“Don’t Try So Hard”

posted June 10, 2009

Is it a requirement that all children who become older siblings go through a regressive phase that includes talking babytalk, crawling, wanting to drink from bottles and eat from babyfood jars and, in some cases, breastfeed? And furthermore, is it a requirement that their parents find this phase cloying at best and mysteriously irritating? I say “mysterious” because when I chunk it down, nothing Elle is doing right now is not cute, including her high squeaky “I-am-just-a-baby” voice. And yet every parent I know cannot stand when their child acts younger than he or she is and in fact often snaps at said child, losing the desirable parental cool we all aspire to. Also, the babytalk the child uses is not real babytalk but some proximation of it. For instance: “goo goo ga ga.” I notice real babies don’t actually say “goo goo ga ga” as such.

I am trying again to meditate properly. I go in and out of this attempt. My mind hates to stay still. I am an inveterate planner, which serves me well in a way. I have been known to get a lot done because I am good at filling all the cracks and crevices of my day. When I find myself with a spare five minutes, I love to fill it with a phone call to a friend I’ve been hoping to catch up with, or I sponge off the counter which always needs a cleaning. At some point I internalized both the phrase about the devil liking idle hands and also “Don’t just sit there; do something!” When I started meditating, I was told to reverse that last directive: “Don’t just do something; sit there.” I find the latter much more challenging.

Our minister Stephen Philbrick wrote a poem which he often recites as a kind of benediction, especially on communion Sundays.

The space between stars, where noise goes to die;
And the space between atoms,
Where the charges thin out;
These are places too.
The moment in the movement of the soul
When it all seems to stop, seized up.
This is true too…
“Not a thing” is something. After the end
And before the beginning
Is time, too.
Let it alone, don’t try so hard.
This is God, too.
All of you is.

This coming Tuesday, June 16, our town of Northampton is about to vote on whether or not to override the budget. Because of the catastrophe that is the US economy, Massachusetts has slashed its budgets and towns like ours are scrambling to make ends meet. The vote’s in a week. The override would put a million dollars into the school system, and that alone is enough for me to be for it. The rumor is that if the override doesn’t pass, my daughter’s first grade class will have 35 kids in it. The increase in our property tax comes out to something like $62 per $100,000 worth of property value per year. To me, this is a no-brainer. Moreover, an override very similar to this lost by one vote in 2003. Guess who was too busy to go to the polls that day.

So we have a big sign on our lawn and Tom’s been making calls trying to get out the vote. I have no idea what the chances are, but it’s been interesting to see how my mind reacts to this whole issue. Of course, what comes up are some of my primal fears. I was raised in the religion of higher education: to believe that all of society’s problems could be solved if only we could imbue our children with information and the skills to acquire it, we would make better choices which would lead to fewer wars, better stewardship of the planet, eradication of poverty and support of NPR. I still believe this. But I also know that it’s not that simple and that people who don’t agree with me are not the enemy. And yet, when someone close to us called today to question why we are for the override, I found myself yelping in the background (Tom was on the phone) things like, “Our kids won’t have music, art or PE! Our kids have to bring their own paperclips!” And then trembling with rage when he hung up the phone on the caller.

This behavior kind of goes against my desire to be a compassionate person.

Sometimes when Elle is being a baby, I lose my patience and say, “Too bad you’re just a little baby. Only big girls get to _________ (watch TV/eat cookies/ride their trikes, etc.)” And it works; she suddenly becomes a big girl and uses her proverbial words. But I’m not crazy about my behavior in this situation, clever and manipulative though I think I am. If I took the long view, I’d see that she’s acting out beautifully. If I weren’t in such a hurry, I’d just let her prolong her babyhood and be amused at her recreation of that time, goo goo ga ga’s and all.

I hate the idea of her going to a school with 35 kids in her class. I hate that I can’t give her what my parents gave me: a school rich (literally) with music, drama, art and athletics. I most of all hate that she might suffer the way I did; that kids might tease her, call her names, ignore her, not recognize her brilliance and beauty and specialness. But of course they will, no matter where she goes: that’s part of the walk of childhood. I don’t know a single person who didn’t experience some kind of social pain at some point in childhood. Mine wasn’t the worst, but it was enough to scar me.

But who’s to say I am not better off with those scars?

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s where the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen

And where is God except in the suffering? I was listening to a Speaking of Faith interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite bodhitsattvas. He was talking about how the lotus flower needs mud to grow in. “Not marble,” he said in his French Vietnamese accented gentle voice.

It’s like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That’s why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering…

Ms. Tippett: The kingdom of God?

Brother Thây: Yeah, because I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering because, in such a place, they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. And the kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion, and, therefore, suffering should exist.

“Don’t try so hard,” Stephen’s poem reminds me. Tom had our friend Mike Biegner set it up, printed it out and framed for my birthday last week, and I have been savoring it ever since. My practice so far, in my 43rd year, is to honor the margins by giving myself and my family more of them. Rather than scheduling myself down to the minute, I am trying to leave a half hour, an hour, a few days, a few weeks between activities. I am living in those in between spaces, and––who knew?––it turns out, in the end that there’s a lot of life there. Maybe even more life than in those blocks in bright colors on my gmail calendar.

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  1. Nerissa, as always thank you for sharing yourself so candidly. I love that you quoted the great Mr. Cohen…. Mark and I got to see him in April when he was in Seattle – awe inspiring!

    Keep up the good work! Miss you!


  2. Good to see a new post with all the accompanying wisdom and whimsy. I suspect that your meditation is making things better. Just imagine how things would be without it.

    Remember that you can communicate your dislike of Elle’s behavior without coming down on her or manipulating her. Let her learn that others are affected by her infantile actions but not cross the border into her feeling shamed or misunderstood. Just do it with love.

    Wondering if this older sibling mimicing the younger one also shows up in adult relationships.

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