Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn Leaves

Musing on Autumn…

It’s getting colder outside.  And it’s happening much faster than I anticipated.  I knew that this day would come.  But having just moved from Los Angeles, I know that I was incredibly and hopelessly spoiled by mild daily weather.  I’d forgotten what a year with aggressive, churning seasons feels like. 

Hello, Autumn.

It’s been a while.  Seven years to be exact.  Hello again, season of nostalgia, season of change.  Season of warmer clothing, marching band, and high school musical rehearsals.  Season of pumpkin heads, pumpkin beer, and pumpkin lattes.  Season of apple picking, apple cider, and cider donuts.  Season of crunching leaves, seeing your breath, rosy noses and cheeks, of orange, yellow, brown, and red.  Season of growing older, and going to sleep.  Season of letting go.
First Cider Donut Ever

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I used to say the thing I missed most about the Midwest was autumn.  After a few years of living, I would continue to say it, but to be honest, I think I forgot what I was missing.

Most everything about autumn this year is familiar… the way the air smells and feels.  There’s a little bite in the air that comes from the kind of damp cold you find here in the Midwest.  I can immediately recall those days when as kids, my siblings and I would play in piles of fallen leaves.  The bits of leaves would get trapped in our hair, catching in the cracks around our sleeves and collars, and stuck to the bottoms of our shoes.  I’m struggling to find a perfect way to describe the smell of autumn leaves, actually, I can’t even find a mediocre way, but if you have smelled them, they are stamped in your olfactory memory forever.  It was cold outside, but that’s not the kind of thing you make note of as a child.  You only realized it was cold out there when you came inside and the ends of your fingers and toes turned red hot as they start to warm up.

During autumn, the leaves of trees turn into some of the most vibrant colors you can find in nature.  You breathe in this beauty, hear the loud silences between the crunching beneath your feet… forgetting for one moment, or never even realizing to begin with, that what you’re witnessing is death.  Breathtaking, perfect, fragrant, crisp, clear death.  As life drains from the leaves, they show us jewel-bright colors, they reflect the glow of the sun with radiant warmth.

Imagine we could see human life in the same way.  Imagine if we made a special trip to visit the dying, not in the tentative, fearful and sad way we do, but with anticipation, wonder, and awe.  Imagine we embraced our own “leaving” the way we embrace the leaves of autumn.

People have been asking me whether I’m ready for winter this year.  And my answer is “no, not yet.”  I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit how hard I’m taking this autumn chill.  But as I wrote a couple weeks ago, I’m really trying to live here right now, so instead of worrying about the inevitable frozen days ahead, I’m trying to let my favorite season hang around while keeping my eyes wide open.
Autumn Leaves is a popular oft-recorded standard which was originally a 1945 French song "Les feuilles mortes" (literally "The Dead Leaves"). 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why My Marriage Isn't Trendy

Musing on why my marriage isn't trendy...

I missed writing a post this week, but in its place I had the opportunity to blog for, a website devoted to "parenting with a Jewish twist."  I have the honor of bringing an interfaith perspective to the conversation. 

So I decided to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), and blog about my relationship with my husband.  I think some people might feel saddened to read this, while others may relate, and yet others will not understand why it its a difficult story for me to share.  Regardless of which kind of reader you are, I hope that what I have to say creates opportunities for empathetic conversation.

Here is my post...

I'm a Chinese American Married to a Jew, But Our Marriage Isn't Trendy

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Here Right Now

Musing on making each moment count...

I found out this week that a good friend is sick... very sick.  The bewildering, "shaking my fist at God" kind of sick that no one should be, ever.  And especially not when you're in your mid-thirties.  I admit, I feel like I have no business writing about anything this week.  I've been wading through life these past few days feeling like most of my thoughts are petty, and searching for deep meaning in every moment.  I found myself looking at my beautiful 10-month-old little girl in this too short, too fast life, and thinking, How do I make each moment count?

But after a few days of asking myself that cliche question, and becoming frustrated with the cliche answers, I went back to the drawing board.  And I came up with a new question... How do I live right now?

We Americans live in an overwhelmingly performance-based culture.  And the Chinese culture my family comes from might be even more performance-based.  So it's no surprise that I began by focusing on the "make" and the "count" in my original question.  Growing up, we are asked, What are you going to be?  What are you going to do?  Are you working really hard now so that you can be this really great thing later on in life?  Are you going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer?  Did you practice the piano, so that you'll play well in the recital?  Did you study so you'll achieve good grades?

We do the same thing with our babies.  We ask, What can your baby do now?  Is he rolling over?  Is she pulling up?  Is she crawling yet?  Can he walk?  Can he say Mama?  Can she wave?  Is she sleeping through the night?  I think I have asked and been on the receiving end of every single one of these questions of other parents.  They are the questions we think we're supposed to ask, they have become almost second nature conversation starters when we run into a parent with a baby.  And because these are the questions we absentmindedly ask, we also absentmindedly live to answer them.

When I'm playing with my baby, I keep finding myself working toward making "yes" the answer to all those questions.  I try to teach her how to wave... try to make her crawl toward the toy with which I'd be particularly tickled to see her play... try to capture her standing on camera.  The first time I tried to do this, she was not completely ready to stand on her own yet.  I propped her up next to an ottoman, then stood fumbling with my camera phone, while her big beautiful head hit the ground. 

It's difficult to stop this habit of always aiming for the next thing, of planning for the next moment, of looking for the next milestone.  But yesterday I made an attempt to squelch every instinct I had to "shape" and "teach" my daughter, and instead I followed her cues throughout the day.  Instead of trying to make her sit and read a whole book through with me, I put the book down and followed her when she started to crawl away.  I watched the wide-eyed delight on her face as she laughed at the shadow the cat's tail was making on the wall.  I loved seeing the way her lips jut forward, and listening to how her breath gets heavy as she tries stacking bowls inside one another.  When a siren began howling outside, I watched her head perk up, her eyes bright and searching for the origin of the sound.

Hello, World
I realize that for me, there is no better inspiration of how to live right now, than to watch my baby, closely, avoiding all my impulses to "make meaning" out of her play.  She lets herself cry when she's sad, or scared, or hurt.  She laughs freely when something is new, and delightful.  She's not self conscious about whether she's good enough at something to do it, she just does it.  She looks at the world with a wonderment I've long forgotten.

I suppose we have to keep thinking about the future.  I know that it's responsible to plan ahead, and to work toward goals.  I know that we will continue to be evaluated based on our achievements and performance.  I know that's how our world works.

But as I think about my friend today, I'd like to propose that we make a shift in how we think about living our lives.  Maybe the way to "make each moment count," is to stop doing so much counting, measuring, and evaluating.  Maybe we need to stop deciding what's worthwhile based on how much money we'll make, how much time we'll save, how far ahead we'll get, what rewards we'll receive.  Maybe we need to take a cue from the babies we once were, and try living here right now.  I'm starting right now.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Impossible Dream

Musing on following your dreams...

There's only so long after you've "moved in" that you can keep saying "we just moved here."  Today marks the 3-month anniversary of our Chicago Move-in Day, so I think I may have used up my "just moved here" time.  Three months ago I stood in our empty living room, directing traffic as the talented and persevering Allied Van Lines moving crew dispersed our belongings throughout our new home.  The moving supervisor had invited his local 15-year-old nephew along, offering him a few bucks to help with some heavy lifting. 

I was impressed with young Pedro.  His conversational skills far exceeded those of many adults my age.  He made good eye contact, asked follow up questions.  He skipped past petty small talk to ask questions of substance.  After sharing with him that I had been working as an actor in Los Angeles before having a baby and moving here to Chicago, he asked, nonchalantly, with what I swear was a cocked eyebrow,

"So was that, like, your dream?"  I felt a stutter creep up my throat, and then a little bit of heat behind my cheeks.  Even precocious Pedro wonders what you're doing with your life! the devilish angel on my shoulder whispered in my ear.

D is for Dream
I picture the bright-eyed me of my childhood, dreaming of all the things she wanted to do someday - sing on a Broadway stage, star in a Hollywood film, become a best-selling novelist - and I see her disappointment as she looks up at me, a stay-at-home, wanna-be creative-type, not-currently-contributing-financially-to-the-family mama. 

I went on an audition recently.  I know I did it in part so that I could tell "childhood me" that I was still living the dream.  A local Chicago theatre was holding its season general auditions.  I stapled a headshot to a resume, drove in the rain, and waited (nearly an hour and half) to present my monologue and song. 

It was one of those auditions where there's just a thin curtain separating the space where the auditions are taking place from all the actors waiting to audition.  So you can hear everything, and you know that when it's your turn, everyone will hear you.  The director was asking everyone a question, "so, what are you working on now?"  Historically, that's an anxiety-inducing question for me.  The answer is a well rehearsed (but totally natural sounding, because, you know, I'm an actor!) "elevator pitch" that makes it seem like I'm busy, I've got a lot going on, I've got options, but I'm also "totally available" if this theatre wants to cast me.  If I was working on something, I'd have to find a way to make it sound really cool.  And if I wasn't... well, it's amazing how many ways there are to say I'm "in between projects."

But today, a calm comes over me.  No, I haven't been working on anything in a while... but wait... yes, actually, yes, I have been working on something.  I've been improvising characters, working on my voice, writing alternate lyrics, exercising my storytelling chops.  I am a dancer, a singer, a contortionist, a dramatic reader, a comedian, a chef.  I create the world, present it, to the most wonderful, eager, hopeful, fulfilling audience member of my life.  There is no rehearsal for this performance, I have to make it up as I go.  She is going to see every stumble, every flub.  She'll see when I'm having an off-night, will be able to tell when I'm "phoning it in."  And she'll witness some real moments of vulnerability and truth.  Those moments during a performance when you realize for as much as you're giving to your audience, nothing compares to what you receive in return.  They are moments that will stick with both of us for the rest of our lives.

There's a dream you didn't even know to dream because it was simply impossible for you to imagine how much you wanted it.  There was nothing any parent could have ever told me about parenthood that could have prepared me for how much love I would feel, or how much more I could grow.

Maybe "being a mom" isn't everyone's dream, but I'll tell my little girl someday... Dream big, dream about the thing that is the greatest thing you can imagine, and then do it, make it happen!  But save a little room for dreaming of the thing that is so great, that makes you so full, so rich, that's even better than anything you could have ever pictured.  Be open to that dream too.

So the answer to your question, Pedro, is yes.  It was my dream to be an actor.  And all those childhood dreams, sure, I still want them to come true.  But that was long before I knew there could be something even better.  To live only for that old dream would be settling.  Right now, I'm a mama.  And I'm living the dream. 
The Impossible Dream - today's blogpost title is a song sung by Don Quixote at the end of the first act in Man of La Mancha.