Returned

The kids and I have just returned from a trip that was supposed to be a long weekend in northern Michigan but instead morphed into several days thanks to (1.) confusion over the kind of coolant to add to my car and, honestly, confusion over whether or not my car even REQUIRED coolant (it did not, as it turned out, $200 later) and (2.) unpredictable winter weather. We had a wonderful time – my mom and I took the kids ice skating for the first time, which was treacherous but ultimately rewarding, and our whole family went sledding.  We visited partly to break up the monotony of an extended business trip Sam is currently taking, and we returned to Toledo grateful to be in our own home while a little saddened by the lack of snow. Winter has very little point, in my book, if there isn’t any snow.

While we were there, one of my parents’ friends passed away. She had been exceedingly ill and it wasn’t unexpected, but it was sad nonetheless. My father particularly doesn’t handle this kind of news well since so often the people passing away are his age or, often, younger.

“It seems like we are losing people right and left,” he said, his head in his hands. I don’t really know how to act in these circumstances because he is correct – he is losing friends right and left. I generally don’t say much and give him room to just be, eventually joining him to watch Jeopardy or a college basketball game. At seventy-three, my dad is as passionate about the things he loves as he ever was – great novels, hunting, gardening, fishing – but he is slowing down at a remarkable rate, almost to the point of concern. I spoke with my mom a little bit about it and she agreed he sleeps more and moves less than he used to, and sometimes she is worried, but I am actually equally aware of the changes in her. She tells the same stories over and over again and seems exceedingly quick to anger. Ten, or even five years ago, I would have pushed both of them about these changes -pointing out to my dad that Bernie Sanders is older than he is and look, he’s running for President! Or I would have gently guided my mom toward a neurological exam. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that they need me to remain their daughter much more than they need me to be their doctor, and until I notice something really troubling – so dramatically out of character that I need to talk about it with my brother – I am going to let them be.

Our relocation to Toledo means I now only live half a day’s distance from them, and this has been a huge gift. I can be present in a way I haven’t been for over a decade.

On the whole, I’m feeling increasingly positive about things. My eyes have completely healed from their freak allergic reaction to my contact lenses, and while I will never be able to wear contacts for 12 + hours a day like I was so stupidly doing, by summer I should be able to wear them for outdoor activities, wrestling with Duncan and driving. I will never take my sight for granted again. I have organized my resume, updated my linked in account, and have embarked on an exciting writing project with my brother – more on that coming very soon! I *think* I’ve also found a way to tackle a book I’ve been hoping to write, and my goal this month is to submit one of my poems to a literary journal.

The move from Pittsburgh rocked me to my core, no doubt. Having two such small children made it worse, I think – their needs had to continuously come before my own. But here we are, nearly at the end of the first month of a new year, and a sense of normalcy is emerging. I can’t say it hurts that Duncan is days away from  turning two years old. The other morning he walked up to me with some request or another and I looked at him and said “You can get that yourself. Once my babies turn two, I get to start reading the paper again.” He looked up at me with those big brown eyes of his, flashed his dimples in the way that slays me every time, and went and had his sister do his bidding instead.

And so it goes.

Winter

Winter arrived yesterday, bringing its full Arctic glory to Ohio. Extremely cold air and just enough snow to play outside with Evangeline for an hour. She spent much of that time making obstacle courses in the snow for us, and I spent much of that time standing by the bank of pine trees in our back yard, just breathing the Midwestern winter in. Winter is in my bones, and I remembered so many winters when I was a child, playing in the snow, ice skating, skiing – it’s a season I embrace, although with a little less enthusiasm now that I have little kids and hats and mittens keep getting lost and the younger one absolutely hates his winter coat.

Last night Duncan was coughing in his sleep, hard enough that I ended up going into his room to help him prop up his pillow. This was a difficult decision because he is a light sleeper and any appearance I make in his room signals to his baby brain it’s time to get up for the day. This was the case last night as well and he repaid my concern by taking nearly two hours to go to back to sleep, during which he repeatedly tried to drive me like I am a car and escape his room to wake up his sister. I eventually got him settled and went back to bed.

I toyed with the idea of moving my alarm clock later but it is that kind of decision, I think, that has kept me from achieving some of the goals I am aiming for in 2016. I keep waiting for things to “settle down” – for the kids to sleep perfectly and consistently, for all of us to be healthy, for the minor crises that have plagued us since we moved here to stop – and I’ve come to the realization that, as a grown up, none of this is going to stop. The night before last Evangeline woke from a nightmare and begged me to sleep with her, so I spent hours with her freezing feet tucked into my back. Recently she has been diagnosed with a minor health condition – nothing to be alarmed about but something that will require management – and I realized, all of this would have happened in Pittsburgh, but I would have been working full-time. At least right now, at this particular time in my life, I can give her care my full attention, and if both my kids keep me up at night I can sleep during Duncan’s nap time. None of this is the end of the world, and sleep loss and, well, life? They aren’t things to fear.

So I woke up to the bitterly dark morning and came here to type for half an hour before the rest of my family wakes up. My goals for the month include finally updating my resume and all my subsequent social media profiles, reviewing my old writing projects to see if there is anything I want to continue to work on, and starting to write again. I have a memoir-y type book bouncing around in my head, as well as at least one hundred other ideas (incidentally, I think it’s on the floor of my son’s room where I write my best work…in my head, rubbing his back). I am also going to look toward teaching some courses at the local universities as an adjunct, and follow what interests me here in Toledo.

Happy Monday, world.

Duncan

As Duncan has grown older, one of my biggest concerns has been that he and I don’t have enough one on one “things” together. When Evangeline was the same age, I took her almost everywhere with me – to the pool, out to lunch, to brunch at a friend’s house – much of this we did with Sam but often we went off on our own adventures. Part of this stemmed from Evangeline’s extreme attachment to me between the ages of one and a half and three – for eighteen months, she screamed proverbial bloody murder if I so much as left her sight line. The other part, of course, was my own desire – I greatly enjoy having my children with me and rarely feel I need a break from them (I’m sure this is because I work full-time -if I were home with them all day I bet I’d feel differently!).

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When Duncan arrived, one of my most immediate concerns after he left the NICU and my breast milk supply had been established was spending time with Evangeline. For three years we had been practically inseparable and while I knew that had to change, it was important to me that she realize she was still a priority of mine – a top priority. Between polar vortexes a rush of warm days shot through early March and probably before I was physically ready, I took her to the park. Together, with Duncan in his bouncy chair or strapped to me in the Ergo, we baked cakes and brownies – we watched princess movies, played with play dough and colored. These were the things I was able to do with her and together we revised our mother-daughter relationship to reflect our new reality, our now Duncan-filled reality. (As I write this, it sounds like Sam wasn’t in the picture, which isn’t he case at all – he was our Behind the Scenes, the one who for a few months needed me the least, He Who grocery shopped and went to work so we could pay our bills. His role was unsung, but it was mighty).

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Over the last year and a half, Duncan and I have developed a few key things we do together. Reading through stacks of animal books is one thing – I’m not sure in the history of children if any other baby has been as delighted by what feels like the entirety of the animal kingdom as Duncan is! He is also my grocery shopping companion, and while occasionally his company can result in some frustration (his constant grabbing and tearing up of my grocery list, or the time he got his hands on a glass jar of cherries and delightedly threw it to the ground), for the most part he is a calm and enjoyable companion in the grocery store, babbling away in his limited baby talk way, every third or fourth word recognizable, often leaning toward me for a hug or a kiss as we go about our business. When we go to Whole Foods for the five things I insist on purchasing from there (tonic water, apple spice oatmeal, milk, gouda and lamb kebobs), we share a fruit crumble bar from the bakery while sitting in the cafe before I load our groceries. I’m also teaching him how to go down the stairs safely.

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And that’s pretty much the sum total of anything really unique he and I do together – read animal books, share oatmeal crumble bars, grocery shop and practice stair safety. I guess in some ways, as a second child, it’s part of his lot to scrabble, to find ways to assert himself – and really, he has no problem with this life skill, forcing books into my hands so I’ll read to him, plopping down into any readily available lap for a cuddle (including his sister’s), moaning dramatically at the back door when it isn’t open the instant he wants to make his way to the sandbox. But, like his sister, he is the heart of my heart – a piece of my greatest joy – the child who looks more like me, smiles as often as I do, who already loves a good book in a comfy chair, and I owe him a little more.

“One day,” Sam mused, “I expect to come home and find you two toe to toe on the couch, reading separate books, completely and totally at peace.”

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Or maybe I think I owe myself more? One of my aunts, who stayed home with my cousins for several years before becoming a school teacher, always referred to those years as her gift to herself – her time to soak up all their baby deliciousness – my mom uses the same words. In our age of “mommy war” and everyone reacting defensively, it’s not terribly politically correct to point out that children do need their mothers or fathers around on a fairly routine basis. I don’t live with regrets, and I know my working is best for my family, but I do wish I had been able to have more flexibility in my day for my kids on occasion.

At any rate! Guilt can consume you if you spend too much time with it, and is an inherently selfish and unproductive emotion to boot. Instead, I am greatly looking forward the upcoming 4th of July weekend. Our entire family was supposed to travel to upstate New York to visit Sam’s folks, but for the life of me I couldn’t find a kennel to take our dog. After some consideration, Sam and I realized this trip could be hugely beneficial for everyone – he could take Evangeline and she could be the sole beneficiary of her grandparents’ attention for a weekend, and I could spend some one on one time with Duncan, going to the zoo and the pool and dodging correcting his attempts to cover me in blueberry yogurt. My parents always made sure to spend individual time with my brother and me as we grew up, including trips to our grandparents, and those are some of my favorite memories. I’m looking forward to learning more about my little guy, just as Sam is looking forward to his solo time with Evangeline. Lemons out of lemonade, is what we are doing – and I’m greatly looking forward to it.

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Although – I did forget. I’m also trying to teach Duncan some table manners, particularly keeping his feet off the table during meals. It’s going really really well and I know his future partner will thank me for this someday.

Midway through the season of Lent

Growing up as a Presbyterian in a predominantly Catholic town, I generally felt left out during the observance of Lent. I grew up in the kind of Presbyterian congregation that the minister of my current church jokingly refers to as “the frozen chosen” – we never clapped after guest musicians performed, we rarely decorated the church and our passing of the peace didn’t go beyond the lightest hand shake we could get away with. Frankly, I had little understanding of Lent as a season unto itself because nothing really changed noticeably until Palm Sunday, when the kids in the congregation were given palm leaves and reenacted Jesus’ return to Jerusalem. Things grew a little more lively during Holy Week and Easter – I recall releasing multi-colored balloons into the air in recognition of the resurrection, at least. But it definitely felt like the Catholics had most of Lent to themselves. On Fridays, all of my friends feasted on fried fish dinners from Lud’s, the local fast-food restaurant, and during the week the school halls were full of chatter about what everyone was “giving up” in observance of Lent. Pop, chocolate, candy or sugar altogether, swearing, lying, not-studying – whatever, it never seemed entirely bad to have a goal of some sort during the dark cold of late winter. I remember asking my mom at some point if I should give something up for lent and she vehemently opposed the idea, stating that was a Catholic thing, probably while she sat a juicy prime rib roast in front of us on a Friday while my dad muttered something about giving up chocolate, equivocating, and forty days in the desert.

Not huge fans of the Catholic religion, my parents.

When I moved to Pittsburgh I began thinking of Lent as its own season, partially because the ministers of my church guide us through it patiently and worshipfully but also because of my city’s willingness to embrace and then build upon any opportunity to create community. Catholics can’t eat meat on Fridays? No problem. Every Catholic church and fire hall within three counties will host a fish fry! And people, we aren’t just talking, as you might think, about the ubiquitous fried fish advertised by McDonald’s or Wendy’s – meals that are punishing in and of themselves. We are talking about homemade macaroni and cheese and spaghetti with olive oil, roasted fried shrimp and sauteed scallops – heaping, steaming platefuls of delicousness cooked up by nuns and women who regularly man large church kitchens. These fish fries are generally bring-your-own-beverage and they can be found in every Pittsburgh neighborhood, borough and suburb during Lent. To accompany these fish fries, many organizations host small carnivals, game nights and fundraisers, and so people who have remained at home on Friday nights since Christmas, at first as a welcome respite from the holiday bustle and then as a less-welcome avoidance of the cold, break out of their hermit shells and go out.

Everything begins to feel a little less dark as the Lenten season begins – the days begin to lengthen, allowing light, metaphorical and literal, to pour in.

Since the start of 2015, we’ve had a difficult time making it to church on Sundays. Every Sunday so far at least one of us has been sick except for one, where we managed to stay until the middle of the first hymn when I realized the stomach bug I so smugly thought I avoided receiving from the rest of the family struck – no child has ever been ripped so quickly from Sunday school as Evangeline was that morning. So Sam and I focused on Lent. By the time Lent begins, we reasoned, the children will be healthy. By the time Lent begins, we told ourselves, our plumbing woes will be over. We will return to regular church going with the start of the Lenten season and it shall be glorious, a small-scale resurrection of our own sort.

And on the first Sunday of Lent we did – we made it to church. We made it through the announcements and the first hymn and passing the peace and almostto the children’s sermon when Duncan – who made it very clearly known that he would NOT be left in the nursery – let out a tortured wail in response to the organ and did.not.stop. Sam took him in the hallway to go for a walk when, just as the children’s sermon was about to begin, Evangeline leaned in and whispered to me “momma, I have to use the potty. It can’t wait.” And so she and I walked to the women’s room and as my daughter was about to get down to business she slipped on some PEE on the floor – someone before us obviously hadn’t been able to make it to the actually bathroom on time – and she fell and soaked her pants, and lo – the crying. The crying. “It’s not very fun,” she gasped, “to be covered in someone else’s pee.”

of course it isn’t.

I carried her out into the hallway where Sam was managing a fussy Duncan and through marital ESP finely tuned over the last fifteen years we decided, without speaking, to head for the door.

Since that last service, we haven’t been back to church yet. Minor illnesses and major weather inconveniences have kept us away, and while initially I’ve felt guilty about it, I knew I had to look at our circumstances in a different light. Because of weather or runny noses, I’ve been able to stay home and experience long Sunday mornings. I’m a lucky mom with kids who like to sleep and on Sundays they often don’t rise until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m., allowing for two breakfasts (the first fed to the kids immediately while Sam and I drink coffee, the second mid-morning when the grownups are ready to eat) – and so, during these first snow-bound Sundays of lent, I shut out the voices of my mother and grandmother, who for some reason always seemed to believe that God is mostly found in the formal spaces set aside for prayer (church, dinner table, bedroom) and instead found grace every time Duncan brought me a book, climbed into my lap and began sucking his thumb, waiting expectantly for a story; I breathed in the warmth of my daughter as she emerged from her bed, I exhaled a prayer of peace. I said thanks for runny yellow egg yolks on fresh sourdough toast and sunlight glinting through dust-smeared dining room windows, for half finished cups of coffee left abandoned in order to keep the baby from his latest death wish.

At one point, I emailed our minister to explain our predicament. He’s a compassionate, understanding man and I believe in the work of our church and, I don’t know, I didn’t want him to think we’d just abandoned church. He of course wrote back something gracious and understanding, ending on a note stating he hoped the rest of the Lenten season was less eventful and more worshipful for us. And, in its own way, it has been.

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

― G.K. Chesterton