"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

A Friendly Guide to Navigating this BLOG

If you have visited this blog before, you will notice I've made some changes. A Pen in My Hand is going to be dedicated to lighthearted anecdotes and whatever else I feel like writing. I have started another blog for topics that are more serious/spiritual in nature. See the link in the sidebar to visit that blog.

I sincerely hope you find something here worth reading; but if not, take heart. There are about six billion other blogs out there to choose from.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Battling Mother-Nature


I am currently teaching the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin to a group of high school students.  One of the themes that emerges in the story is the natural affection a mother has for her children and how often this natural affection is associated with pain. This has gotten me thinking about the fact that as mothers, we live in a constant state of paradoxical tension. We are regularly called upon to suppress our natural instincts to shelter, comfort, and protect and instead subject our children to varying degrees of discomfort and even pain.

 My own experience with this has run the gamut from the tragic to the absurd.

When my oldest son was little, he was frequently hospitalized. Again and again, I had to sit and watch nurses poke him with needles to draw blood and thread him with tubes to administer anesthesia or nourishment. My maternal instincts longed to slap the nurse's hand and snatch my baby out of harm's way. I had to force myself to conjure up the deeper instinct to allow him to suffer temporarily in order to serve a greater good.

When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, getting her to leave my side each morning was her own personal trauma. She would gladly have snuggled me day and night for the first ten years of her life if I had let her, but I knew that wasn't what she needed. I'd pull up in front of the school, give her a squeeze and assure her that she'd be fine. Then I'd open the door and literally shove her out. Her older sister would hold onto her while I drove away to keep her from chasing the van.  I'd avoid looking in the rear view mirror because I knew what I would see: her tiny arms straining toward me and a look of sheer misery on her face. I'd remind myself that when she got home at the end of her half-day, she'd be all laughs and smiles – the pain of this parting forgotten until tomorrow when it happened all over again.

But perhaps the most unnatural of these maternal moments happened last Sunday when I brought my son to the airport so he could head back to Camp Lejeune. In a few weeks he will be on a transport to Afghanistan. I wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders and pressed my hands against his back. I froze that moment in my memory – the feel of his leather jacket under my hands, the warmth of his neck against my cheek, the pressure of his arms as they squeezed me tightly – and I stored it away in my heart. Then I did what so many other mothers have done throughout the ages. I let go. I drew back, eyes dry, smile confident, and said goodbye.

It would have been natural to cling to him and sob, but for his sake I had to do what was against nature. We tend to vilify the Spartan mothers for their stoic benediction to their husbands and sons, Come back with your shield or on it. But having bid farewell to both a husband and now a son, I think they had the right idea. They understood what their men needed from them. To do less would have been something like selfishness.

Mothering is full of such moments, and it never gets any easier.

As Christmas approaches, I find myself thinking less of mangers and shepherds and more of Mary, the young mother of Christ. The words of the Christmas story that echo in my mind are not, "Peace on earth, good will to men," but rather the words of Simeon as he stood before Mary and her baby in the temple. After prophesying a life of pain and conflict for her infant Son he added, "… and a sword will pierce your own soul, too."

Surely in Mary's case, the suffering her Son endured during His lifetime served an immeasurably great purpose. I am thankful she didn't hide Him away in a cave and smother His life in peace and safety.  

So, from dentist appointments to deployments, we defy our maternal instincts and let our children out from under our sheltering wings to do what is good and necessary for them to do. And though it may be but a small comfort to us mothers, at least we know when we act thus, we are in the very best of company.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Little Boxes


I'm not sure where the boxes came from. Honestly, I think they've always been there. My earliest memories of them are not so much the story of their creation as their discovery.

I remember getting a demerit in kindergarten in the strict private school I attended. The teacher had blamed me for something I hadn't done. She was scowling sternly at me, looking at me with furrowed brows and glaring eyes, trying to convince me I was a bad little girl. I knew if I continued to defend myself, she'd add lying to my crimes. I also knew, at the tender age of four and one-half, that I was right and she was wrong. My instincts, being scarcely beyond babyhood, nudged me to cry. But something else in me, something too complicated to name, whispered No, don't cry. If you cry, she wins. Look here! Put her in the box! So I put her in a box labeled, "People who aren't worth trying to impress." From her place inside that box, she could not hurt my feelings. I made my face impassive. I took my demerit, knowing that I had shown her I no longer cared.

One day, still in kindergarten, a photographer came to take school pictures. I sat on the little stool in my yellow flowered dress and looked at the camera.

"Smile!" said the photographer.

There was something in his tone that I didn't like. He was a stranger, telling me what to do. I felt my stubborn-self prickling inside.

"Come on, Honey. You have to smile."

Now he'd done it. I have to smile? Oh, really? I settled my face into the most serious expression I could muster – eyes blank, mouth relaxed into a delicate frown. 

The photographer proceeded to empty his whole bag of tricks upon me. Funny voices, stuffed animals, puppets -- the works. A few times I felt myself wavering, my mouth twitching towards a smile. 

But then I remembered the boxes. 

I traveled down to the place where I kept them, deep in my mind. I found one labeled, "Bad things that have happened to me." I opened it and conjured up a vivid memory of an accident I'd had with the clown swing at the park. A boy had been pushing the empty swing. I had walked within range. The seat of the swing had slashed my cheek, leaving me with a thin scar still visible to that day. I called up the memory of the fear, the pain, my mother's alarm. I thought of the fact that the scar would show on my face in this picture – and that was nothing to smile about. My face relaxed easily back into the frown. The photographer gave up and snapped the picture in defeat.

Weeks later, when I brought the pictures home, my mother said, "These are pretty, honey, but why didn't you smile?"

"Because I didn't want to," I said.

Throughout elementary school, I added to the boxes. I filed away troublesome teachers and unkind classmates. I filed away confusing feelings and nameless fears. Having a place to put such things, out of sight and out of my conscious mind, allowed me to be a happy, often care-free child. That's the way I liked it.

In junior high, my boxes failed me briefly. There was one teacher that I really liked, and I wanted him to like me. I got good grades in his classes, but that wasn't enough to make me stand out. He scarcely paid any attention to me at all. To make matters worse, he frequently spoke fondly of my older sister, who was in both his science class and his home room. His obvious preference for her stung like lemon juice on paper cuts. I tried to shove him into my "People I don't care to impress" box, but he just didn't fit. He left the school after my eighth grade year. I moved him to my "People who don't matter anymore" box and was able to close the lid. I rarely thought of him again.

In high school, things got out of control. There weren't enough boxes to stuff away all the messes I was making of my life, so I shoved myself in a box. I labeled it "This isn't really me," and hid there for two or three years.

I emerged just in time to get married. I found a big box and labeled it, "Things not to let get on my nerves." That one filled up quickly and probably saved my young marriage.

Then, in the seventh month of my first pregnancy, the doctor expressed concerns that there might be something wrong with the baby I was carrying. Tests were inconclusive. They wouldn't know until he was born. I had a choice: spend the next two months in a state of constant tears and panic, or carry this down deep into the vaults and put it in a box. It was at this moment that I found the box that would serve me best for all of my parenting years. I labeled it, "I'll think about this when I have to – and not a minute before."

As it turned out, there was something wrong with my baby. After a major operation and three weeks in intensive care, we were told that he could go home but would need to return to the hospital in three months for more surgery. With a smile on my face, I brought my baby home. I enjoyed those three months as if nothing were wrong, fears of the pending surgery hidden safely away in Tomorrow's box. For the next fourteen years, there was always something waiting in that box – something unseen and unspoken looming in my firstborn's future. Something else to face – but not until I had to. In the meantime I would be happy.

More recently, there was the news of my husband's deployment: one year in the deserts of Kuwait. I didn't take that reality out of the box until the first night he was gone, when an earthquake shook our house and no one answered when I cried out, "What was that?"

Now there's something else in the box. My second son is in the Marine Corps. Very soon, his daily text messages and frequent calls will stop. For seven months, he'll be on the other side of the world in a place no one wants to think about – most of all, me. Soon, but not now. When the moment comes, I'll face it. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy celebrating an early Christmas with our family complete -- all seven of us safely under one roof.

People who know about my boxes have mixed opinions of them. Some call them coping mechanisms. Others hint that I have denial issues. I am not sure who's more right. Maybe I'm like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, chanting her mantra, "I'll think about that… tomorrow." Or maybe I'm following the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where He said, "Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." I'd prefer to think the latter, but I can't be completely sure. Sometimes the boxes feel like faith, but other times they feel a lot like pretending.

Sometimes I wonder if the boxes are hereditary. When my youngest daughter was three or four, I was trying to get her to apologize for something she had done. I prompted her with the words, "What do you need to say to your sister?" I had in mind something along the lines of, "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?" What came out of her mouth was, "Not my problem. Not my fault." 

In her laughing blue eyes, I saw reflections of my own. Already, she is protecting herself – sometimes in good ways, sometimes not so good. But perhaps, with guidance, her little boxes will serve her as mine did me. Perhaps they will let her keep smiling right up to the brink of her sorrows and then emerge quickly -- ready to smile again.

Considering the alternatives, I wouldn't have it any other way.