January 1, ladders and roe

lunchComing back to our 700sq feet home as a family of five after an expansive sunny vacation is like parachuting into a gray November day from a bright one in June. You’re happy to have your feet back on the ground, it feels familiar and cozy and yet…crowded. Certainly there is too much stuff, and look: we’ve brought more back with us! Why are the book shelves already full? one wonders with a stack of new books in-hand.

It’s a puzzle to find a spot for everything, and the trick is to take pleasure in the solving of it. 

Over Christmas, my sister-in-law Hannah got me into this book Super Nutrition for Babies. I’m really grateful because reading it has been a wake up call for habits in our house. I find that you begin parenting saying to yourself my children will never order off a kid’s menu, or I’ll never buy kraft mac & cheese by the dozen and then things just happen. It starts to feel normal to have bags of animal crackers, pretzels, bread, and frozen waffles filling half your cart, or you get demoralized when they don’t fall in love with your roasted root veggies with horseradish on first kiss.

In particular, I was often offering Alma the same easy finger food as Joan: tossing pasta and fruit on her tray while I prepared a vegetable, only to find her full once I offered it.

So, after highlighting half the book on my kindle, I plowed into this week in full pursuit of a protein diet for the whole family, slipping lots of hard boiled eggs in (“here, eat this egg while I make you a sandwich”), keeping a steady supply of baked sweet potatoes in the fridge, and offering cheese or cold chicken for snacks. I made my first very tiny batch of bone broth. I poked around our seafood section for salmon roe for Alma, and I realized they sell white anchovies, a very mild and tasty fish, preserved in oil and vinegar, that all three girls love. I had never noticed it! I pestered our butcher counter and learned they tuck (incredibly cheap) frozen lamb liver and heart in nearly hidden spot in the freezer aisle.

I’m very glad to be shifting habits around in the pantry and refrigerator. These types of things are always followed by a briefly higher grocery bill, packing the wrong snacks, and lots more mental work. I’m trying to take it slowly and not be disappointed when change doesn’t come about with brilliant success. For instance, several times this week Lux ate nothing out of her lunch but the raw veggies I sent–all of the proteins (chopped chicken, container of yogurt) didn’t appeal to her by the lunch hour. 

Upon reflection, nourishing this family is probably THE hardest job I do. I’m often amazed at how much time it takes to plan, prep, feed, and clean up. Other times I realize how important it is, and try to take up my pantrykeeper mantle boldly. 

joan_swing

A rope ladder for Christmas, technically for Joan, but enjoyed by all three girls. Most of Joan’s play is imagination-based, she could pack a covered wagon full of salvaged post-it notes and beaded necklaces before you could say “cholera”, so it’s nice to have simple (mess-free) toys that facilitate her adventures as well.

a book in context

gingerbread_2016

I started the The Good Earth, published 1931 by Pearl S. Buck, mid-December in the two weeks after Joe’s brother died; wretched strange weeks when the girls and I were sick with one morphing virus, a flu-cold, flights were delayed, our planes home sat on the tarmac then skid into airports hours late, we seemed to tuck them into bed, fall asleep listening to them cough, and then drag them out again before the sun even bothered to wink awake.

At the memorial service for their uncle the girls crumpled with me in a back row in grumpy feverish moods, wiping their snotty noses over and over, hiding their flushed faces in their elbows as old friends of the family stopped to say hello. The service was beautiful but our children weren’t, a fact that both prickled our pride and seemed fitting. One family member dead and well remembered, the rest alive and hard to look at. Each morning I woke up expecting our hack-coughs to be emptied overnight, no. Meanwhile our hero Wang Lung gratefully accepted his morning bowl of hot water, in bed, served by his new wife just after she carefully stoked the fire and served another bowl to his father. 

Naturally there was no mention of Christmas on the pages of The Good Earth–though there is occasionally a fearful and fitful devotion to various gods, grabbing an incense stick when things seemed worrisome, cursing them loudly when things fell apart. Wang Lung’s marriage to O-lan is pragmatic, met with unexpected kismet and peace, yet there is still the unerasable impact of O-lan’s deprived childhood–the details of which are eluded to only vaguely. Wang Lung made no move, ever, to fix or soothe what had happened to her. Meanwhile I chased the girls with ointments of various types, devoting fifteen minutes to cajoling a smear on their red skin that was raw from their furtive side-wiping. The girls seemed to collectively give up eating, their proud young playground muscles almost immediately disappearing into knobby knees. At a certain point all three began to watch me as nothing but a kleenex threatening an attack on them. I fell into the role, really, it was almost impossible for me not track their snuffles and new symptoms with a graph chart.

Steadily I closed my senses to the american christmas hoopla around us that did not frame our Christmas this year at all. The sweet heaven-bound songs of the memorial service rang instead of carols, toast and soup replaced hot cocoa, sleeping late and watching movies, often oblivious to the accomplishment of festive traditions around us. Joe and I mostly looked at the girls, but when we managed to look at each other it was difficult to avoid the topic of missing Ross or preemptively imagining how sad this or that were going to be without Ross. Steadily Wang Lung remained devoted to his land, wholly disinterested in political events in his country and often oblivious to anything beyond the demands of his social structure. The narrative pours out like hot tea, the irony-free meditations faintly fragrant and soothing. Pearl Buck was the child of American missionaries, she held the duality of American and Chinese worlds in her mind, but she loved the Chinese one most, I think. Her flattering sketch of the countryside, the affectionate description of the “loaf of bread wrapped around a stick of garlic,” the laboring, planting, harvesting, well-earned resting that framed Wang Lung’s noble year. The pre-revolution farmer peasant world was harsh indeed, but you can tell she loved it. The GOOD earth. 

by the twentieth of August

note: I’ve simplified the comment form. it should be much easier to comment now–no need to log in. so sorry to you kind ones who’ve had troubles in the past.

In the morning one tiny ant bravely tugs a speck of bread off the table, in the afternoon there’s a carnival of them celebrating under the lavender planter, a feast of popcorn kernels and graham cracker sludge arranged around the edge like banners.

With three children about me now, the fun has accelerated. But so has everything else. Time is passing in a terrifying, groundless way. I have been given nothing but an accumulation of wonderful experiences and yet, I long for more. I long to exist inside of each day of the last five years at the same time.

Feeling cheated by the passing of time, I begin to feel cheated by everything. An experience not had. An afternoon that was not perfect. A recipe I haven’t made. A lake I’ve never swam in.

I am greedy for all of life’s pleasures; and it feels like I deserve them. I’m like a drunk bidding on eBay for the goods of carpe diem and all the auctions are ending tonight.

peach_crisp

It’s the baby Alma that’s rubbed off on me. “Babies are born hedonists” says the Happiness Scientist. The day was meant for pleasure. Skin is meant to be grazed. If we sit next to each other, she worms her way closer to me until our arms are brushing. There can never be too much stretching and grabbing. Nor too much napping. Nor staring into stranger’s faces, but only if they are pleasant or, we might say—handsome. Nor too much chewing on golden ripe slices of mango, with the peel attached. She is so certain that everything placed within in her field of vision is for her that she grabs at each new thing with authority. 

At night I try to organize files— I know I’m only going to stay awake for twenty minutes, why not do something purposeful and minute—and I click into a grainy near-dark video of my oldest playing peek-a-boo in Rome in front of the Pantheon. If the water was rippling in the right way, her face, at that age, would be a be a reflection of Alma’s. I feel that no time has past from then, and yet I finally got Lux to a dentist this week and she found cavities and examined me with a shocked expression that this was Lux’s first visit. From a certain tiny tooth’s perspective: five long years of decay!

Every year that has ever passed suddenly seems like too much. No more years, no more months, please. This must be women why become witches. Ever notice it’s always a woman who offers the chance to control time in those old fables? There was one I used to love—she gives out a glossy ball of string, it’s your lifetime wound up like a yo-yo. Tug it slightly and the moment will fly past, tug it more, and the year with a bad bully at school is over. No rewinding though, as our heroine soon learns.

I can’t seem to teach them enough, but then they mimic me and cry “look!” at every dropped leaf and I also wish they would be quiet. I want to read them books all day but I also wish they would stop banging the wall with their knees rhythmically while we do. They try. They forget. I wonder if I am as moody as they are; I think I might be.

We need no agenda, it seems just a shady tree would satisfy us all day. Then the next day, an agenda and lots to do. I rush them from pleasant spot to pleasant spot, feeling validated by the quick pace of our shoes on the sidewalk.

That First Year

on the occasion of our 8th anniversary

Rachael.Joe 

I remember the overwhelming satisfaction of moving into an apartment that was only for us. We firmly believed it was a perfect apartment. Each guest that came to visit, we waited for them to observe the perfection aloud (many of them instead noted the petite bathroom). The curtains we bought for the bedroom were the wrong color, the shelves Joe built in the kitchen were exactly right. The insanity of the wedding gifts, how amazing all those things were! We were given a beautiful, enormous wooden salad bowl that June. I found it bizarrely large, couldn’t seem to fit in anywhere in our apartment, couldn’t imagine making a salad that large, and I returned it.

Now, age-old-like-cheese me, longs for an enormous wooden salad bowl.

I don’t remember the quarrels, but I remember we had them and that they seemed Very Serious. Perhaps it is age (again) but based on how rarely they happen now, I feel sure they were nothing but the mumbo-jumbo of believing all of your emotions deserved to be said aloud.

It must have taken a year, maybe two, to discover was how to motivate each other. There’s a theory that you give the type of love you hope to receive (debatable), but certainly you encourage in the way that encourages…you. For me that is soft phrases implying the work has already been finished, I need only to do a bit more to dust it off. Even better if it is implied that the work doesn’t need to be done at all, but if I cared to, well then, it would be nice. For Joe, what wakes him up in the morning are stark roadmaps that give way to how much still needs to be accomplished. The sight of a nearly-burned-out building, for him, is just the thing to set to work on.

The metaphor carries easily to housework—I keep up with tasks like clean countertops, a full fridge, and the constant reincarnation of dirty dishes. Joe prefers overhauling the bathroom or vacuuming the entire apartment after five wool blankets were dragged over the carpet.

But mostly I bring up encouragement in the meaningful adult sense—ideas you want to pursue, important shifts in your habits, projects at work, projects for yourself. Encouraging each other in these areas is one of the best elements of marriage.

My parents asked us to take a financial course within our first year of marriage. The sessions ironed out most wrinkles in our mental wardrobe of crumpled habits. (We had revealed a few subliminal expectations already through reading the book Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts which suggested asking about things like do you always order dessert? and, when you stop for gas, do you buy a snack? The book is not amazing, but it did have its moments.) The course encouraged a joint bank account, something that we would have done anyway. It required that we document, on paper, all spending for three months. First month: document. Second month: document, set a goal, but go easy on the slip-ups. Third month: document, set a goal, do your very best to reach it.

We tracked ours on a small library card tacked to the fridge, his and her handwriting marking small deductions by turn. When you do that you encounter the thrill of marking down something you were excited to buy together, but also the sapping drag of a purchase already you wished you’d skipped. Three digit bills seem enormous, but endless tiny ones add up as well. Without noticing, you began to value the days you didn’t have to write anything down.

I remember grocery shopping and not knowing what to buy; me in the aisle with my hand hovering before a box of crackers wondering do we both like these?

I wanted to be impressive in my capacity to cook well, but spend little. But I believed true couples’ cooking was Cook’s Illustrated recipes—expensive meals, perfectly executed, preferably heavy on the carbs. I wanted to make only new things. It took us a year, at least, to pin down that we usually wanted to eat different things. Joe wanted chicken breast and a vegetable. I wanted four cheese pasta. We both wanted tomato egg sandwiches, caramels from the shop around the corner now and then, and in the summer–peaches and cottage cheese for dinner.

(Though I remember cooking a garlicky shrimp pasta from the tomes of Cook’s Illustrated for a classmate of Joe’s. And as he ate, he sighed and quietly said, like a restaurant.)

a photo an hour

morning7am Alma is up after waking at 11pm last night and 3am this morning. I bring her to the kitchen so she doesn’t wake Joe up, and make tea, one lump sugar, for myself. It’s already snowing, and looking up from our windows, the flakes look enormous.

7:15 Joan appears, sleepy, cuddly, and anxious for cereal. Once we sit down together, she doesn’t eat and just wants to talk. Joe finishes her bowl after she abandons it twenty minutes later.

8:30 Lux wakes up like a languorous lion in the afternoon sun. For the millionth time I note to myself that this time next year, she’ll already be in school. For better and for worse, I think.

8:45 Joe leaves for work. He’s taking the train instead of biking because of the snow.

9:40 We read several Richard Scarry stories on the couch while I nurse Alma. There is a brief standstill when Joan refuses to trade the middle seat when it is Lux’s turn to hold the book. Pondering her sullen mood I remember neither of them have eaten breakfast yet. We decamp to the kitchen for them to eat together.

beach_scene
 11 While I’m doing the breakfast dishes, an elaborate beach scene has been set-up involving at least twenty items from their room. Fortunately other areas of the living room are still clear. I put Alma on the floor to listen to their storytelling.

I begin making Ina’s Weeknight Bolognese for dinner.

doctor12 I was thinking about offering lunch but the girls are still completely engaged in their game. Beach has turned into doctor. I pick up Alma and wrap her up for her nap.These days I never expect her to sleep more than 30 minutes, but at least she always wakes up refreshed.

pasta

12:10 I remember the simmering pasta sauce and check it. Smells so good I want to eat it immediately. Thank you God for sending Ina Garten to this earth.

art_room

12:20 They’ve moved the doctor’s office into the art room. So now it is silent in the kitchen, which is a nice treat. Walking past with a pile of clothes to put away, I hear them sing “blah blah black sheep.” Lux leads the song and Joan repeats everything she says, a half note behind her.

I’m all for art projects but as far as today’s room-tidy-tally the living room is super messy, their room looks like a elephant went through and knocked everything to the floor, and the art room will definitely be trashed. But I’ve still got my room and the kitchen!

12:30 I put on water for hard boiled eggs for the girls and find a leftover burrito in the fridge. I sit on one of the girl’s chairs since my chair is still part of the beach scene in the living room and page through a New Yorker. I used to read this magazine cover to cover but now I just pick one or two articles to keep up with each week.

Alma

12:40 Call to the girls and ask if they’re ready for lunch. “I’m still finishing my monster.”

If I could take a selfie right now, it would be me leaning against the doorway frame of our room, listening to Alma grunt and settle, trying to decide if she’s going to fall back asleep or is up for good.

1pm Hop online and look at my sister’s beautiful recipe for tabbouleh. I want to make it for my friend this Friday. Frown. Why did she sub in quinoa for bulgur?? I’m definitely not doing that.

But I will take this tip about adding sliced almonds.

Hunt for Lux’s ballet stuff in her room. Find some half eaten jelly beans. Possibly this is why “the kitchen mouse” as we call him has been seen headed to their room lately. I discretely bundled up a bunch of things to throw away as I walk out, hiding them behind my leg as I walk past the art room. I set all her ballet stuff by the door.

lunch

1:15 I finally tell the girls they have to stop playing and come eat. The hardboiled eggs are perfectly done, nine minute eggs, but of course neither of the are eating “the yellow parts” these days and miss the beauty of that. Fortunately I am eating them!

I make a cup of tea so I have something to keep me seated with them while they eat. Too often I hop around the kitchen when they’re eating, which doesn’t make for good conversation or time together.

outside
 1:30 Take a photo out the window and begin to get ready to leave with gusto. Strew the girls’ coats and boots in front of the door so they understand what’s expected and don’t try to pull out their “cozy” coats that are useless at keeping them warm.
1:45 Wake up Alma and nurse her. Pull on her wool sweater, socks, booties, and hat. I put on my ergo and clip on the winter-weather cover that my friend Lisa gave me. It’s fleece lined and will keep her toasty without a bulky jacket.
2pm Take the elevator downstairs and make it outside as scheduled!
outdoor_cover
 2:01 Take first steps down the sidewalk and realize Lux forgot her backpack containing her ballet shoes, and somewhat mysteriously, a stuffed turtle. Walk back to the lobby and send Lux up to get the backpack. Joan demands to stay in the alley by herself, which is fine with me.
2:10 Ten minutes later. Joan? I call out. I see a sliver of her hat tip through the doorway into the garden. “Everything ok?” I call. The sliver barely nods, then disappears again. I guess everyone is enjoying their alone time right now.
2:15 Fifteen minutes after she first went up, Lux reappears. “I realized I had to go to the bathroom!” Count myself lucky I wasn’t there for the removal and reapplication of her coat, snow pants, leotard, tights, and undies.
walking
2:40 As expected, eating snow and stomping snow is really slowing us down. But the snow is so darn beautiful! I decide that even if we miss class, it was worth it for the long walk alone.

waiting_for_the_train3pm As expected, the trains are delayed. Lots of people are waiting when we arrive, and we have to wait for ten minutes. Even more people are waiting now. When we get on, two people give up their seats for the girls and both girls immediately start to whine about not being able to see out the window from those seats. Given the twenty adults currently standing, I attempted to silence them with my eyes and mentally add train manners to the list of manners we are currently working on.

3:08 We get off the train. As we wait for the line of Able and Capable Adults to climb the stairs first, I briefly lecture them on the etiquette of train thanking and gratefulness. A guy waiting to go up the stairs says “y’all are the cutest thing I’ve seen all day.” “Yeah,” mumbles the grad student behind him. Thanks, man!

3:15 Three grand staircases later, we are on time for class. Confetti should fall from the ceiling to celebrate this accomplishment, but instead Lux gives us hugs and kisses and Joan and I just walk downstairs.

3:30 Downstairs in the dance hall lobby. Joan laments for the 6th time since Christmas that there are no free fortune cookies downstairs anymore. “Why no treats here today?” I remind her this was a Christmas thing.

3:45 Joan and I walk to the library nearby. I talk with my friend Melissa who is also waiting for her daughter’s class. Her sweet daughter Verity attempts to share a book with Joan. I look over to see Joan respond by sprawling on the floor like a dead spider, staring at the ceiling. Melissa and I continue to enjoy our conversation about kindergarten and upcoming 5k races. Fifteen minutes of adult conversation adds a lot to my day.

walking

4:30 Waiting for the crosswalk after the train home, the cars are roaring through the slush. The girls seem to often choose these moments to ask me elaborate questions, all while facing forward. It is impossible for me to hear them. I respond like myself in sixty years, yelling “What? What? You have to look at me for me to hear you!!”

Alma is over being in the carrier but it’s still going to take us 30 minutes to walk. Oh well.

girls
5:10 Home. I realize my feet are freezing from the walk. Joan is so, so proud that she isn’t cold. I had no idea she noticed that she is usually cold, but Lux and I are not. Today, she wins. I take the pan of sauce out of the fridge and put it on the stove. I add a pot of water to boil for the pasta.
quiet_time
5:30 The girls angle for what we call “quiet time together,” something that sometimes happens on days when Joan doesn’t nap, which means they both get ipads for 30 minutes (usually just Lux gets an ipad for 30 minutes while Joan naps). I settle onto the couch with dear Alma who has been so patient and is so hungry, and give them the thumbs up.
alma
6:15 Joe gets home, hooray! Bolognese is heated up. Pasta noodles are boiled. There is a box of white wine in the fridge. Dinner!
dinner

6:30 The girls eat almost nothing but talk animatedly to Joe about their day. It’s clear the after-dance snack of Milano cookies on the train has filled them up. Or maybe I just over filled their bowls? They both opt to eat a few carrots, Joe and I excuse them and enjoy our dinner. Alma sits in her little blue bouncy chair on the floor, smiling whenever someone looks at her. Or maybe she’s often smiling, but we just aren’t looking. The only time she cries is when she’s tired, hungry, or in a quiet room by herself.

7pm Joe motivates teeth brushing and pajamas to be followed by reading in their room. They are deep into the Chronicles of Narnia’s The Silver Chair, which is one of the ones I didn’t read as a kid. I disappear into our room with Alma to nurse her, swaddle her, and then I fall onto our bed listening to her fall asleep.

Note: I always enjoyed reading these types of posts back when I had just one baby and wondered what the future looked like. It feels strange now, almost misleading, to pick a day and write it up, because every day really feels so different. This was a day when I woke up feeling rested because I went to bed early, and the girls got along wonderfully, but the next day–Tuesday–they wanted to be in the same room with me the whole day, and I barely had a moment to myself!

Paternity Leave

The truth is I fantasized about Joe’s leave for weeks beforehand. The more my knees buckled under pregnancy, the more I dreamed of the Prince Charming arriving by white chariot/stroller. Was there any situation that wouldn’t be readily fixed by the addition of two handsome hands? I doubted it. All I had to do was have the baby, and paradise would arrive.

In the very last weeks before the baby came, I found myself deeply done with my current children. I’m not sure if that’s part of the rapid hormonal heart-shuffle before a new baby arrives but the way room in my heart was made for a new child was this: I became very satisfied with the extent that I had raised my current children, and I was ready to pass them on to better hands. Anyone’s hands, really, so long as they were open. Had a boarding school for preK called at that point, I probably would have sent them. “They love carrots,” I would have scribbled on the submission form as I cheerfully waved goodbye for a month, or six.

After Alma was born, of course, my true feelings re-appeared and I was overwhelmed with pride at how amazing and incredible they two were. Was it too much to say they were the best humans to ever exist? my addled brain wondered. No, it was not.

In a bizarre, nearly other-worldly, turn of events, Joe was able to take eight weeks of paternity leave from his job after Alma was born. It was the longest amount of time Joan and Lux had ever had with him in their lives. It happened as a result of Alma’s birth, but really it was a way for us to parent in a way we hadn’t before, and a window of time to regain our balance after the disruption of a new baby.

It absolutely flew by for all of us.

As I look back over it, a few thoughts occur to me about what we learned/loved/lost…

learned: stop the interrupting starfish

Have you heard the joke about the interrupting starfish? Ideally no, because the gist of the joke of is being interrupted. It’s a hardy-har-har refresher on how annoying that is. On paternity leave Joe and I realized we were raising a fledgling stock of interrupting starfish, and frequently we weren’t even bothering to correct them. We would look at each other over their heads, one of us biting our lip mid-story, and shrug. Most of our weekly conversation seemed to happen over dinner, at which point I was too tired to deliberately pause the interrupters, and anyway, my ear seemed more tuned to their pleas than Joe’s voice.

On his leave, because we were together so much more and noticed that the interrupting had become a serious and troubling habit, we got our game back. “Dad is telling me a story.” “Shhh I’m listening to Dad.” “Dad was talking.”

They still interrupt, but now they’re accustomed to us stopping them immediately, and there’s no eyes-wide-brimming-with-insulted-tears. Just finished conversations.

learned: the home office doesn’t work

Oh the home office. Long have I fantasized about the perfect life, with Joe somehow working at home, and interacting with the girls all day. It seemed so plausible and perfect. Then Joe actually did try to work at home and it drove us both crazy. I really couldn’t stand the sight of him typing away at the computer, headphones in place, as noisy chaos built around me. “Go ahead darling, get some work done.” Five minutes later…”Hello?! I could use some help here!”

And it made no sense to the girls. They couldn’t tell when he was working, and when he was open to being recruited for a game or going outside.

We quickly realized it was far better for him to be out of the space for a couple hours. And me handling the situation myself, chaotic as it was. I stopped day dreaming about home offices, and started appreciating all he got done while he was away. Then he came home, and I got to take a break.

loved: it’s just as blissful to coparent as you’ve imagined 

That said, when Joe was home with me, not trying to work, but home with me for more than just a weekend, it was wonderful. It felt like we had kids and we were dating again. We took shifts with the girls. They did adventures outdoors. I napped with Alma. We made lunch together. I said things like “I can’t help with that because I have no free hands, but Dad can!” We lounged over our coffee cups. We did errands with just one or two children at our heels. We got deep into conversations and cheerfully shushed the girls when they tried to stomp in. Yes, it was bliss.

loved: kids, they’re fun

What Joe experienced can be summed up as: kids, they’re fun. Joe got to experience the humor and joy of discussing the exact same topic from different perspectives for five days in a row. He got to catch spiders and bring them outside. Go for a walk and stomp on snow piles. Go to a museum, then go to a candy store on the way back. He got to memorize constellations and read good books aloud. The girls become less mysterious: he understood what they meant when they used their strange monosyllabic giggle language. He understood why they had an unexpected meltdown at 5pm, because he saw them sprinting back-and-forth at 11am, and having vehement disagreements at 2pm.

They become less stressful: they all three got to wake up late, leave late, and stay late because they were having fun, and none of that mattered because no one was trying to get anywhere anyway.

lost: and yet, even with all that help many things still went wrong… 

There were some nights when I become convinced that Lux and Joan had eaten nothing but candy and cookies for the last week. I tried to recall the last green thing they had eaten, and failed. Lux went to ballet class without her hair in a bun and she was the only lonely kid whose parents forgot it was Parent Watch week. I missed my six week postpartum check-up. I told my pediatrician I ordered a Vitamin D supplement for Alma and that was a lie. I still haven’t ordered it. Even though we were both on-duty all day, we often collapsed on the couch after bedtime just the same. The capitalist in me frowned at the fact that with twice the labor working at the same job, we ended up with double the exhaustion. “Bedtime” actually just means they are in their room with the door closed–still chatting, still playing, not tucked in whatsoever.

 

 

long form, a book

cards

I know it has been quiet here. I’m keeping material in the editing box because I’d like to tease some of my work into essays, and put the essays into a book. A book like…three children and a year in Boston. Something of an ode to the city, children, a journal of seasons in Boston, mentions of good food and long baths. Baby’s first year–the brand newness of life with an infant–but also that soft repetitive joy and heartache of older children.

What I write becomes so much better and richer if I edit it and return to it. I still enjoy this space so much, I’m not abandoning it! But at this stage, it feels like it’s worth a try. I have so many thoughts scribbled in my notebook, written in fury, or contentment, or frustration, or delight. It will be satisfying to coach them into something.

If I could combine some of my heroes, and their sentences that warm me up no matter what–the writing would be like Nicholson Baker, Nigel Slater, Lauren Winner, and Catherine NewmanTrue, imaginative, buoyant, refreshing are the words I’d love to evoke.

If things occur to you that you hope I write about–I often have that moment with other writers, oh I hope she talks about this–email me please! Readers really have a sense for these things.

xo

Somethings can root in the cold

The baby is coming in December, but December is coming first. The calendar is a scribbled caricature of bustling—evening parties, teas at hotels, a Nutcracker performance for Lux, gingerbread house decorating, some warm dinners, and cold mornings (me watching) Joe and Lux ice skate. I hope to visit the local libraries for their shelves of Christmas books, bake salt dough ornaments, help the girls memorize a few carols, find a Christmas pageant to attend, burn some balsam-scented candles, and eat a lot of kale (just got my low iron results back, whoops).

It’s a funny thought that five years ago, pre-kids, I didn’t do any of those things. And eight years ago, when Joe proposed to me in the Garden, it was my first Christmas in Boston. My holiday participation was downstairs to the city’s upstairs, a la Downton Abbey. I helped everyone else celebrate and made some money for my employer along the way.The night Joe proposed, we went to the Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church in Copley Square. It was glorious cozy service, the pews were full with families parading in wrapped in cashmere and wool. It was briskly cold outside, snow was predicted, and very warm inside.

Trinity has old-fashioned bracketed church pews, the type weathly families rented for a few thousands dollars and some prestige back in the day. Nestled between Joe and an old wooden bolster, lulled by the choir and the incensed air, I fell asleep. I had been at the flower store where I worked all day, dashing about tripping on loose red berries and roughing my hands on sticky fragrant evergreen wreaths. I wrapped up hostess gifts, wrote down delivery orders (as a midwesterner, it took me months to memorize the funny pronunciations of all the New England towns), sold brilliant arrangements for tablescapes, and tied everything up festively before it left our doors.

Anyway, I fell asleep at the service, Joe woke me up when it was over, we walked home through the Garden which was lit with white lights, Joe proposed in the snow along the edge of the duck pond and gave me a beautiful perfect ring that was slightly too big. The next day was Christmas, we went out to breakfast, went for a walk, called our families, and relaxed together. I had to work the day after, and that was that for Christmas.

The flower store was beautiful but like any retail-level worker, I was on my feet for 100% of the day, never getting two days off in a row, with no predictability from week to week. If people were going to teas and tree lightings, I didn’t notice. Working at that store was to be surrounded in beauty all the time, though it was beauty that was in various stages of demise. The flowers were dying as soon as we unpacked them from their boxes overnighted from the Netherlands.

To sell a fully open flower was viewed as déclassé, an embarrassment. Arrangements should have many teasing buds waiting to open, with just a few that were open enough to brighten the whole thing. I never attached to the South African amaryllis, the deeply red flowers that arrived in December with droopy unopened buds on each side of their tall celery-like stalks. And I grew to hate the strange truth that poinsettias liked sunshine and warmth—everything our New England winter didn’t offer. Any poinsettas put near the door of the shop would weaken and whither as each customer burst in with a freezing gust of air. Why was a tropical flower being heralded here anyway, I would grouse when we were forced to throw out another dead plant. Right outside there were snow-dusted holly branches glossy and dotted with red berries, deeply green evergreen boughs, pale blue juniper berries, and hearty wooden pine cones that sucked in the cold and relished it.

photos from last year’s holiday season. 

your trip

Adulthood is when you make your own vacations and decide what they will be from the beginning. So much about vacation is inherited or shared with family, which is a great thing. But it’s nice to see the thing that evolves when you decide to make your own vacation. Book it, schedule it, pay for it, anticipate it all yourself.

We caravanned up after first stopping at the Palace Diner just outside of Portland, where we stop as often as we can and have astounding good meals. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Palace Diner, the thing that leaves you dazed when you finally wander out, is that their menu appears very standard when you read it through, other than canaries like brown butter banana bread and caramelized grapefruit listed casually under SIDES. Their french toast is listed on the menu as challah french toast, no details added, but once it is set in front of you, you realize the two enormous square pieces have been bruleed, and the crust cracks as you cut into it, the eggy custard of the challah softening around the crisp dark caramelized pieces. But it’s also the type of place where you swear to yourself that next time you’ll order lunch, as you watch the waitress place a triple decker burger or a lush freshly-made-tuna melt in front of someone down the bar.

David and I texted about the meals a little bit ahead of time. We stopped at Whole Foods in Portland on the way up and already had a good list in mind before we got there. Joe and I lived with David during one of our summers on Nantucket, he and I often traded off who made dinner, along with our other roommate Pete. Years later I still have a good idea of what type of thing he enjoys cooking–namely impromptu, very satisfying dinners, tossed together with experience savvy instead of a recipe. And he knows I can manage a more complicated dish using my obsessive devotion to recipes. We spent an enormous amount on supplies for the week, splitting the groceries between us. That was perfect because it left us able to make pretty much anything—squash pie, mussel and bean soup, meaty spaghetti, biscuits and gravy, fresh whipped cream, pie crust—once we were up there. We got take-out one time from the local burrito spot, but all the rest of our meals we made together in the big kitchen.

You know, I’ve started buying those tubes of Immaculate Baking Co. cinnamon rolls and they are just stunningly good. I’ve made cinnamon rolls from scratch, and I don’t think it is worth it when you can have these ready in 20 minutes with your eggs. And I’ve certainly had much worse tasting cinnamon rolls bought fresh from bakeries. Treat yourself.

Dave made fresh pasta noodles and Joe carved a pumpkin to look just like Darth Vader, as Lux had hoped. I bought ribeye steaks for Joe’s birthday, salted and peppered and unwrapped them when we got to the house, and let them age for two days in the fridge. I’m not accustomed to ordering $70 worth of meat from the meat counter, but when four people get to settle down to an amazing steak dinner, it all becomes clear. I did that steak house trick of putting a stick of butter on a plate, flinging salt at it, piling shredded parmesan and chopped parsley on it and then mashing it together until it was one pale green flecked soft pile of butter. We put half loaves of baguette on the grill for a few minutes and then spread all the amazing butter magic over it.

After a couple nights of watching us eat mussels, the girls realized they too loved mussels, loved plucking out the small cooked creature out and flinging the empty shells into the bowl with a tiny clang. Lux ate faster than everyone and adapted a strange third person request, “Any more mussels for Luxy?” eyeing the plates of the adults with desire. I stopped giving her the mussel broth because she wasn’t using it, and we all added more unplucked shells to her pile.

I cannot get over how it feels to wake up in the trees. With tree branches fully surrounding you, like you’ve been suspended in a soft down blanket of pine boughs. Our room was freezing when we woke up each morning. Of the four cabins, the girls’ cabin has the best insulation, and for the the three other cabins, the adults wake to a room that is fully 45 degrees. No matter if you made a fire at midnight, no matter if you plugged in the supposed space heater. If your arm snuck out while you were sleeping, it now feels like a different entity from your body, and you tug it back under the blankets with alarm.

We told the girls to knock on their cabin door when they wanted us to come get them in the morning. It was the first time they shared a double bed. Welcome to your vacation setup for the rest of your life! I wanted to say to them, thinking of the hundreds of beds my sister and I shared growing up. Joan probably woke Lux up earlier than she otherwise would have, but it was swooningly sweet to watch them snuggle in together each night. Joe has been reading Lux The Hobbit (in fact, they’re on their second read-through of it) so he would build a fire and then read them nearly to sleep each night. Then we would wake to the sound of their chipper knocks pounding on the glass across the deck from us. Joe would bound out of bed, out from the warm covers and into the freezing room, to go check on them. A funny switch-up, as of the two of us, he usually wakes the slowest back in Boston. I would force myself to change into some of my stiff freezing clothes, pick out some warm clothes for them to put on, and then we all tramped over to the main house together. The main house has the kitchen and the living room, and the coffee maker!, and is fully heated.

It was so wonderful to have the company of two non-parents, two people who could comment on the weather, the day, the water, and make plans for general amusement. Two people who haven’t rote-memorized the strange rhythms of their children’s moods and begun to anticipate them at certain times of day with vague dread. Probably the best part was the presence of two adults who wanted to play board games after bedtime or tell old stories, instead of slump on the couch as Joe and I typically do. It was really good to watch the girls play and scheme with someone else who could delight in them. Not to mention help them craft face masks, help them climb rocks, help them get a snack, answer a question.

As for the four of us, the adults, there were times when it felt like—oh yeah, college! Here we are, just kids, we’re all the same and together again. And other times when I felt so different and far away from them, the three men—I’m not drinking, not smoking an occasional celebratory cigarette, not skinny-dipping into the ocean jumping from the sharp rocks, not staying up late into the night to watch stars fall. I’m sleepy and oversized, preoccupied and awaiting the next small child’s request, remembering the soft tang of whiskey with bemusement, remembering the self indulgent rush of a nicotine drag with, well, I can’t remember it at all anymore. It’s been so long; maybe five years? I’m grumpy for no reason other than persistent thud of a small heel against my rib cage. The girls are mine and they cling to me when they’re sleepy, and want me to hold their hand, and arrange their food, and nod in affirmation every single time when they say they need to go potty. you don’t need me to do this, anybody can do this for you, I think to myself here and there, but it’s not really true, is it? Not true in the satisfying nearly trademarked way that mom does it. And the next girl is mine too, and I think about her when I make almost any decision for my day. It was that time, 31 weeks. She’s gone from a quiet swimmer to a nearly omnipresent tangle of limbs, waking me up with her flips and kicks, settling into odd positions that makes my abdomen feel like a couch too full of elbows.

But there’s also that male-ambition thing? The thing that stirs men to memorize long ballads so they can play them at the foot of stone towers? To chop and haul wood, build warm fires, frame houses over their families heads? That infects them with the idea to teach themselves to fix a car when there is a mechanic just down the road? Meanwhile I’m puttering around, baking bread from the exact same recipe I’ve used 300x times? I don’t play an instrument, and I didn’t attempt to memorize the lyrics to Lava, as they did (pixar, look it up, it’s cute). I didn’t want to. I probably could have jumped into the ocean, had I told Joe I wanted to and asked him to stay with the girls. But I didn’t want to. What I’m saying is–don’t feel too sorry, or fall too much for my oh if only. And, I suppose, I was a little jealous of their drive and adventurous ambition? I picked up Annie Dillard’s The living while there, a novel of many stories framed around the families who settled the pacific northwest. What were they doing there? Women watching their children die from various freak threats, is what it felt like to me. It’s obvious the glass on my maternal goggles is rather dense right now, that I can’t even read a historical novel without being nearly flattened by the idea that these people risked their children’s lives for a new adventure.

I made a pie from this squash. It’s quite a satisfying thing to take a hearty heavy vegetable, so thick you can barely cut it in half with a knife, roast it until it’s weak, then blend with all sorts of good things and turn it into a dessert. Great recipe right here.

The post about last year in Deer Isle, plus some area rental suggestions.

so much

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It is an oft-bemoaned thing among city mamas to be overscheduled. There are so many great things to do with your kids both in Boston, and especially this time of year, outside of Boston. As a stay at home mom, I look at a calendar with a line of empty days with trepidation. Too much alone time, is what those little blanks say to me. A friend of mine is transitioning out of her job into staying at home. She told me she wasn’t planning on doing anything with her daughters for six months. “We are definitely just going to hang out,” she said. This sounded nice to me, but the first thing that popped into my head was I’m usually tired of sitting around our apartment by 10am. Thus–activities.

If summer was a light bright picnic plate of glimmering beach afternoons and ice cream cone treats, autumn in New England is a hardy gift basket of tempting treats. The pleasant drop in temperature, paired with the hazy memory of the bitter cold that is only a couple weeks away, is very energizing.

But last week I managed to plan four things–country fair, leaf gathering, midwife appointment, Bible study–we needed to drive to, in addition to three classes for Lux, all three of which I chose to drive to. It was just silly and altogether too much. Each activity itself was delightful, but we were all three weary of car seat buckles, glancing at watches, and as we walked to the car, wondering why we weren’t sitting on the grass somewhere, watching the clouds go by. The girls are at amazing stage of entertaining themselves (maybe it’s not a stage! maybe it’s the future from here on!) and I often have to connive them to walk away from their games, get dressed, and get outside in time for our dates.

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This act, the conniving wheedling c’mon let’s goo!, is making me feel slightly less anxious about the inevitable lock-down that I know is coming in January and February. Instagram accounts can work as a wonderful datebook, and I took a moment to look back through the photos after Joan was born (which feels quite firmly like it was ten years ago) and the photos from last winter’s snowy January/February/March. I don’t see those worlds colliding smoothly. The girls will be bored and house-trapped this winter, there’s no denying it.

It’s a little like farming I guess. Frantically harvest the fields, the trees, the garden. Abound in beauty and production. Then stay inside for months and shuffle around your root cellar looking for a squash dinner.