Activities, Uncategorized

Action #9: Be Still

Life has been far too noisy for me lately. For whatever reason I am built to thrive with frequent doses of silence and solitude. I used to think this was just a freaky thing about myself I could choose to ignore, but I can’t. Too long in the city and I can’t even hear myself think. I get overwhelmed by the hubbub that assaults me as soon as I set foot onto my busy street every morning. The din follows me in when I turn on my computer, which is full of competing voices shouting for attention. And speaking of shouting, my toddler seems to only have two settings: Asleep or Loud. I have been long overdue for some quiet time.
Here are some ideas on how to incorporate stillness into your life, to make room for wonder.

Ample Time and Money: Retreat! It turns out some of the people I respect the most have also needed this time alone to recharge. Jesus, for one. Another is one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote, “Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody – away from all those people I love most in the world – in order to regain a sense of proportion.”

I just spent a couple days at my family cabin with no electricity on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean just south of Big Sur (my family may not be rich in many material ways, but this little piece of heaven makes up for anything else we may lack). It is such a centering, grounding place for me. I immediately feel reconnected to the rhythms of the earth, to my past, to who I am and what my place is when I go there. There is nothing like watching the sun set in a spectacular light show with an unobstructed panoramic view and then seeing a gazillion stars revealed to regain a sense of proportion as just one tiny part of a great cloud of galaxies. I feel as L’Engle again writes, “I am created by a power who cares about the sparrow, and the rabbit in the snare, and the people on the crowded streets; who calls the stars by name. And you. And me. When I remember this it is as though pounds are lifted from me.”

Go somewhere you can be still enough to feel that. Get away from it all. Unplug, check out, and recharge before your battery runs dry. If you can go for a good long while, great, but even if it’s just for a weekend or 24 hours, it will do wonders. Mothers, in particular, need to treat themselves to a rejuvenating break, but tend to be the last to do it. Don’t feel guilty. The kids will survive. You need this! (As expected, my son was much more excited at the return of our dog than of me. His first words are “dog” and “Dude”, our dog’s name. Still no “mama”, dang it!)

Limited Resources: Observe some form of the Sabbath. Even if you are not remotely religious, practicing a day of rest, relaxation, and connection with community each week is a wonderful and much needed ritual we can all adapt to fit our circumstances. It doesn’t have to be done in a legalistic or rote way, just in ways that are helpful to you personally to be mindful and slow down from your hectic schedule. Check out for inspiration.

Busy and Broke: Start a silence habit. Just like checking email has become a habit or bath time for our toddler is an anticipated part of the daily routine, I am hoping to incorporate some mindful silence daily. Before Little Man came along, I used to journal and read and pray in the mornings. Now, mornings are nonstop action from 6:30 on. It may require an adjustment of priorities, but if I retrain myself to take some time each day to pray or meditate or journal or read something soul lifting, I know it will become a habit that will benefit my mental, spiritual, physical and creative health.

May you all be able to create wonderful moments of stillness in your days. For those of you who check back here from time to time, you’ll notice I have not been posting twice a week as I had been. It will probably remain infrequent as I rearrange priorities to be present to a busy toddler and attempt to maintain mental health and good life balance and maybe even read some actual books. I haven’t quite decided to go the route of Yiyun Li, but I may be headed in that direction.


What Am I Waiting For?

The creative action this week was to make something new from something old. My big goal was to make something crafty with my son. I was going to use old water bottles to make discovery jars, or empty milk cartons to make containers for crayons and markers. Or I was going to make little creatures with him out of things we found, and today while I was walking the dogs, I gathered some pine cones and eucalyptus nuggets (I’m sure that’s the scientific term for those pod things they drop) and moss and all kinds of cool things nature had discarded. And then I remembered my son is 13 months old. He is not “crafty”. Destruction is his thing, not construction. I can’t even build a tower with his blocks without him toddling over and smacking it down. He is happiest when he is hitting things with sticks, smooshing squishy food in his hands, or tearing pop-ups out of books.

I keep wanting to buy him art supplies and then I don’t because he just eats whatever he’s holding. I look at the fingerpaints longingly, and then put them down, sighing and saying, “Someday soon”. It just occurred to me that I have been projecting my wishes onto him. I have been dreaming of making art with him, and he might want to someday and he might not. It is my passion, but it may not ever be his. I need to let him be who he is, and give myself permission to play and make stuff without waiting for him to join in. Maybe it’s less scary to be silly and not produce great results if you’re playing with paint with a child. If I painted for myself, I might be disappointed if it wasn’t “good”. Oh, the burden of consciousness. If I could only be as free from that results-oriented thinking as he is. He’s sleeping now, and there are so many other things to check off my to-do list, but instead I am going to pull out the fun things I gathered and make something. Just for the fun of it. Just for me.

What are you waiting for? Go work on something you’ve been putting off. Something that will feed your soul and create wonder in your life. Go.


Celebrate Change

It’s the end of an era…this week one of my goals was to wean Little Man from breastfeeding. He’s thirteen months old and it was time. We have been very lucky and had a wonderful experience with breastfeeding. I had heard so many horror stories about it not working out for people that I knew it wasn’t a given, but he took to it right away, and I had no idea how much I would enjoy it, too. That probably sounds strange. It would have to me before I had him. I didn’t know it could be “enjoyable”, but it has been such a sweet time for us. It’s amazing to know my body provided sustenance for his, plus now that he’s a busy boy, it was one of our few times of peaceful, quiet connection with one another.

I definitely don’t want to get into when the right time is for weaning, since I believe it is completely different for everybody and totally dependent on your individual circumstances. I just know that I have been hanging onto continuing probably more out of my own emotional need than to provide for his needs. It was also an easy way for me to get him to sleep, but he certainly doesn’t need that either. So, it’s time. We were only down to one morning and one evening feed anyway, so I dropped the am, and last night was the first night I’ve put him down without feeding him, and he did just fine. So, it’s over. I am going to miss it.

But, rather than dwell on how sad I am that this stage is gone, and that he is finally and forever never going to be a baby again (wah!), I will focus on celebrating the changes. He is so less needy now that he can walk and do so much. He has become more independent and fearless in his adventuring. He has become more attached to others, not just his mama, especially his grandparents who have been here all summer so they could watch him while I work. So, he will be spending the night tonight with my in-laws and my husband and I will get a night to celebrate our new freedom. I won’t have to pump. I won’t have to worry that they can’t feed him enough. I know he can fall asleep on his own. I can just enjoy myself and my husband’s company. It’s the beginning of a whole new stage.

Since we are on the subject of eating well this week (thanks for all the great comments, readers!), we are headed to Pizzetta after meeting up at MOMA. Whee! A date!

And, we are going to check out the Alemany Farmers Market this Saturday morning. Yum!


Want What You Already Have

Sometimes weeks just aren’t wonderful. Don’t get me wrong…I’m sure wonder is still out there for the discovering, but sometimes I’m just not able to see it. Between a funeral, an unfortunate incident at work, setbacks in getting my book out, and just the general ennui that comes from working everyday and spending way too much time behind the wheel of a car in this city, this week has been decidedly lackluster.

I certainly haven’t had much time to explore the action I suggested this week for creating a space to wonder in. I had grand plans to make a cozy reading nook tailored for comfier family storytimes, as well as filling the shelves in our “office” (a corner of our bedroom) at my son’s level with things he could create with (in contrast with the disorganized and downright dangerous mess that’s there now, from which I am constantly having to distract him). I did get a beanbag from someone on craigslist, which turned out to be ginormous and takes up half our living room instead of being the small son-sized nook cushion I imagined. Besides making our living room look like a college dorm room, it is quite cozy. And Little Man (I should now call him Mr. Busy) and I have been having a great time rearranging the couch cushions into an obstacle course of sorts. He’s not into forts yet, but just wants to climb, climb, climb. Up and down and over and under, simply re-creating our couch has created hours of wonder for him. I bet he couldn’t be more excited if we bought an actual jungle gym.

If it were only that simple for me. I think a huge part of my discontent at the moment is thinking “if only”. If only I didn’t have to work so hard right now, if only I had the amazing dream house one of my clients has, if only I was published, if only I was more put-together/beautiful/organized/talented like some of my friends who seem to have it all figured out, blah blah blah…snap out of it! I am enough. I have all that I need. And more than I’d ever imagined I could have. It is enough. I don’t need a jungle gym, I have couch cushions. Some people don’t even have a couch. None of that really matters. My son would be happy if he just had a stick from the ground to play with. If he didn’t have a stick, he’d still have me. And I would have him. And I won’t forever, as the funeral reminded me.

So, the action I’m challenging myself with the rest of this week, or at least right this minute, is to wonder at all that I already have. Mainly, love in abundance. Hallelujah.

That said, I would love to hear if you have been able to create wondrous spaces this week. Just try not to make me jealous.

This is Mr. Busy hiding in one of our couch cushion/blanket forts while I loudly look for him. I love that he still thinks if he can’t see me, I can’t see him. Even if he’s giggling.

Some wonderful things:

Wonders Out of This World

Beauty is a Rare Thing by Ian Johnson


Can We Have It All?: Redefining Success

Our culture is obsessed with success stories. We love a good rags to riches tale, an American Idol who came from nowhere and rose to the top can move millions to cast their votes, and we teach our kids they can become whatever they want to be if they just work hard enough. The dark inverse of this “meritocratic” societal belief, as writer/philosopher Alain de Botton infers in a fascinating TED talk, is that we must think those who are at the bottom are there because they deserve to be.  When success as defined by status, fame and riches is perceived to be attainable by all, the stakes of failure become higher. We become “losers” if we try and fail. We become envious that others are able to achieve their dreams while we somehow cannot.

This puts enormous pressure on those pursuing their passions to succeed. David Sedaris says if your life is a stove with four burners for family, friends, health, and work, you have to cut off at least one of the burners in order to be successful.  Throw kids into the mix and the dreams feel even further out of reach. Ayelet Waldmen expresses this well in an essay in her book Bad Mother in which she says she feels lied to by the feminists of the ’70s who taught her she could “have it all”, a family and the career of her dreams. Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet that “the various pressures of twentieth-century living have made it impossible for the young mother with pre-school children to have any solitude. During the long years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict.”  I relate to her frustration and her quip that none of the great artists would have qualified for a mental health certificate (much less a Parent of the Year award).  This sentiment was reflected in a recent article at the99% about Chris Guillebeau from the Art of Non-Conformity. He says, “Balanced people don’t usually change the world. Something’s gotta give and it’s up to each of us to determine what that’s going to be and how we’re going to allocate our energy.”

Since my return to working everyday, these ideas have all been warring in my head with the emotions of missing my baby, and longing for more time to pursue writing and other creative ventures. Botton’s assertions that you cannot have it all, that there is no such thing as work/life balance, and that you have to accept loss in some areas were causing despair to set into this perfectionistic over-achiever’s heart. His only hope came in urging everyone to define for themselves what a successful life is. This theme also appeared in the book I just posted about by Summer Pierre, when she suggests answering “what does the good life look like for you specifically“?

It was an excellent practice for me to think through what my ideal of “success” would look like. Status, fame and riches are nowhere near the top of my definition of success. I found an alternative definition from another TED talk by John Wooden: “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”  I love that. It’s only measured by me, not what anyone else thinks.

When I look back on my life so far, I am satisfied that I have accomplished everything of which I was capable. I could only define success in relation to what I knew at the time, so it has changed and expanded. When I was young, it was simply to make better choices than my parents – to stay sober, to not get pregnant too young, to go to college. When I went to college, I had no idea what else I wanted to achieve, so I decided to become the highest and best career I had been exposed to and emulated a beloved teacher, becoming a high school art teacher at the age of 21. Then, as I saw more of the world through travel, I realized there was so much more I might want to do, and that I wasn’t ready to teach yet. Success at various stages since then have meant pursuing a relationship with God, working on a harmonious marriage, learning to cope with anxiety, starting my own businesses, becoming financially stable, and lately, being the best mama I can be. When I look back to where I started, instead of feeling envious of where I see other people I admire, I can be proud of the choices I’ve made, and know I can go on to achieve whatever I set my mind to do.

The fact that I even have space for this desire to achieve something new is a function of my previous successes. I am building on the balance I have worked so hard to create, and I do believe I can have it all. I don’t have to turn off the burner of my health or my family to make room for creating art. I have already started ruthlessly weeding out other things that waste my precious time. In addition, it might mean turning off the TV or the Internet more often. Maybe it means a little less sleep (now that Little Man is almost a year old and sleeping well, this is an option again). I don’t have to achieve all my dreams at once, but if I can break them down into small pieces and work on them a little bit every day, I will define that as success at this stage of my life.

(On another note, I started this blog nearly two years ago, and it has been as scattered as my mind was through this time. It has been a place for me to vent, to try out various forms of writing from mommyblogging to travel journalism, and to post my art work. I have a new vision for it now. A more focused approach that I’m really excited about. Expect big changes in the blog and my website over the next few weeks. Prepare to be inspired. Nothing is going to stop me from having it all, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.)

Books, People

Little Man Reads – 10 months

We are getting back into the swing of things after our trip. It is wonderful to be on our home turf in our beloved city, San Francisco. Sometimes it takes going away to see your life with fresh eyes and realize how good you have it. We really do live in one of the best cities on Earth and I’m glad to be back.

One of my favorite things about this city is all the opportunities to meet authors and illustrators as they share their work at bookstores. We still have a number of excellent independent bookstores in the Bay Area and they are popular stops on book tours. Just this morning we went to see Nikki McClure at the Book Passage in Corte Madera. She is one of my favorite artists. I posted about her back when she had a local show of her amazingly intricate and beautiful cut paper pieces. Her subject matter is often a celebration of nature, simple things, and motherhood – kind of a modern outdoorsy Mary Cassatt. So it’s a natural that she also does childrens books, the latest being Mama, Is It Summer Yet?

She explained to all of us at the reading that she created this book in response to her son’s question. The illustrations show the clues in nature that the seasons are changing and getting closer and closer to summer. As someone who dreads winter, and gets giddy with the spring and arrival of warmer weather, I loved it, even though my son is too young to be into it just yet. I was also inspired to get out my art supplies and get back to work on some stories. She said when she was little she played pretend that she was an artist, but thought it was similar to being a princess, a make-believe wish. Sometimes I still feel this way, so it’s always encouraging to see someone in person who is making their art in real life, not in some magical castle far, far away. She even did a demonstration of her technique and wowed the kids (and me) with her X-acto knife wielding skills.

So, that’s my mom pick for the featured childrens book on my sporadic review of what Little Man is reading lately. I posted at around 6 months and now at 10 months he is into completely different things. For one, he rarely sits still in my lap anymore unless he’s very, very tired, so sadly, our storytimes are fewer than when he was less mobile. At around 8 months his favorite was Sing-Along Song, written by JoAnn Early Macken and illustrated by San Francisco local LeUyen Pham. He enjoyed the rhythm and onomatopoeia of the text, and would reach out and touch and smile at the pictures of the little boy exuberantly going through the routine of his day. Now, he’s as busy as that little boy, zooming around the house with a very short attention span.

So, at 10 months, he likes Go, Dog. Go! the board book version. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s action-packed. He’s also into books with texture and sounds and pop-ups, basically he needs bells and whistles to keep his focus now. And he wants to destroy them. Chewing, grabbing, tearing. Books have to be tough now for him to enjoy. So, I will be putting my signed copy of Mama, Is It Summer Yet? away until he’s ready, and letting him enjoy tactile books like Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings by Matthew Van Fleet.


Packing Up: Taking Home More Than Trinkets From Taiwan

We start our long journey home bright and early tomorrow morning. Almost three weeks ago, I sat in piles of laundry carefully deciding what to pack so we didn’t bring too much, and tonight we needed to borrow another suitcase to take home all the generous gifts from family and things we bought. (Did I mention how much shopping we’ve done? We went a little bit crazy!)
Besides the new stuff, I’m taking much more valuable things with me. Memories of a whole new side of the family who made it very clear how much they love and care for us. The knowledge that my baby has completely bonded with his grandparents, and that he will be in good hands when they come out this summer to help while I work full-time again. A fondness for a city I didn’t expect to like so much, and a certainty that we will be back and probably for a big chunk of time at some point (I have to learn Chinese somehow). But I will also take back some lessons learned about myself.
There was a part of me that struggled with my new identity as mother to this little boy before we left. I missed my freedom, my alone time, and worried it would be a long time before I’d get the chance to pursue the things I’m interested in again. Coming here put some things into perspective. Flipping through my husband’s life in the photo albums his parents have kept made me see how fast it all goes, and how relationships change. He posed happily and easily with his parents in the pictures when he was young, silly and carefree. With adolescence comes an awkwardness, a distance; you can literally see when a boy reaches an age where he no longer turns to his mother for comfort, and it made me want to cherish these days that my son still needs me.
And boy, does he need me. This trip also made me realize how significant being a mama is. Even though we were with people who love him dearly, I am the one who knows him best. I notice the signs he gives when he is in need of something. I know when he’s thirsty, tired, hungry, needs a diaper change, needs some space, wants to be walking and playing rather than being held, or just needs kisses and hugs from his mama. I know when to pull out his favorite book to keep him from going sideways in public. I know when I need to be his advocate and tell others when he needs to rest.
His Baba (Daddy in Chinese) is also essential and can give him things I can’t. He’s a much better rough-houser than I am, he makes better silly faces and sounds, and he’s the best “closer” when it comes to getting Little Man to finally go down to sleep. I think his role will become even more important as our son becomes older and looks to his father to see what it is to be a good man. His grandparents, cousins, friends, caretakers and teachers will all become more important at different stages in his life. But right now, it’s all about me. I saw that over and over on this trip when he was tired or nervous or trying something new, he needed me there for him.
I’m sure that need will pass much faster than I will be ready for. So I come back from this trip with a renewed sense that being a mama is the most important thing I can be doing right now. My husband and I will get to travel for ourselves again one day, I will get to spend more time pursuing my passions eventually, but for this relatively short period, I will enjoy being my baby’s number one.