The birds and the bees

When my son was thirteen months old, I took him back East to meet his cousins, Aunt and Uncle. One night, in the middle of this visit, ensconced with my son and three nieces in a cozy bed, my oldest niece suddenly looked at me and said in a perplexed tone, “Tanya, he’s so cute. But I just don’t get it. How does the baby get out? Is there an operation and does it hurt or does the hospital give it to you? I mean, how do you get a baby?” A little flustered as to how to answer, I wound up telling her that it takes part luck and part biology to make a baby and that she might want to talk to her mom about the specifics.

Over the next month, this conversation kept creeping back into my mind. As my thoughts swirled around the topic, I couldn’t help but think about how I couldn’t remember not knowing how babies are made. Soon after, I decided that I would talk about this subject with my son at a very young age in a low-key manner. Fortunately for me, I serendipitously soon found a Dr. Ruth pop-up book that explained this very topic.

And so, between the ages of three and four, we read this book innumerable times. Before bed, in the mornings, and at nap times, we learned how to spell S-E-X, what it’s all about, and how it works. By the end of this phase, I had developed a pretty good analogy for explaining how babies are made.

In the shortened version, I would tell my son that making babies is isn’t too different from making a cake. You need some ingredients, an egg and a sperm. And, just like when we’re baking, the ingredients need to mix together to make something new. The mom’s uterus is the oven, with the only difference being that instead of an hour, it takes nine months before a baby’s ready to come out and be enjoyed. Most importantly, though, just like when we make a cake, it’s important to make sure that you love the person you have sex with since it makes the experience (and the baby) all the sweeter. And then, adopting the philosophy of spray and pray, I fervently hoped that my son absorbed the main messages.

A couple of years ago, my seven year old son casually approached me as he was getting ready for bed and calmly stated that “A lot of my friends think hugging and kissing is disgusting, but I don’t get it. It’s just a natural fact of life. Right mom?” “Right.” And with this quiet declaration, I knew that my son had indeed retained one of the valuable tenets that I had espoused to him.

As I watch him grow older, quietly but steadily approaching teenagehood with all of its precarious uncertainty and novelty, I hold on to the hope that he will keep his heart open, make his emotions visible, and dare to take emotional risks while treasuring himself enough to only share his intimate self with one he loves and who can reciprocate in measure.

Marriage and intimacy

During the 2010 Olympics I was lucky enough to obtain a ticket to the pairs figure skating competition. I was initially disappointed when the event began as I hadn’t realized that I would be watching twenty pairs perform the same routine over and over again. After watching many of the couples perform, however, I began to see the beauty in the repetition, noticing that the couples who were most magical were not necessarily the ones  always in sync. Instead, it was the couples that fell out of step with one another while maintaining their connection who were most appealing. For it was in viewing the stronger partner unhesitatingly and unflinchingly carry the faltering one that the intimacy between the two was most visible, providing a peek behind the curtain into the deeper bond that enables two distinct individuals to separate and come back together in a unified dance that’s all the stronger for a misstep.

Over time, I reflected on this hidden beauty, struck by how it paralleled the relationships that I know and most admire.  And so, when presented with the opportunity to get married to someone who loved me, I turned him down, knowing that our relationship did not meet the litmus test that I had set for myself.

When my son, who also loved this man, asked me why I wouldn’t marry him, I gently explained that I believe that marriage is like a puzzle. Whereas you can sometimes force together two pieces that look as if they belong with one another, it’s a struggle and you always know that something’s not quite right, if not through the process then by the end result. On the other hand, when two pieces belong together, they gently nestle up against one another, falling together into place to create a picture that is more beautiful than either piece could create on its own, each unique part accentuating the other’s natural form to present it in a supportive and flattering light.

Having no desire to be the next Elizabeth Taylor, marrying repeatedly for an elusive but heady feeling that’s unsustainable in the long term, I’ve decided to save my last marriage chit for a relationship that is mutually supportive, allowing each of us to explore and express our dark and light in all their splendor while striving to become the best version of ourselves. And it’s my hope that as my son matures and falls in love, he’ll ultimately choose for himself a relationship in which he’s loved in spite of his flaws all the while being recognized for the work in progress that he is, supported during his mis-steps and throughout his attempts to make the most of who he is, while complementing his other in a dance that creates a long-lasting moment of truth that is beautiful for all of its work and imperfections.

An inelegant but parsimonious theory of death

Last night I dreamed about my great-grandmother, Buby. My last strong memory of her is of the two of us standing in her studio apartment’s kitchenette: me, a rebellious sixteen year old with attitude; her, a warm and wrinkled ninety-four year old asking me what I was going to do with my life now that I was finished my schooling. Even though she could not wrap her head around the idea that I wanted so much more for myself than working as a salesperson in a shop and that my education was barely beginning, the over-riding feeling that flows through this memory is one of all-encompassing love and acceptance.

Last night’s dream was usual in that both my great-grandmother and my grandfather, who died around this time last year, made an appearance. Sitting in the front passenger seat of a car, I turned around and there she was. Younger than I remember her in my mind’s eye, she was wearing a soft baby blue cashmere turtleneck sweater reminiscent of her daughter, my great-aunt Muriel and plastered across her face was a wide open smile, framed by her famous red lips and carefully rouged high cheekbones. As she registered my surprise at seeing her there, she let out a relaxed little laugh and said “You didn’t really think I was gone? Don’t you know that I’m always there with you?”. As I turned, I saw my debonair grandfather in the driver seat, wearing his signature tie and fedora he smiled and nodded his agreement at me.

I woke-up soon thereafter with tears streaming down my face. As I navigated my way towards consciousness a more recent memory of my son came to mind. At the age of three and a half, he became very curious about death, asking me “What happens when we die?” That evening, lying together cuddled in the darkness, I explained to him that when we die, our bodies eventually disintegrate, like discarded orange peels that no longer contain delicate fruit needing protection. But, the part that makes us us, the part that makes him the special and unique person that he is and that holds his light, never disintegrates, it just disperses into everywhere and nowhere.

Initially, this knowledge translated itself into vigorous planning manifested in the following forms: “Mom, when you die, I’m going to bury your body in brown, so that no one will see the dirt on you”, “Mom, I get to have all your money when you die since I’m your only child, right?”, “Mom, when you die, I’m going to add another floor to the house and renovate it”, “Mom, don’t worry, I’ll always come visit you and talk to you when you’re dead so you won’t be lonely.”

Over time, my son’s preoccupation with the details of what to do with the physical when I’m gone morphed into a more sophisticated dialogue about death. And throughout it all, I was reminded of how at various points in my life complete strangers have pulled me aside to let me know that I have many guides escorting me through life, keeping me safe, sometimes in spite of myself.

And now, as my son and I talk about death, I know that I will need to explain to him my true beliefs around death: that when we die, our soul or energy does not disperse. Instead, it goes into the universe and attaches to what, for lack of a better term, I call the great glob of souls in the sky. When a new person is born, a soul is created from the amorphous mass that is either identical to one that previously existed or an entirely new combination with bits and pieces taken in various percentages of older souls.

For me, this explains why we sometimes meet someone and instantly have a connection and are drawn to them, recognize something of ourselves in another, or see bits of someone else we know or have known in another. It also explains why some people have outstanding talents in certain areas, such as master painters, musicians, or mathematicians, having amassed all of that particular energy from preexisting souls, and why others have incredibly outstanding dominant traits, such as mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, that allow them to leave a legacy to the world.

As I think about this, I gaze at a painting on my desk, given to me by a stranger over fifteen years ago in Nepal. On the front of it is a simple image of a face but inscribed on the back is a reminder of how all of us in the universe are connected. Keeping this in mind, I know that as long as my son understands that the universal we is me, he will be able to live his life and meet death with joy and equanimity, knowing that our time on this planet is just one stop in time on an ever continuing journey.







Positively half full

Some days I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. On these mornings, my first thoughts generally run along the lines of “I have so much to do today, I’m so tired, can’t I sleep for just ten more minutes, it’s raining out. Again.” As these thoughts flow through my head, dragging my spirit down, I physically propel my body out of bed and into the shower. As the water rains down on me, I try not to let the negativity overwhelm me, resisting the undertow that threatens to engulf me and cast a shadow upon my day.

And then, inevitably, as I walk into my son’s room, listening to his squeals of delight as he talks to his brown and yellow bears, outlining his plans for the day, my spirits begin to lift. As I see his smiling face, radiating an expectation that only positive and good things will happen throughout the day, I am struck by how much our perception shapes our experience.

As a child, my mother tried to be positive. To this day, she thinks that she is a positive influence, emphasizing only the good. And, although she is supportive in terms of the bigger picture items, as an adult, some of my strongest memories are of her petty negativities that permeated our daily routine.

When I asked my brother if this was also his experience, he started to laugh. In response to my question, he reminds me of the times when my mother would inevitably pick the wrong line up in the supermarket and, as other shoppers in longer lines would be rung through first, begin to tap her foot in annoyance and complain under her breath, making the extra minutes not only feel longer but leaving a sour aftertaste our mouths that would bleed into our next activity.

And then I realized how much this all-pervasive negativity had become my own default mindset, occurring as if by generational osmosis. As a parent, I find myself in constant battle between the now innate negativity that I have absorbed and the parent that I want to be – positive, nurturing, and ever-hopeful.

Looking at my son, I see a clean slate. In his world, only the good exists. Snow coming down in white silver wet sheets is as fantastic as melting ice cream dribbling down his chin on a sunny summer afternoon. The world is new to him, unmarred by the scars of experience, each moment savored for its unexpected novelty and beauty.

And I know that if I can keep his rose colored glasses somewhat intact, he will always operate from a better vantage point. Since the ability to take pleasure in the world’s tiniest joys, from the gleam of a shiny green apple against a smooth slate brown plate to the warmth that a stranger’s smile generates, can make or break your day, having a constant perspective of the cup being half full means that the world seems infinitely more hopeful, with endless possibilities for delight around each and every corner. And, it is this expectation that often allows us to see the beauty that is otherwise hidden beneath life’s mundanity while allowing us to be open to its unlimited opportunities.

Having a posse

When I turned six, my family imploded. From the outside, we looked like a picture-perfect family: my mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a university professor who was around most of the time. But, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving. Underneath the Cleaver exterior, the 70s political and social hippy revolution was alive and kicking in our home.

By the time I was eight, my parents were engaged in full-blown open relationships, my dad was openly bi-sexual, we had an anarchist press operating out of our basement, and my parents were constantly trying to convince me that it would be best if my brother and I were home-schooled, an event that was to take place in the idealized school bus that we would purchase and convert to tour across the country. In all reality, I was probably the only child who begged and pleaded to be allowed to go to school. For me, it and all the friends that I had there represented a haven of sanity.

When we reminisce about this time, my cousin constantly reminds me that it’s amazing that we all turned out so normal, functional and successful. And I can’t help but agree.

When I reflect on why things turned out this way, the only answer that I can come up with is that, no matter what, we always knew that we had a posse. Regardless of what crisis or upheaval we were experiencing, we always knew that when push came to shove, our parents would drop whatever insanity they had embroiled themselves in and be behind us one hundred percent. And, in spite of the myriad changes to our family constellation, this fact has remained strong and true to this day: I know that no matter what is happening in my parents’ and brother’s lives, and no matter what was said or done in the past, if I need them, they will be there for me, rearranging their lives to give me the physical and emotional supports that I need to get through a particularly difficult situation. This fact has proven true time and time again.

For myself, knowing that I am part of a unit that will circle the wagons in closed and protective ranks has created a deep-seated sense of security lasting well into adulthood. Fundamentally, I know that I am never alone. And, the adage of there being strength in numbers seems to hold true.

As a parent, I find myself consciously trying to create this same sense of security for my son. Although formally, from the outside looking in, it is currently just he and I, I find that this is not quite an accurate depiction of reality. By extending my notion of family to include not just blood relatives and immediate family, but all the people who care for and love us, I find that my son already has a sense of security in his place in the world, confident that if he needs help or assistance someone will be there to provide it. And, by fostering the conditions that allow him to be showered in various forms of love while maintaining the illusion that the world is going to love him for as long as possible, I believe that his equilibrium and ability to cope won’t be fundamentally rocked when he realizes that the world isn’t only a joyous place to be but often requires fortitude, resilience, strength and a belief in oneself to succeed.