Middle school, Midlife, and Mommy’s little Zen Kit

First, let me clear up any possible misconceptions about the Zen Kit.  No, “Zen Kit” is not a euphemism for something else.  It really is a Zen Kit.  You know, for being… Zen-ish.  I made it because of the two other topics in this blog post.  The fact that I know almost nothing about Zen Buddhism was no deterrent to me.

I do, after all, have this book:







Which says things like this:







And this:

Obviously, this is good stuff.

The Zen Kit came into being a few weeks after Zoe and Alexander started middle school.  In our county, all the public schools are K – 8 schools that feed into one large high school.  “Middle School” consists of grades 6 – 8.  For my kids, middle school meant going to school in the same place they had gone for the past five years, with the same 32 – 36 kids who had been their classmates for the past five years.  Nevertheless, there was a certain mystique to the idea of middle school.  Things would be different; middle school kids were “big”.  There would be lockers, and a schedule.  Alexander and Zoe were a little nervous, but also seemed excited (though they wouldn’t exactly admit it).  I started getting excited, too.  I read auspicious signs of great things ahead in their most trivial comments and gestures.  This was it.  The kids were going to grow up, take ownership of their school work, and blossom into the mature, well-adjusted, enthusiastic scholars that I knew they could be.  It was MIDDLE SCHOOL!

This delusion lasted for about three days, and then things started to go sour.  The kids came home by themselves on the bus and, instead of doing their homework (which they had done, unsupervised, for exactly one day before things began to go downhill), they made extravagant snacks.  Snacks involving blenders and hot chocolate power and ice cream.  Snacks that were not cleaned up.  They fought with each other.  They fussed and procrastinated.  There was, almost immediately, frustration over homework.  I still had to nag them to brush their teeth in the morning.

I was so angry and discouraged.  And it was only the first week of school!  Then I had a shocking realization:  It wasn’t them (or at least, it wasn’t just them): it was me.  I was being reactive, irritable, and absolutely intolerant of almost everything the kids did.  Chalk it up to my profound disappointment that middle school was not going to instantaneously transform my kids into model children and students — or to good old-fashioned midlife hormones (a theory that is gaining strength, much to my chagrin) — but I really needed to chill out.

And so, the Zen Kit was born.  I had noticed that there were certain situations with my kids that just drove me insane, and I always found myself jumping into the fray, imploring or lecturing or raging in exasperation — despite the fact that nothing I did improved the situation.  I knew this.  But I couldn’t seem to stop myself from saying/ doing the same things each time a child whined about a chore, or wasted time instead of doing homework, or had to be reminded again to pick up his or her belongings.  If only I had a tangible reminder of my vow to step back in these situations, a way to truly follow through on my belief that “less is more”, a place to go and something to do to help me feel calm during these hot button moments.  If only I had a Zen Kit — peace and tranquility in a box!

Into the Zen Kit went, of course, my book of Buddhist sayings, along with my journal, some nice pens, a sketch book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Moms”, Wayne Dyer’s Inner Peace cards, “52 Silly Things to do When You’re Feeling Blue” and “52 Ways to Simplify Your Life”.  Nothing new, just items I gathered from around the house — simple stuff, little things.  I put everything in a bin and put it in my bedroom.

And immediately I felt better.  Really.  It was kind of weird.  It’s like the psychology studies finding that even seeking help for a health problem (i.e. calling the doctor for an appointment) leads to tangible improvement in people’s symptoms.  Just having the Zen Kit made me feel like I had an escape hatch for the next time I started to get trapped in the same old unpleasant patterns with my kids.  It was very reassuring.  Plus, it seemed kind of fun.

So, how’s it going?  Truth is, I haven’t used the Zen Kit much yet.  Remembering, as I start down the path of nagging, lecturing, and despair, that there is another way is a challenge.  But, like I said, just having the Zen Kit has changed my perspective somewhat.  Now I need the discipline to use it.  Change is hard.   Which is why LOVED this drawing from The New Yorker when I saw it in the August 13 – 20 issue this morning:

  : )


Thinking about religion while bailing out the hot tub or “Why can’t I just shut up and stop talking about this stuff?”

Not long ago, on a balmy day in mid-August, I was bailing out the remaining 3 to 4 inches of water from the drained hot tub so that we could clean it.  (For some reason, all instructions say that your hot tub must be completely empty and dry before it’s cleaned.  Why???)  While engaged in this tedious and mildly back-breaking job, my mind turned, unbidden, to religion.  Again.  It seems to be a recurring theme for me in the past few weeks.  Convoluted dialogues, discarded arguments, yearnings for understanding swirled around in my head as I toiled in the late afternoon sun, outwardly peaceful, but, inside, trying to figure out why I continued to feel so uneasy about politics, religion, and the dreaded “culture wars”.

First, a little about me.  As an atheist raised by atheists (think “Elf”), I guess I came by my beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case might be) honestly.  Neither of my parents are believers, and I’m pretty sure that goes back several generations on my dad’s side of the family.  Actually, my paternal great-grandmother (who lived a long life, and who I was lucky to know into my teen years) was a Unitarian, which doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t believe in God, but does imply a certain “liberal” religious tradition.  More about the Unitarian Church later.

As a kid, the religion thing was a little tricky.  Growing up in rural Wisconsin, most of my friends and classmates were regular church-goers.  I distinctly remember, as a new student on the first day of school in First Grade, being asked by another child, “What church do you go to?”  I ran home to my mom that afternoon, desperately hoping for a good answer that would satisfy my schoolmates.  Alas, none was forthcoming.  And so, I muddled along.  From time-to-time, I would visit the churches of my friends.  I remember a period in high school when I attended the Lutheran Church for awhile and even went to a few meetings of the church youth group.  I didn’t feel confused, or as though I was “searching”, but I did want to fit in and to do the things my friends were doing.  Ultimately, however, this did not feel meaningful or genuine.

For a long time, religion (or lack of it) didn’t really matter to my relationships.  Through college, law school, and the years after law school, it was not a pressing issue in my personal life.

But now I have kids of my own.  Now they are the ones being asked by classmates about their religious beliefs.  And, occasionally, they are being told that they are “weird” if they don’t believe in God, or that they “have to believe” something because “the Bible says so”, or even that they will go to hell if they don’t believe in God.  Yikes!  All of this has pretty much rolled off my son, but my daughter has taken it somewhat more personally.  And, frankly, it has freaked me out a little.

A few months ago, a friend told me about a study showing that atheists were the least trusted group of people in society.  What?!  Why?!  And, says who???  It just sounded so random and bizarre, I didn’t give it much thought and filed it away in the category of slightly disturbing, not-necessarily-reliable, quasi-factoids.  It was only yesterday, as I prepared to write this post, that I felt compelled to look up “the study”.  Sure enough, there is a recent study, conducted in British Columbia, finding that people consider atheists untrustworthy.  In the University of BC study, participants were told a story about a man who hit another person’s parked car and then left the scene without providing his insurance information.  The participants were given a handful of close-ended choices regarding this person’s identity, including that he was an atheist.  A significant majority of participants decided that the unethical individual was an atheist.

Wow.  I thought about my eight years of practicing law in rural North Carolina.  Most of my low-income clients were deeply religious Christians.  As we tackled their cases, they shared the most intimate details of their lives with me.  We worked, and worried, and sometimes cried together as I tried to help them win custody of their children from abusive spouses, or save their homes from being foreclosed on, or protect cars needed to get to work or doctor’s appointments from repossession.  Would my clients have felt the same way about me if they knew I was an atheist?  Would they still have wanted me to be their lawyer?  It made me feel as though everything good I’d tried to do in my life counted for nothing because I didn’t believe in God.

But then I read a little further in the article, which summarized follow-up studies and other related findings.  The basic conclusion the researchers drew was that people believed that others were more likely to behave ethically if they thought that they were being watched or monitored by someone with authority.  In one follow-up study, the researchers minimized the distrust of atheists by priming the participants with information about law enforcement before telling them the story about the hit-and-run driver. The finding:  ” From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.”

Links can be drawn to the differences in secularism across cultures.  “In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens.”  Another related study conducted in Canada found that political insecurity may impact how likely people are to believe in God.  Participants were given “two versions of a fictitious news story: one describing Canada’s current political situation as stable, the other describing it as potentially unstable. After reading one of the two articles, people’s beliefs in God were measured. People who read the article describing the government as potentially unstable were more likely to agree that God, or some other type of nonhuman entity, is in control of the universe. A common belief in the divine may help people feel more secure.”

My point here is not to debunk Christianity — or any belief system — but to try to make sense of the current intensity of the “culture wars”, which I felt compelled to touch upon in my last blog post.  Have we not felt insecure, as a nation, since September 11, 2001?  Has the lengthy, far-reaching recession not left us rife with anxiety, as individuals and as a society?

As I try to quiet my worry about my children being confronted with these issues, I do my best to remember one of the basic lessons of parenthood:  Your children are more resilient than you think.  They can handle it.  They will find their way.  And I do believe this.  But in our current social-poltical climate, the vitriol seems so potent, I’ll admit, it scares me a little.

This past weekend, the kids and I attended the Unitarian Church.  We’ve been members there since the kids were three years old, though we are not the most regular attendees.  I’ve written about the Unitarian Church before.  For me, it can be a place of inspiration, a soothing balm, a positive community.  For my children, I hope the Unitarian Fellowship will be a good spring board for their own spiritual journeys.   Its philosophies neither demand, nor condemn, belief in a deity.  Its services and Sunday school curriculum include education in world religions (including Christianity), sampling rituals from different cultures and traditions, and teaching respect for the beliefs of others as a paramount value.

I hope this community will provide another secure place, along with our home, for my children to learn, explore, question, and formulate their own beliefs about the nature of the Universe.  I don’t really expect them to have that all figured out at age 11, and I hope they can move forward on their journey with a sense of openness and acceptance (within themselves and from others).  In the meantime, I need to take a deep breath, relax, and trust in the goodness of the human spirit to carry me, my kids, and all of us through the culture wars.

Have other people dealt with these issues?  What do you tell your children?  What do you you wish you could tell them?

Not the blog post I expected to write when I woke up this morning or “a wimp wades into the culture wars”

Those who know me well know that I have pretty strong feelings about, well…  things…  politics, social issues, separation of church and state, economic justice.  But I also have a personality type that values relationships.  Not just, “I want people to like me”, though there’s surely some of that, but really believing and experiencing in my heart that our interactions with each other, the quick fleeting ones, the life-long relationships, and everything in between, are what makes life good, the glue that holds the world together, the thing that gives me hope for humanity.  So you won’t see me posting a lot about politics and social issues on Facebook and, when I do, it’s usually a New York Times article or an NPR story, something “legitimate” that I can feel safe standing behind.  I hate it when people just pass things along – or post slogans or sound bites — without knowing the source or verifying that it’s accurate or what the context is.   There’s way too much of that, and it drives me crazy (in a “what is this world coming to?” kind of way).  But also, if I post things from an established mainstream news source (albeit the “liberal media”), I figure I won’t seem too, well…  “out there”.  I’m really kind of a wimp in a lot of ways.  Maybe it’s my wimpiness, colliding with my sense of justice, swamped by my desire to foster relationships, that’s made me such a wreck over the past week or so as the Chik-Fil-A controversy has exploded across the social media sphere.  In the past few days, I’ve teared up numerous times, felt extremely agitated, been riddled with anxiety about my relationships and my children’s relationships, even questioned whether I should continue to raise my family in a community where we are in a distinct minority as non-Christians.  I’ve felt frightened.  And I’ve felt sad.   I don’t want to get involved.  To be honest, I’ve never considered gay rights “my issue” (I know, that’s bad, and I’m ashamed).  Yet, I’ve got all this intense emotion bubbling up in me, and it’s not going away.   I really don’t want to be part of the “culture wars” – but I don’t see any safe, quiet place to wait it out that has moral integrity.  So, as I wade into the water, here is my “political post”.  Mostly, I want you to read this really well-written essay by Wayne Self.  It says some of what I tried to say to a friend in an email recently – only way better.  The author asks at the beginning that you read the entire post, and don’t assume you know all the perspectives or arguments he’s going to make.  I ask that, too.  It’s a good read.  So, here goes nothing…

Another link to Wayne Self’s blog post:  http://www.owldolatrous.com/?p=288