The Tyranny of Weekends

I have a confession to make. I hate Saturday mornings. I’ve been fooling myself for decades. I thought I loved Saturdays. I spend the workweek dreaming of them, thinking I will wake up rejuvenated and blissful, that I will relish every moment of not having to be somewhere.

Instead I stumble out of bed at six-thirty and feel uncertain. I make my morning tea and my to-do list starts pinging around in my brain. On Friday I was so optimistic. I packed a set of student papers in a folder thinking I could just casually sit around and grade them while my children played. I thought I’d crank out an essay that’s due in ten days. I thought that I would fold all the laundry, do five more loads, prepare my taxes, and defrost the freezer. Small goals, I told myself, and these were the goals I set. But on Saturday mornings I wake up not wanting to grade papers or fold laundry. I don’t want to engage with my to-do list, but to relax would require letting go of the list, and I can’t quite do that either. And so I spend all of Saturday morning trapped between these two places, unable to commit to doing, unable to commit to not-doing.

This week my compromise was to walk the dogs. I thought that the air and movement would help me, that I’d be performing a pleasant but useful task. I was already feeling brighter as I put on my boots; I was getting ready to cure myself. But then Wally, our younger dog jumped all over me with muddy paws and insisted on sniffing my crotch. And then Winnie, our older dog, was shedding his winter coat in giant fluffy tufts. When I bent over to gather some of loose fur, I noticed his coat was oily and matted. He was in dire need of a bath. When I got home, Kellie and I would spend the next two hours cleaning and brushing him—a large chore that neither of us had planned on. Meanwhile, as the children played inside the house, our refrigerator began dying an angry, loud death. The following would become the soundtrack to our weekend as we searched for working refrigerators on Craigslist and tried to deter Smoke and Stump from their usual habit of opening the fridge and just standing there for minutes on end. Listen:

I hope that this is not a woe-is-me post. I hope that this is a life-is-life post. The problem is not my stinky matted dog or my crazy-loud refrigerator or any other spontaneous challenge. The problem is the trouble I have in making space for these challenges. I crowd my weekend with expectations. I make the mistake of thinking I can tame these two days every week, and inside tameness I will find comfort. When the weekend proves untamable I’m mad at myself, and mad at life.

Sundays are often a little better. This morning I left the death-rattle of the refrigerator behind me and went for a run. The sun was out. I ran through the woods. I jumped over puddles and brooks—everything was wet from the rains we’ve had this week. It was nice to be outside, but dread still nestled in my sternum. On the last mile of my run, when I was back on the pavement, I spotted a tiny plastic dinosaur that some child must have dropped while on a walk. I backtracked to pick it up. I thought about bringing it home to my kids—because if there’s anything my household needs it’s one more tiny plastic toy. I had no pocket, and so as I ran, I held its tail between my thumb and forefinger.

Here’s a funny thing about that dinosaur. My mood instantly lifted. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re wearing green spandex and holding a tiny t-rex. The longer I ran with the t-rex in my hand, the more I saw him as the angst that had been ruling me, a tiny monster inside who thinks he’s more important that he is. Now that I held him in my hand, I could see him as a small and ridiculous thing. I could get some space, some vantage. I could put him on the shelf and walk away.

When I came home, both of my kids instantly noticed the dinosaur in my hand. “Is that mine?” Stump asked me. “No, it’s mine,” told him. “Can we have it?” Smoke wanted to know. I told them they couldn’t. I need it.

How to Say the Thing You Can’t Say

“How was recess today?” I asked Smoke this week, and he immediately started to cry.

Weeks ago, Smoke had complained to me that a friend was bossing him around, demanding that he play with him at every recess, and then dictating the terms of that play. If Smoke put up a protest, if he wanted to play tag with other friends, or if he wanted to be Spider-Man instead of Batman, this friend—let’s call him Boss—would storm off in a huff and declare that their friendship was over.

From what I’ve written about Boss here, I’m afraid that you’re imagining him as a spoiled, insufferable child à la Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but this is not the case. Boss is small and goofy and full of smiles. Boss, I suspect, senses that that his spot in the first-grade pecking order is tenuous, and so he does everything in his power to ensure that he has a steady companion. Boss doesn’t want to face the recess yard alone, and I don’t blame him for that.

“You’re just going to have to let him be mad at you,” I told Smoke after his initial complaint. I went on to explain what I thought would happen if Smoke took action on his own behalf. Boss would be mad for a while but then he would cool down. After a few confrontations, Boss would learn to give Smoke more leeway.

And then, like any great parent, after delivering my lecture, I forgot about the problem. Smoke didn’t come home crying or complaining, nor did he resist school, and so the issue fell off my radar until I remembered to ask him about it at bedtime this week. This is when Smoke burst into tears. “All he ever wants to do now is push me on the spinners, and then I get sick.”

“Tell him you don’t want to do that,” I said.

“I tell him every time!” Smoke said. “But he won’t let me play something else!”

In that moment I realized what should have been clear to me earlier. It didn’t matter what advice I gave Smoke. It didn’t matter because I was telling him to do something he wasn’t ready to do. He had it in him to tell Boss that he didn’t want to spin. But he didn’t have it in him to hold his ground or walk away, to risk losing a friendship that was probably providing him too with an indispensable measure of security.

“What can I do to help you fix this?” I asked him. He continued to cry quietly and look down at the bedspread. “Do you want me to email your teacher?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

I’ve been thinking lately about being assertive and the ideals we set around saying hard truths. So often we hold off on saying what we need to say because we get so wrapped up in the delivery, we think we must be brave and say it face-to-face. Writing it down would be cowardly. Delivering the message through another source would be cowardly. We suffer for the sake of this principle.

Many years ago, I interviewed for a job and got a voice mail from the employer a week later. He left his number and asked me to call him after 10 pm, because that was when he’d be home. I got the message at 6 pm, and so I had four hours to wait before calling him. I knew that I hadn’t nailed the interview, and so I wasn’t especially hopeful, and yet it was hard to settle into my evening knowing I had this phone call to make. I made my dinner, I showered, and I waited until quarter after ten to call him. Our phone call lasted less than a minute—just long enough for us to trade pleasantries and for him to tell me that they had hired someone else.

I hung up annoyed. I felt certain that he had wanted to deliver hard news to me directly on some kind of principal. But there was nothing helpful to me about hearing the news from a live voice rather than a recorded one. I would have far preferred the voice mail rejection to the personal one. He hadn’t spared me anything, but had instead injected some dread into my evening.

I remember this incident often. I remember it every time I need to communicate something difficult and am tempted to lay it out in an email rather than deliver it live. I tell myself that it’s okay to write it instead of saying it, that it’s okay to need a little space and control. I tell myself that the person on the other end might actually appreciate that space as well.

I emailed Smoke’s teacher that morning, and as Smoke left for school, he was hopping up and down, giddy with relief. He would not have to spin until he was sick at recess.

But Smoke’s teacher didn’t see my message right away. At their first recess, Boss did spin Smoke. Once they had settled back in the classroom, Smoke, impatient for the relief he now felt he deserved, told his teacher by himself.

The teacher took Boss aside. All it took was a single sentence: “You need to let Smoke play with his other friends too.” She didn’t shame him or punish him, but he listened. Smoke hadn’t been able to muster the authority he needed, and so he simply borrowed hers. Not only did it work, it spared him the drama of an angry friend.

For the rest of the day, Smoke played with the friends he’d been pining for in the weeks I’d spent ignoring the problem. He came home happy. It had taken two grown-ups and one child to resolve one common childhood conflict. Three weeks ago, I thought I’d teach Smoke how to be direct and assertive, how to take charge of his own relationships. Instead he reminded me how complicated our problems are and how senseless it is to try and solve them on our own.

Cursed Independence

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a parent is not dress my child—to stand there and watch with my hands at my sides while he tries to get his head through the sleeve hole. For the past two weeks, Stump (who is newly three) has insisted on dressing himself. All the parenting experts insist that I should encourage this kind of independence. But really it doesn’t matter whether I encourage him or not. Stump doesn’t need me to cheer him on; he needs me to stay the fuck out of his way.

Stump’s rules are clear. I’m allowed to verbally coach him, but I’m not allowed to be physically involved. “That’s the wrong hole,” I might say as he puts his underwear on sideways, and he laughs and makes the adjustment. Everybody’s happy. But just as often something gets hung up—a sleeve is turned half inside-out, or a pant leg gets stuck above his knee, and I must stand there passively as he sorts through the problem. The other day, he had tried three times to put on his pants. On the first try he put both of his legs in the same side. On the second try, the pants were inside out. On the third try, they slid on almost perfectly, except that the waist was just a little crooked. As I reached out to straighten the elastic, I knew that I was making a mistake, but still I continued. I did it so quickly that Stump couldn’t stop me. “Why you do that?” Stump demanded. It was a good question. I don’t know why I did it. Without another word, he took off the pants. He looked at me coolly and started over.

Here’s a problem: most days we actually have to go somewhere, and we have to be there at a certain time. Sometimes a shirt has turned inside-out from all Stump’s dressing and undressing and I’m not allowed to right it, and he’s not able to right it himself and so we reach a standstill. He curls up, naked, in the laundry basket and lies there, dejected. If I approach him, he shoos me away. He might lie this way for ten minutes or longer, until he finally decides to choose another shirt.

This past Thursday, we started the process of getting dressed forty minutes before we had to leave for school. He put his shirt on and his underwear on without incident, but would not agree to any of his pants. As I watch the clock approach the time we had to leave, I realized that this struggle has not helped me cultivate patience. I never stop longing to intervene, to dress my own child, to hurry the process of getting ready. But this struggle has, in some strange way, taught me something about faith. It was 9:12 and we had to leave at 9:15. My son was not dressed and he would not let me dress him. Accepting this meant accepting that I had no control, and yet still I chose to believe that we would make it out the door. I put on my own coat. I put on my own shoes. Stump watched me and decided he would wear the pants with the cars on them. He put them on one leg at a time, and then, by some strange miracle, agreed to let me put his socks on for him.

When we got in the car, the sun was shining for the first time that week. We left at 9:16. Everything was okay.

Soft Resolutions

At the end of December, I thought about giving up some of the things I love. My jeans were tight again and I was feeling burnt out on overindulgence. This happens every year. The holidays arrive and there are cookies everywhere. My days are loose, and so I drink extra coffee. By evening, my mind is still spinning from caffeine and so I drink a glass of wine to settle down. And then I eat more cookies. While I eat, I ask myself if I even really want them, or if I’m just eating them because it seems like I should want them. The idea of January 1 with its clean slate and healthy mandate starts to sound like a relief from all of this rigorous consumption.

I thought maybe I’d give up bread, and cheese.

I thought maybe I’d give up wine, and coffee.

I thought maybe I’d exercise six days a week.

And then I changed my mind. On December 30, I fed my sourdough starter and made dinner rolls. I ate them warm with butter and a bowl of potato leek soup and I thought: this is not a practice that needs to end. Making bread is an all-day process that grounds me. Unlike the cookies, it brings me genuine comfort. I wondered what would happen if I made my resolutions softer and more playful, advisory rather than punitive. I wanted them to feel like a friendly bird on my shoulder, not a drill sergeant.

I decided I wouldn’t give up anything, but instead I’d focus on guidelines, that I would see how my body felt if coffee and alcohol became things I only drank two days of the week. I decided that if there was a window in my day where I could make it to the gym, then I would. And I decided to start cooking a pot of brown rice every few days so that I would eat more whole grains, less bread.

So far, it’s felt a little magic, living with these soft resolutions. I made it to the gym four times this week. Each time I go, I step on the treadmill and tell myself I don’t have to stay very long. But the first ten minutes pass quickly, and when I check my stats I see that I’ve already run nearly a mile. I give my permission to press the stop button whenever I want, and something about that permission makes me want to keep going. I bump up the speed and the resistance. I run until my eyelids sweat. I come home and eat my brown rice and my salad. I ask myself if that’s really what I want for dinner, and for now the answer is yes, although I often follow up with ice cream for dessert.

It is January 17 as I write this, and I do not feel deprived or punished. I also know that this won’t last forever, that eventually the treadmill will lose its novelty, as will brown rice and salad. But that’s the thing about my soft resolutions. I won’t let them turn into failures. I will only keep them as long as they serve me.

 

 

 

Mistakes I Made this Christmas

“I feel like it’s taken me my entire adult life to fully appreciate why my father dreaded Christmas.” I said this to my friend Dee who had dropped by bearing gifts late Christmas morning. She had noted the glazed look in my eye and asked me how I was. Moments earlier, Stump had pushed a box of blocks across the kitchen table, causing a bowl of oatmeal to tumble to the floor. We now had oatmeal splattered on the wall. Kellie and I had different views about to what extent the spill was intentional. She was pretty sure he meant it. I was pretty sure he just didn’t care one way or another. But it didn’t matter who was right: the situation was the same. There was oatmeal everywhere and still no one had eaten breakfast.

When I was a child, the adults in my life spoke openly about their mixed feelings about Christmas—the stress of crowds and holiday shopping, the endless lists and expectations. I didn’t get it then, nor did I want to. But I get it now. I keep thinking that with each passing year, I’ll master the art of Christmas. I’ll get all of my shopping done early. I will perfectly match each person in my life with the gifts they deserve. I’ll find a way of doing this without activating my scarcity meter—I’ll just spend what I need to spend without batting an eye. But somehow, it seems, each year I bungle it. Sometimes I feel like Christmas is a test of my ability to be an adult in the real world. Every year I think that I will finally pass and yet, every year I fail. Here is the rundown of this year’s mistakes:

  1. I started my Christmas shopping too late. This is a perennial problem. Every year I remind myself how easy Christmas would be if I started my shopping in August. I’d have time to carefully consider each person in my life. I wouldn’t have to spend a bunch of money all at once. In spite of these intentions, each year around Thanksgiving I realize that it’s already the Christmas season and I think, Oh well. I still have plenty of time. But I don’t start actively thinking of Christmas until December 15 when I submit my final grades. By that time there’s no avoiding the crowds. I wait in long lines of traffic to get to the mall and then feel like a chump as I vie for a parking spot. I don’t finish my shopping so much as I give up on the process.
  1. I bought too much. Because all of my shopping was done in a frenzy, I made bad decisions. I bought gummy bears and candy canes for my kids’ stockings when I knew that extra sugar on Christmas was a bad idea. I bought board games at TJ Maxx, not because my kids had asked for them, but simply because they were there, and I wanted more boxes to wrap and put under the tree. Though I begin each Christmas season by declaring I’m only doing stockings for my kids, I always chicken out.
  1. I bought too little. When I shop for extended family members, I have a different problem: I don’t want to buy trash. I mean, I don’t want to buy something that will likely be tucked away in a drawer and ignored until it is eventually thrown out or donated to Goodwill. I worry that even a gift card is likely to be stashed and never redeemed. I suspect that I may be missing the point entirely, that if I were a sincere and generous gift-giver I’d let go of this fear and just happily shop for others. But because I’m not that evolved, I play it safe and buy everyone socks. This does not make for a very exciting gift exchange session.
  1. I thought we could skip breakfast. This was really the defining mistake of this year. I went to bed with dreams of baking blueberry muffins. I imagined my kids would wake up and we’d watch them unpack their stockings and then everyone would happily take a break from gift giving. But then the day arrived and my children were so giddy. They danced over the $2 bowls I had bought them at Target. They ate pieces of their candy canes, and slurped down the applesauce packets that Santa had tucked in their stockings. And then they wanted to keep opening boxes, so I let them. I figured: They had applesauce. What’s the worst that can happen? And then I found out.

There’s a Christmas magic that happens with stockings, which tend to be full of small everyday pleasures. But I think that something frightening sets in when the ceremony moves to the packages beneath the tree and the living room fills with all kinds of gift detritus—paper and cardboard and plastic—and we know that at some point the gifts will end. The gifts will end and we will still be ourselves in the real world, untransported, and in this case hungry. Stump in particular was so hungry that he would not agree to eat anything except gummy bears and candy canes (see mistake #2) and he spent the next two hours resisting food, pushing over bowls of oatmeal, throwing Legos across the room, demanding I assemble a puzzle, and then angrily disassembling the puzzle as I built it.

Next year I will do better. I will start my Christmas shopping in August. I will buy the perfect gift for every human in my life. I will not waste money, but I also won’t be stingy. I will lovingly assemble a healthful breakfast first thing on Christmas morning. My children will gather around the table and clean their plates. They will be wearing festive sweaters and their hair will be combed. Next year, I swear, I will win at Christmas.

Deliveries

Nearly three years ago, when I went into active labor with my second son, I was so very tired. I hadn’t slept in 32 hours. At the birthing center, I sat in a warm bath and stared at the freshly made bed that awaited me. The quilt looked so clean and so soft. In between contractions, I just imagined lying down between the sheets and sleeping. I tried to imagine a way that someone could just pull my baby out of me without surgery or pain and hand him to me in that bed. But I knew that birthing was my work. I had to do it.

“I think I need to get out of the water,” I said. And it was true. The moment my skin hit the cooler air, some of my energy returned. For my next contraction, I positioned myself in a small corner between the dresser and the bed. I held onto the lip of the dresser, leaned into my pain, and groaned. The midwife had been waiting on a couch in the foyer this whole time as her assistant attended to me. She must have recognized something in my groan because she came and sat down on the edge of the bed. She continued with her knitting and made no comment, but I would later look back and recognize this as the work of a professional. Her presence signaled to her assistant that this baby was coming out soon.

As I continued to squat and push, some part of me hovered just above my body, listened to me howling like a woman who’d been raised in the forest by wolves, and asked myself: Is that really necessary? Do you really need to make that noise? And it’s true that I might have toned it down if I tried, but those cries felt like part of the process, like sound would deliver me to the other side of the pain.

After two of these animal groans, out came a head. “Feel it,” the midwife instructed, and I tentatively felt underneath me for the round, wet shape of my baby’s face and skull. I wasn’t moved or excited so much as I was anxious to get the rest of it out. It’s a weird thing to have just a head sticking out of your body. I wanted him squirming, animated, free.

“With your next contraction,” the midwife told me, “the shoulders will come through you, and then the rest of the body will slip out.” I wasn’t sure that I believed her, but that next animal groan was as big as the ones that had preceded it, and the pain and the push were big enough to bring my son into the world. Kellie caught him and held him and immediately the assistant guided my body to the bed. I slid awkwardly between the clean sheets, still bleeding and connected to my baby by a cord. My feet hung off the side. But we worked it out eventually; we got all of me in that bed and rested my new baby on my chest. I was reclining and situated and done with my work. StumpVader

I’ve been remembering this scene every night lately for reasons that might sound a little odd. Stump, my son who was born that day, has been having trouble pooping. The trouble stems from the fact that he doesn’t want to. He’s in that transitional phase between underwear and diapers, a phase where he will happily pee on the potty, but all of a sudden poo scares him. When he feels a bowel movement coming on he shudders in fear. He cries out “Mommy change me!” though there is nothing to change. He refuses the potty. He would prefer to fight the urge, to hold it eternally.

I try to figure out what’s going on for him. When he wore diapers he pooped without a second thought. In diapers, I guess, he could happily move through his life and elimination happened on its own. It didn’t matter if he felt the need to poo while he was halfway down a slide. He could just let it out. But potty learning demands he learn not only to control these functions, but to experience at least a little bit of shame around them. I mean, the motivation not to poo in your underwear comes from an understanding that poo is gross.

And then there’s this, which I found on the internet this week, one item on a list of reasons why children may have angst around pooping on the potty:

Your child thinks the stool is part of him and doesn’t understand why he should flush it away.

I’m not sure that this is literally true for Stump, but I do think that there’s a parallel between the ambivalence I felt around labor and the ambivalence Stump feels around pooping: something inside of him has to come out, and it requires work. Wouldn’t it be easier just to not? Would it be better to just let the things inside us stay inside?

For the time being, Stump and I have found this new routine: we go into the bathroom and close the door. We take off Stump’s underwear and put on a pull-up. He starts to cry when he feels the urge coming on. “Do you want to hold onto something?” I offer. Sometimes he holds onto the edge of the bathtub and looks me in the eye. Stump’s typical expression is somewhere between determined and mischievous, but in these moments I watch as a look of fear passes through him. His face flushes. He farts and splurts. He looks relieved for a moment, until the next round. Other times he steps behind me and leans into my back. He reaches up over my shoulders. He rests his head against me.

I realize, dear reader, that I am writing at length about my son pooping in his pull-up and yet: these moments have been a bright spot in my week. Stump, I believe, is the last child that I will see through this transition of babyhood to childhood. I have strangely mixed feelings about him leaving his diapers behind. I mean, I’m thrilled to leave the diapers behind. I’m thrilled to not have to deal with the poop-stink of the diaper pail. But I’m equally thrilled to be the person in the bathroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor, helping him through his fear, witnessing as he figures out this very important thing: how to take note of what the body needs, to give in and let go in spite of pain. To release.

Giving (in) to Resistance

Lately I’ve been writing less and sleeping more. Nighttime arrives at my house and my children, naked from their baths, chase each other around the house. They are full of joy and it’s my job to curb them. I must wrestle a diaper on Stump. I must remind Smoke dozens of times to brush his teeth. I must say things like “Please do not engage your brother right now.”

By the time we climb into bed for books, it’s been dark for at least three hours. I read a book or two or three, or sometimes the same book three times and then I turn out the light. “Tell a story,” Stump says, and Smoke cheers as he climbs into his top bunk. They listen while I make up some string of events about dragons or sharks or Sponge Bob that only counts as a story if you’re applying the loosest possible criteria. One thing happens and then another thing happens. At some point the things stop happening and I begin to fade into sleep. “Tell rest of the story,” Stump whispers. I wake up enough to continue by stringing on yet another random event. I pause again, but Stump is insistent. “Tell rest of the story.” As far as Stump is concerned, the bedtime story is never over.

The story is never over, but at some point I’m off the hook because he’s tired enough, or because I tell him “I don’t want to talk anymore.” And then I do something that I wouldn’t have done a month ago. I lie there, and it’s so warm beneath the covers, and I can hear both of my children breathing, and I just can’t imagine getting up. I don’t want to read my own book, or write a new blog post, or watch something grown-up and funny on TV. I just want to lie there, half asleep, and give in to how tired I am.

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I was twenty-three when I decided that writing was a thing that I wanted to do. I bought a computer and set up a desk in a small heated room in our shed. I picked out a color for the walls—tangerine—and Kellie painted the room for me. Every day I sat down to write and about five minutes in, after I had my tea just so and my document open, I would be hit with a sudden wave of fatigue. How could I possibly write when I so badly needed to nap? This sleepiness felt so real that at first I took it seriously. Was I getting sick? Did I have an immune disorder? But over time, I came to recognize it as a friend—the kind who drops in uninvited at an inconvenient time. That friend’s name is Resistance.

Here’s the thing. I wanted to write. I wanted nothing more than to write. It’s just that also: I didn’t want to write.

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For Thanksgiving this year, we were planning to drive to our cabin. For weeks I looked forward to it. Getting there would be a bitch, it always is. Packing for a weekend away from civilization is daunting. Driving for seven hours with two kids in the back seat is daunting. Imagining days away from phones and internet is daunting. But I know from experience that we get there and start the fire and make the beds and watch the sky and very quickly it all becomes worth it.

Except this time, this Wednesday night as I darted from room to room putting things in bags, I found that I could not keep packing because I was crying. Nothing in particular was wrong. I just had so much to pack and my brain couldn’t focus. I would go to pack the toothbrushes, and start to worry that I’d forget the flour. I couldn’t imagine being finished, and I couldn’t imagine waking before dawn and hauling my children into a cold and unlit truck.

“Do you want to not go?” Kellie asked me.

“I want to go,” I insisted. I wanted mountains and snow and quiet. I wanted all of my life’s screens and beeps and notifications to go away. And besides, our friend Dee had left this morning. She’d be waiting for us.

My phone rang. It was Dee. She had driven six hours, had made it to our dirt road in the dark, had driven over old snow for the first half mile and then attempted to drive up the first steep hill. Her wheels spun. Her car slid backwards. When she regained control and caught her breath, she turned her car around and drove to safety. The ice had directed her to move with gravity, not against it. She would spend the night in a hotel and drive home in the morning.

That settled it. I unpacked all of the grocery bags I’d accumulated over the course of the week. I unpacked the brown sugar, the can of cranberry sauce, the six yams, the bag of potatoes, the sharp knife and the peeler that I’d wrapped in a towel.

I remembered what a friend had told me earlier this week: “It’s okay to take an out breath every once in a while.”

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Because Dee had come home for Thanksgiving, and because we’d never left, Dee suggested a walk to a nearby waterfall. I pictured something quaint and underwhelming. We parked in a friend’s driveway and walked on a private trail through the woods. Smoke cried because Dee’s dog kept stealing his sticks. Stump was tired and wanted to be carried. I heard what sounded like two small chirpy birds but turned out to be two bald eagles in dialogue. They were perched in nearby snag, talking about salmon, about how many there were and how far they’d have to fly to reach them. I still hadn’t seen any water, but I was starting to hear the rush of it. “When will we get there?” Smoke asked. “Listen,” I said. Twenty feet later, the ground opened up. Water spread like fingers and spilled over a hillside, a trickle for the first twenty feet until it gathered and rushed and plunged into the reservoir below. Gravity, again.

“I never even knew this was here,” I said, as if I had assumed all waterfalls, all natural wonders were public, were advertised on brown signs with white arrows.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the phrase giving in to resistance. I’ve been thinking about the word giving, as in offering. How is giving in to resistance different from caving or folding?

The bigger question is this: what can I give? Sometimes the giving in means giving up, allowing the force of resistance to guide me. Dee turns the car around. I unpack the things I packed. But sometimes resistance just requires a nod. “Oh, Resistance,” I used to think when I sat down to type in my orange room. And then I kept typing even though I was sleepy.

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Lately, all of my weekday mornings end in a crisis. Smoke falls to the floor on purpose and then insists that he cannot get up. He is so tired, he says. He literally can’t move. Though he doesn’t fool me, he seems to fool himself. “Do I need to make an appointment with the doctor?” I ask him, “Because even if you’re exhausted it’s not a normal thing to be stuck to the ground.” “Yes,” he tells me. “Call her.” Meanwhile, Stump kicks so hard and so fast that I cannot get a diaper on him. Before I was a parent, I might have thought that if you needed to you could force a young child to get dressed even if he was determined not to. Now I realize this isn’t so. Sometimes Stump holds still for just long enough that I can get him in a diaper, and then he immediately removes it.

I ask what I can give to this particular resistance? Because what I give now is not an offering. I storm away from my children. I make demands. I threaten consequences. I ask them why they do this every morning, even though I know. I know why. They don’t want to go. They don’t want to step out into the rainy cold world. They don’t want to sit beneath fluorescent lights in rooms full of people. I don’t want to either. And yet there I am, the sinews in my neck bursting with tension. In these moments I cannot stand myself. I cannot stand my life.

320px-FMIB_44178_Dog_of_Chum_Salmon--O_Keta

Our Thanksgiving walk ended a half mile upstream from the waterfall, where hundreds of salmon had come to die. We stood on the muddy banks—Kellie, Dee, Stump, Smoke, and me—and took in the whole scene: giant silver fish lying still on their sides in the shallow water. If you bent over and looked closely, you could make out the eggs, small orange orbs mixed in with the gravel. It didn’t quite smell like death yet, but it smelled wet and fleshy, bodily and dank. Some of the Salmon weren’t yet dead but were dying. Though they lay still you could tell them from the others; they were green instead of silver and occasionally, amidst all the stillness, a single tail would rise up and then hit the water, making a tremendous splash. The fish would then wriggle in place for a minute or two, and then resume the work of succumbing. There was nothing more to do. They had hatched in this creek and journeyed to the ocean where they traveled north along the coast. They swam away from killer whales and sea lions. They avoided trolling lines. At some point they turned around and guided by scent memory they swam hard against the current and returned to the place of their birth to lay eggs of their own. They were dying, but also they were home.

image credit, chum salmon drawing: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank

Riot Grrrl in a Minivan

Last Thursday, as I was walking through a rainy parking lot, I spotted a bumper sticker that read Reelect Obama, 2012. I smiled at first, because I thought it was a joke—that 2012 was the year of our next election, and that the owner of the car was suggesting we elect Obama for a third term instead of Hillary or Bernie. Then I did the math, and realized that we’re approaching 2016.

Every day I do math like this. How old am I again? 38. How long has it been since I graduated high school? 20 years. But hasn’t it been just two years since my fifteenth class reunion? No, that was actually five years ago.

Huh, is my internal response every single time. I remain unconvinced. I don’t quite feel twenty anymore, but I’m not sure how I arrived at middle age, and so I keep looking around, befuddled, trying to get my bearings.

My past has been haunting me extra hard this month, and for some reason it keeps taking the form of Carrie Brownstein. Maybe it’s because she has a new book out and so she’s everywhere—she’s on Fresh Air with Terry Gross; she’s on a book tour of major cities. If you don’t know Carrie Brownstein, I’m not quite sure how to introduce you, except to say that plenty of queers like me spent a chunk of our youths standing in line and then pushing through crowds to be near her, to watch as she played guitar next to Corin Tucker. Corin may have been the vocal powerhouse of Sleater-Kinney but she sang to a distant point beyond the audience while Carrie looked into the crowd and danced as she played. She welcomed you.

If you lived in the Pacific Northwest you might have spotted her buying coffee on Broadway in Seattle, or you might have seen her lined up for a show at the Midnight Sun in Olympia. You might have heard that she sat next to the friend-of-a-friend in a college writing class. You might have lost track of whether Carrie was really a celebrity or some kind of distant acquaintance.

http://www.electrip.com/sleater-kinney/1html/showsH/1998shows.html

Though it’s been about a month—wait, I mean a decade—since I last walked downtown to watch a Sleater-Kinney show, Carrie has been reincarnated into my adult life as one half of the TV series Portlandia. A few weeks ago I took up the project of catching up with it in the late evening hours after my children had fallen asleep. (Because of the way that time moves now, I had missed four full seasons.)

For me, Portlandia is part sketch comedy, part internal reckoning. As I watch the show, my ghost-self is always hovering, mulling over Carrie Brownstein and the Sleater-Kinney legacy. Why is she an actress now? When your band has been widely acclaimed as one of the most seminal voices of your generation, what makes you want to set down your guitar and do skits on TV instead? I ask myself this question over and over because it is unanswerable; I am not Carrie Brownstein and so I will never know. Also: I ask myself this question because I am struggling to understand the choices we make in our twenties and thirties. I wonder if there’s a linear process to becoming who we are, a point of destination at the end of a long path, or if there is no true self, just a series of options, some of them more interesting than others. Carrie helps me remain confused by all of this.

Last Thursday, on the rainy evening that followed my sighting of the Reelect Obama sticker, I met a friend downtown for drinks at a bar I hadn’t visited for years. We settled into a private booth and hanging directly above her head was a Sleater-Kinney poster. I must have blinked and shook my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. My past was following me everywhere.

For that hour at the bar my friend and I remembered our lives in the late nineties. As we talked, my ghost-self wandered my old neighborhoods: I stood in the crowd as Sleater-Kinney opened a set with Little Babies at RKCNDY. I sat on the floor as Miranda July led interactive performance art at The Midnight Sun. I made spaghetti in the kitchen of my studio apartment with the music turned way up.

I looked again at the poster over my friend’s head, signed by Corin Tucker, and realized that it was memorabilia, an artifact from a bygone era, not so unlike the vintage Beatles lunch boxes and figures that my older siblings collected.

I’ve always thought that the pain of nostalgia is simply the sting of longing to visit a time you can never get back. But that night I started to wonder if it was more than that. For me nostalgia is tinged with regret at having been there without fully having been there. I went to a few shows, but not all of the shows; I bought some of the albums, but not all of the albums. Sometimes it takes the space of years to appreciate how good something truly was.

As I drove home I thought about how just as I pine for my early twenties, I also pine for a future life several years from now where my children don’t bombard me with multiple requests every waking moment, one where work-life balance comes with a little less effort. Most days I’m just trying to make it to bedtime.

And then I pined for Now. I wondered what it would mean to immerse myself more deeply in the present moment so that twenty years from now I won’t feel the same sting. Because that sweet spot that I’m waiting for—the one where both of my kids are young and sweet but not so relentlessly demanding—that will not a be a permanent life. Before I know it, my children will be gone and I will meet myself once again in a home so empty and quiet it begs to be filled with loud music.

There’s a Sleater-Kinney song, one of the first I ever heard, that’s kind of an anti-conformity rock anthem. Here are some of the lyrics:

They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify
Analyze and terrorize you

Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you

(from Call the Doctor, 1996)

When I was young I was suspicious of this track; I could never tell to what extent it was satire of that heavy metal fuck-the-man trope, to what extent it was in earnest.

Now that I’m thirty-eight, I no longer care—in fact, I prefer earnestness. At thirty-eight, I realize that I need that song more now than I did at nineteen, that I need rock and roll while I’m driving my two kids around in a minivan, juggling family and work and asking myself what really matters, when I’m noticing how quickly my own life is passing, when I’m coming to terms with the fact that some day it will all be over, and if time keeps speeding up the way it does the end will be here faster than I think, and I’ll have wondered what I did with it all, and why I made the choices I did. That’s the moment I most need Corin Tucker’s voice reminding me of what I knew as a young adult: that the forces of the world conspire to make you numb and normal, that owning your life requires a battle.

Featured image by Jon Rubin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonrubin/687640891

RKCNDY flyer from http://www.electrip.com/sleater-kinney/1html/showsH/1998shows.html

To my Beloved: the last days of six

October 5, 2015

It’s just after eleven pm on your seventh birthday, and you are sleeping in my bed, snuggling two of your favorite stuffed animals.

It’s been years since we co-slept, years since you hollered for me in the middle of the night most nights of the week. These days you are a bunk-dweller. You climb up past my reach and stay up too late with your comic books and your headlamp. When I tell you to go to sleep you sigh and say “Just two more pages.” When I climb up to change the sheets, I can feel the traces of you in your empty bed, the grit and the scent, as if I’ve invaded your lair.

But tonight for your birthday you asked to sleep in my bed. You said that you wanted to listen for the owl who’s been hooting outside my window for the last two weeks, the same call I heard seven years ago as I lay in this same bed breathing through contractions.

You are seven already. How is that?

I’ve been thinking all week about things I might want to tell you in some future year.

  1. Last week I brought you to the free movie night at your school. You’d been begging me all week and so I hustled to get us all fed after work and make it to the gymnasium by six. I was surprised to see a girl your age greet you and chase you across the gym, and then more surprised when the movie started that she took a seat next to you on the floor. And actually, she wasn’t just next to you, she was against you. Eventually she rested her hand on top of yours. You let her. And in the moment a part of me cried out NO! Not Yet! while a larger part of me soaked up the feeling I felt between you. It was sweet and expansive. It was warm. My boy is loved, I thought. I took comfort in it.
  1. The week before that I was extra busy at work and had places to be in the morning. I didn’t have time to park the car, to walk you inside of your school, to battle your brother to get back in the car, and so I bribed you to do something you didn’t want to do. I offered you two dollars if you’d let me drop you off at the curb like some of the other parents do, if you’d walk your own self to the door. “Okay,” you agreed with a sigh. I had no idea how nervous I would feel watching you walk alone to the school entrance. All this time I had told myself that you just needed a little push and you’d be ready. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wasn’t ready to watch you walk away. All day I worried about you, as if somehow you might have gotten lost in the twenty feet between the heavy doors and the first grade line, as if you might be wandering our neighborhood, lost and alone.
  1. Your gait that day was excruciatingly slow. You looked at your shoes as you trudged along, and so many kids passed you. I felt sad watching you. That night I asked you, “How did you feel when I dropped you off this morning?” and you gave me a blank stare. “I mean are you sad, or is it okay?” “It’s okay,” you told me. In my mind’s eye I watched you inch so slowly towards the door, and that’s when it hit me: that’s your pace. Slow is how you go when I’m not pulling on your hand, or running after your brother or asking you to CATCH UP.
  1. We don’t talk about your R’s anymore, about the fact that you can’t pronounce them. After seven months of speech therapy, I wanted to give you a break. But I still hear you pause over words that feature R’s. I hear the intention in your voice when you try to say “Grandpa Richard.” I know that someday you will pronounce them, that your struggle to be heard and understood will be just a memory your body carries. I know this, but I can’t yet picture it. To picture you with fluid R’s is to picture you as a grown man, tall, quiet, freckled, and totally independent.
  1. Earlier this month, a kindergartener shoved you on the playground and called you a loser—three times in one recess you said. Apparently this is one tough kindergartener. And though this isn’t the kind of situation I wish for you, I enjoyed hearing you and your best friend brainstorm solutions to the problem. Your friend pointed out that the principal walks through the cafeteria at lunchtime and you could catch his attention then. You reasoned that next year, when you were in second grade and this student was in first, you would no longer share a recess period. You could simply wait it out. But you instantly questioned this strategy. “That’s, like, one hundred and eighty recesses away,” you realized, and recommitted to solving the problem.
  1. You never forgot about Jeremy, the child with a tiny voice who was your best friend for two months in kindergarten, and who moved away and left the school suddenly. I kept waiting for you to forget him but every few months you mentioned him again, pining a bit for the friend you lost. This year, when I asked whom I should invite to your birthday party, you rattled off a few names before you came to Jeremy. You said his name casually, but then looked me in the eye to see if I had heard you. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said. For all I knew he had moved to Kentucky, but I found his mother’s email address in last year’s school phone book. (By the time this phone book arrived it was spring and Jeremy had already been long gone. I doubted you’d ever see each other again.)

Jeremy’s mother wrote back within an hour. They hadn’t moved across the country; they lived a half an hour away. Jeremy’s grandmother would bring him to your party. I was filled with joy for you, but also a little worry. You hadn’t seen him for nearly a year. Once he arrived, would you even care? Would it be awkward? It wasn’t awkward. Jeremy arrived, six inches taller but with the same tiny voice, and carrying a giant box of Transformers. I watched him shadow you for the whole party, and I watched you keep him within the realm of your attention for the full two hours.

I’m not sure why your seventh birthday has hit me so hard—maybe it’s because Kellie is away for work and there’s no one around to distract me from my nostalgia. Or maybe it’s because seven is serious. You have left your baby-ness behind forever. Your mouth is a mess of teeth falling out and growing in, giant grown-up teeth sharing space with wiggling baby teeth. I can see you transforming away from cute and into a self that will continue to stretch and gain angles.

And somehow I wonder, are you going through this too? Do you get a little wistful at your birthday? Is that why you’re snuggled up now with your smallest stuffed animals, your chipmunk and your dog, sleeping in the bed that smells like your moms? Or do you just sense my own wistfulness and respond, as you do, with kindness. If that is the case, well then thank you for humoring me. Thank you, forever, for your patience.