A List of Things That Are Good

Well, hell. We are now living in a world without Robin Williams, and if you would have told me that news would cause me to break down crying on a Monday evening I would have told you no waybut so it goes, I guess. “Dead Poets Society” is the second movie in my life that made me cry (the first being, of course, “E.T.”) and Robin Williams has been a mainstay actor in my life. It’s possible I am the only person in America who loathed “Mrs. Doubtfire,” (I hated what he was doing to his kids! Anyone could see it would turn out badly!) but even though I read the book first, for me, Robin Williams WAS Garp in “The World According to Garp” despite it’s first life as a novel. I am hopeful our On Demand stations will have some sort of movie offerings over the weekend to honor Robin Williams – I would like to fall into “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “The Fisher King,” “Dead Poets Society.”

So many people are expressing shock at Robin William’s suicide and yes, the manner was shocking, but I feel as though it was relatively common knowledge that he battled addiction and depression, or maybe I just assumed it, because so many comedians do? I’m not sure. I do know that many of our most beloved artists are constantly fending off demons. Too many of my friends and family, when it comes right down to it, struggle in similar ways, whether its with addiction or depression or some shattering cocktail of the two. And it’s hard – hard for those of us who don’t have these problems, to truly understand, I think. Right now a conversation is happening – an importantconversation – about demystifying and destigmatizing mental illness, and I desperately hope it’s a conversation that continues.

All of this leaves me wondering, though, what can I do? What can those of us who for some bizarre, chemical reason are able to see through the horrors occurring between Palestine and Israel, who are able to hear the latest from Iraq and somehow compartimentalize it, what can we do? Well, I know I can love, unconditionally, unabashedly and without judgment those I know struggling with similar issues. Also, I can pepper the internet with a list of good things. Oh, I’m not sure this is particularly helpful in any way, but maybe it will be to someone – at the very least, it is good for me.

A List of Things That Are Good
God.God is good.
The peaches this summer.
My baby boy’s sweet sweet cheeks.
My daughter’s word for worm: squirm.
Reading a horror novel during the dog-days of August.
The deep deep blue the sky becomes as autumn draws near.
Texting with my friends because none of us want to call each other and risk waking our babes.
The first sip of coffee in the morning (and all the other coffee that follows).
Breaking a sweat.
Pickled vegetables.
For that matter, the bounty of vegetables available in mid-August.
My marriage, at it lengthens and deepens.
Turning up a song by Billy Joel when one comes on the radio and teaching your daughter the lyrics.
Sleeping well.
Finger painting on the front porch.
The words “cream butter and sugar.”
Nature walks.
Comfortable clothes.
Wine.
And gin and tonics.
The promise of Friday evenings – the possibility of Sunday evenings.

You know what? I am tempted to force this list, but I am not going to. This is everything today that I can think of as good. And it is enough.

Sleeping like a husband, and other things

Many moons ago a friend of mine posted a comment on facebook that stuck with me. It went something like this: I slept like a husband last night! I woke up thinking both of my babies had slept through the night but it turned out I was so tired I slept through their wake-ups and * had to handle them.

Her comment stayed with me, I think, because like my friend I have handled what feels like an inordinate share of nighttime duty – more than I thought I would in what I considered my mostly equal partnership prior to having children. For the most part I am okay that much of the late-night baby handling has fallen to me – it feels like a somewhat natural extension of the nighttime feedings I’ve done with both children. But there have been dozens of moments – drops in the bucket of time that don’t leave a lasting impression – where I’ve secretly (and not-so-secretly) seethed as I once again climbed imaginary stairs while shushing in a baby’s ear and rhythmically patting his or her butt while Sam slept, well, notlike a baby in our bedroom.

I don’t know if it’s an extension of this nighttime caretaking or something more biologically driven, but over the last four years I’ve found myself taking on more traditional mom roles. I make doctor’s appointments and upgrade wardrobes, I fill out school forms and make sure bottles are prepared and lunches are packed for daycare. Sam certainly does more than his share in our “second shift” lifestyle, including making dinner for us almost every night and maintaining our yard, but we aren’t in a tit-for-tat kind of relationship (something the priest who married us strongly warned us against).

I’m not sure what the right word is but I feel compelled – even driven – to do a lot of the caretaking of our kids. I have a difficult time accepting offers for help, even though Sam and I live hundreds of miles from our nearest family. My kids feel like my job, in the best possible sense of the word. But lately I’ve noticed that perhaps I’ve gone a bit too far when it comes to my kids…the other night Sam was trying to put Duncan to sleep but doing it all wrong. Or rather, he was rocking and shushing in a completely different manner than I do and instead of letting them be and working it out, I interrupted Sam, offering him advice and pointers. In my mind I was offering help for a frustrating situation – in Sam’s mind, I was intruding on a moment between him and his son, one that could have been worked through without my interference. It took until the following morning, however, to come to the realization that I need to start sleeping like a husband once in a while, and other things, too.

We’ve had to start bottle feeding Duncan, which I’ll write about in a different post perhaps. The other day, when Sam was about to give Duncan a morning bottle for the first time, I stretched out in bed, luxuriating in the extra half an hour I had while fighting back some bittersweet feelings, when I noticed something. Sam made his cup of coffee before giving Duncan his bottle. I have never done this, and it’s not because I avoided caffeine while nursing. No, the first squawk out of my precious baby boy and there I am rolling out of bed and padding down to his room to get him, practically, it seems to me now with a few days of reflection, hovering from the moment he wakes up until he falls asleep.

It’s so easy to become that mom – the mom who doesn’t want to let the kids spend the night at the in-laws alone – the mom who frets whether her kid will adapt to different routines and food while traveling – the mom who worries if her son isn’t rocked just so he won’t be able to fall asleep. However, nobody likes THAT mom and even more importantly, I don’t think anyone likes being that mom, either. My husband is an amazing father, and I think part of the reason he is so is because he doesn’t always put the kids’ needs immediately before his own. Oh, of course we both put the big needs ahead of our own, but he is able, in select moments, to just leave the kids the hell alone for a few seconds to shower or make a cup of coffee. More than once, now, he has mentioned it’s time for us to start going out at night again, and while part of me wants to sigh and complain about how much work it is to find a babysitter, I know he is right. We had eleven years of marriage and thirteen years together prior to Evangeline’s birth, and yet it is shockingly easy to lose a relationship in the chaos of young kids.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sleep like a husband, at least for a long time. I’m too conditioned to the cries for mamain the middle of the night. But I can do other things, like allow myself the time and space to read an article in the newspaper while Duncan plays on the floor, or require Evangeline to wait five minutes for breakfast while I sip my coffee. My husband would never even consider feeling guilty about heading out to play a round of golf – I commit, here and now, to stop referring to myself as a “bad mom” when I leave the kids for an hour and a half to go to yoga. I am removing myself as best I can from this particular cultural, American narrative – I’m going to start doing, at least some things, like a husband.

Showering With Pirates, Drowning in Paperwork

“It’s not the sleep deprivation, or the financial strain, or even the seemingly endless chores that cause me to dislike adulthood and parenthood,” I confided to Sam this morning as I pulled together Duncan’s bottles, oatmeal and pears for daycare. “It’s not stepping on Legos or even removing stickers from our sheets, although I could do without the stickers. It’s the paperwork I can’t stand.” I nodded in the direction of the most recent piece of mail that needed attending to – a threat from the library claiming I hadn’t returned a dvd copy of “The Jungle Book” even though, for the record, I know for a FACT I returned it. So completely confident am I, in fact, that I returned this DVD that I actually have plans to argue with the libraryover this when, if the library asked me for the equivalent money as a donation, I would gladly give it.

“I know, I know,” said Sam. “It’s endless and mountainous.”

Since having children, the amount of paperwork in my life has multiplied at least by a thousand, if not a million, percent. Is there such thing as a million percent? Yes, yes there is. A million percent increase in paperwork occurs when you go, over the course of three years, from a household of two to a household of four and two of you are required to show your updated vaccination records every other goddamn day.

Outstanding paperwork I currently have yet to deal with includes, in no particular order: two parking tickets for parking on the wrong side of the street on street cleaning days (to be fair, I maybe drive 2-3 times a week, at most, and never remember to move my car the one time a month street cleaning comes around); the aforementioned and incorrect library delinquency, paperwork related to Duncan’s NICU stay that has yet to be resolved, a slip signing away my permission for Evangeline to have henna tattoos at summer camp (which, yes, OF COURSE, but why can’t I say so verbally?), an updated request for Duncan’s vaccination records, registration forms for swimming and soccer for Evangeline, and all sorts of various and sundry reminders for things like making sure the kids are dressed in yellow and gold to support our baseball team or don’t forget crazy hat day! And let’s not even discuss the art work Evangeline brings home with her. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact her daycare exposes her to art activities on such a regular basis, but by now the kid has a practically Pavlovian response when she sees paint…must put hand in that. And her teachers feel they must send it all home.

I’ve digitized what I can digitize, I’ve automated what I can automate but there is nothing to stop Evangeline’s daycare from sending home scary notes in all capital letters warning that a case hand, foot and mouth disease has been discovered and my signature is required in acknowledgment.

I am trying, when and where I can, to control the chaos that is caused by our little family of four. I recently discovered Rachel Jonat over at The Minimalist Mom and I did something I rarely do – I downloaded her book in order to understand how I could successfully become more minimalist in my mindset and in my life. This is actually another topic for a separate blog post, but I found her book incredibly helpful, and have slowly started incorporating some of her tips and ideas into my daily life.

More often than not, when I shower I am stepping over the detritus from Evangeline’s pirate obsession, pushing her pirate ship off to one side, smiling to myself, knowing Sam did the same thing instead of removing it from the tub. The fierce yet joyful faces of her pirate characters – Jake, Izzy and Cubby – grin at me while I wash my hair, shave my legs. Throughout our second floor, baskets of clean laundry overflow, and at least half the time I am choosing my outfits and my kids’ outfits from the baskets instead of our dressers and closets. With two children in daycare our finances are more constrained than they were previously, and we find ourselves doing what growing families have done since the beginning of time – eating more creatively, eating – gasp – on a budget. This is something Sam and I haven’t done since college – we were both adverse to it after being raised in families where money was always, always tight. Gone now, though, are our days of picking up expensive steaks and pricey bottles of wine – tonight we are making Mexican wraps with baked fries on the side, maybe having a beer.

In my pre-kid days, if you would have told me all of this and also promised it would all be worth it, I wouldn’t have believed you. I hated the moralistic, sometimes snotty tone parents would take with me as they claimed every single dirty diaper they changed taught them how to love more than they ever thought possible. I particularly chafed against this as I went through my scare with infertility and began imagining an alternate future for myself, one without kids.

And sometimes, in fleeting, mere moments, I do wonder if it’s all worth it. I watch our paychecks disappear down the vortex of a mortgage and two daycares and groceries while I help my poop-phobic daughter wipe herself as the baby spits up down my bra while all the while my two sisters-in-law, child free by choice, are meeting up for a week in Amsterdam and in that moment, more than anything else, I want to break down in tears, think of myself as somehow a bad person and wonder what I did in a former life to always, always now smell like sour milk and even, potentially, some days, poop, but then, a different kind of moment occurs, almost always immediately, and Duncan reaches out to touch my face and buzzes his baby lips, and Evangeline draws me in to some moment of fantastic imaginary play, or maybe Sam pours me a perfectly balanced gin and tonic after both kids are in bed and for fifteen minutes we sit together and talk about our days, and I know this: for me, itis worth it. Having children, building a family – there are days where it feels like enormously hard work, but I wouldn’t trade it – not for a European vacation, new designer shoes or even for the chance to shower alone.

The paperwork, however, is for the birds.

My father read to me – part one – on horror – second attempt

sometimes you write something, and it seems fine, but upon a later rereading you realize by not telling the whole story the piece doesn’t work, so you delete it, and try again.

If Evangeline could name her top three favorite places to visit on the weekend, she would say the library, the pool and the park, in that order. My girl, she loves getting new books. In Pittsburgh, we are incredibly lucky to have the Carnegie Library system, so on any given Saturday I can ask E if she wants to go to the library with the dinosaur or the library with the trains she likes or the library with the tent…you get the idea. On our most recent trip, she gravitated toward several beautifully illustrated fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm. These were not the Disney-ified versions of fairy tales – these were the real deal, and E was entranced. Carefully, she selected Sleeping Beauty, The Snow Queen, and Snow White to take home.

I was nervous, at first, to read them to her – concerned about my ability to handle her questions about things like evil and murder. Taking a cue from my friend Hattie, who believes children take from stories what they are able to handle that is age-appropriate, I took a breath and read to her. And it worked out just fine! Perhaps understanding her own capacity better than I do, she quickly realized the authentic tale of Snow White wasn’t appealing, but as for the other two? She held her breath for two weeks straight as we read, and read, and read again the tale of the wicked snow queen and she squealed with joy every time we read about princess Aurora and the kingdom that slept for one hundred years.

In so many ways, her favorite reading material already leans toward the dark and macabre – we spent nearly a month on a book about a haunted train. A haunted train people. That’s some scary sugar.* When she is older, hiding beneath her bedspread, flashlight in hand, totally creeped out by The Shining, I’ll know her the root of her fascination began like mine did – with real fairy tales, read on my dad’s lap.

Sam tends to worry a bit more than I do about stories being too scary for Evangeline, and I understand where he is coming from, but whether we like it or not she is already being exposed to the darkness and deceit that exists in the world. One of her best friends at school, Brandon, has recounted the plot of “The Lion King” to her endlessly – and another of her close friends is fatherless because her father died before she was born. Fiction and real life both are doing their part to prevent our instincts to over-shelter, over-protect our toddler.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had my own fascination with darker stories, beginning with my father’s recreation of some of the more famous myths, told around the campfire late at night. One of the first stories I remember hearing is the tale of Medusa, with her hair made of venomous snakes and her ability to turn men to stone – if that didn’t keep me awake at night then the grotesque clown created by Stephen King in It wasn’t likely too.

Both of my parents are big readers, but I definitely get my love of certain genres from my dad. Whether the story is about a boy who can travel across time and through worlds, or an accidental outbreak of a flu that destroys most of the world, or forbidden love causing the fall of great kingdoms, my dad exposed me to genres a lot of girls in their young adulthoods, I think, missed. As an English teacher, he also exposed me to the more traditional Great Works, and while I never took to Hemingway I certainly did to Austen, and I’m certainly grateful for that as well. But I’m honestly more grateful for the novels by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson and Dan Simmons that he slipped me than I am for The Heart of Darkness – the education I was lucky enough to receive would have ensured I read those novels, but only a father whose life is made up of books would make sure I had access to Dennis Lehane.

Reading helps us understand the world, and by tackling difficult subjects in literature before I had to confront them in my real life, and I think it helped enormously. V.C. Andrews once said by the time she actually could afford a trip to Paris, upon her arrival she realized she had already been there – in books. I think reading about the fantastic, the scary, the horrific works in much the same way – senseless mass shootings and wars raged by corrupt governments make never make logical sense, but at least the first time I confronted evil it was in my bedroom, under the covers, flashlight in one hand and book in the other, my parents down the hall, close enough to call if I grew scared but far enough away to let me establish my own reading world.

Why I write

I’ve probably written a reiteration of this post a few times already on my old blog, but the subject has been on my mind again as I juggle two kids, my job, and the ever-demanding needs of our home, not to mention exercise, seeing friends, occasionally attending church and trying to keep up with our extended family. Why do I still write? At any time I could go the way of so many other bloggers and give up my blog – I could cease putting the expectation on myself that I work on essays and fiction in whatever spare time I have. It seems almost masochistic to continue returning to the page when there are so many other things to be done and, let’s face it, I’m unlikely to ever earn a living solely from my creative writing at this point, although I suppose stranger things have happened.

All the answer I need, for myself and for others, can be found in this article:

http://www.post-gazette.com/life/food/2014/05/22/Forget-the-cookie-table-This-Pittsburgh-couple-is-having-a-bacon-table/stories/201405150444

Since I don’t expect you to click the link and read the story (I wouldn’t), I’ll summarize: A recently engaged couple is eschewing Pittsburgh’s long-held tradition of hosting a cookie table at their wedding reception and having a bacon table instead (okay, all you bacon freaks, get it out of your systems now – BACON!!). This article ran in the food section of our local paper so of course the article focused on exactly what kinds of bacon the table would hold (two sweet and two savory, for those of you who are curious) but for days – days! – I obsessed about the soon-to-be husband’s mother who asked so eagerly at the beginning of article “So, when do we start baking cookies?” How did she feel, I wondered,about bacon replacing the long-held local tradition of sending guests home with a box of cookies from the cookie table? Maybe she had looked forward HER ENTIRE LIFE to preparing the cookie table for her son’s wedding, and suddenly some obnoxious caterer was going to cover a table in…bacon? Chocolate-covered bacon? I couldn’t stop worrying about this mother – my mind kept returning to her over and over again. This is what happens when I don’t write enough – I become hung up on inconsequential news stories and the like, turning them over and around in my mind, spinning a dozen different narratives that take up space I could otherwise utilize, well, writing.

When I don’t write, my imagination bleeds dramatically into the every day, as well. If Sam doesn’t return a text my mind immediately goes to worst-case scenarios: He has had a fatal car wreck, he had a heart attack, the rapture occurred and left me behind! I also end up worrying and obsessing about people and things entirely out of my control – my cousin not inviting my parents to her wedding, for example, or my continously fractured relationship with my in-laws, for another. I will circle back again and again to issues and relationships entirely out of my control, desperately trying to make sense out of the nonsensical.

I’ve also noticed I tend to be more empathetic and have more compassion for people when I am writing. Once the practice of putting yourself in another’s shoes has begun, it isn’t easy to cease doing, and I’ve noticed I am more patient with humanity when I am writing than when I am not.

Perhaps more than anything else, I write because it helps me to understand the world, or at the very least it moves me toward understanding it. When I write, the voices in my head quiet down and external factors don’t matter nearly as much as they do when I’m not writing. Writing clears my head and my heart – it helps me see things more clearly.

I guess I don’t have to write, in the sense that I am not one of those writers who has written every day of her life, nor have I sacrificed my family life or my financial contributions to our family in order to pursue my craft. From the time I was 24 until I was 33, I always had a writing project underway and in recent weeks I’ve slowly begun returning to that level of dedication and concentration, and it’s really good. I can tell it’s good Even though my progress is slow – some would even say plodding – it’s steadying out my otherwise more chaotic nature.

Hey, if you write a page a day, in a year you will have a novel.

To the future owners of our home

An explanation of the grape and lemon lollipops you just found on the ledge of the second-floor hallway window

To the future owners of our home,
I don’t know who you are, or when our current home became yours, but I do know that at some point you will discover two perfectly in-tact lollipops on the ledge of the second-floor hallway window. Maybe you are a thorough sort of people and will discover them the first day as you go room by room making sure we’ve rid the house of all of our contents; maybe you are more inclined to discover these lollipops the first time you go to clean this window to nowhere. Regardless, at some point you will discover this candy and idly throw it away, maybe wondering how we managed to miss this when the rest of the house was appropriately scoured.

Prior to returning to work, I brought our newborn son, Duncan, to my office to meet my co-workers. Amidst the oohing and ahhing that the prince of our house so rightly deserves, one of my directors handed me two lollipops. For Evangeline, she said brightly. A big sister gift!

Now, I am not anti-sugar by any stretch. Together, my daughter Evangeline and I have creamed butter and sugar and added flour in order to create any number of cakes and sweet breads over the last two years. Occasionally, after an especially long time at the pool, we stop for an ice cream (vanilla or strawberry for her, something chocolate for me). On an extremely limited basis I have exposed her to small pieces of chocolate. But I do not abide and cannot tolerate sugar purely for the sake of it. Laffy Taffys, Starbursts, skittles, sour patch kids – I just don’t get the point of that kind of candy. I realize, of course, that this means Evangeline and Duncan will gravitate to it all the more when they are older, but for now, with the exception of her Halloween haul and the jelly beans in her Easter basket, I have hidden this type of candy until I can dispose of it properly.

I took the lollipops from my colleague and thanked her profusely, all the while planning on tossing them at the first opportunity. For the time being, I placed them in the cup holder of Duncan’s stroller, which is where they lived for nearly two weeks. Every time I took the kids for a walk, I would glance down and see the glistening violet and lemon-colored candy and be grateful Evangeline wasn’t yet tall enough to discover it. I have to remember to do something with that candy,I’d think, but it was never an opportune time, since I feared Evangeline spying the candy if I took it out while removing Duncan from the stroller.

Future owners, don’t judge me too harshly. If you had seen how Evangeline reacted to 1/2 a glass of ginger ale – a special potty-training reward – you wouldn’t just support my low-sugar stance, you’d actually campaign on my behalf. Have you ever seen how a bird dog reacts when he realizes it’s about time to go hunting? That’s pretty much how my daughter reacts to most forms of sugar.

One day when we were planning a family walk Sam discovered the candy when he went to put his traveler’s mug of rumcoffee in the cupholder. So quickly Evangeline never even noticed, he put the candy in the pocket of his shorts. Remind me to take these out of my shorts before I put them in the hamper,” he said.

The candy (and the shorts) made their way down into the basement, where they remained until I found a free moment after the children’s bedtimes but prior to watching The Wire on demand to start the laundry. My cursory pocket search (you never know when you are going to find a dollar or ten!) turned up the candy. In what seemed at the time a logical decision, I placed the damn lollipops on top of the laundry I grabbed from the dryer and made my way upstairs with the basket where it sat in the hallway for a week and a half an undetermined length of time but the candy blended in so Evangeline didn’t notice it until one day when suddenly she did and exclaimed Mama, look, CANDYand attempted to descend upon it the way the hungry hyenas in the Lion King try and descend upon Simba. I hastily grabbed the candy and placed it the window ledge, referring to it at different points as old and yucky while employing some crafty redirection toward the new and yummy raisins because again, sugar + Evangeline = madness.

At least twice a week I glance up at that window, see the candy, and think I need to throw that away. But I always seem to notice it when the kids are at my feet, or before I give Duncan a bath, or when my hands are full. The last time I saw this candy, I was rushing Evangeline to the potty. I really should move that,I thought, for the hundredth time this month. Or, at least write a blog post.

I like to think one of these days I’ll remember to throw the candy away once and for all, but it is probably much more likely that it will remain on the window ledge until we move from this home. Like the bottles of homemade wine and buried statue of Saint Joseph Sam and I came across when we first moved, it will make a statement to the new owners. In all likelihood they will assume we were slovenly, perhaps food hoarders, but I will know the truth: like the saying emblazoned upon cheap t-shirts across America I was, quite simply, too busy to clean.