Tag Archives: parents

The Algebra of Life

Only an infrequent blogger such as I would have ears so tinny as to pose a mathematical riddle on a Sunday. Today’s algebraic challenge?

When does 62 = 24? Show your work.

The answer is June 7. Today is a mixed bag in our house. In the algebra of life, each June 7 marks another year of marriage for my parents while also marking another year that PW’s dad has been dead. Today is my parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary. PW’s dad died 24 years ago today.

Isn’t that so like life? One person can be experiencing a transcendent moment of awe while the person right next to her can be staggering through the endless, rocky, unpredictable terrain of grief. Even stranger is when the same person is living in both landscapes.

I never met PW’s dad, but I’ve heard enough stories to wish I had met him. And not a week goes by that I don’t ask him, in case he’s hanging around within earshot, “Did you see that? Did you hear that? She’s stunning, isn’t she?”

160 PARTY BARB 01_0003.1

My parents on their wedding day in 1953.

As for my parents, well, in their 62 years of marriage, I’m pretty sure they’ve reinvented the institution of marriage at least a handful of times. Probably more. I’ve never understood why people are afraid of marriage being reinvented. It seems to me that every couple who enters into this covenant will reinvent it, shape it in their own way, learning how to love each other as they come, to paraphrase Kristin Diable’s “True Devotion.”


My parents on PW’s and my wedding day in 2004.

I don’t know the particulars that have gone into my parents’ reinvention. I know some of the components that loom large: admiration, humor, and forgiveness.

When PW and I were watching the Belmont Stakes yesterday, we were both struck by how newly minted Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah finished the race–after a mile and a half, it seemed like he was still accelerating. That’s what my parents’ 62-year marriage looks like to me today,  as though their union has more forward momentum than ever before. I also happen to know that their church congregation gave them a standing ovation today, so there’s something else they have in common with the thunderous thoroughbred.

For some reason, this poem comes to mind on this bittersweet anniversary. It’s from Mary Oliver’s 2014 collection of poems entitle, Blue Horses, which PW gave me last Christmas:

RUMI (for Coleman Barks)
When Rumi went into the tavern
I followed.
I heard a lot of crazy talk
and a lot of wise talk.

But the roses wouldn’t grow in my hair.

When Rumi left the tavern
I followed.
I don’t mean just to peek at
such a famous fellow.
Indeed he was rather ridiculous with his
long beard and his dusty feet.
But I heard less of the crazy talk and
a lot more of the wise talk and I was
hopeful enough to keep listening

until the day I found myself
transformed into an entire garden
of roses.

Which brings us to another math problem:

When does 62 + 24 = infinity? Live your work.

Another day in the seed-shattering factory of life

Today has been one of those days where I feel like my body is neither big enough nor strong enough to contain my life.

I started the day with an early meeting at the hospital, talking with a scientist who works in reproductive research and in vitro fertilization. She herself had fertility problems in her younger days, and ended up with triplets who are now in their mid-20s. My colleagues and I spent two hours listening to her tell about her research and the sorts of reproductive riddles that she has encountered in the course of working with some of the hospital’s most challenging patients who want desperately to have children.

When I got back to the office, I opened my email to find that we were having a big press conference to announce a recent successful bi-lateral hand transplant. The transplant recipient is a man who has lived the past nine years using prosthetic arms and legs to live a life that has included painting, drawing, and writing. He became a candidate for this medical miracle in part because he desperately wanted to be able to hug his wife, children, and grandchildren again.

Just before it was time to head to the conference room where our office was gathering to watch the press conference, I got a text message from GForce. She was in the guidance office at her school, sobbing about an awful humiliation that happened in class, as a result of an insensitive and idiotic remark by a substitute teacher.

I spent the next hour talking by phone about the situation with PW, then with GForce, and then with the school principal, and then with GForce again.

Some people say that having children is like ripping your heart out of your chest so it can walk around outside your body for the rest of your life. I’ve never really felt that way, maybe because as much as I love metaphor, that particular one doesn’t ring true for me.

Sprouting seed

For me, parenting is a daily exercise in living through the inevitable and relentless pain and delight of watching little seeds shatters their hulls and send their tendrils of hope, disbelief, wonder, fear, and/or confidence up toward the sun. That, and the repetitive experience of being one such seed that surrenders itself to new growth, over and over and over again.

I used to work for a guy who was fond of saying, “We’re either growing or we’re dying.” While I think there is some truth to that, I also think that there is no growth without death. Each episode of growth – whether it’s a sudden epiphany that causes (or is caused by) a tectonic shift, or the slow peeling back of a cloud of unknowing into some bright new valley of awareness – each of those episodes is like a seed shattering its hull. The seed has to die – to give up its essential seedliness – so that the plant can be born.

It’s easy for me to see my children as seeds as I watch them grow from one stage to another, oscillating through varying degrees of dependence, independence, and interdependence. It’s harder to watch them do all that while remembering that I’m a seed, too. We’re all of us shifting, growing, changing, watching old paradigms give way to new ones, or explicitly destroying frameworks that don’t fit anymore so that we can make way for new ones that can accommodate and support our evolving hopes, disbeliefs, wonders, fears, and/or confidences.

So instead of attending the webcast of the press conference with my peers, I sat alone in my office talking on my phone. I shook with anger while attempting, mostly successfully, to speak calmly, coherently, and intelligently with PW, the school principal, and GForce. In between calls, I muttered many bad words.

Meanwhile, the hand transplant press conference unfolded behind me on my computer monitor. Apparently, there was a part of the press conference where they showed photos from the operating room, where you see this waxy yellowish transplanted arm flushing pink as the blood begins flowing into it. This was probably happening while I wobbled my way through my phone calls. By the time I got off the phone and turned to look at the computer, I was looking at the transplant recipient, sitting there with his two new and normal-looking hands resting atop a pile of what looked like pillows or sandbags.

Five days a week I come to work at a place where medical miracles occur on a daily basis: new life is born, in a lab dish, or in a disease cured, or in the birthing rooms, or in a newly transplanted limb or face or heart or lung. Tragedies also happen here. People die too soon, or too painfully, or agonizingly slowly. Or their minds die before their hearts do, and their bodies become like seeds that won’t ever crack open.

My hospital is like every individual life. Each of us is a combination of both the things that happen to us and the choices we make about how we’re going to live – or die – with what has happened to us. When GForce asked me if she could leave school for the day, I told her she can’t control what people say to her but she can control how much of the space they take up in her head.

“That beautiful, amazing space inside your head – that is all yours,” I said. “Don’t let anyone else take it from you, especially idiots and ignorant jerks who don’t deserve to have it in the first place.” I felt pretty proud of myself for not using any bad words while I was talking to her.

I started my day hearing jaw-dropping stories about the extraordinary measures some people go to in order to become parents, and the miraculous things science can do to make that dream come true. I have just now looked at the photos of a man’s new arms come to life, arms donated out of the unfathomable generosity of a family who had just lost a loved one.

They don’t tell you that parenting is an exercise in being broken open over and over again. But, if we really thought about it, how could we not already know this? All of life is an exercise in being broken open over and over again. As a parent, it’s excruciating to watch this happen to people I feel an irrational need to protect from any and all harm. From what my own parents tell me, this is true whether your children are infants or in their 50s.

An hour after our initial conversation, GForce called me again, begging to go home. This day is too hard, she said. I thought to myself, “I know. I know. Believe me, I know.” I took a deep breath and reminded her of horse races we have watched together, and how some horses have blinders on to help them focus, and others don’t. I told her, “Put blinders on so all you see are the people who support you.”

“Okay, but I have English class next. I’m supposed to write an essay in class, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to focus on writing an essay with all this stuff that’s happened.”

“Then escape into the essay,” I said. “Let the essay rescue you.”

So I did.

“We Get to Feel it All” by Emily Saliers

My my how time flies
First time I met you had to shade my eyes
Staring into the sun can make a girl blind
Now here we sit in a shadier spot
Got what I wanted, and I want what I got
Through no will of my own
I just found my way home

But, here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all
Sometimes I can’t tell
You’re open like a book or shut like a shell
But if I hold you to my ear
I can hear the whole world
Dark stories of a distant past
Our time created in a single blast
You like to laugh at me because I’m serious
Yes it’s true, but

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all
We get to feel it all

Time waits for no one
So I’m remembering that day in the sun
How I was thinking you needed time to cool down
Circumstances make us tired and colder
Well, that’s my coat thrown around your shoulder
And I know you’ll give it back to me if I need it
I believe it

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall

Here is what I learned about you
You set the sun and you hung the moon
Mid October or the month of June
Temperatures rise and fall
We get to feel it all

160 Years

I am one of the few people I know (besides my brothers) whose parents are both still living, still active and on the ball.  Today, my mom turns 80, following my dad who turned 80 in August.  They are quite a pair:  funny, cute, smart, brave, resilient, energetic, curious, and extraordinarily loving, especially with each other.  They’ve been married almost 57 years and they seem to be more crazy about each other with each passing year.  Everyone should be so lucky.

My folks are legendary for their hospitality, their humor, their antics, the retreats that they lead, their writing, their sermons, their story-telling, their pride in all their children – even as they have struggled to comprehend or communicate with any or all of us, their comedy routines, their intellectual openness and curiosity,  their playfulness, their unabashed political and theological liberalism, and their global community of friends and colleagues that crosses age groups, nationalities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.  The list could go on, and I invite readers, nay, the ENTIRE Internet, to add suggestions in the comments section below of things my parents are legendary for.

I’m in the home stretch of planning a party for the folks in a couple of weeks to celebrate their combined 160 years of life.  When I asked them for a guest list, they sent me a spreadsheet of more than 400 email addresses, and many of those were for couples.  Honestly, I’m not even sure how many people we ended up inviting, and I’m sure that we missed some, so contact me if you want to know when and where the party is.  If everyone who has said that they’re coming shows up, I’m pretty sure we’ll have more than 200 people there, from all over the world, and many more who are very sad that they can’t make it.

The party is partly for mingling and eating and partly to roast my parents.  When you’ve lived for a combined 160 years, there are lots of bloopers that simply cannot be retold enough.  My mother, the extrovert and hospitality queen, is terrified of the roast, and would strongly prefer to be making ALL of the food that will be eaten.  My father, the introvert and goofball, has threatened to commandeer the microphone the minute ANYone says, well, ANYthing.  I suspect that it’s not that he wants to censor the content of the roast.  He has a voracious memory, and I’m sure he wants to make sure that all the best stories get told.  Or, maybe he knows he could roast the two of them better than anyone else.  Or maybe it’s both, and a whole lot more.

I left home at 18 to go to college and have lived most of my life more than 1000 miles away from my parents.  I don’t see them as often as I would like.  I love and admire them more than I can possibly describe.  They are a huge part of why I wander through this world feeling as lucky as I do, rose-colored glasses firmly in place, thinking in just about every difficult situation “well, it could be SO much WORSE!”  My love for music came from them and has always been nurtured by them.  My tendency to talk to myself, out loud, also came from them.  I am so much a blend of them that in one moment, I can be “doing a full-on Barbara” and in the next moment “pulling a total Dad.”  Our youngest has gotten very good at pointing these moments out by simply saying “Okay, Grandma” or “Yeah, right, Grandpa.”  My response:  “It could be SO much WORSE!”

Happy 80th birthday, Mom, and a belated happy 80th birthday (again) Dad.  Thanks for bringing my brothers and me into this world.  Thanks for telling us so many stories of who you have been and who you are still becoming.  Thanks for wanting us to be fully ourselves, even when it has been (or is still) painful or baffling to you.  Thanks for sticking together through seemingly unfathomable difficulty and darkness.  Thanks for continuing to grow and change and learn new things.  Thanks for delighting in each other more and more with each passing year.  Mostly, thanks for still being alive, in every possible meaning of that word.

Here’s a little something I made for you: