Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

Photo by Johnny Sain for ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.

This pice was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine. 

We were somewhere between Conway and Maumelle when my son asked, “ Where does outer space lead to?” It was around 8:30 at night and there were few cars on the interstate. Out the windows empty fields stretched in either direction and thousands of stars filled the sky. Our other two children had already drifted off to sleep. As per usual, our middle child (only a minute younger than his twin brother) was fighting sleep by asking the deep, existential questions.

We had spent the previous few days in Yell County and were headed back to Little Rock. Stars were on the brain. The night before—far away from the light and noise of the city—we’d looked up at fuzzy clouds of stars overhead, trying to pick out some of the constellations we’d been reading about in an old book I’d found about space. My sons are often taken aback by what they perceive to be more stars hanging over Dardanelle. My husband and I explained how the same stars are also overhead at our home in Little Rock; we just lose sight of them in the glow of so many streetlights. I felt dizzy that night looking up into the deep expanse. I remembered how, as a child, I used to love to take a flashlight and shine it up into the sky, baffled that the light never found something upon which to land.

As we drove toward home we talked about the solar system and the theories of an expansive universe. We talked about rocket ships and gravity and orbits and, per request, we talked about ideas of heaven and the mysteries of life after death. I dug deep into my brain to try and pull up what I could remember from that astronomy class so many years ago. I think I can speak for both my husband and myself when I say that it was one of those moments when you realize how inadequate your understanding really is. In the end our answers came down to that frequent parental confession: “I don’t know.”

20150101_112021As my children grow older and ask increasingly complex questions, I find myself saying that phrase a lot. But I am usually able to follow it up with, “let’s look it up!” But this time I had the pleasure of explaining that even those who study space don’t know exactly what lies beyond. With the universe always expanding the beyond is still being created. We let the silence and the weight of the question hang in the car, a “beautiful mystery” as we like to call it in our home. I’ve always encouraged my sons to find hope in the unknown. After all, even with our advanced scientific exploration (something for which I also teach them to have great respect), there our limits to our understanding. I’ve always operated under the conviction that a reciprocal relationship with God can’t be built upon an evasion of mystery. It wasn’t long after that he drifted off to sleep and my husband and I turned our adult conversations toward more earthly topics like world affairs and plans for the following day.

There are a lot decisions I’ve made as a parent that I later question. And I’m thankful each day for the opportunity for a do-over from the day before. But our bedtime rituals aren’t in that list. Over the years I’ve learned that connecting with children around bedtime is one of the more magical parts of the day. As they drift toward sleep they lose their shields, employing their growing vocabularies to ask questions that would baffle even the elderly. I’ve always seen this to be such an act of bravery on their part. As humans, being able to lay down in the night, in the stillness of our bodies, and look into that which we don’t understand isn’t for the weak of heart. As a parent I try to give space to this process and stick around whenever they want me near. My gut feelings is that encouraging this contemplation will likely serve my kids well as they grow into adults attempting to navigate a world filled with injustice and complexity. I welcome the chance to tell my children there is so much I don’t understand. Most importantly I feel these moments are one of the many ways in which they’ll learn to develop a relationship with things they can not see.

20141110_204857Oh don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every bedtime is a peaceful, mystical exploration of life’s greatest questions. In their fatigue sometimes they’re extra grumpy and fight about how their brother’s foot bumped against their foot or how they want the pajamas their brother picked out first. Sometimes they fight sleep by requesting yet another glass of water or arguing with their brother about who the blanket belongs to. In other words, it’s not all magic and mystery. I don’t think these are specifically childhood traits but rather human ones. After all, how often do we adults find ourselves thinking, even talking about, the importance of human connection and the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity only to get sidetracked into speculating on the worth of another human’s heart just because they spoke to us with a tone we didn’t like. It’s not as if kids have secured the market on being petty. In the end we’re humans with human brains and human bodies. We get sidetracked. But sometimes, whether we’re 50 or five, we manage to cut through it all and reach toward something beyond ourselves. There is something about the darkness that encourages this reach. I want my children to feel unafraid in that balance.

A few more miles down the interstate, nearing the lights of the city, it occurred to me that I’d been so busy trying to answer my sons questions that I hadn’t offered him the chance to explore his own thoughts on the matter. When we got back into town and he began to wake back up I asked what he thought. “Where do you think it leads to?” The moment had passed, he was groggy, and he didn’t really have much to say on the matter. But I’m glad I asked. I know he’ll file the question away, knowing that there is room in this world, and in this family, for his own ruminations. He’ll sit with them as goes about his days and they’ll likely resurface some evening when he’s staring at the stars, or the ceiling of his room, making his way toward rest. I look forward to learning from his ever-evolving answers.

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Why I write about caregiving and community.

Why I write about caregiving and community. Photo by Rachel Townsend.

When I first started writing stuff about grief and parenting and gardening such, I had very distinct lines of delineation. My public, published pieces for the Boiled Down Juice and the regional publications kind enough to run my words were always about cultural studies and intergenerational work and justice and such. And they were all told at a distance.

On the other hand, this space right here was all about babies and mammas and plants. My babies and mama and plants.  For a short time I wrote a parenting related column for a local magazine and housed that here. But basically what you find here are rambles of the personal sort.

Well, lately I have found that my Seed and the Story column and my column for ABOUT the RIver Valley sometimes touch on parenting and plants in an increasingly personal way that can make me feel uncomfortable. I’m losing a sense of these strict lines I used to have.

Sometimes I can’t figure out if something I’ve just written is more of the personal variety or more of the distanced, public kind. I think about it for a while and then someone yells “Mama!!!” and I get distracted.

From the piece "Runny Dry."

From the piece “Runny Dry.”

Sometimes I want to step in and stop this overlap. Go back to my clear-cut lines. Quit talking about the personal and the public in one breath. But I’m a busy mom, and I’ve come to the shaky conclusion that I’m going to write what seems to make the most sense to me, even if I can’t figure out where to put it  and the lines are all blurry. Such is honesty, I suppose.

So, with that thought in mind, here are links to some recent pieces that I’ve run on the Boiled Down Juice and regional publications. I keep writing about care giving and what it means to come together as caregivers. It seems honest to me, so I guess I’ll keep doing it.

Here are some recent pieces.

As always, you can keep up with my contributions to the Boiled Down Juice here. You can learn more about our McElroy House work here. 

“Kabtt–Zinn and the Importance of Caregiving and Intergenerational Connections” 

“Running Dry: A Creek Discovery”

“Something for the Kids: Simple Salt Dough” 

“Ella’s Song: The Importance of Coming Together as Caregivers” 

“Prayer Shawls and Homemade Quilts”

Image by Image

October 2, 2014

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Creek Walkers

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.

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On the blanket handmade by Auntie Heather.

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?

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Bug search

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.

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Early morning,

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.

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Yard cleanup

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.

August Born

September 3, 2014

Always running.

Always running.

This column was written for the September issue of ABOUT the RIver Valley Magazine. Read the original post here. 

My twin sons started preschool this week. They looked so tiny yet so grown up as they ran to the front door of our house with their giraffe and fox backpacks precariously balanced on their small bodies. It seems everywhere they go these days they run. “Use your walking feet!” I catch myself saying over and over again. They’re still young and clumsy, and in their never-ending excitement they often crash into one another, their legs and feet tangled together as they trip and fall in the quest to get to…anywhere.

Days spent with these near five year olds are filled with laughter and endless questions: “Want to hear my joke?” “Can you read this book?” “Can we go for a an adventure walk?” “Can I use these scissors to make a hole in the tree?” “Can I borrow the hammer to build something in my room?” “Do you think the ants stare at your feet when you put them in the creek?” “Are there sharks in this water?” “Why does it take six hours to freeze a popsicle? “Can I have a snack?”

These days of endless questions are punctuated by sharp moments of intense sibling rivalry only later to be soothed over in still, calm silence where one or both boys become silently enraptured with an ant hill, or a pile or rocks, or a lego project. No matter how I try to make the most of each moment, there is an intensity and an acceleration to their existence. It makes me dizzy.

Always sleepy.

Always sleepy.

Then there is my two month old daughter. She eats; she poops; she sleeps; she wakes for short periods of time to smile and make the most beautiful babbly sounds. But then she’s back to eating and sleeping again. Though I know from experience just how fast these baby days go by, when I am feeding her on the living room couch or dancing her around the kitchen as I sing her to sleep, the moments pass in a hazy languor. Regardless if we’re sitting down at busy restaurant or at a park filled with screaming four year olds, when I hold and nurse this fat, little person, there is a stillness to our interactions, a momentary pause that proceeds the lively days of endless exploration ahead.

This week I was looking out over my overgrown garden, frustrated that I can’t keep up with everything. It needs weeding, harvesting, watering, and maintenance of all kinds. It happens this way every year. During the spring when things are just beginning to come up it’s so easy to savor each new sprout. I keep the garden tidy and somewhat neat. I tend to each little growth. But by summer everything just gets out of control. The whole thing becomes organized chaos at best. My daughter feels much like an early spring in my arms (at least for now). In my hands I hold on gently to the growing hands of my August-born five year olds as they run into the world growing, growing, growing. My boys are so clearly the summer.

Messy garden.

Messy garden.

Seasoned parents are forever telling new parents to enjoy these baby and preschool days. “They grow so fast,” everyone says. My mother died just a few months before I realized I was pregnant with our first children. I entered into parenting hyper aware of the swift passage of time and our inability to slow it down, bottle it, control it. When the days are hard and long and everyone is having a meltdown and the cat throws up in the floor and I am behind on my work and someone has a sick stomach that results in major accident in the front yard right right as I realize I’ve locked myself out of the house, I try (emphasis on the word try, of course) to remind myself that this moment is still joyful. We’re together, we’re safe, our basic needs are met and there’s an abundance of acceptance and love. Everything else is just detail. Somedays I manage to live in that reality and the days are magic. Somedays I get caught up in the details. Parenting is a process of endless learning and growing in its own right.

There was a time when I thought my awareness of time might somehow save me from time itself. After all, I told myself, I know what it was like to face unexpected loss. I thought, perhaps, that by living each moment fully I could make it through my children’s growing up years with my heart in tact. But here’s the thing fellow parents forget to mention: It doesn’t matter how much awareness you bring to each moment: the time still goes by faster than you can prepare for or even comprehend. Yes, it’s fundamentally true that living fully in each moment reaps great rewards and builds deep connections. But I have come to realize that no matter how intentionally we live in each moment it’s a fundamental part of the human experience to look around at the other humans with whom we share our lives (whether they be old or young) and wonder where time has gone and how we all wound up here.

If my garden is any indication, growth slows down and it speeds up, and it slows down and it speeds up, and goes on forever this way with or without our input. Though it may feel terrifying at times, I think it’s possible to reject our own adult desires to slow down time and instead allow ourselves, with child-like enthusiasm, to be swept up in the endless rhythm of it all, doing our best to love them just as they are, in just the place that they are, as they grow and grow and grow.

Transplanting Wildflowers

September 3, 2014

Daisy fleabane

Daisy fleabane

This column first ran in the August issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. Read the original post here. You can read all of my Backyard Living columns via ABOUT. Sometimes they also run on the Boiled Down Juice. 

This past week we received yet another warning notice from the city of Little Rock informing us we were violating city code. This happens often. We make our home in the city but in many ways we live like we’re in the country. We sometimes hang out the laundry to dry in the sun and we tend to let our gardens grow a little wild. I understand this lead some people to assume we don’t value our home. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

We like to hang our clothes out to dry because the sun is a natural stain remover and the wind a natural energy conserver. It’s cheaper that way and, besides, I like the way the clothes smell. Wind-dried laundry reminds me of my grandmother who made her home in a tiny house on Second Street in Dardanelle. Having never had the luxury of a dryer, she hung everything on the line. Some of my best memories are running underneath those sheets as they whipped in the wind. As an adult with my own family I’d give just about anything to have a conversation with her now. Sometimes when my sheets smell like the outside air it’s almost like I can hear her voice and feel her calming presence. She made do with little, and this is a lifestyle I want my own children to experience, even if it does sometimes put me at odds with city officials.

But this time the notice wasn’t for the laundry but rather for all the “uncultivated plants” in the front yard. If you’re a regular reader of this column you know how much I love flowers and how much time I spend cultivating them. Hardly a day goes by that my sons and I aren’t tending to the multitude of baby flowers we have coming up around the house. For my first few years of gardening I didn’t really have much of an awareness of native varieties. But in recent years I’ve been trying to educate myself about creating a safe and welcoming habitat for bees and butterflies and have therefore turned my attention to the native plants and wildflowers these creatures prefer. It’s not that they don’t also love many of our more cultivated, human-made varieties. But nothing suits their fancy like mother earth’s wild growing blossoms.

Wild backyard

Wild backyard

I’ve been planting a lot of wildflower seeds, but I’ve also been taking notice of what comes up on its own. In an old neighborhood like ours where the lawns aren’t covered in bermuda grass the wildflowers come up easily. This spring I noticed one beautiful variety that seemed especially at home: the Daisy Fleabane. Looking much like a tiny, spidery daisy, it grows about 2 feet tall or more with little clusters of flowers near the top. According to my Arkansas wildflower guides it blooms from around May to September all around the state. It’s usually found in open woods, dry prairies, fields, pastures, roadsides, and disturbed areas. It comes up readily in our backyard and along the side of our house, far too pretty to plow down with a lawnmower.

I watched them bloom for a while and, recognizing that least part of the yard would need to be mowed, I decided to dig some of these wildflowers up and transplant them in my garden beds. They were easy to remove and look great at the base of my strawberry plants and next to the yarrow. I’ve added some next to the zinnias, butterfly weed, sunflowers as well. According to my online research it helps to remove the spent flower heads to prolong the growing season. Much like cultivated daisy, the root bases need to be divided every few years to ensure proper growth and prevent overcrowding.

I’m not exactly sure if it was the Daisy Fleabane that triggered the notice from the city. It could have been was the multiple patches of blue, purple and pink cornflowers, the flowering cilantro or the False Dandelion, another favorite that features beautiful yellow flowers that only open in the mornings. After all, what is a weed? Who gets to make such a decision? Ask one of my four year old sons and he’d be quick to tell you one of the prettiest flowers in the world is the fuzzy head of a dandelion, a flower people literally spend thousands of dollars trying to kill with Roundup. My sons aren’t alone. The bees also love them and the plants themselves are loaded with nutrients, make great teas, and add nutrients to the soil. God did a great job of making plants, but we humans are always trying to change up the landscape in hopes, I suppose, of convincing ourselves the wild world can somehow be restrained. What does this say about what we fear?

So I’ve made a compromise. I keep my wild plants, but I get the city off my back by digging up the wildflowers and moving them to my official garden area. After all, if it’s encircled by a rock border who can argue with my flower choices? And besides, it saves me a lot of money and makes my front yard literally buzz with winged creatures. And it gives me sons an endless supply of flowers to pick, which means I can more easily keep their curious little hands away from my carefully cultivated, high-growing foxglove and delicate carnations. There’s nothing like watching my growing sons walk through the large swaths of city wildflowers, knowing that at least for a short period of their life I can do my own small part in what I believe to be the most sacred act of parenting: encouraging what already grows wild.

Taking Down the Garden

December 2, 2013

1384804498053I 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.

1384804498497It 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.

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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.

IMG_20130606_154729_673My 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.

IMG_20130828_163246_300Thing 1 They’ve Taught Me: Pain Really Won’t Kill You. It Really Won’t. Fear Might, though. 

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.

IMG_20130827_160951_352Thing Two: Words Are Wonderful, but Touch is Fundamental

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.

IMG_20130629_162921_026Third Thing: Love is Complex, Better Learn About Yourself

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.

IMG_20130827_162159_883I 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.

IMG_20130820_085624_515But 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.

IMG_20130925_133317_138Okay, 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.

IMG_20130606_154849_906Percy/perseverance 

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.

Patience, Yoyo Class.

April 6, 2013

My son George in downward dog "yoyo" pose. Photo by Rachel Townsend.

My son George in downward dog “yoyo” pose. Photo by Rachel Townsend.

Here’s a recent radio piece I did for the Ozarks at Large program about accepting the imperfection of now. That and yoyo class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you want to hear more of my work or, you know, hire me as a freelancer, you check out my info by clicking here.

Why we need laundry soap.

Why we need laundry soap.

Here’s the January installment in the Pennywise column I’ve been writing for Savvy Kids. Thanks for reading! 

A few years ago my husband and I decided to start making our own laundry detergent. We were on an extremely tight budget and looking for ever-more creative ways to save money. Three years down the road, making laundry detergent has become one of my favorite domestic activities. And it’s recently become a source of wonder for our twin toddlers. This probably makes us sound like we don’t get out much. But hear me out: Making laundry detergent is a form of household magic.

If you’re new to the world of DIY homemaking or urban homesteading, or whatever name you want to ascribe to this make-it-yourself form of domesticity, the thought of making your own laundry detergent may sound a little over the top. People often wonder, will it work? Is it hard to make? Where will I find the time? I can get cheap detergent at Wal-Mart, so what’s the point, anyway?

First let’s talk about frugality. According to a little online research, we discovered that store bought laundry runs somewhere around twenty cents to forty cents a load. Homemade, on the other hand, is only about two cents a load. If your household produces a high volume of laundry, the saving can really add up. But honestly, I’ve never sat down and calculated our savings.  I just know I can buy a package of washing soda for about 3.00 dollars, a box of borax for another 3.00 dollars and a few bars of soap for another 3.00, and I’ve got what I need to make laundry detergent for the year.

Does it work, you ask. I’m a gardener who lives with two three year old boys, two cats, two dogs, and an artist/cyclist/semi-handyman. In other words, we’re quite familiar with dirt, and laundry is a serious subject around these parts. Since beginning to make our own detergent, I’ve never noticed a difference in the quality of our laundry, and our clothes come out just as clean and stain free as they always have. As an added bonus, we’ve also greatly reduced the amount of plastic bottles we throw in the recycling bin since we reuse the designated detergent container for each new batch. In our case the reusable container is an old four-gallon ice cream bucket we got from a local deli, so we double the recipe. But any two-gallon container will do.

I like saving money and I’m happy to have found another way to decrease the amount of waste we produce in our home.  I also like knowing that this soap is better for the environment, free of toxins, and doesn’t dump any dangerous chemicals in the communal water supply. But to be honest, this isn’t why I look forward to whipping up a new batch every few months.

When I grate the soap and dump the shavings into boiling hot water, the concoction fills the house with a soft, soapy smell that permeates every room. My children love watching the steam rise from the big bucket and the opportunity to stir all the ingredients together, observing the powders dissolve and knowing they’re helping make something so essential to our daily lives. After we’ve finished the process, and we put the lid on the bucket to let it cool, I take this opportunity to talk to them about patience and the art of waiting (you’ve got to work that subject whenever you can, right?). Twenty-four hours later we lift the lid and find the concoction converted into a gel-like substance that’s ready to be stirred and wash their dirt-covered clothes. It only takes a few minutes to make a batch, a seemingly simple act that infuses a little bit of wonder into an otherwise normal day.

You can find numerous soap recipes online, including some that call for liquid soaps like Dr. Bronner’s. Here’s our favorite recipe.

Ingredients:

*1/3 bar of Fels Naptha Laundry Soap* (found in the laundry area of most large stores), grated. You can use a hand grater or an electric. We use an old cheese grater reserved specifically for this purpose.

* 6 cups water

* 1/2 cup washing soda (Found in the laundry aisle of most stores)

*1/2 cup borax, (same as above)

Directions:

  • Heat 6 cups of water on stove. (An old cooking pan works perfectly).
  • Add soap shavings and let them dissolve.
  • Stir in washing soda and Borax and mix until dissolved.
  • Boil mixture for 15 minutes and remove from heat.
  • In a 3 or 5 gallon bucket, add 1 quart of hot water and add the soap mixture. Stir together.
  • Add enough warm water to make a 2 gallon mixture. Mix until blended.
  • Let sit 24 hours.
  • Stir before each load and use about ½ cup per load.

*You can substitute other bars of soap in the place of Fels Naptha. Use 2/3 of the bar rather than 1/3.

hands cookies

Photo by Bryan Moats.

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.