Stories

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.

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.

On Living with Brokenness (and laying on of hands)

When I was twenty-one or so, I made a bad decision for my body. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I had to purchase a bag for my books, and I chose a black messenger bag, one that I could toss over my left shoulder. The strap crossed my chest, and the bag—if I arranged it just so—landed on my low back.

I knew that backpack would have been better for my posture, but backpacks reminded me of elementary school, of days when every item I wore was up for deep public scrutiny, and nothing I owned was ever cool. Now that I was twenty-one, I was pretty sure that there was no way to make a backpack cool—unless you were already cool, which I wasn’t. And so I bought a black messenger bag, and sewed a zebra-striped patch of fabric over the brand logo, and carried that bag with me everywhere for years. I carried everything in it: books and notebooks and bottles of water; groceries and snacks and a travel umbrella. Because I didn’t have a car, I carried it up and down hills, from my apartment to the bus stop and back again.

Over time, that bag broke me in a few small ways, but I didn’t really know it. I knew that after a long day, my neck and shoulder were sore, but I didn’t think much of it. I’d rub into the soreness with my fingers and then I’d move on with my day. Now, nearly twenty years later, I think about that bag’s wide strap, and how it pulled against one side of my body, steering my vertebrae ever so slightly off course.

A year or so after I retired that bag, the muscles in my neck would spasm every few months. I’d wake up sore one morning and discover that I could turn my head to the right, but not the left. I saw a chiropractor, who often asked me: “Are you sure you weren’t in a car accident?” She would ask this before cracking my vertebrae back into place and sending me off into the world. After the adjustment, my muscles would let go, and for a few weeks or a few months I would be mostly pain-free. I saw her on and off for years.

Once I had Stump, my second child, I stopped attending to my damaged neck. I didn’t have space in my life for appointments, and so I tried to outsmart my body. Whenever I felt a muscle spasm coming on, I simply opened my bottle of Aleve. If I caught the spasm early enough, it would never take full hold and I could continue to drive and check my rearview mirror, to grade papers, to lift my kids, and to do all the other awkward bodily things that mothers do. For over three years, I thought I was clever. Who needs the chiropractor when you’ve got Aleve?

And then, in June of this year, I began to notice and new sensation: a tingle started at the top of my left shoulder, traveled down my arm, and landed in my fingers. It was distracting, not painful, but it grew more and more insistent. Every hour or so, the sensation recurred. Sometimes it came and went in moments. Other times it lingered long enough that I would try to shake it away.

Aleve didn’t touch it. I would take one and then another, but still the tingle traveled back and forth all day. I waited for my body to heal itself. It didn’t. It took me months to get around to asking my doctor for a referral. I put it off, because I suspected that addressing my haywire nerve might not be a simple endeavor, that it would require more than one or two adjustments, that to adequately heal I would need to commit some time and energy to healing. I was right.

My new chiropractor is not like the old one. He doesn’t crack my neck and send me out the door. Instead, he spent a full hour systematically testing the strength in all my muscles. He ordered x-rays and offered a diagnosis: bone spurs and moderate arthritis in my cervical vertebrae. He scheduled me for three appointments in a single week. The commitment is a drag; it interrupts my life. But the bigger challenge is this: each time I show up, I have to trust him. The exercise of trusting him addresses yet another broken spot.

“How’s this?” he says, as he locates a tense spot in my jaw. “How about this?” he says as he locates the spot at the base of my neck where the nerves pinch and send the tingle down to my fingers. “I’m good at irritating people,” he says. “Just ask my wife.”

In every exchange, my chiropractor manages to be at once gentle and caustic. “What the hell were you thinking?” he asks me, after he discovers my pelvis is torqued. I appreciate his sarcasm. It’s a smokescreen that creates distance between him and his touch. If he were only kind, or only gentle, I might melt. That would not be good for either of us.

Instead, I lie on the table and he places his hands at the base of my skull. “Press your skull into my fingers,” he instructs. I do. He pushes back. As we work with pressure and soft tissue, I wonder how that sentence sounds to him: press your skull into my fingers. Does he understand how personal that sounds, or how much trust he’s asking me to summon? Or does it sound to him the same way Take out your copy of the reading sounds to me?

In those moments I make a choice to let go, to let a near-stranger press his thumbs into the base of my skull, to let him turn my head ever-so-gently this way and then that way. Scenes from bad ninja movies run through my head—you know the ones where one ninja kills another by simply twisting his opponent’s head? That image comes through my mind, and then it leaves. I reassure myself that my chiropractor won’t kill me. (He won’t, right?) “Take a breath,” he says. I know what’s coming. The gesture is swift, but not forceful. He turns my head slightly to the left, and then pulls to the right. I hear the crack he is after, the sound of vertebrae rearranging, making space. I feel that space in my neck as I leave the office, but also in a deeper place in the hollow of my chest. My body has shifted from a tense and fearful thing to something roomier. For the moment at least I’ve become a being who is ready to receive care.

Image Credit: Spine by Katie Cowden (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Close-Up #4: Candy, Our Lord and Savior

I’m standing outside the bank, the door to the van wide open. Stump has his arms crossed and he’s staring me down. “I don’t want to go to the bank,” he says. It’s the hundredth time he’s said it. It’s the end of the day, and he’s a real mess. Moments ago he screamed and pounded on me as I carried him through the corridor of his daycare center. I have no idea why. Normally he runs through the hallway and beats me outside. Normally I have to yell at him to wait up. But today he skipped nap and decided that whatever we’re doing is not the thing he wants to do. “I don’t WANT to go to the bank,” he tells me again. If I could skip it I would, but I can’t. Today is the day we pay the carpenter in cash. The bank closes in fifteen minutes. She’s building walls for us; I don’t want to let her down.

My shirt is riding up and I’m sweating. I release Stump from his car seat, scoop him up, and pray. “Don’t you want a piece of candy?” I ask him. “Okay,” he says, and leans into me. He looks tired and pale, half-dried tears rolling down his cheeks. Maybe we will make it through this errand.

The candy basket sits on the welcome desk. The receptionist nods at us and continues to type. He sifts through the top layer of candies and asks me to name them: butterscotch, strawberry, lemon. He points to a peppermint that he spots through the weave at the bottom of the basket. I dig to retrieve it. I hope it will cure him.

Stump is perched on my hip, sucking away on his peppermint when I approach the teller. I’ve got a number written down on a piece of paper, but when I lay it on the counter, I’m suddenly unsure. “Shoot,” I say. “I’m sorry. I think I need to do the math one more time.”

“Take your time,” she says. I pull my phone out, choose the calculator function, and start typing numbers. I’m still sweating and I know she can tell. She gets that I’m frazzled. She plans to roll with it.

My calculator verifies the original number, and just as she is counting my cash—just as it seems that we are going to leave the bank without incident, I hear a sound. Something hard has hit the floor just below me. I look at Stump. A moment of silence ensues as he and I simultaneously figure out what has happened.

The peppermint has fallen from his mouth.

It has hit the hard tiles and shattered. Stump has already sucked off all of the red stripes, and so now it just looks like broken shards of white glass. Somehow I manage to bend over and scoop them all up in my left hand without letting go of Stump. He’s crying, sobbing, tears and snot streaming down his face. He was loving that peppermint. Like, really, really loving it. I can only imagine how it feels to be three years old and exhausted from a day of following instructions and fighting naps, exhausted from the drama of fighting your mom, weighed down by that sinking-tired feeling, that hungry-but-you-have-trouble-with-hunger-cues-so-it-just-feels-like-pain-feeling, and then you put a peppermint on your tongue. Your mouth surrounds it and you suck with all your might, and for a moment your whole body is focused on nothing but that sweetness. All is well.

Now his cries echo off the tiled floors and vast walls of the bank. The teller produces a bowl of candy. It’s an entirely different selection: Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops, and gummies wrapped in plastic. Stump shakes his head. He cannot be won so easily. He tries to resist at first, but then he notices a small yellow box of Dots. Those will do, he decides. He holds the box in his hands. We watch the teller start over and count all the money. I continue to hold the candy shards in my left hand. I carry Stump back to the van and this time he doesn’t rail against me as I secure him in his car seat. He asks me to open the Dots.

In the front seat, I finally open my left fist to release the candy into an old coffee cup. It sticks to my hand and so I wipe it off with a baby wipe. I check to make sure that I still have the envelope of cash. I do; it’s a miracle; it’s in the front pocket of my bag. I start the ignition. I drive us home. I hear the sounds of vigorous chewing in the backseat.

image credit: Janet Beasley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/janetbeasley/8201584932

 

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

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

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.

Last Week: a list of small failures

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Last week I learned that April is the month that all of the area preschools fill all their empty spots for fall. This was inconvenient. My town has a bunch of small home-based preschool programs, and I had always imagined moving Stump away from his from his large daycare center and into one of these setting when the time was right. I had thought we’d simply know when that time had arrived and the right spot in the right place would present itself to us. Clearly I had failed to think it through. We had already missed all the open houses. We had missed the moment that enrollment opens and parents clamor for spots and lay down their money. We were competing now for arbitrary openings left here and there, or hoping to be first on a waitlist. This was failure #1.

Kellie was working in another state when this search began. I had to rearrange my days to schedule phone calls and visits until there were no moments left for dog walks or staring out the window. The hustle of running from appointment to work to appointment to dinner and dishes and bedtime amplified my super-limitations.

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I failed to notice an appointment in my calendar, and so I double booked.

I failed to make Stump pee before bedtime, and so he wet the bed in the middle of the night.

I had a nightmare about missing work, and then I risked missing work when I failed to get Stump to daycare on time.

The cutoff for morning drop-off is 10:30, and we had scheduled a visit at a nearby preschool at 9:30. Stump had clung to me for the first fifteen minutes while we watched kids play with play-dough and rolling pins at the table. He got up in time to rifle through a bin of seashells and two four-year-old girls accosted him when we broke one. “Oh that’s fine,” the care provider told them. “I don’t know why they’re being like that,” she whispered. “The shells always break. That’s what they’re there for.” I chose not to share with her that breaking stuff is one of Stump’s major skills. At 10:10 I said “We’d better get going,” and then time did one of those tricks where it bends in a loop. I asked the provider one last question and her answer lasted a minute or two. Then we discovered that Stump had wandered into the kitchen and found the open door to the basement. On the way to the car, Stump wanted to explore the yard which had a small play shed with a pirate flag and a row of logs for jumping on.

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Preschool Bunny who I failed to discuss this post.

By the time I got Stump in the car it was 10:24. We didn’t have far to go, and so the whole way there I was optimistic that 10:30 was more of a soft guideline than a hard deadline. We made it to Stump’s classroom at 10:34 and for once Stump was immediately happy to be there. Just as he was unzipping his coat, his teacher approached me and whispered that she had to follow policy. No 10:34 drop-offs. I didn’t know whether to feel mad or ashamed or sorry, and so I felt all three at once, and those feelings battled in the pit of my stomach. I whisked Stump away, his coat half-unzipped and he asked me why we were leaving. “Because Mommy was too late,” I told him. “Why are we leaving?” he asked again, not understanding.

Kellie had arrived home on a plane the night before and luckily-unluckily she was home for the day, caring for Smoke who was running a fever. I knew she’d been planning to clean the house, to sweep up all the crumbs and wipe all the sticky spots and fold all the laundry from the ten days she’d been gone. I knew that with Stump home now she’d be doing very little besides taking care of Stump. When I came through the door with him, I thought I perceived a look. “What do you want me to do?” I hollered before I scrambled back to the minivan and drove back to work.

In the grocery store, I swiped the debit card before my total had loaded and the clerk had to remind me to wait for the prompt. This happens every time. Twenty years of my life I’ve been paying with debit cards and still I can’t seem to get it right.

At home after dark, I knew I needed sleep but instead I opened my laptop and kept scrolling and clicking, scrolling and clicking, aware every single moment that I should be in bed, but too tired to summon the willpower to remove my eyes from the screen.

On Friday morning I failed to control my son at yet another preschool visit. The teacher was so quiet and collected and when she needed my son to do something, she spoke exclusively in “You may” statements, as in: “You may take off your shoes now,” “You may step away from the computer,” “You may help clean up these blocks.” This had the effect of paralyzing my own parenting because I do not speak in “You may” statements—I speak in “Hey” statements as in “Hey! Get away from there!” or “Hey! Clean that up!”—and so anything I said to my child sounded like yelling. And so, when Stump picked up a piece of plastic corn and pretended it was a gun, I said nothing and hoped the teacher would not be too offended. And when Stump dismantled a wall of cardboard blocks and then began to roll around in the mess he made, I said simply, “I think we will need to get going soon,” instead of “Oh my god! You are out of control, dude!”

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Once I had dropped Stump off at daycare and arrived at work—on time this time—I looked in the mirror and my reflection said it all. The night before I had fallen asleep with wet hair, and in the morning I had tried to tame it by brushing it into a ponytail. I had thought it was more or less safely contained. But no, my hair was frizzing and falling out the elastic in random pieces, some of them wavy and some of them straight. I was not passably put together, not even for a Friday.

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The thing about my hair is that it often tells the truth about me. Even on my best days, I have a wild cowlick that rises up in the back an announces to the world that I can never fully contain myself.  I’ve said this before, but during weeks like this I think of my fellow humans, especially the ones who manage to walk through the world in lipstick and high heels. For a while I consider how I might leak out through the edges a little less. Could I pull myself together if I tried? I think it would take a lot of effort and expense. It would require supplies like hairspray and depilatory creams. It would require personal trainers and professional organizers. And still, at the end of the day I would probably come home and discover that I had spinach in my teeth or that I had put my underwear on inside-out. So I think I’ll keep doing it this way, where I’m visibly frazzled and imperfect, where the emotional energy I have at the end of the day goes into accepting that imperfection rather than trying to will it away.