Thursday, January 19, 2012

Finding My Voice

When I was a kid, I loved to act and sing. I was fearless in front of a crowd, and thoroughly enjoyed any opportunity to perform. I was in my first musical when I was 8, played the Captain in our sixth grade production of H.M.S. Pinafore (one of the benefits of an all-girls school), and fully embraced my lifelong affinity for hobbits as Bilbo Baggins in 7th grade. I loved all of it.

Also, I was decently good. My particular class in school turns out to have been absolutely riddled with talented girls, and quite a few have gone on to follow careers as musicians and actors. So I wasn't the best actress or singer in my year. Sadly, much of my young life was crippled by my own insistence that I only engage in activities in which I could excel, meaning if I couldn't be the best math student or poet or artist or dancer or whathaveyou, I just didn't bother.

Have you ever wanted to go back and take your younger self by the shoulders and shake some sense into her? Yeah.

But my own fear of competition and failure wasn't the only reason I walked away from theatre and singing. If it was, I could reserve all of my anger and disappointment for myself. No, there was something else. At some point, I think it was during high school, a teacher or someone in some sort of authority made a comment to me. It's telling that I can no longer remember who said it. Was it that voice teacher at music camp? I can't remember, and it doesn't matter. Because the point is, I absorbed this comment and accepted it as fact. Once said, it became part of my own Truth. And it went something like this:

"It's too bad about your lisp. At this point, it's probably too late to correct it. Unfortunately, even a small lisp like yours will prevent you from ever having any kind of career with your voice -- acting, singing, etc. Such a shame."

This adult probably had no idea what an impact their words would have. How much I would accept this pronouncement as the gospel truth, how these words would silence me for so many years. Of course it was a load of bull-honky. For one thing, I don't actually have a lisp -- I have a sibilant S, and it's not even that pronounced. For another thing, lots of singers and actors have lisps or "imperfect" voices.

But I believed it, and thus made it true. I have not acted on the stage since 7th grade. And my singing has been limited to children's lullabies and family gatherings.

Amazing how a 30-second off-hand comment can have that kind of long-lasting effect. It's a good reminder for those of us who are parents or work with children. You never know what an impact your words can have.

But the funny thing is, I have never actually stopped doing the things that I loved, I've just had a more limited audience. Every day for the past 18+ years, I have read aloud to my children. I do voices, I do accents, and I take pride in my reading-aloud skills. When I read Harry Potter, I am acting out Harry Potter... and playing all of the characters. Every day, my own voice is used to entertain and educate the small people in my house.

And this summer, I started learning how to play the guitar. Now every night, my husband and I sit in the living room taking turns playing new songs, practicing tricky chords, and singing. Every night, for an audience of one loving set of ears, I sing.

And it doesn't seem to matter whether it's too late to pursue these interests in a more serious way. (Maybe it isn't -- I still fantasize about a second career as a voice actor. Who knows?) In any event, after all these years, I am finding my voice.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thankfulness Tree

Last year we started a new Thanksgiving tradition. Inspired by the many variations of this project I've seen around the web, we made a Thankfulness Tree. Instead of just going around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and answering the proverbial "what are you thankful for?" question, we spend the weeks leading up to the holiday itself writing down our gratitudes. Last year I made a huge paper tree that I taped in the front window, and we all wrote down what we're thankful for on paper leaves and taped them up too. Simple, and the end result was quite lovely.

Last year's tree

This year I decided to get a little more 3D, and we brought some fallen branches inside to make a Thankfulness Tree that felt, well, a little more tree-like. We anchored them in a large vase with pebbles, and ta-da! An indoor tree.

Thankfulness Tree

The kids started right away making leaves and apples to hang on the tree. So far we are thankful for:

What a 3-year-old boy is thankful for


She's thankful for friends


Seasonal gratitude

and pumpkin seeds. Sowing the seeds of seasonal gratitude early, I tell ya.

I love this project because it harnesses so much that I love about Thanksgiving in general. All of us -- and I certainly include myself in this group -- tend to spend far too much mental energy fretting about all that is wrong in our lives and in our world. Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to reflect on all that is right, and take a moment to appreciate the gift of that rightness.

And when your household includes a newly-minted seven-year-old who has a tendency to dissolve into a rage when her sock seams can actually be felt, a little perspective can be just what the frazzled mother ordered.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Unearthing an Unexpected Bounty

This Spring, I double-dug my raised beds, worked composted manure into the soil, and gently planted my seeds and seedlings after all danger of a frost had passed. As the tiny plants began to establish themselves, I kept the beds weeded and stood sentry against any invasion of would-be pests.

And then I got distracted.

I mean, like, criminally distracted. Like, I should be barred from calling myself a gardener. I basically ignored my garden. For months.

I know, I know. How could I just leave a carefully planned garden to languish? How could I let all my hard work be taken over by weeds? The answer is complicated, but the simplest explanation is that my head just wasn't in it. I had so many other things going on in my life and in my mind this summer, I just simply did not have room for caring for Swiss chard and cucumbers.

And then slowly, as the weather cooled, I came back to my garden. My mind quieted, and I found myself longing for the feel of the soil between my fingers again. I began to pull the weeds from the garden. At first, the sight of all those spent plants, choked by vining brown weeds shamed me. The growing pile of pulled vegetation was a rebuke: Where have you been? But the simple act of kneeling in the dirt was so calming, so nourishing, that I let all the should have's go. It just felt so good to get my hands dirty again.

And then I found them. Beneath a mass of weeds, a few green tops of carrots remained. I pulled them, thinking I could at least get a carrot or two out of all of this mess. To get the full group of carrots out, I had to dig in the dirt with my fingers. And I just... kept digging. All through the patch where I had planted those carrot seeds back in May, carrots were waiting under the soil. Many of them had had their tops chewed off by the local (active) bunny population, but under the surface, big fat beautiful carrots remained. Just... waiting. Waiting for me to come find them. Waiting for me to be ready to appreciate them.

I sat there with my harvest, and laughed. With joy, with relief, and with gratitude for a world that holds its gifts in reserve, waiting for me to be ready to accept them in all their secret, delicious glory.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stealing Time


I remember my parents saying to me when I was young (and not so young, most likely), "if it is important to you, then you make time for it." And I still absolutely agree with that sentiment, the idea that our actions are what ultimately express our values. How we spend our time is the truest reflection of our priorities. But I want to quibble with one little aspect of my parents' advice: I cannot make time.

Oh, that I could. If only I could create extra time, more hours in the day to devote to those activities I value and never seem to get around to. If only I could make the time I need to get everything done. But sadly, I cannot.

The hard truth is, there is only a very limited amount of time in any given day. And when I choose to devote time to one activity, I am inevitably stealing that time from some other endeavor. This is a zero sum game. Every hour I spend doing housework is an hour I don't spend reading to my children. And if I try to do it all, I just end up stealing from my own allotment of sleep.

What ends up happening, more often than not, is that when I try to carve time out of my day that is just for me, set aside for my own selfish interests, I feel the guilt of a thief. I am all too conscious of what I am not doing. In a family, whenever one person drops the ball, another must pick it up. Thus none of my decisions only affect myself, especially when it comes to how to spend my time. Trying to set aside some "me" time inevitably means imposing on someone else to pick up the slack.

Recently, my husband asked me, concerning some trivial decision about where to have dinner or what to do on a Saturday, "what do you want?" And I answered his question with considerations of nap time and the children's preferences, and he reiterated, "No, what do you want?" And I realized that the answer to that question hardly even occurs to me. I am mentally unable to conceive of my own needs and desires outside of the needs and desires of my family as a whole. This, my friends, is a problem.

Perhaps part of the issue, in my case, is that I was never an independent adult. I was seventeen years old when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I went straight from adolescent to mother, with no stopping for a breath in between. And from the day she was born, I was first and foremost a mother. I never had a period of life in which my time was truly my own.

So this is my challenge to myself now: to find the answer, the truly individual selfish answer, to the question, what do you want? And then to find a way to steal the time I need without guilt. To let some things go. To say to myself, you are important. Your needs are important, as an individual person. I am sure I am not the only one who finds this such a revolutionary idea. Most of us squash down our selfishness most of the time, and that's not a bad thing. But it is absurd, when I am trying to teach my children self-respect, to not treat myself with that same level of regard.

Right now, I want... time to write. And this week, I promise myself, I will steal it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

New Adventures

Several updates from my topsy-turvy world:

1. Someone domain-squatted on me, and the minute my domain registration expired, POOF! it was gone. (The renewal reminders ended up in my spam filter. Gmail spam filter FAIL.) So I am no longer at chickencounting dot com. We'll just have to manage with instead for the time being. So I am still here! Hmm, how do you send out change of address cards for a blog...?

Tolly Cover Episode 12. Since a fair amount of my energies are being directed towards trying to make a go of this whole stringing-words-together thing, which may or may not be of interest to my regular readers here at Chicken Counting, I've created a new space to chronicle my attempts at becoming a writer when I grow up. Read all about it over there.

3. And speaking of that whole stringing-words-together deal, I have an exciting announcement: I have released the first installment of my serialized novel for young readers on Amazon as a Kindle book. You can read all about it here. Very exciting!!

Writers are born

Oh, and meanwhile the six-year-old has been writing books like nobody's business. Something about apples and trees...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Taking on the Birthday Industrial Complex

Does it ever occur to you that the hoopla surrounding kids' birthday parties has gotten, um, perhaps a little out of hand? In our community, it is pretty common to spend hundreds of dollars on a child's birthday party. Not to mention the hundreds of dollars spent by the party guests on gifts. Children around here put together birthday gift wish bins (much like a registry) at local toy stores. Party guests can then just select an item from the bin, pay for it, and know with certainty that the birthday child will love it.

Seriously, folks? The birthday kid has a registry? At what point do we recognize that this has gotten out of control? I know proponents of this system will argue that at least a gift off a registry won't be a duplicate or simply not the child's cup of tea. But I would argue it takes all of the fun out of gift giving when the recipient chooses their gift. The giver misses out on the serendipity of finding just the right thing for a dear friend, and the recipient loses out on the surprise of it all.

No wonder countless parents experience a sense of dread when their child is invited to yet another birthday party. Ugh, another gift to go pick up, more money to spend, another Saturday afternoon of would-be family time shot. I thought birthdays were supposed to be fun.

I say, enough with this madness! I am opting out of the crazy, materialistic mentality of what children's birthday parties have become. Enough.

In our family, we've decided to take on the madness in two ways:

1. Charity-focused, gift-free parties for our own kids.

For my six-year-old's birthday party, her invitations clearly stated "no gifts, please!" They also informed the guests that the birthday girl would be making a donation to our local SPCA in honor of her birthday, and they were welcome to bring cat and dog toys or supplies or some spare change to contribute to her donation. This gave the guests the opportunity to honor the birthday girl, but in a way that was far more meaningful than just another toy on her shelf. An interesting corollary: my daughter sat down and read and examined every card that her friends had brought her, most of them handmade. She admired her friends drawings and savored their birthday wishes in a way that I fear would never have happened if they had been attached to shiny new toys.

Birthday donation

Then we keep the birthday magic alive by bringing the donation in person to her charity of choice. It feels wonderful to balance out the understandable self-centeredness surrounding a child's birthday with a little outward-focused giving. And let me tell you, a kid bringing a jar of coins into an animal shelter gets some pretty amazing positive reinforcement from the staff.

Now, this "rule" only applies to friends. We have a small, separate family birthday gathering, and grandparents and aunts and uncles are absolutely free to give traditional, tangible gifts. We're not ogres, after all. But again, these gifts received from her family are all the more appreciated because they are the only ones she receives.

2. Handmade, personal gifts for friends.

Yesterday, the six-year-old attended the birthday party of one of her friends. So we talked about what we thought the birthday girl would like, combed through the fabric stash for inspiration, and ended up making this little kitty. My daughter designed and stuffed it, while I did the sewing machine and hand finishing grunt work.

Handmade cat

Other homemade gift ideas include scrapbooks, embellished photo frames, mix CD's, or a decorated t-shirt. There are also the semi-homemade kinds of gifts, such as a collection of art supplies or craft materials. The point is that it isn't about the money, and it isn't about fulfilling the specified, predetermined wishes of the birthday child. Being frugal doesn't have to seem like being thoughtless; in fact, it can be significantly more thoughtful. And in the time you would have spent braving the toy store (and your own child's inevitable desire to get something for herself while you're there), you can sit down with your child and spend some time thinking about her friend.

This might seem like a tall order, but in many ways it has made my life easier. It reminds me, once again, that the most important thing we can give another person is our time. What does it say to a child that you went to the toy store and forked over x amount of dollars? How much more meaningful is it to that child that someone spent time really thinking about them?

Say no to the Birthday Industrial Complex! Fight back! Go give The Story of Stuff another watch if you still need convincing. And maybe you'll be able to greet your child's next party invitation with just a little less dread.

Radio Silence

Prayer flags

I have to make a confession.

I've been cheating on you. I know, I know, I don't know how it happened, I just... well. I've been writing somewhere else.

The thing is, once upon a time, a long long time ago, I wrote fiction. Poetry too, sometimes a lot, but always fiction. Short stories, plays, a novel I almost finished, etc. And gradually I just... stopped. I can't really explain what happened. I thought for a long time it was because my life had become happy and stable, and that my writing stemmed only from pain and chaos.

It was a theory.

I tried to keep writing after getting happily married and discovering all of the joys that currently fuel my spirit: handwork, gardening, cooking, etc. Every few months I'd get a story idea, but I'd be stuck with the idea, stymied by how to start, feeling like the words just wouldn't flow. I had pretty much accepted that my writing mojo was just... gone.

And then I started writing in this space. Without the pressure of having to somehow "make art" with my words, I was able to start letting the words flow. And in a more tangible way than just writing in a journal -- here I was able to get feedback, to have some accountability for my words. The frozen mechanism of my writing mind began to thaw.

Then this past summer, I got an idea for a children's book. A "middle grade reader," as they say, a chapter book not a picture book. And this time, I was able to take the idea and immediately start stringing words together. That rusty old mechanism was able to get going. My friends, it's going rather well. I think... I think I might actually finish it this time.

Then, round about the last time I posted in this space, I picked up a gig doing some freelance writing for children. Lots of little assignments with due dates within 48 hours. Fiction, nonfiction, 300 words here and 800 words there. It was the sort of writing exercise that in many ways I should have been doing for myself all along, as part of the discipline of keeping that writing mechanism well-oiled and functional. But now I was accountable to someone else, I couldn't sit and fuss with a piece, nitpicking and trying to make it perfect. I just had to send it out the door, and move on to the next one. I had to find the muscle-y hard-working side of my writing brain, the part that comes to work whether or not it's feeling inspired.

And now it's like the Fourth of July up there in my head. I've got more ideas than I have time to write them down. I am simultaneously working on three different pieces that I actually think are going somewhere useful. I even somehow mustered up the hubris to write for grown-ups again.

I haven't forgotten about you. I'm not sure how this space will evolve when I am spending so much writing time holed up in the privacy of my imagination. But meanwhile, you know, I'm still here. Just... blessedly, delightfully distracted.