bedtime

Giving (in) to Resistance

Lately I’ve been writing less and sleeping more. Nighttime arrives at my house and my children, naked from their baths, chase each other around the house. They are full of joy and it’s my job to curb them. I must wrestle a diaper on Stump. I must remind Smoke dozens of times to brush his teeth. I must say things like “Please do not engage your brother right now.”

By the time we climb into bed for books, it’s been dark for at least three hours. I read a book or two or three, or sometimes the same book three times and then I turn out the light. “Tell a story,” Stump says, and Smoke cheers as he climbs into his top bunk. They listen while I make up some string of events about dragons or sharks or Sponge Bob that only counts as a story if you’re applying the loosest possible criteria. One thing happens and then another thing happens. At some point the things stop happening and I begin to fade into sleep. “Tell rest of the story,” Stump whispers. I wake up enough to continue by stringing on yet another random event. I pause again, but Stump is insistent. “Tell rest of the story.” As far as Stump is concerned, the bedtime story is never over.

The story is never over, but at some point I’m off the hook because he’s tired enough, or because I tell him “I don’t want to talk anymore.” And then I do something that I wouldn’t have done a month ago. I lie there, and it’s so warm beneath the covers, and I can hear both of my children breathing, and I just can’t imagine getting up. I don’t want to read my own book, or write a new blog post, or watch something grown-up and funny on TV. I just want to lie there, half asleep, and give in to how tired I am.

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I was twenty-three when I decided that writing was a thing that I wanted to do. I bought a computer and set up a desk in a small heated room in our shed. I picked out a color for the walls—tangerine—and Kellie painted the room for me. Every day I sat down to write and about five minutes in, after I had my tea just so and my document open, I would be hit with a sudden wave of fatigue. How could I possibly write when I so badly needed to nap? This sleepiness felt so real that at first I took it seriously. Was I getting sick? Did I have an immune disorder? But over time, I came to recognize it as a friend—the kind who drops in uninvited at an inconvenient time. That friend’s name is Resistance.

Here’s the thing. I wanted to write. I wanted nothing more than to write. It’s just that also: I didn’t want to write.

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For Thanksgiving this year, we were planning to drive to our cabin. For weeks I looked forward to it. Getting there would be a bitch, it always is. Packing for a weekend away from civilization is daunting. Driving for seven hours with two kids in the back seat is daunting. Imagining days away from phones and internet is daunting. But I know from experience that we get there and start the fire and make the beds and watch the sky and very quickly it all becomes worth it.

Except this time, this Wednesday night as I darted from room to room putting things in bags, I found that I could not keep packing because I was crying. Nothing in particular was wrong. I just had so much to pack and my brain couldn’t focus. I would go to pack the toothbrushes, and start to worry that I’d forget the flour. I couldn’t imagine being finished, and I couldn’t imagine waking before dawn and hauling my children into a cold and unlit truck.

“Do you want to not go?” Kellie asked me.

“I want to go,” I insisted. I wanted mountains and snow and quiet. I wanted all of my life’s screens and beeps and notifications to go away. And besides, our friend Dee had left this morning. She’d be waiting for us.

My phone rang. It was Dee. She had driven six hours, had made it to our dirt road in the dark, had driven over old snow for the first half mile and then attempted to drive up the first steep hill. Her wheels spun. Her car slid backwards. When she regained control and caught her breath, she turned her car around and drove to safety. The ice had directed her to move with gravity, not against it. She would spend the night in a hotel and drive home in the morning.

That settled it. I unpacked all of the grocery bags I’d accumulated over the course of the week. I unpacked the brown sugar, the can of cranberry sauce, the six yams, the bag of potatoes, the sharp knife and the peeler that I’d wrapped in a towel.

I remembered what a friend had told me earlier this week: “It’s okay to take an out breath every once in a while.”

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Because Dee had come home for Thanksgiving, and because we’d never left, Dee suggested a walk to a nearby waterfall. I pictured something quaint and underwhelming. We parked in a friend’s driveway and walked on a private trail through the woods. Smoke cried because Dee’s dog kept stealing his sticks. Stump was tired and wanted to be carried. I heard what sounded like two small chirpy birds but turned out to be two bald eagles in dialogue. They were perched in nearby snag, talking about salmon, about how many there were and how far they’d have to fly to reach them. I still hadn’t seen any water, but I was starting to hear the rush of it. “When will we get there?” Smoke asked. “Listen,” I said. Twenty feet later, the ground opened up. Water spread like fingers and spilled over a hillside, a trickle for the first twenty feet until it gathered and rushed and plunged into the reservoir below. Gravity, again.

“I never even knew this was here,” I said, as if I had assumed all waterfalls, all natural wonders were public, were advertised on brown signs with white arrows.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the phrase giving in to resistance. I’ve been thinking about the word giving, as in offering. How is giving in to resistance different from caving or folding?

The bigger question is this: what can I give? Sometimes the giving in means giving up, allowing the force of resistance to guide me. Dee turns the car around. I unpack the things I packed. But sometimes resistance just requires a nod. “Oh, Resistance,” I used to think when I sat down to type in my orange room. And then I kept typing even though I was sleepy.

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Lately, all of my weekday mornings end in a crisis. Smoke falls to the floor on purpose and then insists that he cannot get up. He is so tired, he says. He literally can’t move. Though he doesn’t fool me, he seems to fool himself. “Do I need to make an appointment with the doctor?” I ask him, “Because even if you’re exhausted it’s not a normal thing to be stuck to the ground.” “Yes,” he tells me. “Call her.” Meanwhile, Stump kicks so hard and so fast that I cannot get a diaper on him. Before I was a parent, I might have thought that if you needed to you could force a young child to get dressed even if he was determined not to. Now I realize this isn’t so. Sometimes Stump holds still for just long enough that I can get him in a diaper, and then he immediately removes it.

I ask what I can give to this particular resistance? Because what I give now is not an offering. I storm away from my children. I make demands. I threaten consequences. I ask them why they do this every morning, even though I know. I know why. They don’t want to go. They don’t want to step out into the rainy cold world. They don’t want to sit beneath fluorescent lights in rooms full of people. I don’t want to either. And yet there I am, the sinews in my neck bursting with tension. In these moments I cannot stand myself. I cannot stand my life.

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Our Thanksgiving walk ended a half mile upstream from the waterfall, where hundreds of salmon had come to die. We stood on the muddy banks—Kellie, Dee, Stump, Smoke, and me—and took in the whole scene: giant silver fish lying still on their sides in the shallow water. If you bent over and looked closely, you could make out the eggs, small orange orbs mixed in with the gravel. It didn’t quite smell like death yet, but it smelled wet and fleshy, bodily and dank. Some of the Salmon weren’t yet dead but were dying. Though they lay still you could tell them from the others; they were green instead of silver and occasionally, amidst all the stillness, a single tail would rise up and then hit the water, making a tremendous splash. The fish would then wriggle in place for a minute or two, and then resume the work of succumbing. There was nothing more to do. They had hatched in this creek and journeyed to the ocean where they traveled north along the coast. They swam away from killer whales and sea lions. They avoided trolling lines. At some point they turned around and guided by scent memory they swam hard against the current and returned to the place of their birth to lay eggs of their own. They were dying, but also they were home.

image credit, chum salmon drawing: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank

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My Six-Year-Old is my Guru

SweetSometimes my kids blow my mind without even trying.

Yesterday I had three six-year-old boys in my living room playing Legos. The play date was coming to an end and Sam, one of my son’s oldest friends, wanted to bring home the storm-trooper-on-a-motorcycle that he had fashioned out of Smoke’s Legos.

“No, you can’t take it with you,” Smoke told him, “because last time when you borrowed my Bionicle it broke and you never brought it back.”

I was sitting on the couch grading papers, and I looked up to appreciate the line he’d just drawn. I was struck by the absolute clarity of Smoke’s answer, and also his even delivery. His voice was calm. It wasn’t loaded with resentment or grief. He was simply calling it like he saw it.

But, Sam was not impressed. “I never asked to borrow it. You just left it at my house.”

Cody, a new friend who wasn’t privy to this history, joined in Sam’s defense. “He didn’t ask to borrow it, so it’s not the same.”

The helicopter parent in me poised to jump in, to restate Smoke’s position and make sure it was honored, but that turned out to be unnecessary. “Well I never got it back,” Smoke told both of them. He took a breath. “Sam, here’s what what we can do. I won’t take apart your motorcycle.” Sam was nodding already, relieved at the idea of compromise. “And if you fix my Bionicle and bring it back, then you can borrow it after all.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a boundary set so cleanly. My son didn’t learn that skill from me. I’ve only recently learned that my relationships don’t have to follow a script, that when someone makes a request of me I’m not required to give them the answer they’re hoping for. Lately, I try to catch myself in the act of delivering a line, of giving a Yes or a Maybe when what I really mean is No. I try to remind myself that I can give the answer I actually mean, but that answer never comes out easily. I stall, I stammer, or my voice trembles, or it’s tainted with defensiveness.

But Smoke’s gentle assertiveness makes me wonder: What do we know before we un-know it? What communication skills are we born with that time corrodes? And what can I do to preserve in my kids their own clarity, their intuition, their emotional intelligence?

Two nights ago both of my kids were still awake at ten pm. It’s June in the Pacific Northwest and so it’s still light at nine, and of course there are barbecues and spontaneous visits and deer sightings that get in the way of our bedtime routine. But no matter  the reason, I start to lose my mind at ten pm when my kids are still awake, and on this day Stump, my 2-year-old, had just insisted on a snack.

Sneer“Goldfish,” Stump said after his bath and then he repeated the word “Goldfish” at least two dozen times. I knew he wouldn’t quit and I was too tired to fight, so I sat him at the kitchen table with a small pile of Goldfish crackers. But it turned out that he wanted the Goldfish crackers, not to eat, but to construct an interpretive scene. I sat in a neighboring chair and leaned my head against my hand. I was done.

“No cry Mommy,” Stump whispered, and he brushed his fingers across my cheek. “No cry Mommy.”

No one in the history of my lifetime has ever been able to pull me out of a funk so easily. I hadn’t been on the verge of tears, but Stump’s empathy perked me up, and I laughed. Stump laughed too and continued to touch my face. “No cry, Mommy. It’s okay, Mommy.” He was teasing me and comforting me at once.

I wished that Kellie had been there to witness Stump’s feat of emotional intelligence. Earlier that evening I had complained to her about some problem and she responded by saying “Why do you let that bother you?”

“That doesn’t help!” I told her, but when she asked me what she could say, I could only answer: “I don’t know!”

But now here was Stump, hours past bedtime, rescuing me from myself, as if he arrived in this world knowing all my secret codes and how to crack them.

Don’t Turn Around

For ages I’ve dreamed about these two things:

The day I could kiss my son goodnight, leave the room, and count on him to fall asleep without me.

The day my son could read fluently enough to entertain himself with a book.

Those days have arrived–they are the same day in fact–and I am surprised to discover that my feelings of pride and relief are coated in a sticky layer of grief.

It all began when Kellie and I decided it was time to move Stump, our two-year-old, out of our bedroom and into the lower bunk in Smoke’s room. This meant that Smoke would have to move to the top bunk. Such transitions in our house require incentives, and so I offered to buy Smoke a headlamp and any comic book he wanted. I pitched that he could read with the headlamp while Stump slept down below.

I thought it would be a hard sell. When Smoke was three he went through a phase of waking at 2 am and demanding a snack. It didn’t matter that I never once gave in. “We don’t eat in the middle of the night,” I told him every time. Still he’d wake up every night and ask over and over.

Bedtimes have gone about the same way. Before this week, on a good night, I might be wrapping up our bedtime reading at 8:40. “Just one more chapter?” he requests. By that time of night he is insistent, and I am so very tired. I always cave. And then he needs a cold drink of water, and then he needs to poop, and then he needs another drink of water, and then it’s 10:05 and I snap at him “Oh-my-god-go-to-sleep!” and then I say “Sorry, it’s just late and I’m really tired.”

But not anymore. On the first night he climbed into his top bunk with his headlamp and his How to Train Your Dragon comic book. He was silent. Ten minutes later, I poked my head in. “Are you able to read that?” I asked him. So far he had been reading books with a sentence on each page, and always out loud with Kellie or me on hand to coach. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m just reading the words I can read.”

“That’s called reading,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, I poked my head in again. “Is your light off?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he answered. He sounded apologetic, as if I might have wanted him to stay up all night. “I just got a little tired.”

I didn’t return until I had finished my own business and was ready to go to bed myself. I turned on the nightlight and stood on my tiptoes, but I could see nothing but the edges of his blanket. I knew for sure that he was sleeping only by the sounds of his breathing. I wondered if it was too late to reconsider. The sight of Smoke sleeping has been one of the deepest joys of my life.

Sleep3But of course, there’s no turning back. Isn’t that what Orpheus taught us when he looked behind him at his wife Eurydice and, in doing so, cast her out of the mortal realm forever? You must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.

Meanwhile, Stump has not taken to the lower bunk. He’s taken instead to waking in the middle of the night and screaming for twenty minutes at a time. He won’t let me console him. Smoke seems to sleep through it just fine, but I’ve moved Stump back into my own room.

Stump’s final two-year molars are coming in, and so I use the pain of teething to explain his midnight screaming, but of course I can’t be sure what’s causing his distress. I can only be sure that it’s a phase, and it will pass in one month or two, and when he’s finally truly sleeping through the night away from me I will feel strange, like the way I would feel if I lost an appendage not to frostbite or amputation, but if I simply misplaced it, if I left it in a drawer in some rarely-used room. I would wander around wondering Where did I put that? and Didn’t I need that for something? and I will wonder why it’s so hard to be needed, and why it’s so hard to not be needed.

This is my Dream: No Parenting After 8pm

Several years before I had children, I attended a panel discussion that featured five successful authors. I remember next to nothing about the main event, but I do remember that when the moderator asked for questions from the audience, someone spoke up. She asked:

For those of you who are parents, how do you find the time to be creative?

Four of the five panelists were parents, and their answers were surprisingly similar. They woke up early. By early, I mean four in the morning, or five. But the most striking response came from poet Frances McCue who also woke up early, but added, simply: “I don’t parent before nine am.” This got a laugh of course, but she meant it. Her daughter was nine years old at the time, old enough to get herself dressed and pour her own cereal. If she wanted something at 8:45, she was reminded of the policy.

I believe there’s a reason I’ve been remembering that for the last ten years.

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Currently, waking up early and enjoying time to myself isn’t an option. These days, Stump sleeps relatively well between 8:30 pm and 5 am, but between 5 and 7, he insists on sharing the bed with me. If I get up, he gets up.

Smoke is demanding on the other end of things. Lately he stays up past nine most nights, in part because it’s summer and light outside until ten, and in part because his bedtimes are still elaborate affairs. We can’t simply read him a book and kiss him on the cheek. He wants to read a little, and talk a lot, and read a little more. Then he wants one of his moms to lie with him until he falls asleep. We grant him this because it is the only hour where he doesn’t have to share our attention with his wild and willful little brother.

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It’s no wonder then that I stay up late most nights. It’s often 10 pm before I catch a moment to myself, and the moment is too precious to sleep through.

This summer I visited a friend with one child, a baby who goes to sleep before seven each night. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to have a quiet house at an hour where it was conceivable that I still might have some energy. I decided that would feel sane. I decided that was something to strive for.

And I will; I will strive for that. It won’t happen next week or next month, and I don’t think that seven is our hour. But I’m imagining the day when Stump is just a little older, when I can read both of my boys a book or two in bed together, then say goodnight and leave them to keep each other company. I will turn out the light and close the door, claim two glorious hours to myself and still wind up in bed at ten.

Please. I’m telling myself that this can happen. Allow me to dream this, okay?