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
February 14, 2014 § 4 Comments
“Mom, are you taking me to soccer?” Our ten year old son stood in front of my reading chair. He was already dressed for his futsal game, shin guards and all.
I checked my watch. “Uh, yeah.” Fifteen minutes until we needed to leave. “Let me take a quick shower.”
I knew I was pushing it. Fifteen minutes to shower and dress would be crazy fast for me, especially in winter. I usually take 30, and that’s without makeup or blow drying my hair. I ran up the stairs, pep-talking myself. OK. No messing around. No getting lost in the shower. Gotta get to the game. I HAVE to move quickly, I HAVE to get in and get out.
I cranked the faucet to scald, stripped, and jumped in. Focus, Andrea. Wash hair. Wash face. Doing good.
Warm water streamed down my back. My skin turned pink from the heat, just the way I like it. I opened my eyes and watched steam fill the butter bathroom. Condensation dampened the back of the porcelain toilet, moistened the cardboard tissue box, crept over the mirror ’til I could have drawn a smiley face on the fogged silver glass.
I squirted conditioner on my hand and ran the smooth cream through my hair. I scrubbed my skin with a sudsy washcloth. I closed my eyes and listened. Clack clack, clackity clack as water spattered the plastic tub at my feet. I turned and faced the spray to massage my eyelids. The fan hummed, straining to exhaust the room of its fog, failing as I cranked the water hotter. So warm… The water tenderized my throat. I could stay here forever, especially if I didn’t have to stand up the whole time. Maybe I should take a bath. I could light some candles, relax with a book. I’ll have to wait a little while, though – I’ve probably almost drained the water heater.
I turned and reached for the conditioner bottle. I smiled to myself and thought about fairy forests, the ones you read about in books, where the hero enters the enchanted forest and time distorts. He dances and drinks and makes merry and could get lost in there forever, unaware anymore of the existence of an outside world, of the passing of time. Everything in the forest is the Now. The shower often feels like that to me.
I tipped my head back in the stream and then squeezed extra water from my hair before applying conditioner. My hair felt silky, slick. Wait. Did I already use the conditioner? I looked at the washcloth on its hook. It was wet, not dry. Did I already wash?
Oh shit! The soccer game!
I slammed the water off, ripped open the curtain, clawed through the fog for a towel, and swished it all over me while I ran, dripping, to the closet. Jeans, shirt, belt. Ran to the clock. What time is it? Two minutes. Two minutes left! I pulled wool socks over damp feet, threw on the clothes, dragged a comb through my hair, and checked the clock. One minute to spare!
I raced halfway down the stairs, then slowed to a walk. Pretended I had everything under control. I leaned over the railing and said, “Okay buddy, are you ready to go?”
February 10, 2014 § 12 Comments
If you are a parent, or have ever been around the parent of a new baby, you may be familiar with the term “growth spurt.” It is usually paired with the words, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Little Johnnie – he must be going through a ____” (growth spurt).
Babies get fussy during growth spurts. None of a parents old tricks work – change the diaper, add a blanket, remove the socks, coo, bounce, rock, swing. Things are changing inside Little Johnnie, things we can’t see, and let’s face it: it’s uncomfortable. Scary. Whatever is going on, it’s unfamiliar, maybe even painful, and Johnnie doesn’t like it one bit.
I think that’s what’s happening to me right now. Through kismet or coincidence (or perhaps because it is a basic, necessary skill), both my writing group and the craft book I’m reading are intensely focused on structure. As in, structure your writing instead of pantsing it, build it a skeleton before dressing it with skin, and your work will stand erect. Structure is the foundation and the frame; without it, building a piece is a tenuous process, like trying to build a house out of shingles, but with nothing to nail them to. You must contort yourself to hold the shingles up while you frantically staple them together.
I have never structured my work before. Ever.
At first, I was ravenous for information and experience, like Little Johnnie at the breast, gorging in preparation to grow. I told my group, I get it now! I get why revision evades me – because I’m moving shingles around without knowing what I’m nailing them to. I told them, I can’t wait to tackle this homework, 9 paragraphs on a concrete, a noun, something you can touch and taste and see:
3. Ancient perceptions
6. Personal story
8. Historical story
9. Personal return to subject
Writing into a structure. I thought, look, it’s all laid out! I thought, this will be fun! This will be easy! I will write about turquoise. Turquoise is simple, it’s not fraught with personal drama that I’m afraid to get close to on this first attempt at a new way of writing. Look how great this will work! I will have paragraphs. I can move them around to observe the flow of information. I can experiment. I can play.
Three weeks and ten hours of active writing later, I’ve got not nine paragraphs but four. Four paragraphs and they are B-O-R-I-N-G.
Meanwhile, my Andrea Reads America project confronts me with a problem I’ve never had before: because I am reading deliberately, writing my reactions, and comparing works, and because I am simultaneously studying the craft of writing, I have become a critical reader.
I don’t want to be a critical reader!
I don’t want to be that peppery old snoot who doesn’t like anything except the finest, the top shelf, the Hendrick’s gin only, please. I liked it better when I liked everything. There are so many more opportunities for pleasure that way. Sure my appreciation of a finely-crafted novel is more profound now, transcendent almost, as when we ate at a five star restaurant and the food was so good we didn’t want to profane the experience by talking. Diners around us chattered while they absently forked steak that melted like butter, or sipped tomato soup that wrapped around your tongue like having God in your mouth, and my husband and I thought, they are not giving this food the reverence it deserves. They’re not even paying attention.
But not every meal can be a five star fine dining experience, and not every novelist can achieve sublimity. I used to be able to accept that, but now my tolerance for fiction that doesn’t work for me has plummeted. It’s not fair for me to expect perfection, especially because I appreciate how difficult it is to achieve, and because I fail so miserably at achieving it myself, yet I can’t help now but notice flaws and see where things don’t work in my reading life.
So I’m fussy. I’m uncomfortable. My reading and writing worlds are changing, and it’s painful, and I don’t like it one bit. Can’t I just go back to when it was easy? When I pantsed my writing and I liked everything I read? Can’t someone coo at me and make it all better?
I take comfort from our children, our Little Johnnies who fussed and flailed and suffered and screamed their way through too many growth spurts to count. And on the other side of every one of them, after they suffered their torment, our babies smiled, they laughed, they radiated serenity. They came back to their happy selves again. Only they were bigger. Deeper. Less like babies, more like people. They had grown.
The nine paragraph structure my writing group is working with is from Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor; the craft book is Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.
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.