For the last two weeks I’ve been wrestling with a failure. Not such a big thing, just a thing that wasn’t going well and I was privately humiliated over how it was going. More: my involvement with it was as a volunteer, so it didn’t matter either way how it was going, which further frustrated me because why was I bothering with something I was only doing to be helpful, and evidently not doing all that well!
Puzzling over this and the frustration dead-end it represented, I came upon the most recent On Being episode. It’s an interview with a psychologist about what the last year has done to our psyches (battered em, you may mutter to yourself.) Hostility is mentioned. Lack of empathy is mentioned.
Toward the end she makes some suggestions about how to essentially make ourselves feel better and settle down. She admits the suggestions sound way too simple. But that’s the point: reach gently and slowly toward the shivering little rabbit in fight-or-flight, resting just below our active conscience. Connecting with yourself: placing your hand on your heart. Placing both feet on the floor, grounding them. Imagining biting into a lemon slice, savoring. And: curiosity.
This one caught my attention. I realized I could look at my problem with curiosity. Ask, instead of with resentment tinged with failure, ask with curiosity why wasn’t it going well? What about it could be changed? Was it actually sort of interesting that it wasn’t working?
Instantly the whole scene lighted up for me. The puzzle felt almost playful, something to be solved. And it went better. More, I stopped worrying about it.
So, I recommend that episode, with Christine Runyan, to you. Perhaps you too will find in it a method to smooth whatever’s bothering you at the moment.
It’s raining here, most of the snow is gone except the really gravelly grey bits; they are small mounds of the saddest icebergs. Lawn icebergs. I made French onion soup, which the kids complained tasted of onions and wine, and I agreed. But I also made broccoli and sausage pasta from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat which was startlingly simple and delicious, and pleased everyone. Joe gathered enough sap from the trees to boil one enormous pot of sap into the darkest syrup we’ve ever made (see Instagram for details). I planted six tomato seeds inside, Joe planted the acorns that he gathered last fall. On the warm days we did an hour, maybe two, of school, then rushed outside. Time seemed to fly by until it was past dinner when I looked up again.
I avoided putting the youngest down for a nap several days, not wanting to face the disruption and initial tears (that do always subside into snores within minutes), and deeply regretted it by 5pm when she was often clinging to me, half asleep or actually fully asleep. After these sad half naps I pulled what I consider a veteran-mom move of covertly giving her two pieces of Hershey chocolate to hurdle over the awful late-nap-blues. She was back to the races shortly, and the older sisters didn’t guess her secret. Rite of passage when one is debating whether the two yr old is dropping their nap and learn: no, they are not dropping it.
This morning, most of the kids were chatting up in their room far past breakfast time, so I watched a documentary about the Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf. He is a landscape gardener who crafts stunning wild-form field plantings. You watch him wandering through nature, appreciating, mixed with watching him draw sheets of landscapes with lovely, different colored, pens. You have to pay $15 to rent it for just one showing, $5 for extra footage on specific topics if you like, but I think it’s worth it.
The MORE/LESS approach to resolutions has always struck me as tepid. If you want something, resolve it! Declare it!
However, I think this is THE year for it. Goodbye, for now, to the “read 50 books” and the “host a friend once a month” that I had on my carefully specific list last year.
Once I set about writing mine up I realized I had many mores and only a few lesses. For the things that were under my control of 2020, I’m really happy with the year I had.
I didn’t dare to go so far as to put things like Dinner Parties on there. I didn’t want to risk disappointment that swiftly.
here’s what I came up with…
MORE cocktails: Nine years of pregnancies and breastfeeding really stymies the quest for cocktails. They just phase quietly out of your life for a long while, and you even stop being curious about them. I’m ready to be curious and try new things this year. Ivy Mix’s book Spirits of Latin America and David Leibowitz’s Drinking French look like the perfect places to start.
MORE help with cleaning: as you may have observed, we moved our family from a tiny apartment to an enormous farmhouse. My cleaning standards are extremely low, but I do like things to be cleaned every 10-14 days or so. And it’s a lot of work. Constant, necessary work. I also like to bake bread, make dinner from scratch, read aloud to my children every day, read to myself every day…you get it. So I think I’ll get some help with that this year. Not, like, for the rest of my life. But this year.
LESS judging: An unexpected side effect of the pandemic is how banally we began judging one another. They made THAT decision. She did WHAT. It takes a lot of work, this judging, and I’m not sure it’s really worth any of it.
MORE hugs: Hugs are great and I think we can still do them.
MORE tidy corners: We rented out our house over the holidays, and as a consequence I had to deep-organize more than I had in the past few months (I also had to move my entire closet to the attic but…worth it!). Many of the nooks and piles I dealt with were things I knew where they were going, I just hadn’t done it yet. Like–this goes on the shelf in that closet, but I haven’t put it there. Or–we don’t really use this but we’re saving it so I’ve just decided to stare at it for six weeks.
So I finally put things away or gave them away and I was startled by how dramatically everything visible actually looked better. Results! Quickly! Lesson learned.
LESS seeking perfection: this is a fairly cliche one and it runs off the tongue so quickly you may not realize what you’ve said you want. But what I want is to accept things in their less-than-perfect state as a way toward poking into what they are currently are. Resolved: my family is perfect. This blog post is perfect. My hair is perfect. The way I spent my day was perfect.
MORE long emails: I deleted instagram from my phone for January (and maybe February!). Within a few days, my envelope of emailing-energy had filled up. I reply to notes now, sometimes within 48hrs! And once I write a note and send it off, I have that feeling of expecting a reply. Such a fun feeling and I’d forgotten all about it.
MORE flowers in the garden: Joe and I have found that we really love growing flowers. We love looking at them and savoring them. We liked them more than most of the vegetables we grew this year. So, more flowers.
if you’d like to share some of your thoughts for this year, please do! I found it heartening/startling to see many of my private thoughts echoed in this cheerful poetry by Adam J. Kurtz, and I was thrilled to hear DesignMom is writing a parenting book.
Let’s think broadly for a moment about what homeschooling in Fall 2020 might look like. It will be pieced together like a very homemade pie crust. You might be working in the mornings, and homeschooling in the afternoon. Your neighbors might be homeschooling one day a week (twice on Thursdays, as Eeyore likes to say). Your mother-in-law might take on dictation with one child. Your dad might take on science with all of them. You agree to some sort of co-op lunch program with your neighbor where every other day the kids eat lunch at the other’s house and hear a story read aloud.
Or, perhaps you will be handling quite a lot. You are totally by yourself. You do two hours a day, whenever it fits.
The rest of the time the children are checking chores off a list, creatively playing/trashing the one room you conveniently never deign to look in, helping you prep lunch, staying up too late in their room telling stories to each other, and sleeping in. They wake up and tell you their dreams with enviable recall. They learn how to use wikipedia and tell you at dinner what they read. Likely, very likely, they take on projects of their own, like listing the personality traits of every character in their favorite book or designing bug traps that are eerily successful.
Would that be so bad?
Dear readers, Last week we moved to Vermont. We began looking at houses in March. We looked in every New England state, drawing a woozy balloon on the map for a 2.5-hour drive to Boston. I’m writing the detailed hows and the whys, but I’m saving it for a chapter. But I’d like you to know that we found an old farmhouse in excellent shape with land, a lawn of grass that isn’t seeded but has the right kind of weeds, a barn that needs a new roof and maybe floor. Cricketed-silence in the morning. Cricketed-deep darkness at night. Fireplaces, some that don’t work. Yet.
It’s exactly what we hoped and prayed we would find and we are in a state of shock at how happy we are to be here. We will be homeschooling, Joe will be working regular hours remotely, we have so much to learn and be humbled by in the process. It is so exciting.
At Alma’s two year appointment, I found myself staring into the doctor’s eyes as she reviewed the signs for me to watch for that would signal Alma’s ear infection had taken hold beyond the viral. I knew for certain she had said these words hundreds of times and yet she was carefully, intently spelling them out for me. For a moment, lulled by her soft background melody of a French/Russian accent, I considered it from Joan’s perspective, slouched on a chair along the wall. Two women talking to each other, standing close together with a toddler perched between them, one learning from the other, the other elucidating as best she could.
Often in her office, I adopt the visage of a first time mother. What is the point of pretending, I decided early on, that I was anything but too comfortable in what I knew? Using a “wait and see” method for almost everything. And getting caught unawares regularly! There was the appointment I had to be talked into for croup that had progressed to steroid levels, the poor twelve months weight gain, the enflamed ezcema, the barely noticed ear infection. I could go on.
In contrast to the constant speculative worrying that seem to sum up all baby’s doctor appointments, it was delightful to remark on Alma’s 70 percentile height and 50 percentile weight. Lovely. I felt great affection for this woman, and how we’d managed together for the past two years.
Joan, Alma and I took the elevator down to the lobby. Alma strode ahead, clearly euphoric to be leaving the risky offices of the doctor behind. We headed to the lobby cafe to buy a coffee and croissants for the girls (my first purchased coffee since I took on the frugal month challenge! Wait, it’s only been ten days.). Got to the cash register and realized I didn’t have my wallet, keys, train pass, etc. The cashier assured me I could pay next time I was there, eyeing the girls with an practiced eye that she knew we’d be back.
a few photos from our week
Freestyle Nutcracker before a friend’s parent arrives for pick-up.
She may be sick but her sister pen-painted her toes, selective joy.
Entering the satisfying water pitcher stage.
After all sorts of discussion we decided to have Joan pass on her option for full day preschool this year. Parents! Sometimes I think we grow more relaxed by the year, and sometimes it feels like we’ve become psychoanalyst zombies who can’t help but minutely over-examine our children.
Joan is self-driven, often beginning her morning by piling up books for me to read her, filling whole sheets of paper with alphabet letters and doodles, and telling me things like “I want to get books about the human body.” So on the one hand, I feel she is teaching herself, but on the other, she can be a swift flowing river that doesn’t like to be redirected with my mossy sticks jutting out here and there. She is intensely imaginative, sometimes developing long narratives that she tells herself, barely noticing what her sisters are playing around her. After short social events, she likes to have plenty of time to play and read alone to decompress. These are all characteristics we mulled over when we decided to keep her home for another year.
My memories of Lux’s fourth year at home with me are some of my favorite. I have dozens of photos of our walks around town with her stuffed animals, making soft pink playdough together, the trays of paint she would pull out for the afternoon, the funny games she played with two-year-old Joan, like stacking spice jars in towers or packing snack-picnics.
I’m really looking forward to Joan’s and my year together. What a gift!
We are also joining a one-day-a-week homeschool community. This will give me a chance to experiment with curriculum (with no expectations on her, of course, just for fun and discussion) and give her the chance to have peers she sees every week and practice some public speaking. I found the national program, Classical Conversations, through my friend Jenny, my friend Kacia, and some of the online community that posts on instagram under the name wildandfree.co
I have to tell you, I don’t have high hopes for myself in managing a structure with much elegance. I will try to set about something of a morning schedule, but I’m sure it will take some plotting. In Lux’s first year of kindergarten last year, it took me a remarkable amount of time to figure out how to plan our days. It was practically April before I realized how nice it was to get Alma’s naps in earlier, in order to have her be rested by school pickup time. If you are entering a new schedule this fall, I encourage you to take it easy on yourself (of course!) but also to mix things up in all sorts of ways as soon as you can manage it. Change nap times, snack times, wake up times, all of it, until you can pinpoint a great rhythm for your family.
It’s September! I’m hoping to post soon about our new apartment and the move to a new neighborhood, what I’m working on in my alone time, some of my favorite fall things to do around here, and our travel photos from Maine.
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.
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.
Coming 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.