Monday, September 1, 2014

This Is the Bed I've Made

...and I'm gonna snuggle under my security budget! Wait--what?

where I snuggle with Nux Gallica to dream
Yes, that's right. I've set my mind free from sleepless worry over money, beneath the cover of a scanty, rough, but serviceable biweekly budget.

For added comfort, I'm layering in my new smooth, silky, weekly and daily schedule sheets. Ahhhh, bliss!

The brain of a mother is a minefield of worries, and the brain of a creative person is a lightning storm of chaos. So despite what you might see on Pinterest, it's very easy for a creative mom's dreams to get paralyzed by a crushing sense of anxious insecurity.

I think this is why I'm such a plotter on the outside. I can remember that first day of middle school, when the teacher passed out daily planner notebooks and explained how we would have to track all our schoolwork and extracurricular activities. I remember curling my lip and staring at the thing with dread--not because I didn't like writing--oh how I loved writing!--but because I couldn't imagine binding my creative genius to the mundane drudgery of outlines and schedules.

But, like a diligent student, I gritted my teeth and tried it out. And once I got the hang if it, what a life-changer it was! I stopped finding myself panicked the evening before a project was due, begging my mom to do it for me because I had forgotten about it. I set myself free of the incessant whisper in my head that I was forgetting something--because scatterbrained me was always forgetting something--by using that notebook as a quiet place to stash all those things that were boring but important to remember.

As an adult, I'm a solid plotter, finding a deep sense of security in lists, maps, and plans. Creative people tend to be the least organized, mentally. I'm scatterbrained, forgetful, easily lost in space, prone to floating into daydreams and falling off the edges of tangents. Written guidelines have become my lifelines.

Since the birth of my daughter, I've struggled on and off with persistent, insomnia-inducing anxieties about MONEY and TIME. Am I spending too much? Am I making enough? Am I paying debts fast enough? Am I saving enough? ...and... Have I accomplished enough from my to-do list today?

Worries about the flow of personal money and time can be soul-crushing. They take up mental and emotional bandwidth, decreasing productivity, inner peace, and the enjoyment of life. The pressures to do it all and do it right can sabotage creative processes and decision-making.

So I've learned, with much effort, to accept that my life cannot be perfection, but I can still enjoy what I have. I'm settling in to the bed I have made, right now, so I have energy to dream and eventually create even brighter possibilities for my future and my family.

Now I'll share with you my own personal plans for the flow of money and time, because although each person's plan will look different, it helps to see real-life examples.

My Security Budget

First of all, there is no mathematical definition of financial security. Though money is important for meeting our basic needs and achieving goals, its importance tends to be exaggerated in our minds. "Security" is a feeling, not a number. There is plenty of sound financial advice out there about maximizing your assets, but we need to keep in mind that financial advice is just financial advice. It's not lifestyle advice. It's not a religion. It's specific to financial goal-setting, and financial goals should always support--never supersede--life dreams and moral values.

Permanent financial security is a myth; anybody can lose everything, and any amount of money can theoretically be replaced. What can't be replaced is the time in our lives we have not spent living our dreams. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be one of those people who waits until retirement to live whole-heartedly.

Along the way, of course, it's wise to do the best we can with our limited resources to minimize the distraction of financial woes. A healthy, peaceful balance between obsessing over the numbers and ignoring the numbers is what I seek.

My husband and I keep separate bank accounts (which we can access from each other when needed) to make it easier for each one of us to track bill paying and spending. DaddyMan pays all the utility bills and preschool tuition; I handle most of our debt payments, including the mortgage, and I manage most of our humble savings and investments (which are automated as paycheck deductions into retirement accounts, educational savings for our daughter, etc.).

The amounts of our savings deductions fall comfortably between what is recommended by financial gurus on TV and what most people actually do (which is nothing). Our daughter's education fund gets $50 a month, our emergency savings account gets $100 a month, and our retirement accounts get roughly $200 a month.

During the hard years of early parenthood, before public elementary school becomes available to us, we have committed to a life of temporary but hardcore asceticism. It has turned out to be a great lifestyle for a creative person who wants to strip life down to the essentials so she doesn't have to let go of any of her top three life purposes--mothering, justice-seeking, and writing.

Each of my paychecks disappears completely each month into regular payments and deductions. Yep, that's right, poof--gone. Our household pays about $700 per month on debts (excluding mortgage) thanks to our fancy college experiences and our shared lack of ambition to do work that is not meaningful to us to make more money. (Knowing us, it couldn't have happened any other way.) The remainder of my paycheck goes into savings. There are exactly zero dollars left over.

Every two weeks, I take $200 from my husband's account to live on--that's $100 per week for food, gas, personal items, fun times, educational experiences with Nux Gallica, toys from the clearance bin, medical copays--everything. My husband does a lot of the grocery shopping and car maintenance himself, so I can get away with this skimpy allowance--and it's kind of thrilling to know that I can. It also forces me to seek out healthy ways to pass the time with my daughter, like going on long walks to the park and cooking meals at home instead of driving to Chuck. E. Cheese. It sure helps that I don't drink or smoke! I can't afford any vices. I also can't afford distracting hobbies, leisure activities, and frivolities that are too tempting for me to pass up when I can afford them. (Manicures! Bar nights! Movies!) This is both sad and helpful, as I don't have the time for those things either.

Generosity is important to me, no matter how much I have, so it stresses me when I can't afford to give funds, gifts, and volunteer time to causes and people I care about. I would like to give more to my favorite nonprofit (which is also my employer), and it made me feel badly when I had to cancel my annual giving to stay afloat. Then I discovered that I am underpaid (according to the organization's own fair payment guidelines) in the exact amount that I had wanted to contribute (and I certainly don't think my work is worth less than the average worker's), so I've made note of that funny fact and decided to call it, to myself, my contribution to the cause.

In addition to willingly allowing a chunk of my income to stay with my community-improving employer, I consume conscientiously. Whenever possible, I use my teensy spending budget on more ethical and clean products (I value quality over quantity) such as green cosmetics, organic (or close-to-organic) food, fair trade chocolate and coffee, and "upcycled" clothing and textiles. 

Now that my debt payments, savings, spending, and giving are all automated at the best possible equilibrium and I know that I am not spending more than I earn, my mind is free to stop worrying about money. I still hope to have more in the future, but that hope is a motivator rather than a toxic stressor. My "need" for more cash flow has become a non-urgent "want."

My Schedule Sheets 

My "Mama Days" with Nux Gallica, while filled with moments of joy, used to be fraught with anxiety and frustration as well. As she grows and develops, changing her nap habits and needs and interests faster than I can keep up, I've fallen into the habit of watching for her signals (of hunger, boredom, excitement, sleepiness, etc.) to decide what to do from one hour to the next.

This is a generally wise thing to do with a small child, who is not fully in control of her physical needs and emotional states, but I realized that she and I both need more structure and routine in our day. Then perhaps she would feel more in control, and I would be less inclined to spend every moment thinking about what we would do next and how I would fit in all the tasks on my to-do list.

So I, being creative but not especially fancy-pants crafty, pulled out some washable markers and sheets of blank paper, and drew up a weekly calendar and a "Mama Days" schedule that Nux can understand in her pre-literate stage.

Sunday is family day! This is the one day of the week when we can do things all together, at any time of the day.

Monday, Friday, and Saturday are Mama Days. Daddy works, and we have mother-daughter time.

Tuesday is Daddy Day! This is when all the major fun happens, I suspect.

Wednesday is Preschool Day, a chance to get away from both parents for a little while and play with lots of other children.

Thursday is Oma Day, time to visit Grandma.

Nux Gallica absolutely adores this calendar and the Mama Days schedule below. She loves to point to each rectangle and recite what we did before, what we're doing now, and what we will do next. I'm astounded at the drastic change these stick figure sketches have made in our days and our moods. Nux has gone straight from anxious and resistant to transitions... to getting excited about them ahead of time.

At 6:30, Mama drinks coffee and checks her email and to-do list. This is a great time to sleep in or play independently! Mama will be so much happier in approximately one hour!

At 7:30, Daddy gets home from his morning job at the airport, and we eat breakfast together as a family. 

At 9:00, we go outside to water plants, pull weeds, and play. If it's raining, we do some gross motor play indoors and sometimes run errands by car.

At 11:00, we come inside to make lunch together. We sit at the table and have a leisurely meal.

At 1:00, it's time to lie down and rest quietly. We snuggle together, and then sometimes Mama sneaks away to make phone calls or do other boring grownup tasks.

At 2:00 (or whenever nap ends, if napping happens) we do chores together. Mama chooses the chores, and Nux chooses whether to help with each task or play independently.

At 5:00, we cook dinner together before Daddy comes home to join us.

At 7:00, we take a bath. Sometimes we both get in and color with bath crayons.

By 8:00, we are in bed to read a chapter of Charlotte's Web or Harry Potter before falling asleep.

Mama's Measure of Success: Life in Dream Time

Sometimes when I get frustrated about how little time I have to accomplish the goals I had before becoming a mother, I just need to remind myself that this extreme lifestyle is temporary--and sweet--and that, as we hear over and over, the journey is no less important than the destinations. Instead of asking myself, "What have I done this week?" I can ask, "How much time have I spent on my most precious dreams?"

What have I desired most since my tenderest age? What did I dream about most in my childhood bed? What did I pray for? What did I wish upon a star?

There are three things my soul has always craved, ever since I can remember. Those three deepest, most persistent desires have been family, justice, and storytelling.

And when I ask myself now, how much of my time to I spend with my beloved family?

How much time do I spend working for justice in the world?

How much time do I spend weaving my thoughts into stories?

When I ask myself those questions, I realize that nearly my entire life right now--nearly all my time, my resources, and my energies--are flowing in the service of those three primal, personal desires.

And then I feel truly self-actualized, and I stop losing sleep wondering if I'm doing it right and start dreaming bigger dreams...

How about you? What are your top three priorities in life? How much of your time, resources, and energies are spent in the service of those priorities? How much of yourself flows into the waking pursuit and nighttime creation of your dreams? 

Whatever bed you have made in your life, may you find rest in it this Labor Day!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Gimme Some SAP (Sexy Ancient Poetry)

marginalia from the Book of Kells
About ten years ago, I touched the pages of an illuminated manuscript in a library in Rome. It was a moving experience. Usually, the precious artifacts preserved in museums for hundreds or thousands of years are locked away, untouchable, except by experts wearing sterile gloves. But this time, for whatever reason--maybe just because it was Rome, where such artifacts are common and life is sensual--I was allowed to touch, with my naked fingers, the soft grain of a sheet of parchment, the scraped thin hide of a living creature, complete with hair follicles visible near the edges, lovingly crafted and written over in artful script, with ink handmade from vegetable tannins, applied with quills of feather and brushes of hair, illuminated in gold leaf and the powder of precious gems.

I don't remember what the content of the book was, but I remember becoming so aware of how different the experience of creating a book or manuscript (not just reading or looking at it) must have been a thousand years ago--an art composed of skin and plants and the minerals of the earth, created by skilled artisans by the natural light of the sun or the warm glow of a smoky flame.

Back when life was short and the creation of a book took a very long time, so much more of a writer's heart and soul must have been imbued in every curling, spiny character of text.

We've all felt the difference between writing words on paper, with an ink pen or a pencil held in our callused fingers, and pounding out words fast as an electric train in the charged, blue glare of a computer screen.

The way we live, and the way we write, has such an influence on what stories we tell and the language we use. This is one reason I love to reflect on the writings of past centuries and millennia--they're so full of hot blood and fire and flowing sap.

I'll list some of my favorite findings, and I hope you will suggest some of your own to share with me. I am your virtual neighbor, so gimme some SAP! (Sexy Ancient Poetry, that is.)

My first introduction to ancient sensual text was, of course, the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.

Oh yes.

And the Song of Solomon's closest relation, ancient Egyptian love poetry, is so steamy that I won't even reproduce it here, in the cold light of my LCD screen. But I do recommend taking a peep if you dare.

Another fountain of painfully beautiful love poetry arose in Heian period Japan, about a thousand years ago. My husband and I used to tuck these verses in our emails to each other early in our relationship. Some of our most beloved are...

We are, you and me,
Like two pine needles
Which will dry and fall
But never separate.

You do not come
On this moonless night.
I wake wanting you.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart burns up.
Although I come to you constantly
over the roads of dreams,
those nights of love
are not worth one waking touch of you.
 (Ono No Komachi)

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
 (Murasaki Shikibu) 

You and me
we live inside an egg
me, I am the white
and wrap you round with my body  
(Anonymous geisha)

Another of my most treasured texts from before the dawn of electronics is not quite so ancient--it was created around the time Shakespeare was penning his sonnets--but it comes from an early opera about ancient Rome.

"Pur ti miro" is a love duet written by librettist Busenello, set to tenderly rapturous music possibly by Monteverdi, in early 17th century Italy. The English translation is:

At you I gaze
In you I delight
You I hold
You I clasp
No more do I suffer
No more do I die
Oh my life
Oh my treasure
I am yours
You are mine
My hope
Say it now
My idol
Yes, my beloved
Yes, my heart
My life, yes

Below is a modern performance rendition of the piece. This is not my favorite performance ever, but it's kinda neat. If the countertenor sounds weird to you, that's because this piece was written for two castrati (castrated men) to sing, one in drag. Now that we don't castrate boys to sing prettier in the church choir or onstage anymore, this piece is sometimes performed by a countertenor (a man who can sing in falsetto) and a woman, or by two women. The hottest performance I've ever heard of this duet was by two young women a capella--complete with two sets of heaving bosoms, breathy gasps, adoring gazes, smoothly quickening and slowing tempo guided by each other's angelic voices--but I regret that I cannot find a video of that one. In any case, the stories behind this piece (tyrannical and murderous power couple, genital mutilation of the singers, etc.) contrasts so shockingly with the bare sweetness of the words and music that it's weirdly kink. Enjoy!

So what gets your juices flowing--from ancient, early medieval, or Renaissance sources? What distant-past text transcends the decay of antiquity and calls to your soul right now? Gimme some SAP!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mommy Brain, Mommy Heart

Yesterday morning, I snapped at my daughter because she kept begging me to play with her while I attempted to have a quiet moment of sipping coffee and reading Eat, Pray, Love. (Irony?)

This is the kind of situation when a bookish, scientific, information-addict mother like myself and many moms I know might crack open a parenting book or do a quick search online for resources on how to cope--how to respond, what words to use, when to play with the child and when to set boundaries for "me time."

But I've come to realize that most of the time, I already know how to behave properly. I know what I'm supposed to do and say. The problem is not a lack of knowledge but the emotional difficulty of making it happen. More research findings and parenting tips and expert-recommended phrases are not what I need to cram into my cluttered mommy brain.

What I need is some love and joy to stuff into my cranky mommy heart.

Sometimes those tips and tricks come in handy. A lot of times, rigorously tested "best practices" and the thing that works every time for your best friend's kid doesn't work on yours. There are so many methods and experts and books out there--on attachment parenting, gentle parenting, RIE parenting, "natural" parenting, peaceful parenting, you name it--and most of the advice I've read along the veins of those trends is solid, lovely, and helpful for specific conundrums.

But when there's just general crabbiness--my own, my daughter's, or both--more reading is not what I need to do. Because you know what, if you're in a foul mood, you can make ANY supposedly respectful sentence or gesture seem hostile, sarcastic, or threatening. And if you're in a laughing, happy, relaxed, and playful mood, you can do and say truly horrible things and they'll be perceived as harmless fun. I'm not going to give you any examples lest I get CPS knocking at my door. (Ha ha, I joke!) You get what I mean. I really hope you do. Because you cannot--I repeat, you cannot--be a good parent without humor. You can, however, be a good parent without being highly educated or keeping up with every latest best practice.

Because when interacting with children, it's the heart that matters first, then the brain.

Of course, some amount of competence is important. Though affection is primary with a child's well-being, there must be some level of competence. I think this was illustrated marvelously by Aurora's childhood in Disney's Maleficent. Aurora grew into a happy, loving young woman as she was raised by three highly affectionate but completely incompetent fairies. Maleficent had to step in every now and then to keep the child from starving to death or falling off a cliff. Now, if you, as a parent, are not as incompetent as these three comic buffoons, then your first concern should not be, "Am I doing this the right way?"

It should be, "How does my child feel about this?" and then, "How do I feel?"

Then attend to your child's feelings and your own in the best way you know how. There's no one in the world who's more of an expert on what makes your child content and happy and what gives you, yourself joy.

So this is what I did after deciding that I did not want to start my Sunday off cranky. I asked my husband to hitch up the bike trailer, and we went on a mood-exploding ride to a sunny playground, where our little Nux Gallica burned off a ton of toddler-morning-exuberance. I pushed her on the swings and played Cinderella with her "Be my evil stepmother, Mommy!" (point taken) and also had some time to sit in the shade with my adult life partner and relax.

Then we strapped our helmets on again and took a long, dreamy ride down a trail that extends for several miles from our neighborhood playground to a big, groovy, farmer's market-style grocery store, where we got some handmade tamales for lunch. We all had a wonderful time and got jacked on the smells of hot, crispy leaves in the sunshine, cool forest streams, and wildflowers.

This reminds me of the introduction to Eat, Pray, Love when a medicine man gives the author a drawing of how she should be in her life. It shows a figure with its head obscured by leaves, looking out through its heart.

With many important decisions in life--career path, spouse, where to live, whether to have a baby--and with many small decisions about the important things in life--like how to deal with the feelings of a preschooler--overthinking it can be a trap. What's good on paper isn't necessarily good in life.

I'm learning to let go of my overworked mommy brain and listen more to my expanding mommy heart. And to my daughter's heart too, which is overflowing with love and imagination. After we pretended that I was the Evil Stepmother who had locked Cinderella in the tower, Cinderella escaped (down the twisty slide) and put me in jail (under the monkey bars). But then she came to my cell and said, "I'm sorry, Stepmother. You're evil because I made you evil with my magic powers. Now I will make you good and let you out of jail." She waved her magic wand and ordered me to sit in the shade with Prince Charming and watch her play. Now that's what I call a happy ending.

May your mommy heart lead you along beautiful trails today!