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.