joy

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.

Learning to Celebrate

This week  Brain, Child magazine ran an essay I wrote about the life I didn’t choose (a life with only one child) vs. the life that I have.

Often I imagine the life I didn’t choose. In this life I am the parent to one six-year-old boy. I sleep through the night. I spend long Saturday mornings with a book on the couch while he sits on the floor playing Legos. Some days he goes over a friend’s house and our own home is completely quiet. This imaginary life, the one I left behind, has its perks.

But I haven’t so much lost these small pleasures as I have traded them for others.

This post generated 1K+ likes on Facebook–small beans by some standards, but a nice little landmark for me.

Also this week I got to contribute to a post on one of my favorite WordPress blogs, Stories from the Belly. Even better was the topic I was invited to write about: breasts! I had fun writing the following sentence which opens my micro-essay:

Once, at a crowded farmers market, an acquaintance of mine broke from our conversation to pull one of her breasts out of the top of her sundress and nurse her infant daughter.

And I loved seeing my work on the same page as bloggers Diahann Reyes and KS.

Someone in my life who knows me well challenged me to celebrate my good week. Celebrate, as in mark a significant achievement by engaging in something joyful, pleasurable.

My immediate response was to rattle off a list of things I still haven’t done, things that would truly be worthy of celebration, you know, like 20K likes on Facebook, or a book deal, or publication in the New York Times.

This friend assured me that it was still okay to celebrate.

My next response was to feel utterly flummoxed about what kind of shape that celebration should take. Kellie, as we speak, is performing maintenance on deep cycle batteries on the Mojave Desert, so there’s no one at home to open a good bottle of wine with me.

But the more I thought the more I realized that I like food as much as wine, and I like my children’s company as much as I like anyone’s, and so I decided on sushi and cake.

Our evening wasn’t perfect. Mostly, in between bites, I tried to keep Stump from throwing sushi on the floor, and Smoke, who normally picks at his food, is very capable of devouring twenty dollars worth of sushi and then complaining that he wants more.

But the cake eating was leisurely, and I might have learned something about celebration: the preparation was 60% of the fun. Both Smoke and I spent our whole day looking forward to sushi, and in the grocery store we methodically examined every single option for dessert.  Also: I still have leftover cake which I will eat tonight, alone, after my kids have gone to bed. In other words, the celebration isn’t confined to a single moment. It spills into time, the before and after, and asks us to continue to value the thing that was marked.

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When Your Pen Takes Over Your New Year’s Resolution

I asked myself the question: What’s the most important thing that I can focus on this year?, and I thought that I already knew the answer. I thought that my New Year’s Resolution would look like a pared-down version of my daily to-do list:

Write every day.

Exercise more.

But I was writing with a pen and paper, which is a little dangerous because sometimes my hand takes control of the prompt, and ignores what my brain has been planning to say all along, and instead of the sentence “I need to find time to write, if not every day, then as much as possible,” my hand wrote:

The most important thing I can do is to experience joy in my body, and bear witness to joy when people close to me experience it.

Shit. Why did my hand write that? I thought that writing every day was a challenging priority, but making room for JOY in my body and my life? That might require me to become a different person, one who can write joy in capital letters without wincing. One who can relax for for more than ten minutes without listing my to-do list in my head, without feeling like my body is tightening around me.

At the moment, it feels kind of like standing in the middle of a forest with no trail, only a compass and a destination. And I don’t really know how to use a compass. But I may know enough to orient myself. I know enough to start.

I’ll start, when I remember, by taking breaths, by imagining my lungs, my belly, my capillaries opening and making room for for this somewhat foreign and suspicious feeling.

I’ll start, when I remember, by slowing down and searching for whatever small joy might be found in the task I’m doing. The feeling of my fingers stretching across the keyboard, the one perfect sentence in the paper I’m grading, the moment halfway through a class I’m teaching when I notice (sometimes) that things are going well.

This sounds like work to me.

I’ll start, when I remember, by engaging more deeply with Stump and his world, by letting him run through the house in his diaper, by mirroring his happy dance when his brother comes home or when I offer him a piece of chocolate.

I’ll start, when I remember, by saying Yes instead of Later to Smoke’s bids for more time and attention. Yes, let’s open your science kit Now, and Yes, you can pour all of the colored sugar on top of the cookies.

I’ll start, when I remember, by holding the word between my fingers and coming to know it. Such a small word for something so sweeping and grand, (joy, joy, joy).

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