[A version of this piece was published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and later ran as a radio piece on Ozarks at Large on KUAF 91.3 FM Public Radio.]
My father recently gave me an envelope full of my mother’s old photos. Inside I discovered an image of a twelve-year-old me, reaching out to pet our recently born colt. I’m wearing wranglers, an embossed leather belt, and my long hair hangs down the length of my back. In the background sits heavily wooded Spring mountain; in the corner of the frame the neighbors clothes are hanging out to try. Surprisingly, I am wearing short sleeves, a rare occurrence, even in the warm months.
My short sleeves exposed large patches of psoriasis, a skin disease I’ve had for years. I was already going into remission by the time the photo was taken; The patches are relatively small and only cover a small portion of my arm. For years there were scales all down my leg and from my elbow to the middle of my forearm. I tried all kinds of cream, sat under sun lamps, applied a medicated tape I had to wear for days at a time, and eventually took cortisone shots, something that is considered too dangerous today. But the patches only grew. Bright red and scaly, they would peel and crack. I wasn’t supposed to pick at them, but I could never resist. Sometimes they hurt, itched and bled. But mostly the discomfort was emotional.
Miraculously, by the time I around 13–around the same time I was diagnosed with scoliosis and given a back brace—the psoriasis was almost gone. This may have been the result of the treatments or just good luck. The severity of auto-immune disease are known to come and go. By then I had learned a lot about how cruel people can be when your body doesn’t fit their expectations. I can still hear the voice of the young girl who refused to sit by me at the Dardanelle Rodeo. She called me gross and began to run away, grabbing her friend’s hand and pulling her along, telling her that if she touched me her arms would turn scabby and bloody, too. By the time I was fitted for that back brace I was a little tougher, a tiny bit braver. And I had learned to quickly recognize the people who asked questions about my body with a kind and accepting curiosity.
My mother was always taking photos of our family, something that drove me crazy back then. I usually made quite an effort to hide my arms from the camera. I even developed a pose for family shots where I’d fold my arms in toward my chest, an awkward look to say the least. For whatever reason, my guard was down that day. Or maybe I didn’t even realize she had the camera.
I still have occasional flareups with psoriasis, but mostly it’s turned into psoriatic arthritis, another autoimmune disease that affects adults who had severe psoriasis as children. It does cause me some discomfort, but thankfully I am able to keep it under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And it’s not a visible disease like my psoriasis, unless you count the subtle ways it’s reshaping a few of my fingers. Every so often when I play guitar my fingers swell and turn red. I sometimes wonder if I will have my hands will eventually curl in the way my grandfather’s did, a man greatly disabled by rheumatoid arthritis
Nearly twenty-six years later, I’m a distinctly different person then the timid girl in the photo. My mother is dead; those boxes of photos are where I have to go to hear her stories. I’ve traveled, I’ve started a family, I’ve faced more fears that I care to count, and I’ve come back home in more ways than one. And now I look at my arms reaching out to that colt and I think those patches look beautiful. The red is fiery and shiny. The white, pale skin around the red fades into my summer tan. I don’t have any regrets over the sadness and shame I used to feel, nor do I feel like I wasted my time worrying. I learned a lot about myself in those moments. And I certainly don’t regret what I learned about people and the limits of acceptance. All of us are so affected by mainstreams ideas of beauty. It takes bravery to reject this mask.
After staring at the photo for sometime, I decided to share it with my sons. I told them about the psoriasis, the cruelty of some of my peers, and the kindness of others. I told them how my mother almost never sounded sound fierce except when she made it clear to me that I was never, ever to be cruel to anyone, to shame or make fun of them. She had no tolerance for human cruelty–whether I was receiving it or dishing it out.
The had a lot of questions about my arms, and wanted to see the subtle scars near my elbow. The were particularly intrigued by the my telling of the repeated needle pricks from the cortisone shots and how my mother called me brave as I sat still during the whole procedure.
I owe a lot to that girl in the photo. I can see a latent fierceness there, and all these years later I might be starting to uncover it. While I do remember how sad I was back then, I don’t want to go back to console my fears or take away those patches. I want to bring that young girl with me into the present, show her how to channel her anger and would-be shame into a different way of being—to bring those experiences into everything I am and pass them down through the coming generations.
October 2, 2014
Here’s my newest column for ABOUT the River Valley magazine. You can read the original post here.
I tend to be one of those parents who take and share a lot of photos of my children. At least part of the day, I keep my cellphone camera in my back pocket and frequently snap candid shots of my five-year-old sons playing trucks, digging in the dirt or caring for their baby dolls. I regularly take images of my three-month-old daughter, hoping to document that elusive first year as she grows exponentially by the day.
For years I rejected owning a so-called smart phone. I didn’t want to be distracted by the lure of constant information, and I certainly didn’t want to pay the phone bill that comes with it. But then there was that stormy spring of 2012. It seemed like every day sirens were blaring and we were huddled in the hallway with a mattress over our heads terrified and longing for a basement. We don’t have cable in our home, and the thought of a device that would alert me to the locations of fast-approaching storms held an illusion of safety. I caved and finally accepted the free upgrade my phone company had been offering me for years. Suddenly I could read the weather all day long, check Facebook whenever I wanted and take thousands of photos of every detail of our lives.
From the beginning, I tried to set healthy boundaries around my phone. It may seem ridiculous, but in our home we make it a constant practice to give ourselves large chunks of time away from the accoutrements of entertainment-based technology. Though it’s sometimes challenging to make a conscious decision to turn off the computer and put the phone away, it gives us time and space to notice the details of our daily lives: the colors of the sky, the pauses between our children’s sentences, the clue-filled ramblings of our own hearts and brains.
Turning off the computer feels freeing. Ignoring the constant flow of information from social media can be liberating. But fighting the endless desire to take photos of my kids and share them with dear friends and family? Now that’s a real challenge. Yes, it’s true I want to be in the garden all day far, far away from a scrolling news feed. But I also want a picture of having been there. Why? Am I a product of our societal addiction to information and over-sharing? Am I more concerned with capturing the moment than actually living in it?
My mother was the documentarian of our family. Even in the days before digital she managed to take thousands of photos. She never missed a chance to record a special occasion or a birthday cake or relative who came visiting. I’m not sure how she would have felt about Facebook or Twitter. But I’m pretty certain she would have loved Instagram. Years after her death I look through those boxes of photos and can put together fragments of my childhood, image by image. This is, of course, a gift beyond measure. I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s love for taking photos. Whereas she used film to capture special gatherings and events, the endless accessibility of my cellphone camera allows me to document frame after frame of the everyday stuff.
Though I love taking photos, I hate the thought of my kids feeling like they have to perform or be on display. Instead, I prefer to capture the daily chaos of it all: the late afternoons in the front garden, their hands and feet covered in dirt; the impromptu dance parties in the kitchen where there’s upbeat music and four little legs forever dancing underfoot; my daughter sitting on my husband’s lap on a Saturday morning, her fat little legs hanging out of her slightly stained onesie. The photos are often blurry, snapped quickly so as to not interrupt the movement of it all.
In the spirit of helping to develop autonomy in my children, I usually ask my sons if it’s okay to take their picture, quickly putting the camera down on those rare occasions when their reply is “no.” I’ll do the same for my daughter when she’s old enough to answer. But still I sometimes wonder, should I put down the camera more often? Despite my best attempts—or perhaps rationalizations—to never make them feel on display, still I ask: am I focusing more on capturing the moment then actually being in it?
My children’s lives are not my own and, within reason, I try to never force my own desires into their realities. After all, this is their childhood. Not my own to relive. And I recognize my yearning to take thousands of photos stems, at least partially, from my memories of my own mother. I see those boxes of photographs as one small way I can still be near her, viewing the world from her camera’s temporary lens. I fully understand the depth of the gift she left me in those large, unorganized Rubbermaid boxes.
Someday I want my children to have their own troves of treasures, albeit packaged in little small boxes we call hard drives. Even though my obsession with the ease of the cell phone camera is somewhat at odds with my desire to unplug, my children’s generation will likely have decidedly different views on the prevalence of hand-held devices. We older people likely won’t agree. But it won’t be our decision to make. And if my children someday choose to pilfer through my library of images, I hope they’ll find something useful about their pasts and the people who came before them, and, perhaps, a connection to what will most surely feel to them like a simpler place and time.
December 2, 2013
I love to garden. It’s a spiritual practice and therapy and a path to peace and all that kind of perspective-inducing thing. And I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. It’s also about food, of course, but mostly this stuff is all interchangeable. Watching a garden for even a season will teach you that time isn’t something you get to master. Things cycle. In a garden, the lines between death and rebirth are blurry at best. The lines between wild and cultivation are gray; there’s really no beginning or end. I could go on.
As I was taking down the garden a few weeks ago, a few days after the first frost had killed off the last of the green tomatoes, I noticed my sons and our youngest dog playing off to the side. Laughing, throwing leaves in the air, and running their cars through the soil they were clearly not feeling the weight of a coming dormancy. Instead they were mystified by the process of pulling up a garden and the beginnings of decay, and they kept running up to ask me questions about the roots and soil and the birds hopping around frantically before winter.
There I was holding the cold plants, thinking about how long it would be until the next Spring and how (literally) pregnant I would be by then, yet they were focused on the coming of dormancy like it was as magical as planting seeds.
It is, of course, just as beautiful. At least logically speaking. But very few humans like this part. It’s a lonely part, a quiet part. Most of what’s happening we can’t see, and there’s a metaphor that goes on for days. But my boys were fixated on the wonder of it all and mesmorized by the feel of the cold plants in their own small hands.
Inspired by their observations, and an attempt to deal with this concept of dormancy (something I’ve been ruminating on for years now), I decided to share some photos of my dead garden. Any gardener knows it’s never just about the spring. So why do our pictures always suggest this? isn’t this dishonest, really? To focus just on the ripening? The harvest is nothing without the dormancy, right?
So I’ve decided to refuse to talk only of harvest. Everything cycles, even if this is something I don’t always welcome.
October 9, 2013
This is a messy piece of writing. Hopefully the ideas are stronger than the structure.
Also, I love typos (not really, but you’d think so based on how many I employ).
My sons recently turned four.
They are now full-fledged little people. Not babies, not toddlers, but preschoolers-turned everyday scientists/philosophers/theologians who can communicate with actual words. They talk about ideas, needs, fears, joys. In short, the intense guesswork of early parenting has passed.
They can fix their own cups of water. They can even (sort of) clean up their own messes. They ask me questions about God, death, and love. Without encouragement from their parents they talk about how they love all people, including the “mean people.” They become fiercely angry at one another and throw punches. But within minutes they’re hugging and calling one another “my best friend.”
My hearts is so filled with love its in a perpetual state of burstiness.
The great thing about this age—and the sometimes tiring thing about this age—is they are so deeply curious about the world around them that it sometimes makes adults sleepy. On days when I’m feeling exhausted from the one billionth why/how question, I resort to my past life as a journalist and turn the tables on the situation: “I don’t know why that bee went to the red flower before it went to the yellow flower. “But, I’m curious. Why do you think it did,” I ask.
Every interviewer/oral historian knows that a good interview is one in which you say almost nothing. So I try and tap into that. Ask an open ended question, sit back and let them do most of the talking. After all, I’m pretty sure toddlers/preschoolers don’t actually expect real answers to most of those never-ending why questions. They’re just wanting to practice the art of communication. I have to admire that. It’s a noble quest, really, and one to which we all should aspire. After all, no matter how old we get, we’ll always struggle with saying what we mean—and, perhaps even more so, we’ll always struggle to hear what another person is saying. The desire to practice communication comes early, and I figure it’s the job of caregivers to honor that desire.
When they’re just sitting there talking, talking, talking I love them so much hurts and heals at the same time, and I often do that annoying parenting thing where I just stare at them in wonder. Who are these little people who cut me to the core?
Having made it all the way to four and seeing them become well-adjusted kids feels like a real accomplishment. And not just because they’re twins and twin infancy is hard.
I didn’t have a storybook pregnancy (who does?) and I often worried my kids might be adversely affected by what must have been a pretty intense womb existence. Parenting books about pregnancy tell you to try and reduce stress and all that. Once the kids are born you’re supposed to take care of yourself, blah, blah, blah. These are all great ideas, but not always realistic.
My mom died a few months before I found out I was pregnant. My dad was diagnosed with recurrent melanoma when I was about two months pregnant and we thought he was gonna die too. So I didn’t really have much chance to sit around and think about the magic of pregnancy. Instead, I spent a lot of time in cancer treatment centers watching families members get pumped full of chemicals that might cure or kill them, and I knew a lot more about cancer-fighting foods than prenatal vitamins. Every so often though I’d rub my belly and marvel at how life keeps going on, one way or another. I don’t care how cliché it sounds, I just had no idea the heart can be pulled in so many directions.
It’s not a popular thing to say about a time period that’s supposed to be all love and light, but during large chunks of my pregnancy I was sad in a way I still can not name. And I was experiencing cultural shock, rage, grief, and a loss of a faith I’m not sure I had in the first place. Having kids was never a life goal for me, and so I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what motherhood would feel like. But I was pretty certain that starting the whole thing off in a cloud of depression, grief and anger wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
I mean, really, I was still living a pretty charmed life. My dad had health insurance to pay for his treatments; I could afford a doctor for myself. There was food to eat and a place to live. Women give birth in war zones everyday. I try to keep it all perspective. But here’s my point: As I’ve grown older I’ve found it important to offer a counter narrative to the whole idea that healthy babies come from mothers who have privileged, blissed out pregnancies. We’ve got too many false pregnancy narratives in this world…the fairytale ones that are, ultimately, destructive. And what’s more, infancy isn’t always a haze of foggy joy, either. And a mother dealing with this kind of thing doesn’t need pity. She needs support. These things look and feel very different. And I figure one way we can learn to provide more support to moms is to talk about real situations. So here I am, talking about me.
Once my children got here things didn’t get much easier. My heart was full of joy and I was so in love. But blissed out? No, not at all. I had postpartum depression, or just a bigger version of pre-partum depression, who knows which. I experienced all kinds of breast feeding difficulty that broke my heart and made me want to throw things at people who talked about how “natural” the whole process was. My boys lost weight; a nurse once told me they needed to be sent to the “failure to thrive” clinic, a statement which led me to break down and start crying in the doctor’s office going on about my mother’s death and how fearful I was of…everything. She told me she’d make the boys an appointment at this so-called failure to thrive clinic and just left the room. She must have missed that class on bedside manner. Her lack of empathy is still shocking to me today. She must have seen so many hurting moms. Maybe she’d grown callous. But isn’t that a scary thought?
I came to find out later that it’s actually called the “Growth and Development” clinic, kind of a big cognitive difference, especially to a mom who might be losing her mind and is doubting her body. In the end, I never gave up on breastfeeding, and I’m still a huge advocate for it today. My advocacy is more nuanced now, filled with memories of my own struggles and a fierce belief in the power of women to make decisions about their own bodies. This is all to say, it is wholly possible to be a huge supporter of breastfeeding and have NO desire to condemn, judge, or even speculate about women who don’t nurse their babies.
I believe very strongly in the rights of women to nurse their children whenever and wherever they want. I think we need more cultural support for breastfeeding, and few things anger me as much as folks who shame mothers for nursing in public. But I equally don’t care for talk that makes it sound like every breastfeeding situation works perfectly or that a woman who is struggling must not be trying hard enough. Outspoken advocates of nursing do me a favor: Until you’ve been there, don’t ever think you understand the challenges that mother is facing. Don’t put yourself up on a pedestal because you’re nursing and the mom in the cafe sitting next to you is bottle feeding. If that is the kind of thought is running through your head—that judgy thought about another mom feeding her kid— maybe you need to do some deep thinking about what lies behind your desire to be a breast feeding advocating.
Back to the topic at hand.
As I watch my sons grow into little people who know how to stand up for themselves and are learning how to comfort one another, I don’t regret the less-than-blissful pregnancy or the hard days after their birth. Maybe not hiding them from sorrow, confusion, and fear has, and will, help them see hurt in others. Maybe it will help them think twice about how they interact with the people around them, reminding them to reach out to fellow humans in pain. Maybe I’m overreaching here, but I tend to think that refusing to run from/hide/ignore pain is one way we learn not to demonize people we don’t understand. Embracing our own struggles decreases our need to paint the world in binary shades. At the very least, I rest assured knowing my sons comprehend that life isn’t always easy. They can roll with the punches, so to speak. I think the less we become afraid of our pain, they more able we are to reach out to others. I hope they’ll be kids who can do that. More so than anything else, really. Brilliance is great; talent is awesome. Reaching out to others? Now that’s a life worth living, in my humble opinion.
My dad used to always tell me, “Opinions are likes asses. Everyone’s got one.” I’ve always taken that to heart and know that my opinion isn’t always too important. But, for what it’s worth, here’s an opinion: If you’re someone who finds pregnancy and infancy to be filled with trials, don’t worry. It won’t mess your kids up. That’s just the fear talking. We’re all stronger than we think they are, especially when we’re real with ourselves about it. Especially our kids—those little folks are super strong. And if you see another mom who’s struggling, don’t wonder about how it might affect her baby or how much she’s screwed up. Instead ask her, “What can I do to support you?” and then listen to what she has to say. I’m beyond grateful for the folks who saw my pain and stepped in to help. I mean it sincerely when I say if it weren’t for the support I received I would not be alive today. My pain was bad, but my fear of reaching out…that was the really detrimental part. There were people who cut through their own fear and kinda forced themselves into my life when I tried to pull away, and they were life savers.
So anyway, my sons can talk now, I got some help for depression, and this whole parenting thing is beginning to take on a new dimension. This has got me to thinking about what they’ve taught me about human touch. Before their words came, parenting was all about interpreting cries and or body language. When nothing else worked holding them close was almost always the best solution. This is true for the dying as well.
We all reach a point when words don’t matter. Touch is paramount. People talk about how you can hold babies too much and “spoil” them. I don’t buy that fearful concept for infants anymore than I do for dying adults. Never underestimate the importance of just being there, sharing human contact in the face of complete confusion. We come into this world confused we go out confused—-It happens to all of us—three to ninety-three. Just being there in the face of transition, skin to skin, is a powerful act of love. I’m not saying a person should have to strap their baby to them at all times (Although if I’d had only had one baby, I would certainly have made use of those slings 24-7). I’m just saying, when nothing else makes sense, try contact. It’s the least—maybe the most—we as humans can do.
We want to talk and reason our way through fear and pain and confusion. But in watching people die and in watching them come into the world, it’s so clear how words can sometimes stall our connection. Holding babies, holding the dying, it’s a sacred act, and I feel like that’s something deeply missing from our culture today. And the thing is, we’re all always being born; we’re all always dying. Just being there, just allowing yourself to be present in the face of confusion or pain, in a non-judgemental way, can cut through fear. I see it everyday in my sons’ eyes. We don’t lose this need for wordless presence as we grow. We learn to articulate it if we’re lucky.
So, now, an awkward transition to the third thing I’ve learned.
Sometimes I wish I would have kept a regular blog about my son’s milestones. I guess I do, actually. I just call it a journal, and I’ve left strict instructions to have all my journals burned upon my death. Just Kidding. But there are a lot of reasons I don’t write here as often as I’d like or why I don’t share photos or daily adventures. Mostly it’s because I’m trying to complete freelance deadlines and am always running behind. Partially it’s because I’m an over thinker and this leads me to silence. But partially it’s because I know it’s not really my place to write about them too often.
I’ve always been torn about sharing too much about kids not because of them losing a sense of privacy or because of crazy folks on the internet (although I respect that can be a real issue). I’m torn because I don’t want to try and write my own ideas onto these growing humans. I don’t want to interpret my own stories into their words, and I don’t want to pressure them to be anyone other than who they are. I don’t want to tell them what to grow up to be, you know? Either overtly or subtlety.
Oh, sure I believe in guidance and goals and rules and all that. I believe in demanding respect—of myself and of themselves and the people around them, whether it’s those we know or strangers. But what I’m saying is I don’t need them to grow up to be like me or my world—or at least that’s the kind of parent I want to be. This is taking more internal work than I expected because it isn’t easy to let something so close to you be so free. We want to find a way to keep our children safe and close, maybe even make it so they never get too far, literally or metaphorically. But I’m coming to realize that here’s the real work of parenting: learning to love the complete and whole person in all their complexity, joy, pain, and confusion. This isn’t a task that requires hemming in.
As our kids grow up and become more of themselves, I find that, as a culture, we often want to hide from our kid’s emotions. When they share our weaknesses we find it frustrating. When they possess strengths that are unlike our own, we may even get jealous and try and direct them to a more familiar emotion. I don’t think it’s something we even realize we’re feeling or reacting to.
But to some degree I think it’s a universal part of parenting, and a huge part of what folks mean when they say parenting makes them rethink everything. Parenting makes you rethink you. And let me tell you folks, I don’t care how enlightened you are. It’s scary in there.
Kid’s feelings make grown folks anxious. It’s so raw, so unmediated, and so familiar. No wonder we have a hard time dealing with adult complexity. If we can’t look at our own mess we sure can’t handle the rolling snowball of confusion that is toddlerhood.
Like everything else worth doing, parenting is messy, disorderly, emotionally exhausting. It’s not a bunch of pinterstry matching outfits cute family photo shoots. It’s crap in the hallway and not a paper towel in sight, it’s waking up at four a.m. to the sound of little feet coming into your room when your empathy tank is running on empty; it’s this fierceness of love you feel that’ll scare the ever-loving cuss words out of you. These little people, they look at us and force us to see who we really are and who we want to be.
Watching my sons these last four years I’ve come to gain a sense of what Quakers mean when they say that there is something of God in each of us. And I’m not talking about some overly simplistic ideas about innocence. I’m talking about little tiny humans who come into the world knowing things that never leave any of us—pain, hunger, a desire to search/seek something beyond ourselves, and the need for other humans/love. It doesn’t matter who we become, we never lose that vulnerability, that ache that looks for peace. It the end, we’re all just people who want to love. If that sounds cheesy, then maybe you’re too busy.
I mean, seriously. Sit still and rock a baby for an hour. Sit at a dying person’s bedside. Weed a garden; stare at a mountain. That’s all it’s really about—that weird place between living in mystery and finding acceptance, love, whatever you want to call it. I’m not saying we should all sit in silence all the time or criticize people who are busy all the time to keep their families fed. But I am saying that fear and business can sometimes cheat us into scoffing at the realest of things. Like, you know, love.
I am not a person with a wellspring of peace, despite my desire for it. I grew up in a very conservative church focused more on rules than faith. As I’ve grown older I’ve made dear friends from all walks of belief (or lack thereof), and I try to approach the world with a respect for mystery. I try to take time to stare at mountains, which really does help. But the truth is, I want to understand things. Like, I really, really, really want to understand things. I want answers. I want research, I want data, I want a storyline, I want reasons. I LOVE reasons. I talk about mystery. I stare at mountains. But some days, I still want reasons.
But, that’s not really something that’s all together real, at least it doesn’t seem so real when cancer takes your mother or your child isn’t gaining weight. I mean, they just aren’t always there. Reasons seem to us as somehow more real than mystery. But what a silly concept, right?
So I try and embrace mystery, and I don’t care if that makes me sound new agey or too Christiany, or whatever box you think that phrase originated from. I mean, I know this is an impossible task, this embrace of mystery. It’s not like I’m somehow going to get to a place where I accept it, fully. I don’t think humans really get to do that. We do the best we can.
But here’s the thing about mystery and parenting. I feel like too often we talk of parenting as something we do to mold children, as if they come out either blank slates or flawed beings and we their only savior. I wonder what this says about our culture that our dominant thought as parents is that we’re here to teach them. Like we’ve got a key or something. I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around, at least a good portion of the time.
Sure they need rules and guidance. They need to learn how to be in society and learn the world doesn’t revolve around them. I’m not trying to downplay any of that. Structure is essential; manners are awesome.
But the love part? They already have that down. As adults with broken hearts, we try and read into their actions all kinds of ideas that speak to our own fears, all the while missing something essential about love. Maybe they’re trying to manipulate us by crying!, we think. When they drop that spoon on the floor over and over again are they trying to pull one over on me?, we may wonder.
I don’t want to tell anyone what to believe about their children. But here’s my take on the needs of babies, even toddlers: They just have needs and they’re trying to get them met. Experimentation of gravity is a need. Comfort and security is a need. And they’re reaching out the folks who can meet those needs. The people they trust. We may not always feel the need to engage in their spoon-dropping game, for example. But it’s not some kind of malicious scheme, as I have seriously heard people suggest.
Babies don’t learn how to screw with people until they’re much older, and sometimes I wonder how much of that is so-called manipulation is exacerbated by our own waiting—-our belief that there must be something in our children that wants to take advantage of us, even though we’re talking about little people who can’t even wipe their bottoms. I’m not saying kids don’t try our patience or test boundaries. Sure they do. But intentionally try and mess with your heads? No, I’m certain that’s an adult thing. It takes years of sadness and fear to master that trait.
Okay, so here’s maybe my point here. My kids are four. They’re highly verbal; they communicate; much of the guesswork of early parenting without verbiage is over. And here’s something they taught me in all those days of fragmented communication: Parenting isn’t about me.
Okay, sure, having kids is, in many ways, the most selfish thing you can do. Doesn’t Louis C.K. have a great bit about that? You’re replicating yourself; I get it. But once the kids are here it’s not really about us parents anymore. And I’m not talking about parents giving everything of themselves to fulfill their kid’s every whim, either. Kids need to know their parents are people too, people who still have feelings, dreams, goals, fears, boundaries.
I’m talking about how parenting isn’t about raising up little versions of ourselves to somehow fulfill our own expectations of life. They’re just here to be, mostly. But beyond that, if we sit still and just know that inside of them is a good person, a loving person, a being that wants to grow up and be in community with others, we can realize that most of the time it isn’t our kids who need help learning how to be “good.” It’s us.
And the best part is they don’t really know they have this wisdom, which, in my opinion, makes it more believable. Call me jaded, but anytime anyone tells me they’ve got something figured out I know they’re lying.
But here’s what I think is quite possibly the best thing about watching kids: Their days are nothing but a long series of mistakes. And they don’t care! They fall down, they get up. They try throwing food across the kitchen, they learn that doesn’t work out so well for them, they try something new. They’re the poster creatures for trial and error. It’s brilliant, really.
Bless their little hearts, they have no choice. They can’t talk or reason their way to understanding the world. So they just try and fail, try and fail, try and try and try. They could just give up and think this whole growing up thing is too riddled with disapproval. But they just kinda roll with the critiques and smash their way to middle school.
So one last story. I named one of our son’s Percy, which is short for perseverance (I figured the kids already had three names and a hyphenated last name, so we’d make it easier on him with the whole Percy thing).
I’m a big believer in thinking deeply about names. It’s something that sticks with you forever. It ought to really mean something, right? I like names that tell stories, something a child can grow into and stories they can interpret in their own ways as they become who they are. So anyway, we gave him that name because we wanted him to have that idea to return to when times got tough—something he could sink into when life got confusing.
But I see now that the only one struggling with perseverance was me. After all, it’s the tenacity of babies and toddlers that often make their parents emotionally unstable. When I watch my son react to the world (even me) with persistence, despite how much it might wear on my patience, I know deep down this is what will make his life rich with meaning. This is what will help him in struggles, which he will most surely have. If he can bring that fighting spirit into adulthood he might able able to love in the face of pain, to choose love over fear, to seek lasting peace, to care for the earth, and stand up for himself and for others. He could fight for a more just, a more loving world. Everything starts in babyhood.
But he doesn’t have that trait because I gave him that name. He has that trait because he’s a human–filled with love, chaos, and a fighting spirit. My job as a parent isn’t to give that to him.
Maybe my job as a parent, someone so blessed to be his/their caretaker, is to see that he doesn’t lose it along the way.
December 31, 2012
This was originally published in Savvy Kids magazine as the December edition of the monthly “Penny Wise” column. You can read my regular posts for Savvy Kids here.
When I think of Christmas it’s not typically the trees or lights that first come to mind, but rather the warm squishiness of a clump of cookie dough, or a dense buttery piecrust, in my flour-covered hands. I love the feel of the rolling pin moving across the bumpy textures and the yielding malleability of a simple sugar cookie awaiting shaping. Baking is such a tactile experience, the transformation of a weighty mass of disparate flavors into a light, doughy, chewy morsel of warm perfection. Ultimately it’s the hint at alchemy that sustains my interest, the transformation of so many separates into such a satisfying whole.
Growing up with my maternal grandmother in a multi-generational home, and with the other grandparents less than five minutes away, kitchen alchemy was part of daily life. These were women who had cooked from scratch their entire lives; women who survived the Depression. They knew how to make delicacies like wild Muscadine jelly and how mix up a little flour, eggs, and water and create a feast. But during the holidays they, along with my mother, would go all out. Cookies and pies for days, y’all. And the best part was they always let me help.
I can clearly remember my maternal grandmother’s wonderful butter-stained recipe cards and her wrinkled hands in the dough, flour in the crevices of her silver wedding rings. Her kitchen was tiny and her movements precise. She’d give me eggs to whisk or flour to sift, and if I ever drove her crazy being so small and underfoot she never let me know about it. Providing me with an opportunity to fall in love with cooking was more important to her than a clean kitchen.
When I think of my mother baking, I recall her moving around her own small kitchen like a speed skater, the constant swish of the athletic pants she was so found of wearing in her last years, and surrounded by three different cookies in various stages of completion. She had this wonderful and weird quirk of baking at all nontraditional times of the day. Come Christmas time she was likely to be whipping up cookies into the wee morning hours, and more often than not, even as a young girl, I’d be up with her. It was way past my bedtime, of course. But she knew those magical moments of midnight alchemy were worth infinitely more than following bedtime rules for their sake alone.
When my sons were first learning to speak and their words were few and (adorably) far between, they called any muffin, cookie, or biscuit I made a “mama cracker.” I’ve always marveled at their creative and highly descriptive use of limited language, including their short stint referring to ice cubes as “water crackers.” But the phrase “Mama cracker” was especially touching. They’d watched me make these baked goods and therefore named them after me. Such a name wasn’t just creative use of limited language. It was an idea funneled through a sieve.
According to Miriam Webster, the word “alchemy” has a few definitions, including the more historic concept of medieval chemical science, which involved a “speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” But it’s also a word meaning “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” and/or “an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.” What is baking if not the process of transforming of something common (flour, eggs, milk) into something special? And, beyond that, baking has become one of my many attempts to mysteriously (or blatantly) transmute stories from one generation to the next.
My mother and both grandmothers are gone now, and the holidays are, at best, bittersweet days reminding me of this deep loss. They weren’t perfect people, but they were the women who taught me about being a woman, and I’ve learned that baking is one way I can channel the sadness of this loss into a more peaceful memory. I see my grandmother’s hands in my own, and I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s curse of kitchen multi-tasking and late night baking. Not nearly as patient as the women who came before me, I try to remember to shrug off the mess as my sons’ attempts at stirring sends a large cloud of flour into the air and onto the floor. When they break the egg with too much force, sending the shells into the mixing bowl, I get a fork and pick them out. After all, this is how they’ll learn to love the magic of baking, which is something I really want for them as men. And such pilfering through such childhood memories may be one of the ways they’ll one day search for me when I’m gone. I’d rather not be remembered as the woman who freaked out about broken eggs.
I’m a folklorist, and we often talk about Foodways, the study of the gathering, preparation and consumption of food. In this sense, food is a window into a much larger exploration of a given region, the cultures within that region, and the unique and individual stories that contribute to the larger whole. Looking at the stories behind food is like peering into a series of window opening out not only to the past but also towards the future. When I teach my sons how to cook I’m channeling my grandmother who channeled her grandmother; I’m channeling my mother who learned from her aunts and cousins. And, in some small way, I’m laying the groundwork for the men my sons will become. So it’s not just a pie (slightly crunchy from the eggshells) my sons and I are making. It’s a mysterious transmuting of one generation to the next, a ritual transforming many common things (food, memories, parents) into something special.
December 31, 2012
Regardless of age, there’s something about autumn that tugs at our core. The new crunch underfoot, sharper air, and richer colors. After a light rain, the moist leaves collect in gutters and along roadways, filling the air with an earthy, sweet smell of decomposition. Those that don’t make it to the gutters are crushed by cars and pairs of so many hurried feet, becoming little ghosts of themselves, their outlines haunting the sidewalks for weeks.
Autumn is so clearly a time of transition. As an adult, and as a gardener, there’s a tinge of grief in knowing that ultimately autumn is not the joyous, electric, pregnant rebirth of spring, but rather a shift toward the dormancy of winter. The colors are deep and rich just before everything turns brown and gray. Soon everything freezes and the plants reign in their activities to focus attention to their invisible processes underground.
Whether it’s the literal or conceptual variety, dormancy isn’t something most humans do well. Or at least that’s the case for most that I know. Props to you if you are wiser. Whereas we may mentally understand the plants aren’t actually dead but just storing up to burst forth in a vibrant spring, we seldom enjoy the waiting. And for those of us who have lost loved ones there seems to be something about fall that exaggerates the hurt. The days get longer, the natural world less colorful. Autumn signals that transition into a process of waiting, the silence, and long periods of dark that are so reminiscent of the mourning process.
My three year old sons, unfettered by thoughts of time (or perhaps more aware of it than I) are fascinated with the spark and immediacy of this seasonal transition. The cooler air has pushed their already energetic selves into a whole new realm of excitement, their little voices perpetually turned up to 11. Even our elderly, overweight dog—who has spent most of the summer panting and dozing on the hardwood floor—seems to be coming alive, running down the back steps and sprinting through the leaves, ears perked up to chase a squirrel run the fence line. Who can deny the zap of the unexpected chill or the magic of texture-rich leaves that lay in drifts around the city? My sons love to reach down and grab them up and throw them in the air, crunch them in their hands, and stare intently at all the little lines and shapes.
Watching my sons I forget the sadness of fall and reminded of my own childhood leaf exploits. All raked up in a big pile, I was about six or seven and I had grown bored of running and jumping in them. Always a little to anxious for a home of my own, I wondered if I might be able to build some kind of house out of them. All I needed was some kind of paste, I thought. I’d mold them together and then make a dome of sorts. I slipped in the kitchen, mixed up some flour and water and egg to produce some kind of plaster. I dumped it on some of the leaves and began my attempt to sculpt a hut. My trusty dog—whom I had ever so creatively named Pups at age five—had other ideas. As I tried to mold the leaves, he ate the dough. Clearly he was much smarter than me, instinctively knowing the only thing that pasty mixture was good for.
My sons are not quite old enough to attempt to build leaf forts, and I hope when they are they’ll be a bit smarter about the whole process. But they are fascinated with this dying part of the tree, and I’m endlessly thankful for their curiosity and willingness to fall in love with autumn without fear of winter. The best education, of course, is observation, and so we go traipsing along, talking about the different shapes of the leaves, how each leaf can tell us about the tree from which it came. This gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of being a good steward to these living creatures that provide us with oxygen, shade, and healthy soil. And we’re not unique in this. If you spend much time online you’ve probably noticed all the parenting blogs are overflowing with leaf crafts, recommendations for leaf books, and instructions on how to make an alphabet chandelier from leaves (just kidding about that last one, although I’m sure some super mom somewhere has done this). I have yet to meet a young child, or a parent, who isn’t fascinated by leaves or fascinated with our child’s fascination. To state the obvious, trees are downright amazing.
More often than I’d like, I wind up using guidebooks and Google to learn the name the varieties. Despite living in the central Arkansas area for most of my life, I have so much to learn about these giants all around me. Whereas my grandparents knew almost all their names and their uses, my parents’ generation has, regrettably, lost sight of this magical knowledge that I’m so desperate to pass on to my children. But isn’t that how it goes? What one generation forgets the other seeks. And it works both ways. Watching my children find amazement in the wind shaking the leaves from the trees reminds me that transition is a fundamental part of life. Nothing something to be feared but rather something to embrace, as best we can.
May 12, 2012
In the back yard, near the fence, there’s a large patch of bolted collard greens. We’re gardeners, but we didn’t plant them there. Like so many greens, they just volunteered, the horticultural remnants of someone who lived in this old house long before us. When they first started to flower I left them there because those small, yellow flowers are so beautiful, the butterflies and bees love them, and, besides, I wanted to save some of the seeds.
After they bolted I saved some of the seeds but didn’t have the heart to rip the mature plants from the ground. The boys love to play near them, reaching up to grab the seed pods and talk about all the “baby seeds” inside. And the tall stalks provide a nice area for the dogs to run through. (Also they (the dogs) poop on the other side of the collard greens near the fence and I like that the collard separate us from the doggie toilet). And besides, we’re using the area near the house as our gardening space, so I don’t really need that patch of ground and have no real reason to dig them up, other than, I guess, the fact that it’s possibly considered somehow unseemly to let things grow like that in the city. But that’s one of the reasons I love our neighborhood. Folks around here are fine with little bit of disorder. The collards border our neighbor’s equally overgrown fence. It’s not a place for manicured lawns or orderly front porches, thank goodness. The gardens are wild and beautiful; the houses lived in and loved.
So these collards. They’ve been bleached by the sun, turning an almost bone color. Sometimes when the dusk sun hits them just right, they give off a matte sheen, catching your eye the same way you might suddenly notice a little mammal skull in the woods. They fall under the weight of the heavy seed pods and look tired and weary. Their roots are jutting from the ground, thick and overgrown like a root crop. But yet there’s something magical about them.
Maybe it’s something about the lonesome sound they make when the dogs runs through them or when a young child reaches up to shake the percussive seed pods. Sometimes I’ll find myself getting lost just watching them in the breeze, which, by now, only barely stir the heavy pods. These moments of deep thought are only seconds long. Toddlers don’t really ‘get’ meditation and it’s not too long before I have to go and break up a fight over a toy car, re-explain the importance of gentleness and patience, and redirect to a new activity.
Often at night when I’m lying in bed, and I have a few minutes in silence, my mind will flash to images of childhood and my mother. They’re mosaic bits of memory, largely unformed images, little slivers really, snapshots of things like our old gold carpet or a kitchen tablecloth. Not my mother, but things that remind me of her. Images safe enough to doze off to.
And sometimes when I’m sitting on the back porch, dirt under my nails from gardening, gathering up a few short second to watch my sons play monster trucks or look for “worms and carpolis (in case you did not know, this is a mix between a caterpillar and worm and a rolly polly) in the mounds of dirt, I’ll stare out at those collards. And I often wonder if I were to run through them, my arms outstretched and palms open to catch and shake lose all the dried seed pods, if maybe, just maybe, I’d break through some kind of portal, of sorts. I’d be able to not only see the gold carpet of my childhood home, but also hear my mother’s feet upon it. The tablecloth would become more than just a tablecloth. It would take its place in the motion and smells of a Sunday dinner she prepared. I wonder if maybe those collards, the long finger-like seed pods, might transform under my callouses and feel like my mother’s hand.
February 22, 2012
I was never very good at telling my mother how much I appreciated her. And I was never too big on overly sentimental gifts. But every so often I would give my mother a statement present, something blatantly reminding her she was wonderful and loved. She adored that kind of thing, which, as a mother, I kind of get now. You give so much and sometimes the reserves run a little low. You need someone to actually tell you you’re doing a decent job raising humans.
I’m not much for sentimental books or cards, but even as an adult I’ve always appreciated the value of a good children’s book. The message is usually direct and practical, tender but not sappy, funny and sincere without needless flourish. Sure, I guess they’re sentimental too. Whatever. We all have our ideas about what that words means.
Not too long ago I found this book in my mother’s things. According to the inscription in the front, I gave it to her in 1997. So I would have been around 19, living away from home for the first time. I knew how hard it was for her to get used to not seeing her only child on a daily basis. I must have felt a need to remind her of the status she held in my life, even if I was often too busy to call.
I thought about stashing the book away in one of the many shoeboxes where I save this scrap or that, endless cardboard containers filled with decades old handwriting and rotting paper. I’m a hobby archivist. Not a hoarder. Just saying.
But instead I decided to give the book to my sons. They’re usually pretty gentle, but I knew even if they tore it up that would be better than letting it sit unnoticed in a deep, dusty box. It’s become one of their favorite books. “Read Grover’s Mommy?” they ask me everyday. Some days I remind them it was Mamma’s book. Some days I don’t.
What I love most about the book, and why I think I purchased it in the first place, is because the first picture of Grover’s mother looks strangely like my own, you know, minus the blue furry skin and all that. That hair, my mom wore a similar coif. Crisp red blazer? That was a staple in my mom’s wardrobe, especially when paired with wool pants, much like Grover’s mommy is sporting. For those of you that knew my mother, don’t you see the resemblance?
Who knows. Maybe it’s just me and that whole thing about seeing the world through grief glasses or something. Some days I think I see her everywhere. Other days I have that empty feeling of having not seen her for years.
But every time I open the book, I think of my mom in her preppy clothes, every hair in place, bright red jacket freshly ironed. Sure it’s a tender memory, but it’s also hilarious. I mean, look at this picture. I’m finding my mother in a muppet.
After I recall her polished appearance I’ll think of myself at nineteen, baggy skate jeans, messy hair, always a bit socially awkward and confused. But my mom was always so social, so polished, like Grover’s mom.
The book goes on to tell us that Grover’s mommy can fix a bike, throw a party, grow vegetables, and design costumes. She’s a “fearless explorer,” and a “math whiz,” riding bicycle paths and helping Grover solve tough equations like 1+2=3.
And, of course, on the last page it’s Grover who wears the cape, the super one, the one she made for him during her stint as an “expert costume designer.” Oh, the layers. There’s a reason there’s lit crit for kid’s books. What a minefield.
January 15, 2012
My mom would have been sixty-seven today. Since her death in 2008 I always write something on her birthday because I always find myself, more than usual, trying to conceptualize what today would be like if she were still alive.
One of the hardest parts of grief—and one I seldom hear people discuss—is how, after a certain point, you start to have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have the person in your daily life again. The world they knew before their death—the interactions between people, the relationships, the homes, even the people in the homes—have changed, sometimes drastically. The world is a different place, partially because of their leaving and partially because of the simple fact that nothing ever stops moving. Every day a tiny change occurs. Put all those changes together and add up the years and the next thing you know we have a hard time imagining the selves we once were.
This constant motion of life is, in my opinion, is equal parts beautiful and absolutely terrifying. It comes with an ache that is hard to name. How is it that we become so many different versions of ourselves?
If I could talk to my mom, what would I tell her about this life she left? Maybe I’d tell her about how much her grandsons love to talk, how verbal they are and how much they yearn to describe the world around them. Or maybe I’d tell her about how much they love one another and how she doesn’t have to worry about them growing up a weirdo only child like me. They have the unique experience of having no idea what it’s like to be alone.
Maybe I’d tell her how I’ve started writing again after years of swearing I was done with that. Or that I learned to knit or that we found a great home for her dog, Spanky, where he now lives the lap of luxury. I would for sure tell her how all her cousins and her friends came together and took me in, showing me that I had a family and letting me get to know each of them. I’ve been cared for by people I’d barely talked to before her death. And I think that, more than anything, speaks volumes about the kind of woman my mother was. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve had people tell me of the kind things my mother did for them, the countless ways she helped people I didn’t even know she knew. I don’t know how things work in the afterlife, but I’d like to think my cousin Rosemary, who passed away recently, has already filled her in on how I joined her family and how many wonderful times we had around her kitchen table.
There’s some degree of peacefulness in knowing that if mom were here today she might not recognize much of my life, or my father’s life, or the homes we live in. That might sound strange at first, but it’s peaceful because it means the stabbing pain of loss has somewhat subsided and because, at least on some level, we’ve done what she would have wanted us to do: keep going. The stabbing pain has been replaced with a different kind of hurt, a kind of constant longing, a constant wondering about the whys of life. The reality of grief is that it does not go away. It just changes. Thankfully, with these changes come some measure of peace and we learn to laugh and truly find joy. But the ache? No, that never goes away.
One thing I’ve learned these last few years is that finding peace in loss has nothing whatsoever to do with escaping pain. This realization that life goes on, well, that’s its own form of grief. It’s like this: You believe you’ll never be able to function like a normal person again having watched your mother die before what you felt was her time. But then you do. Not because you’re strong, but because you don’t have much choice. The sun goes down, it comes up, you still get hungry, there are bills to pay, you can’t find matching socks in the laundry pile, and emails, there are emails to send. In my case, there are babies to take care of, and to love, and somehow between feeling endlessly jerked back and forth between pure joy and crushing sadness, you realize you wake up one morning and you’re on the other side of the sharpest pain of loss.
Or at least this loss. There will be more, of course. And with each person we lose, we re-grieve all those others. Maybe these losses help us see more layers to life. You start to realize that whatever exactly happens after we leave this world, there are a lot of people you know on that other side. This realization is sad, of course. But regardless of what you believe about the afterlife (or lack thereof), I think there’s something potentially grounding about this. They’re adding up over there, all those folks you love and cared for you. Maybe they’re waving, you know, like waves of grass or something? I’ll skip the over-arching metaphors. But there’s something hopeful about the thought of knowing the dead.
Initially you think they’ll be gone, unreachable, beyond comprehension. But then, somehow, time goes by and on certain days they’re not. You start to find out that they’re around. In places you never expected.
Now, people will tell you this when you’re first grieving, but it won’t mean much to you and you’ll largely ignore these comments. When you’re first grieving, it’s not enough to know that your voice sounds like your mother’s or that your children have her eyes. Sure, it’s nice to hear. But you just want the real deal. You can’t tell your laugh that you love it and you can’t ask your baby’s eyes for advice about how to get children to sleep. But after some time goes by it will be magical to hear yourself laughing and hear your mother. You’ll get actual chills when you see her eyes in your children’s. My friend Sam told me about this. She was right.
And there are lots of other not-so-literal ways you’ll find the dead hanging around, but I’d just butcher those beautiful images if I tried to put them into words. It’ll be hard to explain to yourself what you’re seeing and even harder to describe to others. But other people who have lost loved ones will likely understand because they’ll have felt it too. And since we all lose those we love, that’s all of us.