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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Love Story for Laura, Mother of Eight

Two-year-old Callie smooching her mom– my big sister Laura.

I want to share a love story.

It starts in October with my sister and a positive pregnancy test under the most inconvenient of circumstances. Not that pregnancy or child-rearing is ever really convenient anyway. 

Laura, mother of seven, nine months separated from her husband of 19 years, stood outside the dilapidated house she would eventually lose to foreclosure and told my sister Sarah and me that she was pregnant, the father a man she'd met online and knew little about– he was a body builder, he was from the Ivory Coast, she thought he was kind. She shook her head in bewilderment, shock and despair. 

Because what else can you do in the immediate aftermath of a positive pregnancy test, under the circumstances? 

For Laura, life is relentless.

Always relentless. There's not a week that goes by when her large family is not stricken with strep or pink eye or some stomach bug or another. Her 14-year-old once went to the emergency room three times in six months. There's always a car breaking down. A kid missing the bus. A fox killing her chickens. A refrigerator that stops refrigerating. 

The reality of having a large family. The reality of being Laura. 

Laura has never wanted to be on the receiving end of anyone's pity. She's never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. Her life is her choice.

There were six of us Haller siblings. Growing up, Laura was like my back-up mom. She had always envisioned her own big brood. All the chaos and laughter and absurdity that comes from so many siblings in one house. She has a mother's heart. Just like our mother.

And I've been grateful for her beautiful family. Her oldest, Hannah, who is now 22 and planning a wedding, was my practice baby. This fiery, curly-haired princess was my first lesson in what love is. And each of her five little brothers– these wild, hilarious, creative wrecking balls– have brought me endless laughter and joy. And little Callie-Sue (my half namesake– not that I'm bragging or anything) is pure sunshine. 

My sister's children.
She has beautiful babies. But not only beautiful– they're bright, creative and compassionate. They're good little people. They're also good big people– 6-foot-2, 19-year-old Sawyer is currently on a two-year mission in Guatemala, sharing his faith and offering a helping hand to anyone in need, Hannah is pursuing a nursing degree, 17-year-old Finn and 14-year-old Scout are perpetually in search of ways to make my girls giggle. 

The thing is, even when you consistently have awesome babies, each new baby seems to invite raised eyebrows, skepticism, commentary and judgment.

It was after No. 3 or No. 4 (Finn or Scout) that people felt it was time to weigh-in on my sister's reproductive choices. They'd disguise it in well-meaning wit or advice– "You do know where those things come from, right?" or "they have pills for that" or "You're getting your tubes tied, right?" The first few babies warrant celebration. The subsequent babies? Advice on birth control. As if she ceased to be a human person, and instead was livestock at some massive factory farm. Her output examined and marveled at by the general public. 

Laura has always laughed off commentary. Always accepted her role as the outlier. She's always absorbed all the judgment and instead of projecting resentment or annoyance, she's radiated grace. 

She understands life is relentless. Not just for her, but for everyone. She soaks in other people's pain and then projects peace. Whenever I've had a friend who's in pain, I've led them to Laura. She's like an oracle for hardship. We've always laid our worries at her feet because she knows these worries intimately. She listens and soothes and somehow softens the hard edges of our lives.

I heard this quote in an interview a few months ago and immediately thought of her: 

“You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.”  

She's been this place for me so, so many times over the year. 

When I first became a mother, I was constantly reaching out to Laura for advice and reassurance. I saved most of her emails to me. 

First-time moms always feel as if they're under a microscope. Here's something Laura shared with me after I wrote her bemoaning some paranoia or other about my abilities as a parent compared with others:

"So, let the world  judge and know that they are doing it out of their own fear and anxiety. It is sad really. 'Miserable being likes more miserable being...', but that's not really what we want, what we really want is to feel good about others AND ourselves, so it could be, 'Unhappy beings want to be happy beings, like that guy over there...'."

We always quote "Lady and the Tramp" when dealing with the ruthlessness of humans toward one another. 

That day in October when Laura found out she was pregnant, she was a miserable being. There seemed to be no right answer to what her next step should be. And it didn't help matters that she knew any decision she made would be dissected and studied by anyone who knew her– family, friends, acquaintances. All the usual suspects that line up to weigh in on other people's inconvenient circumstances. Laura had braced herself for this. She was aware about what her situation looked like from the outside. A train wreck.

And most of us were well meaning, of course. We love Laura. We just want life, which has always been so unyielding for her, to be easier. And, of course, motherhood is always open season for unsolicited advice. Like that she could terminate her pregnancy and nobody would judge. Or that there are plenty of childless couples with means who are aching for a baby. More than one of us offered to adopt the baby. We all said we'd support whatever choice she made. 

Not that any of that helped Laura. Because the father of the baby was uncommunicative at the time, Laura was the sole decision maker. The one who would have to make a choice and live with that choice. 

Because I know my sister like I know myself I know that her decision to keep the baby was inevitable. I knew it from the moment I knew she was pregnant. She told me once that she fell in love with each of her babies the moment she knew they existed. Probably before, even. For her, motherhood starts at a cellular level.

Laura is not a selfish person. She's deeply spiritual and claims the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa as her idols. She's not ignorant or naive. She spent months and months researching options and turning them over and over in her brain, trying to come to a decision she could live with. Not a decision that was going to be the easiest. The most understandable. The least controversial. But the one that felt right for her.

Laura gave me her blessing to share this story. And I've started and stopped a dozen times. Fearful that I won't get it right. That I'm just chipping away at an ill-constructed dam that will break, unleashing all manners of judgment and self-righteousness at my sister– not from people who know her, but from people who don't. 

The dialogue in our country surrounding women's rights is just so fraught right now. It's probably always been. 

I wanted to share my sister's story, not to endorse the right to choose or the right to life or to support adoption or not support adoption. This isn't some political commentary on my sister's life choices. My thoughts on any of these issues are not important. 

I wanted to share my sister's story because it's a human story. It's complicated and messy– just as it is for any woman who finds herself holding at positive pregnancy test in the most inconvenient of circumstances. A scenario that plays itself out over and over and over again in our country– in the world– every day. 

I wanted to make a plea for love and compassion for women in this place. For assuming the best in every woman faced with life-quaking choices. For listening. Really listening. For constructing a forcefield around these women to protect them from the slings and arrows of a self-righteous mob and allow them the peace to think. The permission to dig into their hearts and find the answers that suit their lives. Their circumstances. To trust that those decisions are sound.

And then once the decision is made, to stand by them. To be the place they can stand when their feet are sore. 

Opening our hearts that way is empowering. Not just for women, but for all of us. 

That's the world I want to live in.

***

My sister Laura has long given up any since of privacy or pride.

Years ago she wrote this note to me:

"I have to share this with you. It is something that you, too, will one day enjoy. Scout’s class made books for their mother’s for Mother’s day. Each page appeared to have a prompt. This particular page was about your funniest memory of your mom. It reads as follows, Ahem... 'The funniest thing I remember about my mom is that she snores louder than a tractor trailors horn. It wakes me up during the night and it gets harder and harder and harder to sleep during the night. She sleeps perfectly but we have, like, no time to sleep during the night but to resolve it we just eat and put cotton balls in our ears.' 
Mothers, sisters aunts cooling off in a baby pool.

It is important to note that his teacher did, indeed, read this particular entry. Once they start school, your home will have no secrets. I hope you managed to sell your pride at the yard sale because it holds no value for you any more."
I think about this every time my kid runs up to me to wipe their snotty nose on my shirt or when I have to plead with them in public not to lick me again. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. 
As her pregnancy became more obvious, she decided she wanted to head off any speculation or raised eyebrows with this epic post on Facebook: 

"Dear facebook friends. I feel obliged to offer a brief update as i dont see many of you often but would prefer to avoid shocked expressions when we do meet.  Many of you know that kevin and I have separated in the last year putting an end to an amazing journey that netted 7 amazing kids and the bonus child (for me) my step daughter. You are, perhaps, less aware of the fact that i am expecting another child in July. Kevin is off the hook for this one. Wondering if Im gaining weight or pregnant...the answer is both! Wondering who the dad is...well i doubt you know him...i barely do. Wondering what I was thinking? Well...thats a more involved story than facebook can handle. Do i know what causes babies? Yes. Am I aware of global warming, the over population of Earth, and all the available forms of contraception?...yes. How are we going to survive...one day at a time. How are my other kids handling it? ...with the utmost compassion for their mother and their unborn sibling. Another interesting piece to this puzzle is that this little one is biracial...we have all enjoyed envisioning the future of our family photos and adding a splash of color in there...lol ...life is full of surprises. Xoxo"
The messages she received in response were all ones of love and support. Of understanding compassion. Things like:

"Good Lord I love you woman.. You are a super-fly HUMAN... Hugs and Kisses to you and your great big beautiful family..."

"This baby is blessed to be born into such a beautiful family and will be truly welcomed with open arms!"

"You are one of the most authentic, strong and brave women I have ever had the privilege to know"

Comment after comment after comment. Mostly from women. All loving.

When I sent a note out to family and friends recently, asking for help and prayers for my sister as she prepared to move her family, we were met with so much generosity. So many words of support. 

Perhaps that world I want to live in already exists. And on Facebook of all places. I shouldn't be surprised. So often when I've exposed my fleshy underbelly to the world, they've met me with love. Why shouldn't it be the same for Laura?

***

The love story ended and began again last Wednesday. 

After laboring for more than 40 hours, during which Laura wandered around Lowes, received a makeover from her 2 year old, squeezed into a baby pool with her two daughters and I, and hula-hooped in a Walmart, Rosalie Chiaye arrived in the world.

She was surrounded by two aunties, her big sister, Laura's best friend and, of course, her mother, all of who were weeping and marveling at her head full of hair, her heart-shaped mouth, her perfect little toes. 

She is magic. 







Rosalie Chiaye. 

her name sounds like poetry. It is the one thing her father has given her in her short life– though who knows, he might come around. 

In the meantime, sweet Rosalie Chiaye will never be short of affection or attention. She has two big sisters, five big brothers, a step sister, two grandparents, three aunts, five uncles, six cousins, a slew of devoted family friends and a mother who chose her. 

Rosalie in the middle of a brother/cousin swarm.
Life hasn't stopped being relentless for Laura. Certainly not with a newborn. She's relocated to a cozy farmhouse and is finding some more stability, but there are always more questions than answers. Problems that need to be solved.

Just yesterday on her way home from Rosalie's first doctor's appointment her van got a flat. She walked into her house to find the kitchen ceiling leaking. It's always something.

Laura hula hooping.
Ten hours before giving birth.
Laura continues to trudge through it. Weary and careworn, but not without a sense of humor. Not without the ability to find moments of silliness and joy. 

As she was in the height of her labor last Wednesday morning, we were trying to talk Laura through her contractions by giving her scenes to imagine– waves on the beach and her feet in the warm sand, or the sun filtering through trees in a forest. When we described mountain scenery, she told us that the other day she was running errands and she pulled up next to a girl listening to "The Sound of Music" at full blast. She motioned for the girl to roll down her window and joined in singing with her. 

Life might beat the crap out of her, but Laura makes room for love.

When she reads this, she'll roll her eyes at me. Claiming her exhausting life is just a culmination of all the bad choices she's made. But I disagree. 

Maybe the creator looked at my sister– her heart as big as Jupiter– and figured the world could use more of her. More of her compassion. More of her goodwill. Move of her sense of humor. More of her grace. And so we were given more. 

It's necessarily a fairy tale. But then real love stories are always more complicated than that.

Yaaaawwwn. Jovie says her new cousin is really cute.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Walk at Dusk in Summer

Photo courtesy of Amio Cajander/Flickr

Lately, after we get the girls to bed, I've been taking the dog out for long walks. It's really the only sensible time of day to be outside doing anything mid-July in Virginia. At dusk, the air is still thick and woolen, but the sun is sinking down and there's usually a breeze.

Snacks expects it now. After I've sung "Blackbird" to the last kid and closed the last bedroom door, I'll find him sprawled on our bed. As soon as I reach for my Chucks he leaps off the bed and clamors downstairs, whining at the front door.

He'll drag me down the sidewalk past the first few driveways before settling into a more reasonable pace– still yanking the leash, but not toppling me in the process. He's better than he was years ago when a random dog trainer stopped me on a walk to give me his business card. Older, a bit slower now. 

I find myself shaking off the day like the horses at the farm used to do when we'd let them out of their stalls after a long time being cooped up. Their skin would twitch, straw and dust flaking off as they trotted into the pasture, sniffing the air before settling to graze. I can feel the annoying bits of the day– Lily's impatience, Jovie's whining, my own irritability– chipping off. These long summer days can make our little ecosystem especially sensitive to the moods of one another. 

By the time I reach the magic tree down the block and around the corner (the one with all the wind chimes and hanging flower baskets), I can breathe evenly. Sometimes I'll listen to the latest interview on "On Being" though I also like to just listen to what's around me. There are always a few birds trilling and whirring cicadas. I listen for the local crows– there's a large group of them (OK fine ... a murder of crows... but I don't think they deserve such violence)– that hangs out in the tall trees in the neighborhood next door. At dusk they're always calling to each other, flying over in packs of four or five. An odd straggler cawing from the way back from time to time. I like to think they're keeping an eye on the proceedings below and reporting the days happenings to each other, like nosy grandma's on porch swings.

I use the walks for meditation, sort of. I focus on my breathing. Being in this moment. I catalog all the sights, sounds and smells. The gaggle of middle schoolers shouting hello to anyone they pass– daring for a response. The nearly naked gardener out mowing his lawn (no, this is not a Desperate Housewives-worthy hot lawn boy sort of situation. This man should not be gardening shirtless). The high school boys talking about God and girls down by the stream. The lazy blinking of fireflies. The light lemony tang of the mimosa's fuchsia blossoms– the girls and I call them troll flowers. The sweet scent of the honeysuckle that's draped over young trees in the woods. 

I just finished reading "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohllebon and so the park near my house has become sort of a laboratory where I test my new found knowledge about trees. I try to spot things mentioned in the book. Honeysuckle vines strangling young trees for instance. Bracket fungus climbing up the side of an old, slowly rotting tree. Trees of the same species that are grouped together looking out for each other– ceding space in the canopy so that everyone gets enough sunlight and communicating with one another through a series of fungal networks below the ground (that part I can't see obviously, but I think about it as I'm walking by. I wonder what they communicate to each other about these humans and their dogs constantly stopping to pee on their trunks). I've always loved trees and now I feel like I know just a little more about what's knowable of them (they live for hundreds, if not thousands of years– just not enough time for us to fully understand them, really. Though I think Tolkien was on to something with his Ents). 

Wohllebon writes that a beech tree will produce 1.8 million beechnuts in its lifetime. Of all of those seeds the mother tree produces, just one will develop into a full-grown tree. The rest will be eaten by animals or attacked by fungus or bacteria. I think about this as I'm walking. How we've pretty much won the lottery each time we see a mature tree. How lucky we are to all be balanced on the head of this pin spinning at the edge of a knife– humans, dogs, trees, crows and the rest.

The dog has become a bit more selective about our routes for the evening walk recently. I like to make a big loop– through our neighborhood down the tree-covered trail, then back to our street cutting through the next community over. But we haven't been making it that far. The other night it was the rubber-band twang of a toad in the stream that got him worried. He refused to go any further, so we turned around. A couple times we've reached a dark section and he'll stop in his track and spin to point the direction we just came. He can't be urged forward. I follow his lead, telling myself he's probably just looking after me when I really think he's kind of a pansy about the whole venture. What type of dog is afraid of the dark? 

There were reports that a bear was spotted crossing a road not far from here. Maybe it's the bear he smells. I consider what I might do if faced with a bear in the woods. Would Snacks fight valiantly to protect me? If he ran away or was incapacitated by said bear, what would I do? Generally, I think of myself as more of a "curl up in a tiny ball and hope for the best" sort of person rather than the "punch bear in the face" person. But who knows who I'd turn into with a little adrenaline? Probably "Pick up terrified dog and run like hell" person. 

My mom texted a picture of a mother bear and two cubs, spotted on the driveway of their home in Colorado the other day. We're visiting in a couple weeks, so I've had lots of reason to ponder these bear scenarios. 

Tonight, we made it down the steep hill to the creek when Snacks got spooked and wanted to turn around. I grumped at him, but we trudged back up the hill. We were nearing the entrance to our neighborhood again when he stopped in his tracks, sniffing the bushes just off the path. Something caught his attention. Probably a squirrel or a chipmunk I figured. "Come on buddy," I urged. "Let's go." But he started growling, his ears perked up. I looked down the path behind us, there was a red fox. She regarded us, and I regarded her. She didn't hurry off, just stared. Snacks seemed to feel pretty confident he could take down a fox. He had size on the fox, but I'm certain not the street smarts or cunning. He barked and tugged at the leash.

I thought about an essay by E.B. White I'd read earlier today. He writes about his attempts to kill a fox who'd carried off one of his chickens. 

"One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy. The fox is mine. He wants to destroy my form of society– a society of free geese, of Bantams unconfined. So I react in the natural way, building up my defenses, improving my weapons and my aim, spending more and more time on the problem of supremacy. ... When I realize what a vast amount of time the world would have for useful and sensible tasks if each country could take its mind off 'the enemy' I am appalled. I shot a fox last fall– a long, lucky shot with a .22 as he drank at the pond. It was cold murder. All he wanted at that moment was a drink of water, but the list of his crimes against me was a long one, and so I shot him dead, and he fell backward and sank into the mud.The war between me and the fox is as senseless as all wars. There is no way to rationalize it. The fox is not even the biggest and meanest killer here– I hold that distinction myself. I think nothing of sending half a dozen broilers to the guillotine. Come June, heads will be rolling behind my barn."

I pulled Snacks away telling him that this was the foxes place, not ours and that he wasn't going to bother us. We went our way, and she went hers.

Further down the path, I ran into Jovie's swim coach out with her brother walking the family dog, Snickers. "Our dog's under quarantine right now, so they can't meet each other," she tells me as I tug Snacks back from her little mop-headed dog. 

"Oh no! What happened?" I ask.

"He got attacked by a fox."

So that was a bit unsettling. While I'd been trying to figure out evasive maneuvers for bears, my fox playbook was completely blank. Even having been face-to-face with a fox moments earlier, I hadn't considered what I'd do if the fox toward us instead of slinking away. I still don't think I would've considered it the enemy. Just another critter trying to establish its space in the world. But then I guess that's where enemies are born, right?

I leave my moral quandaries for another day. 

I wrote this poem a few days ago ... so will close with that tonight.

"A Walk at Dusk in Summer"

The dogs too long toe nails click on the pavement
To the rhythm of his panting
Tongue out long and lean.
My own breath, my own soft Converse footsteps on concrete,
These are constant
As we walk down the concrete sidewalk.
The cicadas in the trees rattle
Like thousands of pennies in thousands of tin cans
Crescendoing in and out.
The soloists join in than fade as we pass.
The songbirds tucking the day away.
The lawn mower resting and sputtering–
An old man clearing the phlegm from his throat.
The long roar of a jet engine. 
The dull whir of a car engine.
And faintly, the people on their porches
Or walking by saying hello
Saying the dog is nice.
I don't know what jazz is really.
But I think all this is jazz.
The mellow concert of a neighborhood at dusk.
This is the world's music.
The music we all make together.
Trees, bugs, birds, people
And on and on and on.
Once I hear it, I can't stop listening.
Which is good–
Because the music won't stop anyway.
And anyway, it's glad that I finally heard
My part in it.
While I don't know what jazz is, really
In this place I know being here right now
is instrumental
To the story. To the music. 
To the song we all play,
Whether or not we know it.
But it's time we start knowing it.


P.S. I left on my walk today feeling bummed that I hadn't updated the blog in a couple weeks and that I had no solid inspiration for this week. But as always with stories, they unfold at surprising times. I wrote this in spirit of E.B. White and for the love of prose and poetry. And walking at night. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Muddling through life as a white sheep and chronic cryer

My sister Laura likes to say that among my siblings, I am the lone white ewe in a family of black sheep. I often bristle when she says this– nobody wants to feel like the other, especially in their own family. But I understand where she's coming from. 

There's six of us– two boys and four girls. We've all struggled with depression and anxiety for most of our lives probably starting at adolescence (cuz that's a real pleasant time in everybody's life, right?) I think what Laura's getting at is that out of the six of us, I'm probably the most aggressively optimistic. 

I refuse to wave that white flag in the face of all the misery.

I am basically Eric Idle in "The Life of Brian" – but, like, earnestly.


Despite those periods when I kind of just want to hunker down in a hovel deep in the Canadian wilderness basking in my aloneness, I still dumbly pursue the idea that happiness is a possible thing in this life. I paint rocks, write poetry on the sidewalk, dance in my kitchen, sing in my car, wear ridiculous T-shirts, and always, always, always try to strike up conversations with children.  

I know, I know. I'm just my own form of crazy in a family of crazy. 

And I do find happiness– all moment to moment. But its right there.

That's what we all get. The moment to moment. It takes a lot of practice though. And inevitably, my inner black sheep shakes off its white coat (or is it that my white sheep puts on a black coat? Why would a sheep want to even wear any kind of coat when it's 90 degrees and muggy? Maybe it's not the color of the coat that's my problem– it's the fact that I'm wearing one at all! Is this a breakthrough?! It's not depression that's my problem, it's that I'm chronically overheated!)

Where were we?

Finding happiness? Inner peace? That's usually what I show up here to chat about. 

Anyway, I just worry that the natural resting place for my brain is depression. Like the natural resting place for my dog is sprawled on the couch. And the natural resting place for all the puzzle pieces for all the puzzles is all over the family room floor. And the natural resting place for Lily is strutting around the room and squawking like a chicken. And the natural resting place for Jovie is crying at me that Lily always gets to pick the first bedtime story every single night in the history of bedtime stories from the time the cave mom held a candle up the wall and told the story (uh-gain) about the time the dad killed a bison with a spear. 

What if depression is where I always land if I stop running on the hamster wheel? (Wait a minute, what if I'm actually a hamster? What if I'm not a sheep at all? But a hamster in white sheep's clothing in a family of black sheep!!!) 

Breakthrough No. 2 and I haven't even gotten to the point of this post. 

Over the years, I've done various self-portraits and various mediums (Partly because I'm a really vain hamster in white sheep's clothing and partly because in addition to being a wannabe novelist, I'm also wannabe artist.)

There's this one portrait I did back in my 20s, that I feel best illustrates how depression feels to me:


It's cardboard on cardboard. Beige on beige. Barely visible. 

And cuz it's hard to see via scan, here it is with some creepy under lighting.


It's really not any better that way. But then, depression doesn't really change based on the lighting.

What worries me about depression being my resting place is that this is who I am in the mirror and this is who I am to the world. Flat. Monochromatic. 

When I went to that retreat that I keep talking about, I was instructed to write a letter to my fear. Here's how mine started:

"Dear Susan, 
I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you. I am afraid I will be on antidepressants forever. I am afraid of being depressed forever. I'm afraid I won't be able to stop crying..."

There's more, but I'll stop there. Because that last line was the point of this post. Crying.

That I won't be able to stop crying. Because for me, Crying and Depression go hand-in-hand. They're like BFFs. Until antidepressants, that meddling third wheel, comes in and breaks them up. Suddenly, depression is given a little vacay and Crying? Crying is stuffed into a box and shoved into the back of a closet somewhere. 

And I suppose that means I can go about my day like a regular functional person and all, but the problem is Crying and I have a long complicated history. I feel more human when I cry. Less like the automaton antidepressants turn me into. 

"OK, Susan," you say. "What do you want? Do you want to cry or not? Do you want to stop being depressed or what? And also, are you a hamster or an automaton? I can't keep up. I thought this post was going to be all about sheep. Once again you sucked me into a black hole." 

What is this? The Inquisition? Enough already, various friends and strangers of the internet.

I don't want to be depressed forever. That's fear No. 2. And I don't want to cry forever. That's fear No. 3 and also highly impractical. I just want to feel like I can walk out in the world without antidepressants and be able to cry about the things that people cry about and not cry about the things that people don't normally cry about (like, say, the preview for "Ferdinand" or any commercial featuring newborns.) 

But now that I'm writing this, I have to wonder whether crying is really the problem. Maybe my crying isn't as closely linked to depression as I've assumed it is. Maybe crying just gets a bad rap around here. 

See, I've been a cryer for as long as I can remember. 

When we did those Acrostic poems in elementary school using our first names, I'm pretty sure I used "Sensitive" (code for cryer if I ever heard one) as my second "S" ... it might have even been the first "S". 

In fourth grade, I spilled chocolate milk all over my pants in the middle of the cafeteria (a story which I've probably shared here before because it was so traumatic) and immediately started crying out of embarrassment– which made the clinic aide think I'd actually peed my pants. I overheard her telling my mother over the phone all conspiratorial, "Well, she said she spilled milk on her pants, but I think she did you know what." This only made me cry more. Humiliating.)

In sixth grade I went to see "The Lion King" with a group of friends– one of whom I had an enormous crush on. I was holding hands with said crush (it was a pretty big deal) up until Scar killed Mufasa and made Simba think it was his fault, at which point I started bawling and needed to use the hand-holding hand to wipe away the copious amounts of snot and tears pouring out of my various face holes. 

I've tried to block out most of middle school for the same reason most of us block out middle school, I'm all but certain I cried in school. I definitely cried about school. And high school? Between multiple breakups, not making the staff of the school literary magazine, "The City of Angels" soundtrack and my stint of editor of the school paper – Let's just say there were too many teardrops for one heart to be crying. 

By the time I got to college, I had enough experience with all the tears to designate a crying spot (on a bench in the sculpture garden behind the art museum). 

I just sort of feel like I get big feels and they come out through my eyeballs and that's just who I am. And, unfortunately, I live in this world where that type of reaction about things big and small in public places is not ... I don't want to say accepted ... but maybe it's just that people don't know what to do with it. And I don't know what to do with it. 

Whether I'm out in the world and all the sudden a beautiful song comes on or I'm having a conversation with someone who's having a hard time in life, I just can't help tearing up. I feel it coming– the knotty throat and hot eyes and red nose– and I try to hold that shit in. But I don't think it's in me. I don't think that's who I am.

I think I run into plenty of other people like this– mostly women probably because as a society we've kind of decided men aren't allowed to cry. Which is probably creating all these little deaths within them and the rest of us. I feel kinship with these people, definitely. I feel less like a basket case. Like it's OK to wear my heart on my sleeve. I mean, it's gonna be there anyway, whether I like it or not.

I had to read that letter to fear out loud to a stranger at that retreat I went to. I was crying even before I started reading it, which I was mortified about, but also knew was kind of inevitable. The woman I shared it with- Kat from Boston– was so gracious and so kind. She told me right away she felt the same. She was taking antidepressants. She had worried she wouldn't be able to stop crying if she went off them. She was this really beautiful, successful person– she told me later she was a doctor– and it was such a relief that she related. 

My friend Kate keeps telling me I need to follow this writer Glennon Doyle Melton because she thinks I'd find some commonalities. She emailed this to me a while back:


I don't know if I'm any more deeply feeling than the average hamster, but this made me feel better about the crying thing. And it even makes me feel better about the depression thing. However the two are linked. It is a messy world damnit. And it'd be kind of insane not to have feelings about it, right?

And it's probably better to have a soggy, red face that's dealing with all the feelings than a monochromatic cardboard face that has just given up. 

And see, here I go again with my white sheepishness. Finding the silver lining in my depression and tearfulness. 

Pay no attention to that crazed crying woman behind the curtain. She's just being the person she was created to be.