Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It ain't easy being a grownup

Jovie. Being weird. And being Jovie. It's funny, right? We need that right now.
I met up with a friend for breakfast earlier this week. 

She's a journalist, podcaster and new mom among other descriptors. She recently did a video for USA Today about breastfeeding– it was funny, warm and candid. Relatable to new moms and seasoned moms alike. I told her I appreciated how open and down-to-earth she was.

We talked a little about being vulnerable in our work. How it could be painful at time, but ultimately led us to find deeper relationships with readers or viewers. How we felt that it was both gratifying and terrifying.

So here's me today. 

I'm driving around Northern Virginia in a loaner car because my car is in the shop. The check engine light came on the other day– it needs a new valve or another and is long overdue for a tune up, and there's the new timing belt. Thousands of dollars of work. And I'm crying and angry. Because money is always tight. And we should've seen this coming. 

There's always something coming. It's like de ja vu, too. Because I spent a lot of high school driving around these exact same roads. Crying. I mean it was over different crap back then. Some things do change. Thankfully.

I found myself asking the question, "What am I doing back here?"

Like, how is it that life came full circle back to this place? And it's still so hard. Here we are, adulting like adults are supposed to. Changing jobs. Moving. Pursuing new opportunities in the hopes that we can provide a better life for our family. And it's still always so hard. 

I'm driving around and I'm wondering if we made a huge mistake. I'm wondering if we should've stayed in York, where we were comfortable. Where life felt less rushed and more stable. It felt more limited, too. Maybe safer. It was a good life. Smaller maybe– but also more expansive, too somehow.

I'm feeling anxious. And wistful, too. Anxiety is such a pounding feeling isn't it? And wistfulness? Wistfulness is not that way. It's soft and wispy and a little sad. 

How do you go about making the right life for yourself? How does that happen? What are the steps you follow from the first to infinity that result in the good life? The right life? Why is it so goddamn hard? 

It seems unfair, doesn't it, that you are handed a "how to" when you are born? "How to Survive and Thrive in This Life You Were Given." Where's that book? Don't answer that question. It was rhetorical. 

I think it's that you just have to do the living to get through life. There's no guide. You have to be carried and then you crawl and then you walk and then you run and then you drive around aimlessly on the byways of your youth crying to yourself about how hard it all is. 

Snacks knows. It's hard being a dog
with annoying owners forcing you to wear shit.


The best parts happen in the simplest moments. Maybe you're driving with the windows down and a Josh Ritter song comes on and ... joy. Or your kid tells you a legitimately funny joke– not just a kid funny joke. Or you flop on the couch at the end of the day and commiserate with your husband about the struggles of forcing your 7 year old to write a thank you note. The struggles are real, by the way. Just ask our 7 year old, who throws down the pen after each word of said thank you note lamenting a misshapen "B" or a forgotten "A". It is painful. And also kind of hilarious.

At some point I feel ashamed for feeling so frustrated. I feel it's unwarranted. So I'm having car trouble. And it's expensive. But I have a roof over my head. 

There are people tonight who have spent the day huddled in their home on some Caribbean island as the world raged against them. And when it was safe enough to stop huddling, there was no roof over their head. And there are people whose homes are covered in mold because of flooding. And people who have been forced to flee their homes for fear they'd be massacred by their own government or by marauding extremists. Murdered by people who allowed fear to trump love.  

And people I know. My beautiful friend who right now is working to put back the pieces of herself– of her life– so that she can return to her family. My amazing, hard-working, loving siblings whose hearts are too big for this world, who always feel like they're just scraping by. It's just not easy– this life. 

It's all hard. It's all relative. 

So here we are. Here I am. Just muddling on through. 


And I'm lucky. And not just in a compared to all the suffering way. Because there are those that are suffering who feel lucky, too I think. Lucky is knowing that it's a gift to recognize that the best parts of muddling through don't happen in these big, grand moments. It's in watching the freckles wrinkle up on your kid's nose when you ask her if she remembered to feed the T-rex living in your back yard in an attempt to make her forget the long walk to school in the morning. Or watching your 2-month-old niece yawn. Or scratching your dog's stomach. Or chatting with your mom about her new haircut. Lucky to spot the prettiest maple leaf. Lucky to listen to crickets singing at night. Lucky to sleep in on the mornings when there's just the right amount of cool fall air drifting through the open window. 

Deep breath. 

We're all just trying to sort things out, right? I can't be the only one, right? I don't think that's the case, but on day's like today, you start to wonder. You start to really hope that your big mistakes will be your big lessons. Or that they weren't mistakes to begin with. That they were turning points for the next thing. Or that they're all the same thing. It's a both/and sort of situation. Life is like that. All gooey and complicated and exhausted.

Tonight, the next step is sleep. And thank God for that. Tomorrow? 

Tomorrow I'll go to my next subbing gig, pick up my freshly repaired car and figure out the rest as I go.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

On B.O., incompetence and new adventures

Photo courtesy of Zoe Rudsill/Flickr 
Last spring, as I was mulling what I would do when the girls went back to school, I thought substitute teaching might be a good option. 

Back then, it was sort of an abstract thought about some abstract time in the near(ish) future. Like, what does one do after staying at home with young children for six years if one doesn't want to return to a traditional 9-to-5 office job or some non-traditional, odd-houred job at a newspaper? If one isn't ready (or interested in?) dealing with after-school care or summer care? 

What does one do? 

Last spring I started to remember how much fun I had as a co-leader for the Teen Takeover staff at my last job and then got to thinking and how much fun I have hanging with kids– nieces and nephews, the girls' friends, etc. And I thought, "hmm teaching." And I submitted a resume and a transcript and three letters of recommendation and various other things. And that was that.

And then summer comes. And it's summer! And there's the pool! And vacation! And sleeping in! And I got to be summer mom! Summer mom is kinda fun (except when she's gritting her teeth because summer kids). It was all splashing around and extra cartoons and all the ice cream and "stop biting your sister."

Summer's over now (obviously). The kids went back to school. I eventually pulled myself up off the kitchen floor after hours of uncontrollable sobbing (OK, actually there wasn't hours of kitchen floor sobbing. It was probably more like hours of wandering the empty rooms of my house thinking about how they used to be noisier– they were still just as messy, but I couldn't bare to do anything about that. Too distraught to clean. You know how it goes.)

I thought about that application. Followed up on some unfinished application business and all the sudden found myself sitting in the orientation for substitute teaching.

That's when it became less of an abstract thought and more of a "OK, this is happening." sort of thought. The feelings of panic started creeping in early. Like when the presenter started talking about what you should do when you weren't left lessons plans. 

What do you do when you don't have plans? Wait. What? 

I started envisioning myself standing in front of a room full of skeptical, petulant-looking teenagers in high school English or a room full of loud, rambunctious second graders. Sweating. There would be all the sweat. With absolutely nothing to say. No idea what should come next. The armpit stains conducting a hostile takeover of the rest of my shirt.

Like, all the sudden I'm going to have anything remotely useful to say about high school English? Like I would even know what second-grade math should be? 

Then she jumped into a conversation about problem students and avoiding power struggles and using all this non-verbal communication and redirecting. Then it was what to do if there's a fight. What to do if you suspect a student has a weapon. What to do if you suspect a child is being abused.

That conversation wrapped up and we calmly moved on to how to use the computer system.

They took my fingerprints and my picture and sent me on my way. 

I got into my car. And promptly decided I was wholly unqualified to be a substitute teacher. 

But my house was still really quiet. Super quiet. So on Monday, I logged on to that computer system and set up my profile. And then on Monday afternoon I got a call.

Did I want to accept a gig as a substitute instructional assistant (IA) at the girl's school on Tuesday? And I thought to myself, "Assistant? I can be a substitute assistant." And I knew my way around the girl's school. So I said yes.

And then panicking commenced. For the next 12 or so hours. Which meant I didn't sleep a whole lot. And then all the sudden it was time to wake up, get dressed and go to school. I was very smelly, I think. But you just keep on taking the next step, right? Sign in. Get the badge. Get the instructions. Go to the room. Introduce yourself. 

As a substitute IA, I mostly got to sit and watch the teachers teach. Which was really helpful. Like going to school, but not having to teach at the school. A pretty sweet deal for someone who was pretty sure they were out of their league. Sometimes I'd listen to a kid read and help them with hard words. I sat with a group of kids as they sorted shapes. I helped kids write numbers and helped others round to the nearest 100. 

Mostly, I marveled at teachers. How they have to impart wisdom on the most abstract of concepts while simultaneously wrangling children who have no interest in waiting for their turn to speak, sitting still or keeping their hands to themselves. 

How the hell does anyone teach a second grader about the concept of evens and odds while also monitoring the class for unprovoked poking and incessant whispering? When a kid asks the question, "Why is zero even?" How do you even begin to answer that?

"Yeah," I wanted say. "Why is zero even?"

Well. It's because if you have a buddy and each of you have zero M&Ms, you both have the same amount.

Oooooooh. Good call teacher. See. That's why you're the teacher. And I'm just the substitute instructional assistant.

That's why. Because you know the way to a child's ears is M&Ms and I have no idea how to explain the concept of zero being even. Up until that moment, I probably hadn't even considered at all whether zero would be even or odd. 

And what do you do when you have a class of third graders and you've wrapped up your lesson on government and there's still 10 minutes left to the end of the day? What do you do with that time? See, I wouldn't know. I'd probably try to make small talk and ask if any of them had seen "Trolls" and start talking about how much I love the part where the spider whispers into Branch's ear during "Sound of Silence" and they would stare at me blankly and wonder why my mouth was moving.

I wouldn't think of playing "would you rather?" 

Asking them whether they'd rather lick a moldy trashcan or the bathroom floor.

(They say bathroom floor).

Whether they would want to sleep in a cemetery or live on a desert island.

(Desert island. Unless you can bring a teddy bear, then cemetery).

Whether they'd rather have a lot of friends or be really famous.

(They picked fame - cuz being a pop star would make you rich. They tell me I have to download the app Musical.ly, so I can pretend to be my own kind of pop star). 

It was all very enlightening. 

I made it through the day. I mean, I didn't smell great. I smelled like a locker room. But luckily, nobody commented. I survived. And it was OK.

So then, when I got a robocall at 5 this morning, asking if I wanted to accept a job as an IA at the high school– half asleep and still delirious from my previous days' half-win, I said, "yes." 

And in I went to school and learned I was going to be working special ed. And I was kind of psyched– because why not?

I survived my second day of substitute teaching, too. Not just the first but the second. Still sweaty mind you. Definitely still clueless. 

But I got to learn about two-perspective drawing and help a student with Down syndrome re-create a city block while listening to her describe her obsession with playing clarinet for the school band. She sat at the table that was the equivalent of the table I would've sat at in my art class years ago– I saw myself in them– quiet and serious– looking for the teacher's approval. Trading inoffensive jokes. High school is the same arrangement of people as it was when I was there. Just with cell phones.

And I got laugh about the fact that it was only Wednesday with a student who was really, really wishing it could be Friday. And while helping a student with basic sight words, I got to marvel at how beautiful all of his work looked–adding little wings to each of his "As" and always outlining each word he was charged with writing in a bright color and its complement. When he'd have to match the uppercase letter to the lower case letter – he drew a yellow line with red polka dots. Each time he used a yellow anything, he added red polka dots. I wondered about it and loved it. Both. His whole worksheet on the word "and" a work of art.

Not much happened in the day. No major revelations or major anythings. Just kids being kids. Just life. Easy as that.

There was no mention of my B.O. or my incompetence. We were all just people going through the school day.

And that has helped tame the monster of fear. Because in the end, all you need to do is say "yes," show up and be willing to help.

And I can do that.

And that's enough for now.


***

Finally, this song is singing to me today. So I'm sharing it.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Click here to save a life

Kristen, right, and me. Just before I got my nose pierced.
So the first thing you'd remember about my dear friend Kristen is her smile. 

At least that's the thing I remember about the day I first met her. It's as wide as the Amazon. And so bright. You'll probably also note that she's beautiful and really put together. Like she's just walked off the pages of an Anthropologie catalog. Qualities I assumed would preclude her from wanting to be my friend– as I am often, you know, not put together. A little schlumpy. But she is my friend.

You'd quickly learn about her weird obsession with cats and the color aqua. How her nails are always manicured and her house always, always covered in glitter. She's a passionate person, too. Passionate about being a mother and raising kind, resilient children. Passionate about her education and growing her skills as a nurse. Passionate about advocating for those who struggle with eating disorders and other mental health issues. 

When you talk to Kristen. She listens. Really listens. Makes you feel as if you're being heard for the first time. And understood. So naturally, people gravitate to her. 

We became friends because we both needed someone who spoke our language– one of morbid humor and hopeful cynicism. Back in York when our first kids were just babies, we'd both joined a local Mom's group and became friends on Facebook. She must've read something I wrote here about my own struggles with depression, because one day she messaged me and asked if I'd be willing to listen. And I'm always willing to listen. So she'd share her story and I'd send her Parry Gripp videos. And she'd share some more. And I'd send her cat emojis. And so it went. We kind of dug deep into our souls right at the start.

We'd watch each other's kids. Drink cup after cup of coffee picking over the detritus of our lives. Lamenting how impossible motherhood could be some days. Analyzing the days we felt like the world was just the worst. And celebrating the ridiculous moments that made it better– like caroling or the kids pushing cats around in doll strollers or Convos With My 2 year old

Then, you know, life evolved. Forcing our friendship to stretch across a distance. Which hasn't been easy. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding last fall and in January I drove up to York at 2 a.m. to witness the birth of her son in her living room no less (he was immediately covered in glitter). But we don't live three minutes from each other anymore. She works weekends and with the girls in school it was tough for me to visit during the week. We text sporadically. It's just not the same.

I share all this about my friend Kristen– because it's important you get to know the person I know before I share the next part. She's generous. Unflinching in her honesty. She's one of the strongest people I know. She's a force. A lioness.

But she's also spent long stretches of her life bearing the weight of depression. Debilitating depression. 

Saturday morning I was scrolling through Facebook and came to a post from Kristen's husband:



"Click here to support saving my family"

I clicked. Here's what Justin wrote:


"Throughout the past 5 weeks, my wife has been struggling with post partum depression. She has experienced severe symptoms including suicidal thoughts. In the last 5 weeks, she has been hospitalized on 3 separate occasions. She has tried all forms of treatment including partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient therapy, group therapy, and expressive therapy. Each time that she has been released from the hospital her suicidal thoughts become more serious.  The program that has been recommended is a long term inpatient program. This program is known as residential treatment for mental health Though we have great insurance, there is absolutely no coverage for this type of program. Our insurance would pay for this treatment if my wife had some type of substance abuse issue, but she does not. They will not cover this treatment. For her to attend the program, we will pay approximately $50,000 out of pocket. We are a young family with 3 children. I am looking to my community for any support that is available. I will continue to appeal our insurance claim, look for financial assistance, and save as much as I can. With my wife being sick and not working, we are risking bankruptcy and the loss of our house, let alone paying $50,000 to save my family. If you are unable to financially contribute, we are asking for prayers. Thank you for all that you can do to help."


I felt as if I was going to be swallowed up by the bedroom floor.  

I knew Kristen had been struggling with postpartum depression. I knew she was struggling to find any light. Any hope. Any possibility for a life free from the shackles of her dark matter. 

But I didn't know how bad it had become.

We hadn't been in touch in recent weeks. I tried texting a couple times a week just to check in and say hi. Sometimes I'd hear back from her. Most of the time I didn't. Twice I'd planned to visit her in York this summer– when we lived up there, her daughter and my girls were like sisters. But the day before one visit she'd was hospitalized. Hearing voices. Thinking about death. The second visit was more tentative. She told me she would be around and then I didn't hear from her. 

I tried not to take any of it personally. I know depression intimately. I know how it draws a dark curtain around you. How it forces you to isolate. To ignore. To reject. Even people you care about. Maybe even especially the people you care about. 

It's an insidious beast. Creeping about, telling you untruths about yourself. 

I texted my sister Laura about how sad I was for my friend. How frustrating it was that someone who brought such light into the world could be aching so much. Her response, as always, was so wise:

"It's an acute pain when you are intimately in touch with that gray dense bog... the tarpit, the cancer ... its like ancient mythology where the souls of the dead are just under the surface of the river Styx but you can only see them ... you can't reach them."

And that's the thing. I feel like I can't reach her. And that's pretty terrifying. Not that I'd ever have the right words or have the right numbers to plug in to solve the equation of her pain. It's not that simple. And for Kristen, I know the pain in her heart, in her brain is deeply rooted. 

I'm afraid for her. Afraid for her husband and for her children. Because the stakes are so high. This is her life. Their lives. 

I don't want to lose her. And I don't want our planet to lose her. She's good for us, you know?

I've felt so overwhelmed recently. Like, there's just too much happening in life. Vacations, anniversary parties, showers, birthday parties, weddings, school. It's happy stuff, mostly. But I can't stop my brain from churning about what needs to be taken care of. It was hard last week– with both girls at school. The house was so, so quiet. It was isolating. I freelanced, but mostly felt like I'd just been fired from my real job. I'm mourning the days I won't get back. The little years went by so quickly. Too quickly. I've felt like I should've had a better life plan. Because I've known this day was coming. I've felt powerless. Like I can't track the direction I'm headed. 

In situations like these, I'd often turn to Laura, who I know has her own stresses– what with a newborn and her oldest getting married in a week. Or Kristen, who I can't reach.

And I know most of you don't know my friend Kristen. But I need you to trust me that she's good people. And her little family– Justin and the three littles– they're good people. 

They're good people who don't have an extra $50,000 lying around to pay for the residential treatment program recommended for Kristen. I know there are a lot of different options available to individuals who need treatment for mental health. Kristen has explored most of them. She needs something more. And if she doesn't get something more ... I'm afraid for her life. I don't think her suicidal thoughts will go away without intensive care.


I know that there is so much need right now. That everyone just went back-to-school shopping and that the devastation down in Texas is so massive and we want to do our part. That there will always be the next thing that requires our time, attention or money. 

But I'm asking you ... you, the person reading now ... to consider making a donation toward Kristen's care. I know with all the demands facing us right now, I won't be able to contribute much, but even a little counts I think.


And if you don't have the means right now, well, please say prayers. Or have a chat with the higher power or send some good energy out in the universe or do whatever it is you do when you feel powerless but want things to be better. Do that thing. 

And thank you. Because I need my friend to stick around.

Monday, August 28, 2017

When Your Baby Goes to Kindergarten


Jovie goes to kindergarten, Lily to first grade.

It happened.

The first day of school.

Lily gave us a hug, then marched through a line of teachers cheering for her and giving her high fives like she was on the red carpet on the way to receiving an Oscar (probably for her amazing turn as "all the woodland creatures" in a live action version of "Bambi"). She didn't look back once. 

And Jovie. Jovie stood between Brad and me. Her feet rooted into the sidewalk. A look of panic on her face. "I don't want to go!" Her mouth was resolute. She shook her head for emphasis. I hugged her for the millionth time and told her it was OK to be scared for the millionth time and that she was brave for the millionth time and that it would be a good day for the millionth time. And eventually Brad and I each took one of her little hands and skipped through the crowd like we were an odd trio of newlyweds walking out of a church– minus the rice or the bubbles or the sparklers. Like we were heading into the Magic Kingdom. 

Mind over matter, right?

Jovie made it to her kindergarten classroom. She sat down in her chair and accepted the Play-Doh offered to her. She kept her coat on. Like armor, I think. But didn't cry again.

And neither did I.

I'd prepared myself for all the tears, recalling last year when I'd kept my sunglasses on in the building ushering Lily to that same room. Feeling as if my whole life was breaking apart over such a little thing as the first day of school. Something that would happen over and over again for years to come. Those oversized backpacks looking smaller and smaller with each new grade as the girls stretched out taller and taller. They'd lose teeth one year, then grow new ones the next. They'd go from wanting sparkly butterfly barrettes and dresses with parrots and ruffled wing sleeves to off-the-shoulder shirts and the perfect sneakers. They'd want the goodbyes to be less emotive and father away from the school. I can see it all around me. The past and the future in all these parents and all our mixed emotions. 

I was ready and waiting for the knot in my throat. That burning sensation in my eyes. The self-consciousness of my nose turning bright red. 

But nothing. I kissed my baby, No. 2 out of 2, goodbye and went to Lily's classroom to help out her teacher by sorting school supplies. It helped, I think, having a job. Breaking open boxes of glue sticks and dry erase markers. Organizing folders by colors. Stacking boxes of tissues. Labeling headphones. Anything to forego the empty quiet of the house. 


Lily goes to Kindergarten, 2016.
I felt familiar pangs and a gathering of tears on the walk home. The one I'd done holding Jovie's hand the previous year. Plotting out the day and listening to her complain about how hot and tired she was. I won't have my grocery buddy. My craft buddy. My backseat buddy. My lunch buddy. I thought it was quiet last year when it was just the two of us with Lily at school. I probably didn't know what quiet really was.

But I didn't cry then either. I had to go to the doctor's to get a TB test– something I need if I want to be a substitute teacher here. Because that's my next move, I think. Filling my child-free days with children. Because I'm almost 36 and still don't know what to do with my life.

I got home from the doctors and running a few errands and it was quiet here. I put my keys down and my eyes stung. But just a little. I had some work I needed to do. And the lawn was overdue to be mowed. And before I knew it, time to get my girls, who were all smiles, of course. Because they go to a really great school and they have such great teachers. And they're young and life is this amazing adventure. There's gym class with the world's most glamorous gym teacher and there's egg shaker thingies in music class and there's getting to sit at table No. 1 in the cafeteria and the fact that you have a lot in common with your teacher because you both lived in Pennsylvania and you both have dogs. 

Jovie went to bed and told me she was too excited to sleep because she couldn't wait to go back to kindergarten. 

And who can cry about that? Because all is exactly as it needs to be right now.


*** 
Preschool, 2015.

Brad took the day off work Friday and the four of us went tubing down the Shenandoah. 

I'd gotten some Groupon-type deal for a four-person-plus-cooler-raft tubing excursion before summer started and, because this summer was kind of fleeting and over-scheduled, we waited until the last minute to go. 

The day wasn't looking so promising, a bit cool and overcast. Lily was shivering as we loaded onto a school bus retrofitted for transporting inflatable tubes and the leisure-loving people who sat on them to a boat launch up the river. The guy driving the bus told us we'd float about three-quarters of a mile and it would take about two hours, depending on how fast the river was that day. We doubted that tiny distance could fill two hours.

"The orange flag is where you'll get out of the river to go back to your car," he said. "When you see the flag, you'll still have around 40 minutes of floating."

That, too, seemed improbable. That it would take two-thirds of an hour to traverse a distance we could clearly see down river with our own human eyeballs. 

With a healthy dose of skepticism, channeled water buffalo attempting to mount an ottoman we gracefully stepped into our rafts , and proceeded to float. 


Summer 2014.

Because that's all tubing down the Shenandoah is. Floating. We had a cooler loaded on a  mini food yacht, so you can eat, too (the nearest flotilla family brought fried chicken, which we was a very festive choice in river snackage, we thought. Much fancier than our PB&Js and watermelon). But mostly you float. And listen to your 6-year-old scream at each passing damselfly. And observe that there are lots and lots of damselflies. And marvel at the fact that there are more colors of damselflies than you originally knew about. Like periwinkle and cloud and rust. And how is it that they're able to mate while flying around? And is it mating when the tail of one damselfly is jabbing into the neck of another damselfly? And why do they keep landing on my knee to procreate? 

So to recap, you float. And your kid screams about damselflies. And damselflies get it on, sometimes on you. And you just keep floating.

And with little-to-no effort, you progress forward.

Suddenly the boat launch where you started is out of view. But it doesn't seem possible, because you're going so slowly. At least it seems that way, as it takes a long time to get to the next landmark– say an abandoned rowboat or a heron on the shoreline– but maybe it's just because your one kid doesn't seem to understand the concept of just sitting still and going with the flow. She's never gone with the flow. The flow must be questioned at all times. The flow must be disrupted by splashing, shrieking and continuous wiggling. In short, the timeframe of the flow might be exaggerated based on the behavior of certain almost 7 year olds who shall not be named. 


Jovie's first Halloween, 2012.

It's blissful though– fidgeting children aside. That you can be carried from point A to point B. From starting point to destination, only occasionally having to dislodge yourselves from tree branches or boulders, without really doing anything at all. Just melting into an inner tube and watching the clouds or the trees. The sun warming your face. The quiet gathering in your ears like an un-choir singing about peace. The only place to be is where you are. The place you need to be dictated by a river current you can't control. No way to step on the gas. 

It occurred to me that floating down the river must be like faith. Giving yourself over to something else. Trusting it will be as it should be. That you'll end up where you need to end up at the pace you need to end up there in. 

How freeing that is. How it's a way to love yourself. Giving yourself the space to be unneeded and unnecessary (at least it feels that way, maybe) and how that's needed and necessary. 

I think about how I need to carry that feeling with me. How I've floated to where I am today and will float again to where I'll be tomorrow. And how they'll probably be a flag to let me know about landfall and life-fall. How I'll probably have to dislodge myself from a downed tree or two. How I've always had to dislodge myself from trees along the way. How floating down the river can be irritating at times. And comical. And calming. 

How it happens whether you want it to or not. How you can't stand in the downstream forever. Hoping to prevent the end from coming. It has to come eventually. 

We get older. And children grow older. And that's just the way it is. 

Stevie Nicks knows. 



And now I'm crying.

Because I used to sing this song to my girls. When they were little, little. Just babies. Swaying with them deep at night in their shared green bedroom in our little rancher in York. 

They were so sweet. Even when they were crying. Even when I was exhausted. I'm so glad the river carried me to those moments. Carried me through those exhausting moments. How lucky we are as mothers to experience heaven in our sleepless delirium. 

The weight of our children as we carry them. Their embrace as they return to us. 

How lucky we are to be carried through this life in this way. 

Lily's hand after we came home from the hospital, 2010.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Celebrating Five Years in this Tiny Internet Sidewalk Crack

"Everything passes. Everything changes. 

Just do what you think you should do."


This was on my page-a-day calendar Sunday. It's from a song by Bob Dylan and feels oddly appropriate right now as life transitions from one phase to the next.

The other day as I sat scrolling through my phone while Jovie attempted to perform circus tricks in front of me. "Mom!" Jovie yelled. "Look at me. Watch me. You're not watching me!" And I would glance up and see she was doing something that, frankly, wasn't all that impressive, and turn back to my phone. And she would tell me I was missing it. And I would kind of agree, but not really care. "I'm looking," I'd tell her. But not really.

And then Lily chimed in.

"Some people look without seeing." 

My little Confucius.

We visited Brad's parents this weekend up at their home in the Pocono Mountains. Yesterday afternoon, I took the girls to the neighborhood playground. There's a creek that runs alongside the park, hidden among rocks and tall trees. The girls wanted to throw rocks in the water and let their feet flirt with the edges so we followed a moss covered path into the woods- all dark and cool. They crept from rock to rock on the bank, pretending to be deer. I sat on the moss and folded my legs into my chest. Watching the girls. Watching the water and the trees.

The sunlight filtered through the leaves and made the water glimmer, bouncing reflections onto the surrounding tree trunks and branches in such a way that they shimmered. Like the spirits of the trees were dancing. And I felt lucky to be sitting in just that spot at just that hour because I knew this vision was temporary. That any minute the sun would drop too low or the clouds would wander in and just like that the light show would be over and the trees would go back to being trees. The water to water. 

Just like with the eclipse. How you have to be looking at the right time on the right day with the right eyewear and then– magic.

All the things we both look at and see. These are the things that feed us. 

***

It's been five years today since I made the decision to start over-sharing on the internet. The over-sharing wasn't the initial plan when I decided to start a blog. The original plan, as I recall, was to write about the process of writing a novel while raising young children. 

Back in 2012 I had an almost-2-year-old and a 4-month-old and a partially written manuscript that would not stop pestering me to be finished. I thought announcing to the world (OK well, a small portion of the internet that consisted mostly of my Mom) that I was a wannabe novelist would offer up a commodity much-needed by any aspiring writer and wannabe novelist: Accountablity. I was also writing a monthly column about motherhood for my local newspaper that was under threat of being discontinued and the prospect of losing that opportunity to write was kind of devastating for me.

So My Inside Voices was born.

In the years since my children grew– learning to walk and talk and sing and run and write and play soccer and dance and make peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. I completed my manuscript and submitted it to literary agents (so far it's been turned down 29 times and counting). I completed a manuscript for a children's book and submitted it to literary agents (so far it's been turned down five times and counting). And that column I loved writing so much was eventually canceled. 

We lost two beloved cats and gained a new beloved cat (for a net loss of one cat for those keeping track) and acquired four fish (all of which have since died and been replaced multiple times over). We traded in my beloved lime green Volkswagen Beetle, made epic messes, went to the beach, went to the mountains and moved to Virginia

I took up yoga, whined about scrubbing the kitchen floor, cleaned all manners of vomit, read a story out loud to an audience of artists for the first time (and second time and third time) and flashed the interstate

In five years life happened. As it does. One hour to the next. One day to the next. One crisis to the next. One celebration to the next. 

While I don't like to be self congratulatory, I will say there are few hobbies in life I've kept up in life for five years running. Maybe none, in fact. Showing up here every week or every two weeks (or ... in the lean times ... every month) is something I am proud of. Not because I think I've dropped a whole lot of wisdom or worthy thoughts on to the internet (the internet already has plenty of those– I'm talking to you Parry Gripp), but because it's forced me to spend more time thinking, listening and watching. I sit with uncomfortable thoughts longer. Try to make sense of the ugly and beautiful things that happen in my own brain and in the world at large. Being able to share it here with family, friends and the odd stranger is just a bonus.

My life is richer because of writing. This gift I give myself. That's important to note. Because if I had waited for someone to call me a writer before I began writing in earnest– I wouldn't have spent the past five years writing in earnest. 

Over the years I've learned there are no perfect conditions for listening to your inside voices, for pursuing creativity. There's no waiting for the perfect desk. For the muse to show up. For the kids to be older. For the kitchen floor to be clean. For some authority on high to give you permission. If there's something you've been wanting to do, than you just need to go and do it. 

There's a gravel path leading to the playground by Brad's parents house. As we were walking up the path the other day, I noticed tiny white pebbles interspersed with the dark gray gravel. I bent down to inspect and realized the white spots weren't pebbles. They were mushrooms. The littlest mushrooms ever. Dotting the gravel path all the way back up to the parking lot. 

Now, if I were a mushroom, I'm pretty sure my first choice for habitat would not be a hard gravel pathway. I'd probably want something softer and more shaded and more protected from giant clomping feet. But I guess you don't always get a choice in where you get to grow. You grow where you planted. You create your life where you are, as you are. Like the itty-bitty ecosystem I found growing in a hole on a neighborhood sidewalk. Or the moss gripping the crevices of a rock. You can't wait for the right conditions to be the person you want to be. You just have to start doing it on the gravel path or in the sidewalk hole. In the midst of your small, messy life as a suburban stay-at-home mom. 

I think when you do that, that's when you really start seeing. You're not just looking at your life– you're seeing it. Really seeing it.

***

The girls start school on Monday. Lily in first grade, Jovie in kindergarten. Just like that the past five years at home with both are over. I haven't quite processed what that means yet. Only that I'm not ready for the little years to be over. That my time in this intense phase of all-hands-on-deck motherhood feels too fleeting. I don't know how to do mother of two school-aged kids.I know I'll figure it out, just like I figured the other parts out. 

I also know that come Monday, I'll be wearing giant sunglasses and carrying a large box of tissue with me wherever I go. 

Everything passes. Everything changes.

I'm so grateful for the chance to be their mother. To have had these years at home to watch them grow. And I'm also grateful to be a writer, which encourages me to look at my girls and see them (well, OK, except for sometimes when whatever they're doing isn't all that impressive).

I'm grateful for this space, too. Which has helped me sort through so many moments of pain, fear, sadness, joy and love. So much love. And grateful for everyone whose walked by my side, reading all my long-winded rantings and musings and whatevers and offering kind words and support. I feel as if we've created our own ecosystem in a sidewalk crack for the things that break us and build us back up. 

It's true everything passes. Everything changes. I think what I should do is keep writing. 

How lucky I am to be able to see the journey. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It's time to start listening

Lily and Jovie. By Lily.

A couple weeks ago, Jovie broke my heart.

She looked at me with her giant blueberry eyes, tears waiting in the wings, "Mom, Lily was born first."

"That's true," I said.

"Well that means she's had more time with you."

"She has."

"So you love her more than me. Because you've had more time together." Jovie buried her head into my abdomen both to hide her face and use my shirt to staunch her tears and snot.

"Oh Jovie! That's not true," I said, holding her close. "I love you both so, so much."

And because I know that explanation isn't really sufficient for a down-trodden second born (I know this because I was the fifth born) I went on.

I told her that I loved her the second I knew she existed in this world. That a mother's heart isn't just one size for life. That it expands with each child. And that her love for her children is limitless. It extends infinitely back into time and stretches infinitely forward. That, as a mother, I was created to share exactly the right amount of love my children, my family and my community needed at any given moment. 

I finished my little pep talk feeling pretty good about myself. Like I'd shown Jovie an MRI of my heart so she could see the scales between her and Lily were perfectly balanced. Exactly equal amounts of rainbows, glitter, unicorns, bedtime stories, cookies, special songs, hugs and kisses. 

Jovie finished listening to my little pep talk and looked ... skeptical. I mean, she wasn't crying anymore. But she was doubtful of my claims. Which I get. Latter borns I think always suspect their parents gave it all away to first borns. 

Lily didn't help matters by taunting her in the background, "I was born first! Mom loves me more!"

As much as I wanted to, I didn't tell Lily who was my favorite child in that moment. Why? Because I didn't need two children bawling at me for failing to love them sufficiently. That would've made me just hole up in my room, probably with the dog. Who I'd snuzzle while whispering sweet nothings in his (slightly) stinky, silky ears. Because he'd accept my affection without whining or gloating.

Unless he gets smug with the cats when my back is turned. There's always a pecking order, right?

I remembered this conversation with Jovie today while thinking about ... well the elephant in our nation's living room this week (which is probably a separate elephant than the one in the room last week. Or the one that stopped by last month or last year. Or the ones that have shown up probably billions of times over the course of our human history. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe it's all just the same elephant (maybe wearing different clothes or something) that we haven't properly cared for. (Wait. What? Elephants don't wear clothes! This metaphor is falling apart! Abort! Abort!). 

I'll stop stalling. 

I don't want to step in the land mine that is having any opinion on what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. Because somehow up is down and left is right and declaring yourself to be a Nazi or White Supremacist or a member of the KKK and then showing up by the glow of tiki torches or the glare of daylight doesn't necessarily mean you're universally reviled. I still think it's mostly reviled. But it's not reviled enough. Not when they feel comfortable enough to come out of hiding. It feels sinister and shocking. 

This week, somehow stating, unequivocally, that the worldview held by Nazis, White Supremacists and the KKK is repugnant opens you up to criticism and dissection that is equally weighted to the criticism levied at the Nazis, White Supremacists and the KKK. 

We're in a rabbit hole down to bizzaro world trapped in a fun house mirror in an alternate universe.

But, of course, we're not. 

We're here in 2017. In reality. 

Our reality.

This is what's in front of us.

This smoldering rage that has girded our nation since the arrival of the first ships carrying human cargo is catching fire. In Charlottesville and Baltimore and Ferguson and Charleston and Chicago and. And. And. And. And. On it goes. The Ands could go on forever, I fear. 

And that's the problem. Fear. Fear is the emotion we need to address. Fear is the elephant we need to tend to. It's Fear at the root of our fire. Fear, I think. Not hatred. There's hatred to be sure. In massive volumes. But dig into that hatred and you'll find fear at the core. 

I see fear when I see my children battling each other. It looks like hatred. In fact, they'll tell me outright it's hatred. "I hate Jovie," Lily screams, swatting at her sister. "I wish she was never born." And Jovie wails in anguish that her sister and sometimes best friend could say something so terrible. But I know Lily doesn't mean it. I mean, she means it in that moment. But these outbursts always, always, always come when she's spent too many hours with her sister and not enough one-on-one time with Brad or me. It's insecurity screaming. It's fear screaming. Fear that she's not loved. That's she's somehow less than.

I don't tolerate physical violence in my house. And I don't tolerate them speaking so unkindly to one another. I tell them they can complain about each other's existence to me, but not in earshot of each other. They can get all those ugly thoughts they store up in their heads to me. We all have hurtful, hateful thoughts that pop up in our brains that are mostly temporary. Things that creep in one moment and disappear the next.I think that's human and normal. Sometimes we need to air out the ugly.

I know my girls' relationship with each other will last much longer than their relationship with me. A lifetime, hopefully. They'll need each other. I don't want all the ugly moments of their childhood to disrupt the potential for beautiful moments of the rest of their lives together.

I think about this as I think about our country.

I worry that we're so polarized we're less able to hear each other. We're entrenched. Or, we're nearing entrenchment. Images of World War I come to mind. Which is pretty dismal. I worry we're assuming the only possible way to be heard is to yell louder. Attack our brothers and sisters. Throw things. Light fires. Fight. Destroy.

All because of fear. 

Fear that as the makeup of our country evolves, they'll be no seat at the table for us. Fear that we never had a seat at the table to begin with. Fear that we won't belong.

But this is a country made up of us. All of us. And we all belong. We all belong. 

The creation of a nation is an enormous task. Our Founding Fathers had the right instincts. But like any parents, they're left with unruly children squabbling for the most and the best. Not only that, but they were imperfect, too. Just like the rest of us. They were smart enough to recognize their imperfection and left plenty of flexibility in the Constitution to evolve with its people. 

And that was the most brilliant part of their design. Their willingness to see past their own beliefs and values and self-righteousness to allow for changing ideas and societies – that was an act of humility, I think. And love. Even if they wouldn't have used such sentimental language to describe it.

We need both humility and love right now. Like, to wake up in the morning and be humble about the life we were given. And to enter our day with love. Even when it's really, super, super hard. Which it often is. Because fighting siblings and White Supremacists.

Our Founding Fathers get all the credit for the creation of our nation.I have to assume that beside them were an equal number of Founding Mothers politely (maybe impolitely) making suggestions for a better Constitution (obviously, some of their best suggestions were vetoed) and I'm grateful for them. Because one thing I know about a mother, is her heart has an infinite capacity to love all her children. I think our nation is imbued with this quality. We have an ever-expanding table that can fit all who want to sit at it. 

But this doesn't happen by magic. It happens by us. By us being willing to listen. By us being the parent who hears out all the ranting and whining. All that fleeting ugly stuff, because if we listen hard enough, we'll hear about the fear at its root. We listen because it gives us the opportunity to build deeper, more meaningful, more profound relationships with every new generation.  

We have to do this now. 

Because a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Finding meaning in patterns big and small

Close up of petrified tree, which kind of looks like nebula.
Photo courtesy of T. Scott Williams NPS Ranger/Flickr

I'm feeling a bit foggy these past couple days. We just returned from a week in Colorado visiting my parents so it's probably jet lag. But it's left me feeling quiet and closed off. Like I'm going dormant or something.

It was rainy yesterday, so I took the girls to this big indoor playground today so they could bicker with each other in public rather than in the privacy of our home. I found a couch to hole up on with a book – because I can do that now. 

There were tons of crawling and toddling babies with tons of parents trailing them. I'd smile at every baby that wandered by– because how can you not smile at a wandering baby? But when it came to striking up conversation with their weary-looking parents– parents I could see needed someone to tell them that it would get better, that they were doing just fine, that their children looked healthy and happy, that they didn't need to worry so much about the nap schedules or the fact that their kid refused to eat fish– I had nothing. It was if I'd forgotten how to speak.

My awkwardness was all the more surprising because in the wake of two children and momming it up mom's group style, I used to own this sort conversation. Trying to potty train a reluctant 3 year old? I got you. Worried that your 2 year old isn't speaking in full sentences yet? Don't stress! Can't get your 4 year old to put on their own socks? Neither can I!  

But today I had nothing. Nothing! Except for, "she's cute!" Which is not only generic, it's obvious. I mean, what pony-tail-sporting baby with a dimple wearing an adorable dress navigating with some sort of hybrid crawl-scoot isn't cute? Answer: None. They're all cute. No exceptions. 

I had this realization that I'm in a new phase. That which I'd once taken for granted, had changed somehow, without me even realizing it. 

It's painful to realize this person you thought you would always be (casual mom-versationalist) has become something else. It feels unsettling. Because it's not like you're conscious of the person you've become. Not like you can put a label on it. I guess you probably don't need to put a label on it. 

You know how many times I've told myself that it's OK that I'm not the person I thought I should be on any given day? Like, a lot. You know how many times I've actually listened to myself? Rarely. 

And to you, gentle reader, let it be known that it's absolutely fine and normal (I think) if you wake up one day and decide that you're just not yourself. Because chances are, it's true. We're allowed to change in the course of a lifetime. In the course of a year or month or week or day even.

***

While we were in Colorado, I got the chance to visit one of my cousins, Brian, who I only get to see, like, every five years. Not that those five years even matter because Brian is like me and my siblings in these really strange, intuitive ways. The best parts of being friends with your family. Brian is a high school English teacher and I asked what he'd read lately and he said he struggled with that question, because, while he loved books, he most read the same books over and over again as part of his job. 

We got to talking about how what you read a book changes over the course of a lifetime. How the characters you thought were awful when you were younger suddenly become people you understand as your life evolves. You know, things like getting married, having children. They change you. And even beyond that, just paying attention changes you.

I was thinking about all this while driving around Colorado. How time passes. How things evolve. It's obvious there. I mean, you can see it in the layers of rock that thrust themselves up through tectonic shifts. The rocks are red, then beige, then gray, then brown. One piled onto of the other. One epoch on top of the other. 

We stopped by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science one day. There you can see what's buried in all those layers: Trilobites, sea lilies, fish, dinosaurs. Evidence of how Earth has changed, set in stone (funny how we use the phrase "set in stone" to suggest a permanence that doesn't really exist). In these fossils and in these cross-sections of rock we'd drive through to get to my parent's house, you can see this. All the things that have come and gone and the things that have stuck around balanced precariously on the top layer.

I think we're like that, too. Made up of all the things that have come and gone and the things that have stuck around. The same and ever changing.

And it's not just about who we are in a lifetime. It's about what we've taken from other lifetimes.

The last night at my parent's house, my dad pulled out a box of photos, letters and clippings my grandmother had saved throughout her long life. 

At one point, I found myself staring at myself. It was my grandmother long before I knew her. But it was also me. The same eyes and smile. 

Nanny.

Small, pixelated
version of me for context.
There was a photocopied letter she'd typed to some cousins in the late 70s. In it, she writes about the weather and her cat. There had been some bad storms, she'd hoped her cousins hadn't experienced any blackouts. She writes about how she always made sure she had provisions on hand in case of an emergency (maybe a product of coming of age during the Depression). "I am always stocked with lots of canned things and a ham and rice and noodles for filling as well as lots of booze (the cup that cheers)." This last part made me laugh out loud. Nanny was seldom without a gin and tonic. At the hospital on her final days she asked my sister and I to sneak in some beer for her. Like I said, we change and don't change.

"I love Washington, D.C., with so many museums where I can have a 'mini-vacation' on my lunch hour looking at pretty things. Have twice seen the Faberge Russian egg collection at the National Geographic. Also take courses at the Smithsonian Inst. as a resident member ... It is fun and one always meets new people," she writes.

It was Nanny who helped inspire my love of art and music. We'd go to the National Gallery with her and my mom. She'd admire all the "pretty things" – both the art and the occasional "hunk" who wandered by (she also had a wandering eye.)

My good friend Becky invited me to see "The King and I" at the Kennedy Center with her family a couple weeks ago. Nanny was the first one to take me to the Kennedy Center. We saw "The Phantom of the Opera" together there when I was in fourth grade. She shared her opera glasses inlayed with mother of pearl so I could get a closer look at the performers. She was also the one who introduced my sister and I to "The King and I." We loved the opulent gowns Deborah Kerr wore in the movie. The stuff of little girl's dreams. She loved Yul Brynner. 

While neither Deborah or Yul were on stage in the Opera House last month– their modern counterparts were wonderful substitutes– I could feel Nanny as I peeked through her opera glasses. She was right there with me– swinging from the chandelier I think soaking in the music, the costumes and the sets. Getting whisked away from our world into another. 

Chandelier in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center.

***

I have this tremendous sense of searching lately. For what, I'm not exactly sure. My life's purpose? Maybe. A better understanding of my place here in this world? More likely. A desire to understand at a sub-cellular level how we are all connected to one another. The the ground we stand on. The air we breathe. The living and non-living things that surround us. The patterns among us. How we can commune with all these parts for a fuller life. It's the mystery of a lifetime, right? 

There's a feeling of melancholy that I think can be associated with searching. Like somehow if you're searching you're dissatisfied. But I'm not sure I see it that way. I feel like when I stop searching, I stop living. Not literally of course, but internally somehow. That's not to say that I'm landing on any life-altering, universe-shaking truths about our existence or my place in it. I'm not sure I'm wise enough. But the searching part– that's joy, I think. The opening the door to the possibilities of nature and design– all the sudden the world is your museum. A place of learning and discovery. A place full of pretty things.

And this is why I write. It's a place to sort out the searching.

Listening to the On Being interview with author and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson last night while I was out for a walk offered some affirmation. 

“I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves.”

There's relief in the idea that what we do in life can be improvised. That we allow currents to take us where we need to go rather than requiring an exact plan to follow from our first day to our last. That it's OK that one day you're neck deep in diapers and teething and then just like that, you're not. Your children have been potty trained for years and they're losing those teeth that kept you awake at night. 

There's comfort too in the knowledge that we've done this before. That the rhythms of our lives are tied the rhythms of our ancestors. That we're a part of these magnificent patterns repeating themselves at large scales and small scales.

How lucky we are to be observers in this beautiful universe.


Crab Nebula, which kinda looks like a petrified tree.
Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr