Friday, January 6, 2017

Finally packed away the ornaments and took the tree down to be mulched last night. 

Said goodbye to the season with a candle, mint ice cream and Alex playing outrageously sad opera on the piano. Wally was hugging the tree again and again, the whole way down and even once it was laying on its side downstairs by the trash. A maudlin scene.

Woke to snow this morning, but not before Wally woke several times during the night, padding into our room in tears, distraught about "Tap" (he names the trees). 

On the way to the bus this morning we got on the topic of Mimu, the great-grandchild nickname for my grandmother Miriam who lived in our current apartment from 1965 until she died in 2008.

"Tell me a story about her," Petra said, sticking out her tongue to catch the snow.

I couldn't think for some reason off hand of a good story. Not one that would fit into the few blocks to the bus stop. Not one I could tell over the noise of the traffic. 

I talked briefly about Miriam's life growing up in Brooklyn. About 4 sisters all sleeping together in one bed. About the piece of furniture she bought because it was big enough to hold her punchbowl. This was decades later, maybe even after she moved to Manhattan. The Pepsi she drank until 9 pm, switching to something without caffeine at that time. That was in the final years of her life. I skipped around. I mostly left out, for some reason, the two decades where she raised my father and aunt in Brooklyn, maybe almost like those years don't fall under her story. Maybe I classify them as part of my dad's. 

I was, between crossing streets, waving at crossing guards, saying "Hi" to the fruit guy, still trying to think of a story, to take up the time between Wally's bus stop and Petra's daycare. Somehow I skipped ahead to the rehab center in Massachusetts that had three llamas. She spent time in my parents' house after that rehab center, but that was the last place I saw her. 

I thought about how happy she was with crappy suburban Chinese food we brought to a common room there. How she told me to sit in the "Queen's chair." I pictured myself carrying Wally in the Ergo outside in the mild summer air, pushing Mimu in the wheelchair to see the llamas. She was already lighter than air.

"Pops was there with his mom when she died" I told Petra as we turned onto the block of her daycare. 

"His mom?" Petra seemed surprised. "I thought you said it was his grandmother."

"No, she was my grandmother. Pop's mother."

Family trees, sketched out, spectral and skeletal like the trees lining the brownstone-lined streets where we walked.

"Pops said goodbye to her," I went on "And Mimu died and there was a big, full moon up in the sky that night on his drive home." 

"What did it say?" Petra asked facing straight ahead.

"What did what say?"

"The moon!"

The moon! Of course the moon would speak in this story. This is girl and boy land, where owls eat pea soup in front of the fire, where bunnies stay up too late, where pigeons beg to drive the bus. Why wouldn't the moon have something to say?

But I couldn't think of anything. I surveyed the snow, general over New York City. I smiled thinking of my James Joyce course at Fordham in July only two and a half years before. My mind flashed to Ireland. The churchyard. The dark mutinous Shannon waves.

In my head, the final lines of "The Dead" weaved around Maria Callas singing La Mamma Morta in Italian. And like a counter-melody, so many lines from my grandmother's stories, fragments of stories, really. And in particular this one: "You know, I never thought to ask my father how he got to Hull, England." (It was always Hull, England in particular.) "I mean, how did an eleven-year-old travel alone from Russia to Hull, England in 1900?" 

I laughed thinking about Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, made famous for sending her nine-year-old alone on the NYC subway a century later. Then I thought about the picture of me at that age that used to hang on the wall in this apartment, me wearing an argyle sweater with braces newly installed over wildly crooked front teeth. 

Miriam's refrain wasn't like many others in her generation. It wasn't inflated nostalgia. It wasn't, "the past was better." She was equally intrigued by and committed to the present, to giving me advice on my band, to writing letters to Senators, holding on to the present with every cell in her body, the last one to bed and the first one up. But still the past was vast, hyperlinked to every conversation.

"I really don't know," I told Petra. I shrugged my shoulders, trying to shake the spell that had come over me, the tree, the opera, the faintly falling snow. 

Petra started climbing up the stairs, holding onto her mittens and hat. At the top she turned around and took over my story, my not-story, the fragments I hadn't been able to attach, the ending I'd rushed to for some reason. The llamas and the bad Chinese food and the soaring moon in that dark sky on that final night.

"I know what the moon said," Petra whispered, like vespers, but Maria Callas' voice was still piercing, ear-splitting as that highest note rang out. "The moon said 'You cannot die.'"


Friday, December 30, 2016

In snowy Massachusetts. Hot chocolate. Icy bare trees. Stacks of books from the library. Hanukah candles glowing in the gloaming. Colored pencil drawings. Charlie Brown's Christmas. Early bedtimes. "Angels from the Realms of Glory" and covers of Hillary/Kate McGinnon's cover of Leonard Cohen on out-of-tune piano in the basement. The piano I spent hours and hours and weeks and years of my life playing songs from Les Mis and Miss Saigon and REM and 10,000 Maniacs on. Candy canes in a little jar. My old wind-up rocking horse toy playing "Toyland." Wally making up endless stories with his new story cubes. Petra putting together a puzzle photo of my Aunt and Uncle's wedding picture, a favor from the anniversary party I never made it down to this October because of the hurricane that closed off the North Carolina shore, six years after the cousin's October wedding I never made it down to because of a hurricane that messed up all the flights in the Northeast. The notes of the windup toy spaced further and further apart as the toy slows down. Wally worried last night about dying, through tears asking why everyone has to die. Petra first thing this morning, before even really awake, stretching her arms above her head with eyes still shut, "See Wally, I told you you wouldn't die."

Just a note here or there now of the music from the wind-up toy, with the broken wooden train and the missing teddy bear that fell off somewhere, who knows how many years ago.  "Little girl and boy land. When you dwell within it, you are ever happy." Notes hanging in the air, as the clear bright sun streams in.

Monday, December 19, 2016

On Ekphrastic Motherhood


Little Petra has been sick--not too sick, other than the first night, but enough to stay home--these past few days, and I was lucky to have a lightning quick Jury Duty stint and nothing pressing work-wise and to therefore have this cozy home with her and to really enjoy her. 

Yesterday for a half hour instead of her napping, both of us snuggled under the blanket as she peppers me with questions about God and Jesus. (She is playing Mary in her school's Xmas play.) Laughing as I try to answer. Not that I don't know the stories--I do--but because I don't know how to explain that Jesus was the son of God but also God. Is, not was. I don't know how to satisfy her constant follow-up questions about why he doesn't die and how he wasn't Joseph's son. This are unanswerable questions, maybe, is the answer. You have to have faith. Finally I refer her to my mom. She has better training to handle this toddler catechism. 

"Ask Mimi," I say, hoping that will end that line of conversation. "Or Vovo." (That's Alex's mom, still a sort of practicing Catholic.) 

"Why?" she asks, head just barely peeking out from under the blanket.

"They learned about this growing up. Pops wouldn't know much. He's Jewish."

"He's Jewish?" Petra says in that question/repeat way toddlers have of prolonging every conversation.

"Yeah." It looks like maybe we can move on to some other topic or some other toddler project that won't quite work. "Oh yeah, Jesus was Jewish," I add, laughing as I seemingly unravel my own logic. 

There is something about life with a toddler when you are really able to experience it--of course even without "real" work there are of course a million other things to juggle and manage in the course of a day--but there is an entirely different quality to having the chance to sit down on the floor and do puzzles and cut-outs and flip through books of Fun Things to Do with Toddlers as you wistfully put aside Fun Things to Do with Babies into the giveaway bin. 

I'm always impressed with the way Sarah Bousquet captures life with her toddler on One Blue Sail--the moments of pure magic but also the irritations and frustrations, not All Joy and No Fun like in Jennifer Senior's book but the joy and the fun and the fury and the difficulty of having anything work out the way you want it to. The constant obstacles. The staggering variety of them.

We try to make paper cut-out snowflakes; Petra always makes that one essential cut that splits the thing apart. 

We make pomander balls but the skin of the orange skin is too tough and too loose for Petra to get enough traction. Somehow the balls all fall off the top of the cloves, leaving the spikes that dig into her fingers.

We finally try a leaf project but they won't stay put, I can't find the tape and the glue is dried up. 

We could cook together. That's a little weird maybe with Petra sick, but who cares. No, she doesn't feel like it even though all the nights when both kids help with dinner, Petra screams about not getting to do any of the hard things, now, with all the time in the world, she'd "rather watch you Momma."

And "I'm just going to watch you" doesn't mean sitting nicely in a seat in a stable position. Hah! For an active 3.5 year old little girl it mean sitting up on your knees and then losing your balance, and knocking over multiple cups and finally a bowl of cereal. 

It means pulling out various cans from the pantry that are dusty because of the peeling, cracking paint on the ceiling in the pantry. Cans that I therefore don't want around anything I'm cooking until I've had a chance to wipe down the top. 

It means peeling onions we don't need for this recipe. 

It means trying to get out the little broom from behind the stove and realizing it's jammed back there and begging for help to get it unstuck. It means me jugging and washing my hands constantly and getting that harried look and feel and thinking--why do I have that harried feel when I am home cozy inside on this nice cold gray December day with a cheerful three-year-old? 

That has to be just me. It's not the neighbors spontaneously staying for dinner with three kids who leave stray pieces of quesadilla in the kids' beds and don't leave until 9:30 on a school night. It's not the in-laws shouting directions to me in half-Portuguese about not adding the salt to the fejoida until the end. It's not the outrageously picky friends of Wally's who don't like anything at all even pizza or the amazingly unpicky kids who are starving way beyond what I'd expected after school and scarfing down granola bars and apples with peanut butter so fast I can't keep up and then bagels and burritos and finally I think to make popcorn because that will give me a minute to look around and gulp some water and pull myself together while the popper heats up.  

No, if I'm harried now, with just little Petra here, then that's me. That's "on" me. That's my nature, to be easily rattled. To be flappable.

Books together on the couch! Surely that should be peaceful. Easy. Surely that means I can take a deep breath, right? 

But no, she turns the pages too fast and has a way of continually positioning her head just in front of the words I am trying to read and shifting and shifting in my lap so that I find myself reading fast or paraphrasing to get through the page before the unyielding Keeper of the Pages pulls it away from me. 

This (above) was all from a few days ago. And as as happened in the past, I feel I've strayed from the post by not posting it at the time. I've become detached from it. I hadn't finished it, but also don't know what "finished" would mean. Sometimes I'm okay with posting scraps. The here's-what's-happening-now glimpses. But you can't post those kinds of scraps after the fact.

Now I am here on a Sunday, doing laundry, cleaning up after our little Hanukah dinner last night listening to "Every Bell on Earth will Ring" by the Oh Hellos. My sister and her family came over to play Hanukah bingo and make latkes since given the timing this year, the holiday will otherwise get squished into/steamrolled over by Christmas. (Note for next year: Gluten-free Italian spiced bread crumbs are not an adequate substitute for matzoh meal).

I haven't written enough. Or, more truthfully, I've written tons, but pieces here and there, unnamed word docs on the laptop, beginning posts, handscrawled journal entries. I haven't attached anything together and it's starting to catch up to me and make me feel slightly anxious. Like the days are getting away from me. Like I'm letting them get away.

I remember back when I was home with Wally all day. Often in the evenings after Alex got home I would leave the house to go write. Pre-blog days, I'm talking about, when Wally was 1 or 2. At times I had various “real” projects to work on. Some children’s books; some housekeeping tips work for hire gigs. In the fall of 2009 I tackled NanoWrimo. I worked on short stories. Those never went anywhere. Sometimes I went back to the novel I’d written feverishly, furiously—a draft that is—before I turned 30. I couldn’t salvage it. It kept appearing to me as Nick Carraway describes Gatsby’s house, “a huge incoherent failure.” I tried a spinoff novel told from the point of view of a minor character. 

Many times I managed only to free write. That’s it. A conversation with myself. I’d set up in the library or a coffee shop—my favorite was Birch in the lobby of the Gershwin hotel—and sometimes the chaos of the day begin to assemble around some line of thought. Usually that would take a while. First I would have all kinds of complaints. All kinds of frustrations. Half thoughts and spectral memories and things I should have done differently or people that took me off my course and then the re-framing, reminding and recrimination---No, they didn't take you off course. The neighbors who pushed you to come to the pottery sale. The friend who insisted you meet for lunch on a busy day, near where he worked, of course. The gardener giving the poetry reading in the West Village who has sent me so many invites, this time I really must go. 

I let myself get off course. “They”—the people I blamed—were just the excuses of the hour. 

I admired someone’s recent tweet about always preferring to stay home with a book instead of meeting people out. I feel a kind of jealousy/admiration whenever I hear about someone say things like that. I think I’m a wanna-be introvert. But that doesn’t fully describe it. It’s not that I want to spend time alone—reading or writing or taking long baths—and just won’t do it. I do do those things, well okay, not the bath part. But I also say "Yes" to a million other things. All at the same time. I feel pulled toward entropy. 

I think pre-kids I was able to find enough quiet, even out in the maddening crowds. You can wear headphones. You can race along in your own word, in your own head. With kids, you move slowly. People talk to you. Everyone talks to you. The neighbor across the hall who needs you to order Gregory Porter's Live in Berlin album. The woman walking her dog on West 21st in public health who wants to talk about how you might be able to work together. The woman on the 18th floor who wants to organize an arts and crafts get-together with you. A mixer, for seniors and kids. It's a great idea, right? With the kids, you can't just run along with a polite smile. It's the same as with a dog, I suppose, but the experience I had with a dog was in Brooklyn and mainly in Prospect Park, where I could be alone. Better than alone.

In Brooklyn every day I took long walks in the park with our pitbull whippet and though I always loved it, I don’t think I realized how essential those long stretches of internal quiet were. I came across other people, of course, crunching leaves, baseball games. But not stimulation. No one asking anything of me. Nothing much to navigate. No new data to take in. Time for internal monologues. Time for re-focusing, sorting, re-arranging. Even if I couldn't sort things out in writing, I could do it in my head. Now I can't keep anything straight.

I'm so annoyed by the building pile of papers following me around--not even contained by a journal, but just loose papers...scrawled on both sides, mostly unreadable. Even from just say the past 10 years, they're overwhelming. Do I just box them all up? Recycle them? Scan them? Read through and salvage pieces worth saving? I glance through them with a highlighter in hand.

I cut my foot on a piece of glass in the East Village and then went with my physics friend M. for two beers at McSorley's and sat at a table full of Israelis before I realized I needed to get stitches.
Ellie was so happy at the beach yesterday. Splashing and falling into the sand. Building castles, singing happy birthday to the waves. “Have fun in Dragonland.”
I am on the way home from Ruth’s engagement party at Union Bar.
Notes from Walden. "As long as possible, live free and uncommitted."

It's hopeless. For now they'll have to be boxed up and shoved in a closet somewhere.

All that writing was just process. Why can’t I carry over the logic of “process” to toddler projects? Just accept the jagged flow of it, the lack of final project. The obstacles shouldn't matter. Why can't I sink into the the being, not doing. The mediocrity of it, like Wendy Mogel suggests. I don't care about the flat muffins or the crappy stick figure art, so why do the obstacles feel so draining?

It's more and more clear that without a steady writing practice, I don't seem to have the internal resources to fully embrace that obstacle-laden path of the toddler project. Anne Lamott tell us "...dedication to writing is a marching-step forward from where you were before." I need to continually chart out that "marching-step forward" and when I don't, less tolerant of mis-steps, less open to discovery, less open overall.

No wonder we are drawn to glossy family magazines with pictures of dimensional reindeers standing resolutely against the cut-out pine trees. We imagine the parents sipping decaffeinated green tea on the couch and the smiling kids gluing on the last shiny sequins. The parent leans forward every  now and then to open a stubborn bottle of glitter. Things are falling into place easily. They are crafty, steady-handed. Outside, democracy is being dismantled look the other way, but this parent-child pair is putting the finishing touches on the gum-drop covered windows in a gingerbread world.  

Last winter, Wally came home from a birthday party with a project he had only partially done. He had a cardboard house and these various little clay figures that still needed to be "kilned" I think he was saying. I was doing a bunch of things at once, like always, maybe making trying to get the kids a snack and working on my motherhood and imagination paper and straightening up Petra's dress-up clothes and playing "Let it Go" on the piano so Petra could sing along.
I asked Wally what he meant by "kilned" and tried to figure it out and put the clay figures into the small toaster oven and meanwhile I got pulled into a fascinating chapter in a motherhood journal by LoriLyn Greenstone. Here she writes about the work on her blog:

"In the self-portrait 'Ekphrastic Mama' I began with a watercolor of myself reading to our middle daughter. She was between two and three years old and had worn out the feet of her sleeper. To give her more room I cut the feet off her sleeper, leaving her toes exposed. Later, when I painted this scene, the watercolor of the child was fresh, but the self-portrait felt over worked. Like many self-portraits, it was unflattering, but worse, it was dull and muddy. 

I set it aside for almost eight years, and then, while working on a Master’s thesis using ekphrasis to join writing with the demands of motherhood, I took it up again, feeling a need to try something experimental. 

With little to lose, I tore pieces of notes and journals, art catalogs and old letters to collage over the mother, myself. Then I went back in with paint to pull out a few details. I left the child alone, and as I worked, the painting took on new meaning. The mother was made of words as she sat reading to her child, who at the time didn’t yet have many words. This was the self-portrait I needed to create, a story of sharing language with a child. Then later, when I wrote Ekphrastic Mama, a chapter in Motherhood Memoirs: MothersCreating/Writing Lives the editors chose the painting for the book cover."

And perhaps it is no surprise that I burnt the clay figures nearly beyond recognition. We smelled smoke at the same time and went running to the toaster oven. 

"Oh no!" Wally cried out.

"Move back, move back," I shouted at the kids as I grabbed a towel and pulled out the tray. I'm sure I swore a bit. I apologized, I tried to salvage, I declared them unsalvageable. I admitted to total failure. "I'm so sorry Wally." 

"Why did they burn?"

"I guess it was too hot."

"But why did they burn? They looked fine when you checked them and then like 5 minutes later they were totally wrecked?"

"I shouldn't have turned the heat up."

"But how did that happen?"

It wasn't like him to keep asking such a basic question. I wasn't sure what he was going for, or maybe it was just his way of letting out frustration.

It happened because I turned the heat up too high. Or because I used a toaster oven when maybe you're not supposed to. Or because I didn't bother to figure out what "kiln" meant. Or because I didn't even try to find or Google directions. Or because I had the music blasting too high. Or because I was trying to get research done and attend to two wild kids at the same time. Because I'm not careful. I'm not steady. I'm easily overwhelmed, and sometimes it makes me shaky and anxious and other times it makes me ecstatic and happy and ready to create. I don't stay with one project. I don't follow through. I don't set limits. 

In my head, swooning over the words of LoriLyn Greenstone, I kept thinking of an answer to Wally’s odd question, not a good answer, but one that pleased me. "It's because I'm an "Ekphrastic Mama." I never said it out loud, but it kept sort of ringing in my head. 

I knew that wasn't the right use of the term ekphrasis, which has to do with using one form of art to portray another. But it sounded so perfect in my head. Just kind of jangled. Ekphrastic Mama. Yes, that's me. It sounded like someone who plays music too loud in the evenings, who overcooks pasta, who decides to make salted fudge on a whim, who dances wildly around the livingroom to Marble Sounds "The Time to Sleep" until someone bangs an elbow, who tries to make a frozen lantern when she should be setting the table, who suddenly announces she is bringing the kids outside in pajamas to see Orion on the clearest, coldest February night. That is maybe the fun part of that Ekphrastic Mama. But there's a downside, too. And that's something I'm more and more aware of. That all the "Yes"-saying, to others, and to the kids, too, creates an unreasonable level of chaos, especially with no one to reign me in. Without reigning myself in, I’m so given to the pulls of the moment that I don’t think about carving out the time for more invisible goals. If I have to work, I can squeeze it in. But the idea of a schedule and plan for a time just for my own writing, to saying “No” to the frozen lantern, to “kilning” the clay at that busy moment, to the neighbor who wants to make folk art Saturday morning, it is something that doesn’t come naturally.

And yet I am realizing more and more that I can’t fully sink into, embrace, appreciate or even given the right attention to the quiet work and fun and sometimes No Joy and sometimes joy of projects with toddlers especially if I don’t fill up my own resources by writing in a committed way. It is like sleep. Or exercise. Something I have to make time for because it holds up the structure, it’s necessary to the integrity of the whole day. It is necessary, pace Thoreau, to be both free and committed.

Perhaps Ekphrastic is right, not only in the silly way I was thinking it sounded like (some combination of erratic and ecstatic), but in the way Greenstone adopts it. I returned, today, to her words.

“With little to lose, I tore pieces of notes and journals, art catalogs and old letters to collage over the mother, myself. Then I went back in with paint to pull out a few details. I left the child alone, and as I worked, the painting took on new meaning.”

I too, have little to lose, tearing old notes and journals, collaging over my new self. To see the children in front of me, though, I need to “pull out a few details.” When I do this with writing, I can attend to the barrier-filled, joy-filled, passage in front of me. Then the bright, messy tableau of real life takes on new meaning.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

I met Amie Reilly at the Fordham Graduate English orientation. She was the only other person with young children in the program. We panicked and commiserated and pep-talked each other throughout the two years and huddled after class and ran to a bar called Not Carmines and felt discouraged and near tears and read each other's papers and talked about how hard it was to show up in class worried about the paper you were handing in or the presentation you had to give or reading you had to analyze -yes- but also worried about whether right at that moment someone was calling your phone set to silent about pink eye or forgotten lunch for a field trip or the wrong clothes packed or worse about whether or not the person who was supposed to pick up your 6-year-old at the bus would remember to pick your 6-year-old up at the bus and a million other things that were tugging at you at that moment. You weren't supposed to be in grad school with children. It was obvious from the start. Not young children, and not if you are a woman. A man can hang up all the baby pictures he likes. Everyone knows there's no big pull there, for most of them, no guilt, no anxiety, no expectation that you be everywhere at once, like Owl in Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home who thinks if he runs fast enough he can be upstairs and downstairs at the same time.

Amie is now living the dream post-Master's life, teaching two courses at Sacred Heart University and writing beautiful creative pieces like this one

(By chance, or not chance, she lives in the Connecticut town where I have often dreamed of living, where we spent most of the Christmases of my childhood, most of the July 4ths, so many summer days, falling asleep on the wicker couch on the porch, ambient air swollen with the smell of crushed blackberries and honeysuckle vines, resonant with the surging sound of the tide coming in, squishy flip-flops up the walkway, the screen door clanking open and shut, bright with red bathing suits and yellow towels hung on the line to dry, shapeless peppermint ice cream days that ended with the heady smell of salt air permeating the room as we slept.)