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In daily essays that help restore balance and perspective, "Mother Crafton, " first woman vicar of New York's Seaport Chapel, speaks of middle-age pride, kids leaving home, faith, fantasies of women's magazines, the bags under her eyes, and destiny--and 350 other subjects. A welcome reading experience for women whose lives are spread too thinly.
"10–9–8–7–6–5–4–3–2–1 ... Happy New Year!"
In Korea, the New Year is celebrated with a ritual of reverence for old people: The children make a ceremonial bow before their elders, kneeling all the way down until their foreheads touch the ground. Parents do the same before the grandparents; everybody bows to anyone who is older. And when the elder accepts the gesture of respect, the child is rewarded with a coin ... even if the child is all grown up.
I'm going to go on a diet, Americans say to ourselves on this day, and get back to my pre-pregnancy weight once and for all. Some of us have been saying that for twenty-five years now. But as we pull off the last page of last year's calendar, we say it again. I'm going to do something so that I'll be like I was when I was young. Thin. Full of pep. Maybe this year I'll do something about these bags under my eyes.
But do you really want to be what you were in those days? So you're fatter now—you're also smarter. More sure of yourself. You can't be those things when you're young and inexperienced; it takes time to learn from your mistakes. Wisdom takes time to accumulate. That's why the Koreans honor the old: wisdom lives in them. And it lives in us, too, more and more as the years pass. Stick around long enough and the errors of your youth can become the stuff of which good advice is made. You can be proud of the things you learned the hard way. They may have left a few scars, but they have made you wise.
"O brave new world, that has such people in 't!"
—THE TEMPEST, ACT V SCENE I
When we looked forward to the end of the twentieth century from the middle of it, we thought we'd have more things figured out than we do. If you grew up expecting to be a wife and mother in a fairly predictable way, you've already been surprised by how unpredictable that life turned out to be. If you grew up expecting the women's movement to have pretty much settled things by now, you've already been surprised at how unsettled things still are.
So many things are possible for us now. We have choices we didn't have before. Great: now we have to be terrific in two worlds instead of one. We look at beautiful pictures of food in magazines and wish we had time to make dishes look and taste as lovely as that. Or we look at a list in another magazine of the ten hottest careers for women and notice that ours is not among them, and we feel just the tiniest bit judged.
Hotter than what? And according to whom? The career that's hot for you is the one that warms your heart. Maybe you do the work you do because you really love it. Or maybe you don't, and you do it because the people you love have to eat. Is one less strong and brave than the other? I don't think so. Who cares whether or not it's on somebody's hot list? Or beautiful enough to be in a magazine? Choices are supposed to make people more free, not less so.
So don't let the magazine pictures make you feel inadequate. Or the hot job lists, either. You can't do everything, and only a few things relating to any kind of work are glamorous. It's your commitment to what you do that makes it good for you.
"On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me, eleven pipers piping...."—THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
By the way, Christmas is not over. You've got until the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) to do all the things you didn't get to before December 25th. That's what the Church calendar says, and I'm going by that. This has the following advantages:
1. You can send out your Christmas cards now, when they will be much more noticeable. You can also respond in an informed way to the news people sent you in their cards which arrived on time. That way you won't be sending Mr. and Mrs. cards to people who divorced during the year.
2. You can buy things on sale in a store that doesn't look and sound like the Commodities Exchange, and ... a salesperson will be around when you need one.
3. You don't have to take your tree down right away.
4. You can keep playing Christmas music on the stereo.
5. You can call people to wish them a Merry Christmas when they'll actually have time to talk to you.
6. You can space out some of the gifts you give to your children. They don't all have to come on the same day. It can be more like Chanukah. The benefits of this are enormous. No sensory overload. No present frenzy in which a gift is barely acknowledged before the next one is torn into. And your kids actually learn to wait.
With a little encouragement, people are at their best at this time of year. Let's not revert to our crabby selves too quickly. We've got all year.
"Where can I flee from your presence?" —PSALM 139:6
I got up this morning at five o'clock. I thought I would have some time to myself—two hours, maybe, in a silent house.
Looking forward to this delicious slice of privacy at the day's beginning, I went to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. And as I waited for the kettle to boil, I heard a noise outside the door. Oh, no. It was Rosie, eldest grandchild. Up early, just like me.
"It's too early for you to be up," I said severely. And then I looked at her and thought of what it was like when I was four years old and awakened to hear my grandmother in the kitchen. What was I making, Rosie wanted to know. Tea, I answered, and got her some juice.
I did regret my lost two hours, and yet I also think that four-year-olds have the right to expect their grandmothers to be glad to see them. I remember feeling exactly the same ambivalence when her mother got up at the crack of many a long-ago dawn and destroyed my quiet time. I needed it. But she also needed me. And I needed her. I didn't know then how short the time with her would seem when it was over. Hardly any time at all. And now? You talk about quiet.
Rosie's feet were bare. Aren't your feet cold? No, she said. I got her some socks anyway. She drank her juice and chattered happily on and on about her school and the cookies she and her mother made to take there for the Christmas party. She had no sense of having interrupted anything important. And she was right. She's a pretty important person. There'll be other mornings for me alone.
"Oh, how good and pleasant it is!" —PSALM 133:1
Radio playing nice music. House sort of clean. Laundry done. Candles on the table, ready to light. Table set. Food all ready to cook quickly. Recipe we both like. Even a nice dessert made.
I had the day off today, so I had time to make things really nice. I got all the house things done and still had five or six wonderful hours. I was alone all day. I could listen to the music I like without irritating anyone. Even the phone calls were all people I wanted to talk to. And there weren't all that many of them.
I am very aware of how nice this is: just to take care of the house and make a good dinner. So different from a normal, hectic day, with its appointments and interruptions, places to be on time, things to pick up on the way home, things to decide. We have to have take-out meals sometimes, or meals eaten at different times from everyone else because I get home so much later than my family. There are weeks in which I don't feel I see them very much, these people I love the most. A hurried good-bye in the morning and an evening in which we're too sleepy to interact much.
I leaf through a magazine. A psychologist writes that I should be having one meal a day which the whole family eats together. I don't always do that. But we do the best we can. We enjoy one another when we are together. And at least the phone calls are regular and frequent and satisfying. Full of love.
Don't worry if you can't do the best thing every time—you'll rob yourself of the enjoyment of the things you can do.
"What do you mean by coming in here at eighteen minutes past the hour?" —SCROOGE, TO BOB CRATCHITT, A CHRISTMAS CAROL
You're stuck in traffic and the minutes tick by. Only fifteen minutes before you're supposed to be there. Ten. Now you're supposed to be there. Now it's after the time you were supposed to be there. You are furious. What's the matter up there? Why isn't anybody moving? You feel your heart pounding.
They're wondering where you are. You wish you had a cell phone. Now they probably think you're a lightweight. Undependable. Where is she? Are you sure she knew when the meeting started? Somebody's probably calling your home.
Hold it. There are times when there is simply nothing you can do, and this is one of them. The traffic will unsnarl when it does, and heart palpitations won't speed things up. This is one of those things you cannot change. Move beyond it: it's lousy and it'll be over, but for now it's time to do some damage control. You'll have to apologize to those you've inconvenienced and explain what happened. If you're always late, you'll want to take a look at that. Leave earlier or something. But that's the future. For now, you're just stuck. And so ...
You now have some free time. Nobody can reach you and you can't do anything about it. But you can switch on the radio and calm yourself down. Think about what to make for dinner. Think about something nice. You'll get there. And you'll be better able to deal with the consequences of being late if you get a grip on yourself now.
"And the muscles of his brawny arms are strong as iron hands ..." —HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
Today all the health clubs are running newspaper ads to cash in on people's New Year's resolutions. You and a guilty friend can sign up for the price of one person. Then you can get the kind of body you want, which is described in the ads as "hard."
This idea of women being hard is new. When I was young, we were supposed to be soft. I got to be very good at that, and have been extremely soft all my life. I am not sure hard is something I'm going to be able to manage at this late date. The doctor I'm seeing now has given me a group of exercises to do, like "as many situps as I can," which should eventually make my stomach hard. That will be a new experience. I also lie on the floor and tighten my buttocks and stay that way for ten seconds, so I guess my bottom will one day be hard as well. All of these hard muscles I'm developing are going to hold my spine in the right position, I hear, and then my back won't hurt. "How long should I keep doing them," I ask. "For the rest of your life," he says.
In the train station today I saw a whole shelf of magazines about getting hard. Improbably-muscled men and women held each other like footballs, their blood vessels standing out like cords on their arms and chests because they have no fat at all. I can't say they're attractive exactly, but they certainly are hard. They work out for hours each day to get that way, and once they've gotten hard they can never stop. It'll all turn to fat if they do. Just imagine the poor things if that happened: enormous, doughy mountains of soft flesh staring sadly at faded muscle magazine covers to remind them of their glory days, back when they were hard.
You won't be seeing me on one of those magazine covers in a leotard, with my blood vessels standing out like cords. I'll be satisfied if I can make my back stop hurting. As I already feel better when I do these exercises than I do when I don't, they must work. I'll never be hard. But maybe I can be strong.
"Life is unfair." —JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY
Unemployed for over a year, my friend finally landed a short-term job. I'll take it, she says; in this market you can't be choosy. Besides, its nice to have my professional expertise recognized for a change. This job search business is a little hard on the ego.
Wouldn't you know: the Saturday before the first training weekend, she lands in the hospital with diverticulitis, a painful inflammation of the intestinal wall. She's had it before, but this time it's really bad. Her roommate tells me they're probably going to have to operate and she doesn't quite know how to break it to Brooke. Oh, no, I say: what about the job? Of all times for something like this to happen.
I am not going to miss this training weekend, Brooke tells the doctor. Sure enough, she goes home. A nurse comes to show her how to give herself intravenous antibiotics. This is better anyway, she says; we'll destroy the infection with this stuff, then I can have the operation after it's cleared up. It's simpler this way. But there's hardly anything she can eat. I don't care, she says, I needed to lose weight. In fact, I would go to this training dead if I had to. And at the end of the week, with an IV lock in her arm but very much alive, she gets on the train for the first weekend workshop.
She's a determined woman. She's kept herself in good spirits, going out on interview after interview, but it's been brutal. She knows she's part of the recession, that this is about the economy, not about her. But so what? Sure, it helps to know you're not alone, she quips, just not all that much. What really helps unemployed people is getting work.
"Give us, outside sleep, serenity." —GIORGOS SEFERIADES
I don't know why I can't sleep, but I'm very grateful. I know I'm going to regret it tomorrow, when I have to plod through a long day without adequate rest, but I need this time to work. It is unusual for me to be able to work at night; usually I'm too tired. The difference today is that I'm keyed up about a deadline I have to make and the host of distractions which will crowd between me and it this week. How will I get everything done? I don't know the answer to that yet. I just will. I have to. I will make my insomnia part of the war effort. Why lie awake in bed fretting when I can be awake working?
I said yes to some social engagements I ought to have refused these last two weeks. I need the time to work. When it came time to go off on one of these junkets, I have felt both guilty and angry in all kinds of ways. Guilty about not working. Guilty if I canceled or postponed a date. Angry at whoever asked me to have a few hours of innocent fun, as if such an invitation were a deliberate act of sabotage. Angry that I can't have a social life when I have a deadline. Angry at myself, really, because I didn't space out my work better: I could have avoided this bottleneck by working more steadily. I rebuke myself sharply. Why don't you ever plan ahead?
But I am always like this with a project. I must be one of those people who needs pressure in order to perform. I wish I were otherwise, but we are the way we are. I would not want to live this way all the time, but I must say I'm impressed with the old girl. I can still respond to a shot of adrenaline when I have to.
"Praise the sea; on shore remain." —JOHN FLORIO
I'm home, Corinna says when she calls at about one in the afternoon. Madeline got sick at school again. Her male boss, who has never had to miss work because of a sick child, is not above heaving an exasperated sigh, as if she had done this deliberately. He's not a bad guy ordinarily. I guess people just forget sometimes what it can be like. People who've never been single parents forget especially well, I find.
If she's not better tomorrow I'll see if I can move some things around in my schedule and watch Madeline. My mother would have done the same for me. But often I can't manage that, so Corinna's left to struggle through another childcare nightmare on her own. Corinna and a lot of other people. I wish it were easier.
I remember lying to an employer when one of my children got sick, telling him it was I who was ill. I knew he would question my commitment to the job if I didn't, and I was right. That was degrading; I felt guilty for doing it, as if taking care of my kids was wrong. But that's the message: be serious about your work or be a mother. You can't be both.
Except that more than half of all American mothers are both. There is some evidence that things are improving: Corinna doesn't lie about her kids being sick, and she doesn't feel as guilty as I did. Her boss may sigh noisily, but he doesn't do much else. And there are men at work who sometimes find themselves in the same boat. But it's so hard. I hope your kids are well and in school today. If they're not, I hope they can go back tomorrow, and that nobody says anything thoughtless and cruel to you about it if they can't. Or, if someone does, that you've got a withering response all picked out, and the guts to use it.
Excerpted from Finding Time for Serenity by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright © 1994 by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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