Saturday, August 20, 2016

Revising Recollections of Early Childhood


I liked this article today by Mary Elizabeth Williams "I loved being the mom of young kids, but I'm not sad they're growing up." 

Tons of well-meaning neighbors and passers-by give and gave me the same advice she quotes: “Enjoy it now. It goes by so fast.” The early childhood years, say zero through five, actually didn't go by fast at all for me with Wally. I felt every grueling and wonderful and wonder-filled minute. 

Petra is still really in early childhood (although sometimes I forget that; she seems so much older). I'm still the person scrambling with stained shirts, overwhelmed with thrown-off nap-times and spilled milk and potential breakdowns at family get togethers while most of the other parents have been set-loose by kids (like Wally) who dart nearby just to grab some pretzels and then disappear to join the other kids again. I do keep trying to remind myself--enjoy this time! Enjoy the days when she clings to you, begs to sit next to you, says, "You're my best friend Mama" over and over. I know I'll look back with nostalgia when I'm not even allowed in her room, when she grabs two bites of dinner and runs out the door to meet friends. Still, it helps to hear from this mom of kids who are growing up that it really is tough to toddler-chase all day and that there are plenty of great things about taking care of older children. 

Given our culture's hyper-focus on birth and parenting now (maybe a much-over due interest, but a bit obsessive now, nonetheless), it feels like parents of young children have, despite the tranquilized look of the sleep-tortured, some special VIP access, some insider claim, not just to the toughest parenting job but to some other, ineffable power. Their little ones rule. They are in charge, nominally, of the true rulers. Their stained shirts, ripped pants, the bags under their eyes, confirm this. They've been anointed. 

Now I'm remembering the Romantic poets, and their belief that babies did have some kind of spiritual power, a closer connection to the supernatural world. And I suppose, why wouldn't they? Uncorrupted. Brand new. Just arriving here from...

Yes, here it is. Wordsworth, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy

We get mixed messages--tell that baby to grow up! Why isn't he/she speaking yet? Over picking eating yet? Enrolled in music master classes yet! But we're also constantly told to enjoy this magical time. 

Parents with young, clingy, messy, demanding kids stare at the parents stretched out on beach chairs sipping lemonade with envy. Parents whose children are growing up or grown look with envy at the family with the stroller and the ice-cream covered toddler. Williams' article is a reminder to be realistic about the drudgery and difficulty of the early years. Not to idealize it looking back. 

Yet her article can be summed up in a single sentence, as it is in the title. These are the articles people seem to want. One-point-articles. A point you get fully in the headline. Scroll-able articles. This is what the masses have always wanted. And here I don't mean to separate myself from the masses; far from it. I clicked on the damn article, and praised it. Meanwhile I'm spinning my wheels with Wordsworth trying to summarize his point about how we can't get back the "splendour in the grass" but how we can take the memory with us. So why am I resisting the complexity of the grass-is-always-greener parenting dynamic, but embracing complexity elsewhere?  

Maybe I am partly bothered by the refusal to admit to any nostalgia. To any regret for not seeing the radiance of those exhausting moments more clearly. Maybe I was drawn to the article precisely because something about it felt unfinished or because I wanted to accept the closed and stable lesson: enjoy the moment you're in, but could not.

Maybe it would be okay for Williams to give us a reality check about the things that are better in her life now, as she does, but for her also to pause for a moment on "the glory and the freshness of a dream" that is now gone. I don't want to be reductively returning us to Wordsworth's vision. His words beg re-examination as well. One could, just for a start, question his dedication to nature, and posit, as many have done, that his metaphors served the project of empire.

A desire to ask questions, to push and search and wonder, led me straight to the academy. Led me, four years ago, while Wally napped upstairs at my parents' house in Massachusetts, to sit on the porch and commit to memory words like "cicatrix" before I brought him out to the lake in the afternoon, so that November, pregnant with Petra, I could take the GREs. So that the following January, right about to enter a new radiant and exhausting realm, I wrote my statement of intent about why I wanted to return to study questions with very distant answers. Answers I would probably never reach. 

Yet I found some of the most important questions--the ones about how we live--to be almost entirely missing from that realm. 

I want to pose questions about how we live, and splash about in deep, murky waters, positing answers, then pushing and revising, and reconsidering them. Accepting challenges and complications; J. Alfred Prufrocks 100 visions and revisions.

At the same time maybe I'm jealous of the Mary Elizabeth Williamses of the world, the ones, if this article is any indication, with fixed and stable answers they seem satisfied by. The ones who now take long, hot showers by themselves, without a second thought. 

Maybe part of me wonders--really, really? Okay most days, fine. But are you never going to fall down on your knees in the last dying light of August sobbing as you carry a now cracked and empty dollhouse out to the donation pile in the garage, the dollhouse your girls once adored and bent over for hours? Are you really never going to hear the ghostlike, prayerful, gentle voices they used to use to move the doll family around from room to room?

Are you trying to save yourself the discomfort of uncertainty and complication? Is this brief, encouraging article another balm in the long list of "It's okay" platitudes we seemingly need to subsist, to counteract horrifying images of Syria and Louisiana? Part of the dull, it's okay, numb grayness Christina Crook claims, in The Joy of Missing Out, we increasingly choose over the experience of true sadness or true joy?

I don't know if I want Williams to admit to a pang every now, to admit to catching herself with the sadness and wistfulness of knowing that "nothing can bring back the hour." Or if it's just that I want to be able to write and think myself with such clarity and stability. To trade myself in the currency of our culture. One I feel I've lost almost entirely, become untethered from, grown distant and distal from, been disavowed and disappeared and divested of, discounted from, since leaving Facebook with its easy answers and its snapshot lives and its utopian visions, nearly four and a half years ago. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Farm to Table

Yes Petra was upset she wasn't getting to use the ruler here. Please ignore her crabby, I usually nap at this time, face.

World's longest string beans grown from seed in our urban garden. (As it turns out they're actually not actually the longest, but we like to call them that.)



First forays into sharp-knife usage. 



Wally really likes Top Chef Junior thanks to his friend Logan. He made a dip for the beans with soy sauce, sesame seed oil, garlic and ginger. At the last minute he added a bit more than a tiny drop of hot chili oil, which meant neither he nor Petra really ended up eating much of it. 

As a side note, my brother-in-law got to the final round (it may also have been the only round) of Top Chef competition on the cruise.

I've always wanted to have a farm. Heather and I dreamed all through elementary school that one day we would own one. It's only here in Manhattan that I've ever really grown anything. Kind of "the only Zen you find at the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring"* kind of thing, except with string bean seeds. 



*Robert M. Pirsig

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Today




Sarah's comment just now - which, as she wrote, must have fallen into the ether originally - prompted me to write here today, a rapid update. 

I want to get into Slow Writing. Is that a thing? I see Louise DeSalvo wrote a book on it. DeSalvo wrote one of my favorite writing books: Writing as a Way of Healing. That book, along with work by James W. Pennebaker, formed the springboard for a "Writing for Health" workshop my father and I gave together many years ago.

I keep thinking about Slow Writing, because most of my writing these days is frantic. It's that writing without breathing type. The scrawled, choppy, crossed out sentences in a journal that is wet from being thrown into the swimsuit bag and chewed on by the cat and full of directions, shopping lists, nervously jotted down To Do lists. Lists from several months ago with items that have big exclamation points next to them, underlined twice, items that still aren't done.

This morning, working on an assignment due in three hours, I caught the ridiculous franticness of how I was writing. I stopped myself. I tried to slow down. But when my kids are home, as they are now, expecting a fun summer day, as they are now, and there's a change of plans and I suddenly have something due, I can't help but write in this way. Any minute, there's an interruption. I had three straight minutes to myself writing sprawled out on the bed and the cat chose that time to lie down on the papers and tackle my pen. 

But facing obstacle after obstacle--(not crazy dramatic ones like Olympic athletes, but tiny, quotidian ones like kid interruptions, overdue bills, frisky cats, nosy neighbors)--that is like the main running theme of the book-Writer's Boot Camp--that I'm trying to get off to the printer. A book (a book inside a kit, really) that will be out in stores this fall. The whole point is basically how to slog through. Which we all know is the point. But because I've been slogging through writing for most of my adult life and because I've patched together something of a writing life kind of, and because I've read hundreds of books on writing advice, I do feel I have a little bit of an idea about what kinds of things help with continuing the slog. Yet, like the shrink who desperately needs therapy or nutritionist who gulps down giant Slurpees for breakfast, here I am tripped up by the most obvious and predictable obstacles.

I came to the blog, for a quick post, because it often centers me. If forces me to ask--where am I today? It makes me think about the reunion I just came from, and how that connects to the ones I wrote about in 2010, 2012, and 2014. I am thinking about how the fierce Jacobson sisters who raised their kids together in Brooklyn would be maybe disappointed to think about how scattered those cousins are now. Disappointed to know that those cousins, who grew up like siblings, whose relationships are foundational to their entire life view, didn't prioritize the next generation really getting to know each other. So while we've grown up seeing them at Bat Mitzvahs and weddings and funerals, we didn't really have the relationship playing together our parents somehow imagined we did. How only my sister--who wasn't raised there--holds down the fort in Brooklyn now. Like Amie in her recent post on The Shape of Me,  these are things I am thinking about, questions I'm raising, not ones I am answering.

A blog should have more of a daily rhythm. That cadence inheres to the form. Letting long stretches go between posts is disruptive to the flow of it. 

Sometimes I find it hard to think about writing here because I am too much in the middle of things. But in the middle of things is exactly the place from where we have to write. Yes distance, escape, a tiny cabin by the sea, a quiet room in a lake house, a deck overlooking the vast Pacific ocean, a Journal of a Solitude gives us much-needed perspective, gives us time and space for reflection. For Slow Writing. For meaningful interpretation. But that isn't the reality of most of our days. Most days, we have to write right smack dab in the middle of things. I will try to stay closer to that reality. To keep writing in media res.



(If you can, listen to "May It Be" by Enya today.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lake Life


Not a bad temporary office here in the Poconos. That's a lake through the window! Sun just came out after rain and clouds all day. Kids at the pool. Mom making pasta behind me. Making notes for designer of Writers' Boot Camp and answering copyediting queries now. (Usually these shots feature a drink of some kind. Maybe I'll get one. Plastic IKEA kids cups in the background not exactly setting the right tone.) I love how the world comes alive when the sun finally breaks through in the afternoon. How you hear children shouting from far away. See bike riders and dog walkers and people back out on their porches. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Boat Life

This really happened



One of the many reasons why I cannot stop thinking about that cruise. I was never interested in going on a cruise before. I thought it would be full of middle America Trump supporters who spent the day gambling and drinking Coors Lite. (Actually, ours may well have been.)

Today I met up with a mom friend from grad school. I waited for her at Bryant Park, which was absolutely hopping. I remembered Bryant Parks from different versions of my life. The time I went there with InfoPro (the job my brother-in-law Jon Gibs got me) for happy hour drinks. I think it was the last day. It definitely had an ending feel to it. My last day? Other people leaving too? I remember the office moved at one point. It's all so very vague. 

There were the Bryant Park movie in the park days. That pre-dated Infopro. That was during the first year or so of living in New York. Back when you went to all that great, free, cultural stuff. Back when you had nothing but time.

There was the time when Wally was very young, maybe 6 months, when I bought a 20-pass ticket to the carousel there. What was I thinking? Somehow I imagined us heading over there all the time with Wally. I hadn't re-calibrated what New York would be like with a baby. How much more provincial we would get. How rooted in our neighborhood, our block, to the point where we have upper and lower Penn South, and it really seems to mean something. We don't know people in lower Penn South (below 26th street) as well. If someone makes the jump, it radically changes their main playground, main drugstore, main supermarket. All the trajectories of their lives change, based on just a block or two. 

It was so great to meet my grad school mom friend Amie, after months commenting on each other's blogs. She blogs here at the shape of me. She also lives in the same town as my proto-crypto dream house. On her syllabus for a survey of English literature course she's about to teach, she has Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." It was the first time I ever remember meeting her where I didn't feel super stressed and out of my element. It was wonderful. We meant to meet in June. August was our fall-back date, but at least we made it. 

We said goodbye as she went to dinner with her husband and I went home hoping to catch Wally and Petra before they went to sleep. 

I didn't catch them.

I came in and all three were asleep. 

So early (before 8)! Finally back on schedule after all the late nights on the boat and the jet lag.

On our last night on the boat we stopped in Canada, toured the lovely town of Victoria a bit, saw a fantastic street show. 

When we got back on the boat, I took the kids for one quick, last chocolate tart at the cafe on the 5th floor. I can't believe it's our last night on the boat, I said. Wally we should pretend it's our first night. They drank milk. The waitress brought another plate full of tarts to the table. We hadn't asked for anything more. "Let's explore the whole boat like it's our first night here," Wally said. 

I said, you can't just do that. You can't pretend the last night is the first. 

But we did. We ran up to the solstice deck. We looked at the stars. We breathed in the salt air. 

"everything/was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow/And I let the fish go."



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Just an hour ago, I was heading out for a jog. I was tired and headachy at first. Full of complaints by 10th avenue only. Sure tonight wasn't a good night to try to get back into some kind of exercise routine again after over a month of doing nothing more strenuous than drinking mudslides.

When I got out by the river, out to the field where I met the Australian Twins (who, it turns out, never collected their matchboxes) I saw families lingering over picnics in the translucent light. People in kayaks. Sailboats circling around. Entire crew teams whizzing along. Little kids who are usually home in bed by now, running barefoot through the trees, pulling fizzy lemonades out of coolers. This lovely hum of an August evening stretched to its fullest potential. 

It was the first time I'd been back near water, any kind of real water--deep and mysterious and connected--since we stepped on land in Seattle. 

The fatigue and headache lifted. I still had the night ahead of me to work. To shower and write in the Five-Year-Journal my friend Kara gave me. To talk with my sister. 

And then, an hour later, coming into the apartment, the reminder from Alex about what I forgot to pick up the store. That magic in-between of twilight absolutely gone. Back out into the elevator. Full night now, outside. When returned once again, the sound of Petra crying. The dirty dishes. The need to make arrangements for tomorrow. The work that had seemed fun and light and easy now seeming a much heavier task. 

I should get to that work, and stop worrying about the difference between that promising hour, just an hour ago, and now.  


Friday, July 29, 2016

Metal Frames

1940s bed frames


I kinda wish I'd taken a picture of all the different versions of the kids' bedroom, starting with the way my grandmother Miriam had it with the big mirror over the dresser and the little table built into the wall. 

Tomorrow we're getting rid of the bed frames Wally has been using for the past five years or so. These weren't my grandmother's beds, rather they were always in the other room, the den. It's a day bed, where one collapses and slides under the other, but for the past half year we've left them mostly side-by-side with the kids sleeping next to each other.


Alex has some guys from the building coming to get the frames for bulk pickup. I'm so mad at him because I wanted to try to give it away on Freecycle but Alex refused. (It's hard to line up the timing for that with the building's rules about the elevator and Alex feared it would become a hoarding situation where we'd never get the frames out.) The main drawback of these beds is the injury danger of the metal frame. People are always getting hurt on them. It seems odd to give them away now, though, when the kids are 3 and 8. 

Our neighbor-friends are passing on their kind of bunk bed to us tomorrow (the Ikea bed where one kids sleeps on the floor).

The day bed been in this apartment my entire life, but I never saw the frame before. It turned out to be so small.

Last night Wally cried himself to sleep about giving it away.

I'm not able to write any more about the meaning of this (if there is any to even draw out) but I felt the need to mark it on the night that the room is in this odd state of disarray.
*

I was looking at this adorable book Craft for the Soul by Pip Lincolne and she says she "love[s] going to sleep at night." 

I want to be one of those people who wants to get into bed. I don't like to go until I'm so tired I am literally falling over. I'm still a little bit on West Coast time so even up until 1 am last night I was still feeling pretty wired, unusual for me, ever since having kids.