The Perfect Enemy

Things I do visually don't come out well. I think I've mentioned that before on my blog or maybe it's just obvious from the lack of visuals and the overall atrocious design and layout. I've had many roommates with artistic flair, the ones who can casually throw a shawl over a lamp and somehow it's pretty and atmospheric whereas when I do it, its just a fire hazard. One friend of mine hangs her holiday cards along the top of the mirror with little clothespins and cutout snowflakes. And look at all these lovely displays. Meanwhile mine are all clumped together falling out of the glass frame of the "Breakfront" as my grandmother called it. China cabinet I guess is the more common name? Miriam always called it Breakfront—initial caps—(at least that's how it sounded) and still Alex doesn't know what it refers to and it's true it does sound more like something you'd encounter at the ocean on a stormy day. This particular Breakfront was purchased because it fit the punchbowl my grandmother already had, the punchbowl I bring out at every party. We could never get rid of the Breakfront, because then what would we do with the punchbowl?

For Wally's birthday last night I made these heart-shaped brownies and I thought they were visually stunning—at least compared to anything I've made before—but when I took a good look at them today I saw they were really highly flawed. You see Momspark made these:

while meanwhile here is mine, even on a nice plate:

And I'm totally not posting this so that people will write "That looks awesome Rach! Seriously, I like yours better than Spark Mom's because it's charming and real." Well I wouldn't mind that I guess, but I'm mainly posting it because lately I've been having this reaction in so many areas -- projects I do with the kids, home "design" if you could call it that, art journaling, pathetic, pathetic attempts at art journaling. I don't seem to have any natural aesthetic sensibilities and I can't execute things well, either. Plus there is just the everyday chaos of things that many mom blogs and pinterest pins don't show. Like what if I featured the Valentine brownie with this background? With the waffle Petra said she wanted then didn't eat, with the pens that shouldn't be in the kitchen, Wally's water bottle, the pacifier that hasn't been used in years and probably has mold. 

Then it certainly wouldn't Pinterest anybody. And part of me just wants to celebrate the mediocrity of these projects and recipes. To just revel in them, "The perfect is the enemy of the good"-style, to revel in being able to hold the perfect enemy at bay. I want to make a book of DIY kid projects that actually feature the incredibly messy, ripped up, over-glued, wrong colors, missing button projects kids make. 

Do any of you know SARK? Healing, empowering, personal journeys, transforming, creativity, angels invitations to love, incredibly hokey stuff, outrageously hokey. But before she became an enterprise, there was something about her honest colorful pouring forth of "I am me-ness" that I like. I can't say liked, because I didn't know it then. But it's some other kind of past tense, because I don't know if that authentic SARK is there anymore.

This morning I tried to handwrite in my journal and the kids kept interrupting so I found half-used notebooks in Wally's closet and ripped out the used pages and gave one to each. Petra made a giant messy pool of glitter glue you could swim in and Wally designed a video game with levels and rewards and booby traps. I tried so hard to just write. Write upside down, write in circles, draw a male tooth fairy (Wally's idea), write my way out of structures, even the loose, amorphous structure of a blog. Write my way out of the pressure of seminar papers, program evaluations, gift-book proposals. Remember what it was like just to create, not for anyone or for anything. I'd like to say my experiment this morning was freeing and stimulating and joyful, but it wasn't. 

Wally broke the point of his color pencil and stormed around looking for a sharpener. Petra needed her hands washed. I had to keep the cat away form the glitter glue. This is impossible! I wanted to scream at many points. I put on beautiful meditative music. There were a bunch of ads. I was hungry, because of course I'd fed or attempted to feed the kids 3 breakfasts each (Petra reverted to her favorite, rice and beans) but hadn't eaten myself. My pen ran out. So grab another pen, right? Right. But it just felt like so many obstacles. The moment of standing up to grab the pen can throw off the whole equilibrium with a toddler, it really can. Then they're distracted, pulled away, needing, wanting, asking for, knocking over something else. How can one get in a flow state for all the good, creative work we want to do? You don't, at this stage. You don't expect to. You're ridiculous to expect to. Which is why these kinds of posts end with either a celebration of all the wonderful, exhausting creatively transforming chaos of kid-raising or else with some sort of pull-back wide camera angle or incidental scene or convo that seems to "capture" it. Or both. 

Like for example this song came on and Petra said, "Why is she sad? Make sure she's not sad." 

And I thought--okay, yes, yes, she gets that, she feels that, just from the music, we don't know what this woman is saying, we don't even know what language she's saying it in. We don't know who she is. We don't know who wrote the song. We don't know who else heard it and felt stunned, absolutely stunned, by the sunlight streaming in, by the chance to spend a morning with their little loud and wonderful souls. I can't finish any of my novels. I have 800 copies of my only "real" recording stored in my closet, in nyc, where you can't store anything. If people saw anything I drew they might say "Good job" thinking it was Petra who did it. But this woman singing! 

You can't just end the post there. That Petra felt the sadness of the song and that's somehow redemptive. 

Okay, I won't.

I want to say that lately I can't decide--should I really pursue writing? If I "really" pursue writing, then I should stop promoting books like Test Your Dog and Spanish Insults. But perhaps I still want to go down the narrow, craggy academic path. Or perhaps I'm happy with the sun pouring in and trying to write and draw outside the lines with Wally and Petra. Focus. What would you say, if you had uninterrupted time?

Sky died November 17. 

First I wrote "Our dog Sky" but she wasn't our dog anymore. She was, but she wasn't. I was one of those terrible people who gave our dog away. But each step made sense. First it was just that my parents would care for her. Then by the time we realized they could not—6 months after she'd destroyed their carpets and nearly wrecked the renovated house they were trying to sell and threatened to wreck the brand-new house they moved into, the house they bought with the room for my grandmother that she didn't live to see—by that point we were living in a Manhattan apartment where Sky couldn't live. And where really, we told ourselves--and believed--she wouldn't be happy to live at that point. No space, walking around the streets tied up with no room to run.

It wasn't the house wrecking that made my parents give her up—they really couldn't walk her enough. My mom at that time could barely make it to the mailbox by herself and my dad was/still is working more than full time. Plus Sky was wild. Not to any of us--and she never bit or hurt anyone. But she was a pitbull and she was raised in her early years by a pack of wild Brazilians and no matter how many trainers I worked with and how many hours I spent with the clicker, there was a wildness that combined with her strength made it untenable. She was the sweetest, most loyal dog. Any day I would have trusted her with my life. I know my parents would too. And yet somehow we gave her away. We were so lucky that Michelle, the amazing, loving owner of the doggy daycare where she'd gone many times, agreed to take her. She and her partner had four other dogs and lived near the NH-border, with lots of land. Plus Sky got to go run agility courses at the doggy day care almost every day. It was an amazing life, a better life than we could have given her. Still I felt the burden of guilt and sadness for these past seven years. 

We visited her a bunch of times, mostly me, taking Wally and later both kids. The visits were excruciating. My mom couldn't bear to see her, so we couldn't bring Sky back to their house. In summer, we went to a playground or field. In winter, we drove around. With Petra it got harder and harder to manage. Even this last visit, in August, a few months before she died, Sky was still strong enough to pull Wally over. That didn't stop him from running with her. I was lucky my dad came with us on that visit and it was the first time that didn't feel oppressively sad. I still don't know why. I don't know what the difference was. I actually think it was almost a relief that the owner didn't let us stray far from the daycare. Like it somehow let me off the hook. 

Wally sobbed when we told him Sky had died. We hadn't meant for him to hear when he did. He was on his way to a party on a Friday night. He still wanted to go, but he sobbed out in the hall and down the elevator and out in the weirdly-warm November streets and down the stairs onto the subway. I realized then that as sad as he was that Sky died, he was also sad because he'd never really had Sky that he could remember, only those first 6 months, and then only in stories and dreams. Maybe it had been worse, to be told, "Yes you have a dog" but to only have her in brief moments, always right about to leave. A dog is not something you have conceptually. So he sobbed for the dog he had and the dog he never had, the dog he had wanted so badly. What boy doesn't want a dog, doesn't beg for a dog, doesn't long for that kind of everyday companionship, the kind of loyalty that happens otherwise only in dreams? 

I'm not someone to go out and buy things to try to mask sadness. I'm not one to buy much at all, I would say I guess compared to others in my milieu or demographic. I think that's true, right? Just to give this some context. I'm what Gretchen Rubin might call an underbuyer. But the next day I agreed to go with Wally to find a Sky figurine and make a memorial. We went to Michael's craft store and he bought a little cabin, a house for Sky he said, and some tape with dogs on it and a figurine that I realized later was a howling wolf. 

We came home and I was thinking we would maybe paint the house Sky blue, maybe listen to "What a Wonderful World." But no, taking after me, Wally impulsively decorated the house with no plan at all. He haphazardly lined the porch with the dog tape and added a dinosaur figure and put the wolf figure on top of the chimney. "Here is is," he said, obviously pleased. "Here's the Sky house and here's Sky on top, begging for life." 

"No, no, no" at first I almost said or said or just-in-time stopped myself from saying: Not begging for life. The messy, thrown-together memorial was one thing, but that's the wrong way to look at it. The ending was as perfect as one could hope for. Sky was fourteen years old. Really pretty old, for a dog. She lived a great life, a life any dog would be thrilled to live. She was born in the streets of East Harlem and grew up her first two years in a Victorian tilt-a-whirl house in New Jersey full of Brazilians and then for five years in a beautiful, light-filled apartment near the park in Brooklyn and later in Massachusetts surrounded by dogs and people who loved her. Loved her. And she got lost in that time! For two days! That was back in 2003. People thought for sure that was it, and look how long she lasted and how happy she was. 

But he said "Begging for life" and to him maybe that wasn't a sad thing or a desperate thing or something you want to hide or obscure or pretend didn't happen or make into a better picture or something easier to take and easier to accept. The howling wolf was a dog he'd lost and never really had, begging for life.

Begging for life. "A Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay who was not resigned to death. And that lack of resignation is not necessarily something to fight against. Fighting to live is not noble at a certain point, we often think. At a certain point, when you've lived a good life, you agree to go peacefully. But that's not how Wally saw Sky in those final moments. She was her own perfect enemy, howling at the moon, begging for life, a testament to how much she loved it, and that is only because those imperfect, messy years on earth were so precious and in the end really, so few. 


  1. Oh how I love this beautiful and beautifully written post. Beginning with the imperfect but still delicious looking frosted brownies. The brownie on the counter shot with accompanying details is my favorite. Forget perfection - I'll take the feeling of camaraderie from seeing a real-life kitchen counter that looks just like mine vs. a styled food photo any day of the week and twice on Sunday. The no-longer-used pacifier "probably growing mold" made me laugh out loud!

    Your descriptions of a day in the life of a mama and two kiddos in a Manhattan apartment are always so gorgeously written. I can feel all the frenetic energy and fun. Writing in your journal amidst all that energy - you just amaze me. "But it just felt like so many obstacles. The moment of standing up to grab the pen can throw off the whole equilibrium with a toddler, it really can. Then they're distracted, pulled away, needing, wanting, asking for, knocking over something else. How can one get in a flow state for all the good, creative work we want to do?" YES! You capture it so perfectly. And your answer, "You don't, at this stage." But there must be something to it, these efforts...even when it feels like threading a needle in a hurricane. And then the sad song that pulls it back wide-angle to capture the sun streaming in and spending the morning with those "loud and wonderful souls".

    On writing - YES, please pursue your writing! I am curious when you say "real" writing what form you mean - novel, short story, essay, creative non-fiction? Can you pursue your writing and promote your current publications as well? Or does time spent on one take away from the other?
    On time... the one thing I wish I'd known pre-baby is the HEAPS of time I had on my hands. You just don't have any concept of free time until a baby arrives and - poof! - it all evaporates.

    I'm so sorry for the loss of your sweet pup. It sounds like her life was full of adventure and love. I love the story of going to Michael's for the tape and figurine and the little cabin and creating a memorial. The "begging for life" and living it to the fullest up until the very end. Beautiful.

  2. Aww...sorry to hear about Sky. And happy birthday to Wally! I can't believe he is 8!

  3. Bearette - thank you. I know! Easy age to remember because of the elections, but still...

    Sarah - the kind of response one hopes and longs for and feels such immense gratitude for...and then doesn't know how to answer. Thank you! For the camaraderies of real-life kitchens...for relating to my day-in-the-life of Manhattan mom..."frenetic" is certainly accurate! You're writing just as much as me...& you're right, much as we you recently it worth it? we know the answer. I suppose by real I mean: short stories, creative-nonfiction novels, too (which I always describe, too myself, as Nick Carraway describes Gatsby's house "a grand, incoherent failure" -- maybe without the grand. I so agree about the heaps of time we used to all evaporates... Sky's life was truly full of adventure. Somehow that little ramshackle memorial, picturing her living life to the fullest until the end, was of immense comfort, once I got over the initial "Oh no!' of what he said. Thank you, thank you. Your comment make me think of the Dar Williams' song: "You never know who's still awake
    You never know who understands and
    Are you out there, can you hear this?"


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