Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The necessity of getting what you want and what you need

My crew of shorties rolling three deep.

It was Valentine's Day and at pickup the kids were beaming. Toting bags stuffed with cards and candy from their friends. 

There was a kindergartner - a little boy with big grey eyes fringed by thick lashes - who always dotes on Annie. If she's in the stroller, he'll skip over and stare down at her, gently stroking her hair and commenting about how cute she is. If I'm wearing her in the Baby Bjorn, he'll play with her feet. Sometimes I'll kneel so he can talk to her. 

On Valentine's Day, the little boy spotted Annie and bounded over to where I was  holding her in the Bjorn. He held up his hands and she grabbed his fingers. He was smitten. He wanted to give her a hug. My quads burned as I half squatted down for him to give her a squeeze. I started to stand up, but he reached for her again, though not for a hug this time.

The din of all the sugar-filled kids faded as I watch this boy, so earnest and so sweet, fixate on my little Annie. He extended his pointer finger toward her head and I worried he might poke her. Instead, he used it to trace a tiny heart on her forehead. I couldn't see her face as he did this. But she wasn't wiggling or crying. And me? I was enamored by the tenderness of the gesture. How gentle he was. How focused. How intent.

He told me he wanted to come to my house so he could have a playdate with Annie. Annie who gnaws on her toys rather than playing with them. Who would most likely try to grab fistfuls of his hair and squirm out of his lap. He wanted to walk with us as we left school. When we separated at the corner, he yelled goodbye to Annie from across the street.

Later that evening, I smiled at a post my friend Beth made on Facebook:

"Everyone should experience Valentines Day like a kindergartener. Love everyone you see. Be completely in love with love."

I thought of Annie's little friend. What Beth says is so true. 

I remembered the day a couple weeks back at pickup when it was snowing. Giant, round flakes. Snow globe flakes. As the kindergartners walked out the door, their eyes gazed skyward. They opened their mouths and stuck out their tongues. They staggered toward their parents this way. Eyes up, tongues out. I caught the eye of their teacher, a neighbor and friend. We smiled at each other with complete, unspoken understanding that the smile was for these small people and their unadulterated joy and how lucky we were to be witnesses.

"Be completely in love with love." 

Live completely in the wonder of each minute.

I think about Annie and our small, quiet days together. 

I think about how she inspires so much love in me. And so much love in others- like that kindergartner and Lily's friend who calls herself Annie's, "Fairy God Sister." And the cashiers at Target and the strangers at the grocery store. All pausing in their day to smile at her and make goofy faces and goofy noises in the hopes that she'll smile back. She mostly doesn't smile back. But she doesn't cry either. She locks eyes with them or studies their faces. They seem contented by these interactions. As if it's broken the monotony of their days.

"She's so cute," strangers tell me. "She's adorable." "Look at those dimples!" "Her eyes are so bright."

And I don't deny any of it. I stand there with a dumb grin on my face. My eyes a little watery. Carrying her around, I feel like a peacock with my tail feathers on display. Or a pro wrestler hoisting one of those giant victory belts over their head. I have zero humility when it comes to her. 

Annie is my prize, I feel like. This miraculous thing I won. Looking at her fills me with gratitude. 

A gorilla mother and her baby.
The grand prize winning photo in the
Nature's Best Photography exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

The thing with Annie is, I didn't think she was a possibility. Not because of any physical problems. I'm fortunate to come from a line of very fertile women. I know how lucky I am in this regard. I didn't think she was a possibility because of a conversation Brad and I had on a different Valentine's Day- years ago. Some time after we had Jovie. 

We were having dinner at an Italian restaurant we liked and I said playfully, "When do you want to have our third baby?" and Brad more or less shut down. He told me he didn't think he wanted to have another child. That two seemed to be enough and that he was worried about the financial burden of another child and that it would be a struggle to put two kids through college, much less three. We'd need a bigger house, a bigger car. 

I tried to explain that I'd come from a big family and had always envisioned having at least three children. But the whole conversation felt very final. Like a verdict. Like there was no room for discussion. So I kind of shut down, too. I've never been good at difficult conversations. My family growing up was so traditional. It always seemed as if Dad made the major decisions and Mom followed suit. As much as I knew that dynamic didn't work for me, I still fell back into old patterns. 

And anyway, my arguments for a third child felt feeble against Brad's more practical concerns. I felt as if I seemed greedy. Like I was asking for another scoop of ice cream or an expensive toy. I told myself to be happy with what I already had (and who wouldn't be happy with two such funny, kind little girls). I needed to be pragmatic and move on.

But I never stopped wanting that third baby. It weighed on me, this baby. I couldn't put into words why I felt so strongly about growing our family just a little more- only that I felt like we weren't quite complete. Like I wasn't fulfilling some deep part of myself.

I mourned the loss of this child that only ever existed in my imagination. I held on to the baby gear for awhile, but eventually gave it away or sold it at yard sales. Keeping it around when it would never be used was depressing. But seeing it go didn't really bring me much comfort or acceptance either. 

Lily and Jovie started preschool. We moved to Virginia. Then in what seemed like an instant they were both in school full time. It felt as if the door to the little years was slammed shut. My heart broke. 

I'd like to say that Brad and I had a grownup conversation in which I laid out my case for another child and we talked through the logistics and I won him over. 

What really happened was that as my resentment came to a head, and Brad knew there was a wedge cracking the foundation of our relationship. He started to thaw on the topic. It wasn't that he came to see the logic in a third child- is there any logic to having children?- but that he finally saw how important it was to me. I don't think it hurt that we'd moved to a neighborhood filled with families of five. It didn't appear as if the third kid led to ruin- these families seemed to be functioning (or maybe dysfunctioining) just fine. 

Brad is a worrier with the heart of a caretaker. I knew that plunging into fatherhood for a third time was out of his comfort zone. I know that he felt anxious about the mechanics of it all- resuming life with an infant when we seemed to be reaching a cruising altitude with the other two. Shouldn't we just focus on offering the two that we had the best lives we could? He made a fair point. Knowing this about him made him coming around on the idea of growing our family an even bigger gift. Because I knew what it cost him in peace of mind. 

But watching Brad with Annie now- he loves her. And what's not to love, really? He sees that she's filled a hole in our family. He's embraced a third round of fatherhood as graciously as he did the other two. He sees that it's doable. And he got that minivan he'd been lusting after for years.

Annie was our missing piece.

I've been thinking about the idea of want. How want seems to come with an asterisk of negativity. How we are taught that want is reserved for excess and nonessentials. 

I'm in agreement with these basic principles of want. But I also believe that there are wants that are also needs. 

Humans have these deep aches for things that might seem unnecessary in our career-centric, consumer-driven culture. We've come to believe that there are certain wants that are more acceptable than others. A nice house, for instance. A nice car. Vacations. The deluge of knick-knacks and throw pillows and housewares that arrive with each new season at Target. 

Women, and I think mothers especially, are told it's OK to want. But that our wants should be limited to particular things. 

We're told that given all we do to raise the children and keep the house and fulfill the spouse we deserve to "treat ourselves." But the things we're trained to want aren't necessarily the things that will nourish us. In the name of "self-care" we're told to get a pedicure or buy that pair of boots or change our hair or get a massage or splurge on the venti latte. All these fleeting, one-off things that stop feeding us as soon as a nail gets chipped or our roots start showing.

While any of these things are nice, I'd argue they're band-aids for the things we really want. And also the things we really need. That when we can fulfill the deeper things that meet both needs and wants, all the other stuff sort of ends up in the dust bin. 

As humans, as women, as mothers, we need and want to feel heard. To create. To share our visions. To share our wisdom. To feel as if we're fulfilling our purpose in the grander plan. 

It sounds trite, but I think of Moana, who knew she was destined for something outside of her island without knowing precisely what it was. She was called to the sea. 

I think of Beth (i.e. my sweater buddy!)* on this week's episode of "This is Us." 

Beth's character has been adrift for months after losing her job. A visit home to see her mother stirs up memories of her childhood. How her father called her his "little island girl who danced before she could walk." How she used to dance ballet. How through high school she'd trained to become a principal dancer in a prestigious company but then her father died and her dream died, too. Instead, she went on to college and a successful career as an urban planner. She remembers her love of dance and is lucky enough to have a husband who understands the value of need-wants. Randall drops her off at a studio where she dances for the first time, I guess, since she was a teenager. Her face while dancing- it was as if she'd found herself again. As if she'd come home to herself.


That is the thing I'm talking about.

That is the need-want we were all put on this Earth to fulfill. 

I don't believe it's a selfish thing, either. It's not about greed or self absorption or running away from the life you have. It doesn't have to be about upheaval and overturning all you've already created. It's about honoring the person you are called to be in the space you're in. Adjusting as need be. 

When we as individuals tend to our hearts in this way, it is better for all of us, I think. It is  generative. 

It is an act of love for ourselves and what comes out of its fulfillment is an act of love for all of creation.     

The vision board I made with my sisters recently.

My sister Laura and I talk about dreams we have. There's that trip to Tahiti (obviously) and the one where we find a beautiful piece of land and create a gathering place for tired women to come and unload their burdens and maybe get closer to figuring out the nature of their own need-wants.

For my sister Sarah it's art and working with animals. Same with Jen, I think.

Since childhood writing has been something I've felt called to do. Not that there's been a disembodied voice from the heavens telling me to write. Only that there's been an ever-present, insistent, bossy voice in my own head telling me to write. And write. And write. And to keep doing it even when it feels pointless. Sometimes that voice finds helpers in the form of other people- encouraging me to continue doing the thing I know I'm supposed to do when I'm filled with self doubt. Sometimes the voice goes dormant for a time. But it always returns. Like a migrating bird. 

For me, being a mother is also a need-want. Even when I was young, I knew I was destined to drive a minivan (though I spent years in denial of the actual minivan part). Each of my children have expanded my heart and helped me be more aware of daily joys. Re-reading, this feels like an understatement. 

The world needed Lily, Jovie  and  Annie, too. Children inspire love in the people they come across. From besotted kindergartners to strangers on the subway. They soften our hearts even if for a moment. Having children is an act of hope and an act of defiance against a world that feels so cynical.

My girls are a remedy. A salve.

Just like poetry and art and music and dance.

Annie has helped me understand that. 

Just like as with Lily and Jovie, I'm anxious to see what her need-wants will be. Where she will fall into herself.

She's different than the older two. Maybe a little more serious. A little more introverted. 

She is content to crawl around the floor looking for this or that to play with. She doesn't fuss at me when I redirect her from the boundless dust bunnies littering our floors back to her own toys  and then again from the basket of cat toys she's raided for the tenth time in a morning. She doesn't fuss when I lay her down in her crib so I can get dressed for the day. She'll amuse herself with a toy  and often fall asleep for an hour or two. 

She doesn't even fuss much when she wakes up. I'll hear her babbling on the monitor. When I go upstairs to get her, she'll be on her tummy snuggling with her toy elephant or playing with a blanket. "Hi Baby!" I say and she pops her head up like a baby harp seal and a smile spreads across her face like the sun cresting a hill. 

She knits our family together into a tight little circle. We all gather around when she's laughing. We all take turns kissing her cheeks and smoothing her silky hair.

Around her, we're all like the kindergartners catching snowflakes on our tongues. Silly and buoyant and perfectly present. 

She inspires us to trace hearts on everyone's foreheads. 

To expand on the love she's laid before us. To fill the world with it.

We're all better when we chase these sorts of needs. These wants. They're the things most worth seeking. Most worth fighting for. Most worth waiting for.


*Because I'm a dork: Here's young Beth on "This is Us" wearing a very bold fuchsia sweater with gold and turquoise accents with a white turtleneck.

And here's me, circa 1991ish wearing the same  bold fuchsia sweater with a white turtleneck.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Armchair philosophy on the ridiculousness of being a human and female

Have you ever watched yourself doing something really dumb as if you were an outside observer? Like a bird perched on a branch in that tree outside your house casually staring into the window of your lame existence? And in the midst of your idiocy you have an out-of-body moment of clarity that is both humbling and infuriating.

That happened to me the other day. I was half way up the stairs, heaving a smallish, but heavy and unwieldy armchair on my back like a turtle shell. For reasons I can only attribute to laziness, I was wearing Brad's sneakers. Untied, of course. 

The stairs.
The problem wasn't so much that the chair was heavy or that my decision to carry it the way I imagined a professional mover might do was ill-founded. I actually felt as if I had a pretty good grasp on it. No, the folly was the shoes. Which were too big and too untied. I couldn't get solid footing on the steps because the shoes wouldn't fit. And then when I'd try to lift my feet to reposition them, I'd find that one foot was stepping on the untied laces of the other. And it's not as if I could just move the laces, because I had an entire armchair balanced on my back. And it's not as if I could just wiggle one foot or the other free, because doing so would throw off my balance in an already precarious situation. 

At one point about two-thirds of the way up the staircase, I visualized one of two scenarios playing out. Neither of those scenarios involved me successfully making it to the second floor. Both of them would've involved uncomfortable conversations with other grownups and would've only served to further illustrate my utter lack of competence in being a fellow grownup.

In the first scenario, I lost my grip on the chair and it went tumbling down the steps, crashing through the window on the landing before rolling to a stop somewhere on the front lawn. I have to emphasize that in my brain the amount of force required to launch the chair out of the window like a cartoon version of reality would've defied the laws of physics. I imagined having to explain to Brad, like a repentant child, how the window broke. That imagined conversation was as painful as ...

In the second scenario, somehow both the chair and I rolled backward down the stairs like a snowball in an avalanche. Except instead of snow, we amassed cat fur and crumbs. Jovie's friend's mom would've come to the house to pick up her daughter and found me at the bottom of the steps crushed underneath the armchair (which somehow grew exponentially in size and weight in its journey down the stairs). My limbs would've been akimbo. My neck, possibly broken. Maybe I'd be conscious enough to offer up an explanation. More than likely I would've just been dead. The fodder for neighborhood tall tales for years to come. 

Fortunately, neither of these things happened. I swore to myself repeatedly. Tried to shimmy the chair into a more secure position on my back and decided the only way to escape my own stupidity was to trudge through it. 

I had to finish the job.

Which, by some small miracle or large amounts of dumb luck or maybe the spirit of Rosalinda, who was watching the whole episode play out from her perch at the top of the stairs, I managed to hoist the chair up the final steps.

Rosalinda, judging me for my poor decision making.

A job I had no business doing by myself while wearing someone else's untied, oversized sneakers. 

The chair.
But I tackle life like this right now. Frantic, like time is running out. Like there is a deadline for the fixing up and tidying of this house that I can never meet because the jobs are never over. I can't relax for all the things not getting done. The pressure feels greater because I'm not working right now. I feel like I should have something to show for my days. 

I could've waited for Brad to move the chair. Should've waited for him. But I just wanted to be done with the job of setting up Annie's room. And I wanted a cozy place to sit. I wanted to be able to open the door and show evidence of time spent productively.

Nevermind that I would tell any other woman that the job of raising their children is all the job they need to focus on. 

Moms always say, "do as I say, not as I do."

The days just go like this. Lily's shoes have spent the last three of the last four nights tumbling around the dryer. There was mud at the farm, mud at the park and they became sopping wet after an impromptu night-time scooter ride with friends in the pouring rain. Yesterday morning one of the first things I had to do was clean fresh cat poop out of my bathroom sink. I went on to clean lukewarm cat puke off the laundry room floor and fresh baby spit-up off the living room floor. (For those who are wondering, the cat normally does not poop in the sink. He was locked in our room and the sink, I suppose, was the best option).

On any given morning I've washed the first round of dishes, styled Jovie's hair, fed the baby, listened to Lily recite 30 or 40 facts about prehistoric life, cleaned the litter box, changed a diaper, wiped mud off the dog's paws and taken out the recycling before I've even had a cup of tea.

It's the same motherhood I've been experiencing for years. The same and brand new all over again I guess. The older two are both so independent- more or less getting themselves ready for school each day. Entertaining themselves at home. They have grown so much. But they still bicker with each other. Still often don't want to eat the dinner they're served. 

Lily still panics when the cat gets outside. 

Jovie still leaves her crumpled napkins on the table. 

Annie is so little. So very sweet. Requests no less than all my time, energy and the entirety of my heart- which I give to her willingly day after day.

I soak in this motherhood like a bubble bath I know will cool too quickly. But I also pace around in it like a captive wildcat, crazed by zoochosis. 

It feels as if there is no room for me anymore. Or that I'm here, buried underneath a pile of mismatched socks and library books. 

One of my co-workers at the Daily Record retired recently. Brad told me that apparently at her party, there were readings of old inter-office emails, several of which I'd written. I smiled, remembering how often I'd send obnoxious group emails at work for my own amusement. How I'd bait certain people with annoying requests or off-key observations in order to stir things up on stressful days. I miss working in a newsroom and being the weird coworker. Having a work family to rant and laugh with.

I know I could bring some of that silliness home. But being the "fun mom" feels like just another assignment. Another job to get done. And anyway, there doesn't seem to be room in my brain to squeeze that in. Not when I also have to think about what to make for dinner, when the next Girl Scout meeting is, whether I volunteered to make something for the staff breakfast at school, when I should sign Jovie up for gymnastics, where I should take the van to get the oil changed, and the logistics of a long overdue date night with Brad. 

One of my friends told me recently that she was having trouble remembering words- that her mind felt so overstuffed it was affecting her basic vocabulary. Yes! I told her. I know this feeling intimately. The days your cerebellum just starts jettisoning random information to make room for more input. Like the memory dump on "In and Out" in overdrive.

We talked about the demands on a woman's brain. How it feels as if we're never afforded the time for high-level, meaningful, problem-solving thought, because we're so busy on ground-level, day-to-day doing and planning. It's maddening. Because we know we can do more but that it feels as if there are barriers thrown up at every turn. 

I'm scrolling through Facebook and see advertisements for shape wear and I think to myself, "we're still doing this?" Still asking that woman deprive themselves of oxygen and comfort so that they can be squeezed into clothing that was never meant to be worn by the bodies of actual, real-life women. Like we're Victorian ladies suffocating ourselves with the laces of a corset. And then there's another ad for how to give yourself "boy brows," which, if I'm watching right, is using makeup to create eyebrows that look like unkempt men's eyebrows. Because bold brows are in right now. Because heaven forbid you just walk out of your house with your god-given eyebrows. 

Because in addition to making sure no one can tell you've used your body to bear life the way your body was intended to do, you're also supposed to make your face look like someone else's face. But what's most infuriating isn't that our bodies aren't the right shape or that our faces aren't "on trend", it's that we're barraged all day long with these messages that distract us from thinking about the things that are actually meaningful and soul-filling. 

Our brains are being stuffed so full of trivial, inconsequential bullshit in the name of "looking and feeling our best" that we're completely prevented from actually living better lives. 

I reached peak rant earlier today. I texted my sister, Laura:

I went for that walk, my brain churning in that unproductive way it gets when I'm frustrated or anxious about a dozen different things and can't find the one thing to land on. Much like the wind whipping up the leaves scattering the street. 

I got to the pond hoping to see the ducks and geese that are normally milling about, but it was empty. The only thing rippling its surface was the breeze. So I kept walking. Just as I'd rounded the  corner past the water, I heard honking in the distance. Lots of honking. The geese were coming. I waited as they grew louder and louder, eventually flying over the tree line. Dozens and dozens of Canada geese. They flew toward the pond. I thought I'd wait to watch them land, remembering the magical whisper of outstretched wings alighting on the water from Blue Hound Farm. They were flying right overhead like an M.C. Escher illustration projected on the sky. 

But instead of landing, they passed by then circled back. Once, twice, five times. I think they wanted to land, but the wind was tossing them around too much. They maybe couldn't get the right angle. Or I guess it could've been me standing there with the dog and the baby looking kind of creepy and predatorish. Whatever their reasoning, they gave up and flew away. 

We kept walking. The wind caused the tree tops to sway and creek. I listened to the wind.  And to the trees. Listened to the robins and jays and woodpeckers. Listened to the water gurgling in the stream. I felt the racing thoughts slow. Felt like I could breathe again. 

I kept walking and walking. Instead of heading back into the neighborhood to complete my normal loop, I turned around and walked back the way I came. Through the woods, past the pond. I thought how funny it was that I feel more productive when I'm walking in a loop. I guess because there's no back-tracking. But that actually walking back the way I came was much prettier. And it gave me the chance to see the world from the opposite direction. It reminded me that retracing my steps wasn't a sign that I hadn't made progress.That repetition doesn't have to be tedious. That what I could change was my perspective.

I thought about how whether I completed a loop or walked back the same way I'd come, I always ended up at home.

I'd hoped the geese might be at the pond by now. They weren't. But there were four or five turkey vultures picking away at the remains of what appeared to be a duck. So, in a way I got to see some water fowl. 

As we neared the house, I felt Annie's hand on my finger. Asserting firm, but reassuring pressure. Like she was staunching a wound I couldn't see.

I went inside. 

Taking stock of loudest thoughts rattling in my head, I think the following:

1. The Armchair Lesson: Despite all of our discoveries and inventions- you know, using fire; coming up with the wheel and the printing press (my personal favorite); harnessing electricity, the internet, et al. Humans still engage in plenty of foolishness (see internet). Laura told me when she was driving her bus route the other day she got to witness a grown man trying to stuff a full-sized mattress into a garbage can in order to avoid paying a fee for mattress disposal. As if the trash collectors wouldn't know that the gigantic fabric rectangle in the can was a mattress. And had she been at my house this week, she would've witnessed a grown woman trying to heave an armchair up the stairs while wearing her husband's too-big shoes. Maybe there's no big lesson here. Other than I'm not alone in my idiocy. And that's somehow comforting. Oh, and also, don't try to do all the things in one day. It is impossible. Wait for backup. And always use appropriate footwear when moving heavy objects.

2. The Geese in the Wind Lesson: We don't get to control the wind. In fact, often it controls us. On the windiest days, if you can't land on the pond after a few attempts, move on. Instead of tiring yourself out, go on with the wind. Just as with all things in life-  it will settle. 

3. The Back-Tracking Lesson: Sometimes we walk in circles and sometimes we walk back the way we came. And either way is fine. Really, the takeaway is to take a walk-  especially when you are feeling ragey and like existence is futile. When possible, bring along a dog to scare off the vultures and a baby to hold your hand. Remember that this is just as much the meat of your life as the chores and the jobs and the fun stuff and the not so fun stuff. 

4. The Gratitude Lesson: This is the least original lesson. Which just means that it's the most important. Be grateful for your days. For warm baby hands and cold dog noses. For the fact that you have been wearing on-trend "boy brows" for your entire life and now is your moment in the sun. For Lily's giggles and Jovie's series of illustrated nonfiction essays devoted to each of her fingers (pinky's are for promises, pointer fingers are for pointing, the middle fingers have two fingers on each side, etc.) it reminds me of Winnie the Pool and how sweet her soul is. For sisters who know exactly what you mean and for husbands who know you are at your wit's end and tell you to go see your sister. 

P.S. Brad: No OnBeing reference. No "that book I'm reading right now" reference. Boom. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My life as a museum

Brad saw me working on this post last night. "Let me guess what it's about,"  he said. "You connect the American Girl store with something from OnBeing and a book you just finished."

"How did you know?" I asked. "Were you reading over my shoulder?"

"Wait. I'm right?" he replied. Apparently, he really been guessing.

I'm wrapping this post up today, feeling all internally kerfuffled. Like maybe it's time to retire this whole blogging enterprise and move on to something fresh. The record is broken. I return to the same things over and over and over again. What else is there to write? Is it really necessary anyway?

This is a decision for another day though, I think. 

For now, as predicted by Brad, a post featuring American Girl, something from OnBeing and that book I'm reading.


This weekend, Brad and I decided the two older girls needed some one-on-one time with a parent (or one-on-one-and-a-6-month-old time). The catalyst for this was Jovie's big move into Lily's room- a move she was not thrilled about but agreed to nonetheless in order to make way for Annie's nursery.

Originally, we'd talked about having Annie and Lily be roommates. Lily was very excited about this plan. She figured she could manage overnight baby care and teach the baby to read and do other cool stuff like how to communicate with neighborhood dogs or strut like a chicken.

But Annie has a habit of waking up throughout the night still (even with two sets of closed doors, when the baby gets too loud, Lily still has to don the pair of noise-cancelling headphones that were intended for use at NASCAR races. Lily is nothing if not resourceful). And Lily has a habit of waking up at 5:30 in the morning. Every morning. Which doesn't really mesh well for an infant.

Plus, there's the Lego problem. All those tasty Legos littering the floor or displayed on low shelves- just perfect for little fingers to grab and stuff in their gummy little mouths.

So Jovie agreed to share a room with Lily. We sweetened the deal with a new-to-her loft bed. And a fresh aqua-and-magenta paint scheme. They've adjusted really well to the new arrangement. But we figured they could use a little breather from each other.

Brad took Jovie and Annie out to run a couple errands and grab lunch. I asked Lily what she wanted to do, bracing myself for the response I knew was coming.

"I was thinking we could go to Tyson's Corner and maybe check out the American Girl doll store and then get some sushi and go to Cinnabon."

Her eyes were all dance-y and hopeful in that way they get when she's in charge of making the plans. Bottling up a heavy sigh, I smiled and said, sure. We could do that.

Her idea wasn't totally unreasonable, I know. I mean, she just wanted to go to the mall, right? She has American Girl dolls, and so naturally is interested  in accessorizing. I love sushi. And who would turn down a hot, gooey cinnamon bun?

But I've come to really not like malls. And I really, really dislike that mall in particular. It's just ... too much. Too shiny. Too fancy. Too filled with excess. I inevitably walk in and feel underdressed and out of place- even after swiping on some "going out" mascara.

It is not a place for necessities. It's a place for want. And all that want feels both desperate and exclusive.

There's this song I love by Neko Case- "Margaret vs. Pauline."

Pauline is "the cool side of satin." She's privileged. Destined for a life of ease. And Margaret is "the girl with the parking lot eyes" who works at a cannery. 

This mall is designed for Paulines. It's so glossy and smells of expensive perfume. And this whole area feels as if it's filled with Paulines. Paulines, of course, are just people living their lives. Driving their cars. Picking up their groceries. Dropping their kids off at school. And I grew up here. I most certainly am a Pauline. At least from a privilege standpoint. I know that. But it's never been a skin I'm comfortable in. And the thing is, while our area is filled with Paulines, it's also filled with Margarets. And I see them all over. In this place that costs so much to be in. In a place that feels so focused on status. 

We all live together amid this wall-to-wall stuff. And I feel suffocated by the stuff. And frustrated for all of us- the Margarets and the Paulines- that we spend more time slaving at the feet of this stuff by choice or by necessity than we do dancing in the glow of our beautiful existence (Whoa there. That's a little over flowery, isn't it?)

Which is why I try to avoid places like this mall. And especially places like the American Girl store in this mall because it feels like a training ground for more want. And it's want that is only attainable for the Paulines. Because there are no Margarets who can justify owning a $115 doll who wears outfits that likely cost more than many of the outfits the actual humans wear.

At the American Girl store, the dolls (not the humans) can visit a salon to have their hair styled and their ears pierced. Hair styles range in price from $10 to $20. There's a deluxe spa package available for $15. 

I just can't with this. Plastic cucumbers for the doll's eyes. So that what? To prepare Lily for a lifetime of facials and mani/pedis? Even at 8 Lily recognizes this perceived status difference between having a Real American Girl doll, versus similarly sized (and much more affordable dolls) from Target. Having dolls from this place, seems important. And walking around the shop only serves to reinforce that.

I know it's supposed to be fun. I get it. And truthfully, when I was Lily's age, I too, would page through the American Girl Doll catalogs that came to the house. I'd faun over Kirsten's stenciled lunch pail or Samantha's pinafore dress. And all their furniture and accessories- how you could have a perfectly put-together life in miniature. 

I know I asked for these dolls for Christmas. I never got one, but it's not something I've been sad about over the years (not like that pony I always wanted and still don't have. I would name her Flopsy and she would have a long flowing mane and a velvety muzzle). I think even then I understood they were impractical. I mean, the bedroom furniture costs over a $100, right? And that was in the 90s... so, you know, factor in inflation... or something.

I don't want that same jaw-aching want for the girls. I just can't. Especially when they already have so much. And we live among people who have so little. And the name "American Girl" seems to not be reflecting so much the realities of plenty of American girls in our country right now. Taking Lily to this store, where she wanders around from doll to doll, admiring their dresses and their various accoutrements- the swimming pool that doesn't hold water for $100 or the Airstream Travel Trailer for $350 or the Luciana's space suit for $75- it stresses me out. It leaves me feeling empty and sad. 

(Not just because this year's "Girl of the Year," Blaire Wilson, is basically living the life I should've opted for– running a farm B&B with chickens underfoot and trellises covered in wisteria.)

We went anyway. Because I wanted the day to be about her, not me and my hangups and rants. And Lily did wander around the store. With reverence even. And that little smile she gets. 

She picked out a pair of pajamas for her doll and used her Christmas money to buy them (I  couldn't resist pointing out they cost more than I'd spend on pajamas for her). She was so excited to add to her doll's wardrobe. 

For lunch, she wanted to go to this funny sushi restaurant in the middle of the mall where the food spins around a conveyor belt. Of course she wanted to go there. During previous mall visits, she'd gazed at it with wide-eyed curiosity. 

So I had to be brave (i.e., get over the fact that I didn't know how the restaurant "worked"). We sat at the "bar" and found out we just needed to grab whatever we wanted as the plates slid by. Our bill was tallied based on the color of the plates we picked out. We admired how pretty the dishes looked- the ruby-colored roe and the Mount Fuji Cake. Lily wanted a California roll and the rainbow roll- featuring raw salmon, tuna and yellowtail. My picky eater happily munching on raw fish. Will wonders never cease? 

"Mom," Lily told me, "Sometimes you have to try new things." She knew I was a little nervous about the unconventional restaurant situation. So she threw back at me something I tell her all the time. Clever girl. 

With the money Lily had leftover, she wanted to buy something for Jovie, which warmed my heart a thousand times over. We headed to the Lego store and picked out a little set for her. After that, we split a cinnamon bun. It was extra suburban and tasted a little like heaven. We soaked in our togetherness. Just the two of us for the first time in months. Chatting about school and Annie and whatever caught our eye. 

And that was that. We were in and out in under two hours. 

If I had to go to the mall, at least it was with Lily, who made the experience palatable and fun.   

And, trying to get past the ridiculousness of the American Girl experience, I decided to just observe Lily there. She stopped by the displays- pointing out the little speckled tea kettle in Mary Ellen's Airstream, sharing that Kit's family went through hard times because they'd lived during the Great Depression (she'd read about Kit at school), commenting on how pretty Nanea's special hula dress was, deciding that Kaya must've been a Plains Indian because she had a tipi. She treated it almost like a museum. Like when we went to see the dollhouse exhibit at the National Building Museum. She saw the dolls as characters in history and enjoyed telling me their stories and wondering about their lives.

Recently, I was listening to an interview with writer and artist Maira Kalman, known for cartoons she's drawn for The New Yorker (here's that OnBeing reference. Score another point for Brad!). Kalman talks about spending time in museums and how to her, they are kind of places of meditation. You wander through them silently, taking in the things that catch your interest. It's a collective experience, but also a quiet one.

She talked about how she has an exhibit at the Met- a recreation of her mother's closet that she installed with there son.

"It's in the American wing, and it's a wonderful - my mother only wore white, and she was very precise about her clothing and about her closet. And her closet really was a work of art, in its way."

I kind of laughed at the thought of my closet as a work of art. Stuffed as it is with cardigans and shoes boxes of old notes and photos. I doubt anyone would ever take the time to re-create it in a museum or that anyone aside from the cats and an occasional hide-and-seeker would want to go near it.

Still, I thought it was beautiful, this idea of taking something so mundane as a closet and putting it in a museum. Like it was a way of somehow elevating the tedium of a life. The non-flashy, day-to-day parts of living as an ordinary person.

A vast majority of our lives will not be curated for museums or noted in history books. We might get a few lines of smudged ink in newsprint that yellows and disintegrates. And that's probably OK. 

When I finished the manuscript for that novel I wrote, I experienced this palpable, painful yearning for it to be published. Because if it were published, it must mean that I meant something. That I'd left a tangible mark on the world in the form of a book. I thought about my book on a shelf in a bookstore. Then I thought about the next book and how it would have to be even better than the first. Even more successful. Before anything had even happened (or not happened with my little manuscript) I watched my ego inflate. My self importance. I realized that I would never be able to keep up with the insatiable appetite of my ego. That no matter how much I wrote, no matter how many books I published, no matter how many people told me how great I was, it would never be enough. Just like that lovely song in "The Greatest Showman."

That realization didn't feel any more comfortable to me than the fancy mall. 

So I go back to this place of finding satisfaction in the life I have right now. I thought about treating my own life as if it were a museum exhibit. Marveling at it the same way Lily marveled at those dolls. Studying it with curiosity. Allowing my eye to swing around a room and land on the things my heart feels most drawn too. 

It's not about imagining my things, my life in an actual museum. Not about needing affirmation or aggrandizing. Not about elevating my existence for anyone but myself. 

I do this throughout the day now, in the confines of my home and it makes me smile- the things I end up focusing on.

Snack's couch:

The cactus in the fairy garden we made in York that keeps growing and growing. Proof that I can keep a plant alive. How it's growing in a terra cotta pot my mom shared with me. How the colors complement this handmade picture frame I was given as a baby shower gift when I was pregnant with Lily. How the frame filled with little birds and trees has always suited photos of Lily as she grows up. 

The shelf where I keep my Jovie things. Baby photos and clay creations and the little wooden doll that captures her spirit so precisely. The Willow Tree figurine that reminds me of rocking Jovie to sleep for her afternoon naps day after day after day when she was smaller.

The plant that the previous homeowner left behind thriving in a piece of art my niece Hannah made in high school. The pot with its wild "hair" makes me smile and think of her and our shared hair hangups.

This shelf with a sign Brad found for me and the remains of a sea urchin found at the beach, and a Native American seed pot decorated in colorful birds my Dad gave to me, and a rock painted by a neighbor kid and these little figurines that I think were my mothers...

The crow in the tree outside my kitchen window that visits several times a week- reminding me to leave peanuts outside for her and her two friends.

Corduroy, my childhood bear, snuggling with Annie.  

Curating my home in this way made me realize it is enough. More than enough. And it's not so much about the stuff, but the feelings and memories the stuff evokes. How it helps me remember Jovie's pillowy cheeks and playing Barbies with Hannah and how Lily can't see a crow without cawing at it and the way my mom laughs, which I'm pretty sure is part of that music the Earth has for us. 

It's not the stuff. It's what it evokes in us. 

I'm listening to the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari (here's that book reference Brad predicted!).

In it he writes about how much more stuff today's humans have compared to our forager ancestors. 

"Over the course of his or her life a typical member of a modern, affluent society will own several million artifacts from cars and houses to disposable nappies and milk cartons, he writes. "There's hardly an activity, a belief or even an emotion that is not mediated by artifacts of our own devising."

In play we use a plethora of toys- everything from plastic cars to 100,000 seat stadiums, in intimate relationships there's everything from flowers to chocolates to condoms to rings. We bring the sacred into our lives "with gothic churches, Muslim mosques, Hindu ashrams, Torah scrolls, Tibetan prayer wheels, priestly cassocks, candles, incense, Christmas trees, Matzo balls, tombstones and icons."

Harari notes that we don't even notice how much stuff we have until it's time to move to a new house. But foragers had to move houses every month, sometimes every week or every day. And because there were no moving companies, carts or pack animals to help carry things- they toted only their most essential possessions on their backs. It's hard for us to know what they used day to day, as many of their tools were made not of stone as we have been taught but of wood or bamboo that has long since decayed.

"It's reasonable to presume than that the greater part of their mental and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artifacts," he writes.

Framing all the things I have in my house as "artifacts" that future archeologists might one day dig up to piece together the day-to-day lives of a long-past civilization is both amusing and embarrassing to me. The things that would seem to matter most to me- photos, letters, books, etc. would more than likely not survive a millennia buried underground. Leaving behind, what? Ceramics (Jovie's pinch pot? My mom's flower pot? Hannah's art project), Broken glass from picture frames maybe. Metal utensils and cabinet pulls. Door knobs. Light fixtures. And, of course, all the plastic. That won't ever go away, right?

As I'm writing I'm experiencing a moment of horrified irony as I realize that the "smooth vinyl" heads, arms and feet of the American Girl dolls would no doubt survive to tell our stories (though sadly, not their "huggable cloth" bodies). Beyond the dolls themselves- their accessories- the fake plastic pool and the rainbow unicorn floatie, the 65+ piece gourmet kitchen set, the Mars Habitat that Lily covets for her Luciana doll. All of that would survive more or less in tact waiting to tell the story of our people. 

Strangely enough, the things that might best share the narrative of our interior lives- all this digital ephemera we leave behind will be gone.

Harari noted this, comparing it to the trouble today's researchers have piecing together the lives of foragers with so few artifacts to those of our descendants.

“It’s much the same dilemma that a future historian would face if he had to depict the social world of twenty-first-century teenagers solely on the basis of their surviving snail mail – since no records will remain of their phone conversations, emails, blogs and text messages” 

The stuff we do leave behind and the status we associate with it won't matter much. I don't imagine future historians will be able to differentiate between an American Girl doll or a My Generation doll. 

Even the memories fade from one generation to the next. What we hope survives is our values. The root of our human-ness. 

Browsing ridiculously overpriced dolls is just a vessel for time shared between a mother and a daughter. And that time is special and sacred. The terra-cotta pot makes me think of my mom and how Lily says Nana's laughter is the gold standard for what laughter should be. How my girls already know the importance of laughter as a thing we commune over as a species. How I hope to somehow impart to my girls and their girls in turn, and their's and their's, that the Paulines and Margarets can learn to see- really see- each other as the same sort of people in different circumstances and learn to lift each other up in their own ways for the betterment of the whole. 

The artifacts I hope are preserved in the ephemeral museum of our existence aren't things at all but deeds and qualities. Compassion. Generosity. Mercy. Love.

It's always the thing I circle back to. 

The broken record that actually doesn't need to be fixed.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dump truck philosophy on being a wiser human

Among the things I wasn't thrilled about having to deal with upon returning to Northern Virginia was traffic. This is a universal complaint of any metropolitan area, I know. 

There's just sooo many cars down here. And they're being driven by sooo many different sorts of people. 

People who are paying attention. People who aren't paying attention. People who are brand new drivers. People who are experienced drivers but who are new to the Northern Virginia Driving Experience (which would be the worst amusement park ride ever). People who aren't sure where they are going. People who do know where they are going. People who know where they are going but still wait to the last minute to get into the appropriate lanes they need to be in thus forcing other people in the turn lane to slam on their breaks and miss the light. People who are staring at their phones. People with poor vision. People who are yelling at their kids in the way back to stop touching each other for the love of god or we're turning around and there will be no fun for the foreseeable future. People who are cautious. People who are outright terrified to be driving with sooo many other cars. People who are in a hurry. People who think they are in a hurry. 

People who aren't in a hurry but who prefer to drive at high speeds even on narrow roads where the speed limit is only 35.

I was driving in front of one such driver recently. Actually, that's not precise. I don't know what type of driver this person was. Only that he or she was in an earth-toned SUV driving on a narrow, crowded four-lane road who seemed to want to go significantly faster than I was (which was in the vicinity of the 35 MPH speed limit). I know this because said driver seemed to want to "nudge" my rear bumper with his front bumper (why else would he be driving so closely?). Maybe he or she was only trying to deliver a friendly shoulder bump or a flirtatious tap. Who's to say what was going on in his head? Just to be safe, I switched lanes at the earliest opportunity. The SUV sped past me. Then had to break behind the next car, which also switched lanes to allow it to pass. 

I found my hackles rising. My eyebrows going all Lewis Black. That delicious feeling of righteous indignation rising up from my belly. I mean this guy. THIS GUY. 

There was a horn I was tempted to honk. A finger I was tempted to wave. But I stopped myself. As I do every other time I'm confronted with an individual who seems to eschew safety and/or manners on the road. 

I reminded myself that I had no idea who that person was or the reason behind his aggressive driving. For all I knew he could've just received the call that his beloved mother was taking her last breaths and was racing toward her bedside. He could've really been craving some mozzarella sticks from the Sheetz up the road. Or maybe he was just an asshole. Who's to say? 

Not me. 

It's really easy to find things to be mad about in life. I'm the mother of three. My 8 year old, evidently, was born knowing everything there possibly is to know. My 6 year old has been known to cry despondently when tasked with such strenuous activities as returning books to shelves or putting her laundry away. My almost-6-month-old is fond of using her tiny pincer fingers to grab the little hairs at the nape of my neck and pull them into her mouth. I live on the spectrum of befuddlement to frustration to all-out rage most days. Perpetually on the brink of an indignant rant about the various dirty socks littering the house or the nightly complaints about how the dinner is either too spicy or too bland. 

I know how to get mad. 

And man. Sometimes when I'm gathering up all my mom rage I feel like Ursula in "The Little Mermaid" right after she accidentally kills Flotsam and Jetsam. The part when she starts making that awkward groaning noise and puffs up into a giant sea witch drunk on her own power.

You know the scene.

I'm all, like, "You're gonna tell me you can't clean up your room after I made you pancakes for breakfast and took your sledding and let you have hot chocolate and listened to your recite (approximately) 7 billion facts about dinosaurs and helped you build a fort and let you have a friend over? OH HELL NO CHILD. DON'T MAKE ME USE MY GIANT GLOWING TRIDENT. WHEN I'M DONE, YOU WON'T HAVE A ROOM LEFT TO CLEAN!!!!" [Uses trident to destroy Baby Alive, LOL Surprise Eggs, And all the Legos left on the floor.]

What's that? I've gone off track? Where we we? 

Oh right, the part where I don't explode into a red-faced, frothing buffoon in the wake of an aggressive driver.

Here's the thing. Getting mad about these inconsequential things is like eating too much sugar. It feels good in the moment, and you crave more of it and you feel productive because of it, but it always ends in a crash that doesn't feel so good at all.

So instead of investing my limited energy resources into fueling some dead-end sort of irritation out in the world, I've been trying to make it a practice of letting it go.

Just, switching lanes and moving forward.

And I gotta say, it feels good. It's calming. It gives me back a sense of balance to my life and the feeling of control that whoever "slighted" me might've taken away had I given into my anger.

At first, reacting by not reacting feels like being passive. Like letting the world walk all over me. I've done that plenty in my life. 

But I've kind of decided to reframe it in my head. See, it's not passive if I'm making a choice- if I'm choosing to let the petty affronts go. In that moment, I'm actively making a decision. And better yet, I'm making a decision that will serve me. It strengthens a muscle in me- the one that demands we turn the other cheek (is it the neck muscle? The Jesus muscle? I'm not great with anatomy).

I can fight aggression with more aggression or with passive aggression, or I can volley back compassion. 

As I'm writing this, I feel like this is an act of love. Like, not a grand gesture. Or, something sentimental. But something human and earthbound. Something simple and doable. I can forgive a fault on the spot, in the moment. I can sow love on this crowded road full of all these strangers going about their days in the thick of their own lives. 

All the sudden that feels much bigger than just muttering "asshole" under my breath.

This practice is as important at home as it is out in the world. I think it can almost be easier to forgive a stranger for their perceived faults then it can be the people closest to us. With these people- our children, our spouses, our parents and siblings, our friends- our familiarity makes us assume too much about their motives and intent when they do something that frustrates us or lets us down. 

Like how I assume my children are thoughtless, unappreciative jerks who purposefully leave messes for me to pick up because they don't care about my time. When really, they're just easily distracted small people who would be heartbroken to learn I mistake their forgetfulness or their whiney-ness for a sign of poor character or worse, a lack of love for me. 

They're human- in the process of growing and becoming just as I am. 

I just started listening to the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari writes about how, compared with other species, Homo Sapien's jump to the top of the food chain was incredibly fast. How, typically, the ecosystem has checks and balances to prevent other species like lions or sharks from getting too powerful. As lions became deadlier, for instance, gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas started cooperating more effectively and rhinos become more ill-tempered.

“In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.” 

I wonder if the only way to get past our existence in this banana republic dictatorship is to make an active choice to be better than we are. If our extraordinary brain size is the thing that has given us these extraordinary advantages, then it can also be the thing that helps restore balance to our ecosystem.

And maybe it starts by each of us as individuals making small choices throughout our day to be kinder. To empathize. To view love as a muscle. One that strengthens as much in our actions toward strangers as it does toward friends and family.

Homo Sapien means wise man (the name we "immodestly" gave ourselves notes Harari.)

Wise. "Marked by deep understanding, keen discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment," according to Merriam-Webster.

"Having or showing good judgment, or the ability to make good judgments, based on what you have learned from your experience," according to Cambridge Dictionary.

Given our propensity to repeat history, I'm not sure we're worthy of our self-assigned name yet. But maybe we can get there.

The same day I dealt with that aggressive driver, I found myself stuck behind a giant, bumbling dump truck. There was nowhere to pass it, so I was forced to go at a dump truck's pace for a few miles. 

I read the words, "DO NOT PUSH" painted on the rear of the truck.

"Do not push."

I'm not sure for whom the message was intended. Was it me? A warning not to follow too closely? Was it for whoever might need to interact with the rear of the dump truck? Maybe it had nothing to do with the truck. Maybe it was the driver who didn't want to be pushed?  The words seemed kind of unnecessary. Who pushes a dump truck?

Having dealt with an aggressive driver earlier in the day, I heeded the truck and kept my distance. It seemed like the smartest move. Even though I'm now the reluctant driver of an oxymoronic minivan (if it's so mini, why the hell do I feel like I take up half the road while I'm driving it? I prefer to remain incognito on the road. The minivan makes me feel as if I'm riding a brachiosaurus through traffic) I'm pretty sure the dump truck would win the matchup.

As I'm wont to do when ambling behind slow-moving, passive aggressive dump trucks my mind started to wander. I turned the phrase around in my head. "Do not push."

That I was seeing it at that moment, just on the heels of having kind of been pushed out of the way myself by another driver... well it seemed significant. It felt like a message I needed to hear.

In that moment, it seemed to be about slowing down. Allowing something other than my right foot and the accelerator to dictate the pace of my life. 

Maybe it also has to do with allowing what will be to be (I mean, what will be, will be, whether I have any say it in or not). Do not push ahead. Do not push your agenda. Do not push other people. 

It felt like, again, an instruction to be more passive. Which seems to run counter to everything we were raised to believe as Americans. We are not a people that accepts unwanted circumstances. That settles for less. We always push on. We always climb the next mountain. We always try to keep up. We always try to be better. 

The goal of improving ourselves and our society is noble and lofty, for sure. But maybe our methods are wrong.

"Do not push."

Last night, Lily was reading, "A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr." to me.

It talks about how Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the "Whites only" section of a bus. It talks about how MLK Jr. led a protest of her arrest- how blacks in the city of Montgomery, Alabama refused to ride the buses. It talked about how someone threw a bomb in King's house and how King told his followers, who'd wanted to fight, to go home peacefully.

"We must love our white brothers," he said. We must meet hate with love."

Rosa Parks sat down.

Protestors didn't ride the bus.

King's followers clenched their firsts, but went home peacefully.

Maybe what looks like a passivity is actually something much greater.

For millennia we've compensated for our fear and anxieties with shows of might- taking up more space, constructing mightier fortresses, building bigger bombs, creating more sophisticated weapons, amassing more and more stuff, telling stories at greater and greater volumes about whose religion or politics or philosophies or way of life is superior. 

And here we are.

If we are really Homo Sapien, Wise Man, We need to learn from our experiences. Not do the same thing over and over, while praying for different results. 

"We must meet hate with love." That is what will transform us. Make us worthy of our name.

"Do not push."

I'm not exactly sure what I am to do with that. Or even if I need to do anything. Maybe they were just meaningless words on a truck. 

Or maybe, as with so many things in life, I'm meant to sit here with them rolling around in my head. An uncomfortable place with no real answer, no real solution, no real call to action. 

I've often found that when I'm struggling to make sense of a thought or an idea that I need to let go. Just the way I have to do when I'm struggling with feelings of anger or frustration. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Don't push it.