Friday, December 02, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday

Ah, Friday and 7 Quick Takes. Sometimes it's the only thing that gets me to blog.

1. After years of worrying about it, on Monday we are having the two biggest trees in our yard removed. One is an enormous maple that has been slowly dying since before we moved in. The dead branches now occupy the top fifteen feet of the tree, and when it finally falls, it could easily take out our roof. The other condemned tree is a spruce. It is about 80 years old, and was planted simultaneously with four other spruces on the street. Three of those spruces have fallen in the last two years - one of them on our house. We would prefer not to experience that again.

My six year old is very sad that the trees are coming down. I told her it was okay to be sad, because sometimes, when we have known trees for a long time, they become our friends. She whimpers and sucks her thumb whenever their coming execution is mentioned, but she is trying to be brave.

2. My planned overnight solo road trip is next week. Currently my plan is to visit Shaker Village in Kentucky, but I'm still keeping it impulsive, so that may change. I am excited and anxious. I am trying not to sourly exult that OH YES, HUSBAND, you WILL see what it's like to get the kids to school on your own. I am also trying not to plan What I Will Blog About On My Trip, because it's supposed to be about solitude and rest. When I imagined where I might go, I kept rejecting possible visits to friends by saying to myself, "Oh, they don't want to see me. They want to see the kids."

My reluctance to see myself as a person of intrinsic interest is why the husband thinks I need this trip.

(It may also be why I don't post often on the blog.)

3. I have been mulling over whether or not to blog under my real name. I have been using Veronica Mitchell in one format or another for so long, it feels like a part of me. I would not be willing to blog so honestly about my experience of motherhood without my pseudonym. But currently, facebook and Google have policies against pseudonyms, and those policies may be expanded in the future (If you want to read more about the issues involved, try here or here). I am still writing my novels, and if I want readers of my blog to someday read them, it does not make sense to build a readership for Veronica Mitchell if that identity could be shut down without warning. If Salman Rushdie has trouble calling himself Salman Rushdie, then Veronica Mitchell hasn't a chance.

4. We made s'mores with the kids last night. We do this about twice a year. S'mores are my way of feeling like a good mom. My mother never let us make s'mores at home because they were a bother and a mess. We only got to make them while camping, so they are steeped in romanticism for me. S'mores are the special, the unattainable, the taste of campfires and best friends.

Last night, eating a s'more with my delighted daughters, I realized: I don't actually like the way they taste.

Still.

5. " If each of us spent just $64 on American made goods during our holiday shopping, the result would be 200,000 new jobs." Hmm. Sounds good to me. Are you in?

6. The Last Detective is now on Netflix streaming video. I spent a month - twice! - waiting for each disc of this series to arrive in the mail so I could see the next episode. I loved it so much. It has my favorite feature of a mystery series: a man who is beaten down by the world but still trying to do the right thing. Watch it. You won't be sorry.

7. Last night I dreamed that I was in a horse-drawn wagon, and the children were squirming around me, trying to find a comfortable spot where they could each sleep on me. Then our alarm clock went off. Two snooze buttons later, my children were in my bed, squirming around me, trying to find a comfortable spot where they could each sleep on me.

The secret to premonitory dreaming may be to have a very repetitive life. Or lots of kids.

Either.

Both.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Pre-Visit Moment of Doubt

My in-laws will be here in a few hours. I never know exactly when they will arrive; they usually call when they are 30 minutes or so from my house. They are coming to celebrate Thanksgiving with us, as well as our oldest daughter's 8th birthday. When I say "my in-laws," I mean my mom-in-law, my husband's brother, and his wife.

They are kind people who love my children and make few demands as guests. I will enjoy their visit, and I will be sorry to see them go. But right now, I am at the difficult part of a visit: the hours before they arrive. During this time, I want to get my house clean, even though I know I can't. There is too much. I tried to have more realistic goals this time: I would merely make sure that the stacks of things we are giving to Goodwill actually make it to Goodwill before they come.

Nope. The stacks are still there. The time of day that Goodwill accepts donations are times when I  have my children with me, and I would rather give birth again than listen to them scream and cry or beg to help me or run outside the door and away as I carry box after box to the van. Goodwill errands with children are even worse than post office errands with children.

So I am anxious and feeling like a failure. Which I probably shouldn't, because I have actually accomplished a lot this month. This year I have been determined to simplify our lives in the house, and I have cleaned out all the upstairs closets (hence the Goodwill stacks). I want to have a home where an emergency does not send me into a housekeeping tailspin. I want to stop feeling like I am almost drowning.

So my bedroom is the cleanest it has been in years. The upstairs closets have some shelves that are  BARE.  Currently I am in the kitchen, where I have given the coffeemakers their semi-annual thorough scouring and put them in storage for the week (we will use the party 40-cup coffeemaker while family visits, and it is still spankin' clean from last time I put it away).  The bar stools that always have piles of stuff on them are, in fact, clean. I am sitting on one right now.

But the children have already demolished the living room that was clean two days ago. And I look around and I wonder - where do other people put their junk? I walk into houses that don't have cannisters of pencils and rubber bands on the little shelf under the light switch. Where do they keep them? What do you do with the stacks of papers that you can't throw out but have no immediate use for?

I have worked harder at housekeeping in the last month than I ever have in my life, and you would never know it by looking around my house.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Mourning for Water Pressure

Yesterday the plumbers came and replaced our water heater. Our twenty-three-year-old water heater had begun to act out, leaving rust in our shower and sometimes failing to keep us warm. So a doughy young man with a powerful scent of tobacco came to my house and chatted with my children and removed our old water heater and put in a new one.

There was a slight hiccup when I mentioned that for a month this summer an eastern milksnake had lived under our water heater, poking his head out to wave at my husband while he sat on the toilet. Our young plumber, apparently, was deathly afraid of snakes, and decided to sit out in his truck and wait for his partner to arrive with the new water heater, rather than be anywhere near our basment, alone with an even hypothetical snake.

But the partner came and the snake did not and all was accomplished within four hours.

So we have reliable hot water and I should be happy as a clam. But I am not. No, dear reader, I am not. Because, you see, before we changed water heaters, our house had very high water pressure. Deliciously high water pressure. Our water pressure was my friend. It scrubbed dishes for me, it cleaned my hair down to the scalp, it filled the tub for children with minimal fuss and boredom for a waiting mother. I loved my water pressure. I could have bought the house just for the water pressure.

But that luscious, wonderful water pressure (110 psi) was much too high for city code, and would have invalidated the warranty on our new water heater. So the plumbers - at my request, mind you, THIS IS ALL MY OWN FAULT - installed a pressure reducing valve that brings our pressure down to code (75 psi) and preserves that precious warranty.

We have lost one third of our pressure.

It is like someone overnight picked up my house and moved it to Britain. My shower is a sad, pitiful thing. Oh, I have hot water, but what good is it when I must stand still as a stone under its weak dribble to stay warm? Where are my clouds of steam? Where is the force that detangles my hair without aid of a comb?

My kitchen faucet used to snap to attention with an audible thunk when I turned it on full blast, but now it is quiet and civilized, a demure, gentle thing. Poor faucet. I have emasculated you. You spray my dishes, but I know you're just going through the motions. There is no enthusiasm.

I am told that I will notice a difference when I get my next water bill. And I suppose our new state of European flaccidity is better for the environment. But oh, how I miss the surge and power of yesterday. Everything is changed forever.

Farewell, water pressure. I am glad I knew you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Housekeeper, Interrupted

I have been married for fifteen years. I have been a stay-at-home mom for eight years. If I count from the time I gave up on the PhD, my profession has been "housewife" or "homemaker" for five years.

And I am really, really bad at it.

I am a good cook and a good mom. I don't doubt those things, for the most part, except on emotional-trainwreck days, and we all have those. But the homemaking and housekeeping part of this life? I consistently stink at it.

In terms of career, if I had worked part-time and then full-time at the same job for fifteen years and the end product were this bad, I would feel obligated to look for a different job. Clearly this is not the one I am suited for.

I have friends who keep very clean houses and I often wonder how they do it. After a moment's consideration I usually remember that one or both of these things are true: 1) they have fewer than four kids at home or 2) they don't read books.

Maybe I am maligning those friends. Maybe they clean furiously without rest for eight hours each day and still take an hour to read Proust in the evening (full disclosure: I have never read Proust either). But when I compare my home to theirs (which, I know, is a deadly stupid thing to do - no good can come of it), it is slightly mollifying to remember that the things I would have to give up to be that tidy are things I would never be willing to give up.

But. But, but, but...

I am still really bad at this. My kitchen is always cluttered and seems to always have cocoa ring stains on the counter. For days at a time, my floors are actually crunchy. My mom-in-law, who is a lovely and generous person, always makes the place more orderly when she visits, and always does it without (verbal OR non-verbal) comment, though I am sure it must exasperate her (another full disclosure: her son, to whom I am married, is even worse at tidiness than I am, so clearly sometimes it skips a generation). My own mother refuses to go into my basement because the tasks to be done there overwhelm and depress her, and she often gives me gentle pep talks about how I need to address certain chores immediately and regularly so they don't pile up and feel too big to ever finish.

I clean, of course. We could not function if I didn't. When I wrote up my NaNoWriMo schedule, I became aware of how much I clean. I don't rest much. My kids get very excited if I sit down before evening reading time. But while I do enough to keep us clothed and relatively non-germy, it is not enough to be tidy. Here I am at 39, a decided lackluster performer at my chosen career. Maybe the house will be cleaner when all the kids are in school, but only if I never homeschool, and part of me still holds on to that dream. And I am wondering what comes next.

What about you? Are you of the cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness school? If you could give up cooking or cleaning, which would it be? How does the state of your home affect your life in general?

Friday, November 11, 2011

7 Quick Takes

I told myself that today I would do Conversion Diary's 7 Quick Takes as a way of getting the old blog rolling again. So here are seven things going on in my life.

1. I have been keeping the iPod under my pillow at night. No, this is not so I can play Angry Birds while my husband is sleeping (*avoiding eye contact and whistling*), but so I can read scripture on the Kindle app before I get out of bed. Nothing too heavy, just five or ten minutes reading the Epistle of James. Have you read the Epistle of James lately? "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, because the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God." If I could master that one sentence of behaviour, my life would be radically altered.

2. I continue to work on NaNoWriMo, but have had a major hiccup. I have been working on the novel for 45 minutes in the morning before the kids get up. That seems to be my most productive time of day for writing, even though it means getting out of bed at 5:45. But something about the writing process has started giving me migraines, with light splotches and blind spots in my vision. So far the vision problems have subsided if I sit in darkness for twenty minutes while the kids watch a movie, but the last two days I have not written at all because I did not want to bring on another one when it was time to take the kids to school. I had finally found a writing schedule that worked for me, so this is very discouraging. It feels like the ability to write keeps getting taken from me.

3. I have been hooked on Downton Abbey, thanks to Melissa Wiley and Wrath of Mom. Currently, I am stopped where Mary sabotages Edith's marriage to Sir Anthony - I just couldn't watch that much spite. I am too involved in the characters and then I get heartbroken. But in a few days I will not be able to suppress my longing to know what happened, and then I will watch again.

4. It is Veteran's Day today, and my girls plan to make cards for our next-door neighbor, whom they love, and who is a veteran of five military campaigns. If you have a neighbor with a similar history, a few moments of kids with construction paper and crayons may make a big difference in his or her day. Even if it's a day late.

5. Books I am reading:  I finally bought a copy of Shusaku Endo's Silence, a book I have been wanting to read for ages. I read the preface and then I stopped, because I know it will be emotionally stark, and I want to read it courageously. November is probably not the time to do that; too many distractions.

Instead, I am reading our book club's selection of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a young adult fantasy novel. So far, it's pretty good, though I have not reached the central mystery of the plot yet.

The kids and I continue to read aloud through Elliot and the Pixie Plot. They loved the first of the Elliot books, and are enjoying this one too, though a couple of confusing editing mistakes in chapter eight diminished our joy slightly. We read the book aloud at the dinner table before they finish dessert. Only the oldest two reliably listen, but I still count that a win.

6. We have finally settled into the husband's five-day-a-week work schedule and the girls' school schedule, but the result is that I get almost no time away from the children. Even my solitary work-out at the YMCA (which has free babysitting!) has been absent from my life this week because of my back injury (which is almost all healed up, thank you). I am a classic introvert who needs time alone, so this much constant company begins to tear me down. I desperately need a break from the kids, so the husband and I decided that a solo overnight trip would be a good thing for me in early December. I have never done this before (not since becoming a parent, anyway). I'm a little nervous. I think I will be going to the Cleveland area, but I haven't entirely settled that yet.

7. Once again, my in-laws are visiting for Thanksgiving and my mom-in-law insists that we eat our big meal at a restaurant (which she pays for). On the one hand, this is very generous and I love that there is no clean-up. On the other hand, this has happened so many years now that my kids don't really have a sense of what home Thanksgiving traditions are. There is also the added wrinkle that my mom-in-law respects my abilities as a housewife more when I cook (which she hates to do).  When I don't cook, she tends to see only my catastrophic failures at tidiness (unlike her house, which  is always tidy). So I am wondering if I should insist on a home meal next year. Your thoughts?

Aaaaaaand in the brief moments it took for me to write this post, the children knocked over a cup of cocoa on the bookshelf and now I have about twenty books to wipe down. Cheers.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Further Evidence That I Am Secretly My Father

I have hurt my back. I am an overweight, 39-year-old woman who started working out two months ago, and now I have injured myself. And I thought I was being so careful. Now instead of acquiring a fit physique, I've got a new hobby of cringing and groaning.

It is not a surprise that I have hurt my back. It is one of two body parts that makes me feel that I am secretly a 60-year-old man. And if you think I'm going to tell you the other one, you are out of luck. But I will say it's not a prostate.

My three year old keeps asking where my back hurts, and when I point to the lower right side, she assures me that she will only touch my shoulder if I carry her. She is convinced my boo-boo is like her scraped knees, and as long as she doesn't touch it, it shouldn't hurt. She does not understand why I don't want to carry her adorable thirty-pound self around. And when she does not understand something, she is EXTREMELY VOCAL about it.

So between my "OOF" and her "MOMMY!" our home is an exciting, musical place to be. Wanna come over? There's something on that top shelf I need.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

NaNoWriMo

It is almost midnight on the first of November, which means it almost the end of of the first day of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel-Writing Month. The idea is to write a 200-page novel from scratch in one month.

So I set aside the novel I have been working on for the last two years, I made myself a writing schedule, and I started up. To complete it in one month, you would have to write almost seven pages a day. Today I got one. And I ate an obscene amount of Halloween candy, which did not add to my feelings of success. This is going to be a rough month.

But I will keep trying. Even if I only get a page a day, that's still thirty more than I had at the beginning, right?

But writing out a weekly schedule makes me aware of how little free time I actually have. How little rest time. How little time away from tiny people who whine/sob/shriek their dissatisfaction at me. I can squeeze out a scattered two hours to write, and that's assuming no one gets sick and the housekeeping stays at scandalous minimum.

This is going to be an ordeal. And I don't just mean for me.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Beauty, Part Two

I remember it clearly. I was twenty, and I was driving across country to visit my parents. I had been driving since 5 am, and I stopped to get fast food for lunch. As I walked back to my car, a group of teenaged boys were sitting at a booth by the door. They looked me over, and I heard one of them declare to the guffaws of his friends, "Man, she is ugly. She is so ugly."

Even then, I understood what was happening. I knew that to childish and lonely boys, claiming to be an authoritative judge of women's beauty is a way of pretending you have choices in the matter. It was a pose, a pretense that women offered themselves to him regularly and he only accepted the extraordinary few.

But that did not keep me from believing him.

When I think about it now, I realize that I believed beauty, unlike character, was best judged by the people who knew me least. I had believed in the lie of "objective" beauty, that there exists a standard of loveliness that excludes love. Once you believe this, the fact that someone loves you means they have only unreliable opinions on your beauty. I saw love as an enemy of accurate perception,  which inevitably meant I believed I was seen most accurately when I was rejected most harshly.

The truth, on which I have only a tenuous hold, is that the people who love us see our beauty most clearly. I do not mean love fabricates beauty that isn't there. I mean love gives us new perceptions of realities we might, in other circumstances, be blind to. Love reveals, not masks.

Most parents know this. When we raise and cherish a child, the failure of their prospective romantic partners to recognize their unique beauty can cause us almost violent offense. It feels like a rejection of a profound and obvious truth. We have a thousand platitudes in response: you're better off without him; if she doesn't appreciate you, she doesn't deserve you, etc. This is not parental blindness; it is the full-spectrum vision of love.

I have been thinking about these things recently because of our fifteenth anniversary. After fifteen years of marriage, I think I am obligated to accept that my husband genuinely finds me beautiful. Isn't that a strange thing to say? I realized recently how many times I have dismissed his compliments as either a compassionate attempt to make me feel better when I'm low, or a practical plan for getting sex from the only person he's allowed. I have too often denied him credit for simply meaning what he says.

He has told me for fifteen years that my hair is beautiful, and I had supposed, without really thinking about it, that he said this because he preferred long hair and it was the only way to keep me from cutting it. But it dawned on me when looking at a snapshot the other day: no, he really thinks my hair is gorgeous. Like if he were daydreaming about the ideal woman, she would appear with thick, wild, long, curly hair. He loves my hair. He glories in my hair.

And if I reject that, if I insist on the self-lacerating misery of "I'm too fat," "I'm too short," "I'm too old," or whatever worried canker most appeals that day, I am telling him that his love makes him unreliable.

I cannot clutch my fears and wait for his assurances to overwhelm me. Marriage means letting go of fear so I can take the hand he holds out to me. Marriage means seeing him see me, and knowing I am beautiful.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Beauty, Part One

When I was eleven, I caught my sister smoking in her bedroom with her friends. We already knew she smoked, and my parents had leveled creative punishments in an effort to make her stop. I knew if I told my mom, the house would be filled with big stormy arguments and my sister would be in big, big trouble.

"Please don't tell on me, Veronica," she said, her eyes wide and pleading. "Please?"

My sister has beautiful eyes. Big and melting brown. I remember thinking, as I promised not to tell, that I would find it easier to reject her plea if she had beady little snake eyes.

Beauty is persuasive. It appeals to us. It moves us.

It has become normal in our culture to speak of beauty strictly in sexual terms (it's a greater compliment, apparently, to call someone "hot" than to call them beautiful), but, as significant as sex is, portraying beauty only in sexual terms trivializes its power. Beauty moves us in many ways that are not sexual.

I remember coming home from seminary once and catching my breath when I saw my mother. She and my dad had raised four kids, and seen the youngest leave for college and then get married. For the first time in twenty years, my mother could buy clothes for herself before she bought them for someone else. She wore a neatly tailored red dress that showed off her long, lean frame and short, dark hair, and she looked beautiful. I felt proud of how she looked. In its own way, that dress reflected well on  us kids: it meant we had grown up and learned independence and mom was free to take care of herself instead.

"My beauty is for my husband, " I have heard conservative women say, usually as explanation for a shapeless dress and unstyled hair. (And why the unstyled hair? Even if their sect teaches that women should not cut their hair - is lankness also a religious duty? I don't understand.) But they are wrong. They have accepted a sexualization that assumes the only response to beauty is desire. They are rejecting the way my sister's beauty moved me to pity (even if misplaced), or the way my mother's beauty moved me to gratitude.

The reality is that beauty is for everyone who looks on it. My children are beautiful, and the joy I take in their strong limbs and sparkling eyes has nothing to do with desire. Beauty is profligate; she offers herself to everyone who can see (and the blind too, who, I am sure, find beauty in the sounds and scents and touch of the people around them). I have prayed for a lonely friend, and been rewarded with the blush on her face after she has fallen in love. I have agonized with a sick friend, and been refreshed by the glow of good health in her skin after a successful round of treatment. Our eyes hunger for beauty, and few things bring us more joy than finding it.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Requisite Beginning-of-the-School-Year Complaint

My first grader and second grader have been in school for three weeks now. They have adapted to their new situations, mostly. I have not.

If I were to sum up everything I hate about the public school experience in only one word, it would be this: homework.

Our girls have had homework since kindergarten. Sometimes it can be done in twenty minutes. Other times it takes over an hour. Last night the first grader had double homework to make up for a missed sick day. It took us almost two hours to finish.

The kids get home around 4 pm. I make dinner. We eat together as a family. Then we read aloud as a family. Then there may be baths. Fitting homework into this evening means squeezing out something else important.

And like every other parent, I wonder, What do they do all day? Why can't they get this work done at school?

I hate homework because it requires me to organize my home life by the public school's schedule and priorities. I work hard to encourage my children to be lively, curious, intelligent people. Books are central to our family life. Every teacher the girls have had asks me at some point how I raise such smart, interesting kids. And the same teacher (because of school policy) assigns homework that interferes with my efforts. I do not think I should have to give up family reading time or shared meals or imaginative play so that my child can repeat on paper exercises she already did in school.

It is exasperating.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

First Day of School

The first day of school always gives me stomach butterflies. Each year I was in school myself (and I went to school for MANY MANY years) I got that familiar tilt-a-whirl feeling, and now that my children are in school, I get it again.

I still don't know what I'm afraid of.

Handing over two children to the public school system is not easy. My girls have had good teachers so far, but they are good teachers with twenty-five other students. My oldest excels in this environment; my second-oldest steels herself for it. It will take most of the year for my second-oldest to unclench from the unfamiliarity of it all, and by then the school year will be almost over - almost time to adapt to a new class all over again.

My sister, a homeschooling mother of five (soon to be six!), tells me wrily that she wants her kids to attend Utopia Academy, a school with all the benefits of both homeschooling and public school, with none of the drawbacks of either. If someone can tell me where to register, I'll happily wait in line. Camp out all night if I have to.

But it looks like this is the best I'll get for now. Stomach butterflies and prayer, and only twenty years to go.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How a Middle-Aged Mom Learned to Love the Graphic Novel

I have been a reader and booklover from my daddy's knee, but I had never really embraced the comic book. Sure, I had read them as a kid, but I had never understood their appeal after reaching adulthood. Memories of the graphic novels I had read over the shoulder of my friends in high school lingered, and turned me against the genre for its gore and misogyny.

 But somewhere in the last few years, I picked up a graphic novel again. I think it was our public library's renovation, after which they wisely placed the graphic novel section between audiobooks and classic novels, the places I gravitated most. I started skimming through them. Some of them were the male adolescent fantasies I had remembered, tedious melodrama as pretext for porny women and viscera. But there were others. Some of them were darn good stories.

So I asked a comic-book-loving friend to point me in the right direction, and the first book he suggested was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Wow. This was a comic book for grown-ups. The drawings (art? pictures? I am so out-of-the-loop on graphic novels that I don't know the standard terms) were black-and-white and simple, but they added to the story.  They grew the tension in the story, and the last panel knocked me flat.

I think my next novel was Gene Yuen Lang's American-Born Chinese. I had never imagined that a nuanced theology of God and identity could be worked out in a comic book. Now I was hooked.

Since then I have tried different authors. I've found some I loved (Lilli Carre), some I loved to share with the kids (David Petersen's Mouseguard), and others I hated. And since bloggers are always looking for something to blog about, I thought I would explain what graphic novels have to offer that traditional narrative can't.

1) Silence. For many of us, silence is a necessary part of enjoying a book, and we see reading as a quiet activity. But traditional narrative can only convey its story by putting words into your head, however quietly. Even a description of silence cannot move you without using actual words. But a graphic novel, by using pictures instead of words, can use silence in a way that traditional narrative can't. Graphic novels offer a silence that includes mental wordlessness. It can be difficult to "read" this - it takes discipline to slow down the eye enough to feel the impact of the picture. But once you do, it affects you in new ways. You can have wordless reactions to wordless stories; still felt, but difficult to describe. Graphic novels let you experience literature in places beyond the reach of words.

2) Simultaneity. For traditional narrative to describe two things happening simultaneously, it has to stop describing one thing in order to describe another. Graphic novels can convey simultaneity by using two different media at the same time. The words tell you one thing while the picture tells you something else at the same time. Pure simultaneity is still out of reach - your eye has to dance back and forth between word and picture - but graphic novels can come closer than other print literature.

3) Paradox. Related to the above, graphic novels can immediately convey a meaning opposite to the words being said. A character can claim sobriety while the picture portrays his drinking. Unlike silence and simultaneity, this is also possible for traditional narrative. The difference, I think, is that conveying paradox in traditional literature often requires a skillful reader or a rereading. Graphic novels can convey paradox with more immediacy. Maybe this is why the hypocrisy of people in power is such a common theme in graphic novels; the medium assists the message.


Graphic novels pose their own challenges. I have to store my books on a high shelf out of reach of the kids, for instance. While there is no harm done if a non-reading child picks up narrative literature too old for her, graphic novels are a different thing. I would not always want to explain what that picture means. And when I look for new books, I still have to sift out the gore and misogyny I hate. But the genre is a permanent part of my library now, and I look forward to finding new books and new authors.

Now if you'll excuse me, my laptop is resting on a copy of Jim McCann and Janet Lee's Return of the Dapper Men, and I haven't read it yet.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Crabby Morning

This morning I got out of bed at 6:15, hoping for an hour to myself before the girls woke up. I walked to the bathroom to shower, flipped the light switch and my four year old came barrelling out of her room, bleary-eyed, shouting in a distraught voice, "Mom! You didn't let me snuggle you!"

I am an introvert living in a raucous house full of small children who demand my attention constantly. I get through my day much more cheerfully if I get some quiet time to myself in the morning before they get up. The children, however, prefer me to wake up when they flop onto my bed. They want me to groggily open my eyes when they snuggle into my shoulder.

So when I have the chance to get up early, I creep as quietly as I can. I turn on the fan in the bathroom because its white noise sometimes lulls them into sleeping longer. But this summer, nothing has worked. At least one of them will wake up, run to me and wail that I am not in my bed, awaiting their company.

The loss of that morning solitude makes everything harder. It is harder to keep my temper. It is hard to accept with equanimity the other thousand things they prevent me from doing. It is harder to smile when they ask the same damn question for the fourteenth time that hour.

Right now I am sitting on my front porch while the children play in the yard. I can't leave them outside alone to play; they are too young and our neighborhood is too rough. I have to sit here, looking at all the yard work that needs to be done, work that I cannot do because little hands will constantly grab at the pruning shears, or because the two year old will run into the street or into the woods if I turn my back on her. I am hating the demands of parenthood right now, and I know I would find it less onerous if I had been allowed twenty minutes to drink a cup of coffee in silence.

I remember C.S. Lewis remonstrating once that we are tempted to think of time as something we own, so that when someone asks for our attention we see them as thieves of our time. I get his point, but it's also an easy one for a bachelor don to make. When all my time is claimed by the kids, I become a kind of childcare automaton. I cannot share any of myself with my husband or my friends because there is no self left.

So here I am, turning to the blog as in the past, because in the half attention it took to write this (two children are whining to me right now, another is banging on a metal tin, and my oldest, God bless her, promised to leave me alone for twenty minutes and is doing so), I feel slightly more human than I did before I started.

Thank you, dear reader.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

Last Christmas, my mom-in-law gave my girls tiny little toy horses. My girls love horses in any shape or size, so it was a great gift. Though "toy horses" may not be exactly accurate. They were actually collectible miniatures, but nothing is too good for her grand-daughters, so they were presented as a set to be roughly played with as only young children can.

What is the difference, you ask, between toy horses and collectible miniatures?

Genitals.

That's right. These tiny toy horses were anatomically correct. I did not notice this at first. It took a few days of play before the girls started giggling and brought me a tiny stallion saying, "Mama! This horse has poo-poo stuck to his bottom!"

Um. No.

In general, we believe once the kids are old enough to ask a question, they are old enough for some kind of honest answer. So I explained to the girls the differences between male and female.

They did not believe me.

But there the horses were anyway, and clearly there was something odd about that little stallion, so eventually they accepted my story. And they began to repeat it. Not in any embarrassing public way - I know that's where your mind leaped, kids being what they are. But it was hard to keep a straight face when, three days later, my four-year-old explained that the process of making babies involved a strange male apparatus called a "peanut-tentacles." She was pretty sure it only existed on horses.

That was months ago, and I thought we had reached a comfortable place of vague familiarity with the subject. Then one day the girls brought me another one of their toy horses, wanting me to explain whether it was male or female. They still get a little confused. So I turned the toy over.

It was a gelding.

If they are old enough to ask a question, they are old enough to get some kind of answer. So I answered. And their eyes widened in amazement.

I don't know if this will come back to haunt us in public or not. But an hour after my explanation, my four year old came cantering up to me, neighing and whinnying, and announced, "I am a horse! My testicles are cut off!"

Parenthood is always an adventure.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Meals and the Human Instrument

When the girls ask questions, we try to answer. Every time. Sometimes the answer is "I don't know. We'll have to look that up." But we try to answer every question.

Which is how I ended up in the food science section of the public library. The girls love to "help" me cook. I do not love it, but sometimes force myself to involve them. I was explaining to them the other day that you must be careful not to overmix biscuit or pie dough, because overmixing will make the biscuits or crust tough instead of flaky. They wanted to know why.

And then I wanted to know why. In fact, there were a lot of things about cooking that I could not explain. Gluten bonds with water and forms "protein strings," but what exactly is a "protein string"? So I began looking for food science books in our public library. I chose one that looked like an introductory college textbook and brought it home to read during the kids' quiet time.

I have heard the complaint that as fewer people cook, recipes have become more elaborate, and we have reinvented cooking as a spectator sport, a kind of food p*rn. Cooking has been severed from the life of the home and family, and become instead a glossy photo or competitive game. Well, if Top Chef is food p*rn, then food science books are the mechanistic sex education manuals.

This particular paragraph in the opening chapter unnerved me:
Actually one extremely discriminating, painstaking, and unbiased individual would suffice [for testing]. But the human instrument is frequently inconsistent in its ability to discriminate different aspects of food quality, and daily variations in physical condition may cause variations in operating efficiency. A cold, for example, may render a panelist useless for days. Psychological factors such as preoccupation, worry, and other stresses may prevent a judge from operating effectively, as may environmental factors such as distracting noises, extraneous odors, and uncomfortable temperature. Furthermore, it is not always easy for the experimenter to know when a judge is not in optimum adjustment for the job of food-difference testing.
The authors complain primarily about the way subjective factors affect our judgment in favor of the negative, but they could as easily have complained of how we love that bread because it reminds us of the anniversary we spent at that bed & breakfast, or how we fail to object to the slightly tinny flavor of that soup because it awakens memories of our mother spoon-feeding us after the flu. Our enjoyment of food is not only about the food; it is about the complex of relationships and sentiments around the meals we share.

The book is written for people entering the food manufacturing industry, so maybe I'm being unfair to the authors.  I like to cook most of my own food, and I can't do that if I can't get safe flour and rice. I am aware of the necessity of food scientists in a large, urbanized society. But the depersonalized view of humans and their palates left me more determined than ever to cook most of our own food myself.

Food is the muscle of the home. Our family sits together at the table for dinner every night. Some days it is the only time that Az and I give our exclusive attention to each other, without half an eye on computer screens or books. We do not answer the phone during meals. Meals are not about calibrating texture and taste, but about making and sharing and enjoying, mostly in unquantifiable ways. Even when it is hard work, I notice that I am more peaceful afterwards. Our meals are the sign and promise that we are committed to this family we have built. Just like we were yesterday; just like we will be tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Cup of Coffee at My Bedside

Az the husband makes me a cup of coffee every morning. He has done this for fifteen years. When we were first married, we both took our wedding rings off at night, and our morning ritual was to slip them on each other's fingers in the morning, asking "Will you marry me?" It was sweet, but too maudlin to last. The necessities and habits of daily life create their own rituals, and ours became the cup of coffee he brought to my bed every morning before he left for work. He would lean over and kiss me and say, "Coffee's here. I'm going to work. I love you."

A few months ago I switched to green tea (supposedly it boosts the immune system), but the ritual is the same. The kiss, the goodbye, the steaming cup beside the bed. He leaves for work very early, and he is more dependable for me than an alarm clock. Az does not come with a snooze button, and he is not fooled when I murmur, "I'm awake" from the depths of the bed. I must sit straight up and sip my tea before he believes me. He is the first domino that sets off the chain reaction of a school morning. Without him, we would all be late.

Our life right now is chaotic and stressful. We don't have enough money. We are trying to fix up the house. And job searches are a misery for anybody. But the cup of coffee is still there every morning, even if we've argued the night before. The kiss still gently meets my cheek, before I'm even fully awake. A cup of tea costs pennies, but the life behind it is worth the world.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Gambler

I am not a gambler. I hate the thought of risking something I have for the chance of something I don't have.  I like solid. I like steady and reliable. I like certain. And now I am at the age where some of those gambles have paid off for friends. I see it, but it doesn't make me more adventurous. I can congratulate the friend on their latest success, but in my head there may be a litany of questions that make me equally sure I would not have made the gamble, even if I knew the outcome (was that career really worth your marriage? was that house really worth the debt? was that activity you signed your kid up for really worth the toll it took on family life?).

This makes it even weirder that I have been trying to write a novel for the last eighteen months. (Big deal, a novel, who doesn't try to write a novel?) What exactly am I doing this for? Do I hope that some day I'll be a Writer, a word that needs a font for dramatic flourishes? Do I want to get it published some day? Cuz fat chance. That almost never happens. Why am I gambling all this time and effort and money - yes, money, because anything you put this much effort into will cost you something eventually. What do I hope to get if I win?

I don't know. I remember reading about JK Rowling, when she was a newly divorced single mom and very poor, sitting in a coffeehouse, writing and writing the Harry Potter books and drinking coffee. I know how that coffee must have cost her. I have had periods of life, including the one I'm in, where the price of a cup of coffee was a big deal. I bet she agonized over it. I bet she wondered how she could justify spending the money at a coffeehouse just so she could write a book that no one would ever publish, when she could save a few pounds by staying home.

I am in a coffeehouse right now. Not a good one; an unimaginative chain with reliable wifi. I am here because I am working on a novel, and I cannot write at home. If I try to write at home, the girls shout their pleas for attention through the door at me. Or someone stumbles and hurts herself and I have to get up to make sure she is okay. The demands of children are too constant at home for me to focus on anything else, and I am too tired at the end of the day to write after they finally fall asleep.

So I am gambling on a cup of coffee, handing over some of our preciously pinched pennies for impersonal quiet with internet access. I have a few hours of work on something that may never pay off in any real way. I am risking family resources to do it, an amount that costs us, even if it would be negligible to other people. And I can't really explain why.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Butterflies and Broken Promises

The children learned what a "pay cut" means this week. I had a talk with all of them, and explained that daddy was getting paid less for the same amount of work, so we would have less money for a while. I explained that we would not be able to go out for ice cream any more, but we could still have ice cream at home. I explained that we could still go out and do fun things, but they would be free things instead of things that cost money. I told them that when our museum membership expires, we might not be able to renew it, so we would not be able to go to the museum any more.

This was a lot for them to hear, and they managed pretty well. The hard part came two days later when we passed the Krohn Conservatory, where the Cincinnati Butterfly Show is currently in its last week. The kids look forward to it all year, and they got excited when they saw the banner. I had to explain that we did not have enough money to go this year.

My six year old cried. She loves living creatures of any kind, and one of her most treasured memories from last year is the time a butterfly landed on her sugared hand. She still talks about it. She reminded me that I had promised to take her to the show. I told her I was sorry, but I had made the promise before we knew about the pay cut, and now we didn't have the money. There was nothing I could do.

The kids have learned that saying, "Mama, you promised that..." will get them an instant hearing and a likely change in my plans. I try to teach them by my actions that promises are obligations. It is hard to realize my promises are captive to something outside my control. Today they learned that my promises are conditional on my resources. It is a necessary lesson, I suppose, but I hated it.

There will be other disappointments. We don't know how long this will last. But when I brought them home from the park that day, I got the ice cream and milk out of the fridge and I made them milkshakes. I did not realize that I had never made them homemade milkshakes before. They watched the blender until they were hopping up and down with excitement. I poured the shakes into their mugs and they drank them at the dinner table, giving themselves ice cream mustaches in the process.

"Mama," declared my six year old with enthusiasm, "your homemade milkshakes are more, more, more, more, more, super duper better than Steak & Shake's."

It's good to know.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On a Pony

I was eight or nine years old and we had recently moved from the suburbs of a large city to a small Illinois town. My mother had decided to take my younger sister and me to the county fair, a big to-do in a small town. It was crowded, trucks and cars parked in the grass in row after row, and we had to walk through the rutted mud to get past them.

The smells were new to me - farm animals and diesel and funnel cakes - and I held her hand in the crowd. We saw a pony ride and begged her to buy us a ticket. The ponies were harnessed to a poles attached to a single center, and children rode them as they walked around in a circle, like a carousel with live animals. My mom may have been reluctant to pay for such a thing, but horses were rare and exciting to my sister and me, so she relented.

The owner took her dollars and helped us mount the ponies. I sat there for a moment, feeling like a storybook character on a noble steed. The ponies walked around in their circle and I swayed, enjoying the unfamiliarity of it. And then I saw the owner's son. He was my age, and he was assisting his dad with the ride. He harnessed and unharnessed the ponies. He led the the ponies to get them moving. He had the practised hands of someone who has done this dozens of times.

I was a midwestern girl from the suburbs; suburban enough see horses as a kind of exotic pet, but midwestern enough to see work as morally superior to play. The boy was working. He had responsibility and skill. I was playing. We were the same age.

And suddenly I was ashamed. I felt the blood rush to my face.  I tried to brazen it out, leaning forward and patting my pony the way I had seen grateful cowboys do in movies. My mother snapped a picture at that moment, and it is around here somewhere, pasted into a baby book. I still don't like to look at it. It was the first time I felt ashamed of acting like a child. It was the first time I realized I was too old for something.

There would be other times - the last time I went trick-or-treating, for example. Moments when I suddenly felt large and ungainly, or embarrassed by the sudden insight that only children do this. Once it was watching a teenaged friend pick on his sister, the moment I realized that unkindness to younger siblings was something only adolescents tolerated.

Now I am old enough to do any child-like thing I want. If I think of myself as "too old" for something, it's probably only fashion trends.  I rarely feel that sense of shame about anything. I do not measure myself against other people as much as children do. But sometimes when my girls play with other kids, I will find myself watching them all to see if there is some skill I should have taught them already by this age. I wonder if I have let them have enough responsibility or independence. I wonder if they will have their own pony moment.

But I suppose everyone gets one some day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Waiting, Not Making

Az the Husband got a pay cut at work. There are a number of official reasons not to call it a pay cut, but the consequence of it is that roughly $800-1000 will be missing from our monthly income.

Mortgage + power + phone + water + insurance + student loans + gas + groceries + doctors = more than we have.

Since none of those expenses are luxuries, we have to make some difficult choices. We have several options, all of them bad. Last night we talked and argued and stewed over our choices, and made the best plan we could for the next few months.

But that plan, after we do the initial work, means lots of waiting. Whether it's looking for work or selling a house, fixing this problem ultimately depends on other people. We can't do it ourselves.

Another Pinterest philosophy favorite is "Life is what you make it." There is a spiritual fashion to believe, like Oprah and her Secret-loving cohorts, that we are powerful beings who create our own reality, and all our dreams are within our grasp if we only free ourselves from self-imposed limitations.

This philosophy is a kick in the teeth when things go wrong. If you are the locus of control for your reality, then you are the one making bad things happen to you. The ideology runs on a mixture of narcissism and battered wife syndrome. If everything is in my power, then everything is all my fault.

I am not impressed with the power of my imagination. If my mind made things happen, my kids would likely have been kidnapped or drowned by now (and it would be ALL MY FAULT, apparently).  I believe that humans are fundamentally in need of rescue. I pull the doctrine of God's omnipotence up to my chin like an heirloom quilt, grateful for the hands that passed it to me.

The surprise to me is when I find new places in my life where I have not really let that belief shine all the way in. I say I believe in our dependence on a redemptive, omnipotent God, but I live as though my hard work created the universe.

And here we are. Looking for jobs, trying to sell the house, knowing that it is not really up to us. We muddle along and pray, hoping for the Rescuer to arrange something, waiting on him even if he doesn't.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Vacation Ends

We have been at my parents' house for a week, and tomorrow we begin the long trek home. We are rested and well-fed and feeling adventurous - we will take a new route! we will rent a hotel room! we will spend the morning in a museum! - but after the first 10-hour leg of our journey, we may collapse on the hotel doorstep and whimper until passing strangers offer us free childcare.

It could happen.

This vacation has been a child's delight. They have swum every day. They have painted pictures and played dress-up and had a tea party. The cousins cavort together in a flock, herded and ordered by my mother. If my mother had her own pagan myth, she would be the hero who vanquishes chaos and builds Creation out of its carcass. Look on the Grandmother, you Titans, and tremble. She will make a crib toy out of your bones.

And now we are leaving. The children will cry, because they always cry. We will hand them books and buckle them in and promise them McNuggets and after the amount of whining alotted by the fates, we will be home. I will climb into my own bed and sleep and sleep and wonder if the last week was a dream.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Book with the Dusty-Rose Cover

I bought a book today because of its scent.

It is an old Oxford paperback, with a cover the color of parchment and faded flowers. It was on the to-be-shelved rack in the literary criticism section of the Richardson Halfprice Books. I did not need it. We had a cart full of books already, some for us, some for the children. But when I picked up the book and felt its smooth cover, almost creamy to the touch, I felt that familiar eagerness. This book was meant to be a pleasure to hold. The Penguins and the Oxford paperbacks of the 1960s were made to satisfy the senses of the reader as well as the mind.

Last Christmas Az the husband gave me a Kindle, one of those electronic book readers. I love its ease and compact accessibility, and I especially love how many books I can get for free. But reading on it has made me aware of how much tactile pleasure I used to get from books. There is joy in holding a book just so in your hand, joy in a book that has been well-made. Acid-free paper and clear type, a spine that bends but does not break, a cover illustration that makes you wonder about the contents. All these pleasures are lost in a Kindle, where I have had to love books only for their words, a task that is not as simple as I expected.

If you love Rudyard Kipling's Kim, you can love it on an e-reader, but you will only be loving the platonic ideal of Kim. You cannot love this book, this copy I hold in my hand, the one with the dog-eared cover and the coffee-stain on page 193. Every time you pick up this book, this one here, it reminds you of that summer before junior year at the lake in Wisconsin, when you were slathered in calamine after stumbling into poison ivy. You remember how the book kept you from scratching, mostly, and you only closed it when you needed to swat a fly. Every time you read this book, it feels like coming home.

The Oxford paperback with the cream and dusty-rose cover felt good in my hand, and when I opened it, the scent of its pages took me back to the summers at my parents' house in Kansas, looking through the bookshelves in the basement for something to read. The summers were hot but the basement was cool, and  thousands of books lined its walls. I could pick out whatever I wanted. The slim Penguin Classics called to me, and I read the Inferno and the Iliad and Candide, copies left over from my dad's college years. Sometimes, as a boon from the playful reading gods, I would find his notes in the margin, crisp neat writing of a younger man I never met, a man who did not yet know my mother. We would meet across the margins, and I would smile quietly and say nothing. I never give away the ending.

I bought a book today because of its scent. Because some day my children may want to browse our shelves on their own in the cool basement, and smooth slim volumes may call to them (now where did I leave that pencil?). I bought a book because reading is a dangerous endeavour, and I should be grounded in case of lightning strike, my hands touching something real, my feet rooted with the tree its paper comes from.

So I bought the book with the dusty-rose cover. I will read it with my whole body, even if I only use my eyes.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Vacation Preparation

We are leaving for Texas tomorrow.

We are renting the last available minivan in Cincinnati and driving 16 hours with four children strapped into their carseats. We are driving with 40 hours of audiobooks, a cooler of snacks, four sippy cups and four special blankets. We do not think this equipment will make the trip pleasant, but we comfort ourselves that at least we are not taking the train. Thank you, invasive nanny state, for child carseat laws. Not because they save lives, but because they keep the whining an extra foot or two removed from our ears.

We are leaving tomorrow and my home is a mess. Every trip I tell myself that this time I will leave a clean house. This time I will make sure I have an ordered home to come home to. And every trip, as the departure time draws nearer, I abandon more and more planned cleaning in a desperate effort to get us ready to go on the planned date. One year we blew out a tire two miles down the road and we could not leave town until the next day. That was the only time my house ended up clean before we left. Mostly clean, anyway.

And every trip, as the departure looms and I begin cutting extraneous chores from my to-do list, I approach the tipping point between feeling like a failure for the state of my house and ditching self-criticism as one more unnecessary chore. Self-flagellation is a distraction. We mothers, we warriors of the family vacation, we ain't got time to bleed.

There is a load of laundry in the machine, the children are watching their second movie of the day, the youngest is napping, our stomachs are full of Chinese leftovers and doughnuts, and I, patiently awaiting the next load to fold or pack, am blogging. Take that, guilt. I defy you. I will leave you here at home as we drive blithely into the day, sojourners to welcoming arms and grandma joy.  You have no power over us.

At least not until I get home.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Barn Swallows and Bare Feet

In Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (wonderful!) she describes an aerial show by Dave Rahm, a daring pilot. At the conclusion of the show, she writes,

Just as I turned from the runway, something caught my eye and made me laugh. It was a swallow, a blue-green swallow, having its own air show, apparently inspired by Rahm. The swallow climbed high over the runway, held its wings oddly, tipped them, and rolled over the air in loops. The inspired swallow. I always want to paint, too, after I see the Rembrandts. The blue-green swallow tumbled precisely, and caught itself and flew up again as if excited, and looped down again, the way swallows do, but tensely, holding its body carefully still. It was a stunt swallow.

And in a flash I remembered the swallows of my first pregnancy. Az the husband and I had driven to an Indiana college to see an old friend graduate. She had been the little girl I babysat in college, and now she was grown and graduating from the same school I had attended. I had the butterflies in my stomach everyone gets when they visit their alma mater, but I was also in my first trimester. We came to the stands before we saw anyone we knew. The butterflies turned to nausea, sharp and insistent, and the crowds of strangers pressed in. While Az sat in the bleachers, I slipped out and went to the open field behind the stadium.

The field had been mowed moments before the ceremony began, and the insects were leaping in the air, looking for the tall grass that had concealed them. The air in the first nine inches above the field moved like dark popcorn. And flying low over the field, scooping the discombobulated bugs into their beaks, were barn swallows. Back and forth, back and forth over the field, joyful, careening harvesters of insect bounty. I sat in the grass, feeling the too-warm sunlight and the slight breeze moving over my tan silk dress. I took off my snug, heeled sandals. I watched the swallows and I heard the commencement speech muffled and blared by amplifiers and I tried not to think about my nausea.

In my mind now, that was the dividing moment between my childless life and my life as a mother. I did not know, in that moment, that I would have four babies in the next five years. I did not know how much of the next five years I would spend vomiting. I was trying to get through that moment of nausea by not thinking about the moment ahead of it, only this instant, this instant I am getting through, I will not worry about what comes after or the strangers I must make conversation with or the old friends I have to see when this is over. I will watch the swallows and smell the mown grass and feel the breeze and be thankful that I am not in a crowd and I don't have to put my shoes back on yet.

I feel tenderness for that unsuspecting mother-to-be, and I would not tell her a thing. I would not tell her the joys and sorrows ahead. I would let her watch the swallows, feel the blades of grass stick to her toes, quiet her body in the hope that this is temporary, this is almost over, not knowing the show is only beginning and she will tumble in the air.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Narrow Life

Have you been on Pinterest? It's a social networking site organized around pictures that people gather from the web. You "pin" a picture onto a "board" and write whatever you like about it. Other people can comment on your picture or "repin" it to their own board.

It is a fun distraction, but one of the things people like to pin are inspirational sayings. I have now read dozens and dozens of mottos, motivators, quotes from famous people and slogans. I could sum up the sayings in two categories (these are my words, not any actual quotes): "I demand you find my character flaws charming" and "The more experiences, the better."

I don't personally find my own character flaws charming, so it's hard to see how I could make that demand my mantra. There is a difference between asking someone to forgive my failings in love, and asking them to praise them as my own special kind of uniqueness. If, for example, I turn into an insecure, critical wife for a day or two every month, I don't really expect my husband to clap his hands and shout, "Yay! I have missed this part of you!"

But "the more experiences, the better" is a philosophy I had to think about a little more. At first, I liked it. It sounded brave. I do not like risk, and I need to be encouraged to take more of them. But Pinterest turns small things into a deluge, and the more I read this inspiring message in different forms, the more it didn't sit right.

Risk more, have adventures, amass a collection of life experiences of variety and intensity. Run don't walk, throw yourself into every new exploit, and at the end of your life, greet feeble old age with a kind of post-coital exhaustion, knowing that you have wrung out of life every drop of excitement you could.

It sounds exhausting. It does not sound peaceful. But more than that, when I think of the people I respect most in life, the people I most want to be like, this describes none of them.

When I think about it, the people I respect most are people who create peace. And they are almost always people who chose one path and followed it to the end, instead of exploring every branch. They did not choose more life experiences; they deliberately chose fewer, in service to a single end. Maybe it was parenting, or feeding the hungry, or helping abused women. Maybe it was scholarship, or creating a comforting marriage. But instead of variety, they chose focus.

I want to be one of those people. As hard as my current SAHM life can be, I know that this temporary narrowing of my life has good effects. I can see how I have changed over the last seven years, and the changes are good. Patience, perseverance, compassion - I have found more of these in the narrow life.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I wish it were easier

A few months ago, my husband's schedule changed to a standard five-day work week.

I thought that I had finally got this stay-at-home-mom gig down. I had four kids and I loved the chaos of it, and congratulated myself on how well I managed this life. Turns out, I was just propped up by an alternate work schedule that let my husband give me one solid day to myself every week. Now that his work schedule has changed, I've lost my day of solitude.

And everything else got harder.

Without that day away, the whining feels even more like a knife in my ear. The demands are more constant. The clinging wears me out more quickly. I try to get a little solitude by getting up earlier than the kids, but they catch on quick, and one or two will get up when they hear my shower, and there is no time for a cup of coffee by myself.

I can do this. I don't doubt I can do this. But I wish it were a little easier.

Saturday Solitude

Saturday I was alone.

It doesn't happen often. I have four daughters, aged 7, 6, 4 and 2, and a husband who works five or six days a week. But yesterday was my birthday, and the babysitter fell through, so I asked the husband if instead of taking me out to dinner, he would watch the kids so I could have the entire Saturday by myself. I planned to leave before the kids woke up and come home after they were in bed.

That means, of course, that the girls woke up an hour earlier than usual and cried when I said goodbye to them. But I said goodbye anyway, took my travel mug of green tea and drove to a park with a lake. I sat on a bench by the water and read my Bible and prayed.

I love solitude when I can get it, but lately I have been feeling more lonely than alone. I am depressed at the state of the world. It isn't its suffering that upsets me as much as the acceptance of it. I keep reading cultural analyses (which I should not do) that chill me, filled with phrases like "the normalization of sexual harm." My eyes are drawn to examples not only of intentional destruction by an evil few, but passive excuses by an apathetic many. The failure of the world to stand up and call the harm "evil" sometimes distresses me more than the harm in the first place. The future looks bleak, and I am a fearful curmudgeon, reading Matthew 24 and sourly waiting for it to get worse.

But every generation has thought the generation that followed it was full of depraved rascals who disrespect authority and fail to value the good. All old folks complain about young folks. I am repeating a predictable pattern, which is reason enough to distrust my fear. Maybe the world is getting worse, or maybe not. Either way, I don't think the point of Matthew 24 is to leave us so frightened of the future that we would prefer Jesus did not return rather than endure everything that will happen beforehand.

So Saturday, sitting by the lake, looking for my hope, I tried something new. I prayed a prayer of gratitude for every person I could think of who had repented of something and changed their life. Because it happens. People do change sometimes. Evil doesn't always win. The alcoholic gets sober and reconciles with the abandoned family. The angry neighbor gives up on resentment and seeks friendship. The vengeful family forgive each other and love again. It happens. It does not happen enough, but it happens.

And that gives me hope. I want to hear the truth declared - that this is wrong and that is right, and let's call it what it is without evasion or excuse. I want to see a vision of the good and true and right that is so far beyond our ability that it takes a God to make it happen. Confiding that longing arouses certain responses. My cultural training like yours makes me instantly object, "But how do you know what is the good and true and right? Who are you to decide that?"

Ask that question often enough, and no one knows anything.

I can only present the only certification I have: the confession of my own failures. I repeat the words other people gave me, words like "sin" and "God" and "sorry." Repentance. It's not showy, but it's real. The acknowledgement that we are not what we should be, and we need outside help. If I stop scowling at the future, I can see it in lives around me. If I stop grumbling, I can repeat its echoes myself.

And if I do that, I am not so lonely.

I blogged for a long time, and then I stopped, and then started for a little while, and then stopped again. Blogging can be an obligation and a burden. I read that the hey-day of blogging is passing, so I'm not sure why I want to start again. Maybe because the hey-day is passing and the conversation feels quieter, and I dearly miss quiet conversation.