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.