Making Room for the Mountains

When we were planning our annual week-long visit to northern Michigan this summer, the most difficult part logistically was working through our return trip. This was partly because we somewhat dreaded sharing a hotel room with two kids, and partly because we had our dog with us, but mostly it was because I can never actually picture leaving northern Michigan once I am there. When headed to the part of the country I still consider home after two decades away, I am always convinced that for once and for all something will happen that will cause us to remain there against all reason. Sometimes my imaginings are truly awful – the dramatic death of a parent – and sometimes they are routine, like running into the woman in charge of public relations for the hospital, discovering she’s retiring, and nonchalantly submitting my resume. These are my fantasies, so I don’t bother with details like the reality of putting our house on the market prior to moving, or the actual move itself. No, in my daydreaming the situation is either so critical in nature or so ridiculously fortunate that I don’t have to concern myself with real-life details, and no one would expect me to.

I have this adolescent belief that the geography of my home state completes me in some fundamental, lizard-brain like way, and growing up I actually didn’t have terribly grand schemes to move away from Michigan. For the most part, I hoped to return to Northern Michigan after some unspecified but exciting time away – not to my home town but to one of the towns on the west side of the state, like Petoskey or Traverse City or Boyne. My grandma once told me I’m meant to live on a lake, just like she was, and her remark stuck with me – to this day I’m not sure a greater truth about me has been spoken. Bodies of water have an incredibly calming effect on me and there is nothing I enjoy as much as long walks near them. Those of us blessed enough to spend time in an area that experiences a full, glorious autumn on the water – the juxtaposition of flaming leaves and deep blue waters – have seen God.

And yet, I’m 37 years old and except for a few years while Sam was in law school, I haven’t returned to Michigan. Our lives have bounced us around the rust belt and parts of the south at a somewhat alarming rate, but for the last six years we’ve remained settled in Pittsburgh, and, much like with marriage, we keep choosing to live here, over and over and over again.

For a couple of years, I thought I would have to reconcile myself to feeling homesick every day of my life but recently my longing has mutated to something less dramatic. Now, while I still have days where I miss Michigan acutely, I am growing more content with the idea that Pittsburgh might always be my home base. I’m even beginning to admire the mountains that surround us, drinking them in and the way they change in the light, the way I once did with lake Huron, lake Michigan and lake Charlevoix. My first go-around with Pittsburgh, for graduate school from 2002 to 2005, the mountains often made me feel like the world was closing in on me. Pittsburgh was an unknowable, odd town made up of one-way streets and a confusing mish-mash of tunnels, bridges and rivers, all of which prevented me from ever getting where I needed to go. And it seemed so dark, and all of us wanna be writers lived in the attics of rickety old Victorian homes with no air-conditioning and radiator heat, and almost everybody smoked, so that for three years I dreamed about Michigan’s wide open roads and endless sky, and the way the smell changes as you drive from southern Michigan to northern Michigan, to something like sun-baked pine needles and rich, dark soil.

We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years now, and in that time we’ve purchased a house and had two children. When we first returned our enthusiasm came close to zealotry – our stay in Michigan had made us appreciate Pittsburgh’s walkability, public transportation, accessibility to ethnic, non-chain restaurants and behemoth museums. We embraced the local sports teams and breathed a sigh of relief – we were home.

For several years, I continued to long for Michigan, even as we made concerted efforts to grow roots here. We joined a church, a gym, said yes when people asked us to go out and reciprocated requests in return. I enjoyed all of it, even while not being able to shake the feeling that while Pittsburgh had my heart, Michigan wasmy heart.

Lately though, something has shifted. I guess it’s the kind of shift that comes with time, but now my feet feel firmly planted in Pennsylvania soil. I’m less homesick and more at home, and it’s this shift that has allowed me to begin appreciating not just the restaurants, libraries, bars and book stores Pittsburgh has to offer, but to really sink into the city and surrounding area in a new way. In Pittsburgh, I have found my tribe – a network of friends at once vast and close-knit – friends who I can count on to drop off gatorade on my doorstep when my entire family is stricken with the stomach flu, friends who will take my kids if an emergency arrives (and I, in turn, take theirs, no questions asked)friends who always have a drink or a cup of coffee or a cake at the ready, whatever the situation may require. Instead of hanging out in smokey attics ruminating about Derrida I spend my time in backyards with barely tamed gardens, the laughter of children always nearby.

Northern Michigan provided a rather cold place to vacation this summer, and the chaos of two little ones on such a long road trip didn’t make it necessarily easy. On the second day of our drive back to Pittsburgh, as the Ohio turnpike carried us east of Cleveland toward Pennsylvania, instead of tensing up as the rivers grew wider, the bridges higher, and the slow build of the Appalachians began, I found my shoulders lowering, and I began breathing more deeply. This had always been my physical reaction in the past to driving into Michigan so to find it happen on the reverse course was shocking – it also forced me to look at the landscape with new eyes. Steam was swirling off the rivers like tufts of fireless smoke while the mountains, shades of jade and emerald emerging from the distance, beckoned. In the matter of just a hundred miles or so I would arrive in the city so artfully hidden by these early hills, driving into the land of rivers, bridges, steel pride and my loving tribe. A small part of me budged that day, making room for the mountains that surround me, allowing room in my heart for two homes – and it has been expanding ever since.


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.
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.