Parenting

I Quit Forever

My four-year-old son quit swim lessons a couple of weeks ago. He had gone steadily through the month of July. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, while his older brother swam in the deep end, Stump sat on the side of the shallow end with four other preschoolers and waited his turn for the instructor to guide him through the water. The instructor was eighteen with an emerald green swimsuit, a ponytail of curls, and a bright smile. Stump loved her. He loved her so much that I was a little embarrassed about it. Anytime she asked who wanted to go first, Stump raised his hand and shouted “me, me, me!” Then he gazed at her with utter devotion, beaming as she supported his back and he floated.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, he told me he didn’t want to go to swim lessons.

“You mean you don’t want your teacher to hold you in the water?”

“Oh wait,” he said. “I do.”

But then July ended and the instructors changed. At first I thought it might work out. His new instructor was also eighteen with a ponytail. But she kept insisting Stump dunk underwater when he said he didn’t want to. I tried to tip her off a couple of times. “He doesn’t want to dunk today,” I said at the beginning of a lesson. But it didn’t matter what Stump said or what I said. Each time she’d talk him into dunking and he’d be fine for the moment, but each time he walked away hating swim lessons.

We were halfway through August at that point, and I wasn’t feeling well. I’d been running a low grade fever that only came on in the afternoons. On a Tuesday, Stump told me he didn’t want to go—he just wanted to watch his brother swim. I also just wanted to watch his brother swim. I didn’t want to fight him. I said we could take a break if he promised to try again Thursday.

Promises from four-year-olds, I’ve learned, don’t count for a whole lot. On Thursday I still wasn’t feeling well—this fever, though mild, was persistent—and Stump still didn’t want to go. I was doing the math in my head. Three more swim lessons I’d paid for. What was at stake if we just stopped going? I’d feel chagrined about the wasted money, but I also wondered if these lessons were now only teaching him to hate swimming.

“So you just want to quit?” I asked him.

If I had known how immediately and deeply Stump would embrace that word—quit-—I’m not sure I would have offered it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I quit. I quit swimming lessons.”

That day, as we left the pool with his brother we passed a boy from Stump’s class. He had wet hair and wet swim trunks. Stump was in his dry clothes and sneakers. “We missed you today!” the boy’s mom said to Stump.

Stump lit up, delighted with himself. “I quit swim lessons,” he told her. “I quit them forever.”

“Oh, but you were such a good swimmer,” she said.

Stump’s smile didn’t fade. “Yeah, but I quit,” he said.

I worried that the boy in the wet swim trunks would now have his own ideas about quitting. (I had noticed he didn’t like dunking either.) I worried that I had just given this mom a new battle to fight with her own son, but this wasn’t on Stump’s mind. Apparently nothing filled him with more joy that the phrase “I quit.”

A few days after Stump quit, I learned I had pneumonia. I had spent all of August in a bit of a fog, moving through my world trying to keep pace. It wasn’t until the following week, once I started antibiotics and started to heal that the exhaustion kicked in. For the first time in a long time I couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t keep going. And so I had to figure out what things I could quit. I didn’t feel quite the same sense of joy about quitting as Stump, but I tried to draw from his determination.

I quit spending entire days on my feet, moving from task to task.

I quit getting glasses of water for people who can get glasses of water for themselves.

I quit thinking I would get anything done after the kids went to bed. I let the unfolded laundry pile grow and grow. I didn’t write anything.

I quit drinking a beer at the end of my day. I didn’t want it anymore.

I quit exercising. That sucked.

This week, I arrived at an in-between space. I can pretend to be well again. I can make it through a normal day of shuffling kids and dogs and picking up groceries and running to meetings. I can do these things, but my body nags at me insistently. It knows better. I take an ibuprofen. I drink a coffee. It’s hard to quit forever.

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Marking Weather, Forgetting Time

Lately, as a new approach to weekends, I’ve struck a deal with my kids. On one weekend day, they get to choose an activity. It’s usually something that requires money and coordination, like going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, or seeing Lego Batman at the Cineplex, or visiting the children’s museum—the kind of boisterous activity that you would only do if you are a child or supervising a child, the kind of experience designed to make children beg.

On the other weekend day, I make them walk with me. We’ve got at least a half dozen nearby trails that lead to the water. In the past, I’ve had a hard time motivating them for this, but lately, because it’s routine and because I’ve set it up as an exchange (your day, my day) they seem to roll with it.

And every week, once we arrive at the beach, I am struck by the same exact thing: They LOVE it here. They run around in search of sticks. They lift big rocks and watch the crabs flee. They descend into this kind of flow state where they can throw rocks into the water, one after another after another, and they don’t get bored. They are focused and happy. No one bickers.

If given the choice between a walk and Chuck E. Cheese’s, I’m pretty sure they would choose Chuck E. Cheese’s 98 out of 100 times, and yet they seem to have more fun on the walk. I think about how, just as Chuck E. Cheese’s is designed to appeal to all of their joy-seeking impulses, the beach was designed to appeal to all of their senses. Like, we could go to the children’s museum—we could pay $35 so that they can launch wooden boats in a water table—but Nature has already nailed it. There’s the soft sand, the logs to climb on and roll, the encroaching tide, and unexpected guests.

Last week, our Saturday brought us to a marina that sells soft serve ice cream for $2, a place where people launch boats and let their dogs run wild. Once we’d been playing for a half an hour, three friendly dogs stormed the beach. They were all different breeds, but all were black and white. One of them barked insistently at Smoke until he threw a wet stick over and over. Another one leapt in the air every time Stump threw a rock and this made Stump laugh uncontrollably.

When my kids grow up, wherever they land, I want them to know they grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I want them to feel it in their bones, to remember seasons of rain and breaks of sun, and the way Puget Sound spreads its fingers and holds the land. I want it to be a childhood of mossy trees and glassy inlets, a childhood spent throwing rocks in water, forgetting time.

Close-Up: The Face of the Fire

It’s twilight and raining when I leave in the van. I leave Smoke, my eight-year-old, standing alone in the field. (Kellie and Stump are inside.) Smoke’s got his winter coat on with the hood up. He’s holding a long stick and poking at the burn pile that’s been going all day. A sheet of gray smoke changes direction with the wind.

I’m leaving in search of hot dogs. Smoke’s been asking all day if he can roast them on the fire. All day I’ve told him “Sure—I’ll get those later.” Now I’m racing the darkness and I’m losing. The remaining daylight is dimmed by this thick blanket of gray-turning-blue-turning-black. The corner store has one sad package of hot dogs tucked between a basket of wilted lettuce and some string cheese. I don’t trust those hot dogs. I drive another three miles to the grocery store.

By the time I return it’s so dark that I can barely make out my son’s figure. Though it’s distant, I can discern the glow of the dying fire. I wade through thick puddles to make it there. I’m impressed that my son is still tending, unfazed by the dark and the weather. His concentration is steady. This is the same son who normally would spend the whole weekend indoors if I let him; the same son who, when I tell him that we’re going to the park complains: “But we just went outside yesterday!” This is the son who wants only to alternate between Legos, video games, books, and occasionally setting up a pillow fort with his brother. But this fire has now held his attention for hours.

We’ve lived in this place for two months now, and though we have land, we have mostly remained inside. We moved in the dead of winter; we moved through rain to get to school, and drove home in the dark. We’ve spent weekends huddled by the woodstove. We’ve read books and watched movies and baked cookies in our warm kitchen. But now, as spring slowly returns, we learn what it means to live on the land.

Earlier this week Kellie pruned the apple trees and left piles of branches. After school one day I insisted that my sons help me drag the branches across the yard and add them to the burn pile. Smoke protested: “But I don’t even know where the burn pile is.” I laughed at him. “I’ll show you,” I said. I recognized myself in him, getting totally stymied by some minor uncertain detail. Ten minutes later, Smoke was dragging branches when the rain returned. “We can go in now,” I offered, but Smoke declined. “I kind of like working in the rain,” he confided.

All I see now are glowing embers and thick smoke. The branches my son carried are turning to ash. My son spears a hot dog with a stick. He insists they are best when you set them directly against the glowing coals so they sizzle. He’s not interested in my suggestions. He likes ash on his hot dog, he says. He eats it in the dark, directly off the stick. When I ask if he’s scared of coyotes he says, “The fire makes me feel safe.”

Two hours later, after I’ve put his brother to bed, I cross the hall to check on Smoke. He’s been listening to Kellie read. She’s still reading. Smoke is lying on his side, turned away from her, so she can’t see that his eyes are closed and his mouth is wide open. I look at the clock. It’s 8:25. It’s been years—I mean literally, years—since Smoke fell asleep before nine. But he is worn out tonight from the weather and the fire. He’s asleep before bedtime not because he is sick, but because he is healthy.

Love Letter to a Crumbling World

Last Saturday, the day after inauguration, I woke before dawn and remembered who was president. The thought felt like an injection of lead through my veins and I lay awake wondering if the world might be ending. It was quiet outside and dark. There was no sign of anything wrong, but still I wondered if bombs could be going off in nearby states and cities and I might never know. I decided that, if this were the case, if we were suddenly at war, then at least I was in the right spot. My younger son, who had turned four the day before, had cried for me in the night, and now he slept next to me, his matted hair against the pillow. The bedroom door was open, and so I could hear my older son snoring gently.   I thought about the fields outside my house, and the swamps where hundreds of geese land and lift off every day. Somehow it felt like all of this might cushion me for a moment if the world were turning to ash.

As morning came and as my mind moved from dream-world to real-world I knew that I needed to march. I had spent the week hemming and hawing about whether I’d make it to the women’s rally. I told myself that I had valid reasons to stay home: My brother was visiting from out of town. I had a memorial service to attend at noon. I had been to a student walkout the day before and had told myself: one protest is enough. But, deep down, that felt like bullshit. “I’m marching,” I told Kellie as I passed her in the kitchen. “I’m marching for both of us and you’re watching the kids.”

Minutes later I stood over the kitchen counter with a Sharpie and a piece of cardboard. “What should my sign say?” I asked.

“Love Trumps Hate?” Kellie suggested.

“I can’t write that one,” I said. My brother and his girlfriend had now emerged from the guest room and were pouring their morning coffee.

“Why not?” Kellie asked. “Is it because you don’t want to use his name?”

But it wasn’t that, I explained. I just don’t take for granted that love wins.

My brother’s girlfriend nodded like she understood. “It definitely feels like evil is winning right now.”

A year ago, if you asked me how I felt about the word evil, I might have told you that I didn’t really believe in it. I might have explained that I thought that people were complicated, that their motives were often misguided. But now it’s 2017 and I seem to have changed my position on that. I believe in evil as a powerful force. I can already feel it tugging at the edges of my world.

We joked about a sign that would say Evil is Winning, but in the end I settled on Facts Matter. I scrawled it out in fat letters, dressed for the rain, and drove downtown.

I had no idea that the day would be so bright, that marching would feel not like an obligation but like the very medicine I needed: faces of friends and people I knew, faces of people I barely knew, faces of people I’d never ever seen. We moved, amoeba-like, one organism, from our capital lawn to the heart of downtown. Nothing changed because we marched. The president is still the president. Everything changed because we marched. We were one cell connected to other cells all over the world, and for those moments we were a united body, vital and thriving, filled with light and not dread. Light and not dread.

Through all of this—the first day of his presidency, the brutal week that has followed—it does feel to me like our world is turning to ash. Every time I check the news, our country has taken another step towards fear. I am filled with dread, and so, there is one face in particular I try to remember. It’s the face of my son on his birthday—it was also inauguration day. I’d been fighting gloom all day, but just before his bedtime we stuck a candle in a cupcake and gathered in the kitchen: me and Kellie, my two boys, my brother and his girlfriend. We sang to him, all of us standing, the birthday boy seated at the counter, and at the sound of our voices he glowed. I mean, he radiated light. His whole body was purpose, and that purpose was receiving our love. He knew how to take it in. He knew how to drink it. I keep trying to remember this because I know that I will need it. I will need to borrow his brightness; I will need to give it back.

I can’t promise anyone that this will be the thing that saves us. I can’t promise we will win or that we will be saved. But I do know this: Beauty persists. Joy persists. Love persists. They are all nestled there next to my anger, like ribs holding a heart in its place.

Some Things That Might Happen When You Move

You might, at the beginning, underestimate the work of moving. In the weeks that pass between buying a house and moving into that house, you might begin the process of sorting and packing. You know you haven’t done enough, but still, you might look around each room and think: that won’t take very long to pack. You will be wrong.

On the day you actually move from one house to another, you might be disturbed by the wreckage. It’s not that you expected things to be orderly. In fact, you’re the one who advocated for a move that would span several days. Let’s just move the beds, you said, and a few boxes of things we immediately need. Then we can come back and pack the rest. But this means you are left with a house filled with dust bunnies and all the things that have been hiding under the bed for many years: flip-flops and luggage and photographs you took in college. This does not look like a house that can be tamed. You might wonder how on earth this house will ever be clean and empty.

You might be impressed by how prolific the loose Legos are, and the k’nex and the marbles. You never stop finding them. They are in every single corner of every single room. You fill your pockets with them. They often carry dust and stray hairs. They are so prolific that one afternoon, as you are cleaning out the empty fridge, you find what looks like a loose blue k’nex piece stuck in one of the mounts at the back of the freezer. You will stuff it in your pocket with the other k’nex. Later, when you find the other blue piece on the other side, you realize that these are not k’nex but parts designed to hold a tray in place. You might feel foolish for a moment.

One night at the new house you might decide to make tuna salad for dinner. You know you’ve got bread, mayonnaise, and salad greens. You even know where the tuna cans are. You might not realize until after dark, when you’ve got the mixing bowl on the counter, and the mayo, and the pickles, that the can opener is still in the kitchen drawer of your old house.

You may find that packing is demanding work. Doing so invites deep existential quandaries, like: Why am I reluctant to get rid of this dress that doesn’t fit me? and Do I really need two ladles? By the end of each day you might be surprised by how tired you are. You might fall asleep next to your toddler, drooling in your clothes.

You may realize, for the thousandth time, that you and your partner have different attitudes about stuff. You would like to see 90% of it go away. It may be hard for you to decide which things to part with, but if someone were to do that job for you, you would thank them. Your partner, on the other hand, would like to keep things like cracked dishes that cannot be repaired. She would not thank someone if they secretly took boxes of her stuff to Goodwill. Not that you tried or anything. No really, you didn’t. Still, you will have to find a way to live with each other. You just bought a house, after all.

You might find that your hygiene standards change for the weeks that you are still packing and unpacking. Those pants that you painted in last week might turn out to be the only ones you can find. Go with it. One morning, you discover that they have worn out between the thighs. Don’t worry; no one will notice. You might rifle through one of the many garbage bags filled with clothing until you can find a hat that will cover your bedhead. You might wear your garden clogs everywhere.

You might discover that it takes only 10 minutes to set up internet in your new house even though the directions say to give it two hours. This small victory might be compromised when, on the same day, you spend hours battling with the brand new dishwasher. Though you got it to start yesterday, today it won’t. You press buttons, consult the manual, and still it won’t go. You take a break from trying, but can’t get it out of your mind. Why won’t it work? you keep asking yourself. Finally, at the end of the day, for reasons that will never be clear, you hit some magic combination of buttons and the thing runs like a Cadillac. Tomorrow you will have to figure it out all over.

You might be surprised by how fluid the word “home” is. In the days leading up to your move, you find it unimaginable. You will keep thinking that something will happen to prevent you from moving into the new house. It’s not that you don’t want to go, it’s just that your imagination is limited. Only two days after the move, you will marvel at how easily the shift happens. Sure, your stuff is in boxes. Sure, you still haven’t met the neighbors. But already this feels like where you live now. Your kids, who were anxious about the move, seem to barely notice that they’ve left something behind. Instead, they jump on their new beds and sit by the fireplace as if they have always inhabited this space.

Post-Election: All I’ve Got Right Now

On Sunday evening, Smoke and I found out that his friend Sam’s dog had died. He looked sorrowful for a moment, and then he set to work. He made a small gift out of things he already: three bouncy balls in a box. He stretched three rubber bands over the box so that it doubled as an instrument. And then he grabbed a piece of white paper, made a card, and inside that card he taped three pieces of gum. On the outside of the card he drew this picture: a dog with angel wings and a halo. The dog was chasing a truck that said, in large letters, “Ham.” It was, of course, a dog in heaven chasing a ham truck.

The next morning, I dropped Smoke off at Sam’s house before school. He ran up the stairs carrying the box. When Sam opened the door I could see that he was somber. His head hung low. I couldn’t see his face.

Later that day, I would get a text from Sam’s mother. It said:

Thanks to Smoke! Sam was a mess. Wasn’t going to school because he was too sad. Smoke made it all okay.

For the whole rest of the day every time I remembered the text message I cried just a little. I cried because I was proud of my son for being so big-hearted and earnest. I cried because I had already lost a night of sleep anticipating our elections and so I was feeling raw. I cried because some part of me was preparing for my own grief at the state of our world.

Also: I cried because I knew that it was the dog chasing the Ham truck that fixed everything—not forever of course, but for a brief moment, that a crude gift assembled with love had the power to pull his friend from grief, to help him get up for the day and move forward.

I keep trying to convince my students that the art we bring into the world—the pictures we make, the songs we write, the stories we tell—that it has actual consequences. It changes the chemicals in our bodies and guides our actions. I’m telling myself that now.

And so, in my post-election grief, I am holing up with stories. I am treating them as light, as sustenance. I am snuggling on the couch with Stump and Smoke and watching The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I am replaying this life-giving Radiolab episode about Mel Blanc—the voice of Bugs Bunny and a thousand other characters. I am reading the poems that friends have been placing in front of my eyes. It is escape, but also it is medicine, a salve that allows me to re-gather my strength, regroup, and prepare for the fight ahead.

This is all I’ve got right now: It’s a box with three bouncy balls, three rubber bands, and three sticks of gum. It’s a picture I drew with a black pen on white paper. But I hand it to you with the intention that we can laugh together, or throw things, or make some boingy sounds, and meanwhile, deeper down, we are preparing to smash the patriarchy.

image: Infinity Symbol made from a Rubber Band by zeevveez, CC BY 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:

 

America.jpg

“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.

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.

stairs

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.