How to live in an unjust world (The answer involves Angry Birds)

My stepdad asked my mom if I’m depressed. Perhaps jokingly. He thought I’d been writing about a lot of hard stuff lately.

I don’t feel depressed. But I have been feeling a bone-deep sensitivity. And it’s had me thinking about fairness. I’ve heard that the happiest people understand that life is not fair. That life isn’t even about fairness.

I’ve never understood this, and I fear it will be my undoing, that I’ll become an angry, cynical old woman. Because while I understand logically that I cannot change the world, that I cannot make life fair, my heart does not. My heart aches, too much I think, when a child dies of cancer. Can a heart ache too much over this? Maybe not. Maybe I’m just envious that while others can redirect their thinking, can avoid thinking about awful things that happen to people they don’t know, I have a hard time with it. Perseverating, my mom used to call it while I was growing up. “Don’t perseverate,” she’d tell me. But perseverate is what I do, and it’s part of what helps me write, it’s part of the same urge that makes me want to write in the first place—to document, to bear witness. I think about things—I think them through until I can almost feel what it’s like to be that other person, to be a mother watching her son die.

It’s gotten worse, much worse, since I had children. Heartaches over injustices last longer, penetrate deeper. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all that is wrong with the world. I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to hate the world, to hate the people who make it this way, who don’t join in the effort to make it a better place.

I used to be a bright-eyed idealist. Now I’m a beaten and battered idealist. Note—still an idealist. I’m often as passionate about all that is great. But the world is crushing. Simply crushing. And I’ve got to figure out a way to hold myself up.

Come hell or high water, I will have a hopeful post for you next time.

***I wrote the above draft, then closed my computer and went to pick up my son from school. I brought him home, we played, and then I wrote this, which is your promised hopeful post. Warning: It involves various “I’m thankful” phrases:

I am thankful that I hear my two children playing upstairs right now. My son is directing my daughter on how to play with his Angry Bird stuffed animals.

I am thankful we just shared lunch together and grouped my son’s dinosaurs by time period (his idea). I got to do that—to sit, in the middle of a Monday, on a soft couch in our cozy house and play dinosaurs with my son while my daughter, who is fighting a cold, snuggled against me with her blanket. The magic of being an at-home mom.

I am thankful for my husband, who still writes me notes.

I am thankful for winter in all its ferocity this year, for the moon on the snow last night, and the bare branches against the sky.

I am thankful we do not have to travel for the holidays. We get to wake up Christmas morning with our children; they’ll wait on the stairs while I make coffee first (I learned to prioritize from my mother). They’ll beg and plead and when I have a hot cup in one hand and my video camera in the other, I’ll say, “Okay, sweeties. It’s time,” and they’ll come tripping down the stairs to the Christmas tree.

I am thankful that my son just walked downstairs with two round Angry Birds stuffed under his shirt and said, “Look at me! I have fat nipples!”

There is nothing—nothing—like six-year-old humor to lighten things up.

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Onward

The other day at the beach, I lay on a chair in the sand, my skin hot in the sun. My five-year-old son walked out of the water and up to me and, dripping wet, sat on my lap. He lay along me, toes to ankles, head to shoulder. I loved it. And I thought, “There will be a day soon, maybe in three weeks, maybe in three years, when he will no longer do this. And then from that day on he won’t ever do it again.”

My friend, Melanie, (whom you’ve already met) is moving away this week, from the Chicago area to Portland, Oregon. I met Melanie when our sons were just weeks old, sitting on the floor of a community room in a weekly meeting for new mothers. We happened to place our baby blankets on the floor near each other, our sons lying on their backs, their eyes darting to the lights on the ceiling, to the people around us. We were part of a circle of other new mothers, all of us bleary-eyed and happy to be surrounded by those who knew exactly how we felt and why.

Melanie and her son, 2007

Melanie and her son, 2007

I can still picture the moment she first walked into the room—a smile on her face like she already knew everyone in there. That’s how easy it is to become friends with Melanie. She and I and several other new mothers formed friendships that continued outside of the community room meetings–friendships that became about more than just 3AM feedings.

Melanie has a laugh that’ll startle you. (It’s more of a shriek, really, accompanied by several loud hand claps.) Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I love being in public with her; when she laughs, I don’t look at her, I look at the unsuspecting person a few feet away from her who inevitably jumps.

She is hardworking, independent, blunt, flustered, earnest, intelligent, and supportive. She gives hugs. She makes herself at home. She is career-driven and a family woman, protective, a mama bear. She, her husband, and her children disappear most weekends—that is their time. I’m not sure I’ve spent more than three weekend nights with her in six years.

Our sons' first spring, 2008

Our sons’ first spring, 2008

She knows who she is and what she wants most of the time. When she doesn’t, she talks it out until she does. She told me once that sometimes she needed to sit on the front steps and read a book before she entered the house after work. I remember being impressed that she had figured out such a small yet significant detail about herself, and it inspired me to regard myself in the same manner.

Her move is another reminder that a moment has passed. The days of new motherhood, of uncertainly slipping tiny socks onto tiny feet, of crying, exhausted, in a dark nursery in the middle of the night, of falling asleep midday on the couch with a soft pink wrinkled baby cradled in my elbow, are gone. They slipped past as quickly as the future day when my son will no longer sit on my lap.

He goes off to kindergarten next month. And Melanie is off to Portland.

Things change. I hope to continue to get better at letting them.

Meet: My Mom

For Mother’s Day, an early Monday Morning Meeting:

My mom…

  • Was born and raised on the northwest side of Chicago and attended Catholic school there. (She will forever say the word “nun” with some disdain.)
  • Lost her mother to pancreatic cancer when she was a freshman in college; afterward, she dropped out to help at home with her younger siblings.
  • Became the first flight attendant instructor without a college degree at United Airlines by walking into her boss’s office and insisting she could do it, back when female employees were weighed and had to be single.
  • Earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology while raising three children. She now works with mentally disabled adults and runs her own consulting business.
  • Forced us to sit and wait on the stairs Christmas morning until she’d made her first cup of coffee.
  • Loves ham. And also Red Hots.
  • Let us take one “mental health day” off school per semester, even as young children, way before anyone knew what the hell that was.
  • Used to pull pantyhose down over her head and chase us like a zombie, groaning, “I’m not your mother…”
  • Left surprise presents on our beds.
  • Attended all my softball games.
  • When I was 10, told me I could pick the new paint color for my bedroom, then tried to convince me that purple wasn’t a good color because it “makes people drowsy”; she painted the walls mint green. (Sorry, Mom, had to include that one.)
  • Cannot tell a story. Cannot. Tell. A. Story. (Neither can I, which is why I write them instead of speak them.)
  • Once cried while we decorated the Christmas tree because “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on and it was her mother’s favorite song.
  • Once cried many times. (She’s a crier, though she cries with a look of apology—“Ohhhh, here I go again!”)
  • Ran, arms flailing, into the middle of a fight in which a boy was getting beaten up, then followed the boy home to make sure his mother knew he was having a hard time and needed support.
  • Leaves a positive comment on almost every one of my blog posts, purposely in a manner that it’s unclear she’s my mother.
  • Hosts our family for dinner many Sundays, and buys me free-range, organic meat (and makes sure I know it).
  • Pretends that offering my children three desserts (not a choice of three—three) is normal.
  • Simply cannot, for all her intelligence, pronounce “Netflix”; to her it will always be “Netflex.”
  • Taught me to laugh at myself (one of my favorite qualities in anyone).
  • Taught me to take myself seriously (one of my favorite qualities in myself).
  • Passed on to me her love of music, history, nature walks, back tickles, laughing, and tradition. Also her short legs and square feet. But I still love her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

She also dislikes having her photo taken, so here she is in 1948--68ish with Santa.

She also dislikes having her photo taken, so here she is in 1948-ish with Santa.

Edith

Edith Chandler Kinder was born on a small farm in the woods of northern Minnesota in 1923. At the age of eighty-three, Edith, my grandmother-in-law, politely allowed me to interview her, slightly flummoxed as to why I should care. For over an hour, she answered my questions in her lilting, singing voice, often resting fingers bent by age on her cheek as she reminisced. Following is an excerpt:

I was born in Minnesota. A township, but we always used Ballclub, Minnesota as our mailing address. Ballclub was kind of an Indian community. They had an Indian school there. And so I was the eighth child, and the first delivery my mother ever had a doctor attending her. And she got mad at him because all he did was sit in the living room and talk with the men. That’s what she said he did!

Anyway, all went well. And I was a momma’s girl all my life. My dad left us when I was three years old. He was, I think, a nice man. I never really knew him. But he would drink. Not all the time. He was more like a drunk on the weekend or when he got his paycheck for the logs. He was a logger. And he’d go to town and he’d get his money and then he’d pay his bills and then he’d drink the rest. So my mother had a hard time that way.

He hit her. I remember it. I was there. I was three and we had a bedroom, the boys’ bedroom. Was two double beds and then just an alleyway between the two and he had her down, hitting on her. And I remember jumping up and down on the bed, screaming. That’s all I remember about it. From then on, he could not come back. So I don’t know if that was the first abuse and she said once is enough, or if there was trouble. I don’t know why it was so cut and dried, right away. That’s all I know about it. But, you see, when I came along everybody was tired of talking about everything. I didn’t hear a lot of things.

[We had] maybe at a time ten milking cows and my older brothers would come home and help put up hay in the summer for these cows. And [my mother] sold the cream. A few dollars a week. And that’s what she supported us on.

My mother came from Norway when she was three years old. Had two sisters that lived in the neighborhood, they were always good friends. And that’s where my cousins come so important now in our life. Because we were brought up with them, out there on the farm. But they had dads, yet. I really didn’t know about having a dad and I sure never missed it. I think if you have one good parent, that’s about enough.

My mother had six boys in a row. And then she had two girls. And then somewhere long about the fourth boy, whose name was James Thomas, her little old log house caught fire. And some of the boys were in the house with her and she set them outside. You know, you only had a pail of water. You carried a pail of water from the well. That’s all she had. She threw it on the fire but it didn’t do anything. So by then she went outside and the little one was missing. Little James Thomas was just walking age. And she had to go back into the burning house to find him, and hunted for him, and she got burned, badly. And she found him hiding behind a door, to get away from the fire. But he was burned badly, and he died.

And they didn’t expect her to live. She said that when she was lying in this bed in this so-called hospital, she heard her two sisters talking about who was going to take her other boys.

Simple little things stick in my mind. One night, my youngest brother was pitching hay off the haystack, feeding the cows. And I was lying on top of this haystack, and it was the most beautiful night. I can still see it. In the middle of winter. Cold night. Sparkly stars. That has always stuck in my mind. Beautiful.