Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Daring Adventure

Ask most 40-somethings to recall the subject of their high school graduation speech and most will say, “Huh?” They were way too busy sneaking sips from flasks to pay attention to some old duffer talk about the importance of this moment, a new beginning, opportunity unlimited, yadda, yadda.

I, however, remember my high school graduation speech quite clearly because I am a geek and because that man whose name I don’t remember said something I needed to hear. It resonated in my soul, this thing I already “knew” but had never thought relevant to myself. So I listened.

And I was a geek. Did I mention that?

Nameless Graduation Speaker began his speech with a reading from The Hobbit. A little background on my relationship with the venerable J. R. R. Tolkien is in order here. My long obsession with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings began in seventh grade. When I was a senior, my mother walked into my room and picked up my dog-eared copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. She read a random line from a random page. I promptly told her she was reading from the chapter titled “The Council of Elrond” and that Boromir was speaking, and then I quoted the poem below that bit of dialogue in its entirety. Mom threw the book on the bed in disgust and walked out. I smirked in a very self-satisfied sort of way, and there the memory ends.

Yes, I was a geek.

So when Nameless Graduation Speaker launched in on The Hobbit, he captured my complete attention. For those who haven’t read it, the first chapter of The Hobbit takes our unlikely hero, the fat, comfortable, complaisant Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, and whisks him away on an adventure—nasty, dangerous, uncomfortable—that changes Bilbo and the history of his world forever.

Now, I knew I was heading off on an adventure, going to college and away from home. Unlike Bilbo, I wanted my adventure and never thought there might be anything nasty or uncomfortable about it. After all, I HAD A PLAN. I was heading off to Duke University to major in chemistry, then off to graduate school for a PhD. Bilbo forgot his hat. I wouldn’t forget anything. I had lists.

But Nameless Graduation Speaker’s point was this: we may think, like Bilbo, that we have our futures all worked out, planned to the least detail. In reality, it is the unexpected, unplanned adventures we need to be open to, or we may miss our chance to make a difference and maybe even become a hero.


Perhaps it was this speech that made me so willing to modify my plan. Or maybe I just woke up one morning and realized my plan was stupid. Or I was too stupid for the plan. Whatever. Six months after hearing this speech, I ditched the chemistry major, declared for English, and never looked back. That bold little move has changed my life and taught me more than I could ever have anticipated. For instance,

1. I can speak in public without dying or even passing out.

2. If I can write intelligently about Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” I can also write respectable copy about rebates on Ford pick-ups and successfully edit a white paper on synchronous dynamic random access memory (without understanding a word of it).

3. Best of all, skills used when reading Beowulf or Derrida or the sonnets of John Donne will also help a person identify urban myth emails without checking Snopes and navigate the murky waters of autism treatment literature.

Valuable life lessons, indeed.

Pursuing English was a choice, but since then, many unexpected adventures—sometimes nasty and uncomfortable—have swept me away. Like Bilbo, there were times when I wanted to run back to my hobbit hole and let the trolls get on with roasting or boiling the dwarves as they saw fit. Going out your front door can be a dangerous business sometimes, and whether I’ll turn out to be anyone’s hero in the end is questionable. I’ve never to my knowledge saved a life, found a magic ring, or played riddles with a creepy little monster. I’ve certainly never stolen the Arkenstone and brought peace to the land.

My adventures have been more . . . real. I married the United States Air Force and served my country as a “dependent spouse” for 20 years, which included such exciting duties as being designated driver to drunken Air Force aviators every Friday night for two years in Wichita, Kansas. I taught reluctant and occasionally hostile college students that you may indeed start a sentence with “and” or “but,” but generally not with “however.” I moved nine times in twenty years, saw my husband off to two wars, grew two aliens in my womb, and went from working woman to stay-at-home mom—my biggest and most unexpected adventure yet.

Hellen Keller wrote, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” I love this, especially when you consider that anything can be a “daring adventure.” You don’t have to sneak your dwarf friends away from a bunch of drunken wood elves to have a daring adventure. (Now that I think of it, though, I sort of had that adventure in Wichita....) If you’ve never thought of grocery shopping as a daring adventure, then let me loan you my two boys. You’ll get my drift before you finish picking out the lettuce. Daring adventure, indeed.

So thank you, Nameless Graduation Speaker, for showing me that the stories I love are relevant to me and to my life, and for giving me permission to abandon my plan and to be whisked away on my own daring adventure. I heard you.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Questioning my Intelligence

Or, How does an over-educated stay-at-home mom reconcile her pre-kid and mommy selves?

I used to be smart. Not smart in a brilliant, easy, Mensa sort of way, mind you, but in a self-motivated, hardworking, determined sort of way. I graduated with honors from an elite private school and then from Duke University. In graduate school, I maintained a 4.0 GPA, and my thesis won the Best Thesis Award. I read papers at conferences, taught over 600 first-year college students how to write essays and read Dante’s Inferno, and worked in corporate America as a writer/editor.

My intellectual interests ranged from astronomy to zoology; from culture and history to language, art, and literature. I read constantly and voraciously. I could connect disparate ideas, identify patterns and repetitions, and make meaning and sense of them. My mind moved easily from specific detail to general concept and back again. I wrote lucidly and eschewed jargon for clear communication. I was organized and productive, managing my time wisely and multitasking with ease.

And then I had a baby.

Mother Nature has a very sick sense of humor.

My brain and my breasts lost their perkiness at the same time. Sleep deprivation no doubt contributed to the mental softness, but so did my new little obsession. This baby boy magnetically attracted my every thought in the most bizarre ways and completely derailed my feelings of competence and confidence.

I decided, for example, that reading aloud to my newborn while breastfeeding would help stimulate his brain development. I squelched an impulse to read my little darling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English or the varied prose of Joyce’s Ulysses, but my rationalizations were probably defensive. The best parts of my brain exited my body with the placenta, and I could no longer handle Great Literature. I turned instead to Michael Crichton’s Timeline, a fun bit of fluff, but I edited the swear words, as if my precocious newborn’s first word might be “shit” if I wasn’t careful.

Stacks of literature and writing manuals around the house were replaced by diapers and laundry. God, there was so much laundry. I struggled just to get a shower every day, much less read any of the parenting books or magazines I had collected during that first pregnancy. I felt that someone had dumped me in the middle of the ocean and left me alone, frantically treading water and barely keeping my nose above the waves of responsibility and tedium that threatened to push me under.

In the eight years since that first dirty diaper, I have found a few bits of driftwood on which to float as the current carried me … somewhere. I reread the complete works of Jane Austin with little difficulty, but a first reading of A.S. Byatt’s brilliant novel Possession took me eight months of rough sea to finish. I made it through a few hefty tomes on Anglo-Saxon history and even a book on medieval Latin paleography. But nothing could calm the heavy seas of the terrible threes, another baby, and 14 more months of having my essence sucked out through very tiny holes in my nipples.

My sons are now eight and five, and I’ve made it to the shore of early childhood mothering, waterlogged and exhausted. The view from where I stand now leaves me more than a bit bewildered.

Where am I?

Who am I?

Where did all this grey hair come from?

Why do I not have a single stylish outfit in my closet?

Can I possibly participate in an intelligent conversation on a subject other than toilet training, the mysteries of getting a child to eat vegetables, or how much is too much for extracurricular activities?

Is Susan Raihala still inside this person named Mommy?

Well, of course she is still here, and she’s also still a bit of a drama queen to ask a question like that. But she has changed, and I’m not quite sure who she has become.

Having an MA in English predisposes a person to appreciate pithy aphorisms, so my quest to find myself will begin with guidance from Lord Acton, who wrote this little gem:

"Learn as much by writing as by reading."

I’ve read plenty, so now it’s time to write my way out of this existential crisis, to bridge the gap between the competent, educated woman formerly known as Susan Raihala and this Mommy person who wipes bottoms that aren’t her own and says things like “Because I said so!” and “Hands out of pants!” daily.

Welcome to my blog.