were a bucket and we could toss in whatever our hearts desire.  These special moments could take place at any address in the whole world.  It is not where they take place, but simply that they do. No matter how we travel, we don’t ever have to leave them behind.

Just as we are symbolically broken open during these holy days and we stand before God in judgment solely for our actions, good and bad, we can mentally crack open our home and symbolically extract the memories of the most important actions and leave the rest behind.

I emerge from these days of reflection with the intention of appreciating the dwelling we had, which provided shelter for the three of us to grow and to share experiences together.  I recognize that it was simply a backdrop for our memories, not the memories themselves. I will adjust over time to accept the reality that we are not going to be living in the exact same house with the same furniture and walls and layout. We are already making new memories within other walls.  I will work on letting it go.

We look to the stories of the past for meaning and we honor those experiences, but we focus not on the feelings of pain or loss they evoke but on what we have collectively gained from each experience, what lessons and memories we choose to carry forward.  It is only by looking to the past that we gain the perspective required to shift our perception of the present.

Perhaps I am not really stuck in the denial stage of losing the house.  Maybe I am re-experiencing the shock of the storm itself and begrudging the effort it will take to start anew.  In that case, I will recognize and honor those emotions and give them the space within to do whatever it is that emotions do before they go on their merry way.  (This may require the purchase of some art supplies.) And I will do this keeping in mind that this may be difficult, but it is nothing like the horrors in the history books.

As we begin to think about designing a new home, I aim to make choices that intentionally create a space for our treasured memories of the past, our blessings in the present, and our (hopefully) bright future.  It will be acknowledged as the container for bedtime stories and birthday parties, but those moments will never be attached to any physical structure.  What sustains us will always be what we carry within us.

Posted in Home, Spirituality, Writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

An uphill climb: allowing space for grief

“I’ve never seen anyone in a situation like this handle it as positively as you are.”

“Ask Naomi, she’s in charge.”

“How did you get all this done so quickly?”

My friends, even those with the most positive, look-for-the-silver-lining, don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff-type outlook have their not-so-good days.

At first, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss and looks of sympathy were exactly FOR.  We’re completely safe, we are financially comfortable, nobody was harmed. It’s only “stuff,” right?

Well, yes, but it’s 1) MOST of your stuff and it is mementos you really cared about, 2) your sense of home and safety taken away, 3) being displaced from your comfortable daily environment and routine, and 4) your neighborhood forever changed and its future unpredictable.  In our situation, it is also 1) SG’s school was destroyed enough to have to relocate for the year and 2) though this was the first time our street has ever flooded, we are not willing to fix and move back in knowing this is likely to happen again. We have learned from our neighbors who are dealing with this for the third time. So we’re looking at about an 18-month process here before we can settle into a “home” again.

I know that “home” is wherever you are with those you love.  I also know that “this too shall pass” and that I am strong.  However, I am human.  I long for my art room and my books, our little sun porch with the comfy egg chair, that lost pair of shoes and, darn it, I really liked our mattress.  Sweet Girl liked her shelf of legos, her cabinet of craft supplies, her awesome loft bed, and all her books neatly organized.  I realize that all of this is possible to have again and I know that none of it “really matters.”

As life settles down a little, my positivity is succumbing to anger and fatigue and sadness.  For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been living half a day at a time and dealing with many new emotions popping up.  I’m great at jumping into action and doing what needs to be done, but now that everything is finally done and the days are getting quieter and calmer, I am not sure what to do with these feelings.

I am trying to move forward and create a safe, warm home for my family, yet it seems like there is an obstacle around every corner just waiting to pop out and punch me in the face.  I am overwhelmed and preoccupied and still kind of in shock about what has happened. Everyone around me is tired and frustrated and patience is thin with none in reserve. I feel guilty even saying any of this because we have so much – food and shelter and safety and furniture and electricity and friends and school and cars and community and our pets… but still, the feelings are real.  People have been through much, much worse, but still, these feelings persist.  Bear with me while I vent…

Every little action feels like walking uphill against the wind.  I’m tired of thinking about some detail related to this life-changing event 24/7 or hearing other people talk about it.  Every passing day, I realize more of what I’ve lost.  There’s only so much of that uphill journey a person can take before she starts to slip backwards.

It feels like nothing is clean. We packed up our clothing and belongings with lightning speed to get them out of our mildewing house, but I still feel that I need to wash everything again.  Twice.  The apartment washing machine is ripping up our brand new sheets.  We still need to buy a vacuum and I miss the zen-like satisfaction of vacuuming the house.  The kitten is into EVERY. SINGLE. THING: cabinets, containers, trash cans, the tubes behind the washing machine, and she waits for the door to open so she can bolt outside.  The bathrooms and closets have the dimmest lighting I’ve ever seen. There is no space in the apartment to get a moment to myself.  I can’t find a safety pin or our iron and we don’t have a corkscrew.  I can’t stand the electric stove.  I need to restart my computer 2 or 3 times a day to get the internet to work.  The neighbor next door is noisy exactly when I’m trying to get SG to sleep.  There are tiny ants that must hang around every day waiting for a cat to drop a morsel of food.  I miss feeling settled and comfortable and knowing where everything is.

Dealing with the insurance company and FEMA is a bureaucracy of red tape and paperwork and waiting “10 business days” for every small action.  Our mail is somewhere in between our house and getting forwarded to the apartment.  It’s been 4 days of going to both mailboxes looking for it.  There are not many answers attainable via social media, as every person seems to have an individual situation regarding insurance payments and processing that doesn’t match the next person’s story.  I have stopped seeking answers there.

Loss of a “house” and the loss of a “home” are two completely different things.  Watching the very space where we made design decisions over a long period of time traumatically taken away in a matter of hours is very hard to wrap my mind around.  The helpless feeling of not being able to do anything to stop the water coming in from multiple sides was foreign to me.  I don’t know where any of my displaced friends are living right now.  There are “For Sale” signs popping up as older couples decide it’s not worth it for them to deal with this.  There’s a lot of discussion about what “should” be done about the city-wide drainage problems.  The neighborhood will possibly be changing its architectural guidelines since 90% of the homes were affected by this, but that is itself a process.

For many, Meyerland has been a community of morning and evening walks, knowing and seeing our neighbors regularly and counting on them for Neighborhood Night Out barbecues, Halloween treats, and Girl Scout cookie purchases.  It’s an area of town where you are more likely to see mezuzahs on the doorposts than Christmas lights, yet the diversity of cultures, religions, and generations was a large asset.  Children rode bikes with each other in the streets.  This time, 1900 out of 2300 Meyerland homes flooded (and those other 400 had already been elevated or completely rebuilt higher up).  I hope it continues to be all the wonderful things many love about it, but that is somewhat uncertain.

It’s all a long process of waiting.  Waiting to hear back from the insurance company.  Waiting for furniture to be delivered.  Waiting for school to finally begin. Waiting for the maintenance guy to come unclog the sink and re-attach shelves that fell from the wall in the closet. Waiting for the survey company to get some numbers to the architect.  Waiting on the backlogged permit office.  Waiting for our 6-month lease to end so we can move somewhere else. Waiting to see what property values will be in 3 years.  Waiting just to see if we change our minds about what we want.

I am so sick of seeing my belongings sitting curbside waiting to be collected by a large truck and workers in florescent vests, seeing appliances and mattresses and bikes sitting in front of every house in the immediate area, and sometimes not being able to drive down my own street because of all the workers.  People are getting sick from all the mold and mildew sitting and rotting.  We are surprised we haven’t gotten flat tires yet due to all the debris in the street.

I remember well the feeling of invasiveness and lack of respect for our home by laborers when we put in the pool and garage. I know we will soon fence the perimeter of our lot and all our beautiful landscaping will again be trampled.  It’s a very real frustration and loss of control.  It’s going to be a long road of construction and decision-making, all to try to create a new feeling of home and belonging.

I admit that I have been appreciating the outpouring of support and help from around the world while simultaneously knowing it couldn’t last very long.  There is only so much others can do before they move on to something else.  Gift cards poured into Houston from all over the world.  I have contributed to individual GoFundMe collections as well as given generously to our daughter’s elementary school and to multiple teachers and staff.  Amazingly, it seems like every state in the country sent supplies, money, or letters/songs/artwork for the school hallways. I admit that any support that comes for our small school surprises me because I don’t know if I’d care that much about a random school somewhere far away. Every day I expect it to cease.

It has become necessary for me to take some deep breaths and strengthen internally before checking Facebook.  Sometimes it’s yet another political snafu, sometimes it’s someone asking about navigating the frustrating process of FEMA appeals, and sometimes it’s a mass shooting in yet another U.S. city.  It’s rarely something good worth celebrating, which is why I wish I would stop looking at it!

A mother always fiercely guards her young, and SG has dealt with an abundance of change in a very short time.  Moving around from garage apartment to friends to grandparents to other friends to a temporary apartment and finally to this apartment where we will be for I-don’t-know-how-long, I would imagine she likes being in one place no matter where we are.  She has always needed to be close to us, so this smaller layout must feel comforting to her, as much as it frustrates her parents.  She is very unsettled by not having all her belongings and not getting to decide what was chosen to be here with her and what was sent to storage.

Having school resume is a blessing for our sense of normalcy and she is enjoying it, but she is having some adjustment issues.  Let’s just leave it at that.  Anytime she is not well or happy, I am not able to fully let down my guard.  Sometimes just the thought of what is happening with her and my inability to fix the entire thing just breaks my heart.

Separately, I’ve undertaken a parenting shift in that I am being firm with my limits and protecting my own space and time.  That involves some internal work, reading some parenting books, and meeting regularly with a parenting coach.  No small project by itself, let alone with everything else on my mind.

It can be hard to talk about anything else but the storm and its aftermath, and yet when people do, I don’t have any interest.  It’s gotten to be challenging to keep the smile on my face even when grocery shopping.  The political landscape disgusts and embarrasses me more and more every day.  There is so much hurt in the world today, tension and divisions and destruction of property and life and natural landscapes… from pure fear.  I have always struggled not to internalize it, not to take on the problems as my own, and not to draw conclusions when I see that truly good people are defeated more times than they win.

I don’t know what to think of it all or how to take the long view on any of this, but I definitely feel connected to it all.  I take it personally when I see someone toss garbage out of their car window, just as I would if they’d tossed it onto my front lawn.  I take it personally when a pathological egoist with racist tendencies garners any votes for president of what is supposed to be an enlightened country, let alone winning the entire popularity contest.  And I definitely take it personally every single time I have waited in a slow-moving line of cars only for one asshole to pass us all by and pop in at the head of the line as if he wasn’t aware of common human decency because, didn’t you know, wherever he is going is much more important than where I was going.  In fact, he must be more important all around.  Isn’t that how God made us?

Just like there is a wave of righteous anger every time there is senseless violence, many are seething because the City of Houston has known about the history and tendency of flooding for many, many years and done little.  I don’t exactly know why it’s ok to have some people live on top of toxic waste heaps, some be required to go to underfunded, poor-quality schools, or, in this case, to allow industry and commerce to take precedence over caring for our natural environment, thus putting citizens at risk.  There are always going to be consequences down the line.

The loss of our home because of a completely random, meaningless natural disaster (and it’s a separate discussion about whether warm oceans bring hurricanes) and the savageness of it just baffles me.  Our Sun is going to explode in some billion number of years, ending life on Earth then, if not long before from some other asteroid collision or from greenhouse gasses or who knows what, but that seems abstract and even like fantasy fiction.  These current circumstances, along with the recent swath of other natural disasters like fires and earthquakes, seem apocalyptic for no real reason.

We will not be doing this a second time. What does that mean? We either have to sell, elevate, or demo and rebuild.  Personally, I think the 1960’s ranch homes that have been elevated look completely ridiculous.  And we don’t love our house enough to keep it exactly as it was anyway.  We have looked into cost and options for all three, and we will most likely be designing and building a new home, which will be a long process. I am trying to keep the perspective that it will be worth it.

It will be fun and exciting and frustrating all at the same time, and yet I am still focused on the loss of our home.  That seems to be a really big deal and I am having trouble letting go.  I don’t think I will be present on demo day! Someone told me in college that the time it takes to get over a heartbreak is equivalent to about half the duration of the relationship. So living in this home for 6 years… 3 years to move on? I was hoping for 3 months. Many of the items that were damaged were some childhood photos, a doll a great aunt made for me when I was small, many journals from a large span of years, much of my own artwork.  Those can’t be replaced.

I appreciate the hugs and comfort that friends have been giving very much.  Without it, I would have a significantly more challenging time continuing forward, I’m sure.  The texts and hugs and homemade meals mean more than anything else.  I also have realized who our true friends are and who couldn’t care less, a very valuable lesson in itself.  I know that we are safe and have everything we need.  This is largely an emotional reaction and I am trying to take these feelings less seriously while, at the same time, allowing myself the grief.

Thank you for reading.  I hope these ramblings help someone else trying to make sense of similar situations.

Posted in Home, Motherhood, Self-compassion, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Full hands, whole heart: a retelling of my storm experience

The woman beside me at the nail salon heard me answer the manicurist’s question about our house and began asking me about our situation and also sharing other people’s stories.  I didn’t realize at the time that there were a few other women in the room who were also listening to our conversation.  Until today, I have not thought about the storm and the quick succession of actions that immediately followed it.   There has not been time.

Today is a good day.  I am beyond relieved that SG is finally in school this week (and liking it) and we are in a new but regular routine.  I feel upbeat and rested for the first time in a month and I even put on a skirt and some makeup today. I’m getting my nails done because it’s been weeks and because it makes me feel put-together.  I used to go to this nail place every 10 days or so, but my usual schedule is no more.

It’s a small thing, but there’s something about looking at my fingers and toes and seeing chips in the polish and areas that need touching up that bothers me on a deep level and indicates that life is not normal, that I am neglecting self-care in favor of addressing task after necessary task as they arise. Taking care of this one small detail lifts my spirits and helps bring back a sense that things are moving forward in a planned fashion.  Clean, shaped, and polished nails are a promise to myself that I can and I will get myself put back together. Or maybe that I already am whole now that I can finally pause and breathe.

These hands have been busy this past month.  It’s been 30+ days of action and my hands are callused and sore. A little lotion and massage is a welcome thing.

They sprang to action by bringing the large hurricane supply bins in from the garage, sorting through them to see what needed to be tossed from previous years (expired food) and what we still needed to buy (new batteries).  Then there was the stocking up and lifting of heavy things into shopping carts, into the car, and into the house… a 190-pound generator and a portable window air conditioner in case the power stayed out for an extended period of time after the storm, a dehumidifier, gallons upon gallons of water, and three full 5-gallon gasoline containers. Grouping 2 or 3 100’ outdoor extension cords in one bag is pretty heavy as well.  Add contractor size trash bags, 25-lb bags of cat litter, flash light D batteries (which I drove to 7 stores to find), and (thankfully for this last part Mr. B was in town) 42 bags of soil to use as sandbags with plastic sheeting around the house and you start to appreciate the arm and hand strength needed for all this hauling.

Then there was the preparation of the household: lifting furniture, rolling up rugs and stowing them on top of the dining room table, piling as much as we could onto the couches and the beds.  We did not know how far to take these preparatory steps because we’ve done it before, only to have to put it all back the next day.  Well, this time we did not get do that… almost all our furniture went ruined to the curb two days later.  Even the rugs, which did not have contact with any flood water, soaked up the moisture regardless.

During the storm itself, the three of us were in the office we just recently finished adding above the garage.  We woke up to the water coming into the house and quickly made last-minute boxes of items to take upstairs. I had a brief job to do in heading out into the knee-deep floodwaters to get a few items from the house and to flip the main switch on the breaker to the house, but then my hands sat idle.  They did not even have a phone to touch or hold.  I focused their warmth on holding SG’s hand, making them as reassuring as they could be.  Touch is magic sometimes, especially when you don’t really know what to say.

We spent a day and a night and part of another day (I can’t actually remember how long we were there!) up there during and immediately following the storm.  At one point, we had to take shelter in the bathtub because there was a tornado about a mile away.  Our new kitten was into everything and so I created a barrier with a couple of cut cardboard boxes and taped that to the walls on each side of the stairwell so she wouldn’t be able to go down the steps and into the water that was already coming up to the first step.  That night’s dinner was a picnic on the floor consisting of dry cereal, peanut butter crackers, dried apples, and granola bars.  It was almost impossible to sleep with no air conditioning, the windows open for air but also letting in the sound of helicopters and rescue boats.  I now look back and wonder at myself… with SG wanting to sleep in between us, I was first insisting that she stay on her own air mattress. I gave in.  What an experience for a child. She fell asleep holding my hand.

Once the waters receded enough that we could go downstairs, assess the damage in the house, and trudge down our street, we took only what we could carry in our hands and were picked up by friends and taken to their house nearby.  They have their own little garage apartment area that they insisted we use as long as necessary.  Of course, they also had an attached house with electricity and food.  Showering never felt so good. We ultimately brought over a bag each of clothing, our computers, and our two cats and all their necessities.  We spent a number of days (again… I’ve forgotten) staying there on air mattresses and using their house as our home base as we remediated the house, made the multitude of phone calls, etc. SG was largely occupied with their kids and a friend who lives down the street, which was a welcome blessing.

In the remediation phase a couple days afterward, I intended to be there solely to watch the process and to take photos for insurance purposes, but it quickly became obvious that you can’t rip out cabinets and closets without packing up what is inside them. It was a mad dash and I have never packed so fast.  These hands were holding many items at once, but always tape and a big marker for the boxes and a pen and small notebook.  First I donned cheap plastic disposable gloves and threw out the waterlogged items.  We were fortunate to have friends alongside us, helping us toss and take pictures of everything.  Things like books and stacks of magazines are already heavy, but waterlogged, they are like boulders! I know that we started with at least 2 boxes of the large, black contractor trash bags and that we ultimately ran out of them.  That is 200 huge plastic bags full of items that we accumulated slowly over a period of years.  Everything in the bottom drawers or cabinets had to go.  Toiletries, clothes, paperwork, art supplies and artwork, Tupperware, DVDs, games, books. The list seems endless.

You have heard the expression “out of touch,” I’m sure.  When things get beyond us, or we are not able to give our attention to everything as it happens, we are said to be out of touch or things have gotten “out of hand.”  Now I realize that as we sorted everything else into “apartment” and “storage” boxes, there are many times where I should have made a different call.  There are items I wish I had now, but also much that ended up in our apartment that we have no use or space for right now.

In those few seemingly endless days, my hands were so busy packing and carrying boxes full of our life that I don’t quite remember if they held any one thing for more than a second.  Having other people help us pack was a necessary blessing, but it didn’t allow me a chance to handle each item and make the decision for myself.  So many decisions were literally out of my hands. Time completely seemed to stall then, like the present moment extended to include contact with our belongings on a moving sidewalk view of our life.  The morning became the afternoon and one day became three days. Everything was photographed and then tossed out or boxed up and hidden from view and touch, some things indefinitely.  To have to make those decisions quickly and on the fly felt surreal.

All this was being done with constant interruptions.  Besides questions from packers inside the house, my (new) phone was constantly ringing and pinging. Do you need boxes or tape or food or more people? Do you have a place to stay? Contractors returning calls to schedule appointments.  The moving company confirming dates.  The apartment complex requesting other documents.  Our family in Galveston, who had SG with them, or SG herself, calling to touch base.  It was a busy time and literally, my hands were full.

I don’t usually pause to be grateful for my youth and physical ability.  This woman next to me in the nail salon is telling me mostly stories of older people who have lost some form of physical capability.  Her own husband has Alzheimer’s and gets confused a lot.  Her house was completely fine and did not take on water this time, but if it had, she was ready to find someone who could put everything back exactly as it was for her husband’s comfort, down the same floor tile pattern and texture of carpeting.  Her daughter took in some neighbors who have serious medical issues and need specific medicines at certain times of the day, along with special equipment. They were having trouble adapting to taking care of themselves out of their usual surroundings.

I, on the other hand, have a husband alongside me, our daughter taken care of, and so much adrenaline coursing through me that I could probably have helped pack up every house on the block.  I am appreciative of the work my body performed, without pain or question and not stopping me.  One day, this vessel will tire and I will rely on help from others.  But for now, my hands are strong and capable.

The large task of emptying the house done, it was time to shift our focus from where we’d been to where we were going.  I think it was the very same day of the storm that we rented an apartment sight-unseen over the phone (but this is not an article about my eyes).  We were largely guessing what furniture would fit based on a drawing in a brochure.  We didn’t even know how long we would be “homeless.”  The apartment complex had one unit available and so we took it, assuming rental places would be hard to find in the coming days since half the city was probably displaced.  (Turns out that we probably could have been more selective, but I felt happy to have that decision taken care of.)

We lived in limbo for a couple weeks before moving into our apartment.  We brought a few things to a close friend’s parents’ apartment.  They had purchased it in a new, luxury hi-rise because they are in Houston about 6 months each year.  It is perhaps the nicest place I have ever lived in.  Both Mr. B and I wished we could just stay there forever.  I think he may have asked the front desk the price and availability of the units! Having even a temporary home where we were safe, all arrangements were taken care of, and the place was clean and fully functioning was like a gift from heaven, especially in contrast to the uncertainty of what our future apartment would be like.  Being there, I had a similar feeling of being with my own parents and being taken care of.

The cats had to be left behind with our friends. For SG, this was rough. She wanted to be with her new kitten and this was yet another disruption she was being asked to deal with.  We visited them as much as we could.  When I think of things from her perspective, I can’t even imagine… the actual experience of the storm itself, going from garage apartment to friends’ garage apartment to grandparents’ house to borrowed nice apartment to grandparents again to this new apartment; new bedroom furniture; stressed out and preoccupied parents; a new school and new grade and new teachers; new after-school classes and projects; big changes in routine; having to see your empty home a few times and your toys ruined on the lawn and you can’t have them… that is a lot to handle in a very short time.

We eagerly anticipated the day we could move in to the new apartment as a start toward feeling settled again.  I had reserved two storage units over the phone during the storm, with one hand covering my other ear because a neighbor was being airlifted from her roof by the Coast Guard at the same time.  I expected an exact science, that they would arrive and get delivered and picked up as planned.  (That did not happen.) We had done laundry, tossed our trash and food, packed our belongings, and left the borrowed place behind that morning.  We arrived at the apartment and there was our storage unit, there were our movers, there were the keys… only the new apartment was a disaster. Such a mess! There had been a big mistake… someone had dropped the ball. The old carpet needed to be ripped out, the walls were in the middle of being painted.  It would be a few more days.

What an emotional rollercoaster.  Pack. Unpack. Pack. Unpack. Pack again.  Determine if and when the movers could come back.  Now here we were paying a house mortgage and rent on an apartment that we couldn’t even move into yet… the movers were finally were able to squeeze us in very late a few nights later.

Once we were moved in, I couldn’t seem to put things in place fast enough. I’d pick up a picture to hang and then be distracted by a box that was halfway unpacked.  I’d work on that but end up in the kitchen, where the counters were piled with groceries that needed to be put away. I felt like I could not move fast enough or get unpacked soon enough to ease my feeling of anxiety and unsettledness.  It bothered me that everything was not in its proper place yet.  Fortunately, since we didn’t have much, it didn’t take too long.

What was difficult was the multiple trips up the stairs to our third-floor apartment.  We quickly learned to unload the car at the bottom of the steps before going to park because the distance from our parking spots to the apartment seems twice as far when you’re laden with heavy packages.  I have had such frustration when I’m trying to lug a heavy shelf unit up the steps by myself, or even just a few bags of groceries.  I can’t deny that I have stopped partway before and just cried in frustration at the situation.

These hands have assembled so much furniture that I bought an electric screwdriver to make the process faster and ease the soreness in my right hand.  There was the cute little couch I found on Overstock. A shelf unit that has got to be heavier than our bed (and that’s saying something).  The set of drawers for our aquarium (and yes, moving the aquarium itself was loads of fun).  Other shelves and cubby and drawer systems. A coffee and a TV table.  2 dressers.

Do you know that feeling you have when you are carrying heavy items and someone comes alongside you and takes half? Is it relief? Intense gratitude? That has got to be one of the most welcome feelings ever.  I can say that I’ve been fortunate to have help much of the time lately.  Mr. B to help take things up and down the stairs (because you know all those cardboard boxes that the furniture comes in must be taken back down the stairs and to the dumpster around the corner), a stranger at a store helping to load my car with me, and even movers (who we paid to help us) elicit that feeling of gratitude. Maybe it’s the offer itself that warms the heart.

We are mostly settled now. SG has finally started the school year in a new building and a month later than expected. I am writing thank you notes, sorting paperwork, and helping at SG’s school.  Every day, one of us goes over to the house to collect the mail or to check to see if the pile on the front lawn has lessened or disappeared. Today, as I left the salon and drove away, I ended up at the house again, this time not purposely.  I have made that 5-minute drive from the nail salon to our house perhaps 100 times, so I subconsciously did it again.  When I realized it, I simply parked my car in the driveway and started at the place, trying to make sense of it all.

It’s crazy but what I am excited about today is that much of our front-yard debris is gone (if you could call the photo below “gone”)!!! Over a month past the storm, I had honestly given up hope of it getting picked up at all by the City.  The entire neighborhood has big piles in front of homes, not that I’ve been in one of those.  Picture sheetrock and walls and doors and cabinets all sitting outside in the heat and rain, decomposing to pulp and smelling not that great.  It’s like the houses threw up. I could never quite identify what it was I was feeling when I’d notice one of SG’s little chairs or one of her jars of colored sand that was abandoned on the lawn.  Some days I thought they were fine enough to pick up and take with me, but I know better.  When you physically are not supposed to touch your own belongings… I don’t know what to call that.

As I was paying and leaving the nail salon, another woman was also walking out.  I hadn’t even noticed her.  She looked at me compassionately, put her hand on my shoulder, and said good luck and that she’s so sorry for what we are going through.  That’s when I realized that the other guests had been listening.  What an experience of community this city has had! There have been heartwarming stories of strangers helping strangers all over the place. Then, the woman who had been sitting next to me came forward and gave me a hug.

The experience today of planned self-care, of being in a place I have been many times before, and of compassion from strangers reminded me again to focus on the positive and to keep doing that every day.  There has been so much to think about and some large decisions to make and sometimes I just wish it’d all go away.  But I’d take this past month of challenges and the requisite for physical and emotional strength over anyone else’s experiences any day.  That I have a life and family and home that is worth any challenge is but one reason to let the short-term tests pass me by largely unscathed.  These hands can “handle” this and so much more.

And eventually, just as they emptied our house of belongings, these hands will help us move back to a lovely new home where the three of us will continue being present for each other, helping with the celebrating and the comforting that is part of life.  I aim to always acknowledge that we humans are vulnerable and not in control, to accept challenges gracefully, and to continue paying attention to the many helping hands around me and the comforting embraces of my community.

Posted in Home, Mindfulness, Motherhood, Self-compassion, Writing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Checking in – on new routines and kitties

Gets me every time I see it

So yeah, it’s been rather hectic around here. I greatly appreciate all of you who have reached out to check on us.  We have gotten settled into a third floor apartment (without an elevator) and have been waiting for school to finally begin.  It starts today!!!

It’s truly been awesome to watch the community come together to take a brand new building and create a school from it.  Almost everything inside is donated. There have been fundraisers and items donated from all over the country (and other countries too). The care for our little school has been amazing.

Not much has become routine yet. From the time we wake up in our new bed to new surroundings, to getting dressed and out the door, through the day, almost everything is a first.  First time to find the mail room. First time to use the oven. First time to talk with FEMA. First meeting with a builder. First time to order dinner to the apartment. It all requires a lot of brain function. Where are the tools and the stamps and our shoes?

I know it will settle down to a routine now that school has started.  Sweet Girl seemed super excited about it this morning. Her teachers are really great and we got to see the classroom too. I have no doubt it’ll be a good year.

A couple weeks before the storm, we got a kitten from the Humane Society. Probably not the best time to do that! After the first couple of days, we discovered she had ringworm and had to give her medicine and baths and wear protective clothing and gloves when we visited her in a bathroom area.  We had to keep her apart from our other cat.

They finally got thrown together in our garage office area when we quickly had to flee up there because water was coming in the house.  Our 15-year-old did not particularly care for the kitten, not surprisingly.  She likes to play and he likes to sleep.  There was a lot of hissing. She is into everything too. I’d forgotten what having a kitten is like.

When we were staying at a friend’s parents’ apartment for a week or so, the kitties stayed with some (super awesome and nice and especially understanding) friends. Finally, we moved into the apartment and we STILL weren’t able to take them back because it was a mess.  It took us a few days to assemble furniture and unpack and get a bed delivered and finally it was ok for us to sleep there. The next day we picked up the cats and they have been fantastic since.  Maybe they bonded while they were together. We are teaching the kitten what NOT to do and she’s very smart. I think she can even read! When I’m typing on the computer, she is sitting here looking at the screen like she’s following what I write. She even plays fetch.

I have started reading novels again, which feels wonderful. We are trying to decide what the right thing is to do with the house.  We still have a gigantic pile of our belongings on the front lawn, but most everything else looks normal when I drive over to pick up our mail. The pool is back to normal and we should probably go use it.

Mostly, I wish we could just drive up and go inside and resume life as it was. It’s all the effort and decision-making of this new routine that is the hard part.

I somehow don’t have any art supplies in the apartment or any books. So much got packed up for storage and it all happened in 2 days. Of course I have everything we need and the rest will figure itself out.

So that’s the latest here. I hope to get back to a regular post schedule soon.

P.S. This kitten is a snuggler. We haven’t had that before and it’s pretty awesome. 🙂

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