A Scene of Changery

Before there was a change of scenery, there was the dream of a change of scenery. In September, as our summer ended, Kellie and I talked about Hawaii. We talked about jumping into warm ocean waters and hiking into Turtle Bay. I continued the dream by searching the internet one night while the rest of my family slept. If I could find us a space away from the resort scene and priced to our budget, then maybe we would go. It only took me a few clicks to find a little white house for rent on an 8,000 acre ranch. The photos showed green hills and rainbows, ocean views and horses and sheep. I showed the listing to Kellie and we booked it. Later, I showed it to Smoke to convince him that Hawaii was a place he wanted to go. For the months that followed, I sometimes clicked through the slideshow to remind myself of the place I’d eventually be. Just the thought of the hills and the warm air helped me breathe more deeply.

Before there was a change of scenery there were weeks of planning and packing. There were fluctuating airfares and impossible travel times. There was an impulse to cancel the trip if it meant a midnight layover in Anchorage or a 10 pm departure. There were the logistics of parking cars and renting cars and transporting car seats and packing toiletries and medicines and swimsuits and all the while feeling that, upon arrival, I would discover some essential item I’d forgotten.

The change of scenery arrives the moment I step off the plane and descend to the tarmac and my jeans are already sticking to my thighs. There are palm trees in planters just past the gate and Smoke has already put on his sunglasses. I have to keep Stump from climbing on the baggage carousel. We make a pile of bags on a patch of grass and wait for Kellie to pick up the rental car. My kids strip off their long sleeve shirts and climb along the walls, bare-chested. A pair of ladies with stiff hair make phone calls and give me the side-eye.

Seen from the beach: turquoise waves that climb and crest, and then stir up brown sand as they fall; off in the distance, whale spouts and whale body parts—the flash of a tail or the curve of a back; closer to shore, a scattered row of humans waits in that magic spot where the waves swell; some of them hold boogie boards; some of them dive into waves and come out the other side; some of them glide with just their bodies. On the shore my kids dig in the sand and wait for the ocean to fill the hole they’ve made. They throw sand bombs and bury each others’ legs. Sometimes they run off and for a long minute their bodies blend in with all of the other bodies and action. I run along the beach craning my neck, trying to see between the tanners and the Frisbee-throwers until finally I see the swim trunks I recognize.

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Seen from inland: vistas, storm clouds, araucaria columnaris. A wild pig with three piglets, all of them fighting to nurse. Wild billy goats and their families hiding in the scrub, bleating (we hear them before we see them). Friendly horses at sunset. A Hawaiian short-eared owl, soaring in daylight. At twilight another one swoops in front of our headlights and then lands at the edge of the road. It stands there, still and silent, and stares us down.

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The packing never ends. In the mornings we move food from the refrigerator to the cooler. In the evenings we move food from the cooler to the refrigerator. We pack towels and sunscreen and changes of clothes. We pack Benedryl and epi-pens in case of bee emergencies. I am constantly checking my purse to make sure my wallet is still there. I am constantly checking on my children’s skin for signs of sunburn. I know that I am supposed to reapply sunscreen every 90 minutes, but they are constantly wet and covered in sand.

Smoke, my older son, joins the line of boogie boarders on day 3. This keeps him busy and smiling for the better part of an hour, until a large wave sneaks up and topples him. The rocks in the sand scratch his back in several spots. He bleeds a little. Kellie helps him find his footing, wraps him in a towel, and sets him down in a beach chair, but he won’t stop screaming. “I hate this beach,” he tells me. I tell him we’re not going to leave just yet. He spends the next forty minutes pouting and writing in the sand with his toes in all caps: I HATE THIS BEACH. I try to laugh, but the truth is I’m uncomfortable. I also don’t want to be the parent whose kid complains about his Hawaii vacation. I don’t want to be the parent who berates her kid for not loving every minute of his Hawaii vacation. I keep quiet and let Smoke do his thing. Each time he tries to write his sentence, a wave comes and washes it away before he can finish, which is actually pretty funny. Eventually, he recovers. We leave the boogie board on the shore and jump in the waves together.

On the same beach Stump climbs the koa trees that grow at odd angles over the beach. It a good task for him—it keeps him happy but it requires supervision. Kellie and I stop packing our personal reading materials in our beach bags–there’s no chance of sitting for longer than a moment. Every day I repeat the following phrase in my mind: The Family Vacation. I say it to remind myself that this isn’t a personal holiday, but instead an exercise in intensive parenting, in togetherness. It’s not about rest or comfort or indulgence, so much as it is about building something, about offering my children a new landscape for their memories to hold, a landscape that we can share in future years. I had a chiropractor once who would tell me to “go to Hawaii” before she adjusted the vertebrae in my neck. It was her way of asking me to relax so that she could do her work, but every time she said it I pictured a pier just south of Hawi where the yellow tangs swim. Hawaii to me was not an abstraction, but a place in my brain that I could access. I want my kids to have those places too.

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At night, in the dark, I cannot find my way through our rental home. I walk with both hands out in front of me, reaching, feeling, waiting for my eyes to adjust. They don’t. I think I can make out faint shapes—a door, a bed—but I am mistaken. I run into a wall where I thought I’d find a door or a door where I thought I’d find a wall. The truth is simple: my body hasn’t learned this place.

When Stump is especially tired, he cries for the home he knows. As we drive on the back roads after sunset, he says, “I don’t want to go to our Hawaii home. I want to go to our real home.” I look out over the ocean at the scattered lights along the coastline and I look for words to explain how very far away our real home is, and what two more days means, how to help him understand that our real home is unreachable to us at the moment, but that we haven’t left it behind forever.

I never find words for this, and it doesn’t matter. Kellie parks our rental car at the end of the driveway and I carry Stump through darkness and into the house. His brother has beat us inside and already turned on the lights and we can find everything we need. We read one of the books I packed from our hometown library and he is asleep before I reach the last page.

Explaining Donald Trump to my Son

Last week I decided it was time to have the conversation. I wasn’t sure my son was ready—he’s only seven after all, but how do you ever know? NPR was on the in van. Commentators were analyzing Donald Trump’s ever increasing viability as they seem to do every hour of every day. As we drove to pick up Smoke’s little brother up from preschool, I sat there weighing the consequences. Should I talk to him about Donald Trump?

I didn’t want to give my kid information that would complicate his life on the playground. I thought about Smoke’s friends at school and the possibility that some of their parents are Trump supporters. From my own childhood, I remember how kids can so easily internalize their parents’ politics, how those politics can divide them from one another long before they truly understand what’s at stake in any given election. I remember how profoundly disorienting it was when, in grade school or middle school or even in high school (hell, maybe still), I learned that a grown-up I respected didn’t see the world in the same way as my parents. I would learn that a teacher was a lifelong Republican, and my brain would hurt trying to figure out how they could be so nice, and yet vote for a person that my parents had told me was the bad guy. Now that I am a parent myself I struggle to identify the line between orienting my kids to my values and indoctrinating them.

But Donald Trump has been haunting my thoughts after sweeping Super Tuesday. On Wednesday I watched this video, where a young African American woman was shoved, pursued, and harassed at one of his rallies, and the image ran on a loop in my mind. When I watch this footage, I see the same flavor of vitriol that I see in old footage from Klan rallies or neo-Nazi parades. It’s not that I thought this brand of blatant racism was dead, but I didn’t expect to see it play out so transparently at the rally of a leading candidate in 2016. I didn’t expect that a candidate who encouraged this would gain traction.

Some months ago a small part of me wanted Donald Trump to win the nomination because I thought it would allow Bernie or Hillary to win by a comfortable margin. But after viewing that video, I saw how wrong I was. Trump’s candidacy has already cost our country greatly; it has legitimized racism and hate. For me Trump has become more than a candidate I wouldn’t vote for—he’s become a cultural force that terrifies me.

I turned the volume down on the radio and said to Smoke, “Do you hear that they’re talking about this guy named Trump?”

“Who is he?” Smoke asked.

“Well, he’s this guy who’s running for president and I think he would make the worst president ever.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, and started in by explaining how a president’s job is to work with other leaders, to listen them to understand their perspectives, to make circumspect decisions to avoid needless war. “But this guy Trump is actually pretty mean. Like if someone disagrees with something he says, he just calls that person a loser.” As I said this I was struck by how literally true it was. “Loser” is Donald Trump’s go-to rebuttal. I wasn’t having to dumb this down at all to get a seven-year-old to understand.

“He sounds awful,” Smoke said. I had parked the car by now and we were walking towards the daycare center. A grin crossed his face. “Well at least no one will vote for him,” Smoke said. It was a logical conclusion, but I couldn’t let him believe it.

“That’s why I’m nervous,” I explained. “I don’t think he will win, but lots of people ARE voting for him. More and more people.”

“Are you voting for him?” Smoke asked me.

“No, I’m voting for anyone but him.”

“You’d vote for anyone but him?”

I thought about this. Certainly there were people out there who were as bad or worse than Donald Trump. I mean there were actual neo-Nazis. But of all the people who would conceivably run a presidential campaign, Trump was at the very bottom of my list. There is a person in my town who runs for City Council every year under the name Prophet Atlantis. I would vote for Prophet Atlantis over Donald Trump in a heartbeat.

When we got home that day, the sun was out and both of my sons wanted to ride their bikes around the block. As they put on their shoes and helmets, Smoke kept asking me questions about Donald Trump and politics. We talked about how women didn’t always have the right to vote, and how neither did black people. We talked about how weird that was, and how stupid that was, and how terrible it would be to move backwards rather than forwards. Stump, my three-year-old, half-listening in the background, did a crazy little dance and chanted “Donald-Trump-Donald-Trump-Donald-Trump.” For a moment I was comforted. One of my sons still knew nothing about Trump’s growing political power. To him Donald Trump was just three meaningless syllables he was hearing way too often.

Image credit: original drawing by Smoke. (Something about it just reminded me of Trump.)

 

Beloved Strangers

Yesterday, because the sun was out, I took Stump, my three-year-old, to a park we don’t often visit. The playground area was overflowing with kids and parents, and so Stump and I were quick to move on. We moved to the sunny field for a while and then Stump pointed to the tennis courts. No one was actually playing tennis. There was just a sunny court, a few puddles, and a little girl, maybe five years old, whose mother was helping her learn to ride a bike. The moment I opened the tennis court gate, the little girl jumped off her bike and ran to us. For a moment I was confused. Was there someone behind us that she knew? Did she mistake my kid for someone else? But I didn’t have too much time to wonder, because she was already standing beside me, tickling the inside of Stump’s hand with her index finger, and Stump was tickling her back. They stood face-to-face. The little girl began tracing Stump’s forehead with her finger, and he reached up to trace hers as well. Their greeting was at once ceremonial and natural, as if they were beings from a faraway planet, one that had an intimate custom for meeting strangers.

The exchange went on for minutes as they stood there exploring each others’ faces, both of them captivated, smiling. The other mom and I stood on the sidelines laughing, not sure exactly what to do or say—I mean what do you do when your child has fallen so suddenly and utterly in love?

Eventually the little girl ushered Stump into the center of the court where she showed him her bike and invited him to check out her handlebar streamers, which were silver and purple and fluttering. She told him where he could stand while she practiced riding, and then after a few laps around the court, her mother told her it was time to go.

“I’m going to a birthday party,” she explained to my son. “Do you want to come too?”

“Yeah,” Stump said.

“That’s nice of you to invite him,” her mother said. “Do you want to tell your new friend goodbye?”

She embraced him. He returned her embrace. She kissed his cheek. He kissed her back. They were quiet and radiant, wide-eyed and giggling. They kissed each other quickly on the lips (the lips!) and then she stepped away and hopped on her bike. “Wow,” said the little girl’s mother. I shook my head in amazement. My eyes were wet and I could not stop laughing. When they were finally out of sight, Stump looked at me and said, “I want to go to that party.”

The night before, because I couldn’t sleep, I had been lying in bed considering the word beloved. I thought about who was beloved in my life, and a row of faces appeared to me. At first they were the faces you would expect—my children, my partner, my brother. But my pre-sleep brain kept going, kept presenting me with rows upon rows like a stadium, concentric circles of beloveds. I saw the faces of family and friends, colleagues and students, people I’d worked with behind a counter in my twenties, friends I’d made in summer camp and then drifted from. My waking brain was skeptical. Really? I asked myself. All of them?  Yes, all of them, my sleep brain replied. And then the rows of beloveds kept expanding until they included everyone on earth. Even Donald Trump? my waking brain asked. Even Donald Trump, sleep brain replied. It made so much sense at the time. Sleep brain took over and I finally drifted off.

There’s this moment in the book Fun Home where the narrator, Alison, is five years old and eating with her father in a diner. A woman—a stranger—walks in wearing a flannel shirt and short hair. She’s delivering boxes on a hand truck. She gets the waiter’s signature and leaves. This is the first butch woman that our narrator has ever seen and she describes the moment this way:

Like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.

When the narrator says “I recognized her,” what she means is that she saw herself in that woman, that the very sight of her opened a door, gave her permission to become a self that she both feared and longed to be (in this case a woman who expresses gender on her own terms). On the next page, the narrator says: “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained me through the years.”

I keep pausing there. The vision of the bulldyke sustained her. It fed her and kept her alive until a moment in her adult life when she could finally own who she was.

I consider also the “surge of joy” she describes in that moment of recognition, and the surge of joy I felt vicariously for Stump when that young girl greeted him with a wide-open heart. She saw him. He saw her back. Their love filled a tennis court. It filled my whole weekend.

image credit: Sean Connors, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://www.flickr.com/

 

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.

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.

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.