February 25, 2014 § 30 Comments
Over the years, I have become a less patient housekeeper, easily annoyed by trinkets and knickknacks that add nothing to my life but more work: remove trinkets from shelf, dust shelf, wipe trinkets, notice chips in trinket bases and grime in trinket cracks, fetch toothpicks and toothbrushes, deep-clean trinkets, place trinkets back on shelf, arrange, rearrange, check watch and cluck tongue when I see I wasted more than an hour of my life removing dirt from inanimate objects.
When I became a more diligent housekeeper, when I began dusting on a weekly basis, our trinkets transformed from sentimental, significant mementos into useless, meaningless crap that got in my way when I tried to clean. In the past year, we have purged kitsch from our home, and I am proud to say that our shelves and tables are now trinket-free.
What remains on our shelf-tops are sources of light (candles and lamps), pieces of earth (smooth gray cobbles from rocky beaches), and a small, jiggle-bellied laughing Buddha from our pre-children life. The little Buddha is fashioned from black resin; a chalky green, like oxidized copper, etches the lines of his happy grin, his belly button, and the laugh lines that crinkle the corners of his eyes. My little Buddha fits in the palm of my hand, and when I look at him, he giggles: of all the objects I pitched on my path to happy housekeeping, of all the things I was able to detach from, I could not part with him, The Buddha, whose philosophy advocates non-attachment as a path to contentment.
My little green Buddha sits among smooth stones on the low wood shelf near my writing desk. He reminds me of another life, when my husband and I were young and newly married, when we lived in College Park, Maryland as DINKs (double income, no kids). On weekends we explored the Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware that lay outside of the D.C. Metro area: Annapolis, Sugarloaf mountain, the western shore of the Chesapeake, the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. We sailed, we hiked, we ate seafood in Annapolis, drank beer in Baltimore. And one weekend – a rainy weekend in winter, maybe even Valentine’s Day – we booked a room at a bed and breakfast in Rehoboth Beach. We traveled to a summer beach in winter.
I love summer beaches in winter.
At Rehoboth, we huddled against each other in a raw drizzle as we walked the empty boardwalk. The ice cream kiosk was shuttered, low clouds grayed the sky, and most of the shop windows were dark, even at midday on a Saturday. We paused to look out over the mist-shrouded beach. Wintry Atlantic waves crashed on tan sand, and wisps of my straight hair curled against my temples in the wet, salty air. I smiled against my husband’s shoulder. We had this all to ourselves.
When the cold worked its way through our coats and into our bones, we found a side street parallel to the main drag, where in addition to the neon Bud Light signs, we saw a cozy coffee shop, a sidewalk sandwich board with a chalk drawing of a steaming bowl of soup, and a few pottery and gift shops whose windows glowed like hearths. I saw crystals and tiny Buddha statues through one shiny pane, and the bell jangled on the door when we whooshed into the warmth from out in the cold. I fingered geodes and handmade straw brooms, flipped through incense boxes and nodded at the proprietress with her long silver hair and reading glasses that hung from her neck on a beaded chain. When I came to the glass shelf of Buddhas, the laughing ones with the fat bellies made me happy, as they always do. I picked up the one who looked like he was holding an umbrella, smiled at my husband and said, “I’m getting this one.” I held the little Buddha in my hand like a talisman.
Four years later, I think I suffered postpartum depression when we brought our infant home. Or perhaps it was post traumatic stress disorder. My life as a new mom, and our life as a new family, shocked me in its differentness from what had come before. Gone were our freedoms: freedom to travel unencumbered (diaper bags, toys, diapers, baby), freedom to sleep (10pm feeding, midnight feeding, 2am feeding), freedom to take romantic weekends away (single income, with kid). I felt trapped, without an outlet, stuck in this new life forever. I remember driving by a restaurant one night with our baby in the back seat. I looked into those warmly lit windows, saw couples smile at each other across a bottle of wine, heard cutlery clinking in my mind, and I burst into tears. “We’re never going to be able to do that again!” I wailed.
And the laughing Buddha laughed.
Over time, my depression transformed into delight as I let go my clinging to our old way of life. It helped that our infants did not remain infants forever, and that in a few short years, our babies have become responsible little people who sometimes stay home alone, who cook their own eggs and grilled cheese, and who surprise me into belly laughs that crinkle the laugh lines at the corners of my eyes. They hike and camp; they write comics and crack jokes; they snuggle and say, “I love you, Mom.”
My little Buddha has moved with us from state to state, home to home, shelf to shelf; he bore our children with us, watches as we raise them, hears us read books and tap keyboard keys and eat pizza while we watch TV. And no matter where he is, no matter what room or state or shelf, he sits relaxed and laughing. He reminds me of romantic rainy days both past and yet to come, and of the transformation of depression into delight, and of the deep, happy-soul laughter our children surprise out of me on a near daily basis.
Some things carry meaning that is worth dusting off every week. Some things are worth hanging on to.
This is my entry for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Object.
February 21, 2014 § 21 Comments
On February 1, 2014, my husband had an itch to hike the woods around Pandapas Pond. It was a sunny, 50 degree Saturday after two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and we had seen pictures in the paper of folks skating and ice fishing on the pond. I asked if the kids and I could ride along. When we arrived, he waved and disappeared into the forest, and our children and I wound our way down to the iced over water. College students walked across the pond’s hard shell – all the way across – and threw snowballs through sunlight. Our kids begged to go out on the ice, and all I could see was them crashing through. I was terrified. I told them to stay near the edges – the surface looked wide and treacherous, more of a lake than a pond, really, with all that shockingly cold, surely fathoms-deep water beneath a thinning sheet of cracking, melting ice. I white-knuckled my camera; I told myself, unclench your jaw. I reminded myself, Breathe, as they ran reckless, full speed, heads-back, mouths-open-in-laughter races on the sun-warmed ice; as I stepped onto pond’s slushy skin. I probably lost five years of my life that day, but our kids remember it as one of the best days of theirs.
This is my entry for the weekly photo challenge: Threes
January 22, 2014 § 5 Comments
Zippers and buttons clank against the metal drum of the dryer: snowpants tumbling after a morning romp in fresh snow. Our eight year old daughter, her hair a stringy mess of snow-wet tangles, blows on a pot of boiling water, trying to make the starchy foam go down after adding a cup of dry elbow noodles. Our ten year old son forks the scrambled egg she made him. “Since eggs are better when they’re hot, will you watch the noodles while I eat this?” he asked her.
It is Tuesday. A school day. I look out the window and watch snow fall.
Now they both peer into the boiling pot. They wear pajamas at lunch time. He is teaching her how to cook pasta. After – after I empty the dishwasher then reload it – I will make hot cocoa while I grind nuts for almond butter, then scrape the food processor and grind nuts for nutella; I’ll only have to wash the bowl and blades once if make the butters back to back.
I sit at the table eating a lettuce wrap with my left hand and writing with my right. A tomato slips out the end of my wrap and splats onto my plate. Our daughter groans when I ask if they’ve grated Parmesan for their noodles. “Well, you don’t have to have Parmesan,” I say. She slumps her shoulders and stomps to the cabinet where we keep the box graters. She sticks her lip out. “I want Parmesan,” she says as she jangles metals together in the cabinet, “I just don’t want to grate it.”
Welcome to the world, kid.
Our son stands on a stool and stirs the pot with a wooden spoon. Steam rises in front of his red, snow-play cheeks. The window next to him fogs up in the corners; beyond the glass panes are white-covered cars, a line of white along the top rail of the park’s split rail fence, sticky clumps of white on twiggy tree limbs.
Our son lifts a noodle from the steaming pot with his wooden spoon, steps down from the stool, and walks to the kitchen sink where he runs cold water over the macaroni spiral. He tastes it and says, “Mom, the noodles are ready. Will you come pour them out for us?” That’s the one step I’m still uneasy about: our eight- or ten-year old carrying a pot of boiling water across the kitchen and pouring its heavy, hot load into a colander. I set down my pen and my lettuce wrap, remove the napkin from my lap, and drain the pasta for them.
He takes over then, spooning noodles into bowls, drizzling olive oil, bringing his sister’s portion to her at the table. The kitchen counter is strewn with Parmesan cheese shreds, measuring cups, pots, pans, the tub of spreadable butter, a macaroni box. A dry elbow crunches under my slipper, then another. Parmesan curls litter the floor.
One thing at a time. I’ll teach them how to cook, then I’ll teach them how to clean.
Our children have finished their plates and await their hot cocoa. Soon, after the floor is swept, and the counters wiped, and the dishwasher is running (again), we will pull downy pants on, hot from the dryer, and we will traipse out the door to go sledding.
This is my entry for the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Lunch Posts.
November 4, 2013 § 16 Comments
I apologize for writing about writing again, but I’m having a moment. A moment of feeling crushed by Friday folders filled with requests – money for the art fundraiser, canned goods for the food drive, volunteer hours for the PTO, donations for the fall festival – and workload stresses for my professor husband, and soccer and swim tournaments, and party planning and gift triage (wish-list management, shopping, ordering, returning) for both kids’ upcoming birthdays smack in the middle of holiday season, and endless requests of “Mom, can I have a pear? Mom can I have a bandaid? Mom will you take me to Target? Mom, can you cut this tag? Mom, what’s for snack? For lunch? For dinner? Mom, can I have a piece of Halloween candy?” all piled on top of all the normal everyday demands of laundry and groceries and cooking and cleaning and ironing and play-date scheduling and initialing homework and driving to sports, and everyone wanting and needing and requesting, including me wanting for myself – I want to write – and I’ve got nothing left to give. To anyone. Anymore.
In the face of this, I’m having a moment. A moment of I can’t do it all. I can’t write and do everything else. I can’t fulfill my role of supporter with any kind of grace while also dedicating fully to my “writing career.” As I develop my skill set and hone my craft, I want to go deeper, but as CEO of the household, I have to pull back. And if I can’t go in all the way, I figure why go in at all.
I was thinking this way, thinking of giving up, thinking “I’m silly for even considering myself a writer, of saying I’m working towards a ‘writing career’ – it’s not a career if nobody’s paying me!” when I heard Angela Duckworth speak in a recent episode of the TED Radio Hour. The episode’s title? Success.
In her talk, Duckworth, who is a recent MacArthur Genius grant recipient, explained that IQ wasn’t a predictor for success in her seventh grade math students. This was curious to her. If IQ couldn’t be used to predict academic success, what could? She began studying other groups – military cadets, rookie teachers, salespeople – asking in every instance, “who is successful here and why?” Over and over again, she discovered “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success and it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ.”
What was it?
“It was grit.”
Grit. A favorite word. It’s in my lexicon.
As Duckworth explains:
Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long-term and then working very hard at it.
My husband and I have talked about this before, that it seems that talent and aptitude do not guarantee success. Though I feel he has both in spades, when everyone in our families made a big deal about his PhD, he downplayed his talents, claiming the degree was not an indicator of intellect. It merely indicated that he had endured. He had a career goal, and the PhD was required to achieve that goal, and so he just kept going until it was done. He didn’t give up, even when it was really, really hard.
The same was true for me with distance bike rides and triathlons. I’m no athlete. Phys Ed class brought down my GPA in high school. But as a young adult, when I committed to the AIDS Ride, to raising $2000 and riding my bicycle from North Carolina to Washington DC, I didn’t give up. I didn’t complete the 330 miles at the front of the pack, but athlete or not, I started, and I didn’t quit, and so I finished.
And when you start something, and you don’t quit? You finish. You succeed.
I have the same passion for writing as I did for those athletic events, only I don’t have as much time to dedicate as I’d like. I’m chomping at the bit. I want to take it to the next level. I want to write and write and write, I want to spend 3 or 4 hours a day writing, I want to pursue ideas that require concentration and focus, I want to run with it. But I also want to be Mom, and I can’t do them both and do them both well, and that makes it really, really hard. It makes me want to say I can’t run with this, what’s the use, this isn’t working, I am Mom, not writer, I quit.
Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. – Angela Duckworth
I’ve completed an Olympic distance triathlon. I’ve birthed two babies without painkillers. I’ve been a stay at home mom for ten years and have not thrown a child or myself out a window. I can do slow and steady. I can endure.
When host Guy Raz asked about how we might build perseverance, Duckworth replied, “believing that change is possible inclined kids to be grittier.” By knowing that change is possible we can believe that persistence will pay, we can acquire grit, we will recognize that even when failure seems eminent, we can succeed on the other side because failure is not a permanent condition.
I know change is possible. I know that every situation is temporary, including these Mom years, when our kids are young, and they need me. My perceived failure as a writer is not a permanent condition. The moment I’m having? The one I mentioned in the lead of this post? It will pass. In fact, in the time since I began drafting this piece on Saturday morning, and now, as I finish it up on Sunday evening, it already has. Change has already occurred. I no longer feel like quitting. And as for the sprinting? I don’t need to race. I want out of the gate, but I can keep warming up for a while first.
I can do slow and steady. I can endure. One day, maybe ten years from now, maybe fifteen, I will get to the point where I no longer feel the need to put quotes around my “writing career.” I’m gritty, damn it. I will succeed.
How gritty are you? Take Duckworth’s test here to find your grit score.
October 9, 2013 § 15 Comments
“The only time I have anything interesting to write is when I go on vacation.” (“No way,” “That’s a bunch of crap,” from around the room). John, in my critique group, was talking about how he has a hard time coming up with new material in his regular life. “You know, on vacation everything is new and exciting,” he said. “It’s the only time I see things with fresh eyes.”
I knew what he was talking about. It’s a lot easier to write about something new and exciting than to write about something old and ordinary. Or maybe easier isn’t the right word. Obvious. The world is much more obvious when it’s novel, which then makes it more accessible. We are more apt to note it when it smells different, when the scenery changes, or when the people are unlike the ones we interact with in our daily lives.
“What do you do in your regular life?” someone asked John.
“I’m a contractor. I remodel kitchens and stuff like that. Nothing exciting,” he said.
“I think that sounds pretty cool,” I said. “I don’t know anything about remodelling. I’d love to read about the houses you renovate around here – what they looked like before, what they look like after, and how you transform them.” I pictured a sledgehammer to cabinets.
“And the people you remodel them for,” someone grinned. I saw a young, upper middle-class white couple, both Type A personalities, wearing pressed button-down shirts and polished pointy toed shoes, pointing and gesturing in the kitchen doorway as they give John his instructions.
John looked around the table at us. “Really? It seems boring to me. Like, who would care about this?” Then he chuckled and gave a different description of his customers than I had imagined. “Well, the clients are interesting,” he said. “I’ll give you that. Women have disrobed for me when I walk in the door.”
“That really happens?” I said.
“I would read about that!” someone else said.
“See?” Les said. “You could write a blog: The Handyman of Love,” and we all laughed. John looked thoughtful and scribbled a few notes on his notepad.
This is a constant struggle for bloggers and personal essayists, to consider their life experience interesting enough to write about. They live it every day. It is ordinary to them, and it is difficult to see what could be interesting about the minutia of their daily lives.
A few weeks after the Handyman of Love writer’s group, I drove by the corn fields where I had been certain on a recent run that the Children of the Corn were going to jump out and get me, and a tractor pulling what looked like a tiny red barn was – reaping? I watched from a stoplight, and my mind filled with questions. What is the machine called that’s cutting the corn? What is the action called that the tractor is doing? Reaping? Harvesting? Threshing? All of the above?
The traffic light turned green, and when I arrived at the school to pick up our kids for dental appointments, I said, “Hey guys, they’re cutting down the corn.”
We had watched the corn grow all summer, gauging its height with each passing week. “Do you think it’s as tall as you?” I said to the kids in early July. “I think it’s as tall as you, Mom,” they said to me in early August. “Look how tall it is now!” I pointed in September. “It’s even taller than Dad!”
Our son’s face lit up as he bundled into the car, “I want to see them cutting the corn!”
I explained what I had witnessed on my way to the school. “There was a green tractor pulling this, this,” I had no idea what the thing was called that the John Deere was pulling. “This red think that looked like a miniature barn.”
We crested a rolling hill and I could see the corn fields. “The tractor drove along the edge of the corn,” I said, “and it pushed the stalks forward, and cut them, then I saw stuff shooting backwards into the little barn.” I gestured with my right thumb, pointing it backwards over my shoulder to show how the stuff shot. I wished I knew what the barn thing was called. “Leaves and ears of corn it looked like,” I said, my thumb still pointing backwards. I wished I knew what the cutter thing was called. How to name the process I witnessed. “And after the tractor passed, the corn stalks were gone. Just broken stubs in the ground.”
I put both hands back on the wheel and looked out the window. I didn’t know the process well enough to describe it to our kids. I didn’t have the right words. This everyday ordinary event to the farmer was a complete mystery to me. Every step I tried to explain to our kids it was in my face that I had no ideas what words to use – “red barn thing” – or how to explain the process. The farmer, if he were a writer, might think his work, driving a tractor around the edges of a cornfield, making the square smaller with each turn, was too common sense, too mundane to bore or insult his readers by describing it.
But something I learned from both John (the handyman of love) and the farmer (with the red barn thing), is that one person’s plain old everyday life is new and unknown to another. As a writer, I must constantly remind myself of this. Every time I sit with words and think, this is obvious, everybody knows this, I remind myself that nobody else has lived my life, nobody else is inside my head (y’all should be thankful for that – it’s crazy in there), and that if I am to write well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.
Last weekend, after we cleaned the dinner dishes and were getting ready for our Friday night ritual of watching Merlin together as a family, I said, “Let me take my makeup off and then I’ll be down.“ I started climbing the stairs.
“Can I come watch you?” our daughter asked. She’s seven.
I stopped on the staircase and sighed a huge sigh. I just wanted to get this done and be downstairs on the couch with the kids and a blanket. “Really sweetie? It’s not that exciting.”
She hung her head. “Okay.”
The mysteries of John’s life as a handyman, and my ignorance of the process of harvesting corn popped into my head, along with my own constant reminders when I’m in writing mode to not dismiss everyday details. It occurred to me that this end-of-the-day routine is totally mundane to me, but our daughter never seen makeup removed before. It is new and interesting to her.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said. “Of course you can watch.”
We walked upstairs together and she leaned in the doorway to the vanity sink while I put my hair in a ponytail. I grabbed my blue Estée Lauder bottle and pumped cleanser into my left palm.
“What’s that?” our daughter asked. Until this point in her life, she had only used a bar of soap to wash her face, even when she played “makeup” and had to remove it.
I turned the bottle so I could read the label. “Take it Away Makeup Remover Lotion,” I said. “It’s not as harsh as using soap.”
I dabbed my right finger into the dollop of cleanser and explained, “You should always wash makeup off at the end of the day.” I dabbed cleanser on my forehead. “It’s not good for your skin or your eyes to leave it on.”
“What makeup do you have on?” she asked.
“Powder, blush,” I dabbed my nose, my cheeks. “Eye shadow, mascara,” and I dabbed my right eyelid, then my left.
“What about eyeliner?”
“Nope, no eyeliner today,” I said.
“What is eyeliner?” our daughter asked.
So many things I take for granted. “Eyeliner is the makeup you draw on at the base of your eyelashes,” I told her, “to line the shape of your eye.”
I rubbed the cleanser into my skin as she leaned in the doorway. Her hands were in her hoodie pockets and she rested her shoulder and head against the door frame. After I rinsed my face, I explained the cream for the puffy bags under my eyes. I read the labels from the tiny tubs of my Lancôme free samples – “Génifique youth activating concentrate,” I said in a fake French accent. “That means it’s supposed to make me not wrinkly,” I said, and we giggled.
I screwed the lid on the final moisturizer and I kneeled down to our daughter’s level. I felt closer to her after sharing this little everyday ritual that I take for granted, that before had seemed so ordinary it wasn’t worth explaining. There’s a certain intimacy in taking part in someone’s daily routines that I didn’t appreciate until that moment. “Why did you want to watch me take off my makeup?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I didn’t know how you did it,” she said. I hugged her, and as we walked downstairs together to watch Merlin, I realized that like contracting and farming are not obvious to me, my life is not obvious to our children. They do not already know all the things I know as a 39-year-old woman. As with writing, where I constantly remind myself to not dismiss everyday details, as a parent, if I am to parent well, it is my job to see my ordinary everyday life with fresh eyes, and to not discount it.