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Close-up #3: Captive

Last night—the last night of my East Coast trip with Smoke and Stump—I set the alarm on my iPhone for 5:20 am, and picked up my grandmother’s autobiography. The book has heft—not because it is especially long, but because she wrote it in 1984, typed it out on a typewriter, three-hole punched the single-sided pages, and bound them in a thick three-ring binder. To read it, I must sit cross-legged on the bed and lean over so that I can carefully turn the pages.

In the chapter I read last night, my grandmother described her family’s move from Kansas to Montana by railroad in the early 1900s. She was a young child at the time traveling with her parents, baby brother, pet horse, a dog, and several cows. My grandmother rode with her mother and brother in a passenger car, while her father rode with the livestock so that he could tend to them. The journey lasted several days, and my grandmother describes what it was like to ride with her mother, who nursed the baby, who changed and washed diapers on the train, who relied on the workers to bring fuel for the wood stove, who cooked meals of oatmeal, boiled potatoes, and beans, and who offered my grandmother snacks of peanuts and dried fruit.

I’m writing from the airplane now, somewhere between Boston and Seattle. Smoke is playing Angry Birds on the iPad and Stump, bless him, fell asleep some minutes ago while watching a movie. I know that it would be logical for me to write about how easy we have it in comparison to my ancestors. We are traveling by airplane not by rail. We are not hauling cattle. My children have devices that keep them entertained. A flight attendant just brought me a cup of Starbucks coffee. But I am actually more struck by the ways my experience may be similar to my great-grandmother’s, how the details of travel and transport may change, but the feelings of confinement and dependency remain.

Our flight this morning was delayed by two hours. Every so often an agent would get on the speaker and tell us to be ready, and then twenty minutes later they would announce the very same thing again. Though I had roused my kids at six am, dressed them, and carried them to the car, we did not board the plane until eleven. Once we were in the air, my children complained that they were ravenous. They didn’t want the cookies I had packed; they wanted real food. It didn’t matter how often I checked the progress of the food cart. It took another hour for it to reach us at the very back of the airplane where we sat and by that time they had sold out of most of their options. (I would have preferred a meal of boiled potatoes and beans to the box of prepackaged snacks I purchased.) By then, Stump had decided to move to my lap and so I tried to contain our snacks and drinks to the small tray in front of me, to somehow keep track of the various wrappers my kids created, to contain our bodies, our crumbs, our mess.

As I write this there’s a two-year-old in front of me who keeps lying down in the middle of the aisle, and there’s a mom to the left of me who paces the airplane with a fussy infant in a carrier. (She just took a wide step over the two-year-old.) She won’t have to hand-wash her diapers in the airplane sink, but I did turn my head a while ago after noting the scent of baby wipes, and saw that she had laid her child across the seats to change him. We are in our own kind of cattle car.

That feeling I’ve had since waking this morning, this dread of having to move my children through tight and crowded spaces, to usher them up and down escalators, to herd them to the right side of any corridor, I’m sure that feeling was familiar to my great-grandmother Bertha  who cared deeply about propriety, about keeping her family safe but also organized and tidy. Even in 2016, with every imaginable convenience, that still feels like an impossible goal.

Image Credit:  Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=708221

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Close-up #2: Familiar

It is dark outside when my half-sister pulls up to the rental house, but my son Smoke runs out to greet her. “I’ll carry your bag,” he says. His offer surprises me-I’ve never known him to play the gentleman. Once she’s inside, he tells her: “I can help you unpack.” “Why thank you,” she says. She is as surprised by I am at his chivalry. Her voice is the same as it’s always been—soft and almost laughing.

Smoke waits for her as she drinks a glass of water and uses the bathroom. While he waits, he lines her three bags against the wall from small to large. When she enters he is all eagerness, unzipping zippers, lining bottles in rows, putting shirts in one drawer, skirts in another. In the eight years he’s been alive, he has met my sister five or six times, but he is utterly, immediately at ease with her.

A memory: It is a hot summer night and I am sitting in my sister’s lap. I am four; she is nineteen. My parents have taken us to see a play at a community theater in rural Maine. Outside, the air has cooled. At intermission, we watched bats catch bugs by the outdoor lamps. But now we are back inside the theater where the air is still and muggy. We are waiting for the play to start again. The heat brings out all the body smells. My sister smells like baby powder and shampoo. Her hair spills over her shoulders. I pick up a handful and put it under my nose to pretend I have a mustache. It is an excuse to be as close to her as possible.

I wonder how it is that Smoke has recognized in my sister what has always been so comforting to me. He seems to intuit that all of her belongings are carefully selected treasures. He wants to be near her, in her space, sitting next to the woman who feels in some essential way just like his mother but also—and this is important—in some essential way mysterious and different.

image from: http://www.liberty.co.uk/fcp/categorylist/dept/paisley-fabric

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Close-up #1: Nightlight

Your childhood bedroom in your childhood home. It is a guest room now, with a different bed, but you recognize the sheets: tan and printed with zebras and gazelles. They were your sheets once you’d outgrown the Muppets and Strawberry Shortcake, and now here they are, thirty years later, unstained. You lie there now with your three-year-old. It’s eleven pm. Because it’s your second day on the east coast, and you are straddling time zones: it’s eleven but also it’s eight. You are tired, but your son is not—he napped from 5 to 7. Your son is feeding you lines of a story while you drift off to sleep. “Tell it Mommy!” he says, and then you come to for a moment, and utter aloud what you think you just heard, but it’s not making much sense. “And then the dragon peeled the orange,” you say. You’re not sure if you’re repeating what he said, or if your sleep-brain is corrupting everything, spitting back a story that has nothing to do with his original. He doesn’t seem to mind though as long as you keep talking. “Mommy, tell it!” he commands again. When you open your eyes you can see his face in the glow of the nightlight. The nightlight was your brother’s: a silver crescent moon set against a circle of frosted glass. When he was a child it sat on top of a small wooden shelf that your father had carved to look like a cloud. That shelf is gone. The nightlight sits on top of the dresser now. Its light softens everything. “I’m tired,” you tell your son. “Can I please go to sleep now?” You are surprised and relieved when he answers “yes.”

The feeling wakes you up a little. You open your eyes and he’s lying still on his back, his eyes open, looking at nothing, looking at the ceiling. You watch him for a moment. His eyelids grow heavy and close. Then they open again. Open, close, open, close. His stillness startles you. It wakes you even more. This is the boy who climbs trees and throws sticks, who fights you with all the strength in his body when you try to carry him away from the park, the boy who refuses food and then screams because he’s hungry, the boy who resists nap time until he collapses from exhaustion but who, by some strange miracle, agrees to bedtime. You wonder what goes through his mind as he lies next to you in this room that used to be yours. What is behind those eyes? You remember a time when you were about the same age, lying in this same spot, and you were supposed to be asleep but you weren’t and you found a penny in your bed and discovered that it left a black mark against the wall and so you kept making lines, over and over, your mind wonderfully blank, caught in the slow motion of leaving your mark.

Your son is asleep now. You are awake. You get out of bed and turn out the light. Outside the window you can make out the branches of the backyard tree, a tree you saw nearly every day of your childhood. Somehow, in spite of time, it looks exactly the same, no bigger or smaller.

image credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/full-moon-during-night-time-53153/

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Like Walking in the Dark

It’s night by the time we arrive at the camp. The office is closed and outside, beneath a single porch light, there is a piece of paper with my last name and cabin number: C7. R, my companion, has been here before. She picks up a map and traces it with her finger. We load our bags into a cart and wheel it along a dirt path.

Even with R’s flashlight, I find it hard to get my bearings. Small green lanterns mark the edge of the trail, but don’t offer enough light to illuminate the grounds. I can barely make out the edges of tree trunks, the outlines of cabin roofs. If I chose to be overwhelmed, I could be. Instead I choose to believe that our cabin will reveal itself to us eventually. I keep following R’s lead as she shines her light on cabin porches, trying to find the row marked C. Eventually, we do.

Though there are forty cabins, it feels as though we are the only ones here. The grounds are silent. The whole forest is still. I am walking through a world I’ve never visited before, a world that will be revealed to me once the sun rises. There is a magic in that.

*

Three weeks ago, Kellie and I bought a house. We’d been looking for a new home for more years than I can count. I can’t count them because we moved in out of looking; we moved from casual to serious to casual and back again. I’ve thought about writing an essay titled “A Tour of Houses We Almost Bought.” There have been a lot of them. Often we looked at a house and decided: “This makes sense for us. We should make an offer.” But then we didn’t follow through.

“I guess we’re not buying that house,” I’d observe a few days later.

“I guess we’re not,” Kellie would agree. “Should we?”

We were waiting for a feeling. We weren’t sure if that made us foolish or smart. I’m still not sure. But this house we’ve finally chosen is big in every sense. It is a big house on a big piece of land. It is wide-open pasture and a big-sky view. But, more than anything, it is big in what it will demand from us. Right now Kellie is giving her life to the walls and the floors, readying them.

In some ways, it feels like the house chose us, like what we were looking for all along wasn’t some practical place that would suit our collective needs, but a place that would challenge us to dream and grow.

I spend my days now flitting back and forth between work and one home and the next, chasing my kids around, delivering food to Kellie who is covered in plaster dust, wondering when I will find the time to put things in boxes, to actually organize us for the imminent move. I’m not sure when this move will happen. I’m not sure of anything right now. I feel caught in the motion of change, but mystified about what that change will bring, about what it will feel like to land in this new place, to wake up there, to make dinner there, to watch my children play there. It feels a little like walking in the dark.

image credit: ehoyer, Creative Commons License 2.0

What if America Kept its Promises? (some thoughts after watching the DNC)

It was nearly 10 pm PDT on Monday when I pulled up Michelle Obama’s speech on my computer. I was sad to have missed it in real time, but my toddler was finally asleep, and now the house was quiet enough that I could watch. I filled two bowls with ice cream and handed one to Smoke, who was reading on the couch. I pressed play and waited for the video to load.

I didn’t expect that Smoke would watch too. I thought he’d return to his book or complain that the sound was distracting him or ask me to put on a funny cats video instead. I was preparing to fight for my Michelle Obama moment, but it turned out I didn’t have to. Smoke sat there riveted, his spoonful of ice cream poised in front of his open mouth as he watched our First Lady in her blue dress. He listened as she described loading her daughters into a black SUV with the secret service on their first day of school. As she went on to say “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” and described the feeling of watching her daughters run across the White House lawn, Smoke looked over at me and seemed to understand why I was pressing tears away from the corners of my eyes.

 

Smoke was born in October 2008, one month before Obama would win the presidential election. This means that President Obama is the only president that Smoke has known. “That’s our president,” I say whenever we hear him speak on the radio. I say it with a certain pride not because he’s never disappointed me, but because I admire him. I appreciate that he models grace under pressure, that he manages to articulate truth in times of grief, and that he is not too self-important to display a sense of humor. These are qualities I want my children to have too, and they are qualities I wish we could take for granted in our world leaders.

 

 

Last week, as my mother was visiting, Smoke came across a set of American flag stickers he’d been giving at the grocery store for Independence Day. His eyes lit up when he saw them. “I’m going to make you a picture for your office!” he said and ran into the kitchen. Twenty minutes later he returned brandishing this:

 

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“Wow!” I said, and then made the mistake of making eye contact with my mom. We silently laughed until tears gathered in the corners or our eyes. We laughed because of the utter innocence of it, because apparently Smoke hasn’t caught on to my feelings about America, which have always been and always will be fraught.

The America my son has seen is different from the one I see. To him, so far, America is just his school and his friends and his family, and a president his mom admires, though she occasionally shouts in frustration at the news. To him, America is a cartoon of Uncle Sam, the promise of liberty and justice for all, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. To him, Donald Trump is an unkind man who surely won’t win the election because no one would vote for a bully.

I want to have the America that my son thinks we have.

On Thursday night my sons and partner arrived home just as I was watching Hillary Clinton give her speech in real time. I hadn’t expected to cry, but then she came out in her white pantsuit and stood there, alone, on a podium that floated above a vast sea of bodies. Smoke took his place next to me on the couch. When HRC declared “I believe in science,” Smoke whooped along with the audience and for a moment I wondered if understood the layers of meaning implicit in that statement. Then I remembered he just really likes science. My own whoops and hollers were probably every bit as mysterious to him.

I keep coming back to what Michelle Obama called “the story of this country”, the story of progress that has allowed Barack Obama to become our first African American president and Hillary Clinton to become our first female major party nominee. My newfound right to marry is also a part of that story. But somehow, I keep getting stuck trying to convince myself that our progress towards equity is real and not an illusion. There’s a small but persistent voice in my head going: Really? Are we truly evolving towards justice? Or are we about to take an irrevocable step backwards?

This November will begin to answer those questions for me. I hope that Smoke can continue to love America. I hope that I can love it too.

Voices in the Wake of Yet Another Tragedy

I’ve been having trouble writing here lately. The last time I posted,  I was writing about the Orlando massacre. Since I posted that, there have been three more national tragedies, and still more international ones.  Adam Gopnik, in his most recent essay about gun violence for The New Yorker,  writes “The one thing we can be sure of, after we have mourned the last massacre, is that there will be another. You wake up at three in the morning, check the news, and there it is.” I don’t have words, but I wanted to leave here a collection of things that I’ve seen or read over the last few days, things that have helped me make some kind of sense of my world, or things that have at least spoken directly to my bafflement.

Roxane Gay, in an essay for Marie Claire,  asks us to examine our understanding of the word “ally”.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015, upon the release of his book Between the World and Me. When I asked him about allies, he said, “I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” I mulled his words over for weeks because they were so pointed and powerful. Those words began to inform the ways in which I try to support other marginalized people—making their fights my own because that’s the only way forward.

Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.

Vox ran this first-person essay by former officer Reddit Hudson that offers a compelling explanation of some of the dynamics at play in any given police force.

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

That’s a theory from my friend K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country in use of force.

Finally, in one of the most beautifully written essays I’ve read, Garnette Cadogan writes about “Walking While Black.” Cadogan writes about walking the streets in Kingston Jamaica, and transferring to a new world when he began attending college in New Orleans:

On my first day in the city, I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place and to buy supplies to transform my dormitory room from a prison bunker into a welcoming space. When some university staff members found out what I’d been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen. They trotted out statistics about New Orleans’s crime rate. But Kingston’s crime rate dwarfed those numbers, and I decided to ignore these well-meant cautions. A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn’t let inconvenient facts get in the way. These American criminals are nothing on Kingston’s, I thought. They’re no real threat to me.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

I’d love to hear about anything you’re reading that has shed some light on the darkness. Please leave me a link in the comments.

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Some Conflicting Thoughts in the Wake of the Orlando Massacre

Monday June 13: As I pull up to my son’s elementary school, my breath catches at the sight of the American flag at half-mast. It’s a symbol I associate with fallen war heroes, with uniforms and helmets. It’s also a symbol I associate with DOMA, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and an unchecked AIDS epidemic in the nineteen-eighties.  They mourn us. My own thought startles me. They mourn us when we die now.

Wednesday, June 15: It’s noon when I learn that Senator Chris Murphy is staging a filibuster to insist that the Senate vote on gun control legislation. My heart leaps. Something is happening in real time.  I click on a link to open the live stream and leave it open on my desktop all day. I can’t get any work done while it’s playing, so I listen for three minutes at a time, pause it for a while, and then check in again.The filibuster isn’t boring; it’s not what I’ve been taught to picture: a man in a tweed suit wiping sweat from his brow and reading from the phone book. Instead, each time I open the live stream, I see senators delivering considered, impassioned words. I see Elizabeth Warren invoking the names of those lost in Orlando; I see Senator Dick Durbin tell his colleagues, “If you use an AK-47 to hunt a deer, you should stick to fishing.”

Late that night, once my kids are asleep and my house is finally quiet I go online and see that it’s still going on. Everyone in my circle is tweeting with the hashtag #filibuster.

I have it too; I have the fever. I stay up past midnight. For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for our government. I see our officials working their asses off to push through legislation that they know their constituents support. I read speculation about how Senator Murphy can hold the floor for so long without a bathroom break. I am brimming over with gratitude for all the senators who took the floor.

At the same time: I doubt. I read forecasts that a vote on basic gun control measures still won’t pass and, sadly, I believe them. I brood over the senators who vote nay on these measures time after time and wonder how they sleep at night.

Friday, June 17:  It’s raining as I scramble across campus in my black cap and gown. I’m on my way to attend commencement at the community college where I work. By the time I reach my seat the rain has stopped, but the dark clouds loom.

Our president opens with words about Orlando. He comes out to the crowd of thousands as a member of the LGBTQ community, and spends some moments reminding us of the legacy of hate that his people have faced. Our people. I notice I’m not breathing. Instead I am sitting there frozen, feeling like one vulnerable body in a sea of bodies. I wonder if I were straight, would I feel this exposed? I look around the crowd and wonder who is listening, and who might be rolling their eyes, looking at their watch, wondering why we have to be talking about the gays, about tragedy and guns, when they just came to watch their nephew or daughter or cousin walk across the stage and be handed a diploma.

Our college president invites us to honor the 49 lives lost as the bagpipes play Amazing Grace. The bagpipes. They seem to stutter their way into the song and for a moment the whole thing seems wildly absurd and I stifle a laugh. But then the music lifts, and the sun comes out–sudden and blinding and hot. I lift my hand to shade my eyes. It’s one of those moments where even if you don’t believe in God, you can at least understand how someone could. You understand how someone might think that there’s an order to things, that the world runs on grace and forgiveness, and that even in tragedy the light that we bring to each other somehow gets recycled.

 

 

When Children Bear Witness

This week I hit a deer.

One moment I was participating in the morning commute, driving with the flow of traffic, headed towards the onramp on a long flat stretch of road. Both of my kids were in the back seat. NPR was on. The next moment I was moving into something, I was braking, colliding; I was hollering Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! It took a moment for the rest of my brain to catch up, for it to name the thing that was happening. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty-one years. I have seen deer run down my street like neighborhood dogs on the loose. I’ve seen deer eating grass on the hillside next to the freeway. I’ve seen deer run across the highway make it to the other side. And just as often I’ve seen evidence of the deer who hadn’t made it, the stains on the asphalt, the road-kill. I’ve told myself that this was a thing I never wanted to be: a person who hit a deer. And now that’s what I was doing. I was hitting a deer.

Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! I kept saying, until Smoke’s cry interrupted my panic. I came to, and remembered that I was supposed to be an adult and in control. The deer had landed in the middle of the road. All of the traffic had stopped. From what I could see in the rearview mirror Stump looked stunned and Smoke had tears streaming down his face. “I wish this could just be a dream,” he said. I turned on my blinker and pulled into the breakdown lane. I turned off NPR. I didn’t know what to do about a deer in the road, but I knew that it was my job to see this thing through. “I’m so sorry,” I told my kids. “I’m so, so sorry,” I was saying it to the deer too, and also to the world.

In the seconds it took me to pull off the road, the deer had vanished, had somehow made it to the other side of the road and disappeared into the forest. Traffic began to move again. I stepped out of the car to assess my vehicle: a tear in the bumper, a small dent in the hood. A man with blonde dreadlocks in a pickup truck looked at me and then shrugged. I made a series of pointless phone calls. The Humane Society didn’t answer their phone. Animal Services told me they would help an injured deer in the road, but they would not go looking for one that had fled. My insurance company, after taking my statement, reminded me that I’m only insured for liability.

I haven’t known how to talk to Smoke about what he saw that day. I don’t want to push him to relive those moments if he’s already moved on. But on Wednesday, the day after the collision, I overheard him speculating to a friend about animal heaven and when I asked him why he was talking about that he answered very plainly, “the deer.”

As for me, I’ve walked around haunted, thinking about the empty space in the road where I’d seen the deer fall. How could she have made it to the other side? It wasn’t until Saturday that I finally realized that Smoke had probably witnessed what I had missed. “Honey,” I began, “did you actually see the deer get up that day?”

“Yes,” he said, and he went on to calmly describe what he had seen. What I wanted to know was had the animal managed to fully stand, and Smoke’s answer was yes, but she had fallen several times before she figured it out.

For the rest of the day I thought about what Smoke saw, that he had witnessed alone something tragic and grim, an animal so hurt she couldn’t find balance. I hadn’t seen it; he had. My own eyes couldn’t mitigate the pain for him.

This morning when I woke up, I saw that my niece had posted about a shooting in Florida. I didn’t want that to be true, and so I pretended it wasn’t happening. Two hours later at a friend’s house, this friend checked her phone and made a comment about 50 people dead. I didn’t want to think about what 50 meant.

By lunchtime I decided I would need to take a moment and find out what had happened. I told myself to wait until I had settled Stump down for a nap so that I could be quiet, but instead I just sat down at my computer and googled the search term “news”. I was mostly numb as I read about the mass shootings that had happened in Orlando at two in the morning, and then suddenly, involuntarily, my body absorbed some fraction of the truth of fifty people killed, and my face contorted and froze. That was the moment that Smoke wandered in. “What?” he asked me. For the second time in a week, I struggled to gather myself enough to make words. I told him that in another state fifty people had been killed with a gun. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to feel, and so I asked him, “Would you mind holding my hand for a sec?”

He gave me his hand. It was smaller than mine—but not much smaller than mine—and a little damp, and every time I loosened my grip he tightened his own until the seconds turned into minutes and he asked me “What state does Uncle Will live in?”

“Massachusetts,” I answered and quickly added: “That’s not where the shooting happened.”

When I started writing this post about the deer it was Friday and I had no idea that I would wind up here. One minute I’m driving, the next minute I’m colliding. One minute it’s Sunday morning, the next minute I’m sobbing at my desk. And just behind me, sitting in the backseat or glancing over my shoulder, I have this seven-year-old boy who is grown enough to see things I don’t want him to. And I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know what to say.

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What’s Right in Front of You

On Monday afternoon as I turned onto a freeway onramp, a mother duck and her ducklings crossed directly in front of my van. Both of my kids were strapped in the backseat. As I hit the brake, I checked my mirrors, worried that someone might rear-end me. But strangely, even though it was rush hour, this particular onramp was empty for the moment. I put on my hazards and watched as the group crossed together, all of them unified in their determination. The whole thing took about eight seconds. As I drove off, I argued with Stump about whether or not I’d killed the ducks.

“You ran over them,” he insisted.

“No, honey, I stopped. They made it to the other side. If I had hit those ducks I’d be crying right now.”

Smoke came to my defense. “She didn’t hit them. I would be crying too if she did.”

When we got home, there was a box on my doorstep. Inside, I found a gift from my sister: two ceramic mugs that had been shipped across the country. The mugs were wrapped in bubble wrap, and the box was full of packing peanuts. As I sat on the floor admiring the mugs, Stump took two handfuls of the foam and threw them like confetti. Smoke laughed. Before I could intervene, Stump picked up the box and dumped all of the peanuts on the floor. My muscles tensed as I prepared myself to lift him and remove him from the scene. But then I stopped myself. In the world of a three-year-old packing peanuts are a special occasion. Since the damage had been done, I might as well let him enjoy it.

Stump and Smoke threw peanuts in the air. They rolled around on the floor. They stomped on them. I watched as a number of the peanuts broke into many pieces.

I stayed there, cross-legged on the floor, just watching. I am spending time with my kids, I told myself. It felt like a spinoff of last week’s mantra, Parenting is not hard. This wasn’t the early evening activity I would have planned for them, but it was the one they had chosen, and really it was no better or worse than a walk to the park or a romp in the backyard. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t thrilled about it; it only mattered that I was there, on the floor in the moment, half-grumpy and half-calm.

When their fun began to wane, I asked them to help me pick up the peanuts, and they did. (Their effort was a little lackluster, I admit, but it was something.) I spent ten minutes vacuuming the tiny left-behind pieces, and then we moved on to dinner.

All of this is part of a life strategy I’m trying to cultivate called Dealing with What’s in Front of Me. The mama duck walks in front of my car so I stop. My kid dumps the packing peanuts on the floor and so we play with them. I’m trying to move into the mode of responding to my world—and responding to it fully and with patience and zest—rather than controlling it.

I’ve been playing with this strategy at work as well. These days, when I teach a class, I try to remember to look around the room and breathe, to not just be a talking, disembodied head. Rather than planning six activities and working to move us through each one on a schedule, I try to leave room to let my students surprise me, and they do. When I ask questions, I try to let go of my own prescribed answer. On the days when I succeed at that, my world feels altered. I come home feeling connected to something that’s bigger than me.

I think about the mother duck and her experience of the freeway. I think about her standing on one side of the onramp, her babies lined up behind her, anticipating her next move: all that focused concentration. In the span of a single moment, the noise of traffic quiets just enough for her to go. Once she starts, there is no hesitation. She commits to that moment and to her own impulse. That trust becomes the thing that, more than any other thing, protects her.

Image Credit, Mother Duck and Ducklings: Carole Smith Berney

Parenting: what if it’s not so hard?

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Last week, while reading student essays, I came across a sentence that shifted something in me. It was a Tuesday morning, and I sat in my dark and quiet office. This essay told the story of a mother-son relationship, a relationship that had nearly dissolved once the author reached adulthood. It was a beautiful essay, and in the second paragraph the author explained that his teenage years had been filled with small transgressions and punishments, but none of these conflicts had ever threatened his bond with his mother because she had made it so undeniably clear that she loved him. “Parenting is not hard,” he wrote. The knowledge of her love was all he’d ever needed.

Parenting is not hard. That was the sentence. I underlined it in purple pen.

All week that sentence kept replaying itself in my brain, often during parenting moments that were, indeed, hard, like when Stump refused to get in his car seat at the end of a long day, or when Smoke was crying with disappointment because a friend had canceled a play date. “Parenting is not hard,” I kept telling myself, even though of course I know it is. The sentence was kind of like a flat round stone you might find on the beach, one that you can turn over in your hand and examine at different angles. Each time you hold it to the light, you might spot a new detail: a fleck of gold or a thin stripe of green.

Parenting is not hard. Each time that sentence plays inside my mind, I slow down a little bit. I breathe a little deeper. I enjoy my kids for who they are. I enjoy myself with them. My world expands. That sentence offers me distance from all the minutiae I worry about daily: the rash on Stump’s bottom and the fact that he still insists on pooping in a diaper; the fact that Smoke has giant grown-up teeth coming in behind the baby teeth and he refuses to wiggle them loose; that fact that I can get my kids to eat fruit but not vegetables.

Parenting is so hard that sometimes it is impossible to do it well. I’m pretty sure that this is true not only for me but for any parent who ever lived. No matter how much patience I cultivate, now matter how many strategies I try, I am not always the person I want to be. I harp; I complain; I storm out of rooms.

And so, it’s nice to shift perspectives, to turn the stone around. Parenting is not hard. All of those things I’m losing sleep over may not be the things that matter very much. They won’t be the things my kids remember in fifteen years. Maybe Smoke will remember that I let him stay up way too late every night so we could read together on the couch. Maybe Stump will remember that I let him cling to me in the mornings, that I carried him around the house with his arms around my neck, his long legs dangling from my hip. Or maybe none of us will remember any of these details, but instead it will all just be a blur of bodies sharing space.

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Earlier this week, when I picked Smoke up from school, I told him that I would have to leave after dinner to go to a parenting class.

“Is it about learning not to yell?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Is that something you want me to work on?”

“That’s the only thing,” he told me. “Everything else you do I like.”

The car was quiet for a moment as Smoke continued to think. “Actually,” he said, “I don’t  care if you yell. Can you just stay home tonight?”

“I already paid for the class,” I told him. “And also,” I explained, “I wish I knew how to get your brother to stop hitting people.”

Smoke considered this. “Okay,” he agreed.

I parked the car in the driveway, and began the process of unpacking the car, of feeding the dogs, of trying to assemble a meal that my children would eat so that I could leave the house again and learn to be a better parent. But I already knew that Smoke had offered the better lesson: Just love me. Do what you do. Don’t go to the class. Stay home.