In 1953, my family moved into the house in Torrance. I was 4. After my parents divorced in the 1970s, my mother continued to live there. Last February she had to move into assisted living after two very stressful years (for both her and my sister) living alone after becoming disabled. My sister, with some help from my brother, spent the spring inventorying and boxing possessions. I’ve been out here for the past 10 days helping with the final sort. My mother worked in pottery and ceramics, and there were a couple hundred pieces in the house. We “kids” took a lot of the stuff, the rest is going into an estate sale. This was my last night in the house. Today I’m flying home and the estate sale person takes over, to be followed by the real estate agent. I have not lived in the house since 1970, but this still feels like “home” even though there has been no comfortable place for me on visits for a long time as my mother spread out and occupied all the rooms of this five-bedroom house. But it was a touchstone, a point of reference. In the future when I visit, I’ll have to stay with my father or brother or sister — the old place won’t be there. It’s a strange feeling.
Mom is doing better with the move, by the way. She made the decision to move after a health crisis last December and has made up her mind to look forward, not back. For the first few months she was pretty depressed and demoralized in the new place due to a variety of adjustment problems, but since finally getting her mobility scooter as well as a better doctor who actually talked to her and adjusted her medications (!) and told her to get a case manager to deal with bureaucracies, her depression has lifted. She says food tastes better, she’s gaining weight and making friends. Once again she is chatting up a blue storm to anybody who will listen about all her years of international travels and genealogy researches. As we cleared the house, we moved a shelf full of her smaller pottery plus her plates and prints that can be hung on her walls so her artistic side can be visible in her new space. It wasn’t until her depression lifted that it even occurred to her that she could make her environment less bleak.
On the sociology side, the person doing the estate sale runs a turnkey business: she helps seniors find assisted living facilities, moves them into them, then cleans the house and goes through all the stuff to clean it up and display it for the estate sale, then connects with charities that will pick up what did not sell and empty out the house. You can see that this business is in a growth industry. The real estate agents were very interested — they have other clients who need this service.
My spouse spotted the NYT obit for Dennis DeLeon, an old friend from high school we have not seen since our wedding reception in 1970. Our last communication from him was a note saying he’d get our wedding present to us later. It’s a common name so we wouldn’t know it was him without the picture (which looks just like we remember him) and corroborating biographical details. He was an important part of the speech/debate team, the small circle we spent most of our time with in high school in California, and was my spouse’s debate partner in their senior year. We wondered over the years what had happened to him. Now we know. He was a prominent human rights activist in New York who announced that he had AIDS in a 1993 NYT op ed . His activism is not a shock, as he was already a student leader in high school and at Occidental College. Nor is his sexual orientation, although it wasn’t anything we were aware of at the time. We were a nerdy crowd and people were not dating much anyway. I sure wish we’d known where he was — it would have been great to see him.
Smart: Taking a four-mile test walk with backpack wearing my proposed travel clothes and new travel shoes and socks.
Stupid: Taking a four-mile test walk with backpack wearing my proposed travel clothes and new travel shoes and socks.*
I’ve never had blood-soaked shoes before. At least I have several weeks for my feet to recover before the trip. Which will be made in my old shoes.
*I wasn’t as stupid as it may sound, as I had taken several one- and two-mile walks in the shoes, and I thought those preliminary tests had revealed no problems. The socks might have contributed. Still, I’m both really thankful that I had this experience now, before the trip, and at the same time really mad at myself for doing so much damage to my feet.
I was reflecting even before church about some of the hard things parents have had to do, and then the minister brought up one of them in a wonderful Easter sermon. Here are the things I was thinking about: (1) The parents who paid for and accompanied their adult child overseas to get sex change surgery and have been supportive even as they have had to work through their own confusion and grief over the loss of the son they once had and their fears about their new daughter’s quite serious other health problems. (2) The father whose son murdered his daughter, who has stayed connected with his imprisoned son even as he lives in the depths of grief and anger about the loss of his daughter and the enormity of his son’s crime, and others’ anger at him for staying connected with his son. (This father is the minister’s brother-in-law.) (3) The parents whose son died in an automobile crash this year, who have had the courage to embrace the depths of their sorrow and to go on living without him. (4) The parents who are respecting an adult child’s wish to have no contact with them, even as it breaks their hearts and they don’t know what is wrong.
My reflections were triggered by a conversation the other day that began with people complaining about their parents. These conversations take a new twist when you have been a parent. As I’ve often said, it was parenthood that forced me to confront my own deep imperfection. From parenthood I also learned about the clutching fear when a child has an ailment that has no cure, and about the pain of realizing you have hurt someone you love and are charged with nurturing. Grief is part of parenting even if we have the good fortune to avoid tragedy. We grieve the baby who is gone forever, and then the young child, and then the teen. This grief is an essential part of parenting – if we cannot let the baby go, the child go, the adolescent go, we hinder her growth to healthy adulthood. Sometimes we are called to love our child when he has taken a path that seems wrong to us. Sometimes we grow to understand that the path was “right for her,” and sometimes we have to stand by and love a child who has done something irredeemably wrong, not making excuses, but being together in the pain and the shame. And yet, amid the inevitable sorrow and fear, there is great joy and meaning in being connected with one’s offspring, with watching the unfolding of a new person, and with feeling your own growth in the process.
Easter is the day when Christians celebrate life arising from political persecution and death. Non-Christians draw similar religious or secular lessons from other stories. And we all learn from nature, from spring emerging from winter and the brutal realities of biological life. John (12:24-25) links them: “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (Edit: The translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message.)
Almost everyone agrees — and this is supported by my own many years of observation of colleagues — that the most productive scholars have regular schedules of writing a few hours every day. We binge writers can be intensely productive when we are working and can get a lot done in a short time, but over the long haul we are simply less productive than the “write every day” people. A big reason for this is that if you have been away from the writing for more than two days, you forget what you were doing and have to invest a lot of time in start up and remembering where you were. The turtle beats the hare every time. I have known this for years and “write every day” is the advice I give students, even though I have never successfully followed that advice for an extended period.
Today I figured out the other half of the problem. It isn’t just a problem with self-discipline. I actually have quite a bit of self-discipline in some areas. The problem is that when I am working, I become extremely focused and I don’t stop. I’m on sabbatical now and finally got time to overcome angst and distractions and re-engaged my work. I became so focused I lost track of time, forgot to eat, and even stayed up all night. No deadline, I just could not let go of the work. This always happens when I really engage my work: even if I have outside obligations, I do the bare minimum and return repeatedly to the work whenever I can. I sleep too little and exercise too little. After a while, other things pile up: unpaid bills, undone laundry, unwritten letters of condolence and letters of reference and article reviews, unprepared lectures, undone shopping, unplanned vacations, neglected family. Even when I’m not actually working, my mind is on my work and I’m just not attending to anything else. At some point the “rest of life” explodes and demands attention and yanks my focus away from work. And the cycle starts anew. When I’m aware of more than one thing that it is important to do, I lack focus, I’m easily distracted, and I experience anxiety and tension from being pulled in different directions.
So there’s the crux of the problem. To be a “write every day” person you also have to be able to take care of ordinary business every day, too. You have to be able to shift your attention and focus from one thing to another, to compartmentalize not only your life, but your brain and attention. I find it easier, for example, to do “mindless” activities like exercise or laundry when I’m focused on work than to do other intellectual work like prepare classes or write reviews, because they do not compete for mental attention. I wonder if people may actually differ in their innate ability to shift focus, or whether this is a skill that can be developed.
I still plan to keep trying to develop the “write every day” habit. But now I know that for it to be sustainable given my lack of a personal life assistant, I also have to have a “do some urgent tasks every day” habit, too.
These reflections were prompted by an interview with Renee Fleming in the Met broadcast of Massanet’s Thais.* She commented that Thais’s religious conversion is tied to her recognition that she is aging and will lose the beauty and sexuality that has defined her identity and personal power. Fleming commented that “we all” feel that way. I realized that I don’t so much. This is not to say that I am never shocked by my age. A couple of the wedding photos – not the formal ones where I’m all gussied up and wearing a lot of makeup, but the candid “getting ready” photos in the kitchen with the morning light streaming in the window – made me look so old that even my son said, “You don’t look that old in real life.” My bathroom mirror is relatively kind to me, due to the soft yellow light and the fact that I have to take my glasses off to wash my face or apply makeup. My hair is just now beginning to gray, while most of my age contemporaries were fully gray fifteen to twenty years ago. But the deep wrinkles I see in photos or television shots taken in harsh light tell the truth. I’m not young any more. This is not much of a trauma for me, it is what it is, and I’m sitting easy in this skin. To the extent I’ve had aging crises, they’ve been more typically male, as I realize I have not accomplished all the professional ambitions I’d set for myself. I was reflecting that some of this may be because I was never treated as attractive or pretty when I was young, so there was not much to lose as I aged. It has been my impression that some of the gender traumas are harder on beautiful women, as their sexual attractiveness to men gets more in the way of their desire to be taken seriously as professionals. Being taller matters too: no man has ever patted me on the head. My gender issues have been different: I’m more the Dragon Lady sort who frightens and intimidates a lot of people of all sexes. I’m naturally bossy and have often been asked questions as if I were the person in charge even when I’m just standing around as part of an audience or crowd. I’m blunt and straightforward and can be tactless and insensitive. The gender price I’ve paid has more often been that of being seen as “difficult,” while a man with these personality traits is seen as more normal. An older male colleague once told me that I seemed odd and difficult to people because I’m the sort who will walk up and shake a man’s hand and say, “Hi, I’m Olderwoman.” When I asked, he confirmed that it was because I was a woman that this was unsettling, that I was acting like a man. Yes, I can also be very warm and nurturing, and in the academic context, I’m told that I have more social skills than many of my colleagues. My persona seems much more out of place in the real world of ordinary human beings, especially White Midwesterners, than in the academy. My way of being was more troubling to people when I was young. Now that I’m old enough to be my students’ mother (and old enough to be the mother of assistant professors, for that matter), my tendency to assume authority is accepted more, as is my capacity to be very warm and nurturing in a motherish sort of way. So the sociological reflection I guess is simply that we carry many different traits with us as we move through life and these traits interact with other traits, giving us a wide variety of ways of doing gender and doing age.
*This opera broadcast was smashing, by the way. I was totally blown away by the opera and the performance on many levels. If you have any taste for opera, you may wish to look into the HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera into local theaters. This is the Saturday live broadcast that has been on radio for years. There is often a taped replay in a local theater about 10 days later. Everyone I’ve talked to who goes to these loves them (assuming they like opera): it is a great entertainment experience to see the performance close up, the behind-the-curtain footage of the scenery being put in place and the performers warming up is fascinating, and the intermission interviews range from weird to wonderful. The $20 price tag is the best bargain around for opera.
I admit I was taken a bit aback when my daughter said she wanted to take her (new) husband’s name, as I’ve been so comfortable living with my own (father’s) surname while married all these years. But she’s something of a romantic and I understood her feelings about bonding with her husband’s family and it is her life. And the day after the wedding she changed her facebook name to “firstname husbandssurname” which seemed weird, but then I thought, well, OK, she needs to live her own life. Today she was running around getting name changes. But it turns out that I did not understand her intentions. You may (or may not) recall from prior posts about names that my childrens’ names have the pattern “firstname middlename fathersurname mothersurname” where their legal surname is “fathersurname mothersurname” — space no hyphen. Turns out that her intention is to now have the three-name surname “fathersurname mothersurname husbandsurname.” She ran into trouble at the social security office where there was not enough space to write in all the names, and is now researching her legal options. I realize most of you do not know my daughter, but as someone who does know her, I should not have been surprised. It appears that the social security problem is a character limit. We’ll see how this goes. Years ago, when we were naming the children, we recognized the long-term problem of all these names. My husband’s idea was that, after a few generations, you’d just generate an acronym and start over.