chaos

Like a Rat in the Kitchen

Over the last two months, Stump, my two-year-old, has come to hate diaper changes. Also eating breakfast. Also getting dressed and getting in the car. In short, he resents—deeply—any of the things that need to happen in any given morning. He resists by screaming, by kicking, by clawing at my face with his tiny sharp nails, by calling out to the dog “Wally save me!” or telling me to “Go away forever!”

The solution has been a simple one. I carry him, flailing, to the bed. I tell him to let me know when he’s ready. I close the door. I listen to him cry alone; I restrain myself from intervening. Finally, after thirty seconds or ten minutes, I hear him call “I’m ready.” I open the door to find a calm and smiling but tear-stained child.

Though our solution is simple, it isn’t easy. I go through the morning bracing myself for conflict. I go through the same thing all over at bedtime. My problem isn’t that Stump is wildly inconstant. It is that he is relentlessly predictable. It’s not that I can’t see the tantrums coming. It’s that I can, one after the other, in rapid fire, many times in a single day. I move through my home life holding my breath.

This week our summer ended. Smoke began first grade, and I am gearing up to return to work full-time next week. This means that all of a sudden we have places to be at a certain time. This means that now, when I close the bathroom door, I’m praying that Stump takes one minute instead of ten to calm himself. Obviously I have no control over this. Tantrums and deadlines are not a good fit.

Meanwhile, we’ve had a few other complications.

  1. Our water heater died last week. Our new one is taking a long time to get here. Last time I checked, it was on a truck leaving Lenexa, Kansas.
  1. A few weeks ago Kellie began pulling up tiles from our bathroom, trying to locate a short circuit in the heating system. This week she finally discovered that the problem was directly beneath our toilet, so she had to pull it up. We’ve been urban homesteading this week in the un-sexiest sense of the word: heating water in a pot for dishes and spit baths, eliminating in a rocket box.

    bucket + toilet seat + wooden box = rocket box

    bucket + toilet seat + wooden box = rocket box

  1. Please note that home maintenance issues 1 and 2 are unrelated. It’s a total coincidence that we can’t shower in our own home or pee in a flushable toilet. But item 3 is possibly related to item 2: We now have a rat living in our house. Kellie thinks she came in through the pipe that normally connects to our toilet. We haven’t seen her, but she leaves evidence for Kellie every morning. She poops in several places on the bathroom floor, or licks the butter that I accidentally left on the counter, or feasts on the crumbs from our toaster. So far she’s ignored the peanut butter in the trap.

A year ago, when Smoke started kindergarten, we were in a strikingly similar situation. Kellie was finishing a bathroom remodel and our bathtub lay upside down on our living room floor. I wrote then: “I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.”

This year I’m returning to that thought and concluding that perhaps it is neither. What if we’re not choosing chaos, nor are we its victims? What if instead of chaos this is order, the alignment of my emotional and physical landscapes?

Or, to put it another way: I could be shuffling my children through the world without these extra complications. We could have warm water and a functional toilet. We could have a rat-free house. But that wouldn’t feel quite right. I actually find some small relief when my physical world illustrates how crazy I feel. When someone says “How’s your week going?” I can say “Well we have a rat in our kitchen, no toilet, and bathing is a challenge but we’re coping,” and somehow that better captures my state of mind than if I said “Stump throws many tantrums and I’m tired.”

Also, the beginning of the school year is always about performance, about putting on our best faces, and so it feels meaningful that I must contend with my less-polished self: my unwashed hair and unshaved legs. I join the other parents in the pick-up line, take a breath, and trust that they can handle my humanity.

My mind keeps returning to this mysterious rat who so far I’ve only heard about. Kellie wakes up before me, and so she finds the evidence, cleans it up, and then reports to me. For all I know she does not exist. But she just feels right, this rat does: she is a reminder that something beyond my control is always lurking, scurrying around in the darkness, tipping things over, climbing through pipes and chewing on wires, creating havoc because this is life and because she can.

See Ya

I feel a little ashamed to write this next sentence, but I won’t let that stop me. Sometimes the highlight of my day is leaving my kids behind and driving to work. I’m not saying that work is the highlight of my day. I’m not even saying that driving is the highlight of my day. I’m talking about leaving the kids behind—that part is the highlight of my day, sometimes.

Like this morning. Stump woke me up at 6:20. It was early and I didn’t have to leave until 9, so I tried to be an optimist. Maybe I would get some laundry done. Maybe I could pay some bills. Maybe I would find Stump’s missing shoe. Smoke still slept in my bed. He had crept in during the wee hours, taking advantage of the fact that Kellie’s out of town. I decided to do something kind and make him bacon, because he had requested it the night before. By 7:00 the house smelled like bacon and I had a load of laundry going in the washer. Stump, busy eating blueberries, hadn’t destroyed anything yet. I was rocking this solo parenting gig.

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All is well.

I was forgetting that it typically takes ten minutes or less for our house to descend into chaos. Smoke woke up, and as I prepared the toast to go with his bacon, Stump climbed on top of the kitchen table and systematically tossed all of the papers onto the floor. I gave Stump his own toast to keep him busy. He sucked the jam off of it and tossed the bread onto the floor. Smoke’s crusts wound up on the floor as well, and when I asked him to pick them up, desperation already creeping into my voice, he acted as if he couldn’t hear me. I looked around and did an assessment: in addition to toast on the floor, there was a crusty, greasy bacon pan to clean, dishes to wash, and laundry to move to the dryer; none of us was dressed and I still hadn’t found that missing shoe. My blood pressure rose.

“Smoke! Please stop tuning me out! Please pick your crust up off the floor, now!”

Smoke just looked at me. “I know you’re going to apologize later for yelling.”

You may reasonably ask why we leave so much crap on our kitchen table for Stump to mess with.

You may rightfully ask why we leave so much crap on our kitchen table for Stump to mess with.

Somehow, we made it out the door fully clothed. I may have even managed to remove the toast from the floor before we left, though I know I left the greasy bacon pan behind. I dropped Smoke off at preschool, got back inside my car, and breathed. I was alone. Smoke’s preschool is two blocks away from my favorite coffee shop and so I drove there. There was a parking spot for me. Inside, there were no children, only grownups. The barista asked me what I wanted, and then when I told her she gave me that, exactly. I said thank you, and she said “Have a good day.” I was amazed by all this civility. No one threw toast on the floor. And then I continued on my quiet drive to work, sipping my cup of coffee.

These days, so much of the pleasure in my life is based upon what isn’t there.

Our Messy Lives

I took this photo last Sunday because I intended to follow up on my recent post about Stump, about how he is a bobcat, a wild child. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t exaggerating.

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This was at the end of an outing to the park where he walked from mole hole to mole hole to dig in the dirt. At first I thought, well that’s okay, and then as he became increasingly exuberant, throwing the dirt so that it landed in his hair, I thought, whoa this is getting a little crazy, so I carried him over to the rock formations as a distraction.

The rock formations feature a kind of bowl that collects rainwater to which kids like to add leaves and pinecones and stir the concoction with sticks. On this particular day, someone had also added dirt, so it was filled with mud. Stump wasted no time finding this mud. Within moments, it was on his hands and up his sleeves and down his collar. It created a nice foundation for yet more dirt to get stuck to. When I pulled him away, he scrambled up the rocks, bobcat-style, leaving mud tracks behind him on his way to find more mole holes.

No, I didn’t have a change of clothes.

Moments later, a woman cut through the park with her corgi and Stump looked up from his digging. He clapped his hands and cried “dog!” over and over. As he began to walk towards the woman and her dog, she shot me a glare that said, You will NOT let your grubby child touch my dog.

On the way home, I thought about my parenting, and how sometimes I’m torn between letting my kids make a mess, and worrying about how I look to other parents or bystanders in that particular moment. And it’s true that my choice to let Stump play in dirt is as much a symptom of my laziness, my exhaustion, my I-don’t-want-to-fight-it attitude as it is a conscious parenting philosophy. But I stand by it.

That was Sunday I thought this was our mess of the week.

But then on Monday morning we discovered that Stump had thrush, an infection of the mouth, and our doctor prescribed gentian violet as a topical medicine. When Kellie brought it home, we discovered that it’s a bright purple liquid. We’ve been using it for nearly a week now, and once applied, it looks like Stump has been sucking on a purple sharpie. As a bonus, there are drips of it everywhere—on my arms, my shirt, the sink, on my favorite sheets, and on the dishtowels.

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All of this has me thinking about the other ways in which mess has taken over my life. My office at work, once neat, is now embarrassing. It features piles of papers from this quarter, papers from several years ago, boxes of books I will never unpack, and cups of tea that have sat around unwashed for weeks.

And then there is my brain, which is even more cluttered than my desk. If I ask you a question, I’m unlikely to retain, or even hear the answer. I will likely ask you the same question again forty minutes later. Sometimes, for no particular reason, I might suddenly remember a work-related email sent weeks before that I read once and didn’t respond to. Other times, I try to remember where I first heard about a particular article or movie, a task I could once readily perform, but now my memory is a blur of social media, blogging, NPR, and actual conversations.

Sometimes I feel like our world is designed to entrap me in meaningless chaos. My inbox is full of thousands of emails that I will never read, reminders to pay my bills or view my monthly statement, to buy new shoes for 20% off or activate my Quarterly Rewards Bonus. The institution I work for withholds hundreds of dollars from my paycheck every month, money that I can spend tax-free on child care and doctors visits, but I must fill out forms and submit paperwork if I ever want to see it in my bank account. This week I tore apart my house looking for an invoice I had paid off weeks ago. Three days later, when I picked up a notebook in my office, it fluttered to the floor.

I don’t know how other people cope. How is it that people pay their bills on time and stay within a budget and drive a new car and feed their kids dinner at 5:30 every night? How do they arrive at work on time, with neat hair, and not wearing mustard from the sandwich they scarfed while driving? How do they shave their legs and keep up with the shaving? How do they get the laundry done AND fold it? How do they manage to appear normal to their neighbors? How do they get their kids out of pajamas every day or leave the house with snacks and water and a change of clothes? How do they keep their kids from digging in the mole holes or climbing on the kitchen table and throwing cereal?

What?

What?

I know these questions may sound rhetorical, but sometimes I do worry that I’m missing some essential yet obvious life skill. Please explain your answers in the space below.