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Eyes Playing Tricks

30 Dec

These days have been diluting, one into the other, in that otherworldly strain, when we break free of our routines; the moment we’ve been waiting for after weeks of toil. It’s called vacation, and this time we opted for largely a stay-cation, intending to truly rest.

Six year old Nelly asked her father: “Did you get fired from your job?,” curious to know why he is home for so many consecutive days. The cousins came to visit, towing along my sister and her husband. Sandwiched in between two snow patches was a crisp, clear, chilly day, fit for strolling and hot chocolate.

I marched us into the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the perfect place I soon discovered to spend an afternoon WITHOUT six kids, if you really want to marinate in all the yumminess of folk art. Some of it is just plain kitschy, and other pieces spell-binding, helping to reveal things you want to know about yourself.

The boys lasted almost 45 minutes between the Lithuania replica made entirely from toothpicks (130,000 of them!) and the kinetic art display, featuring a gaudy boat made largely from styrofoam. Their uncle, who doesn’t like olive tapenade, vegetable pizza, or touring a three-story museum blaring the oft-repeated phrase: “Don’t touch!,” took the boys to the top of an enormous hill behind the building, overlooking Charm City.

I explored the gift shop, full of unpretentious trinkets where I nabbed a vintage-looking pin of Oscar, my favorite Sesame Street character. One wall featured an array of wooden placards with catchy phrases and emotive quotes – basically bumper stickers tastefully drawn up to double as wall décor. Three spaces down, on the far right, was a saying that gave me pause: “You’re the One You’re With.”

Ohhh….I like! Over and over again, I repeated it to myself, slowly and measured. You’re. The One. You’re With. Huh. Well that’s odd…but then, I get it. I totally get it! I should buy this, I thought, and hang it on the wall at home, where I’d be sure to see, say, and meditate upon it often.

You’re the One You’re With. Ain’t that the truth? Indeed, isn’t the root of every pain the absence of exercising that mantra? Aren’t the deepest heartaches, so sour they left a bad taste in my mouth for days on end, the result of trying to live outside myself so that I didn’t have to be with myself? Wasn’t every disappointing relationship only the result of trying to extract from another what I could not cultivate within my own skin? Didn’t every diversion that let me escape, only end up enslaving me?

If you are with yourself, deeply loving, and faithful to your purpose and nature, aren’t you truly joyful and merciful to everyone around you?

“The Faithful is the mirror of the faithful,” (narrated Anas ibn Malik; quoted by al-Tirmidhi). Is there any other means to absorb this prophetic wisdom and the teaching of the spiritual masters: “He who knows his soul, knows his Lord,” then to be (happily) with myself?

There was a tugging on my hand, and then a pulling, throwing me off-balance, into the adjoining room of posters and books. “Come on Mama, come look at this!,” Nelly led me to an assortment of vintage saris, hanging like swinging vines above our heads, as well as heaped up in a massive pile along the glass wall- ripe for the picking. We fed our hands into the silky trove, lacing our fingers through layer upon layer of tired things, worn by people, now old or maybe even gone.

I was eager to return to the sign board to pick up my soon to be mantra, ‘You’re the One You’re With,’ but Nelly had a few more things to show me. Finally our foot-path widened to the place where I had stood and grazed for wisdom. Far right, three signs down, it was there….but, no, it was gone. Another sign sat in its place. As clear as day it read. ‘Love the One You’re With.’ I turned my head away, like a taste-tester trying to clear her palette, then I looked back again, and again…and again. Love, Love, Love, it said all along, ‘Love The One You’re With.’ I scoured the wall, thinking that perhaps I had mistaken its whereabouts, but it was nowhere to be found. Had someone bought it? Was it so quickly replaced by another sign?

My eyes had played tricks so fluidly and masterfully, that I felt a pang of fear, tinged with the hem of sad fortune. I wanted the other sign, the one I read, not these 1970s folk-rocker lyrics. The irony riddled me- this vision of myself pining for the material advantage of possessing a thing to hang on my wall, in order to remind me of some intrinsic value- an irony so thick, it cast a smirk upon my face all the way to the check-out line. I paid for the Oscar pin, among a small scattering of other knick-knacks, and coasted out of the store, leaving my sign behind.

Outside, we climbed over that enormous hill and ventured to the edge of an overlook. “Let’s take pictures,” I sang out, which is such a predictable thing for me to say. My very Arab husband held the camera, but we had not yet converted our expressions into postured, spastic smiles. Rather, there was a loud, lingering hostility among our two youngest young’uns about pop rock candy and who should be made to share, which was thoroughly kicking this picturesque feeling in the gut.


Then, we changed pace.

Baba in Bmore

We nibbled on pizza at Brick Oven in Fell’s Point, then lingered over the cardamom gelato swimming in espresso and drinking chocolate at Pitango, thanks to the prompting of activist and cookbook writer, Gaza Mom. Yes, you should definitely go there, even if it means multiple flights and lay overs. My three-year old niece, sporting a swaggering satin bow, ordered anything pink. Nelly quickly exchanged her chocolate/strawberry combo for my grown-up choice, with a short, syrupy, “Mama, please,” ring – such a Nelly thing to do. Off and on she played with her cousin and then sporadically, and characteristic of her quirky charm, settled into a pensive mood.

Salma pitango

I love this way about her…so blunt and sovereign is her sense of self that it never seems to cross her mind to provide fodder for the merriment. She would never be anyone but herself, or ask you to love her for any reason.

Once, when she was four years old, she drew a very sloppy picture and asked for my opinion of it. Feigning rapture, I marveled at how “spectacular” her art work was, heaping grain upon grain of praise. Instead of beaming, she recoiled in visible horror, wanting to know why I had gone to such extremes of outward display; after all, she stated hotly, “It’s not even a nice picture!”

This is not something I’ve ingrained in her. You have to own wisdom to impart it. She makes it look so easy -eschewing the ego for truth; loving herself more than clinging to the false need to be loved by others. I wonder if I was ever as big a girl as Nelly. Was I ever this comfortable in my own skin? Did I ever value myself unconditionally? Did I ever truly love the one I’m with? Pondering all these questions makes me very still, in that kind of paralysis evoked from ruptured melancholy.

Some have hearts which know the truth, and some have eyes which feed the heart, if only for a glimpse, to satiate the self’s longing to return to its hearth.

So it is. You’re the one you’re with. Love the one you’re with.


‘What Do You Do?’

13 Mar

It’s 8:00 a.m., Saturday morning, and I’m not in my big, blue robe.  I’m at the optometrist sitting in an examining chair- squinty eyed. I’ve dutifully removed my contact lenses; I can only make out forms, and assume that deep voice is coming from a male doctor. It’s either a male, or a woman whose been smoking unfiltered cigarettes since she was six. He asks me a string a questions about my overall health, which I beam, “Is fine.” While scribbling in my file he asks, “What do you do?”

What do I say?

I want him to re-phrase, to clarify the question. You mean, what do I do all day? What did I used to do? What will I be doing in ten years? What did I think I was going to be doing ten years ago? What do I want to be doing?

What. Do. I. Do? I don’t know how to answer. Why does my optometrist need to know what I do? Doesn’t everyone need 20/20 vision? Does it matter what I do?

“I’m a stay-at-home-mom,” I say. Meanwhile, my inner gaffe -radar is crying out: HALLELUJAH!! Did I just say that? It sounds like I’m headed straight to house arrest after this appointment. I’ll always be a mom, God willing, but I don’t envision staying home forever. Through my strained vision, I can make out that he is writing more notes in my file. Oh no! He’s recording it. “Stay At Home Mom.” Maybe he’s even writing the oft-sighted short hand form: SAHM. My mind races. My file?! I’m going to go down as: Stay-at-Home-Mom with Stigmatism,-5.50 Vision in Left Eye, Lady.

Aww, heck no!

“I’m an attorney,” I blurt out. He pauses. I can’t see his expression, but I imagine he’s contorting it and scratching his head. Are you a stay-at-home mom or an attorney? I feel like one of those traveling con-artist who carries a different business card, depending on the city, and the image he needs to procure. I scan the horizon for a way to rehabilitate my character. I feel like I’m in a courtroom on the stand. Why am I cross-examining myself?! This doctor is just doing his job. He wants a simple answer. Give it to him!

“I’ve put my profession aside right now to focus on my family,” I say. Now, I sound holier-than-thou, or a wee bit narrow-minded about what focus on family means- depending on who you ask. Gosh, this is getting worse. Why didn’t I just stick with the stay-at-home-mom gig? Why do I sound so insecure? I’m surely going home to call my long-time friend in Texas; we go back to undergrad days, before law school and before kids. She has four, I have three, and neither of us practices law anymore. I’ll re-hash all of these details and feelings. In her calm, reassuring voice, she’s going to take my anxiety back down to sanity levels, then tell me: “You should write about this.”

“O.K.,” he replies with a little jaunt, “You’ve got a couple of titles; let me write all of that down.” Oh please don’t, I say under my breath. I excuse “stay-at-home mom/attorney,” from the stand, having nothing more to extract from my witness. Her conflicting answers, voice inflections and awkward pauses have sufficed to incriminate. On the other hand, as the witness, I stash those cacophony feelings into my mental piggy bank to take out later and analyze. The eye exam can now resume.  I take my prescription for bottle caps from the receptionist, dodge the sales lady in the lobby, then fly out of there- leaving my file with its titles behind. 

Why didn’t I just say: “Mom of three, no other profession?”  Wouldn’t that be more accurate? I can’t, which gnaws at me. On a purely cerebral level, I realize that my life is made up of stages. For this stage, accepting all of the consequences, I’ve made the deliberate choice to have no other profession – to solely focus on raising my children. I desire to return to a profession, not necessarily in the capacity of an attorney, but using that skill-set to advance me in which ever field I pursue. If I know that, then why does it matter if my optometrist knows that? Why does it matter if anyone knows that? Why can’t I go down in any file as, mother of three – no other friggin’ profession? Who cares?!

When I surgically analyze these feelings, though it pains me to admit, I get the answer. I can’t say mother of three-no other profession, because that’s like dropping a keg of acid on my delicate ego. It makes me feel diminished in front of another professional. Society does not groom mothers, with no other profession, to feel part of an educated, professional and privileged class. Society was so considerate to my ego when I was a law student, and every day after that, until I became mother of three – no other profession.

I remember attending my freshman orientation as an aspiring law student, the summer before my first semester. I glibly sat down in a large auditorium surrounded by fellow classmates to the tune of the law school’s dean telling us how many students applied for our single seat, hence, how brilliant and accomplished we were already to be sitting there. The same was repeated in so many ways just a few years later at our graduation ceremony and sprinkled throughout our law school education. It wasn’t just the institution telling me that; everyone seemed to agree – my parents, my friends, strangers on the street, oddly even people who hated attorneys.

In law school we were constantly ranked according to how special we were. I graduated with a sparkly “cum laude” title, fancy for “with honors,” just to let me know, if I didn’t know already, that I was darn special. This was nice, but not quite so nice as those who graduated with the title, “magna cum laude,” fancy for very darn special.

After getting my, “Congratulations, smarty pants, for passing the bar exam,” letter in the mail, I landed my first attorney job. My employer did not waste any time telling me that fifty people applied for my job. There was my feel-good fix and I hadn’t even completed my first assignment! Whenever my work product was critiqued, if I submitted an exceptionally polished motion or legal analysis, it was likely followed by a concentrated dose of praise. All I had to do was get up in the morning and go to work to feel exceptional. My life had become of a series of work hard- eat cookie exchanges. This cycle of effort and reward was very predictable. Folks were petting my ego left and right; in fact, it was so ordinary, I did not even realize it was happening until it stopped. And, it did stop- suddenly and coldly. I got cut off from the drug as rapidly as the flash of light from a solar eclipse extinguishes itself from view behind the moon. It took me two years (a modest estimate) to get over that chill, and accustom myself to 24-hour cycles without the work hard-eat cookie fix.

Mother of three- no other profession, is nothing like attorney. If the attorney motto is: “Work hard, eat cookie,” the mother of three- no other profession motto is: “Work hard -clean up all the cookie crumbs.” If I accuse my husband of not telling me enough how special and important my role is, that is glass houses material. Honesty requires me to tell you that I’ve never greeted my husband at the door to tell him how much of a stud he is every day for working to provide for our family, and more. My husband and I don’t operate that way. We are of the “I’m OK, You’re OK,” species of couples. We value each other’s contributions to the family, but we would feel awkward, and downright scripted, to look into each other’s eyes and enumerate all the reasons for our gratitude. We show it by getting up every day and doing whatever it takes to make our house a home.

It is not much of an ego trip to be mother of three- no other profession. You’d have to veg out in the ‘Happy Birthday Mom’ section of a Hallmark store to get that effect. In fact, it doesn’t even spark interest. Invariably, in the past, when I told someone I was an attorney, the next question was always, “What kind of law do you practice?” followed by a further series of questions and answers. Juxtapose that to my current situation. If I tell people that I am a mother of three- no other profession, they usually just nod and smile.

I’m not bitter about this, and I don’t take it as a slight. It’s pretty obvious what moms do all day if they have no other profession. They model character, nurture, cook and clean, nurse and taxi, educate, coordinate and facilitate every aspect of their children’s activities. Of course, all moms do this, but mothers with no other profession, typically, don’t outsource any of it- they do it full time, even during lunch. Oh, and they budget, because one is always less than two, and that fact is especially punctuated when it comes to salaries. 

Moms with no other profession choose this route either because they think it is the most wholesome lifestyle they can give their children and/or they don’t want to miss out on a 40+ hour chunk of their children’s lives, and they don’t want their children to be absent from their mother’s embrace, if ever her baby should need it. I fall into the later camp. I’m willing; in fact, I needed to parachute out of the office to land here.

As much as I wince (wail) at the serious grunt work involved in mother of three- no other profession routine, at the same time, on a sunny day when my daughter spots a new word that I taught her, and I can remember the exact spot where we were sitting, and what she was wearing, and how she was twirling her brown locks, when I taught her that word, and there is no one for miles to tell me how great I am…in that moment, all is bliss. I do not care that I don’t have a profession that can be summed up in a word, or one which sparks any other conversation, except in my own head. I love that moment down to the scent of it, and hold it under my breath, then exhale, with more pleasure than I ever extracted from my previous profession, even with all of its fringe benefits.

I love it so much that I recoil upon the realization that it is not forever; my needs will change just as surely as my children’s needs will change. Life is movement; it only guarantees change. One day, I imagine, I will be ready to move into a profession that does not revolve exclusively around my children. But, for the time being, I push that thought as far from my mind as I can throw it because I do not want to be anywhere but here – in my home or at the park, or on a sun-glittered hiking trail, with my youngest, now squirming his fleshy rump into my arms, and telling me to: “hold me, Mama,” only it sounds more like “whole me, Mama.”

Then, I nestle my nose into the folds of his gritty, sweaty neck that smells like the earth, heated under his rapid pulse, in my make-shift cradle, and he giggles – his laugh drifts far and wide, and reverberates into the calm chambers of my heart. My daughter’s laugh, too, takes me to other worlds, behind veils- to unsoiled serenity and joy.

I am so relieved that I don’t have to be anywhere but here. This is what I do.