Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

The place where my family and I live feels like a safe place. Sure, there’s earthquakes, landslides, car accidents and other hazards that pose some risk to our safety, but on a day-to-day basis we rarely, if ever, have to worry about them. The likelihood of a dictator taking over the United States and deciding to annihilate all Jewish Caucasian mothers, or any other racial denomination I belong to, is quite slim. I am, most likely and most often, safe.

I am unlikely to wake up one morning and be told to pack up only as much as I can carry and move to Central California, where from now on I will have to work in the rice fields day and night. Nor am I likely to find myself sitting in long meetings in which the shape of my nose or the color of my skin will be judged, and after which, those who have failed the test will be taken under the mango tree and beat to death with an axe.

Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is a raw retelling of Arn Chorn-Pond’s experiences in Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Arn was just a child when the Khmer Rouge took over his village and told  the inhabitants that they must move to the countryside for “just three days.” Arn found himself working in the rice paddies, separated from his family, continually in danger for his life. The camp where he worked also served as an execution ground, and Arn realized his survival depended on the whims of the Khmer Rouge guards. He made himself a rule: Never fall down.

“Bend like the grass,” Arn’s aunt told him, and he tried to follow her advice. Despite never having played an instrument before, Arn volunteered to play the flute and became the leader of a band that was made to play to cover the noises of the executions. Later, as the Vietnamese began to advance, Arn had a weapon thrust in his arms and he became a boy soldier. With compassion and humanity, McCormick draws Arn’s portrait, a boy who does heart-rending things in order to survive. She shows with haunting clarity the boys bent in the rice fields, the ever-growing mound under the mango tree where a sickeningly sweet smell persists, the blank face of the music teacher, the line to receive the thin rice soup, and the boys crawling to reach the latrines.

My family and I live in a very safe place. Oak trees and tranquility rule outside my window. I am so grateful for having been born where I was. Many are not so lucky. So many children, adults, the old, are in need of homes, live without running water, struggle day to day to survive. I’d like to send my thoughts today to those in need, whether here in the United States, Cambodia, or elsewhere in our crazy, sometimes cruel world. I wish everyone could have a day of rest today, a day of sunshine and love.

Arn Chorn-Pond survived. He was adopted by an American U.N. worker, became a speaker about his experiences, and created several organizations that help children of war and that help return to Cambodia the traditional music and art which the Khmer Rouge had tried to eliminate.

Children of War is an organization that aids children held hostage by war and violence
Cambodian Living Arts (Facebook page) is an organization that helps preserve the traditional arts of Cambodia
Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development is an organization that provides computer skills and education to children, farmers, and others.
Arn Chorn-Pond speaker page
Arn Chorn-Pond's homepage
Patricia McCormick's homepage

Monday, February 18, 2013

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

In the musical Wicked, the Wizard of Oz taunts Elphaba: “Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history. A man’s called a traitor or liberator. A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist. Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.” The wizard’s words are cynical, but remind me of an important truth: history is what we remember after the fact. There is no such thing as an objective truth.

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley is the story of the famous photograph of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. One of these soldiers is the author’s father, John Bradley. The author showcases the many coincidences, myths and inaccuracies which turned the photograph into perhaps the most well-known image of World War II and a publicly acknowledged symbol of heroism. The entire lifting of the flag was a four-second event. A 1/400the of a second exposure by a photographer who barely had time to see the image he was capturing on film before he pressed the button, and the result became a symbol of valor under fire.

Was the raising of the flag an act of heroism? For me, it surely was. Its inspiring symbolism, in fact, is the reason I picked up the book in the first place. James Bradley, however, tries to portray the act of raising the flag as an ordinary, unimportant moment which the flag raisers barely recalled after it passed. “I want you to always remember something,” John Bradley told his son when the latter asked about the photograph, “The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”

The moment of raising the flag takes up twelve pages in this two-hundred page book. Surrounding the famous moment are the six young flag raisers, their life and death, hopes and dreams, and the chain of events which made them into celebrity-heroes. The book is, most importantly, the story of the bloodiest battle of World War II, a battle which claimed over 26,000 casualties on the American side: 6,821 dead and 19,217 wounded, as well as 21,844 dead Japanese (out of 22,000 who were stationed on the island).

Inspiring courage was the only thing on my mind when I suggested the book to my son for his reading project. What both of us encountered was a completely different experience. “This is a book of death,” my son said after reading the chapter titled D-Day. This a book about the truth behind the symbol, I thought to myself. It’s a book about how terrible war is, how devastating to everyone involved, the soldiers, the officers, their families and even their future children. It’s about how, in history, we all too often choose to see only the aspect which pleases us.

The symbolism attached to the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima is an occasion to explore the misrepresentation of courage in battle in order to divert public attention from death and destruction to what is perceived as ideal: valor, the American spirit, and self-sacrifice. James Bradley does an excellent job in portraying the horrors of war side by side with acts of bravery, and the machinations of politicians side by side with the ordinariness of human courage. As he says at the end of the book:

“They were boys of common virtue.
Called to duty.
Brothers and sons. Friends and neighbors.
And fathers.
It’s as simple as that.”

This review refers to the Young Reader edition of the novel.

To find out more:
Iwo Jima memorial page
Flags of Our Fathers on GoodReads
Battle of Iwo Jima wikipedia page
The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima wikipedia page

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rereading the Lord of the Rings

I read the Hobbit when I was a teenager and loved it, all of it. I loved the dwarves and Bilbo. I loved Gandalf the Grey. I loved the beauty and music of the elves. I loved the dragon and the necromancer who makes Mirkwood an evil place.

The Hobbit, narrated by Rob Inglis
When I started the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, however, I found myself in an entirely different place. Evil threatened the world I have come to love. Darkness ruled. Frodo and his friends seemed to be journeying by night toward night, and I did not like this at all. I put the book aside and did not read it again till I was an adult. When I finally ventured into Middle Earth again, the danger facing Frodo and his friends was as real to me as before, but I was no longer attached to Middle Earth as it was in Bilbo’s time.

I fell deeply in love with Middle Earth. I walked in the darkness of Moria, floated on the river Anduin, and sang in the Last Happy Home. Till today, I can see in my mind the river in which Frodo faced the nine black riders and the chasm into which Gandalf fell with the Balrog. Middle Earth and its inhabitants were, and still are, as real to me as this earth, and perhaps, sometimes, more.

I began to listen to the Hobbit with the kids a few months ago, but they did not like the book. Too many difficult words, I think. I ended up listening by myself, and having finished it, immediately began the Lord of the Rings. My love for the book has only increased with the years. How well done it is! How magically real! How amazingly its descriptions throw me far in time and place so that I’m right there, at the table in Elrond’s house or in the elf boats, shooting downstream under the tall statues of the seated kings of old.

LOTR narrated by Rob Inglis
It doesn’t matter to me that there are few women in these books. I connect with the friendship between Gimli and Legolas, feel compassion for Boromir’s need to save his people and disgust with Gollum as he cowers and cheats and lies. I admire the loyalty of Sam, the quiet courage of Frodo, the natural kingliness of Aragorn, and I laugh with the two bumbling hobbits, Pippin and Merry, as they accidentally manage to raise an entire forest to war.

No other book has ever become so real to me. I have read it now more than twice or thrice, and still it sucks me deep into its world so that I no longer know where I am or what goes on around me. I hope that one day the kids will be open to listen to it, to share this love with me. For now, I guess I’ll just continue to allow the magic to emerge out of the words of the book as I listen to it in the car on my own. And if one day I disappear on the way, know that that’s where I went, to Middle Earth, to say hello to Gandalf, take a look at Sam’s elvish garden, ride on an eagle, see an elf, visit a dwarf in his home.

These are the audible books I've been listening to:
The Hobbit, unabridged, narrated by Rob Inglis
The Fellowship of the Ring, unabridged, narrated by Rob Inglis

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Messing Up

Lately, I’ve been trying to encourage my kids to mess up. “Messing up is the best thing you can do, and making mistakes is the only way to learn,” I preached to Eden who cried after forgetting to do her homework. She threw me a deservedly suspicious look. My sermon was another example of the famous “Do as I say, not as I do.” “Be quiet, Ima,” the child said. Perhaps the wisest words heard that day.

How I wish to be always perfect, patient, polite, empathic, wise, thoughtful and kind. Never yell at the kids, never make a mistake, always treat other human beings with patience and respect. How I wish each of my actions and words came from the heart, out of love and compassion and trust.

The perfect imperfection of nature
Why is it so much easier to be kinder to another person than to myself? I look at Eden’s forgetfulness of her homework and see it as a path to growth, a lucky break from which she can learn so much. But when I make a mistake, especially if it is about the kids or my writing, it is an earth-shattering disaster, a trauma unlikely ever to be healed, a case for putting more money in my savings jar for the psychiatrist, the horrible, terrible end.

In The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes about research that shows that people are less likely to repeat their mistakes if they are treated with compassion. Subjects of an experiment who were told not to worry about their candy consumption, because everyone sometimes eats too much, ate fewer pieces than their counterparts who were not given the reassuring message. It takes so little, it seems, to make us feel happier, loved and secure. It takes so little, just a few words, to make us remember to cling to our higher self’s dreams and goals.

But how to change habits of a lifetime? I am so used to dance to my inner Critic’s music that I can barely hear any tune other than his. Even trying to talk to the Critic seems to fail. A long list of grievances spews from his lips, and as I listen to him, I find myself questioning myself: Could he be right? Am I really like this?

“If I don’t push you, you will never do anything,” the Critic says. And it seems to me to be true. And yet I wonder: what if he could learn to push with compassion? What if instead of criticisms, he could provide gentle, empathic reminders? Seems to me my Critic and I have a lot in common. We both of us wish to be more patient and kind. Perhaps, if I could forgive him his messes, he could forgive me mine? Perhaps if we joined hands, something, finally, can be done?

To all of this joins another desire: to be an example to my children. To be able to say, “Do as I do.” I would love for them to grow up criticism-free. And perhaps, with that, as with everything else, I need to remember: don’t worry, everyone messes up. It's the best learning way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Hungry? Finish Your Cake

As a child, I was a very picky eater, and like a lot of children who leave most of their food on their plate, I too heard about the children starving in Africa. It made me feel quite bad. I imbibed the idea that my troubles were very small compared to those of other children who lived in less privileged parts of the world. I grew ashamed whenever I was struggling with a hard time. Suffering, indulging in suffering, was wrong, because what do I, a girl living in abundance, safety and freedom, have to complain about?

For years, I didn’t believe my own pain from depression. Divorce? Piece of cake. It’s not like I was starving. The flu? Other people are dying, untreated, of lesser illnesses even as we speak. I miss the kids? How dare I miss them when other children, even younger, are dead.

Some of my friends posted yesterday a link to a video in which people from third world countries read first world country problems: “I hate it when I forget my charger downstairs, when my house is so big I need two wireless routers, when my leather seats are not heated, when I leave the clothes in the washer so long they start to smell.” A blurb reminds us that “things that irritate us would be part of fantasy lives for people in third world countries.”

Listening to the video, I wondered, do its producers really believe that these are first world countries? Here in the United States, many are indeed fortunate. We have clean water, indoor heating, cars for every adult, public education, and abundant food. We also sometimes complain about forgetting our phone chargers downstairs. And we probably would, most of us, feel ashamed to mention any problems after listening to this video. But that doesn’t mean that our problems are any less difficult to bear.

Bipolar disorders, depression, divorces, suicide, illnesses, crime, car accidents, terrorism, losing a parent or a child, natural disasters, stress from work, we suffer from these and many more. And we could be allowed to suffer from our problems without being reminded that others in others countries are less fortunate than us. Would we tell someone whose wife died in a car accident that she was lucky to to even have a car?

I have an indoor sink!
I and many people around me (including those friends who posted that video) try to assist and give of our abundance almost every day to those in need, to those less fortunate than us, to those whose suffering is almost incomprehensible to us because we are looking at them from our position of privilege and plenty. Giving of our abundance is a wonderful feeling, to us and to those who receive of it. Let us not grow ashamed either of what we have or of what we lack, because it is our common pain and suffering that allows us to grow compassionate with the pain of the other.

Next time you leave your charger downstairs, go ahead and complain. My heart is with you. It is big enough to feel the annoyance (and sometimes much more than annoyance) of having to walk back down the stairs. My heart is big enough to feel for you and for the child with her stomach bloated with hunger. So fear not. As far as I am concerned, you’re free to feel pain.

If you want more:
Link to the First World Country Problems video

If this blog post is making your feel charitable today or any day:
Link to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation, one of the charities I've been giving money to since Uri fell in love with gorillas at age 2.
Link to Bay Area Wilderness Training, a non-profit that is involved with getting less privileged kids outdoors. I believe that reconnecting to nature is our best path to world peace. I've been involved with this organization since 2006.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

That Flat Stomach

I have a confession to make: when I was eighteen and had my first real boyfriend, I was obsessed with having a flat stomach. I am 5’2” and weighed at the time 48 kilograms, which is equivalent to 108 pounds. I was not even close to being fat, but, I had a rounded stomach. Oh, how I hated that stomach! Every night I did one hundred sit ups, full ones, with my feet under the bed frame. I am sure my posture must have improved, but there was no change in the roundness of my stomach.

As a lifelong member of the Society of Wimps and Geeks, I never liked exercise. In elementary school I used to hide under my desk in a pathetic and (as you probably guessed) unsuccessful attempt to skip PE class. As an adult, I discovered a better way to embrace the necessity to exercise (at least in order to leave my stomach round rather than rounder). I told myself that exercise allows me to eat whatever I want. In went the chocolates, the cakes, ravioli, gnocchi, and pizza, and though I never got much bigger than, say, 122 pounds, my tummy never got flatter.

Then came the big revelation. Rock climbers belong to the Society of Wimps and Geeks! Not as Wimps, of course. They qualify for their innate Geekiness. Longing for a break in my fortunes as well as for some adventure (about which I had so far only read in books), I applied to enter that holly order and was accepted, though retaining my Wimpishness. And my round stomach.
Sitting on the summit of Mt. Conness, Yosemite

Having joined the holly order of climbers, I suddenly had a new exercising goal. Now I wanted stamina, leg power, and upper body strength, though you may be sure I still cared how far my stomach flopped over the climbing harness. Exercising changed its name to training. I was training to climb. And climb I did: Rainier, Shasta, Olympus, and some rock climbing routes that I would never have imagined myself on or near. But underneath it all, and certainly beneath the harness, I still worried (in present tense too) about the flatness of my stomach.

Setting the goal to be healthy and strong, says Kelly McGonigal in her book The Will Power Instinct, is a much better and more pertinent motivator than using food as a reward. Say, for example, when my favorite chocolate and nuts bar calls to me with its sweet promise, I can remember my goal of being healthy and strong and decide whether that bar, tempting though it is, would support my goal (answer: no, and no buts).

I want to be healthy and strong. I want to exercise because it supports my goals, and I want to accept and love my stomach no matter how round.  And every once in a while I want to eat that chocolate bar, because, to tell the truth, it too supports one of my goals: the one about living life to the fullest and having fun!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Holding On to Letting Go

Last night, as I was getting ready to go to sleep, an overwhelming sense of dread and loss crept over me. I paused, trying to analyze what precisely was scaring me, and discovered to my surprise that I was stressing, thirty-six hours in advance, about Wednesday morning when the children go, as they always do, to spend their allocated days with their father.

Nearly eight years have passed since the divorce, but the anxiety over my time without the children returns at regular intervals, usually on Tuesday, the day before they are to leave. Wednesdays, after dropping them off at school, I walk around the house like a ghost, not quite knowing what to do with myself. There seems to be no reason to cook, which I suppose is understandable, but why do I not use this “free” time to write, paint, garden, or -- the fairies save me -- have fun?

Every week I ask myself the same question: why can’t I just let go? The custody arrangement is not about to change, and it is high time to accept that and move on. And yet, somehow, it is my very identity as a mother that is in a crisis. I cannot be a mother only half of the week, but how am I a mother during the days when the children are not with me?

Parenting and life itself, it seems to me, are made up of letting-go bumps. The moment of birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord. Weaning and moving to solid foods. Sleep training. A nanny. Preschool. Kindergarten. The first playdate without mommy, then the first party without mommy. Overnight field trips. Overnight camp. Puberty. And before us, always, the scariest moment, the end of high school, the beginning of college. Soon, they will be moving away, perhaps to the other side of the world, finding a partner, getting married, having their own children. And us no longer needed. And soon, gone.

I cheer myself up by saying that letting go is a life-long endeavor. I look ahead, and I can see that my road leads me straight toward these bumps. No matter how much I twist and turn, how much I struggle or try to avoid a particular bump, life relentlessly pushes me on, forcing me into greater and greater letting go's.

This morning, before school, Eden and I listened to music together. I felt the warmth of her little body against mine, admired how big she got, how long her legs and arms, how cute her little nose is, and the sparkle in her eyes. The next moment I was walking her to school, getting a brief hug. And then I was alone. No matter how hard I try, there is no way to stop the clock. I find myself holding on to these wonderful moments of connection, forcing myself to remember to let go of all but the memory once they are gone.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Serving in the Israeli army, I first became aware of the distinction between loneliness and aloneness. At home, I was acutely aware of missing my parents who lived far away in the United States. Every creak of the old walls echoed through my mostly empty childhood home, reminding me of the days we all lived in it together, the days when I was not so alone. In my army unit, though surrounded by people, my loneliness was, if possible, even more pronounced. I had not a single friend to talk to, to sit with during meals, walk with to the showers, or exchange little bits of gossip and laugh before we fell asleep. There were many people around me, yet it was clear to me that I did not belong.

According to mystic and spiritual teacher Osho, aloneness and loneliness are far from interchangeable: “Loneliness is the absence of the other. Aloneness is the presence of oneself. Aloneness is very positive. It is a presence, overflowing presence. You are so full of presence that you can fill the whole universe with your presence and there is no need for anybody.” For the two and a half years of my military service, I was too unhappy -- and perhaps too young -- to understand that while I could not help my aloneness, the loneliness was a choice, self-imposed and self-made. I was not yet aware that I could be enough by (and for) myself.

Long after I shed my uniform and returned to the United States, the understanding dawned on me that those girls who served with me in the army may have wanted to be friends. Belatedly, I saw that in my relationship with them I concentrated on the differences between us: I noticed every song and singer they were fond of that I had never heard about, every movie they loved that I had never seen. I paid attention to every clue that showed me that their Israeli high school experience was completely different from my American one. I focused on their superiority. And sometimes, conversely, on mine.

In his discourse, Osho quotes the Buddha, reminding the reader: “Be a light unto yourself.” “Ultimately,” Osho writes, “each of us must develop within ourselves the capacity to make our way through the darkness without any companions, maps or guide.” For moments at a time, I know I can be alone without feeling lonely, though I suppose that sitting at home surrounded by dogs, chickens and a cat can hardly be claimed as true “alone.” But it is during hard times that the alone is so difficult.

Of course no one can suffer the pain of childbirth for a laboring mother, write a test for a struggling student, or face the fear of death for a dying person, but it seems to me that another person’s support -- a hand offered in comfort and love -- sure helps at those times. I would like to make my peace with aloneness, to allow my own presence to fill me and the universe, but while I might dispense with “needing” someone else, I would always like to leave an opening for friends to come.

All the quotes and the card photo were taken from the booklet inside the Osho Zen Tarot deck.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Case of the Brussels Sprout Soup

On Monday I made Brussels sprout soup. We ate the soup for dinner with mixed results. Dar and I loved it. Uri was ambivalent but finished his bowl. Eden said that the soup looked disgusting. I got her to take a tiny sip by telling her that I’m sure the soup doesn’t taste as bad as she thinks it does. She tasted, spit out, and said only: “It does.”

When we got back home on Tuesday. Uri requested that I heat a bowl of the soup for him. I was busy prepping for dinner and suggested that he get the soup out of the fridge and heat some for himself. He is twelve, after all, and knows how to use the microwave. But Uri wanted me to get him the soup. He nagged, stomped his feet, told me I was a bad mother, complained that he was dying of hunger, and finally stalked off to his clarinet lesson with many an accusatory glance. After the lesson, weighed with guilt, I heated him some soup.

Parenting experts often say that a mother (or father) should not do for the children what the children can do for themselves. These experts would probably be appalled by the amount of indulgence going on at my house. I twist water bottle caps open for the kids, bring them clothes to bed, wake them up in the morning, make them breakfast, lunch and dinner, help with homework, carry Eden’s backpack to school, and I always, always, bring forgotten lunches, projects, homework folders, and jackets to school.

Every once in a while, as in the case of the Brussels sprout soup, I try to stand up for myself, thinking that I might teach the children some independence and self reliance. And as in the case of the Brussels sprout soup, more often than not the result is total failure. On Tuesday, for example, I found myself guilty that the child had his clarinet lesson without food and then guilty for giving in and heating up the soup.

Wendy Mogel, in her fabulous parenting book Blessings of a Skinned Knee, suggests that calling a family meeting and announcing that “things are going to change here from now on” is not the way to implement change. Instead of drastic reorganizations, it might be better to make subtle changes.

In recent months, I taught the kids how to use the microwave, make themselves a bagel with cream cheese, and put clothes in the laundry machine and the dryer. They’ve also began to do homework much more independently than before. True, I have more failures than successes in my attempts to get them to become contributing members of our small family community, but the general direction is good. I am hopeful that by the time they go to college, they will at least have an idea of how to wash their own clothes. Perhaps they’ll eat more than just take-out pizza, and (to quote an amusing example from parenting expert Madeline Levine), they won’t feel that they need to call me in order to find out where their next class is.

Brussels Sprout Soup Recipe

One pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and with the top leaves removed
One onion, diced
One large potato, cut into cubes
One zucchini, diced
Garlic to taste, sliced
About 4-6 cups of vegetable soup broth, just enough to cover the vegetables

Sauté the onion and garlic till caramelized.
Add Brussels sprout and diced zucchini and pour in vegetable broth till covered.
Let boil and then cook for 20 minutes until the Brussels sprouts are soft.
Mash together till smooth in the blender and return to pot.
Cut the potato to cubes and add to soup, let it boil again and cook for 30 minutes till the potato cubes are soft. Stir every few minutes to make sure the potatoes do not sink and stick to the bottom of the pot.


For more on this topic:
Wendy Mogel's Myths about Raising Self Reliant Children
Madeline Levine's Website