chores

I’m So Sorry

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I’ve been thinking about apologies lately. A month ago, a friend linked to this post on Facebook (A Better Way to Say Sorry), and lately it keeps reappearing in my world. And then this week, in a creative writing class that I teach, a student wrote an essay about the art of apologizing. It was a piece that had everyone in the class laughing with self-recognition, because it pointed out the truth about apologies—that they are essentially selfish in that we seek to be relieved of our wrongdoings. At a minimum, we want to be forgiven. And so often we want still more than that. We want the other party to admit that he too was wrong.

Several years ago, in a parenting class, the teacher taught me something incredibly simple that has changed my life. It’s one of those things that should be obvious, but to me it was a revelation: You should apologize to your kids when you’ve wronged them, she said, and a true apology doesn’t include the word “but”.

“I’m sorry I yelled, but you weren’t listening.”

“I’m sorry I grabbed your wrist, but you’re not allowed to run off.”

It was a practical instruction, and when I got home I discovered it was something I could easily do. I couldn’t stop myself from making mistakes, but I could apologize for them. It felt delicious to own my wrongs.

“I’m sorry I yelled.”

“I’m sorry I called you a sugar fiend. You’re right. That wasn’t very nice.”

Sometimes, as it turns out, apologizing frees me from all of the emotions that get tangled in a conflict. Sometimes, once I apologize, my guilt and even my resentment seem to magically evaporate, as if the act allows me not only to forgive myself, but to forgive the other party too.

But then there are the times when I fail to untangle, when the fighting gets messy, when I sense I am wrong but can’t form the words to an apology, when I’m unwilling to look up from whatever deep wound I’m nursing.

This past weekend was hard for Smoke and me.

At five years old, he’s capable of helping, but I struggle to gauge how much I can reasonably ask of him. I do know this: I don’t want him to grow into one of those twenty-something dudes who leaves his dirty socks everywhere and whose toilet seat is covered in dried-up pee drips, with random pubic hairs stuck to everything. And so on Sunday, I asked him to help me with the laundry by folding his own.

He did a beautiful systematic job—it was his own system, but it was a fine one. He laid each shirt on the carpet, turned in the sleeves, and then tidily folded it into thirds. The result was a uniquely folded shirt with a few floor crumbs on it. I was happy with that, and so was he. Stump napped in the next room, out of our way for once, and together we amassed a pile of folded clothes on the sofa. I felt great, imagining my future twenty-something son whose bathroom would gleam and smell like lemons.

Stump woke up just as we were finishing the pile, and I warned Smoke that he better put his clothes away quickly, lest all of his hard work be undone. But Smoke decided he wanted to practice jumping over his pile of folded clothes rather than put them away. And meanwhile Stump, like a good bobcat, systematically thrashed at everything in his path.

It seems like such a little thing right now as I write it. My five-year-old had an interest in folding his clothes, but not enough persistence to put them away. That seems both clear and reasonable to me now. But in the moment it was terrible.

“Honey, stop jumping. Put your clothes away,” I told him, but he continued on as if he hadn’t heard me. More clothes were falling off the couch. It didn’t bother him in the slightest that his work had been undone. He was happy.

“Put your clothes away. Now.” I couldn’t bear his happiness. What would I do? Re-fold the clothes? Put them away myself? Resign myself to raising a son who would make future partners do all the cleaning? “This Is Not Okay.”

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Because he was ignoring me, I began to storm around the house, angrily putting away laundry. Smoke pays attention when I storm, but that doesn’t mean he cooperates. He escalates. He launched pillows at me; he shouted and cried. The whole thing ended with him curled in a ball on the couch to avoid me. I grabbed Stump and stood on the front porch, trying to let my breathing calm me, while Stump pulled on my shirt and my face, desperate to walk out into the rain. But my breathing wouldn’t calm me.

It was true that I was deeply, deeply sorry, but I couldn’t extract my sorry-ness from my bitterness. I didn’t apologize. Neither did Smoke. Instead, Kellie came home and I complained to her. “If you find yourself in a power struggle with five-year-old,” I’d tell her later, “you know that you’ve already lost.” The bitterness lasted into the night and as I put Smoke to bed, I felt awful. I had to say sorry; I wasn’t ready to say sorry. Mostly, I was mad at myself for taking what had been a rare moment  where chores feel like fun and killing it dead.

The next morning, the awfulness had cleared and I said it over breakfast. “I’m so sorry that I yelled about the laundry yesterday. I wasn’t being nice at all.”  Smoke looked up from his toast. “What?” he asked. He couldn’t remember what I was talking about. It didn’t matter. I still felt better after saying it.

Biscuits and Gravy and Other Small Comforts

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My partner just got home this week after working in California for a month. A month is a long time—long enough that I had to try to remember what it was actually like to have her around, and that was an eerie feeling.

In general, when Kellie’s gone I revel in the space she’s left behind for the first two nights. Some of that is literal—the half of the bed she usually occupies is very useful to me when it’s empty. But also it’s sometimes nice to have one less personality since we’re a family of four strong-willed humans in a 900-square-foot house. But always, by day five, chaos descends. All of a sudden, the trash needs to go out, the chickens need water, the dogs are out of food, there are dirty dishes and crumbs on every surface, and everywhere I go I step on a Lego or trip on whatever kitchen implement the baby was playing with. Since Kellie was gone for over a month, there were at least twenty-six days like that.

When Kellie came home, she cleaned the house. She mowed the lawn. She changed the sheets on the bed. And then on Tuesday, while I was at work, she called me from the grocery store. “What do we need?” she asked, and I told her if she picked up a roll of biscuit dough I’d make biscuits and gravy. Oh, and wine. Couldn’t she stop by our local wine store on the way home and ask Jim, the owner, what was good for less than ten dollars? (As much as I would have liked a glass of wine during the month that Kellie was gone, there were no casual trips to The Wine Loft.)

That evening my son came home from preschool with a model helicopter kit, which he was intent on building immediately. I chopped mushrooms while Kellie uncorked the wine. The baby was up to his usual business of finding order and disassembling it. My son was having trouble with gluing the propeller, so he let out a whine, and Kellie immediately sat at the table with him. They finished the model together. I was amazed by how functional we were all of a sudden.

Had it been a week earlier, I would have panicked the moment my son unpacked the helicopter kit. He would have started the model, cried when he got to his sticking point, and we would have escalated from there. It would have ended with me packing up the kit while he screamed. By then, the baby would have been screaming too, and the entire kitchen would have been in disarray: floors, sink, counters. We all would have been hungry, and tired, and nowhere close to eating.

As it turned out, this particular evening wasn’t perfect. We were out of tahini, which is an essential ingredient in my mushroom gravy. I threw extra nutritional yeast in to compensate, but it wasn’t as creamy. But it didn’t matter. The biscuits were warm, the gravy was salty, and we had a ten dollar bottle of wine and a finished model helicopter.

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If you look closely, you’ll see the helicopter.