Monday, February 28, 2011

Ode to the Weekend Dad

This past Saturday and Sunday, Jeff and I had an actual weekend. No work, no kids, no travel plans or scrambling to meet family obligations. Just an actual two whole consecutive days off to hang around the house. We haven't had one of those since (drumroll please).... August! That's right, it's been six months — half a year. You should have watched us stare at each other slack-jawed with disbelief, unsure how to handle the idea of having guilt-free free time.

In honor of that experience (now that we're back to the grindstone of work and kids), I wanted to share here a post I wrote back in January 2010. Of course, things have changed since then. My change in jobs means that my weekdays are no longer my "off days" and my weekends are devoted more and more to the kids, for whom I will soon be a step-mom even if I'm never really a "parent." I understand better, from experience, the deep guilt that comes with only seeing your kids two days a week, and how unthinkably selfish it feels to take "time for yourself" during those precious hours.... And so I understand, from experience, the fatigue that quickly creeps up on you when all you have are a few hours in the evening after work to claim as your own. Between wedding planning, spiritual practice, creative work and the work we do to make rent, it's no wonder that Jeff and I feel a little burnt out! So in honor of all of his hard work, and in praise of the man I love, please enjoy these reflections on the hard-working, often under-appreciated Weekend Dad.

Earlier this week, before he passed the cold onto me, my partner Jeff was in bed with the sniffles, bundled up in his bathrobe, happy as a clam in flannel. He would blow his nose with a rumbling, gurgling blast that filled the whole house, and smile at me with bleary eyes, and tell me how glad he was to be sick. It was, he said, as if all the stress of the holidays and work and family and bills that he had been carrying around with him for the past month had finally been shrugged off, and his body could relax enough to address those pesky germs that had invaded. Good riddance!, the message of every sneeze. And watching him cuddle into the blanket and nod off to sleep, I thought how unsung his particular kind of heroism is in our culture.

It is popular, I'm sure you've noticed, to portray fathers these days as fat, laughable buffoons tripping through life on the heels of a wife who is way too attractive and intelligent for them and who is constantly patching things up and smoothing things over and nodding sagaciously when the credit that's due never comes.[*] Check out any family sitcom on television in the past few decades, and ask yourself why Marge stays with Homer, or Lois with Peter, or Lois with Hal, or Debra with Raymond, or Doug with Carrie, or Jill with Tim... or any of the wives who stay with clownish husbands on the numerous family sitcoms that I, admittedly, don't watch for the most part. Of course, once dispossessed of the stabilizing and sensible force of the Marge-d'œveur, the buffoon of a husband becomes something much worse: the embarrassing, bumbling and sometimes criminally negligent single dad. Sometimes the single dad is an endearing and heroic figure — if he loved his wife, who died of cancer or some tragic accident that left him scarred and unwilling to risk falling in love again... that is, until the chipper, compassionate, young heroine comes along — but for the most part, he is shrugged off as mediocre and foolish, undeserving and just maybe incapable of raising the children he helped to father in the first place.

I suspect this cultural trope is thanks, at least in part, to the feminist movement and the revolution to throw off the shackles of patriarchy and reassert the essential grounded practicality and intuitive wisdom of the feminine. And I'm all for that. But I also know that smiling condescendingly at the Weekend Dad because he lets the kids leave the house with mismatched socks or orders out for pizza for dinner every Friday night is about as mature as snickering at the freshman girl wearing last year's style in striped tees. In other words: not very. Rather, it suggests that while we as women (and as a culture) have reached a point where we can balk at overt patriarchy, we have not yet understood that real equality is that of partnership and complexity, not of reducing the men in our lives to one of two stereotypes: ruthless oppressor or (in)sufferable fool. As if, as far as we've come, we haven't quite got the knack of being simply adults, but are stuck in the role of mothering. As if, to quote Pratchett (in Carpe Jugulum), "just because they'd got the label which said 'mother,' everyone else got a tiny part of the label that said 'child'..."

But watching Jeff relaxing into his well-earned rest (after putting in a full day's work despite the blocked-up nose and disorientation), I thought about just how hard Weekend Dads do work, at least the good ones. I may sometimes complain about having to work weekends, putting in long hours on my feet without breaks, dealing with sometimes belligerent, hung-over or senile customers for measly tips, but during the middle of the week, my time is my own (and as a natural introvert trying to kick a writing career off the ground, this suits me just fine). Yet here is a man who works non-stop, seven days a week: not an hour after he's finished his salaried work late Friday afternoon and set his computer aside, he's tackled by four lovely, energetic children who quickly claim every room in the house (except the somewhat messy and sparsely furnished "grown-up's bedroom") with their toys, books, blankets and games. All weekend, while I get to slip away to a job where most of the people I interact with will at least behave like polite adults if I treat them as such, he entertains and instructs and comforts children for whom "important" can mean anything from "Jake beat me in Othello by exactly sixteen points, twice!" to "Jocelyn ran into a tree on her sled!" to "I told Sarah to stop and she wouldn't, so I kicked her!" And this man, this mere "weekend dad," engages with these children with unending patience and love, sifting through the inane and the ridiculous, supporting and encouraging wherever support and encouragement are needed. And then, when he's dropped them back at their mom's house each Sunday night, he buckles down and tries to work in an hour or two of personal writing or meditation before it's back to the quiet, industrious, analytical work of the computational linguist the following morning.

And if sometimes he doesn't notice the color of the kids' socks, or only knows two good, healthy recipes to cook for a family of six in a tiny kitchen with about a square centimeter of counter space, I'm not going to be the one to fault him, or smirk, or think secretly I could do better. After all, I'm certainly no mother myself, and much of the time I think I'm not cut out to be one. When it comes to that, motherhood is no longer the only archetype of mature and self-possessed femininity available to the modern woman, who has the potential to be so much more than merely maiden, mother or crone. The priestess, the witch, the queen, the shaman, the bard, the warrior, the basket-weaver... And if we can liberate women from the archetypes of fertility and servitude, surely it would be strange to expect men to step in and take over those roles, just as it would be misdirected triumph to scoff when they do so ineptly or inadequately.

Perhaps instead we can celebrate the complexities and subtleties of contemporary gender identity and family life, and the mixed blessing of divorce that allows for a redefinition of roles and the redress of relationships that were inclined towards dysfunction or disrespect. Because in the end, matching socks only really matter in a world where socks are the only way a woman can express her competence and care as a mother and wife. But this is, thank the gods, no longer the world we live in. Now we can set aside the trivial, wade through all the social pressures to be good women, and rise to the occasion of being simply good people, who demonstrate our love through attending and sharing, and who put the real needs of others ahead of our own need to appear Large and In Charge.

(And now and then, we can revel in our headcolds and allow others to care for us, and soothe us with hot tea and honey, and assure us that we have been good parents, and partners, and children, and humans.)


[*] Granted, the fact that these women remain in such dysfunctional relationships belies certain flaws in their own characters, so that usually after Season One the audience has come to appreciate that, despite their constant (and hilarious) mishaps, these couples were made for (and deserve) each other.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ocean, Sea, Deep

I chose these three words to examine this week because Alison has been doing some dream and meditation work with the Ocean's deities recently. Also, it's February and there's four inches of snow on the ground, and quite frankly I'd rather be at the beach.

Ocean


From Greek okeanos, of unknown origin. The Greeks used the word to refer to a great river which was supposed to run around Europe, Africa, and Asia, and its god, Oceanos. He was a Titan, the son of Uranus and Gaia, and the husband of Tethys (the Titan-goddess of the Nile and other mighty rivers). This great river is often associated with monsters of the deep in other mythologies — such as the Norse Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent and son of Loki, an ouroboros encircling the world.

The word was picked up in Latin and used in the phrase mare oceanus, "Ocean Sea" (meaning the Ocean Sea as opposed to, say, the Mediterranean Sea or the Black Sea). This is why, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, the Spanish named him "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." It reached English through Old French in the 13th century, and began to be used as a moniker for the Atlantic and other large bodies of water in the 14th century.

Spiritually, it begins with wholesome energy, passing through protective turbulence, and is released into grounding.

Sea


From Proto Germanic saiwaz, meaning a large body of water. The word is unrelated to any in other Proto Indo European daughter languages, and does not appear to have come from Finnish or the other Baltic tongues. Saiwaz became in Old English, and sea in Middle English. It was first applied to the moon's mares in the 1660's.

Spiritually, sea is a word of sunlight, fertility, and growth, developing into high, tense energy. As such it may more naturally indicate the surface of the water, rather than its depths.

Deep


From Proto Indo European dheub, referring to hollowness and depth. In Old Irish, dheub became domun, "world", because of the world's deep foundations. In Proto Germanic, it became deupaz, and in Old English, deop, maintaining both its literal sense and metaphorical senses of profundity, awe, mysteriousness, seriousness, and solemnity.

Spiritually, deep has the same high, tense -ee- sound as sea, and contains the same high, tense energy; but this energy is engaged through a doorway, a decision, and is drawn to a definite location or point. Its phonosemantics is similar to that found in weep, reap, seep, leap, and keep.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Valentine's Day Love Spell

It was Valentine's Day. Another one, alone.

February is always a bleak month — the cold, gray, bitter days lingering even after the brief, teasing promise of spring at Imbolc, when the groundhog pokes his head from his borrow cautiously and the serpent rises from within the mound towards the warming sun. But it will be a while before the daffodils began to sprout, pushing their way up through the mud. And even longer before the trees, most hesitant, will start to bloom and green again.

And in the middle of it was another Valentine's Day alone. Maybe a care package from Mom with some red and pink candy-coated chocolates or a vase of flowers I bought myself at the grocery store to bring some life and color into my little one-bedroom apartment. In past years, Valentine's Day had been rough. At work, college kids seemed to congeal into smooching couples at every table, holding hands, gazing longingly, making their poor lonely waitress roll her eyes whenever her back was turned. At home, the apartment was quiet and empty, a snug den against the dark and cold... but an empty one.

Love Altar, detailBut this year, things were somehow different. Over the Christmas holidays, when I had been visiting my parents, an earthquake rocked Lancaster County just past midnight. My mom called me on my phone (I was out with a friend) to check if I was all right. And I was. Something was shifting in me, as sure as there was a shift in the land. Something had been shifting for a long time, the tension building up in the stillness of my solitary existence. And that winter, like the earthquake under the rolling hills and desolate, brown-stubbled farmland of my hometown, that tension finally moved within me to a new place of stability and ease.

Another Valentine's Day alone, and yet I couldn't feel lonely, or sad. I felt... gratitude. For my life, and myself. It might sound silly to say that it had taken years to finally be okay with being single, but after a bad break-up with a man I'd been head-over-heels in love with, and the years since filled with false starts and unrequited crushes on losers and jerks, I had seriously started to think maybe there was something wrong with me, maybe I was unlovable. But such a fear was in tension with the love and gratitude I always felt during my time in nature, out walking in the woods, watching the birds flit from tree to tree, or the wind dance through the fallen leaves. Even as I felt alone, isolated and misunderstood by the other humans in my life, the more-than-human world seemed to embrace me and court me with its attentions and elegant soul-songs. Each leaf, a gift. Each star, a marvel.

I couldn't tell you when the shift happened that winter, but by that Valentine's Day, the tension had begun to ease. I felt loved, and alone with the world in an intimate, lucky kind of way. And so, to honor that relationship — a love affair that had never paled or faltered in all the years I'd taken it for granted — I decided to perform a love spell, in honor of the day, in honor of the earth that my own body, too, was made of.

I'd sworn off love spells years earlier, after a botched one that had, I'd assumed, never worked and only left me feeling embarrassed and bitter, like that song by Ani DiFranco where, after listing all the qualities she wants in a partner, she wails over and over, "Do you think I am asking too much?"

Love AltarSo this Valentine's Day, I dug out the stones and charms I had blessed for that ritual. I poured myself a small glass of mead, sacred honey-wine, into a tiny chalice. I scattered handfuls of dried rosebuds in the tub and drew a bath scented with luscious lavender and vanilla essential oils, and I set up an altar with candles and rose petals and twining pink ribbons on the flat top of the toilet's back. I spoke prayers of gratitude and praise for the earth, and the winter, and the coming spring still so fragile as to be only half a dream within the sleeping, frosted ground. I anointed myself with oils, and stepped gently into the warm, steaming bath, sinking first to my knees to cup the water to my face, washing away the tension and loneliness of previous years. This was not a spell to find love or bring love or attract love — this was a love spell of gratitude and celebration.

After my bath, I gathered together the rose petals and rosebuds, the stones and charms and ribbon, and I collected them into a bulky pink jar. I took the chalice of mead out to my balcony and, after a sip to honor the Spirit within me, slowly poured the libation over the offering stone resting on the rail, watching the golden-brown liquid dribble down sticky and sweet along the woodgrain and brick. Back inside, I placed the sealed spell jar on one of my dressers, where it promptly became just one more bit of my carefully cluttered home décor.

Only a few days after this, my correspondence with another Druid online (who'd agreed to talk with me about meditative and trance techniques) took an unexpected turn. Poetry and inspiration were seething in my skin, and he told me he'd been having experiences with the Celtic goddess Brigid, who mischievously suggested that something was in store that was going to knock his socks off. Of course, I wasn't a devotee of Brigid then, at least not by that name, and this Druid was a divorcé living up in New England whom I'd known for years as an online friend and fellow blogger, a guy who had an ex-wife and kids and was probably way too old for me.

Love Altar, detailAnd then I was madly in love, and so was he.

And a month later, on St. Patrick's Day of all days, he drove fifteen hours down from chilly, snowy Massachusetts to meet me in person for the first time. And we've been a painfully adorable couple ever since.

And we've had Valentine's Days and anniversaries and birthdays and other special days to mark and celebrate and remember. But in some ways, I think I'll always think of that year, that Valentine's Day, as my first Valentine's Day with him. Because in so many ways, it was my first Valentine's Day with myself as the person I could become, and the person he helps me to be.

Who says there's no such thing as magic?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Songs

It's no secret that Ali and I don't share the same taste in music. On the face of it, this is kind of odd, because I enjoy just about anything ...except the more extreme kinds of alternative and rap and heavy metal. And Alison will listen to anything... as long as it's alternative rock.

Well, that's a vast oversimplification. I actually do enjoy some kinds of country (especially bluegrass) and alternative (especially the older stuff) and heavy metal (especially the more Zeppelin-influenced stuff). And Alison does like a lot of the music I listen to, and her absolute favorite music is folk/jazz/punk/funk/alternative in the style of Ani DiFranco, who we both agree is a genius.

Our tastes do overlap, but the 'centers' of our musical tastes are in very different areas. I usually like things that I can either (a) play in the background while I work, or (b) lose myself in musically; and this means I gravitate towards jazz fusion, new age, and instrumental folk. Alison prefers things she can deeply engage with lyrically, and which she can give all her attention to. And even when we do like the same song, we often enjoy it for different reasons.

So when we started making a list of songs we might like to hear at our wedding reception, we ended up with quite a motley list...

Today I took our list and put all those songs and artists into Pandora.

Pandora is an internet radio service that allows you to create stations based on things you like. It has a vast database of music, cross-indexed every which way; so once you 'seed' a station with songs or artists, it will seek out similar music and play it for you.

So I put in artists like Spinal Tap, Ani DiFranco, and R. Carlos Nakai, and songs like Harbor, 500 Miles, The House of Tom Bombadil, Bottle It Up, Lucky Ball and Chain, Somebody to Love...

And I got out some pretty great stuff: Norah Jones's Sunrise, The Presidents of the United States of America's Video Killed the Radio Star, Sky Sailing's I Live Alone, Spinal Tap's Stonehenge, Ani's Swandive...

This isn't a plug for Pandora or anything — and I got some not-so-great music too — but if you want a sense of what our wedding reception might be like, you can listen to the station here. I've been exploring for a while in this odd, small space where our musics overlap, and finding it very pleasant indeed.

Now, if we could just figure out some way I could practice my banjo without driving her insane...