About This Site

Life With Lilybird chronicles my journey as a mom (I guess I'm past being "new") in San Francisco with a particular emphasis on spirituality and parenting. [More]

 

 

Books I'm Reading
  • The Brothers K
    The Brothers K
    by David James Duncan
  • An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
    An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
    by Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting
    Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting
    by Myla Kabat-zinn, Jon Kabat-zinn
  • Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal
    Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal
    by Rachel Naomi Remen
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Wednesday
Jul162014

Why We Are Moving to Angwin

I've moved my blog to a new url, www.daneenakers.com, and I just posted a new entry about why we are moving to Angwin, the little town nestled in the hills above St. Helena where Stephen and I met 20 years ago. Here it is:

http://www.daneenakers.com/home/and-we-move-again

For those of you who subscribe to this blog--thank you!--I'll now be blogging at www.daneenakers.com.

Saturday
May032014

Admitting That I'm Spiritually Homeless

On a path…destination to be determined.On a recent Friday night, I found myself weeping. And the sobs kept coming, welling up from somewhere deep inside that I had not accessed in a long time. I was sitting in the presence of trusted friends who had sincerely asked me what I really, really, really needed and were then prepared to listen to the answer. What welled up inside of me was a feeling of longing and aloneness that I've largely kept at the edge of my consciousness for several years because I didn't have the space, energy, or resources to admit the truth.

That truth is that I am spiritually homeless at the moment, and I feel like I'm letting my daughter down in one of my most valued parenting priorities. She is one of the only kids she knows who believes in God (and is keenly aware of that), my husband has been wrestling with his own philosophical questions about his faith after seeing the belly of the beast of institutionalized religion up close for the last five years in our filmmaking and advocacy work, and I don't have many people in my life on a regular basis whom I feel safe to be authentic about my spiritual self with. 

Normally when people feel a need for spiritual community and a place where children can meet other children who also believe in God, they go to church. But that's a bit tricky for us. The church we grew up in--and actually go back several generations in on both sides--is the Seventh-day Adventist church. But Adventism is a complicated space for us, especially where we live. 

We've spent the last five years directing, producing, and screening Seventh-Gay Adventists, a documentary about three gay and lesbian Adventists who share their deeply moving stories, challenges, and spiritual journeys. Producing a documentary that explores faith, identity, and belonging within the church community I've been a part of for my entire life--and my parents' and grandparents' and great-grandparents' lives before that--is intensely difficult. Besides the constant financial challenges of a very indie film, this was a project that put pressure on every existing relationship with family members, many of whom sincerely worried for our own salvation if we questioned long-held assumptions.

When the film was finally done and we began screening it on the film festival circuit and at churches, the incredibly positive feedback and transformational spaces we witnessed kept us going, but every screening and discussion was stressful for me. Besides the stress of the actual screenings, the logistics of traveling with a young child and figuring out childcare--or which one of us was going to find a park nearby after the introduction and then circle back in time for the Q&A, kept me in a state of frenetic energy for a good portion of 18 months. It all actually went remarkably well (besides the one time when she snagged a lot of cookies and theater popcorn from film festival volunteers and was upchucking at 2 AM all over white guest bedding in Albuquerque!). But the cumulative effect has left me tired, especially around faith and church.

But in the midst of all of those screenings and trips, we didn't have time to find a spiritual home for our family. We were actually on the road for a full year without a permanent address (I prefer the term "nomadic" to "homeless") in order to afford to travel to festivals and screenings, so church wasn't a regular option except as visitors.

And those church visits were often stressful since our reason for being there was for a film screening and discussion in that community, and I never knew how the usher handing me a bulletin and saying "welcome" was going to react when I told her what we were in town for. Sometimes it was a raised eyebrow with the comment of, "Interesting." Sometimes it was an enthusiastic, "Wait--do you mean Seventh-GAY Adventists? I've been wanting to see that film!" And then there was a memorable occasion when a pastor pointed out Stephen and Lily during the time in the service when they normally welcome visitors--but instead of a welcome, he warned his flock that there was someone here to "spread the gay agenda." The parents of the child Lily was playing with quickly moved her to the other side of the pew, and the pianist later asked to pray with Stephen to try to convince him not to screen the film at a local festival the next day. Of course when Stephen invited this pianist to come and see the film for herself before deciding, she responded, "Oh--I don't go to movie theaters! (She was someone I later had to ban on our film's Facebook page after frequent posting of "clobber" texts in a manner which helped remind me why they got that moniker.)

Our vocal advocacy for listening spaces and paying attention to the margins of our church has made us suspect in churches like those. I recently struggled mightily with whether to have my name removed from the books entirely and ultimately decided that wasn't the right decision at this time. But I still wrestle a lot with the faith of my family and the love and compassion with which I want to live my life and teach to my daughter which doesn't always seem in alignment with what's taught in church.

What I want Lily to learn--in life and in church.In all honestly, I am choosing not to go to an official Adventist church right now. Where I live, the churches near enough for us to have real friendships with families we might meet, are almost all incredibly conservative, several bordering on fundamentalist. One of the churches treated gay and lesbian members of their congregation so poorly that those stories were part of what motivated us to make our film. If I had more energy, maybe I'd see the opportunity to help change those congregations from the inside, but I don't have that energy right now. I've put out so much energy in the past several years with our film--and particularly in the screenings and large group discussions phase--that I feel like my soul needs rest. I'm looking to fill my own well for a while, or I'm worried it may dry up. And there is a little part of me that is relieved that local Adventism isn't an option for filling my well. (Exploring why I feel a little relief about that is something I don't have the energy to do right now but hope to in the future!)

The hardest part about all of this is my worry that I'll hurt the feelings of people I hold very dear. When we weren't on the road, we have been part of a small church that actually formed while we were filming (near the very end). It's led by an incredible man featured in our film who was the pastor of the largest Adventist church in South America before he was fired for being gay. One of my greatest sobs on Friday night came when I admitted that I needed something different than this wonderful community for our family. While I love the people in that community and enjoy the discussions myself, Lily and sometimes one or two other kids are the only children. She has often just entertained herself on an iPad for the service. I find myself feeling this incredible guilt about wanting something more. I know if we aren't there regularly, the likelihood of other families with young kids joining gets diminished, and I feel that sense of responsibility keenly. I think we'll always be loyal to that community because of what that group has seen and born witness to along with us these past several years, but in my core I know I want Lily somewhere on most Sabbaths (or Sundays) with a vibrant community of other kids and families. Maybe I'm greedy, but I have visions of a children's choir and family camping trips with pancake breakfasts.

I've hesitated to admit this loneliness and desire for a spiritual community because we have wonderful friends with kids already, people that I respect, admire, and enjoy greatly. And I love that Lily is realizing already that people believe different things, and some of her good friends don't believe in God--and that's okay. People believe different things. There are different paths in this world, and what matters most is how we treat each other, even if we have differences.

That's not how I grew up. I grew up in something akin to a missionary compound at an Adventist boarding school way out in the country where my dad was on the faculty, and everyone I knew was also Adventist. And vegetarian. And on the same school schedule! Diversity of belief was whether you were a family that went swiming or just wading on Sabbath (our family swam...the heretical seed starts early!). In many ways it was an absolutely idylic childhood, but it took me a lot longer to understand that there are different and equally valid ways to be in this world. I was probably in college before I became friends with non-Adventists. 

But Lily has the opposite challenge. For example, a few weeks before Christmas, one of her friends was over for a share-care swap. Lily had a nativity scene in her bedroom. I heard her and her friend talking. 

Friend: "What's that?"

Lily: "That's baby Jesus."

Friend: "Who's that?"

Lily: "You know, from the Bible?"

Friend: "What's the Bible?"

A bit later, her classmates buried a butterfly at school. It was a simple and heartfelt act. But later, Lily told me she had wanted to say a prayer for the butterfly, and another classmate told her that was silly and started asking other kids who was an atheist and who wasn't. Lily was deeply upset, feeling like the odd kid out. 

During the same time frame, we went to a Christmas program at a local seminary that we've always loved. It's a program with lots of singing and candlelight. For several years, it was our ritual to get into the spirit of Christmas, but we hadn't been able to go for the last two years. I was looking forward to it, but this time I found myself unable to relax into the familiar words and hymns because the theology behind the liturgy was much more conservative and patriarchal than I can sit still with right now (and Lily became rather uncooperative when she realized it wasn't a sing-along!). I felt empty and without a home. 

In one of my communities we are the Jesus freaks, the ones who pray over dead butterflies. In the other community, we are the heretics, too liberal to fit in anymore. I don't know what to do.

I still don't know what to do, but I think owning my truth is a start. One of my best friends likes to say that when we do something that's truly loving for ourselves, it can't not be the loving things for others as well.  I'm tearing up just writing that. I'm really not good with letting others down--or letting down my own sense of obligation. The loving thing for myself is to admit that my current situation isn't filling my needs or my daughter's. I feel lost and spiritually homeless. I feel like I'm failing my daughter by not making sure she knows other kids and families where it's okay to pray over dead butterflies. 

I feel like I'm floundering. 

And admitting that I'm lost is--I sincerely hope--the beginning of finding the path home.

Sunday
Nov242013

Home Again Back in San Francisco  

It's a funny thing how much of life can happen in a few months. Since I last posted, we moved back to San Francisco, lost our beloved Pali dog, started Lily in pre-K, and decisively moved into the final phase of the documentary film project that has been our primarily focus for close to five years. 

As much as our reasons for trying out Portland were good, as much as I love the people I know there, and as much as Portland is a wonderfully quirky town full of much that I admire, it just wasn't home (trying on any location in the Pacific Northwest in winter turned out to be rather terrible timing!). I think Portland could have been a home with time, effort, and more rain gear, but our hearts have belonged to San Francisco for a long time now. We quite quickly switched from saying, "We've moved," to saying, "We are house-sitting." And, I'm really grateful that we did get to housesit for three months before unpacking  because it gave us the chance to realize that we actually wanted to make life work, somehow, in San Francisco.

It was a classic head versus heart move. Portland made sense on paper. It was the logical choice to save a little money and maybe afford a small home one day (although it didn't turn out to be that much cheaper than the Bay Area to live in the places we liked!), but we are people who make decisions out of passion, intuition, and calling. And San Francisco is where we are called. San Francisco is where we find our energy and our tribe. San Francisco is our spiritual center of the world (and, apparently, it is a profoundly spiritual place).

I never tire of driving into the city on either bridge and seeing the sweep of the city before me. I particularly loveThis doesn't do the view justice! driving into the city from Marin. Just outside the city, you drive through a tunnel (fittingly, the rainbow tunnels), and then you come out on the other side to see this incredible view of the Golden Gate bridge spires in front of you and the entire waterfront to your left. Day or night, it brings me a smile and a jolt of energy. I love thinking, "I live there."

And so, even though we knew we were going to look a tad ridiculous with our now-we-live-in-Portland-now-we-don't messages, we decided to come back home to San Francisco. We made that decision in the spring, but it took time to actually make the logistics work. And in the meantime we continued to travel widely screening our documentary film, Seventh-Gay Adventists, and hosting profound and moving conversations. In fact, we weren't actually ever in Portland that much due to film screenings in places like Australia where we toured for a month when the film screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, so even though we knew we wanted to land in SF again, we still ended up just being nomadic for many more months (with my folks' home as a landing pad) as we flew to screenings and strategized about how to get an apartment in San Francisco again.

On paper, we didn't look like appealing tenants for one of the toughest rental markets in the entire country. We had variable, self-employed income, no current address, a preschooler, and a dog. At one point, after scouring Craigslist for weeks, Stephen sent me an email that simply said:

"We are either naively foolish or inspiringly idealistic."

Probably a little of both, actually. Willpower, luck, and hanging out on craigslist long enough to read between the lines to find the type of landlord that was going to work for/with us finally all worked together to find us a home again.

Feeling really grateful to live here again.Our new home is further west than we had considered before, but we feel really good about having a little nest again after a full year of nomadic living while screening the film. (Further west in SF, while closer to the ocean, is actually not highly sought after real estate because it's much foggier than other parts of the city, particularly in the summer.)

I was really needing an actual home again as traveling isn't easy for me,  Lily was eager for her own room, which we promised her she could decorate in pink and purple. And we all wanted to be together with Pali again. We had seen Pali often, but her primary home for an entire year while we were traveling and screening the film was with my parents in the San Diego area. They all adored each other, but we missed her. Even when we moved to Portland we ended up bringing her back to San Diego because the winter damp and chill there brought out painful arthritis that we hadn't even realized she had.

We found out right before moving back that Pali, our best beloved canine girl for 14 years, had liver cancer. Just typing that brings tears to my eyes and a catch to my breath. I still miss her so much. We knew we were on borrowed time. I have to admit that I almost considered searching for apartments that didn't allow dogs because I knew we'd soon be without one. I'm ashamed to admit that, but it did cross my mind. However, Stephen and I have talked before about how making decisions that seemed, at the time, to be mainly in Pali's best interest have always turned out to be really good for us as well. She always led us to take more walks, enjoy the sun more, snuggle longer, and see the possibility in every person. And so we signed the lease for our dog-friendly apartment with a big deck near the (off-leash) beach and Golden Gate Park. And we enjoyed our last few weeks together. She blessed this home with her sweet spirit, even if her time here was far too short. I had been envisioning so many walks on the beach together, but she was only up for a few. 

Knowing the right time to say good-bye was so incredibly difficult because she's always been such a stoic personality. I remember one 12-mile hike when we didn't realize until we got to camp that her paws were bloody, and likely had been for miles. When she showed pain, we knew it meant she really was in a lot of pain. And her pain was gradually starting to show even through the heavy pain medications. Especially when she laid down, we could sense that the mass in her abdomen was making it hard for her to get comfortable. She still enjoyed short walks, but lying down brought discomfort. At some point, I realized I hadn't seen a smile in her eyes in quite a while. And I would weep uncontrollably just thinking about what was next.

We were open with Lily from the beginning of the diagnosis that Pali was sick and wasn't going to get better. She processed it as well as a four-and-a-half-year-old can. One day when we were unpacking, she went into our room with some craft supplies and kept calling out asking how to spell certain words. She had put together a card with various elements all laden with meaning. It said, "Pali. I will miss you. I love you. Lily." She put a sticker of girl and a cat (because she didn't have a dog sticker) to be a little girl and her pet in heaven. And then she taped a tube on it to be the tunnel to heaven with a spiral stick to be your spirit going to heaven. It was a beautiful, hopeful prayer of a little girl about to lose the dog she's known her whole life and calls "sister."

We had a home-visit vet come over to help us make a decision shortly before we were to leave on a family reunion and screening trip. Our former landlady--a wonderfully warm woman who knew Pali well--was willing to watch her, but we couldn't decide if it was fair to Pali or another person to leave a very sick dog in anyone else's care. What if things took a turn for the worse? Leaving a decision like that to another person would be incredibly difficult, and then Pali wouldn't have her family there at her hour of greatest need.  It was helpful to see the vet a bit torn, just as we were feeling. Pali really did still have a spark left, especially as a people-loving dog meeting someone new. He did an ultrasound though, which helped us realize the time was either now or very soon. She had a significant heart murmur (and she'd never had a murmur before). The cancer had spread to her heart, and it was all over her liver. In his words, "It's large, and it's in control." Once he saw what was going on inside, he couldn't believe how she was managing with the cheer she was. Additionally, she had a large pocket of fluid built up that was too deep to drain off that was no doubt what was giving her such difficulty lying down. He said the same thing our other vet had said--one day, and soon, she'd make a move, and her liver tissue would rupture. You can't predict timing because it's not normal tissue to begin with, but it would be soon. She'd begin to bleed out and be in severe distress, and we'd have to get her to an emergency vet immediately, and that would be the end. It would be traumatic for her and for us. With that information, we knew it was time to say goodbye. And it's one of the hardest decisions I've ever done.

I've never been present for the death of one of my pets before--I was always too young. I knew I wanted her to have us with her though, helping her know she was utterly and completely loved, that she was the best dog in the world. We brought the letter/artwork Lily had made for her near, and I tried to control my weeping so as not to scare her. It was faster than I thought--one shot to put her into a deep sleep and another to stop her heart which worked almost instantly. Our beautiful girl was gone, just like that. My source of unconditional, unselfish love was no longer there. 

During the vet's visitl, our dear friends and Lily's godparents had taken Lily to a local cafe. Now they brought her back to say goodbye. I had struggled with how to best help Lily through this, and we decided she really should see her body. She has encountered death before, and she's an exceptionally sensitive spirit herself. I felt that death is an abstract enough of a concept for a preschooler, and just having her come home to an empty house and the news that her dog had died seemed more distressing than seeing her dog dead. A few people wondered if she would be scared by her last memory being of her dog dead, but as I reflected on that, I thought that most people are afraid of a dead body only because we have such poor rituals around death and no longer actually see our loved ones die like we used to. Death happens in sterilized, far-away places usually. And I thought we could honor Pali's life by acknowledging her death tangibly. We all cried. We petted her. We took off her collar to save. We clipped some hair right near her neck where we liked to pet her. And then Lily went into her room and got her soft dog blanket and laid it over her to be buried in. (My only regret is that we didn't have a backyard to bury her in and had to have the vet take her body for cremation; we now have her ashes.)

I don't think I've ever seen Stephen weep so much. He and Pali had a very special connection. And I think we are all still in mourning. She was a pure soul who gave us so much. She kept us centered and brought out the best in us. I have still not found my center again. We keep the space where she passed clear, likely a quiet shrine we'll always respect for the loss and love it represents. On one level, I have felt a bit guilty feeling so much sorrow over the loss of a dog when others have lost actual children or endured tragedies beyond my comprehension. And yet, loss is loss. And it's a loss I'm reminded of daily. I can still occasionally forget, especially in the middle of the night, that she's gone, and the wall of grief that hits me when I remember is palpable and sharp around the edges still.

There were two moments in Pali's passing that I can't quite explain but that give me a measure of comfort. A long time ago, I wrote about how I realized towards the end of my pregnancy with Lily that I was actually afraid of death. I was afraid that all that I hoped was true about a bigger plan, a force of love larger than myself might not be more than a wish. I know it can never be proven true, and I wasn't sure how to explain loss and suffering to an innocent child that I was bringing into the world. As I drove home from the the practitioner's office where this truth--my truth--had spoken to me, I turned on the radio. The song just beginning was Annie Lennox's Into the West from the end of Lord of the Rings. It's a song about not weeping over death because it's actually not the end, despite it still being a mystery. The ships have come to carry you home. It was about all that I feared, and it was in a poetic form which often speaks to me most clearly. 

Prior to the vet's visit to our home, I had put on a quiet play list softly on my phone just to help soothe us all, which isn't typical for me. I rarely turn on music at home. Between the first and second shot that the vet gave Pali, this same song came on again. I looked up for a second, and asked Stephen if he realized which song had just come on. When the vet asked if he should turn it off, I said, "No--it's a song about hope even in death. It's the perfect song, actually." 

The second moment happened about two minutes later when Pali was gone. The two other tenants in tenants in the building have dogs; the upstairs dog is a yappy, skittish little thing, but the one across the way is a large, white, stunning dog who looks like he could be part-wolf. At the very least he still remembers his wolf ancestors a lot more clearly than most modern dogs. We hadn't ever heard him prior to that day--and we haven't since. But in the moments after Pali's death, he started howling loudly. I would almost add "mournfully," but all howling sounds mournful to me and full of longing. I don't know if it means anything, but when I told his owner (who had been at work) some weeks later that his dog had started howling right after Pali passed, he said, "You heard him? Wow--that's giving me chills because he never barks."  

I'm all too aware that these moments could be pure coincidence. I wish they could be more. I've always been a little jealous of those who have an easy faith. That has not been my experience. And yet, they do bring me some solace. As Rachel Naomi Remen might say, they make me feel like I might not be at home all alone.

Besides sitting here typing in a neighborhood cafe realizing that I probably shouldn't have tried to recount Pali's passing in a public space (lots of tears still), I'm also realizing what a lot of transitions we are going through right now. We got Pali as a puppy when we were newlyweds. She's been with us for almost our entire marriage, and now she's gone. And that joyful, loving, eager-to-enjoy-the-day-and-the-people-in-it spirit is gone. That's a huge loss. Additionally, Lily started pre-K! We had vacillated quite a bit about what was the best plan, and we finally realized that while we could setup a program with enough social interaction and routine, it would take a lot of energy, and we probably needed our energy for the other big tasks ahead. It didn't take long for us to realize it was a fantastic choice to send Lily to pre-K. Not only does she love having friends her own age after a full year on the road with us, but it's a parent participation co-op, so we've meeting other families, which we've also needed. It's the polar opposite of last year which varied almost daily and was filled with travel, airports, and screening logistics, but it's what we need in this moment. Stephen bikes her most mornings, which he enjoys, but it's a very different rhythm that we've had before (when walking Pali was our first task in the morning).

The other major transition is that we've moved into the final phase of our film. When I first wrote this post, we were half-way through a crowd-funded/Kickstarter campaign (that ended very sucessully). But, I had some technical difficulties when posting and am only now getting back to it. It's been an incredibly busy month getting the film ready to be distributed online and on DVD and Blu-ray (and doing subtitles, filming and editing special features, coordinating website changes, cover art, managing the various vendors, and on and on!). The big news is that our film is now available widely. It's a huge shift for us from being present at almost every screening, but we lean into the hope that the positive transformations we've seen as people just step into a listening space will be even more impactful as it's more widely available.

What comes next is the other big transition that I don't yet have the space or energy to think about. I'm trying to operate within the framework that I know the next step (launch the DVD), and the next step after that will be clear when I can actually take it. 

What I do know is that I am blessed. I have a daughter who is vibrant, creative, nurturing, loving, and full of life. She loves to craft and solve problems with a glue stick, scissors, floss, and tape (we cannot keep enough tape on hand!) She heard about the blob fish getting named "The Ugliest Animal" in some contest and decided that wasn't very kind, so she made a card to send the fish--and renamed it "The Shiny Fish." If you can't read her writing, it says, "This is how shiny I think you are." And we mailed it (to a friend who was more than happy to write back as the Shiny Fish).

Naturally, being four, she is a little more fascinated with poop than I'd like and can throw the occasional hissy fit like a pro, but she also talks about the how everyone is beautiful because everyone has a little bit of God inside of them, and God is always beautiful. And even though I have an ick-factor reaction to bird feathers, she loves to collect them on the beach because:

"You just don't get how beautiful they are Mommy. These help birds fly. They're magical."

And she's been hunting for totoros (spirits of the forest) in Golden Gate Park. She knows that only kids can see them, so she helpfully crafted a family of totoros out of pipe cleaners and gave them to me for my birthday (inside a old pastry box that'd she'd decorated and has already repurposed for a bed for a stuffed animal).

And I have a husband who is truly a partner. He fully co-parents with me, something I've realized isn't asA family bike ride in Golden Gate Park common as it should be, even these days. He sees me as the best version of myself, even if I've been rather a bit hard around the edges as I've had to go into survival mode to get through some of the hard acts we've signed ourselves up for this past year. And he actually likes watching Downton Abbey with me!

It's the beginning of a new chapter here. The characters are great, even though we are missing one of our main characters and likely will for a very long time. We are back in our favorite setting. I'm not sure what the plot points will be, but it's going to be interesting to find out. I'm leaning into trust. And all manner of things will be well.

Tuesday
Jan082013

On the Move

Following a new path

I can usually tell how busy my life has been by the frequency of my blog posts.When I'm in survival mode, I don't have the time, energy, or mental space to go to the reflective place I need in order to write. Well, it's been more than six months since I've had a chance to write a blog, and what a six months it has been! We've been without a permanent address for most of that time, living on the road while traveling around the country screening our documentary film. Most of our belongings are in storage, Lily has been on more airplane rides than I can count, I've slept in more guest beds than I can keep track of, and over 8,000 people have come to film screenings and discussions. In true Dickens' fashion, it has been both the best of times, and the worst of times. But let me back up.

My last post, written in what feels like a different world to me, was about feeling gratitude for living in the city with Lily, about finally letting go of some angst around the concept of home and just settling into the truly wonderful situation we had living in San Francisco's Richmond district. We could walk to most everything and had the convenience and culture of city living next to the splendor of the Presidio and the ocean. Lily might not have a garden or a very big room, but life was good. We worked together on a meaningful project from our home, and Lily could walk to both world class museums with babysitters and roll naked down sand dunes with friends in the woods near our home on Lake Street. 

My gratitude, while profound, was short-lived. 

Just two days after posting that piece, we got word that our landlords were going to be selling our unit. San Francisco has strict rent control laws meant to try to help people like us stick around despite the incredibly high housing prices. However, our landlords had won what's called the "condo lottery", after applying for eight years, and normal rent control rules weren't going to apply to us for much longer. We'd known about the condo conversation for a year, but what was new was their intent to sell…and with a date attached. In November of 2012, we'd need to move. 

Now, this is the second time we've had to move out of a space in San Francisco without it being our idea. Three years ago, our beloved studio space was needed by our landlady for her son's family, and now we were on the unfortunate side of the condo lottery. In both situations we could have made more of a noise and gotten a tenant's rights' organization involved--the first time we were technically due quite a sum of money to make up for the costs and inconveniences of what's known as an owner-move-in eviction. (We didn't pursue those funds because we thought of our landlady as family, and she'd treated us and our family with great generosity. I'm still very grateful we didn't try to get greedy and put money before a relationship. It was the right choice on many levels.). And, this time, we were advised by tenant advocates that we could refuse to move, put up protest signs in the windows, and test the legality of condo conversation evictions vs owner move-ins when a school-aged child was a tenant. If you don't live in San Francisco or another tightly-regulated rental market, none of this likely makes much sense, but in a place like San Francisco where rents are ridiculously high and the vast majority of residents rent, there are regulations and policies in place to try to keep a diverse population and to keep the city within reach of artists, teachers, pastors, non-profit workers, social workers, and the rest of us who don't work in high tech or finance. We ended up deciding we didn't have the energy to launch our film and have a big, messy, draining legal fight over where we lived. 

Last time this happened, we took advantage of the rent savings and went on the road for three months (and 10,000 miles) to really dive into the production phase of our film. We set up story booths all around the country to listen to stories from LGBT Adventists, and we interviewed scholars, professors, pastors, and other experts from a wide range of perspectives (this was back before we realized we wanted a pure story approach for the film). Lily was nine months old when we left and a bit over a year old when we returned. It was tiring, a bit nuts, but incredibly rewarding. It's what we look back on as a formative and necessary research phase of this film.

At the lovely Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film FestivalThis time, we realized that we needed to be on the road for several months doing screenings and discussions as our film started to roll out at film festivals and community screenings in theaters, churches, and community halls. We made a list of all of the locations where we really wanted to be present for a community screening and discussion in order to feel that we had put our best effort into this phase of the film. It was a long list…And, yet again, not paying rent and utilities would make this a lot more feasible to actually pull off. So, we first sublet for a month while doing screenings back east, then we asked our landlords if they'd help pay for moving expenses in exchange for us leaving a few months earlier than required (which would help them get the apartment on the market before the holidays). They agreed. We moved in a flurry of five days in between screening trips in August. 

I've lost track of just where we've been and where these past few months (our screenings page helps me remember!), but what I do know if that life has been in almost constant motion. I've barely had a moment to myself, and the constant need to keep on top of logistics for the next flight and the next screening--all while on the road with a three-and-a-half-year-old--was all I could manage. We were living on adrenaline and from one screening and location to the next. In between screening trips, my parents generously opened up a wing of their home to us--and they kept our dog the entire six months.

Lily with the great volunteers at the SWGLFF...devouring popcorn!Amazingly, Lily did really well with all of the travel, new people, new beds, and new babysitters. We did have a disastrous evening in Albuquerque after the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival screening. It was one screening that I hadn't been able to find a babysitter to help with, and we were at the end of a tiring two weeks (I was just off two red eye/very early am flights over two days to fit in an additional D.C. screening the day prior). We were all ready to collapse. The friendly volunteers at the festival helped entertain Lily, which was a lifesaver but resulted in her eating a large quantity of movie theater-style popcorn and frozen yogurt. Then after the screening, we went to tea across the street with a few friends and locals who had come. It was lovely, except Lily managed to snarf at least three or four cookies before I caught on. Then we slept in a guest room of a relative we'd never stayed with before in Santa Fe, which is over 7,000 feet in elevation. Tired Lily, way too much junk food, high elevation = one very pukey kiddo at 2 a.m. Did I mention it was an all-white guest bedroom? And we'd given her some kids' Pepto Bismal when she'd first said her tummy hurt? It was an unmitigated disaster.

And, it got worse. Usually Stephen checks us in online the day before our departure. With the screening happening, he didn't get to it that day, and somehow his Southwest app put the departure in his calendar for a different time zone. We arrived at 9:15 the next morning at the Albuquerque airport only to discover that our airplane left at 9:35, not 10:35 as we'd thought. We missed the flight. And this was the Monday morning after the hot air balloon fiesta. Every other flight was quite full, and the chance of getting on stand-by with a party of three was slim. We simply couldn't afford the upgrade fee to confirm a later flight, and we knew from how challenging it had been to find lodging that nearly every room in the area was booked (and marked up significantly) due to the balloon festival, so as appealing as going somewhere to rest sounded, it wasn't likely. 

About this time, I put Lily's hair into a pony tail and discovered that she had chunks of vomit dried in the back of her hair from the night's drama. I broke down and began sobbing silently. The Southwest agent, who already felt sorry for us, brought me tissues. As we were considering driving to Phoenix to get a flight, Stephen happened to show the agent his Southwest iPhone app and the time error, although he also said he knew he should have checked in himself and double-checked everything. It was actually all she needed to consider the error theirs and not ours, which allowed her to confirm us on a later flight without charging us more. We still had almost six hours to spend in the Albuquerque airport with a child who had dried vomit chunks in her hair, but at least we knew we'd be on a flight that day. (And later, when we did get on the flight, they were asking for volunteers to be bumped, so we would not have made it on stand-by.)

That would be the worst of times. Thankfully, the best of times far outweighed the bad. There was always a lot of stress and nerves, but there was also a huge amount of satisfaction seeing the film screen to so many crowds and be so well received. Over the year, the film screened 42 times to over 8,000 people. We were personally at all but five of those screenings. I'm supposed to be the wordy one, but I don't even quite have words to describe what it felt like to feel audiences fall in love with the people in our film and be moved by their journeys--no matter their beliefs or convictions--people are moved and expanded by watching our film. This is, of course, thanks to the incredible people who opened up their lives and trusted us to tell their stories. But it is also because we just kept at this despite very large obstacles and personal challenges for almost four years. And it felt good to see it amount to something positive in the world and in the faith community that goes back for generations on both sides of our families.  

One of our most memorable screenings this yearOne of my favorite moments was in the Powerhouse Theater in Walla Walla, WA, which is where a large Adventist university is located. The student leaders had planned and coordinated a screening in this theater, which was a renovated 1890s old, brick power house that had been turned into an authentic Shakespearean theater-in-the-round. It had great energy, and it sat more than 350 people, yet its vertical design managed to make the space feel incredibly close and intimate. They had a huge silk they draped for a screen, and the image quality was great. The turnout was phenomenal, and the only place I could sit was up above the audience looking down through the lighting rig. Feeling their laughter, their tears, their journey through the film from that vantage point was magical. I felt blessed and lucky to have been able to do work that felt so worthy of all of our time and our audiences. And then when the entire crowd gave us a standing ovation and stuck around for a beautiful discussion that focused on listening, sharing authentically, and loving despite difference--that was an evening and moment in time I'll carry with me. There have been a lot of moments like that (the La Sierra sanctuary and 1,000 people in attendance stands out too!), and a lot of emails and comments from people that help us know what a true difference this is making in lives, families, churches, and communities. It's what has made it worth the challenges.

Through all of the travel, we've been uncertain about where we would land on the other end. Our hearts have been in San Francisco for eight years now, and there is much that we love there by way of friends, networks, cafes, incredible walks--I could go on and on. But we've known for a while that the finances weren't going to work much longer. San Francisco is now the city with the highest cost of living in the entire U.S., even above New York. Prior to having Lily, we would have found a way to squeeze our life into a studio somewhere quaint and call it an adventure. But now, we knew she needed a long-term community that would work for her as well. San Francisco has a notoriously hard time keeping young families due to the housing costs and insane school-assignment lottery system that nobody understands or trusts. Unless you have the funds for private schools (easily $25,000 a year even at the grade school level), it's just not a situation that many families can tolerate. They move north, south, or east. Over half of the families we've been close to in the past four years have moved and become part of the family flight statistics.

And, as of this week, so have we. 

It was not an easy decision. In retrospect, one of the only ways we could have left San Francisco was in stages, like we did--first a short sublet, then traveling with the idea of returning, then eventually realizing we were priced out. We didn't finally make the decision until after Thanksgiving when stayed for almost a week in a friend's apartment in Oakland. Parts of the the East Bay are affordable, and we wanted to see if they were parts we could imagine living in. It didn't help that on the third night our car window got smashed in--unfortunately, the affordable areas also often have much higher crime rates. And, since we'd lived on the western side of San Francisco, all of our routines, favorite haunts, and most of the families we did excursions with lived a good 45 minutes in good traffic away. That's not very realistic to keep up for a family, and the idea of living where we'd be looking across the bay at where we really wanted to live sounded like a recipe for resentment. And, we still wouldn't ever afford to buy a home anywhere we wanted to live in the Bay Area. That was becoming important to us again, both because we want a long-term home for Lily, and because we'd just been forced out twice from rentals before a time of our choosing. 

Super Hero Lily making friends in an airportWe've been to a lot of cities and towns across the country this year (and when we did our first filming trip), and both times when we've been traveling, we were without a permanent home, so we found ourselves doing a lot of "trying on" and imagining if we could live in various towns. We were very tempted to live close to grandparents and cousins, as we love being near family. But ultimately, we also know we need the vibe and personality of the location to inspire us to want to do the work we've chosen to do, much the way San Francisco and our community there helped birth our current film. There are definitely several cities we could imagine calling home (love you Burlington, NYC, Fort Collins, Bozeman, Chicago, and Sydney), but only one kept us coming back: Portland, Oregon. For us, Portland feels like it has an independent spirit and creative vibe like San Francisco but without the banking and high-tech circles that drive housing up. And a surprising number of people, upon hearing we're going to be Portlanders, tell me that they have good friends here, that they love this town, that they can imagine us fitting in here.There is a small film community (nothing like our beloved SFFS, but one that feels like we could eventually find community). We have good friends nearby (and several in other Oregon towns…all CA immigrants like us!). The housing is just a breath of fresh air after the Bay Area, and, while we realize it will be a long time reaching fruition, we feel like there's the hope of community here. We think--we hope-we'll find a tribe. (Given how quickly our Portland screening filled up this summer, we think there must be good people here! ; )

Oh--and we've made a pact not to complain about the winter weather. Yes, we know it will rain a lot. At the exact moment, it's darn cold outside too…much colder than our CA blood is used to. But Lily assured us she likes the rain because puddles are fun to stomp in (they are, actually, and having a young one reminds me of that). And she wants to grow a garden. And she really wants us to own a house one day so she can paint her room whatever color she wants (it's a safe wager to assume pink and purple will play starring roles).

Enjoying a chillier climate!So here we are. This is one of those moments when I have a lot of hopes of what we want to lean into. It's a long way before most of them will come close to being realized, and we're sitting in a transition space, which is always hard. But I trust that we will find a way. We have each other. We have a fridge full of groceries. We have winter coats. We have a warm house (very wonderfully, a friend is letting us housesit in the area for several months while we get to work on the DVD and figure out which neighborhood is the best fit). We have the most important things right in arm's reach. 

The other night while snuggling Lily to sleep, she reached out in the dark and touched my face. She said, "Mommy, I choose you forever." Those moments, that space is what matters above all else. 

It's been a year of meaningful moments, sacred spaces, and reaching out to each other. I choose that too. The rest will follow. In that truth, I am trusting. In the meantime, I need to unpack our rain gear (and start requesting REI gift certificates ;  ).

Saturday
Jun302012

Wild Child in the City, or Gratitude for City Living

Lily loves walking to the beach--on this day for the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge.As readers of this blog know, trying to find home and a sense of place and belonging has been a major theme for me ever since I became a mother. I'm a person who wants deep roots, Sunday suppers with the same families, good conversations over tea, and that sense of tribe that I grew up with in my idyllic ride-horses-and-run-wild-in-the-country childhood. Trying to envision raising a family in a setting so very different than my own childhood has been challenging. I don't have a model, and there's a general assumption with rather deep roots in our cultural consciousness that raising kids in the city isn't really a good idea. Aren't cities dirty, noisy, concrete jungles that attract a lot of crime and vice?

I don't know what the future holds (although filmmaking is an urban craft), but I feel that it's only fair to me, our family, and to the city we've called home for almost nine years, to write about what I do love about the idea of raising Lily right here.

Easily the biggest reason why we love living in the city is walkability. We live right on the edge of the Presidio with easy access to miles and miles of trails. Lily plays in "the woods" almost daily, and at least once a week she meets several other kids that's she's been playing in the woods with for years now. They explore, climb up on logs, pick wildflowers, invent games, and--on sunny days--usually end up rolling down a sand dune buck naked. I laugh at the occasional jogger who comes around the corner of the trail to see five preschoolers running wild and naked in the woods. This is not the image most people have when they think of "city living". 

Besides the woods, we're a short walk from the ocean (both the Pacific and the Bay), Golden Gate Park and several great museums, playgrounds and more playgrounds, a newly-renovated library, and many cafes, eateries, and shops. We have a favorite cafes for a sandwich, a wood-fired pizza, a hot chocolate, a burrito, or a the occasional cupcake, all within walking distance. We have numerous neighborhood markets ranging from ethnic grocery stores with rock bottom prices and an experience that feels like a visit to foreign country to mini-Whole Foods types with local, organic produce, 15 varieties of kombucha, and bulk bins. Getting out every day to go to a local park might be a little more work than just opening the sliding glass doors and letting her play in our own yard, but I do love how it forges new friendships, connections, and conversations with our neighbors. We come to the park together, and there's something very human about that interaction.

On an Easter Egg hunt with friends in the woods next to our apartment.We walk (well, Lily scoots) to ballet class, her playgroups, and just about everything else. Without even meaning to, we easily walk a few miles a day. (This is one reason why, even with Lily being 3.5 years old and 37 pounds, we still use our beloved Boba carrier often to cart her around. It's a sure bet that somewhere along the way little feet get tired, and I find it much easier to put her on my back than to negotiate with a tired kiddo about just how many more blocks we have to go.) Her babysitters have no trouble taking her out of the house for a neighborhood playground adventure or for an afternoon at the Academy of Sciences saying hello to her favorite penguins and fish, and the preschool she's going to start at in the fall meets outdoors (rain or shine) in a fairy ring in the meadow of a large, local park that we'll just walk or bike to.

This is not the type of city living most people envision--it's full of nature, the great outdoors, and a rich cultural experience that the suburbs can't offer.

She loves our "woods", and this is just a few minutes walk from our front door.Of course, the biggest issue most people think about with cities is crime. Safety matters before culture and neighborhood cafes. And this is where there are a lot of assumptions without data to back them up. First, just the feel of our neighborhood is safe. (We even inadvertently tested this the other night when I forgot our jogging stroller outside overnight, and it was right where I left it in the morning). I'd never live in certain parts of the city, but I find that a lot of people base their impressions of the city by their own (infrequent) visits, often to the parts of town that aren't very savory. In San Francisco, the parts of the city where tourists flock are the parts of town where the panhandlers and opportunists also flock. I can assure you that the parts of town where families live are very different. We do have a couple homeless men in our neighborhood that we occasionally see (especially one man who pushes a shopping cart down our street often), and our policy is that we will give or buy anyone food, if they ask. So, occasionally, we'll buy an extra burrito or take some baked goods out to share. But I actually like that Lily is growing up seeing and experiencing some of the aspects of humanity that we can tend to hide and sanitize. Eventually these interactions will be occasions for very growing conversations about poverty, privilege, and social responsibility.

Lily's favorite mode of transport around town.But back to the data about the safety of cities. Interestingly enough, while the very rare cases of violence against children get magnified in the media, the most dangerous place for a child to be is….in a car. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 5-34, according to the CDC. So, the the walkability of living in the city isn't just about enjoyment or exercise; we are also at a significantly less risk of serious injury or death simply because we don't use our car very often. 

As for crime, not only is crime down overall (and that's been a big surprise for those who predicted that the downturn in the economy would lead to an increase in crime), it has been dropping steadily since the 90s. And one of the biggest drug problems facing the country right now--Meth--isn't much of a big city problem, it's a suburban and rural one

I'm not trying to paint an overly rosy picture of city living--I certainly get tired of looking for parking, carrying groceries up three flights of stairs, not having a dishwasher or a space to host large get-togethers, and the occasional siren we hear in the distance. And San Francisco, in particular, is a tough place for families because of the high-cost of living and the challenging school assignment system (it's complicated, unpopular, and highly politicized). Because of rent-control, people like us can afford (sometimes barely) to rent, but if we wanted to buy, there's simply no feasible way that could happen. I'm already seeing families we've met in these first years of parenting moving out to places with bigger yards, cheaper rents, feasible mortgages, and more transparent school assignment processes. And there are many days when I really get why, times when I feel out-classed by the million-dollar price tags on the homes on our street, misunderstood by the crowds of trendy, urban hipsters in the Mission who seem resentful of parents and children, and utterly overwhelmed by the idea of school lotteries and complicated bureaucracy. I do understand why families leave.

The frolicking princess at a neighborhood park.But just for today, I'm going to put aside the angst and assumptions and just be grateful. My daughter is growing up in a vibrant, richly diverse, and culturally significant city. She has friends to run naked in the woods with. And her idea of a fun family date is to ride her scooter to a favorite local cafe for a hot chocolate or hop on our bikes to enjoy Golden Gate Park car-free (every Sunday is car free!). If we choose the latter, she'll make sure we ride by her favorite sculpture in the park, a Goethe and Schiller statue that she likes to blow hugs and kisses to. Then she's likely to ask if we can ride on the carousel at the Children's Playground. Maybe she can even ride the unicorn? Or the dragon?

And you know what? That makes me happy. That puts the little inconveniences in sharp relief to the big perks. And happy parents make for happier kids, no matter where home is physically located. So, for today, I am a resting in gratitude for our little home in the big city.

Thursday
Mar012012

More on Finding Home

A beautiful depiction of "Finding Home" from http://souvenirsfromwonderland.blogspot.com/I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenge of finding home. I wrote about this several months ago, and it still continues to be one of the biggest question marks in my life. This is partly because our apartment was recently converted to a condo. In San Francisco, there’s a limit on the number of condo conversions that can happen every year in an effort to keep neighborhoods marginally affordable. People like us can afford to rent our apartment, but we couldn’t afford to buy it as a condo. Shortly after we moved in, our landlord won the condo lottery (it’s literally a lottery system that owners have to enter, usually for years), and we’ve been formally notified that we can lose our lease by this fall.

This will be the second time that we’ve had to move in San Francisco under circumstances not of our choosing—the first time we had to move out of our beloved studio when Lily was five months old because our landlady’s son was moving back from Sweden, and now our space will be up for sale soon. For someone like me who longs to sink in roots, create community, and start planting a garden with my daughter, this has been a very difficult space. I long for home in a way that mystifies my husband, who is much more accomplished at letting tomorrow’s worries wait until tomorrow and embracing a new adventure. For him, we know we have at least until November, probably longer since the market is down right now, so, why worry now? He does have a point, and I am trying to lean into more gratitude for the present moment, but I am not very good at that. When I dream of the future, it involves a lot of hearth, home, and potlucks in a kitchen full of neighbors. This is why I keep choosing work that allows me to (primarily) work from home—my home space is a deep part of my identity, for better or for worse.

Lily has actually picked up on this rather profound difference between her parents. A few days ago she spent the whole day at a sitter's, and she came home with a bag full of crafts. She was most proud of two large pictures she had made and decorated (with help). They were even wrapped up. The one for Stephen features a large airplane, “Because Daddy likes airplanes.” Mine? It’s all centered around a big house. "Because Mommy likes houses." She's got us figured out quicker than we did.

When I think about home, I’m undoubtedly influenced by the rather idealistic space I had as a child. It’s a space that I doubt exists as a possibility today. I’ve mentioned it before, and it looms large in my memories. We essentially lived on what could be described as a religious commune out in the country. (It was a parochial boarding school run by the Seventh-day Adventist church where my father was on faculty.) All of our neighbors were employed by the same school and shared the same belief system. Of course there were some variations, but comparatively speaking, our neighbors all shared a huge deal of their religious beliefs and practices in common. For example, in conservative circles, almost all Adventists are vegetarians, but one family might go a step further and be vegan. (My good friend and I actually had on-and-off squabbles when we were kids about whether veganism was spiritually mandated. Possibly telling, I was the one considered the liberal on this—and pretty much any—topic.)

Having all of our parents be members of and employed by the same religious institution meant that we were surrounded by kids and families with lots in common who all shared the same school schedule and general ideals. I grew up playing on the hills around the school with my sister and friends (roaming wild for hours on end, really), riding horses, and just enjoying a very community-oriented childhood. Our home was open to the other neighborhood kids, and we freely invited ourselves in for snack time, sleepovers, and just hang out time at our friends’ houses. We also didn’t have TV reception, so I read for entertainment. A lot. I homeschooled off and on, usually when I had something more interesting to do than traditional schoolwork (like the year I got a horse when I was 10). It was idyllic. 

Of course, my problem as a mother now trying to find home for our family is that my idyllic childhood doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Not only is the actual school closed and the property sold, but as an adult, I have gone far on a spiritual path that precludes me working and living in a community like that. I deeply value my spiritual and religious heritage, but I’ve chosen to build a life with more mystery, less certainty, and a lot more diversity. I sometimes truly wish I could return to the simpler days, but I can’t. 

So now I don’t know where to turn for community for our family. Where do we fit? While I feel like Stephen and I, in general, have community individually, we have yet to find our tribe for our family. Even at the wonderful, progressive little church we go to, we’re the only regulars with a child, and Lily is getting to the point where I feel she needs children’s programming, at least once a month. And I love the moms and toddlers we have as friends and play dates, but they aren’t family friendships—it’s unusual for anything social to happen outside of our scheduled walks or classes. Stephen is the only dad who can swap taking her to her ballet class or Presidio walk, which is a big perk of our being able to share work and childcare, but it reminds us how hard it is to get to know the whole family.

According to Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, one issue is actually that we live in too nice of a neighborhood. Rubin’s year-long quest to improve her happiness is chronicled in a best-selling book, and one of the research tidbits I found fascinating is that we’re more likely to be unhappy in wealthy neighborhoods if we aren’t wealthy ourselves. I suppose it’s the old irresistible human temptation to compare ourselves to others, but people are happier when they live near people who make about the same amount of money as they do.

Now, I’ve written before about how much we love living right next to the Presidio in San Francisco. And we have very affordable rent by SF standards, but our little space is an anomaly in this neighborhood. The houses across the street that border that Presidio are multi-million dollar homes. It makes it hard to imagine fitting in, especially when I seem to only run into nannies at the playground. 

Actually, I just discovered that our street is not technically considered part of the Richmond District. San Francisco is divided up into 11 districts, and each district has a supervisor. Since we moved to San Francisco over seven years ago now, we’ve been in the Richmond district (well, there was a two-month mistake I try to forget!). The Richmond is a more affordable district with a diverse population, lots of interesting shops and ethnic restaurants (especially every type of Asian cuisine), and lots of great walking because it’s bordered by the expansive Presidio and Golden Gate Park. At the west end is the Pacific, and on the other side of the Presidio is the Golden Gate bridge and the entrance to the bay, which makes our climate very foggy in the summer and generally a little cooler that other neighborhoods.

Long story short, the districts are being slightly redrawn because of the latest census results, and I discovered while following these talks that our entire street and the Sea Cliff neighborhood (a very pricey neighborhood overlooking the water and the bridge) is not considered part of the Richmond because of socio-economic reasons. Essentially, this neighborhood is considered too rich to have much in common with the rest of the Richmond, so it technically “belongs” with the Marina district, even though that area of town is hardly even within walking distance (it’s at least a 10-minute drive away).

Actually, a clarifying story came out this week—it’s just the north side of our street that’s part of the Marina. We live on the south side of the street. So I literally look out of our apartment windows into a different neighborhood, one that’s considered so much wealthier that our supervisor can’t properly represent their interests.  No wonder I don’t feel like I fit in. The temptation isn't really to compare; it's more despair as I realize we will never own a home or move in the same social circles as our neighbors.

There’s a part of me that worries that all of this longing for home is somehow insatiable. There will always be something not quite right even if I find a space that feels like a better fit. I know this is what worries my husband—that deep down my desire for community, my seeking a tribe isn’t an attainable desire, and we might give up much or lose what we do have trying to find it.  I worry about that too.  It’s a clear risk.

But right now, knowing that we’re going to lose the physical space we call home before too long, I can’t help but wonder where our home is? Where will we be most happy as a family? Where do I want Lily to bring her family one day to tell them stories of her childhood? Where will we flourish, contribute, and do worthy work?  Like many great quest stories, I’m completely open to the possibility that I may ask this question only to find that what I wanted most I already had. I may travel far and wide only to discover that my house was built on the very treasure I seek. But I seem to certainly be one who needs to ask the question. 

Sunday
Oct022011

Lonely Mommy, or, One About Friends

Just a quick note to let subscribers know that my most recent blog post is up over at Girlfriendcircles.com, a website run by a dear and brilliant friend that helps match women who want local friends. In many ways, motherhood seemed like the ticket to a whole new world of community and belonging, but I found it difficult to make truly deep friendships with other moms and have floundered a bit while figuring out how to make friendship a priority and something I want to model for Lily. Here's the full post.

Monday
Aug292011

Longing for Home

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” -Maya Angelou

Our "city girl" just around the corner from our flat.

Lately Lily is very into pretend play. One of her favorite questions is to ask me where I live, and she’s not looking for the straight answer. She mastered the fact that we live in a city called “San Francisco” months ago. No, she wants an exotic location.

“Machu Picchu,” I’ll answer (or some other fun destination).

“Is it faraway or close by?”

“Far away.”

“You have to take a bus there?

“Oh yes—or maybe even an airplane.”

“Are there babies there? And girls? And kittens?” That’s the ticket for her—babies to comfort? Girls and kittens to play with? She’s definitely going to visit me.

This game is just as fun for her in reverse, and the names she makes up for where she lives are so exotic I sometimes have a hard time repeating them. Lewis Carroll would have been in awe.

I’ve actually been playing a similar game in my own head lately. Lily’s criteria for what makes a place a good one to live—babies, girls, and kittens—might not be quite what mine are, but it turns out I’ve got my own criteria for the where-will-our-family-really-settle-our-roots game.

I’m finding this game hard and not much fun.

No question, the city by the bay has been good to us.Here’s my challenge: I love living in San Francisco. There is much about this city that has energized and nurtured me the past seven years that I’ve called it home. There’s a vibe, an energy that I resonate with here—it’s an openness to ideas, a commitment to authenticity, and an acceptance of people. And, really dang good food. Just around the corner.

I recently read an article by an SF traveler who was told by several people on a trip to India that he was lucky to live in the “spiritual center of the earth.” This idea surprised him, as San Francisco is often described as quite secular, but as he asked around, he was told repeatedly that yes, for hundreds of years the spiritual center of the world was India, but now it’s San Francisco. The “spiritual center of the earth" was defined by a teacher as “the place where new ideas meet the least resistance.”

That is definitely the sense I have living here—this town is one place where you can try any idea, be anything you want. It’s liberating to know people will respect you for trying. I know I wouldn’t be producing a documentary about the identity challenge faced by gay and lesbian Seventh-day Adventists if I didn’t live in this city. And, living here, I don’t have to worry about someone defacing my Obama bumper sticker on our car like a woman did at a trailhead on our last trip to San Diego.

But I have grown increasingly anxious when I think about our future here. It’s not at all about the challenges of raising a child in the city. Lily runs in the Presidio woods just around the corner from us almost every day finding banana slugs, watching the resident heron, and occasionally spotting a great-horned owl. We have five parks within easy walking distance, several favorite cafes a few blocks away for afternoon hot chocolate treats, and world-class destinations like the Academy of Sciences, De Young Museum, and the splendor of Golden Gate Park just a bike ride away. Lily not only has easy access to nature, she has cultural opportunities that I never had in my idyllic country upbringing. And she’s growing up in a diverse environment. She won’t likely scream in terror at the sight of an African man as I apparently did at age two in the small town we lived in at the time in Walla Walla, Washington.

But, here’s the thing: I’m a tree by nature. I’m someone who wants to foster and gather community around me, sinking my roots in deep. And I am finding it hard to imagine ever owning a home in this city or even affording a rental big enough to host Saturday suppers, book clubs, and the sorts of playtime with neighboring families that helps kids actually grow up friends.

I’ve been too busy lately to admit this growing angst to myself and even a little ashamed. I don’t want to be this shallow. I want to be a bigger person about materialistic things. I don’t want to grumble every time I have to circle to find parking. I don’t want to be the type of person who would move for in-unit laundry. I don’t want to be the type of person who looks enviously at the big, warm yards of my wealthier mom friends whose homes I bring Lily to play at. I don’t want to be the cliché family that moves out of the city when it’s time to think about schools.

I’ve been Googling things like, “Great places to live with a family outside San Francisco” and checking out home prices, but I’ve been doing it late at night when the rest of the house is asleep.

That is a nice big yard...Part of the problem is that I don’t know where else we would live. I had a moment of bliss yesterday in the warmth of Larkspur, but housing prices there pose the same problem. I’ve been having strange fantasies about Vermont. And I’m pretty sure I’ve been imaging a home garden scene straight out of The Bernenstain Bears. If only my criteria were as easy as babies, girls, and kittens…I think we could manage those. (I’d add easier and more affordable babysitting to my list. Being near family does have one mighty big perk in this department.)

But I want to feel this same sort of energy and openness that I love about San Francisco in a place with decent home prices, vibrant schools, great walkability, and good weather, and, while I’m dreaming, my friends and family nearby. What I’m talking about at some level is a spiritual issue. I’m feeling like I haven’t quite found my tribe, or, possibly, that I’ve found them, but I don’t have the personal energy and space to find true community with them.

Part of this challenge must come from the fact that I was raised in an almost utopian environment, at least from a kids’ perspective. My dad taught at a private boarding school in the country, and we grew up running wild in the hills, riding horses for hours on end, and having close friends all living in the same neighborhood whose houses we ran in and out of as if they were our own. Everyone was the same religion—Seventh-day Adventist—so there was a shared culture, language, and worldview that could be assumed. We were a tribe.

But that world is no longer open to me (mainly by my choosing), and I couldn’t actually do what my parents did, even though it was a fabulous life for my sister and me. It feels like such a big responsibility to pick home for Lily, to pick the place that will mean (I hope) comfort and love, the place that she'll always carry a small piece of in her heart. Of course where I/we are happy, she is most likely to be happy and at peace, but I'm finding it a lot harder to imagine home in the realm of the real.

I’ve promised myself not to do anything drastic for now. I’m trying just to sit with this, to observe myself. Given the intensely cold and foggy summer we’ve had in the Richmond district this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if my mood changes considerably with more sunshine. I forgive the city a host of ills on beautiful days.

I napped with Lily yesterday. When we stirred two hours later, she was laying on her side, facing me, still in the final clutches of sleep. She reached over, touched my face, said, “Hi Mommy,” and then simply held my hand for a full five minutes. We lay there in a dreamlike space, and I felt myself relax at a core level.

This must be what if feels like to be at home wherever we find ourselves. 

Sunday
May082011

Having What I Have: Another Piece on Gratitude

I don’t know what it says about my parenting that for the past two Mother’s Days, I’ve ended up requesting time without my child to just rest and recharge. Last year I ended up asking Stephen to take Lily without me to the family BBQ while I just had a day alone (see "Being Selfish for Mother's Day"), and this year my mother-in-law generously agreed to watch Lily for the weekend so my husband and I could rest and enjoy some couple time. When you parent together and work together, it can be easy to have the illusion of time spent together when in reality we’re sometimes living in close proximity, taking care of the business of running the house, working on the film, and watching Lily without actually interacting with each other in a quality manner, especially while feeling rested and relaxed. 

One gift that comes to me when I rest and have some alone time is the chance to reflect. You can tell how often this happens by how often I manage to blog! This really is a space I’ve come to value as a chance to process, reflect, and witness the journey.

This weekend, especially after a long nap, what keeps coming up for me is a phrase I heard a few weeks ago at a talk at our JCC by Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God and Lost and Found. She and her husband lost their life savings in the Bernie Madoff scam, and she had to do a lot of hard thinking about a pretty taboo topic: money. Even though she really did have true financial worries, she also realized that even prior to finding out that Madoff was a fraud she'd never appreciated what she had (and it was a very comfortable amount). She's always worried about what could go wrong. She was insatiable.

She talked about the “trance of depravation” that we frequently find ourselves in, unable to actually “have what we have.” We keep waiting to feel grateful until we get “there,” but we don’t define what “there” means for us or question the assumptions and beliefs behind where we’ve gotten our ideas about the value of “there.”

I wondered if she could read my mind. I have often found myself in a cycle of depravation—the moment something I’ve been worrying about or wanting to have happen gets resolved, I hardly pause for a breath before I move on to the next big want or worry. Even when things go really, really well, I can easily think of what might go wrong or the next angst-ridden issue rattling around in my head keeping my mind occupied on what I don’t have instead of resting in the gratitude of what I do have.

Lately the “what I do have” column is pretty amazing. Not only is our film starting to take shape after two years of work, but the post-production funding is starting to come in. We live next door to an incredibly beautiful forest, even though we also live within walking distance of city amenities (like great eateries, parks, and libraries).

And Lily is just bursting with personality.

Life with Lilybird is filled with a lot of chatter (seriously, this child is incredibly out-going and can talk most anyone in circles), imaginary play, and joyful moments of pure being. The imaginary play is especially fun to watch and encourage. She has a host of imaginary friends who have been coming to visit lately (some live in our tree and fly in through the breakfast window for tea or hot chocolate, some want to play in the bathtub, others visit randomly). And she likes to pretend to be a doctor or patient several times a day. She tells me to “lay down on your special pad,” (she got this from a friend), and then she’ll listen to my heart, check my eyes, ears, and teeth, and even re-attach my fingers (she thought of this one morning playfully). She even likes to play “Monster” right now. She either pretends to be a monster about to steal my food, or she’ll want Stephen or me to pretend to steal her food (she prefers playing monsters with Stephen, probably because he’ll really chase her around the house). So far she tells me that the monsters are nice, but I have tried to preempt scary monsters by saying you can get rid of monsters by tickling them. We’ll see how that works.

Of course we have some classic two-year-old moments too—there is some high drama, especially around transitions and sharing (and especially if she’s tired). But really, toddlers are incredible teachers about how to live in the moment. Sometimes that’s a moment of utter anguish, but it’s often total, unfettered joy—it’s where they want to live, and it’s where Lily naturally lands, especially if she’s rested (I could learn something here….).

A highlight for me right now is dancing in the kitchen after a meal. Lily has always loved rhythm and music, and one of her favorite things to do is listen to music and dance. Here’s how it often goes:

“Mommy, play some music on your computer.”

“What’s that magic word that Mama likes to hear when you want something?” I asked pointedly.

“Pleeeease play some music!”

“Oh, of course! Thank you for asking so nicely.”

Sometimes she has a particular request (she likes big, grand pieces right now—and I mean grand, as in The Hallelujah Chorus). If I choose, I put on something fun to move to like The Macarena or Papa Loves Mambo. She starts dancing and quickly wants company.

“Mommy, dance with me,” she’ll command, while holding out her hands. Soon she’ll get Stephen into the action too if he’s home.

“Come Daddy! Dance with us!” And she’ll hold out a hand. So there we’ll all be, dancing in our little kitchen. Her face is absolutely lit up in utter joy—and she seriously can bust some fun dance moves. For me, having been raised a good Adventist who didn’t dance or dwell on the pleasures of the body, it’s liberating and healing to move with abandon, enjoying my body and the positive group energy that comes from our little family kitchen dance.

It’s bliss, really. And getting an opportunity to rest and reflect this weekend helps me recognize that bliss and have what I have without worrying about what comes next. 

Saturday
Apr162011

Another Seder Story, or, Choosing to Believe in Love

Close-up of Klimt's Mother and ChildToday at my church we celebrated Seder together. We've done this every year for the past several, and it's always a very profound experience for me because between the prayers and short talks, you eat various types of food that really bring home the message of that segment. I appreciate rituals that help me get into the physicality of an experience since I can be tempted to stay in my head. There’s nothing quite like a bit of horseradish on matzo to bring the shock and sting of grief into full focus. I felt like a small explosion had gone off in my sinuses! And I like thinking of the generations upon generations that have participated in these rituals before me.

We focused a lot this time on how these Jewish rituals give space and language to the journey of grief. Christianity has a great language of hope and of a life to come, but it's Judaism that gives much more space to the grieving process and really admits that there is much pain in life, and it's okay to embrace the tears. In fact, eat this parsley dipped in saltwater to remind yourself of the tears.

It was a day when I especially need to acknowledge tears and grief. Two weeks ago today, our infant niece, Gabriella, died after just an hour of life. I still well up with tears when I think about that precious little bundle with long feet, a sweet and peaceful smile, and soft, soft skin. Her parents were gracious enough to let us meet her, even knowing that they didn’t have much time with her. Even Lily met her cousin. It’s her first real experience of death. Of course she doesn’t fully understand what it means (who does?), but she clearly knows that it makes the adults in her life sad.

This whole month at my church we've been talking about the inherent duality of life and spirituality, the pain and the joy that are part and parcel of our human experience. When I looked back at this blog to see what I’d written about Seder before, I see that it was also in April two years ago that we were trying to process another round of loss.

The Lilybird is an expert angst-away-chaser!As the poets say, April is the cruelest month. I hope you don’t mind, but it seemed an entry that was worth re-posting. These are still questions that I struggle with, but I will now say that on most days having the cheery soundtrack of a vivacious two-year-old filling the house helps me carry these questions as well-known (if not comforting) traveling companions, and I don’t feel quite as much angst in the unknowingness of it all.

 

 

Originally published on Friday, April 10, 2009

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“Of Death, Bitter Herbs, Teeth, and Harry Potter”

I’ve had a hard time dealing with death lately.

While I was pregnant with Lily, I realized that death scared me much more than I had ever previously acknowledged. Death and birth, as our bookends on this human experience, are closely related, so I think it’s natural that being pregnant stirs up thoughts of death (and for most of human history giving birth has been such a risky undertaking for women that they very justly feared that the start of their child’s life might be the end of their own).

Bringing new life into the world also naturally requires reflection on what values and beliefs we want to pass on to our children. I didn’t just want to give birth to a child; I wanted—want—to help imbue her life with meaning and purpose, which brings me back to the Big Questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? All of these questions deal with death both explicitly and implicitly.

In a previous post, I talked about how some work I did with a hypnotherapist while I was pregnant helped me recognize that one of my deepest fears about birth and motherhood was that the hope I had been raised with—the hope that death, as John Donne penned, is just “one short sleep past” before “we wake eternally”—might simply be wishful thinking, a way to deal with the randomness, pain, and injustices of this life.

These past few weeks have made me face this fear anew. The three families, seven adults and seven children, who died in that tragic Montana plane crash you’ve likely read about were alumni of my alma mater, and my husband went to high school with one of the fathers. This news has been especially hard to fathom now that I have a child. The loss of so many young lives—all of the children were under 10—is truly unfathomable to me. And I can’t imagine how my parents would cope if they ever faced such a loss of their children and grandchildren (two of the mothers were sisters; five of the children were cousins).

And this week, one of my former colleagues died of lung cancer. She had never smoked even one cigarette. It feels so colossally unfair. She was only 52 with two children in high school. We taught English composition together for two years when I was still quite green. Not only did she welcome me (and my dog) to her office anytime, but she also opened all of her files, gave me copies of her syllabi, and mentored me through my first challenging semesters.

The last time I saw her was in the lab of a local hospital. She was getting her blood drawn to try to figure out why she couldn’t shake a persistent chest cold. I was getting my blood drawn to make sure we were all set to start trying to get pregnant.

She was on her way to a lung cancer diagnosis. I was on my way to meet Lily. Life and loss don’t ever seem to be too far from each other.

This juxtaposition of life and loss was really emphasized for me this past weekend when the small church/spiritual community that we go to celebrated a Seder meal together as a way to respect, appreciate and enter into this important Jewish holiday. The 15-part meal, in the words of a rabbi, represents the journey of liberation and transformation. As one of my pastors put it, “It’s 15 parts because transformation takes a long time—it’s the work of a lifetime.”

One of the steps, Maror, the eating of bitter herbs, really affected me. I was holding Lily during the meal, doing the new mama sway to keep her peacefully sleeping in her sling. I carefully ate the mixture of horseradish on lettuce, trying not to spill on her (wouldn’t that be a great introduction to solids!).  The horseradish is actually mixed with the Charoset, a sweet walnut and apple paste which symbolizes the mortar that the Jews used as slaves to keep the bricks together while building Pharoah’s many projects. My other pastor, who had actually made the dishes, pointed out that the Charoset, the sweetest part of the whole meal, also had wine or grape juice mixed in to symbolize that everything, even the sweet and easy times, has at least a little pain that is inherent. We ate the bitter herbs twice. The second time they were inside a Matzah “sandwich,” symbolizing the mix of bitter and sweet isn’t only external; it’s also within.

As a metaphor for life, the eating of bitter herbs teaches me that life and loss really are inextricably woven together. I’m speaking as a novice—and a non-Jewish one at that—but my takeaway was that the whole experience is a reminder that life is often bitter, we will be slaves in Egypt for far too long, but we carry with us the hope and possibility of liberation and transformation.

I told the group after the meal that Maror had reminded me of how difficult the previous week had been because Lily had started teething. The pain she felt cutting her teeth was excruciating for Stephen and me to witness (she added a new scream to her repertoire that gives new meaning to the term "blood-curdling"). And many of our efforts to help her were very poorly received by her. There’s just no way to explain to a baby that suctioning her nose with a saline spray and one of those horrible bulb aspirators is actually going to make her feel better. However, from my vantage point as an adult (with teeth), I know that teeth are important and quite nice for both eating and biting off hang nails. I can now see two little teeth starting to emerge, but boy is that emergence a big pain in the gums (and ears, and nose, apparently).

All I can hope is that from the vantage point of the divine, our pain and loss that seems so unfair, so random is like cutting teeth in the big scheme of things. And I desperately hope there is a scheme of things.

Those close to me laugh at how often I see applicable truth and insight in the Harry Potter series, but I’m realizing while writing this post that besides the clever plot and engaging characters, I love these books because they are all about death, the temptation of immortality, the power of self-sacrificing love, and, above all, the hope that there is a big scheme of things.

J.K. Rowling has said that her mother’s slow demise from multiple sclerosis was a big part of her motivation to write the series. She struggles mightily with her faith in the books—this is no easy allegorical tale. Like me, her doubts are big, her questions real. The tombstone on the grave of Harry’s parents points to her hope. She quotes 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” That is ultimately the thesis statement of the series.

Rowling knows that her hints of transcendence, her gestures at something beyond can only be that—gestures and not road signs. Faith, after all, is the substance of things hoped for. When Harry meets Dumbledore in the afterlife—well, really the chamber to the afterlife—and learns the answers to most of his questions, he asks Dumbledore if their conversation was real or if it was just in his head. Dumbledore’s answer is one of my favorite explanations of faith: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I have no idea how to incorporate Dumbledore's wisdom, or the lessons of Maror, or even my hopes and fears into my parenting of Lily. But maybe in a small way just deciding to have her is in itself a gesture, a prayer for the substance of things hoped for.

Note:

Shortly after I posted this, I read a chapter in Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith about Easter and Good Friday that completely hit home. She was visiting a friend in Utah who was dying of cancer (she died a month after the trip), and, in addition to skiing, they celebrated Easter together. Lamott's description of Good Friday felt so true, that I just have to add it as a follow-up to this post:

We celebrated Good Friday that night, a week late. It's a sad day, of loss and cruelty, and all you have to go on is faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. I hate that you can't prove the beliefs of my faith. If I were God, I'd have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check as you went along, to see if you're on the right track. But nooooooo. Darkness is our context, and Easter's context: without it, you couldn't see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.