Sunday, September 29, 2013

Obey Your Whims

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
                                                                                         King James Bible

This quote came to me this morning as I was reflecting on the month I've spent with Karen Karbo's newest book Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life. 

In particular, I was thinking about the chapter "Obey Your Whims" because I was surprised to discover that Karen had written about one of the whims I'd followed last year, namely, to pack a bag, leave my husband and son to fend for themselves for three weeks, and go to Warren, Pennsylvania to manage one of Obama's grassroots campaign headquarters.

I understood from the Area Coordinator that I was walking into a proud community of Obama supporters who had strong ideas about how to approach the election. The group's point of view was at odds with the Democratic Party in the town ("a bunch of old white guys sitting around drinking coffee" is how one supporter described them) and the Obama organization ("a bunch of paid organizers who don't have to live in our town after the election is done"). My unpaid responsibilities: keep peace, recruit volunteers to follow the official canvassing expectations, and ride herd on the whole lot.

This whim I'd undertaken wasn't going to be any kind of wham-bam-thank-you-Ma'am; it was going to be a real chore.*

I covered the word "captain" with GRUNT.  I wore the button like a giant barrette to show I didn't take myself too seriously. I never do.

I take the job seriously.

If I say I'll do it, I do it.

I'm your git-'er-done girl.

Of course, that means I do more than my fair share of directing, imploring, cajoling, and reminding (traits that have inspired descriptors such as bossy, demanding, stubborn, and relentless) in order to get the job done. It also means that I will work as hard as I expect from anyone else.

In my teens and twenties, I was an impulsive young woman. Along the lines of the opening quote, with a slight moderation: When I was a child, I was impulsive as a child, I was impetuous as a child, I lacked forethought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away my reckless ways.

I had a husband and a few children (okay, 32--but who's counting?) to love and support.  Wikipedia (which we all know is the absolute authority online, right?) defines impulsivity as "a multifactorial construct that involves a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought."

In the lives of my foster and adopted children, impulsivity was often a trait resulting from their birth parents' substance abuse, mental illness, or thinking errors compounded by poverty and lack of support systems. At that time, foster care felt to me like an us-and-them framework: good parents on one side of the agency, bad parents on the other side. With my inexperience and polarized thinking, I did not want to identify with the bad parents. That, and I had a lot of people's needs to manage, so I interred my impulsive spirit some place deep inside, as if I had decided there was no room for reckless at the inn.

The trouble is, in time, I lost my sense of spontaneity too.

If you ask the friends who know me well, they'd say, "She's fun, and funny, and probably ADHD." If you ask my children, they would probably say, "She loves rules."  This disparity bothered me as I worked on my  memoir. I see myself as somewhere in the midst of those two points of view. I  like rules because I want to do what's expected. But I'm  also spontaneous. The trouble was, I'd built a life encumbered by children who needed stability and consistency.

Eight children, even great children,  is a boatload of kids to manage.

Anyone who's gone from one child to two, or from two to three, knows that the complexity of parenting additional children cannot be quantified by the simple mathematical statement n+1. The correct mathematical way to explain it is n!, as in 7! or 8!. As a parent increases the number of children, the growth for potential conflict increases dramatically. A factorial equation expresses the difficulty: 1x2 = 2, 1x2x3=6, 1x2x3x4=24 and so:


How many ways can four children stand in line at the grocery store? 24
How many ways can seven children sit at the dinner table? 5,040
How many unique conflicts can eight children have with one another?  40,320.

A large family can obliterate a mother's desire for spontaneity. I wish I'd understood this then; I would have said, "What the hell? It's chaos already. What would a little spontaneity hurt?" Instead, I tamped it down. Stamped it out. I held on tight to hold them steady.

I was like a crazy woman on the beach flying eight kites at a time.

As the kids have grown, and I'm down to one child at home, I feel a strong pull toward improvisation again. I want to feel the wind moving through me instead of around me. I feel like I'm coming alive after a long sleep.

I appreciated Karen's chapter on obeying our whims because it flies in the face of what feels like institutionalized disrespect for spontaneity. It calls foul on the idea the pandemonium is always bad.  Obeying your whim is, as Karen writes, "employing your psychic divining rod, allowing it to lead you in a direction where something good, or at least different, is bound to enrich your life."

I fell in love on a whim. 
I became a mother on a whim.
I bought a horse on a whim.
I worked as an electrician apprentice on a whim.
I became a foster parent on a whim.
I went to Paris on a whim.
I learned to sail on a whim.

The moments that have shaped my life, the moments that identify the me-in-me, were initiated by whims, developed in determination, and sustained in commitment to the task.

Those who think impulsivity is evidence of an executive function disorder, inhibitory disregulation, or self-sabotaging scheme may be right some of the time, but let us not assume that we should always be scheduled and regulated.

Whim does not equal reckless. Whim equals open to possibility. Whim means I'm paying keen attention and see that something out of the ordinary is calling my name.

Karen's official publication date and book launch is Tuesday, October 1, at Powell's on Burnside. I was thinking about how much I enjoyed her call to "live like Julia" for a week or a month. Because I'm impulsive, or ADHD, or sometimes amazing, I thought about Julia stirring the pot of American housewives with her television show. 

Karen + Julia + stirring = a whim! 

I drove all over Portland looking for inexpensive flat-handled wooden spoons. 

I went to Michael's and bought some eensy-weensy alphabet stamps in three fonts.

I went home and stamped the spoons.

A woman with a whim + a woman with a book launch = a woman with swag.

Thank you, Karen Karbo, for helping me remember that obeying my whims is something I like to do.

*My experience working on the campaign in Warren, Pennsylvania was engaging, exhausting, and inspiring. The people I met in the campaign office and in the town of Warren were excellent comrades. If the whim to work an out-of-state campaign comes to you, do it. Really.


  1. I adore whims --what a great reminder. I used to be a 'what the hell' kind of girl in my youth & need to do more of it now, for sure. Thanks for this reminder that being old(er) is only a state of mind!

  2. I love reading the background of that paragraph in Live Like Julia! Great story. Those spoons are terrific swag!

  3. The other Deb, Love your creative and whimsical spoons. I want! Your blog post = divine as usual.
    The other other one

  4. I just went to palm springs on a whim and met my sisters. we had a fabulous time. Love it!


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