Begging and Bribing and Other Favorite Prayers

I think the prayers of begging and bribing might be underrated. And name-calling. That’s another one of my go-to prayers.

It’s 7:33am, and I’m already done with people. Not any of the ones who are the subjects of my Christmas card photographs. Or even the ones to whom I send those pictures. Just everybody else.

Regrettably, my general misanthropy is beginning toward extend to the dogs, or at least one of them. In an effort to salvage our relationship, I deliver him to the groomer. When he vomited up the lizard a few days ago, that was a mess we could address ourselves. This morning, however, requires a professional.

I’ve been praying for the little dog. We are not quite sure what’s wrong. Might have been the gum he stole out of the trashcan, but I did manage to retrieve that from his throat before he swallowed it. I also cut the rest of the sticky mess out of his hair and confirmed that Extra Spearmint contains no xylitol (which is toxic to dogs). More than likely that lizard is having the last laugh after all.

The dog who would normally eat until he explodes has not touched his food — or anybody else’s — in a day and a half, and frankly, we are all becoming alarmed. Our youngest son says, “Mom, if the dog dies tonight because you didn’t take him to the ER, you are going to feel really bad.”

Yes, I will. Thank you for mentioning it.

I can’t really blame him for pressuring me to step up the efforts on the dog’s behalf. This directive is oddly similar to the prayer missives I’ve been throwing in God’s direction. Which, thus far, seem to have been largely ineffective. Intellectually, I realize I might just need to settle down, get my self out of the way, and try a different tack. But no. I rattle off a few threats, bribes and creative names. I beg. It’s like my own personal version of the rosary. I give God the litany of reasons the dog’s death would be unfair: the dog is only 8 years old, our children are young and have already experienced tremendous loss, I just spent hundreds of dollars to board all our pets so they would be safe on our vacation, and we drag our kids to church every week (mostly) and feed them asparagus (occasionally). Is it too much to ask that the family dog live until he sports a gray muzzle? I add a few “Don’t you dares” for good measure. I call God names. And the stupid dog. I call him names too. I promise that next week, I will not sneak off to church with my husband while the children sleep late; we will dress them up and bring them with us. I end my rant with “Not now. Just not yet. Please not now. Please, please, please.”

Only after much rambling does it occur to me that I could recite the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm. Or check out the day’s Gospel reading. Or tune into gospel music. All of which I love. But I don’t seem to be ready to hear any of those messages.

I guess sometimes I need a protracted exhale before I begin to inhale. Or maybe I keep talking because I don’t think I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I don’t want to be kind or patient or longsuffering. I definitely don’t want my little dog to suffer. I don’t want to trust God’s plan. I have my own plan for how and when this dog is going to go to doggy heaven, and for starters it will not be until after our youngest son has gone off to college.

When I was growing up our family dog — the one my sister and I begged for — was a Samoyed/Australian Shepherd mix. She was the runt of the litter and looked like a puppy until the day she died. Which, in appropriate family dog fashion, she did not do until she was 15 (ancient in dog years). By then neither my sister nor I was living at home; she was in college and I was in graduate school. On Valentine’s Day, the dog followed my father out into the yard and took a nap in the shade under a nectarine tree while he gardened. By the time dad was finished with his yard work, the dog was gone. And by “gone” I really mean our beloved Butterscotch was dead.

That’s how the family dog is supposed to go. Quietly, peacefully, painlessly, in the shelter of a familiar garden and in the company of the one who has fed, groomed and walked her for years. Yeah yeah yeah, my sister and I promised that we would take care of the dog, and like all children who beg for a puppy, sometimes we did. Thank goodness our parents picked up the slack (and the puppy prizes), as they knew they would when they capitulated to the idea of a family dog, because the dog would have been really hungry otherwise. We did adore her, and that’s ultimately what the family dog is about — to teach a little bit of responsibility and a lot of unconditional love.

The family pet is not supposed to be hit by a car or attacked by a coyote or accidentally poisoned by a neighbor with a rodent problem. I have lost pets in all those ways, which makes me appreciate the manner of Butterscotch’s death all the more.

But life doesn’t always work my way.

Like a good therapist, Jesus lets me complain and vent and cry, staying with me, holding eye contact through the well of my tears. Sometimes tears streak down his own face as well. I trust that God does not fear the wrath of Charlotte. He remains unmoved by my berating of his competence and patient with my frustrations at the unfairness of life. He sits very still.

This is my Elijah moment.

The prophet Elijah was hiding out from an irate queen who had specific ideas of her own regarding the manner and timing of his death. I imagine that the queen’s presence felt more powerful than God’s during some of those dark nights in the cave. “Then the Lord said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.” (I Kings 19:11-13a)

A tiny whispering sound? I rarely hear that still, small voice in the midst of my outbursts. And yet… the value of the begging, bartering and berating prayers is not as an ends, but as a beginning to a conversation. It occurs to me that the significance of these prayers lies in their reach toward connection. After the rage comes the calm, and then the divine presence becomes tangible, peaceful. In this moment, I recognize that the answer to my prayer is Divine Spirit’s willingness to stick with me through my struggles and tantrums, to hold my hand, to catch my tears, to share His broken heart with mine. This, after all, is the promise: “I will be with you.”

I sit very still.

Meanwhile, my little dog survives his gastrointestinal ordeal, and I am grateful. Undoubtedly, the winds and waves and flames will soon be at it again. As will the quiet whisper.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a tiny whispering sound.

Volume Control

When our boys are bickering over whose turn it is to play on the xBox or take out the trash or use the car, or venting frustration over whatever the latest unfairness might be, our frequent response is: “You are 100% responsible for your 50%.” Meaning that you cannot control everything (or anything, really) that other people do (particularly if those people happen to be your brothers), but you can control yourself.

Needless to say, this concept has little appeal to the kids. They are far less interested in changing their own position than they are in transforming their siblings into compromising, understanding, selfless individuals. When they groan that the coach or the teacher is unreasonable, they would prefer to change the grading rubric than to get an early start on their training schedule or summer reading. Our refrain frequently falls on deaf ears.

These are among the many parenting occasions when I long to transform my children into rational human beings who appreciate the wisdom in maternal advice. Instead, I am reduced to following my own recommendation. The trick is figuring out what constitutes my 50%.

I have a pair of friends from college who are like the brothers I never had, in all the ways that older brothers can be. They were protective and helpful, showing me around campus and introducing me to friends. They also taught me how to play quarters and corralled my roommate and me out to a country bar to learn the Texas two-step. Bobby and Earl were a pair, and if you met either, you likely knew the two of them. In fact, once you knew them, it was awkward to say one of the names without the other. Like milk and cookies. Or maybe not quite.

Earl and Bobby devised a system for the music on their road trips — this was before iPods and satellite radio — to keep the tunes playing and promote relative harmony in the truck. One took over the dial for the tuner and the other controlled the volume. We went to school in Texas (I mentioned the truck), and there was a lot of ground to cover between our little school in Houston and their respective homes. That’s just a lot of time on the road. Their arrangement worked well: When the “tuner” liked the song, he kept that station playing, and if “volume control” didn’t care for the song, he turned the volume low. The tuner would then change the station, and once he found something they both liked, the volume came way up. Simple, but effective.

Sometimes I like to be reminded that even when I don’t have complete power over a situation (and in fact, I never do), I can still exert control over something. I can turn the volume up, down, or even off. I am a girl who finds comfort in silence, so that helps.

I tried a new yoga/pilates class on my vacation. The instructor brought a lovely energy to her practice, and she used words like beautiful, strong and yes. She said, “I love this pose!” so enthusiastically so many times that we laughed, which was another way she brought smiles to our faces, even while she was treating us to additional ab work in the form of a plank. I think she genuinely loves that tortuous chair pose and was strong enough to have sat there for the duration of the class. Her joy became contagious.

I don’t know why her class made me think of Bobby and Earl, except that hers is the kind of exuberant soundtrack that they would have tuned into and cranked up the volume on, exactly the consonance I want to invite into my life. I cannot control the “haters,” as my sons call them, but I can choose to turn the volume low on their disheartening messages of inadequacy, fear and inertia.

As a parent, I cannot control everything my sons do. After all, that is their 50%. I bring the boys to church and serve them veggies, but it’s up to them to find their own inspiration and eat broccoli.

Humbled again, I turn toward my own 50%. I love and cherish my sons and their father. I eat brussel sprouts (Roasted at 425, olive oil, salt & pepper. Better than potato chips. Trust me!). I try to be kind. I read inspirational books. I walk the dog. Some days farther than others. I take a deep breath. I listen.

From time to time, I participate in a friend’s Wellness Camp exercise program. It’s kind of like a a 40-day boot-camp-style exercise program, only completely unlike boot-camp. We train hard, but we also meditate daily. She motivates with words like strength, balance, joy, healing and grace. I turn the volume way up on her messages of health and wellness. One morning while we were working out at the track, we heard another instructor (he-of-the-drill-sergeant-style) bellowing at a group of boot-campers to “Run like a Rottweiler is chasing you!” I am so grateful my friend never yells at me to run like a dog is hot on my heels. Life is hard enough. For the long haul, I’d prefer beauty, light and love to power me through.

I don’t have complete control, of course, but I do have some. And I exercise my choices thoughtfully, adjusting the volume on the incoming messages up or down or off with intention. Just enough to keep the peace on my journey.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little volume control.

Belonging

Blending a family does not happen overnight. There are many aspects to consider, and much patience is required. A sense of humor helps. Along with a glass or two of something red.

Or maybe something white. Because it’s been awfully hot at family camp this week.

Sam and I started going to UCLA family camp when our boys were 3 and 5. We are big Bruin fans — between the two of us, we had three degrees from UCLA. The camp is popular, and it can be difficult to secure a spot. It took us three years applying to the lottery to “win” our spot, but the way it works is this: Once you get a week, you keep priority for “your” week (there are 10), for as long as you continue to attend. Which means that we end up vacationing with many of the same families every summer. Our kids grew up together in their groups, from the little “pooh bears” to the surly teenage “grizzly bears,” all led by talented, energetic young counselors currently attending the university. Meanwhile, we parents connect, attending faculty lectures on timely topics, or hiking, or biking or lounging poolside, all while somebody else does the cooking, cleaning, marketing and making of the beds. It is truly a vacation for everyone in the family.

When the boys were very young, they were in tears coming down the mountain after our week at family camp, newly separated from their favorite Bruin counselors and already counting the 51 weeks until we go back. One of the first questions the boys asked me after Sam died was whether we would be allowed to return to Bruin Woods, our reservation having been made under his name. When I am tempted to regret having attended law school, I remind myself that those three years were my ticket to family camp (not to mention my actual family since Sam and I met at UCLA) and worth the price of admission. And even the collateral brain damage.

Over the last 10 years, our camp families have become some of our most cherished friends. We hiked together, and my nurse friend determined whether I should get stitches when I hit my head on a climb. They took pictures of my kids when I forgot my camera. They gave me orthodontic advice and shared recipes. They cocooned me the summer after Sam’s death. They cried with me and laughed with me and cheered for my boys when they performed in the family talent show. They delighted in my engagement to Tim, and they looked at every single wedding photo the following summer. They welcomed additional sons to my brood. Together we celebrated and commiserated over our collective step-parenting steps and miscalculations.

Some of our favorite family memories come from camp. The main lodge opens to an expansive front lawn, where the kids play tag, catch, soccer, extreme dodgeball, often while parents linger over dinner. Late one summer afternoon, three charter buses pull up the driveway, and onto this lawn spills the entire Bruin football team. The team is en route back to Los Angeles after training in the San Bernardino mountains, and they stop at a place where a little bit of Trojan-bashing and a good deal of Bruin brain-washing and Eight-Clapping are daily fare. What could be better? These football players are bigger than life, and the fans are elated. Especially the dads.

My youngest son finds me after an hour or so, and he has stars in his eyes. He has been playing with two of the guys. They jumped into the lake together, they taught him to skip rocks, they played basketball. They may be elite athletes, playing Division 1 football in the Pac 12 conference, but they are also just big kids. The boys each signed my son’s shirt. On the left sleeve is Deitrich Riley’s signature. Deitrich is special to our family because he went to the same high school as my sons, and we watched him play ball under the Friday night lights. On my son’s right sleeve is the signature of Anthony Barr (a linebacker who was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft).

My boy was so excited that he didn’t even think to take his cell phone out of his pocket before jumping into the lake. I couldn’t have cared less. (My kid does not have a smart phone, or I might have cared a smidge more.) It is an experience he will remember fondly for a very long time, and I suspect he will keep that shirt for many years, and not because of the value of any signatures but because it carries the memory of a magical afternoon, when heroes he’d only heard about landed on the lawn, lifted him on their shoulders and taught him to skip rocks on a lake at sunset.

Unfortunately, the shifting school calendar has been threatening the viability of our week at family camp. Do not get me started on this — just because some people have kids taking Advanced Placement courses and want extra study time doesn’t mean that the rest of us should have to suffer. Last summer, for example, I drove two of the boys back home mid-week in order to start high school, and the youngest and I stayed for the rest of the week just the two of us. That’s how reluctant we all have been to leave our friends from camp. Honestly, I’d rather change my ob/gyn. In fact, I did, and it was less traumatic than switching our week of family camp.

This summer, none of the boys’ school schedules would accommodate our regular week at family camp, so we had to decide whether to change our week of Bruin camp or not to go at all. We changed weeks.

With excitement and trepidation and a few tears (mine this time), we head up the hill for camp. I miss my friends from our former week with an intensity that surprises me. I cannot bear to let them go. I flirt with the idea of sneaking up for a day during their week at camp while my kids are in school. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

After a few days in our “new” week, we are acclimated (mostly) to the altitude and the change. All of us have made friends, settled into some of our favorite activities and tried a few new trails. But there’s one big upside to our having switched weeks. It is the first time that Tim and I have attended with our boys together as a blended family. Our “new” friends have met us as a family of six, and they only know us as Charlotte & Tim. It’s lovely.

Some have learned the story of the widow and the widower. It’s hard to avoid that explanation for long because two of our sons share the same first name. Upon hearing our history, several have commented: “You two seem like you’ve been together forever.” Also: “You suit each other so well.” And my personal favorite: “You belong together.”

Indeed, we feel the same.

We have met some truly lovely people this week — several who I expect will remain friends for a long time — and I already cannot imagine my life without them. We have even made dinner plans for the fall.

I have also made plans to run up to family camp for a day next week — the day before the boys start school — so we can all hug a few cherished friends in person. Because that’s the kind of friends they are.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends — both new and old — who you belong with.

Tuesday Rules

I figured out early as a newly-widow that if I was going to drive this train, I would need some time exclusively for myself. It happened that my favorite yoga class was on Tuesday, and my therapist had time for me the same day, so Tuesdays became my “Charlotte Shabbat.” My initial Tuesday rule was this: “Unless you are, in fact, on fire AND I gave birth to you, it can wait until Wednesday.”

This standard worked well for me in the initial stages of my grieving process. I used Tuesdays for my own restoration. I did not pay bills or talk to lawyers or do laundry. Tuesdays came to represent my own indulgent, selfish and healing tendencies: yoga, therapy (sometimes retail therapy), and a table for one. I didn’t make lunch plans with anybody else. I would take myself wherever I felt like going at whatever time I was hungry. I was the only one in my family who liked sushi, so that often became my lunch of choice. Hence, Sushi Tuesdays.

I happen to enjoy the table for one. As much as I delight in the chaos and clutter that accompany kids and cats and dogs, I am also remarkably content with quiet time, meditation, yoga, going to the movies alone or eating out by myself. I usually bring a book. Sometimes I read it. I thoroughly enjoy lunch with girlfriends, but I don’t necessarily feel sorry for the person eating at a table by herself because, personally, I cherish that time too.

When Tim and I got married, I revised my Tuesday rule, because at that point I would, in fact, put aside whatever I was doing when my stepsons called. The rule at the boys’ high school, like most schools attempting to nurture responsible young adults, is that mom is not supposed to “save” the kid by delivering forgotten homework assignments or calculators or projects. But between you and me, when my freshman step-son called me for any reason at all, I dropped everything. Even if I missed yoga. Even if it meant that I would violate the school standard. Even if he was calling me a name that rhymes with stitch. Which, by the way, did not refer to my sense of humor. At least he was calling me something, which is better than not calling me at all. It was a place for our relationship to start.

He also happens to like sushi.

When he and I first began our own relationship, we found success in doing things that he hadn’t done with his mother, like baking, skiing and eating sushi. The first year Tim and I were married, we had four kids in two different schools, but ever since the boys have been in at least three schools. This year it’s four. I fear we will never have spring break together again. There are not a lot of advantages to this structure, but one perk has been those “early release” days when I get to take just one of my boys out to lunch. On whichever day of the week that happens to fall.

The kids are amused by the unintended “shit” in the middle of my SushiTuesdays. I think they like the excuse to swear in front of me. Last week my boy called to see if I wanted to go out to lunch for “Su-shit-Friday.” Even if I’ve already eaten lunch, I say yes, because honestly when your 18-year-old son (step or otherwise) asks you to lunch, what else is a girl to do? Even if he’s just hoping that you’ll pick up the tab.

Sushi for two has become our specialty.

Things have changed. Four years ago I was constantly near tears because I was afraid this child would never go away to college and that he would torture me with his teenage ‘tude in perpetuity. This year — his last in high school — I have spent in tears because he is good and ready to go. He has also, in recent months, started calling me “Ma.”

Meanwhile, some things stay the same. When this boy was a freshman and I picked him up from high school, he threw his backpack in to the trunk every afternoon, plopped into the car and exclaimed, “OMG, Charlotte, the teacher is CRAZY!” Which began our refrain, Did you do your homework? What exactly were the instructions? Can I buy you another purple pen? She might be crazy, but she’s still in charge.

As a senior, following his very last final exam (and before our sushi lunch), he bursts into the house, drops his backpack in the kitchen, and exclaims, “OMG, Charlotte, the teacher is CRAZY!” These are the times when my husband and I marvel at the fact that I didn’t, in fact, give birth to this boy. I’m the drama queen, and he’s the drama king.

My son heads off to the great state of Texas for college in less than a month. I am really going to miss the daily-ness of him, his exclamations and our conversations. I am not going to miss his crap lying all over the floor. (Okay, I might. But just a little.) And I am really looking forward to his phone calls, “Hey Ma — Texans are CRAZY!”

So now all my children are teenagers or in college (or both), and my relationship with each one is a priority as well as a challenge. As a result, my Tuesday rule looks more like this: Unless you are in fact on fire and either 1) I gave birth to you, 2) I married you, or 3) I married your father, then it can wait until Wednesday, or at least until after yoga, and possibly after therapy; provided, however, that if you are not quite on fire but you are one of the aforementioned individuals and you have the opportunity and inclination to spend time with me or to talk with me (long distance or in person), then I will drop everything to be with you and answer your call.

Which is altogether too complicated.

Instead, I will say simply that some rules are meant to be broken. Thank goodness.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a reason to share your Tuesday time.