moving city

porch_lights

We are apartment hunting which has me deeply nostalgic for our current apartment even as we live here for a few more months. Reminiscing the present is like writing a greeting card to yourself every morning when you wake up. Things become overwrought with significance.

It was originally our landlord’s idea, but once he suggested it, it felt right to us too. Comparing us to us back at our apartment tour, we now feel just a percentage too big, maybe 15%.

Four years, two infancies in our bedroom, a few rooftop drinks, lots of sleeping-in with light blazing onto our pillows (the eastern reach of the eastern time zone), watching rain fall over the park from the windows, watching the tops of the trees change from flowers to leaves. Actually, much of life lived through the windows, often open on both sides like a railroad car, like a porch you happened to enclose with brick walls and place sixty feet in the air.

Joan helping me in the kitchen, Lux in the bathtub, listening to The Last Battle, the sound of the narrator’s British accent coming through the door over her light splashing.

Lux watching the Hancock Tower’s weather beacon visible from her window and reciting the code to us as if it contained predictive magical powers: “Steady blue, clear view. Flashing blue, clouds due. Steady red, rain ahead. Flashing red, snow instead.”

The mice, a revolving chain of them, heedless of the abrupt disappearance of their elders.”I just saw something scamper in the kitchen, it looked like a bird, but I think it was a mouse.”

Four years with just a bathtub for bathing (such a lovely old fashioned word), fun years where I mentally added shower to the amenities I would enjoy on vacation, even when we were just staying over at a friend’s house for the night.

It’s hard to leave a stage you still love.

window_you

Because we still love it, we have become persnickety rental hunters. We have no interest in replicating our space, we want everything we’ve loved so far, but more! Small, quirky, south facing windows, wood burning fireplace, pets welcome, heat & hot water included, washer & dryer, quiet at night, a real patio, wood floors, same fifteen minute commute for Joe. Because this Christmas list continues to be a hopeful prayer of mine I will avoid blasé language, but suffice to say Boston’s rental market is not in the business of making dreams come true.

Around this time of year I often visit friends with yards, kiddie pools, sidewalks, climbing trees, front porches, and extra bedrooms, and I have to stifle my awe of it all. Act natural like them. They shrug at the grandeur, “well, we’re thinking of re-doing the kitchen.” Their children totter from thing to thing, express boredom, ask for snacks. I become overwhelmed by the probability that my children would act the very same way in such circumstances, instead of turning into joyful competitive cyclists or champion swimmers like I secretly imagine.

(that said, I affirm any dissatisfactions with space, no matter how much of it. Having looked at approximately two hundred real estate listings, I believe we can say that space does not equal human comfort–comfort typically found in things like light that pools on the floor, windows that open, hearing your family while you cook, a room looking clean after you’ve cleaned it, the way a wall can expand a room instead of dividing it.

Is it odd or totally natural to experience deep identity crisis with a new home? Why are we as humans always leaning into things to make them who we are. Must your clothes, job, children, home, aspirations, facebook profile remind you of your value?

Naturally the girls hate the idea of moving. Like a loyal friend, they sing the praises of our current space  (“Isn’t it so quiet on this street Mom?”), brush over the negatives or simply don’t see them (“I don’t want to say this out loud around anyone because I might hurt their feelings, but we live on the top floor.”)

You could make the argument that fertility is arranging this need for a new apartment. We have outgrown it. It worked for the 3rd infancy, but with all five of us walking now, it feels clumsy; the enforced minimalism more insistent than we want it to be.

Fertility can seem like a moving walkway that keeps turning me into new things and handing me things–infancy, baby, kindergarten, drop off and pick up, doctors appointments, feeling late a lot, nights on zappos analyzing miniature sandal straps, grocery lists peppered with apples and peanut butter jars, afternoons that begin when I pack the snacks and end with a bowl of tuna fish between us on the floor, me scooping spoonfuls into their mouths.

To some extent I feel like an active participant, in others, like leaving this apartment, I feel like decisions were made by some other creature.

 

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. 

Grinching triumph

Joan_fields“I know why the Grinch doesn’t like Christmas. Because his Sister Grinch died. And SHE was the one who wrapped all the presents and bought the pumpkins. She was the one who put up the lights. He can’t do it because he’s at work all day and he’s TIRED. That’s why he doesn’t like Christmas.”

-Joan, zeroing in on the near-Grinch lurking in all of us.

Things have felt mystifyingly terrible since that foolish and violent man was elected. It even feels hard to pray for, or hard to know where to begin with my prayers. The young soldiers who will soon be sent to more wars? The terminally sick who so-briefly had insurance that will be shoved off again? The companies that will move to other countries where skilled workers are accepted, regardless of their nationality? The police brutality that will unfold? Funny how things that feel very close and fragile can feel the hardest to pray for. Like it’s too risky for me to acknowledge how worried I am.

My friend suggested we start reading up on the resistance movement in world war II. (Here I always think of a favorite story of Norwegian citizens hopping on skiis and cleverly skiing in to disable a hydroelectric plant.) Joe’s family is Mennonite, a religious group that’s been quietly disagreeing with the government for years–deeply pacifist; attempting to redirect their taxes away from the military defense, devoted to issues of social justice and the marginalized. The idea of actively and consistently fighting with your government is not a new one. But it sounds mighty tiring. Though, I sort of fell in love with the idea of political PARTIES mentioned here.

Still, the hearth keepers must carry on, kneading the bread and chopping the kale, even as their ear tips towards the Diane Rehm Show playing in the background. Ruminate over ice skating lesson fees. Request a list of favorite Christmas books from the library. Remark upon the desperate need for plain candles in the house. Pull out coats and boots for the coat drives at church.

We didn’t guide the girls into beliefs of Santa as a gift-giver, but Joan is a big fan of his nonetheless, in the general good-citizen category. So I’ll map out a few places to take her to see him. (What if you could visit a favorite dignitary, and talk with them on a nice armchair for awhile?)

joan_steady

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.

Beckoning

three

It is a punishing habit of mine to check before reading a Curious George book if the book is actually by H.A. Rey & and his wife Margret. If I’m paging through one it’s because Joan handed it to me, so of course I am already committed to reading it. But just to know what I am getting in to, I check the author byline before. Because of the insatiable nature of publishing children’s classics, and the fact that the Reys only wrote seven George books, most of the bright-yellow flap books you find on shelves today are not by them. They are in the style of the Reys, or based on the characters of, or however they choose to word their copyright ripoffs. Even without checking the byline though, you can tell a few pages in. There is a blissful simplicity to Reys’ narrator-driven style, a complete lack of anxiety or social pressures, and an emphasis on the adventure of the day. George does whatever the hell he wants, and the man with the yellow hat wanders cheerfully to the scene in time to let things really get mucked up before he gets there.

(truly does it get better than innocently floating away with a fistful of balloons, and then having the adult make sure the balloon man gets paid?)

But the versions beckoning to children these days just don’t carry the tone. More characters are loaded in. Instead of a narrator guiding us through a foolish yet thrilling caper, there is dialog burdened with the tiresome troubles of “George’s friends.” Betsy, a somewhat-timid character that the Reys introduced in Curious George Goes to the Hospital, shows up regularly, beset by interior anxieties and fears that George must solve. There is even Curious George’s Easter, a boring and confusing story that is difficult to imagine George’s Jewish creators ever writing.

I know this might sound exhausting but I’m a tad obsessed with tone and children. The other day we were at a museum where children’s psychology grad students had set up a booth in the corner. They asked if the girls could be part of their experiment, and of course I said yes. The experiment was to watch how the kid handled something once it broke. Did they try different methods to fix it? Or did they keep trying the same thing? Joan tried different methods, at least ten times. Afterwards the graduate research student brightly told me this was great—“most kids her age just do the same thing again and again.” But I had watched from afar, and I was frustrated how the experiment had ended: after letting Joan try to fix it using all different shapes to get the faux-machine to turn on (in fact the student was turning it on and off herself), the research student then “fixed it” for her using one of the shapes Joan had already tried (and simultaneously flipping a switch under the table). Joan trudged over after the experiment, downtrodden. “It was broken,” she said. “Looks like you solved it!” I said hopefully. “No,” she said, “the girl solved it.” And so ends my forays into other people’s research projects involving my kids.

I know the grad student thought the two-year-old would just be pleased to see the kaleidoscope light spin and turn on again, problem solved, bye!, but that’s just not how it works. (And I know I should have told the grad students how I felt, in person, but you will understand that I was barely surviving this museum trip at all given that my stroller had been left in the lobby and I had forgotten my baby carrier and Alma had fallen asleep into my elbow.)

And to be fair to these ghost in-the-spirit-of-the-Reys authors and hapless broke twenty-somethings grad students, let’s turn the lens on myself for a moment. These last weeks I’ve been asking Joan “will you let me help you?” as she fruitlessly jams her right foot into the left shoe or attempts to hole in six buttons on her pea sweater. The question felt right and I put my best mama-loves-you tone behind it. But the other day my friend pointed out how un-empowering the word help is to Joan.  Every time I said it, I reminded her that she couldn’t do without it me. This week I think I’ll experiment with “Could I do one shoe and you do one?” or “I wonder if it would work if we did it this way?”

xo

nearly every week

The way Lux blew off my requests for help, and yelled at me in the park that evening. Then, when I explained there would be no ipad during quiet time tomorrow as a consequence, she said “you’ll forget you said that.” The way she didn’t blink when I then told her she was going to bed early. Joan, wide-eyed in the face of her audacity, but huffing and nodding her own disapproval at my decrees. How Lux had declined to use the bathroom fifteen minutes earlier but now she had to go, thus we couldn’t stay out in the golden light any longer.

I was annoyed at myself for once again taking her at her word that she didn’t need to go, and now the result that I had to pick Alma up off the green grass where she’d been lolling in the soft evening light, the sun casting just enough shadow over the side of her face.

I texted Joe that they would absolutely both be in bed by 6:30. So there! I said to myself. It’s so sad, we’ve worked hard, and yet, here look: raised such terrors, I said to myself. Dramatic texts are a trademark release of mine. After we got home, I asked them to help me tidy the apartment, they refused and I said they were welcome to sit in their room then. Behind their door I heard the contented murmurs of duplo-construction and shared blocks. I relaxed at bit in the silence and felt–perhaps they hadn’t been that bad? Thinking of my text to Joe, I realized I had probably exaggerated my case. When exactly had it started to feel like too much? 5pm on the dot? Nearly all of it was an ivy of reactions tethered to their fatigue, a tiredness I had been fully aware of, a soft vine working slowly across our day.

I remembered that morning unexpectedly seeing Lux flit by my door at 6am, nearly two hours before she’s usually up, already in a princess dress with a crown on her head. She was playing some game that involved secrecy and light steps, and I was only awake because Alma had woken up. Then Lux woke Joan up to join her, an hour or so before Joan would have woken up on her own. Soon I saw them both flitting by, Joan blurry and barely tracking what was going on, but devoted to the imaginary heist, dazed as she was. 

I had left Alma on the bed next to Joe and went for a run in the perfectly cool morning air. The world for thirty minutes was cheerful running music and a steady chain of joggers keeping lines on the sidewalk along the river. I came back certain that the thing to do was for all of us to head straight outside. But it was two hours before we got out, between feeding Alma and doing the breakfast dishes, after they opened a package of saltines with their scissors, cheerfully munching and chatting like old friends at the golf club lunchroom, absentmindedly scattering half the contents in the form of crumbs on the floor—a ready picnic for the ants I’ve been trying to keep at bay.

Finally we got outside before lunch. Then everything was so beautiful and finally sunny after a week of rain, the park grass seemed cleaner and greener than ever—the gazebo, the coffee shop, the merry-go-round, the playground, everything beckoned—that we stayed out too long, deep into nap time.

On the walk home Joan sat down on the corner of an intersection and mumbled to the bricks that she couldn’t walk anymore. I smiled sympathetically and shrugged my shoulders at her, what I could I do? I couldn’t carry her. I sensed a message in the glances of the people skirting our scene: how’s she gonna handle this? She’s carrying a baby and now the little one is sitting on the ground. Naturally it did no good for me to repeat aloud that this was why I had said we shouldn’t go to the playground after all. Nonetheless I too murmured it to the bricks, and the girls looked at me, mystified at my evoking a conversation from an hour ago—nearly ancient history! If I had known that going in—why had I let it happen? Why hadn’t I insisted we head home when I knew the time was right? Because it was so beautiful out, Lux was begging to go, and I loved the idea of the girls running and climbing for just a few more minutes. Finally Joan hopped up and started walking again,and we made it back.

digital grannies

digital grannies and organizing photos

Two weeks before Alma was born I was at dinner with a tableful of moms. At my corner of the table conversation turned to photos and organization. I found the three other moms overwhelmed and dismissive. One didn’t have access to the photos she wanted of her newborn–they were all on her husband’s computer because their nice camera was his. One couldn’t seem to delete a particularly unflattering photo of herself that was appearing on her synced television screen at unpredictable intervals. One wearily said she really wanted to understand Apple’s iCloud photo service but found it (understandably) mysteriously complex. All three seemed deeply frustrated.

I was frustrated by the conversation as well. The apathy and the confusion, the fluttering of hands and “oh wells” that followed. How had these moms been told it wasn’t worth their time to figure this out? Why wasn’t it worth it get their digital shit together and know where their favorite photos were?

Most of us feel that though we have not quite figured out how to handle our digital shoeboxes bursting with photos, everyone else has. But I think at least in the case of young moms, we are not figuring it out. We are studiously documenting with fingers crossed that the dusty hard drive in the cupboard will be pulled out one day, and all with be uploaded. We are snapping away with ever-better cameras, adding extra zeros on to our collection with every passing month, and yet at a standstill about what to do next.

At this point we’ve all got an attic full of wonderful photos, but the attic is really an illusion: everything could be erased if we haven’t taken the time to embrace them.

It would be nice to take advantage of the businesses offering solutions to this problem but it’s also impossible to believe any of the businesses will exist in the same way in 10 years. It’s hard to keep up with their updates and subscriptions. Thus we sit on our files like old mattress money stuffers, believing a house fire is too horrible to imagine.

But house fires of this type happen all the time. Not just ye old hard drive crash of yore, but also the inadvertent house fire in which you’ve simply lost access to that photo because it is loaded onto a hard drive buried in the closet and you’ve lost the cord.

Is a photo backed-up, yet inaccessible, still a photo in your life?

Part of the trouble is that our digital lives are still often dismissed as self-indulging and ephemeral. Instagram accounts are mentioned with an eye roll. Collecting photos annually and having them printed and bound into books takes hours, truly hours to put together, and feels hard to justify when we’ve already posted it and relished the photo elsewhere. While we’d love our children to someday say “she kept a tidy lovely home” about us, it feels less important to imagine them saying “she did such a great job of documenting our family’s life together over the years.”

Sometimes I think about blogs as this century’s cross-stitch sampler. I’ve encountered criticism of them as aggrandizing digital wastes of time. A trend. People still say things like “I don’t read blogs,” as if they were a category of acquired taste. But they are the next in a long historic line of homemaking habits, small lovely tributes to our abilities and hopes. Even if the writers gloss things over, even if they make life appear too clean and breezy. Though in theory written and created for others, they will always bring the most pleasure to their creator.

Like meandering the over-loaded toothpaste aisle wishing the one satisfactory product would reach out and shake our hand, there are more options for dealing with this than seem necessary–Flickr? Google Photos? iCloud Photo? Given that almost everyone has a iPhone, Apple has an almost moral imperative to offer the best service for our attic-less granny selves. And I think they do. But they’ve buried this knowledge under so much poor product branding. I kid you not: there are actually three separate products and these are their names: iCloud Drive, iCloud Photo, iCloud Photo Library. Yup. They must be enabled in different ways and they offer different things. Is this solvable and still incredibly functional? Yes. (how to turn on iCloud Photo Library) Google Photos, for those using their phones as their only-camera is an incredibly easy option. They compress very large photo sizes, so they are not a good fit for your wonderful DSLR shots.

Why not do both! Take one minute, one actual minute, to download the Google Photos app, and one minute to enable it to backup your photos. When you open your app again it will have built fun videos from your trip to Texas last summer and compiled every single shot you managed to get of Grandma in 2015 into one handy folder. It’s eminently browsable and wildly searchable.

Then sign up for another option, like the iCloud. I know, it costs money! But it costs a fraction of one month’s internet bill. Upload all your photos again, and the big ones too this time. Dig your old hard drive in the closet, find a plug, and upload all those too.

Let’s celebrate that we’re not dashing to the grocery store to be handed a small envelope packed with four fantastic photos and twenty crummy ones. Celebrate that there are no shoeboxes full of crumpled negatives under the bed. That we don’t need to buy pink hole punches at Creative Memories shops anymore.

But, take that freed-up time to go all in with one of these products. Whichever one you pick, use it, read the emails they send you regarding product developments or changes, set as many auto uploads as you can. Or use two, if you got the time, and play around with them! Curate and print multiples of what you discover. After the work of curating thousands of photos down to 100 of your baby’s first ten days, redouble the effects of this labor by printing a book not just for yourself but a copy for grandparents.

Take that code that keeps popping up on facebook and give chatbooks’ automatic book printing a try. Print a big colorful newspaper print from Parabo Press. Print 25 photos from that Maine college friends trip on Artifact Uprising’s gloriously thick square prints and mail them to your friends.

The point is: it’s worth it. This bit of housekeeping, the annual fee, a few hours work on the front end, perhaps an hour every week, it’s worth it.  If the old romantic adage was throw away the bank statements and keep love letters, the new one is upload the photos, all of them. Relish the photos and the opportunity to back them up, not because you finally got around to deleting all the bad ones and perfectly edited the rest for light and color, but because you love them.

Many Kids Club

good_shepard_sheep_club

It seems I am the chosen jurist for everyone deliberating another child. Friendly moms I do not know sidle up to me. They’ve noted the two children, and now, the belly. They make small talk, then get to it: “yeah, so, how did you decide to go for that?” “What?” I ask innocently, “three?”

“I mean, we’re debating. We’ve been talking about it, over and over again. But you know—more kids means bigger car, bigger house, right? And the plane tickets! And what about hotel rooms? Do they let you bring three kids into a hotel room?”

I am truly the worst consultant they could resource this pro bono work to. I genuinely haven’t given thought to half the concerns they’re studiously mulling over. It wasn’t until I was 4 months into this pregnancy that my friend pointed out, to my surprise, that we wouldn’t all fit into a taxi anymore. “You think you can, and then you can’t,” she firmly said of families of five.

But instead of bringing their debate to a reasonable well-researched person of able body and mind, they’ve unwittingly stumbled on an aging Irish Catholic grandmother in the body of a petite Midwestern thirty-year-old. “Well, it’s so much better for later in life.” I state with authority. “You know—more in-laws. More phone calls. More grandchildren.” Their eyes mist a bit and they’re tracking along with the pretty picture of a quiet cozy living room inundated with telephone calls.

Then I pull out one of my darker rationals: “Just think of the burden you’ll be on them if there’s only two.” They frown, with an absent look in their eyes. Perhaps my maniacal glint of hormone-fueled-procreation goes too far on that one. Though, I’ve found I am not the only one who leans towards the darker side of these discussions. “The way they’re dying these days, you should just keep going. I mean–those motorcycles!” remarked a retired nurse to me the other day (somewhat surreally, as the girls and I licked our ice cream cones in the sun).

Clearly these are two sides of the same trippy mental coin: to me, they seem overwrought with controlling their current circumstances in a way that won’t pay off: is life with two kids actually going to be magically easier? Didn’t they already exchange so much of “normal life” just by having those two? If their lives are better with two personalities, why wouldn’t they be exponentially better with three? I guess at root I doubt the accuracy of meticulously measuring out elements of their life.

And on the other side of the coin, I have built my daily outlook on a prediction for thirty years from now. I would be wise to remember that I might not even be around then, and zen to recall that it is THIS moment, the chaotic, daily, non-stop child-rearing one, is the one that matters most anyway.

The trouble for these folks is that they walked up to me in a state of uncertainty. I have many friends firmly in the only one camp or only two camp. I’ve listened carefully to their reasoning and admire their vision. I would never attempt to argue them out of their position, nor would I think my position offered them anything. Often I think of the Bible stories involving women begging God for just one child–take sweet, elderly Elizabeth and Zachariah for example. The gift of one life-changing child is not to be lightly brushed over. As kids, my sister and I relished joining in the relative peace of our neighbor’s home–a family of four. Things seemed calm and full of possibility over there, with lots of extra craft supplies and snacks to boot.

Where’s this all going? A medley makes the world go round. Just don’t ask the old Irish lady at the playground for advice.

teaching gratefulness

day_out

In between forgetting to slather on sunscreen and forgetting to comb anyone’s hair, I can’t get this thought out of my head—how do you teach gratefulness?

I’m not expecting them to grab the spray bottle every morning and clean the floors but the four year old also doesn’t have any specific daily tasks assigned to her. More often it is a request to “run and grab your water bottle for me” or “help Joan move the chair over here” which she does very willingly.

I also ask Joan, the two-year old, to pick up things or put something back after she drags it out. Usually she frowns at me and says, “nocan’t.” “Why can’t you?” “Still reading,” said while she stares vacantly off at a wall. “Mama do it.” 

Her young knack of disregard, the blithe ease with which she shrugs off my request makes me half-smile for a second and then feel overwhelmed with annoyance.

Sample day of the girls’ last week: wake up, eat breakfast, and a friend comes over. Pull out all the dress-up stuff, play dress-up changing clothes every 15 minutes for a couple hours. Share mini-ice cream cones. Have lunch, share another mini-ice cream cone. Make art in the art room with washi tape and pastels. Have a quiet time where Joan naps and Lux gets to watch her favorite 25 minutes of Octonauts. Wake up, help mom make chocolate covered strawberries for a friend, snacking all the while. Play in the living room alternating their fighting/sharing/loving/complaining song-and-dance while mom makes more food and does all the dishes. Mom packs a picnic and head outside for the last couple hours of the day, armed with food, balls, and a picnic blanket. Come home, read stories, go to bed.

Are things getting too idyllic? Am I a flourishing event planner with a preschool speciality–a flare for the lighthearted and festive? This is not an exceptional day in the life of the Ringenberg girls. I could pull from any other day of that week and list the pleasures—activity, food, activity, game.

As a stay-at-home mom in the city equipped with modern conveniences in my home, I am free to do this stuff with them. If we do laundry on the weekends, I clean for roughly thirty minutes of every day, and I cook for maybe an hour (but that’s by-myself-time in a good way). Are there so few demands on my schedule that I’m turning their daily lives into some kind of bucolic Disneyland? (Bucolic is the very word doesn’t apply though. They are not running in the fields picking wildflowers and chasing cow tails. They are gently fingering flowers grown in window boxes hanging over the sidewalk, reminded to touch, but not pick.)

face_painting

But no matter how idyllic, I still have a four-year old who complains to me about her day. She asks “But mom, why can’t we go on the merry go round again?” “Why no lemonade/candy/ice cream today?” It must seem to her that we could do anything, if only I would just set my mind to it. And largely my explanations aren’t logical, they must seem almost whimsical to her—we aren’t having ice cream because we’re having dessert tonight. We don’t buy lemonade every day, only some days.

Isn’t her approach a little of what we encourage in Americans, especially American consumers? Ask for more, see what else you can get, fight for what you deserve–a refund in full, receipt be damned. I wonder how many times a day I model those values to the girls instead of Christian ones: love all, the last shall be first, put others before yourself, come humbly before God.

A few days ago, while washing dishes, I examined the contents of the sink and realized I could probably teach Lux to wash the morning load with a few tries. Later, when Joan was napping, I heralded it with trumpets as a new project and Lux took it on cheerfully. The floor was doused with soapy water and it took twenty more minutes than it would have taken me, but it was entirely successful.

But then I haven’t remembered to follow up and ask her to do it agin in the days since.

I dug out the letters my mom wrote to me on my birthday each year (I know! another post for another time), and found the one from when I turned four. She writes that my older brother and I were talking turns emptying the dishwasher and setting the table at that point. I was the second born so she had more time to figure it out, just as Joan has more expected of her than Lux did. (Mostly socially though—she’s expected to apologize, to share, to take turns. Things I didn’t ask of Lux at two.)

But gratefulness is such an undercurrent in a personal ocean. Its presence is so easily overpowered by the waves of needs and wants that lap steadily. It’s hard to feel its tug, even harder to distill it, and show it to another.

 

fears

For awhile now Lux has told us of her fears. They weren’t there, and suddenly–snap–there they are. Or they were there, but she couldn’t articulate them quite as clearly as “That is scary to me.” They were initially almost comical in their tiny, specific scope: the sound of the water pipes in the bathroom, dried seaweed at the beach, tree roots that look oddly alive in the grass. They seem to pass over the weeks like overcast skies, never staying for long, just acknowledged, frowned at, and then quickly forgotten.

And yet they are sobering for me to hear from her, in the depth of consciousness they signify—the murky underlayer I will never truly know or predict or control. It reminds me of when I began to worry with my mom-friends if our infants were capable of having nightmares. Is it possible? we said to ourselves, when one of them had woken up crying furiously.

Lux continues to be mildly obsessed with skeletons in any form, mostly dinosaurs and human ones. (Hence the gift of a package of x-rays for her 3rd birthday.) And I’m all about those bones too. But she happened to fall in love with an idea that people take and twist. They pop-up randomly as we adventure around town: over-the-top halloween junk, a poster for a moody band, a book meant for twelve-year-olds not preschoolers, sci-fi magazines at the drug store. Gory, creepy, scary skeletons.

She likes the friendly ones and I get possessive when we encounter the scary ones, their articulation altered ever-so-slightly to ruin them. It was OUR skeleton and YOU PERSON ruined it. It WAS innocent and awesome, and YOU MARKETING OBSESSED NINJA blew it.

On top of her minor passing fears, there’s the ever-present concern not to transmit fears of mine to her.

I’m sure at one point in human history this was an important aspect of maternal education—watch out for cougar tracks as they will eat you. But these modern days it seems more important not to mention my personal fears. They will only slow her down. A girl afraid of snakes? Do we really need another one of those? I squashed a brown scaly spider crawling near Joan and went to scoop it up with a tissue. Lux said she wanted to do it. I was impressed, but also wanted to intervene–did she get the pinch-n-dump maneuver this situation was calling for? Did she see how crawly and weirdly dried up this thing was? I remained totally nonchalant and stepped back. “Sorry Mr. Spider, you can’t crawl near Joan” she said, and dropped him into the bin. She walked away and never mentioned it again.

I think the appearance of fear really shakes parents because when do you grow out of fears, really? They stick with you; greasy fingerprints of something that passed by once. Your own subconscious murmur, representing the unpredictable things that got through to you. Later in life they help you empathize with others, they are one of the quickly-built bridges that can connect two strangers almost instantly. “Oh, I was afraid of those too!” goes the refrain.

I remember as a kid being deeply afraid that my parents didn’t have any money. I would tell myself that they way we had lived that day was a farce, and tomorrow they would tell us it was all over. These thoughts always occurred to me at night when I was falling asleep. My mom would come in and reassure me that it wasn’t the case. Looking back, I can see that this might have been an early predictor of my habit to get the “big picture” or step back from situations and see what I can solve before everyone else. I thought I knew more than everyone else around me about what was happening around us. I still often think that.

Lux is turning out to be a brave soul, Tolkien style. Mighty little, mighty ambitious. She seems to seek out frightening things until she understands them. “Mom, I like scary things,” she tells me constantly, as we read of Carabosse, the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty, for the 30th time. As we read and re-read, different elements seem to step into her mental spotlight. They are examined, pivoted, and then they step away and something new steps in. I’ve always had a soft spot for writers who laud the value of fairy tales–Einstein, L’Engle, Chesterton, Neil Gaimon. I couldn’t do the true Grimm tales because of the incredibly unique violence they introduce (or just yet, at least? I do respect their place in the canon). But the wisdom of encountering malicious forces coming head-to-head with the common girl, that rings true.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned but I think it is particularly important to encounter these tales in their written form. That way your imagination can only take you as far as you’re ready. For me as a kid, all of Disney’s enemies were just a bit too much. A few treads too far on the sinister track.

Lately I’m more grateful to hear what Lux is afraid of. Now that I’ve seen the fears wave up and subside, I don’t have that panic of it’s my fault! I should never have…They give me glimpses of the odd discomforts that stuck in her brain, and they give me a chance to talk over something that might have happened too quickly. They are windows into what she is still thinking about from the days that seem to fly by us.