Thursday, November 15, 2012

Saying goodbye to Veronica Mitchell

Well, folks, the time has come. I have switched my online identity to my real name, and I'll no longer be blogging under Veronica Mitchell. My pseudonym has been a lovely home for me, and I will always cherish it. I think, though, it is time for other things. You can find me now under my real name here.

And if you still want to call me Veronica sometimes, I won't mind.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Nothing makes me more grateful than sick children

My youngest child is asleep in my bed. She is four, and like her sisters has spent the weekend with an unidentified illness. Fevers and sore throats, aches and headaches, nausea. I went from one to another, dosing medicine, taking temperatures, and soothing.

It was, strangely, a good weekend. I was tired to that point where you no longer think of how tired you are, which helped. I had back-up: my husband took one night off from work, and my parents, who moved to our city a month ago, were only a phone call away, if there was an emergency. But no one else is mama, and the work of nursing them was squarely on my shoulders. They wanted mama's lap, mama's arms, and mama's bed.

Yesterday afternoon, after the worst of the illness had passed for most of them, I fell asleep on my bed, and three of the kids came quietly to my room and arranged themselves on and around me, not ready yet to rest without mama's comfort. I slept, too tired to notice. I woke up to find my seven-year-old's head on my calf, her arms wrapped around my leg like it was her teddy bear.

There are many things that are hard about being a stay-at-home mom, especially in this intermediate period, when the kids no longer have the needs of an infant, but are not ready for much independence either. My time here can feel purposeless, and I have to fight a constant sense that I should be getting more done, whatever "it" is: writing, cleaning, cooking, reading, earning. Something.

But then I have a weekend like this, where I feel so grateful that I get to stay home with the kids. On Saturday night, my five-year-old daughter had a fever of 103.9. It kept rising, and the medicines I had given her were not lowering it, so she lay on the couch watching cartoons, while I laid wet towels on her, changing them as they warmed to her body temperature. It took hours, but it lowered her fever at last, and she slept. I was so grateful that this miserable night could be followed by a low-pressure day, that I had no deadlines to meet or substitutes to find. I knew that the next day I could nap briefly, and make it a slow, recovering day. This is a gift.

A few feet from me now, my four-year-old is asleep in my bed. She is almost well, and only needs a napping day. There is no safer place to sleep than mama's bed.

In a minute, I may join her.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How I Was Seduced by Doctor Who

(There are plenty of spoilers here.)

I've always had friends who love Doctor Who, the British science-fiction television show, but I could not get into it. I saw the old series on our local PBS station back when I had television, but it never pulled me in. Maybe it was the clunky special effects. My friends would enthusiastically try to explain the show to me, arguing over which actor was the best Doctor. I would blink at them dazedly, wondering how anyone could take this seriously.

When the current reboot of the show appeared on Netflix, I told myself I would try it again and see what all the fuss was about. I tried twice to watch the first few episodes with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. And I couldn't get through it. Both times I fell asleep. Clearly this show is not for me, I thought, and gave myself permission to ignore it.

But my friends kept raving. People whose opinion I liked and respected. People whose recommendations for movies I usually solicited. Maybe I should try one more time.

So I did. I struggled manfully through the first two seasons. I may have fallen asleep a couple of times, but when I woke up, I tried again. While washing dishes or folding laundry, I watched almost the first two seasons until I felt I could solidly have an opinion on the show.

And I hated it.  I hated the Doctor's arrogance, and his inexplicable loyalty to one timeline over another. I hated his contemptuous dismissal of his companion's "human morality." I hated the inconsistency of a randomly generated universe alongside discussions of morality, as though the two can exist together.

Most of all - and probably because it's presidential campaign season here - I hated the manipulative way the Doctor claimed two horrifying options were the only choices available, and his companion had to pick one. You must EITHER desecrate human dead OR commit genocide against an alien species! You must EITHER kill your father OR destroy the planet! You must EITHER enslave genetically modified humans OR condemn people to die horribly of disease!

Like I said, the campaign season is making me more than a little hostile to being told my ONLY options are lousy ones, and no, little voter, you cannot question the false dichotomy we've set up; just shut up and pick one. I was so fed up, I found myself shouting at the screen one night: Is this why Doctor Who fans are so rabid?  Does this show self-select for sheep?

So I was all set to give up on this show again, but there was still laundry to fold, and looking for a new show would require me to move the stack of wash cloths from my lap. So I kept watching.

And then there was the episode where The Devil tries to convince the Doctor to choose between EITHER freeing this devil creature to harm worlds OR killing the Doctor's friend Rose. And the Doctor refuses to accept the options. "I believe in Rose," he says, and trusts the rescue to his friend's ingenuity.

Hmm, I thought. That's interesting.

And then there was the season with Martha Jones as companion, and her insistence that saving individual lives matters even in the midst of catastrophic death. Her morality was particular and personal, and the choices presented in the episodes began to change.

And then I saw "Blink."

Wow, I said to myself when it was over. That was great television. I may never turn my back on a cemetery angel again.

I can't remember the last time a show scared me AND made me like it.

But what really sold me was Donna. I could not stop watching after Donna. She was played so perfectly - brash and abrasive and immune to the Doctor's charm. Donna made me a Doctor Who fan. In fact, if Donna Noble were running in our current presidential election, I wouldn't be nearly so reluctant to cast a vote.

(But she'd need to have been born in the US first. Or the Constitution would need to be re-written. I'm sure the Doctor could arrange either one of those.)

So now I have watched all the 2005-2011 seasons available on Netflix.

Erm. Twice.

It got me. It has completely, irrevocably got me.

(You are now free to say "I told you so.")

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Stuff You Really Need When You Have a Baby, Part Two

Part One is here.

We've covered sleeping and eating, a baby's favorite activities. Now on to the less glamorous stuff.

Peeing and Pooping
(I did not make this heading brown or yellow. You're welcome.)

1. Diapers - Well, obviously. First you have the choice to either cloth diaper or use disposables. Here's a cost comparison. The lower cost of cloth diapers will continue to save you money if you have more than one child. That being said, I used disposables, because I knew I would not be able to keep up with the laundry. As it turned out, I had three kids in diapers at one time, and I definitely could not have kept up with that laundry. But some parents do. If you choose cloth, you will need a few other items to go with them.

If you choose disposables, keep in mind that some babies react to brands differently, and different brands fit differently. My kids could not wear one particular bargain brand because the position of the stiff tabs scratched their thighs. Switch around till you find one your baby's happy in.

2. Changing Pad - When my first baby was born, I thought a changing table was a necessity. It wasn't. It was a nuisance. All I needed was a padded plastic changing pad. I could take it with me from room to room and change the baby wherever she was. This became even more useful when I had more than one child. If your three year old is in the bath and you suddenly need to change baby, you can change baby right there on the bathroom floor, on the changing pad you habitually carry from room to room. We finally ended up with two pads, storing one under the couch for living room activity.

A changing pad gives the baby a little cushion when you change him on the floor. It also - most importantly - protects your floor or bed or couch from the baby if he poops in the middle of being changed. Yep. They do that. They do that with enthusiasm. That's why changing pads should be plastic and easy to wipe and disinfect. It's also why I stopped using pretty cotton covers for my changing pad. I did not need one more thing to wash.

3. Diaper Rash Cream - Buy a tube of several different kinds and see which works best. Mix 'em up. Sometimes one worked better for one of my babies, while another baby did well with another. Keep a tube on hand wherever you keep your changing pad and diapers. Diaper rash can be horrible - even large, open bleeding sores. Anything that brings relief or prevents it is welcome.

4. Paper Towels - A lot of folks use wet wipes, and those are handy when you are traveling and there's not a sink nearby. But wet wipes are made with alcohol, and if your baby has diaper rash, the alcohol burns. Wet wipes are also more expensive than plain old paper towels and water. There's nothing a wet wipe can do in your nursery that a wet paper towel can't do just as well, and for less money. You can also wet a paper towel with warm water, which is less of a shock to a bare butt than a cold wet wipe.

I think that covers the basics for this area.

Getting Baby from Here to There

1. Car Seat - When a baby rides in a car, the baby is required to be in a rear-facing car seat. Some hospitals and birth centers give these away if you don't already have them. Ask yours. Some insurance companies give them away or subsidize the cost of them. Ask.

Do not buy a car seat used or inherit one from a friend. If the car seat has ever been in an accident, no one knows if it is still safe in case of another accident. Car seats also now all bear expiration dates, after which the plastic is too weak to meet safety standards. This is an item you should buy new.

2. Baby Carrier/ Wrap/ Sling - This was the single most sanity-saving item I owned. Babies want to be with mom all the time, but mom has things that must be done. Wearing your baby on your body keeps you both happy. Some women can even nurse in the wrap (I could NOT do this, no matter how I tried, so it's not a possibility for everyone).

There are many different options out there. I was unwilling to spend a lot of money on a wrap, but given how much time I spent in one, I wish I had asked for a pretty Moby as a baby shower gift. If your baby likes being in a wrap (and I had two who refused to be in one - they wanted the feeling of my arm holding them instead), the wrap will become part of your wardrobe. Owning more than one, and owning wraps that are pretty to wear, is a reasonable part of a clothing budget for both of you.

Stephanie at Adventures in Babywearing can offer a primer on the whole wrap/sling/carrier experience.

3. Stroller - Some parents have so much success with babywearing that they never need a stroller. I get enough back pain, though, that sometimes I needed a rest.

Strollers get a lot of wear and tear, but they are worth buying used if you find a good one. I would never buy a stroller from a catalog or online store. I want to feel how heavy it is to push or lift, and I want to see its turning radius in action. You definitely want a stroller than can be unfolded with one hand, and that fits inside your car. If you do find a used one, check safety recalls to make sure it is a safe product.

4. Diaper bag - This will effectively be your purse for the next three years, so ask for a nice one. In fact, I ended up using a big pretty purse for my diaper bag with my last two kids. Make sure it is washable, because it will carry some gross things. In fact, you might need two for when one of them is in the wash.


Babies like to play with stuff. Grandparents like to buy baby toys. This means you do not need to buy them toys at all. Seriously. That first year of life, your kid will be thrilled with your car keys or an empty Pringles can. All those lovely, brightly-colored toys in the shops? Unnecessary. Even if you really want the baby to have toys, other people will be bringing them over all the time. They will multiply like rabbits. You will not even know where they came from. So on the list of necessary expenses this does not even rank.

That's all for now. Next time I'll cover "Stuff You Need for Baby Health" and "Stuff You Don't Necessarily Need, But Is Nice to Have."

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Stuff You Really Need When You Have a Baby: Part One

I told a pregnant friend of mine that I could make her a list of all the things you really need when you have a baby, instead of all the marketed gizmos and nonsense that people try to sell you. And as I was making the list in my head, I realized hey! This is a blog post. So here I am.

This list may not be complete. Feel free to supplement in the comments if there's something important I have forgotten. And maybe there's something I missed that you found life-saving.

Defining "need" may be a bit tricky. For example, plenty of people in the world have babies without owning cribs. Many of our grandparents slept in a dresser drawer. I am assuming a certain western middle-class-ish lifestyle here, that may not be appropriate in all instances. Take it with a grain of salt.

Babies sleep, eat, pee and poop, and play, and they have to be carried from place to place. That is all babies do. That makes organizing this list easy.


1. Crib - Even if you decide to co-sleep, you will want a crib for naps or times when the baby needs quiet time. Cribs should have bars that a kid can't fit her head through. Cribs should not have lead-based paint because many kids chew on their cribs. The latest statistical studies say cribs should not have drop-down sides, because sometimes children are injured by them.

Cribs last FOREVER. Don't buy one new. This is the number one thing I would buy used. I had two kids in cribs at the same time, so a friend gave me an old used one and I bought a fancy new one. The old one has held up better. It is probably twenty years old by now and we still keep it assembled for stuffed animals.

2. Crib Mattress - Well, obviously. Baby mattresses should be firm. Firmer mattresses help reduce the risk of SIDS. Mattresses do NOT last a long time (my toddlers jumped on theirs till the springs sprung). A used mattress also has contagion risks. Buy this one new.

3. Mattress pad - You need two, and they should be waterproof but washable. Babies often pee or poop through their clothes in the night, and you have to strip the bed and make it over again. If you only have one mattress pad, that is a big nuisance. If you don't use a mattress pad, you may have to wash down a poopy mattress in the middle of the night, and that is a miserable task. Sleeping on sheets without a pad can also feel cold for the baby. My kids refused to sleep without a pad in winter.

4. Crib Sheets - Own as many as possible. You really cannot imagine all the ways a child can soil or wet or otherwise make a sheet unsleepable. It's like their super power. Cotton sheets are easiest on a baby's skin. The sheet should fit snugly to the mattress.

My own experience: do NOT buy cotton jersey, that stretchy t-shirt material. I had some lovely cotton jersey sheets and, just like a t-shirt, they stretched out the longer they were on the bed. I heard my daughter screaming one afternoon during nap time, and I ran upstairs to find that she had caught her foot in the loose edge of the jersey sheets, and from rolling around had wrapped it tighter and tighter around her ankle until it cut off the circulation. She ended up being fine, but it could have been a lot worse. Cotton jersey crib sheets are just a terrible idea.

5. Blankets - Babies are not supposed to have loose blankets in their crib, because it is a suffocation hazard. A large, square, flannel receiving blanket for swaddling is perfect. Actually, having MANY large, square, flannel receiving blankets are a good idea. Did you miss that part about pooping through their clothes? That includes blankets. And some babies will only sleep if tightly swaddled, so if you are out of clean swaddling blankets, then welcome to another sleepless night, mom.

A baby under nine pounds cannot maintain its own body temperature, so you may still need other blankets to put in the crib with a baby if the house is cold. They should be large enough to tuck tightly into both sides of the crib so the baby can't pull them loose, and they should not be positioned higher than the baby's armpits to prevent suffocation.

6. Clothing - I know there are a lot of adorable baby clothes in the world. But just because they look cute on the rack does not mean your child will be comfortable in them. Frills and straps and bows and belts do not feel good on baby skin, and the truth is you will be so tired, you won't want the unnecessary laundry. Because did I mention pooping through the clothes? They do that a lot.

What babies need are onesies and sleepers. That's it. Sure, a fancier outfit might be nice for pictures, but truthfully? This is your baby, and you will think he is adorable in anything. Onesies are those little jumpsuits that snap under the crotch. You can buy them in packages of three or six at any store that sells baby stuff. Sleepers are the one-piece long-sleeved jammies. Get footed sleepers to start with, and as your child gets older, he will express a preference for footies vs. socks. I had two kids who REFUSED to sleep in footed sleepers by the time they were ten months old.

And then there is the zipper question. I eventually gave away every sleeper I had that didn't have a zipper. Buttons on baby clothing are a curse and a burden and should be banned by law (okay, not really banned, but I hate them, I hate them, I hate them). That leaves you the choice of snaps or zippers. Zippers are easier, but run the risk of a sleepy or impatient parent zipping baby skin into them. I learned to always zip with my hand between the zipper and the baby's skin. Snaps have no zip risk but OH MY WORD have you ever tried to line up snaps on a sleeper in the dark when you haven't slept in 36 hours? This should be part of the entrance exam for West Point. It tests dexterity like nothing else.

Are you going to breastfeed? I hope so. It's a good idea to at least try it. I breastfed my babies because it was cheaper and easier than the alternative. Here's stuff you need.

1. Breasts - Good news! You don't have to buy these.

2. Pillows - A boppy pillow or some kind of firm donut pillow is a great help. It is not strictly necessary, but when you put it around your waist, you can rest the baby comfortably at breast-level and use both your hands to arrange breast and baby for feeding. This helped me so much that I'm including it on the necessary list. If I hadn't had one, the first six weeks of breastfeeding might have required the help of a second adult. Sometimes it did anyway.

3. Ointment - Breastfeeding hurts. Here's the part where the dogmatists rush in and say "Oh no! Breastfeeding, if done right, does not hurt! You must have had a bad latch." Thank you, dear, for dictating to me how my body is supposed to work and denying the validity of my pain. It's charming of you, really.

My experience: a good latch hurts LESS than a bad latch, but in those first two weeks of breastfeeding, it still hurts. The pain lessens dramatically after about two weeks. I could not agree with Lindsay more on this subject:
If I could choose whether to go through labor and delivery again or the first two weeks of breastfeeding, I’d choose labor and delivery. In fact, I’d choose two weeks of labor and delivery- a baby a day- over breastfeeding. Seriously.

So an ointment to relieve cracked nipples or sooth sensitive skin can help. The ointments safe for nursing (you don't have to wipe off the ointment before your baby nurses) are lanolin-based. You can buy them anywhere baby products are sold.

4. Nursing pads - Your breasts will be bigger than they ever have been before, and you will stuff your bra for the first time since middle school. Welcome to motherhood.

Your milk will not only let down when you feed your baby. It will let down when you hear your baby cry, when you think sweet baby thoughts, or when your breasts are very full.  You can keep nursing pads in your bra to soak up the milk so it doesn't soak through your shirt. It's handy. You can buy either washable, reusable pads or packs of disposable ones. Of course, if your breasts are so sore that you are staying inside topless for the first month, this won't be necessary. 

5. Nursing bra -  The idea is a bra that supports your breasts while having snaps or hooks on the straps so you can uncover your breasts for nursing without taking off the bra. I had four babies and dreamed of a good nursing bra. It is the holy grail of the undergarment world. I suspect it does not really exist. But like the noble mother-knights before you, you must go on the quest. The challenges are many. You can have no idea what size you will wear. Neither band nor cup size is predictable. As your baby grows inside you, it presses your rib cage out, so you cannot try on nursing bras while pregnant and rely on them fitting when you are no longer pregnant. Even if you could, the sizes of the bras themselves are notoriously non-uniform.

After my first baby, I gave up on the whole nursing bra idea. I think the final straw was when I dutifully unsnapped the elasticized straps, fed my daughter and then began to snap the strap again, but the elastic slipped out of my hand and smacked her in the forehead like a rubber band. "No more, " I told myself. "I do not want to tell people some day that my daughter only has one eye because of the Great Nursing-Bra Mishap of 2004."

So I settled for either tank-tops with those little shelf bras in them (which have very little support), or I wore very stretchy normal bras, knowing the process would ruin them. Both were better options than another futile nursing-bra hunt.

6. Burp cloths - you know how often babies poop through their clothes? They spit up on you even more than that. They spit up many, many times a day. And when they get old enough to stop spitting up, they drool from teething. They drool like Saint Bernards. Having a mountain of clean soft thick cotton clothes to catch the goop that flows from their mouths will help you. Even if you reach a point of exhaustion so severe that you no longer care what crusty stains adorn your shirts (or maybe you've given up shirts altogether), your mother-in-law will approve your motherhood preparedness when she sees your mountain of neatly folded burp cloths. This is one of those items you don't even need to buy. Ask your friends and they will give you the mountain of burp cloths they received from their friends.

7. Breast Pump - Not everyone needs these, but if you need one, you REALLY need one, so I'm including it on the necessary list. I tried four or five different breast pumps, and many of them are not made to accommodate the generously proportioned woman. Some of them seemed to be built on the principle that women were creatures with more enthusiasm than intelligence and would buy anything. FWIW, this was my favorite, and I used it almost every day with one of my babies.

8. Bottles - If you use a breast pump or you use formula, you need bottles. And this is an area where the options are so many and so dependent on your baby's preferences, I have no guidance to offer. I would only say since they are expensive, buy one or two and see if your baby will accept it before you spend money on a dozen or on some inclusive set. It may be that the breast pump you like and the bottles your baby likes are from two different companies and don't fit together. Happy pouring, mom!

This list is getting really long with all my opinionated rambling, so I will take a break here. Maybe my commenters can respond to my list so far. I'll cover pooping (they do that A LOT - and THROUGH THEIR CLOTHES), play and transportation later this week.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Home and Hearth

Our home was built in the nineteenth century, and like most homes of its era, it has a fireplace. We have only used it once or twice. Currently it is so stuffed with spruce needles and cobwebs that we would burn the house down if we tried to light a fire in it. But fireplaces have hearths, a raised pad of bricks or stone that protects the floor from spitting sparks or rolling coals.

During toddlerhood, we kept our hearth covered with the cushion of a patio chair. Now that all the kids are big enough to walk without toppling, we pitched the cushion (seven years of stains, and it doesn't fit in the washer) and left it bare.

Though it rarely stays bare. If it isn't covered with toy boxes, the girls have cleaned it off to use it as a stage. For four small people, it is the perfect place to stand in your mother's gaze and pretend to be Cinderella or a brave knight or a fairy queen.

Once, the girls wanted to put on a Nativity play, and they brought me into the room to be the audience. "Lie down on the couch, Mama," they said, "So you look like a bigger audience."

I happily complied.

"Close your eyes, Mama, so you can imagine the scenery better."

Well. I didn't want to disappoint them.

Thirty minutes later they woke me up and said, "What did you think of our play, Mama?"

I thought it was the BEST PLAY EVER. I clapped SO hard.

Today my girls performed Sleeping Beauty. They collected every canister of pens and pencils in the house and lined them up in front of the stage to be the thorns that grew around the castle. There was a princess, a prince, a good fairy and a witch. There was a castle and a spinning wheel and a dragon. A pool noodle was a lance. I stayed awake this time, but clapped just as loud.

Motherhood rearranged my life. Things that I had always found useful suddenly seemed pointless. Priorities I'd always had slipped to the bottom of the list. It didn't happen all at once, and it didn't happen painlessly. But eight years into this adventure I realize that my essential self is still here - all the pieces of personality I think of as me are still present - but they have been put to new use. Some days it is painful, and some days exciting.

The architect who designed my house could not predict how it would be used in 100 years, but he built it to last. Sometimes I think of him, whoever he was, and wish I could thank him for my sturdy home. I wish I could tell him what a peaceful home it has been, standing strong through the changes of a century. I wish I could tell him to be proud of his design: the hearth is still in the center of this house, and it still keeps me warm.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.

One of the most important acts of faith is deciding which world is real.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the darkness. Not merely the many brutal crimes that exist in the world, but the justification of them. The human tolerance for vile exploitation. The blaming of the victim. The dismissal of violence that is even more deadly than the violence itself.

I have learned that I should avoid certain stories in the news, and I should definitely never read the comments. Anything involving sexual violence, for instance. The comments will excuse or justify the perpetrator, often with sweeping claims about the nature of men or the nature of women. The current stories about sexual harassment and threats in the gaming community is another. The sheer volume of threats posted to shut up women who protest is mind-numbing.

And it is tempting - even easy - to believe the basic lie that those comments claim: that this is the way of the world. The studied cynicism of the commenting hordes says that no one is good, no one is kind, and no one merits kindness. That vulnerability is an invitation to exploitation, and deserves it. That compassion is a fiction motivated by greed or lust, and the expectation of decency or courtesy is a pose and manipulation. There is a slavering in these comments and stories, a clawing eagerness to scratch out any assumption that we are more than our basest impulses.

One of the reasons I return to my Christian faith over and over again - and to Reformed theology in particular - is that it stands in direct contradiction to this furious baying. It asserts that the world is good, that humanity was made in the image of a good God, and cannot erase that image, however it claws at it.  Creation has been corrupted, but will be redeemed. That the most powerful wickedness in existence is only the dying scrabble of a cornered rat.

There is more to the world than the darkness.

One of my favorite movie lines ever is from The Two Towers, when Sam must persuade Frodo not to despair in the face of overwhelming evil. The most inspiring line is not actually in the original book, but I think it reflects Tolkien's sentiments all the same. "There is some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

Fighting for the good in the world means refusing to believe that darkness is all there is. Kindness is real, and I will show it, and demand it. Love is real, and some men are good, and I will live here in this marriage with peace and trust, no matter what hate is hurled at the walls from the outside. My children - my daughters - will be cherished and believed in, no matter what screeds of one-handed typists someday say about them.

There is the world I believe in, and the world the haters believe in. Only one of them can last, because only one of them is real. "Evil is the privation of good," Augustine said, meaning that evil has no reality of its own, it is only the absence of good.

How we live, how we act is every day a declaration of which world we believe in.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Take Care of Yourself

The last month or so, I have been downloading free ebooks for my Kindle and consuming them quickly. Many authors and booksellers will have temporary promotions where a book is free for 24 hours, and there are several people on Twitter who gather up the free titles for the day and post links (search "free ebooks" on Twitter for a sampling). It has been a great way to try books I would not think to try otherwise.

One of my recent reads was Ann Carbine-Best's memoir In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets, the story of her two unhappy marriages and how they ended. Her second marriage was to a gentle man who was an alcoholic. Ann attended a counseling program for families of alcoholics, and I was caught by the words of the counselor:

"You're dealing with someone who is focused on just one thing, the drug," he said. "They don't know what you're feeling; they don't care what you're feeling. Their addicted brain and body have only one goal: to get that drug. They're anesthetized; you're not. You're the one who's suffering; they're not. You have to pull back. You have to focus on yourself, not them."

The instructor gazed around the room, focusing on each one of us.

"I'm going to tell you something that goes against the Christian ethic that tells us to take care of our neighbor. But it's something you have to do if you don't want to be sicker than your loved one." He paused, making certain that he had our full attention."I'm going to say this again and again and again. Take care of yourself." He repeated, "Take care of yourself."
I was struck by this because one of my spiritual practices this year has been to devote myself more fully to keeping a sabbath. On Sunday I do not try to catch up on the housework that I didn't get done this week. I don't throw a few extra meals in the freezer to save time and money later. On Sundays I nap. I read.  I do nothing.

I rest.

Christianity teaches an ethic of emptying ourselves for the sake of others, in imitation of Christ. It's hard. It is a kind of crucifixion. But the reason we are expected to serve others, even sometimes to the point of death, is not because others are the centers of our lives. It's because Christ is.

Jesus gave himself for us. But he did not do this because he worshiped us. He did this, in the mystery of the Trinity, as an act of submission to his Father who loves us. A life in imitation of Christ is not primarily a life focused on others. It is a life of submission to God.

And God commands us to rest. To take a sabbath. To be wise as serpents. To not throw our pearls before swine. Scripture includes many commands that are about caring for our own selves. Not exclusively, but still. The love God has for all people includes ourselves, and the obedience we owe to God extends to obeying those commands that are for our own benefit. To refuse to care for ourselves when commanded is not servanthood; it's willful disobedience.

Indulging in codependency is, in a way, a renunciation of the gospel. It asserts the opposite of the Easter story; it says I am not worthy of love, but if I take charge of another person's redemption, I will become worthy.

You can't do that job. If you could, we wouldn't need an Easter story.

In parenting, there can be the temptation - sometimes out of weariness - to throw all that is dear and good onto the altar of devotion to children. Our marriage, our other vocations, our sabbaths - heap them up and set them aflame and that will show what a good mother you are. Destroy yourself without complaining, and comfort yourself in your misery with the thought that you, at least, are a good and true mother.

But this is a false martyrdom. The God of the Sabbath demands that you rest (I know - it can be incredibly difficult to arrange that, especially with babies. I am not belittling the difficulty. If it helps you to scream at the screen while you read this post, do it. But then find a friend or church or family member who can watch the kids for a few hours and let you take a bath or have a nap).

God has tied that rest to the worship of himself. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." That doesn't mean, as past generations believed, that your Sunday or Saturday should be spent in uncomfortable starched collars in a silent stuffy room with a glaring relative who never liked you much anyway. It means that we honor God by acknowledging how we all need nurture. It means resting from our labor.

Sometimes it means take care of yourself.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Forgotten Umbrellas and Lost Kites

It is supposed to rain today and my daughter forgot her umbrella. Her class is walking to the public library this afternoon, and the teacher said they would go regardless of weather, unless it stormed very hard.

I thought I would take her the umbrella. The umbrella and the library card she also forgot. But then I sighed and told myself,  Consequences. She needs to learn consequences. 

I am not good at letting my children feel pain. I can inflict it well enough; they lose privileges or receive punishments in a way that is reasonable and fair. I hate complacent bad behavior, and it is not dismissed. But letting them feel the pain they cause themselves - I am bad at that. I am quick to soothe. The tearful repentance, the heartbreak over breaking a thing through irresponsible use, the grief at ruining something for herself - I can barely let those things last a minute. They make me ache.

I rush to comfort. Sometimes I even try to prevent the discomfort. We took the kids to fly kites for the first time  and before I let them out of the van (VAN!) I told them gravely that kites break or kites get lost or tangled in trees and that is just the nature of kites. All true things, but why was I so reluctant to let them discover it for themselves?

As it turned out, the kites did not get broken or lost that day. And the clouds today are disappearing, so maybe it will not rain. I seem to be warning my children to be prepared for discomforts that don't happen. But sometimes I think I am so eager to to ease their experience of life, they will not be prepared for the big disappointments that will surely come.

I guess life will have to take care of that for me. I hope I get to stick around to comfort them then.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Beauty, Part Three

It is springtime in Cincinnati and the black locust trees are in bloom.

If you were visiting here, you might hardly notice them. Black locusts are not majestic trees. They are not the showstoppers that a cherry or a dogwood is. They do not have the regal height of an oak or maple, or the symmetry of a Bartlett pear. More than once I have stopped, startled, when I notice the trailing white blossoms of a black locust and thought, "Wait a minute - that tree blooms?"

But their smell is deep and intoxicating. It is sweetness with layers and depth, a breath of richness and variety at the time of year when the honeysuckle overwhelms everything.

I like the block locust. It has a beauty you can miss. You have to be mindful enough to look for it.

After our month of vanlessness and our new routine of walking to and from the bus stop, I have been noticing more about the fleeting beauty of the neighborhood. Every bloom lasts for such a short time, and I have often been too hurried to notice it. The redbuds this year were early and gorgeous, and the one dogwood on our street is a poem, as it is every spring. How do I not stand on the sidewalk and gather it all in? What could possibly be more important?

Old people understand this better than young people. The grandmother on the park bench is less impressed with what our efforts accomplish, so she pauses those efforts to watch the world. The world will put on a show, even if it plays to an empty house.

Beauty is not only something that engenders envy and hate, whatever the internet says. Beauty delights. The curve of a youthful cheek, such a brief and transitory thing, is a joy to behold, even when my own cheek is beginning to pouch. My eye rejoices in it. Envy is a thing that stomps out and mutilates, crippling our own capacity for joy. Envy shouts with Stalinesque brutality that if I can't have it, no one must have it, and how dare you display it. But it would be terrible tragedy - incomprehensibly awful - if the trim waist of a teenage girl disappeared from the world because I had a baby, or the bright sheen of her hair dimmed because mine went grey.

In the mercy of God, we cannot accomplish this, even at our most hateful. There is always another spring. The black locust trees reach out again with their scent, saying, Stop and turn around. There is something here to see. The girls grow taller and more still, the boys' shoulders broaden, and another generation of perfect human beauty puts on its show, while the grandmothers watch in the park and smile behind their hands.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Organizing Principles for My House

So how am I going to simplify our home?

Three times over the last year, I have donated piles of stuff to a charity that picks up donations at our door. Mounds of things have gone. Outgrown baby clothes and baby gear, old exercise equipment, furniture - anything that we don't use.

I love the principle of "useful, beautiful or loved" - that every possession in your life should be one of those things. But the problem is that so many things are useful or loved. If I kept only those things, I would still be drowning in too much stuff.

So when I pile up the the donations and call up Vietnam Veterans to schedule a pick-up (my charity of choice), here are the principles by which I am culling the house:

1. Storage is a cost. Last year I started reading The American Frugal Housewife, and one sentence stuck in my head: "Keep a bag for odd pieces of tape and strings; they will come in use."  Lydia Maria Child was dealing with a much lower level of prosperity than current Americans possess, but her principle still resonated. How many times had I wasted money buying something new when I could have saved an old thing and used it again?

So I tried it. I tried saving bits of this and that, things that might have a use in future.

It was a disaster. Not because I was saving things, but because I had too much stuff already. It does not matter if you save things if your home is so full of stuff that you cannot find the things you saved when you need them. Then, because you don't have ten hours to search through and reorganize enough to find it, you go out and buy a new thing anyway.

So here is what I learned: storage is a cost. It costs you something. It costs you time and space and potentially money. When I consider whether to save something for future use now, I will ask myself if the cost to me of storing it is worth the savings later. With something precious like books,  the answer is obvious. But with other things, a more realistic answer is usually no. If no, then can someone else use it? Can it be donated? Can it be recycled?

If not, the garbage truck comes every week, and I will have learned not to buy that particular thing again the next time.

2. Everything in my closet fits. If I were in an accident tomorrow, and my husband had to bring me a change of clothes at the hospital, could he grab any random thing from my closet? Or would he unknowingly grab something from the dream-of-fitting-into-it section?

Get rid of those clothes.

Maybe you will lose or gain the weight necessary to wear them again. Maybe you will. But then won't you want the excitement of buying new things? Storage is a cost. By keeping those clothes, I am less able to manage emergencies because I have to manage my possessions.

Maybe the issue isn't size.  I have t-shirts I loved when I bought them that just don't fit right anymore (this is why I'd rather buy all my shirts from thrift stores: they come already shrunk), or have had various unremovable stains installed by small, eager hands. Whatever the reason - if I don't want to wear it, then I why am I keeping it? On a day I'm behind on the laundry, I will wear the ugly shirt, and then I will wash it again and store it again, and so forth. All that effort for a shirt I hate and don't need.

3. If I don't want to wash it, then I don't want to keep it. If a dress or a sweater keeps staying on the bottom of a laundry pile because it has special laundering requirements that I don't have time or energy for, I need to rid myself of that dress or sweater.

Maybe it's not a fancy dress or sweater. Maybe it's something simple you still hate to wash. I HATE clothes with velcro, because the velcro snags everything else in the wash, so I have to be careful what I wash with it.  I will no longer keep kids' hats, gloves or coats that have velcro on them. They are too disruptive to the routine of laundry. I want to respond to my life, not my possessions.

4. Buy it once. I read that bit of advice from Dave Cormier on Bonnie's recycling blog. It put  succinctly something we've applied to furniture, but not always to other things.

Buying cheap and disposable creates more clutter than buying sturdy and permanent. I know this. This is why I don't even bother buying paperback picture books anymore. The children might as well eat them, as long as they last.

If something is necessary enough to buy for my home, it is necessary enough to buy carefully and well.

5. Beware of organizing products. I once went shopping with a friend who said she needed, among other things, a container for her pencils. We went to Target and she paid money for a shiny, empty metal canister that looked exactly like the shiny, empty metal canisters formerly containing high-calorie infant formula that were sitting in my house, waiting to be recycled. It was an eye-opening moment for me. And now my kids' colored pencils are gathered into a shiny metal canister I did not buy at Target.

I'm skeptical of organizing products, not just because it may be manufacturing a false need, but because it suggests a "solution" that may actually make the problem worse.  I love Ikea as much as the next person. So calm! So serene! Full of the promise that you can impose order on your stuff by buying stuff to put your stuff in!

But buying more things cannot make my home contain fewer things. Simplifying my life means living more simply. There is no other way to to do it. I can't simplify my home by adding more stuff to it.

That doesn't mean organizing doodads are never useful. This week I will buy a DVD folder to put all our kid movies in so I can finally throw away the jewel cases. That seems an adequately useful product. Bookshelves are obviously a useful organizer. But I still view with skepticism most products on offer.

6. Admit the limitations of my home.  I have several art nouveau prints we bought when we moved into the house, full of ambition about how to decorate. They have been in my closet for years. We have an old house with real plaster walls over two-by-fours that are actually two-by-fours. A stud-finder cannot find the studs in that 100-year-old plaster. We just have to hammer in a nail and hope we're lucky.

In other words, I cannot hang anything heavy on my walls. There is no reason to keep posters whose frames would (and have) pulled out the hooks I used to hang them. My home has limitations. I should get over it and adapt. Goodbye, art nouveau prints.

So that's it. These are the things I will keep in mind when I am scraping my way through the detritus of our home. What about you? What would you add?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Year of Uncluttering

Last winter, I spent a day and night at Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The Shaker movement has died out, but the village has been restored and turned into a hotel and retreat center. The Shakers placed high value on simplicity and peace, and the village retains that character. There is a stillness there that came from more than the cold winter air.

When I came back home, I thought a lot about what a peaceful home is, and whether I cultivate peace for and in my children. I don't think I do, really. I cultivate peace between people - harmony between the sisters is expected, and I take away toys if they fight over them - but inner stillness? No.

The Shakers believed that inner stillness was supported and encouraged by a simple and orderly environment. I have four children and a messy, cluttered home. There is very little order around here.

In the past year, we've had one or two homeowner emergencies that became bigger than they needed to because I could not attend to them. I was too weighed down with managing the usual chaos of our lives to move with any speed. After a few heartfelt discussions with my husband - whose pack rat tendencies are a disastrous match with my poor housewifery - he agreed that I could start tossing things without getting his permission for every item.

By the end of this year, I want to have a genuinely simple house. No collections of junk, no piles of unworn clothes or dusty exercise equipment. I want a home that allows me to be still. I want a home that allows me to respond to life with hospitality and peace, rather than just manage possessions.
The husband started working third shift this week.

Third shift, for those of you who don't know, means working nights. He worked nights when I was pregnant with our first three kids. He worked nights when I was writing my first blog, but I never mentioned it because I was more concerned back then about strangers reading that information and considering it an opportunity for crime.

Now he has switched to third shift again, and I am writing about it not only because I am less worried but because it is such a big change for the family now, and I need to talk about it. Third shift means coming home in the morning before the kids go to school, and then sleeping till dinner time. When he works nights, he not only needs to sleep during the day, but he needs more sleep than he would get at night. Your body never forgets that you are a diurnal creature; you need more sleep because the sleep you get is worse sleep.

I could not work third shift. It would kill me. But the husband adapts to it very well. He likes the culture of third shift: the freedom to do the work without meetings, the oddball employees night work attracts, the absence of management with their impending panic. He sleeps fairly well during the day, and he loves the feeling, when he opens a beer at 8 am and climbs under the covers by 9, that he is getting away with something. All you day people are scurrying around with responsibilities, while he gets to sleep. Ha.

In case it isn't clear yet, my husband likes working third shift because he has me. I do the extra work necessary so that he can work third shift. I take care of all the household tasks. I respect his need for sleep. This was particularly hard when I had babies, and I wasn't getting much sleep at night myself. All night long alone with your first baby is especially hard, and we had no family in the area to help us out. It was a lonely and difficult time.

I have four kids now, of course, but they walk on their own and sleep all night long. I can pile them all in the van (VAN!) and drive them to a park to get their attention off me. I am hoping this time will be easier. But they also have homework and other responsibilities, and I am not sure how much of the load I will  have to carry by myself. I guess time will tell.

For now I am trying new breakfast recipes and learning to sleep in the middle of the bed again. I haven't been sleeping well, and I could really use a nap.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

We Have a Minivan!

My parents came to visit and they brought us a minivan.

It's an old minivan. It has 150,000 miles on it and has needed one repair already since we got it. The engine has a low rumble that makes me nervous, but my parents drove it all the way from Texas without trouble, so it clearly has a few miles left in it.

So we have a vehicle again.

For now, the kids are still riding the bus. I would like to keep them on the bus until the school year is out, but it is a relief to know we could switch to the van if there are any problems. My six year old came home yesterday and said that some big girls were picking on her. "They kept calling me 'orphan' and shouting 'Bananas!' at me," she explained. I have no idea what that means and neither does she, but she was not sufficiently troubled by it to give up bus-riding, which she otherwise enjoys. If that's the worst thing that happens, I will consider bus-riding a success.

And now I am trying to decide how much of vehicled life I want to re-adapt to. I love being able to walk a few blocks to pick up the kids rather than drive, but I have already learned to always bring the stroller with me.  A few neighborhood prostitutes have started walking that stretch of road during the afternoon, and I get more attention than I want if I wait there alone. My stroller marks me as MOM, and moms get respected or left alone here. I have never had so much as an unkind word directed toward me when I am pushing the stroller.

One of the privileges of visible motherhood: men do not assume I'm a prostitute. Remember that next time you feel bad about looking like a mom.

(Disclaimer: I have not actually asked the two women and one transgendered man if they are prostitutes, so I could be making false assumptions. But in this neighborhood, shorts that short and heels that high usually indicate this, as well as being very impractical attire for the half mile they walk over and over. So I'm guessing. But maybe they volunteer at the nursing home down the street and like to stretch their legs. I couldn't say for sure, and it seems rude to ask.)

So far, the minivan has felt like a safety valve. I can walk where I want, but I have the van as back-up. It feels good to have back-up. It also means we could all ride to church together for the first time in ages on Sunday. I would like to tell you that I celebrated the occasion by being perfectly patient and serene during the getting-ready-for-church, Sunday-morning chaos.

I would like to tell you that.

So. Anyway. This is our life now. The van is scarred on one side from an old side-swiping accident, which is the only thing that distinguishes it from any other minivan. It is how our friends will grow to recognize our new vehicle (I have named the van Clara, which I privately pronounce as assonant with "scar"). It's not a bad way to recognize the Mitchell family, really. Banged up, but still useful.

Yeah. That'll do.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What Meals at the Homeless Shelter Taught Me About Motherhood

Twenty years ago I was a volunteer at a day shelter for homeless women and children. I would arrive on my scheduled day and spend the morning chatting with the clients or attending their required Narcotics Anonymous meeting with them.

In my memory, I can't think of any way I was particularly useful. I remember blundering through more than one conversation, feeling like I had accidentally insulted someone. Maybe I had. But the shelter, like many others, operated with a very practical principle: the more "normal" people the clients spent time with, the better.

That makes more sense to me now than it did when I was young, idealistic and eager to "fix" people's problems. Back then, my fear of appearing snobbish left me offended at the suggestion that I was "normal" and the clients were not. Aren't we all just people? I thought, with a melodramatic quiver. But now I see the sense of it. The majority of the clients were addicts. Many of them had never known a relationship with a man that wasn't abusive. "Normal" people meant people who expected life to be free of violence or drug abuse. That expectation was powerful.

The woman who ran the shelter was a recovering addict who had been homeless herself, and had a sharp perspicacity for when someone's dire need caused them to break a rule, and when she was being snowed.  I have remembered for twenty years the way she looked a client in the eye and said, "Did not having bus fare ever keep you from getting drugs? Then it doesn't keep you from attending NA."

I have used this method more than once in my parenting.

When lunch was served, the staff and volunteers ate with the clients. There was always more than enough food, and eating together was a mark of respect, a communal sharing between everyone in the shelter.

But while I sat at the table, I never ate.

I was in a struggle with eating disorders, and eating in front of people - especially the heavy food given to women for whom this might be the only meal that day - felt impossible. I could not explain this to anyone. I felt paralyzed. I sat, but the clients noticed I was not eating. Sharing a meal is a way of sharing someone's life, and I was refusing to share.

I have thought of those meals often since then. I have thought of the irony of me trying to help women who, in this respect at least, were less broken than I was. Today, I would eat. Even if I wasn't hungry, I would make myself eat, because sharing a meal is about more than food.

 I have thought about those meals as a parent, because there are afternoons I feed my kids but do not sit down with them. I know that is a refusal to share something with them, as well as a warning sign about old problems re-emerging. So we eat dinner as a family every night. It says to my girls, "Look, I am sharing myself with you. Look, mothers must nourish themselves as well as others. Look, we are a family."

I have thought about those meals when I volunteer at a local shelter now. It is much larger than the one I volunteered at twenty years ago, and serves many more people. It serves mostly men, and the volunteers do not share the meal because every scrap is needed for the clients. If the volunteers ate the meal, it would mean someone else did not get seconds. Instead, we serve the meal, being the waiters and waitresses for the clients, and hope that shows a similar respect. It doesn't exactly, but it's the best we can do.

The economic downturn has changed things, and a friend who runs a local shelter says they see more people now who are destitute for the first time, people with shocked eyes and "normal" lives. I think at dinner about what I am modeling for my girls about "normality." This family does not expect prosperity, and if we are ever a family at the shelter, we will manage it as best we can. But this family does expect a life free from violence and drug abuse. This family expects a life of mutual sharing and nourishment. This family expects love that values each other's dignity, at meal times and all times.

I'll eat to that.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Jesus Loves Me" at the Nursing Home

Last Sunday, I and my girls helped with a worship service at a local nursing home. I read scripture, and the kids sang.  I dressed my middle two girls, who are often mistaken for twins, in their poofiest spring dresses and put double pigtails in the six-year-old's long hair.  Residents of nursing homes do not get to spend enough time with kids, and I understood that part of our job there was to be ministers of cuteness.

The Mitchell girls and their friends were swooningly adorable as they sang "Jesus Loves Me" for the residents.

The worship service was in a medium-sized community room, and there was no place for us to sit, so we stood in front, facing the residents the whole time. I would like to tell you that my kids behaved beautifully, standing there in front of everyone. I would like to tell you that.

Yes, that sure would be nice.


I managed not to snap at my four-year-old as she was squirming and whining and almost-shrieking. Instead, I got a glimmer of an idea. "Y'know, honey," I whispered as I bent down to her. "You can hug these people."

That was all she needed to hear. My four year old is an extravert, trapped in a family of library-lovers and solitude-seekers. But here! Here was a whole room full of strangers to be charmed.

She began making the rounds. I stayed close to make sure she did not bump anyone's oxygen tube, but she was so gentle and careful, I was unnecessary. Every waking person in that room got a hug. Most of them got a kiss. And almost every resident looked down in surprise, drew back a little at first, and then hugged back, smiling like a woman getting her first love letter.

I have often heard young-ish people insulting nursing homes, speaking as though they were warehouses for stacking the elderly. That may say more about how the young person sees the elderly than how the nursing home does. I don't automatically assume a nursing home is a bad place to be. My grandfather entered a nursing home in his nineties, and he liked it, because it offered so much more social activity than my parents' home. There was always someone to talk to and something going on. But any nursing home - good or bad (and there are bad ones out there) - suffers from the same absence of children.

Our worship service was part of our congregation's "Service Week." Service Week is like a charity sampler; the congregation is strongly encouraged to volunteer during this week at one of the many ministries our church supports. The hope is that members will find a ministry they are well-suited for, one in which they will become more regularly involved.

This has been a difficult month for our family, facing the economic realities of our life and acknowledging our need for help from others.  But I am still wealthy in one precious resource.

Maybe it's time to share.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Saturday Chess

On Saturday, I took my eight year old to a chess tournament. Five chess matches, each scheduled for 50 minutes. She had three draws and two losses. We arrived at 8 AM and left after 5 PM. It was grueling.

But she adored it.

In between her matches, she ran around finding other people to play practice games with her, eager as a chipmunk with a watermelon seed. (Maybe you've never seen a chipmunk with a watermelon seed. trust me. It's enthusiasm.) When the tournament was over, she walked up and down the aisles looking for unusual chess sets, and then asking their owners to play her. Even though she did not play well, she was delighted.

I asked her later at dinner what her favorite part of the tournament had been. "THE WHOLE THING," she said.

I did not enjoy the tournament, but that's because I hate crowds, treasure Saturdays as my chance for solitude, and don't particularly enjoy chess. No other reason. But I loved seeing her light up like that. And from the moment we walked in the door, I was forcefully reminded of the boarding school I attended. The mix of people, the nerdy freedom, the intense devotion to an interest - this was the world of the math-and-science high school I lived at. I may not have enjoyed the chess, but I did enjoy the nostalgia.

And while I was sitting in a quiet corner of the Parents' Waiting Area, minding my own business, reading Sense and Sensibility, a coach from another team came over to make small talk.

"Have you been in television or movies?" he asked. "You look just like the woman who played Dr Weir on SG-1. I could have sworn that was you."

A happy child, a wave of nostalgia, and a nerdy come-on.

It was a full day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

7 Quick Takes

1. I was thinking to myself today, "With the van dying, I just didn't think to give up something for lent this year." That's right. The van that died on Fat Tuesday. The van I have lived without since Ash Wednesday. That van. It has prevented me from fasting from a privilege or taking up a new discipline. Right.

What? I'm a little slow sometimes.

But I think I got Lent covered this year.

2.  Yesterday after the two big kids caught the school bus, I pushed the two little ones in the stroller a playground. It's a two-mile walk, and the kids + stroller weigh 111 pounds, so I was feeling really virtuous. The weather was beautiful and we were enjoying ourselves when the three-year-old decided she needed to use the potty. We walked to the YMCA to make use of the facilities, and as soon as we got in the door, the sky went DARK. Ten minutes later, it was hailing. 

I was relieved that we were inside before the hail started. I let the kids play in the YMCA nursery for two hours while we waited out the worst of the storm. When I finally pushed them home, it was still raining a little, but not too bad.

See? I told you it would be AN ADVENTURE.

3. Knowing that adjustments to a van-less life would be time-consuming, I bought a ton of convenience foods for this week. I think almost everything we have eaten this week was pre-packaged by someone else. Some of you may remember my Slow Food Experiment, and know that I am not a big fan of chemical ingredients in my food. But sometimes the time-saving is necessary.

It made me realize how much a life of natural transportation (walking) is in conflict with a life of natural eating (cooking). There really is not time to do both, especially if you have a large family.

4. The kids love the school bus so far. This is a relief to me.

5. In case you did not know, there is no smoother way to be accepted as part of the landscape of a neighborhood than pushing adorable, friendly toddlers around. I have not received the glare of death from a single stranger. Instead, I get big smiles and, from other moms, sympathetic commiseration on the weight of strollers. Three-year-olds are the universal ambassador. I suggest the UN find a way to use this.

6. My parents want to buy us a used minivan. I have mixed feelings about this, but decided that refusing their gift would be more about my stubbornness than anything useful. The kids would have to give up the most if we stayed van-less, so I agreed. The plan is for my husband to fly down to Texas sometime around Easter, and then drive the van back home.

7. So will I continue our new pedestrian lifestyle after we have a minivan? I don't know. I plan to have the kids ride the bus for the rest of the year, so that will inspire us to continue some of it. But once the heavy Cincinnati summer heat starts, I doubt I'll be willing to walk much of anywhere. I am a weak creature.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Mother's Dream in Pen and Ink

She bends over her paper, intent. The black lines are crisp on the white paper, and she is drawing every scalloped leather edge on an ancient warrior's kilt, or every feather on Horus's wings. She will do this every day. Most will be abandoned for imperfections only she can see. A few will make it to the coloring stage, and she will fill the black lines from the canisters of colored pencils that sit low on our shelves, accessible to every small person.

When I had my first baby, a friend sent me a baby gift with a few lines of - I thought at the time- useless parenting advice. He said that nobody knew what they were doing in the beginning, but eventually you get into a parenting habit, and after a while discover there's a purpose to the habit. I have been a parent for eight years, and now I think his "advice" is brilliant.

When we started our kids in school, we tried violin lessons. We struggled for almost two years to transform our family culture into a musician's home. It was torture. It ended when my kids, who hated it as much as I pretended not to, blankly refused to practice or play, and their teacher refused in return to teach them. It was a mercy from him, and I am still grateful.

Now I see her bent over her drawing, and I realize: this is what I want for her. The free time I give the kids, my determination not to schedule their lives any more than the public school already does, and the ready availability I make of art materials - these have become a habit that reveals a purpose. I want her to have the chance to throw herself into something she loves just because she loves it. I want her to know the thrill of leisure time spent lost in what fascinates, because too soon she will be grown and her leisure time will all but disappear.

I want to give her the gift of love. Not just the love I feel for her, but the love she discovers for something else.

Since she was born, we have made up stories for each other. My stories for her and her sisters are often princess stories, fairy tales that begin "Once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after." But I don't make marriage the happy ending. Some people long to get married and never get to, and if my girls have that life, I do not want to add to their heartbreak by building in them the belief that marriage is their mother's expectation for them. Instead, my princesses have something they love to do, - flying kites, raising dragons, digging tunnels - and the happy ending comes when they find a way to do that thing for the rest of their lives.

My stories whisper that I want them to find a vocation in life, a calling that satisfies something deep in their soul, whether that is marriage and motherhood or something else.

And I think of that when I tape her new drawing to the kitchen wall (our fridge ran out of space long ago), wondering if this will be her lifelong love, or if she is still waiting to meet it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Is Why I Worry

My schoolgirls rode the bus for the first time ever today. It did not go smoothly; we waited in the rain at the stop, and the bus driver drove right by us. I called the dispatcher and used my angry voice. I'm not proud of myself in that conversation, but I suppose it will make our stop memorable. Dispatch sent the bus back to us, we walked to the stop again, and my girls stepped onto the otherwise empty bus.

I told the bus driver I will always be waiting at the corner when she drops the kids off.

I took my two preschoolers back home. Now I am sitting in my favorite chair, wearing a comfy sweater, waiting for the kettle to boil. I am a little shaky. This was more emotion than I usually experience before 10 am.

I was bullied as a kid. Most of us have been at some point. When I was eight - the same age my oldest girl is now - my family moved from the suburbs of a large city to a small Illinois town. There was not much tolerance for deviation from the mean in our new town. I was too smart, an outsider in a town where everyone had known each other since the womb, and a tomboy in a world of girly girls. All of these things made me a target.

At recess, the kids played a game they called "Medusa." I was so ugly, they told me, that my face turned people to stone. So the game was to "catch" me - which meant grabbing me and pinning my arms to my side so I couldn't get away - without making eye contact with me. My role in this "game" was to run and struggle and try to get away. They played it every recess for weeks and weeks until one particularly bad melee caused the recess volunteers to stop it.

My life in the town gradually got better. As we got older, being smart became something other kids respected, and I gained a few new friends each year. My life was not as hard as some of my friendless classmates'.

But when I think back to my childhood, the two places I always felt most helpless and most exposed to bullying were gym class and the bus stop. In gym class, there were too many ways to hurt or threaten  without getting caught. And at the bus stop, there were no adults. No one to intervene, and no chance to leave. You had to stay and wait for the bus, no matter who else was there or what they were saying or doing to you. I learned to walk the extra mile to a bus stop where I had friends.

I know that my kids will not necessarily face the same things I did. We live in a city, where differences are more tolerated, and where my kids "belong" as much as anyone does. Schools don't view bullying as the harmless right of passage they did when I was a kid. But I drove my kids to school for the last three years because I could not face them riding that bus. And now that they are, I know I can't leave them at that stop alone.

Even now. Even thirty years later.

So I told the bus driver I will always be waiting at the corner when she drops the kids off.

I could not be anywhere else.

Friday, March 09, 2012

7 Quick Takes

And this time there's a theme.

1. Our van died. Completely and utterly. It was leaking coolant from four places. The brakes were worn out. It was time to send this pony to the glue factory. She was twenty-two years old, and had been the most reliable vehicle I've ever owned. And yes, I am personalizing her now. I have never done that before. It must be part of the grieving process.

We sold her for $400 to a junkyard. If I had thought of it, I would have spray-painted her first: "Well done, my good and faithful servant."

2. We cannot afford to buy another vehicle, so we are vanless for a while. We still have the sedan that my husband uses to get to work, but we don't have a vehicle that the entire family will fit into. I called the school board and got my two school kids signed up for bus service, but we had to wait two weeks until the buses were rerouted on March 12.

In the meantime, through friends and neighbors and church folk, we arranged rides. Two weeks of borrowing vehicles or asking for help in other ways. It's a humbling experience, but I'm grateful for all the people who helped us.

 3. The older two kids start riding the school bus on Monday, and they are anxious. They have never ridden the bus before. We live in a sorta seedy neighborhood, and I won't let them wait alone at the bus stop. But I am also terribly absent-minded, and I am afraid of forgetting to meet them or something. Prayers are appreciated.

4. During the school day, the younger two girls and I, like working class people for generations before us, will depend on the city bus system for transportation. I have not been bus-dependent since before the kids were born, so this will be an adventure. AN ADVENTURE, I SAID.

5. I took the money from selling the van and have bought equipment for the kids in our new pedestrian life. A sturdy stroller, raincoats, umbrellas, comfortable sneakers, rainboots and sunglasses. We will be WALKING today, kids! I mentally practice saying this with lots of enthusiasm. AN ADVENTURE, I SAID.

6. This also means that we will need to take the bus to church every Sunday, since not only do WE not have a vehicle big enough for our family, but no one else we know has one either. If we all take the bus together, going to church every Sunday will cost us $18. Have you ever thought about what you would pay to go to church? SEE? I SAID AN ADVENTURE.

7. Some of you live in cities with excellent mass transit and you are wondering what all the fuss is about. I live in Cincinnati. This city does not have excellent mass transit. There have been improvements made recently, and I was excited to see that AT LAST! In March, Metrobus would begin selling fare cards! I would not need to bring exact change every time I rode the bus! I could put money on a fare card and swipe it whenever I rode instead!

So today I took some of my broken-van money and walked up to the Metrobus booth downtown.

"Are you guys selling the rechargeable fare cards yet?"


"I ask because I looked at the website and it said you'd start selling them in March."

"They're not selling them yet."

"Any idea when they'll start?"

"Whenever they can get the computer interface to work right."

He grinned at me. I grinned at him. It was a grin that said, "Oh? Government-contract, awarded-to-the-lowest-bidder IT work? What could go wrong?"


Thursday, February 02, 2012

Pus and Pollution: Christian Thoughts on Yucky Things

On Tuesday I had a sebaceous cyst removed. It appeared a year ago on my back, and I hated it, but the doctor said it was harmless and I should just accept it. But then it abscessed a few weeks ago, so it had to be removed. Now I have three stitches where the cyst had been.

I drove home from the surgeon's office feeling light and free. It's gone, it's gone, it's gone, I almost sang to myself. I had hated that thing. I hated knowing it was there, gross and permanent, even though I could not see it. It had felt like more than a flaw. It had felt like a pollution.

As I was driving home, congratulating myself on finally being free of the thing, I remembered the Bible passage I had read to the kids this week. Every night we read aloud a chapter of a novel, a chapter of the Bible and several picture books, and lately our Bible reading has come from Acts. We had just finished Acts 10, in which Peter has his vision of the animals.  A sheet descends from heaven, holding all sorts of ritually unclean animals, and the voice of God commands him to kill and eat. When Peter objects because the food is "impure" or "unclean" according Jewish dietary laws, God responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

The trouble with my attitude toward my cyst - an attitude I struggled to resist when I thought it was going to be permanent - was that I viewed a harmless thing as an impurity, something with the power to make me dirty. I didn't say that out loud, of course (I'm proud and I knew it would sound ridiculous), but I felt it all the same.

Lately I have stumbled across more and more "thinspiration" material from pro-anorexics (this is mostly on Pinterest, which is glutted with the stuff). Pro-anorexics are people who advocate their eating disorder as a superior way of life. There is a consistent theme in "pro-ana" commentary: a desire to be pure and light, free and clean. They see not just certain kinds of food as unclean, but all food. Eating itself is the pollution, and purity and freedom are achieved by depriving oneself to skeletal proportions. There is an almost medieval asceticism to it. Self-abnegation to the point of death, it is hoped, brings cleansing.

But the words of Peter's vision echo. "Do not call impure anything that God has made clean." The Christian perspective (especially the Reformed theology in which I participate) is that purity, freedom, wholeness - whatever word you want to use for joyful goodness and freedom from regret - is not accomplished by our efforts, but is accomplished for us by God. God makes us clean. God through Christ declares what we are: beautiful, cherished, free. Our difficult task is not to purify ourselves; our difficult task is faith, believing that we really are the clean and free beings he has turned us into.

One of my favorite pulp novels (anyone who has read my blog for a long time knows what book I am about to mention) is Robin McKinley's Sunshine. In the climactic battle of the book, the heroine Sunshine fights evil victoriously, but is convinced that by doing so, she has been polluted by it. Her friend Con tries to convince her that the evil she fought has no power to taint her. Evil is only a powerful idea, he says. Reject the idea and you have conquered it.

McKinley has captured, in a mirror image (and possibly unintentionally), the challenge of Christian faith. We are challenged to believe that good has triumphed over evil, not only cosmically, but personally. The struggle is to believe that neither our inconsequential flaws nor our deeper moral failings have the power to change what God has done. We do not determine who we are; we receive it, and grace is God's persistent patience and aid in our struggle to believe it.

So I was wrong to view my cyst as a pollution, just as the anorexics are wrong to see sustenance as a defilement. We cannot be made unclean by those things. God has made me clean. 

I just have to believe it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Letting Go

It took two hours to get my husband on the phone. Management does not put a phone on the production floor, so the only phones are at a few desks assigned to office staff. When I call and ask for my husband, the person answering is always annoyed. Sometimes they transfer me to someone else's voice mail account. Sometimes, if I am lucky, they will tell my husband I called.

I rarely call.

I called more than one desk for over two hours, with no luck. Finally someone had him call me back. I told him that I was having van trouble, and could he leave work a little early to pick up the kids from school?

He is the man his father raised him to be: a reliable employee. When he is being a reliable employee, he is not so reliable in other ways. He hemmed and hawed and said maybe he could leave a little early. Maybe. He could not promise.

"Maybe" does not get the kids home from school. I got angry and snapped at him and hung up.

I was remembering the day my youngest child was born. He had not wanted to come home early from work that day either.

After a few more tries, I was able to fix what was wrong with the van, I think. I will drive it to get the kids myself in another hour. I will pray extra hard trying to get the van up the big hill on the way home. All will probably be well.

I remember, when we first married, seeing elderly couples together and wondering what was the magic age at which you stop arguing about every little thing. I loved the peaceful way old couples could be with each other.  I laughed at a Bill Cosby monologue about his father sitting on his own hat, and his mother saying nothing about it. When did you finally just let the little things go?

I did not know then that there is no magic age. You can be together fifty years and still scream and squabble. You can still resent the way he slops coffee grounds on the counter when he is seventy. He can still hate the insufferable way you say "always" when it isn't always.

Peace never just happens.

It turns out that learning not to cling to things hurts. It hurts to let go of resentments because sometimes my resentments define me. They shouldn't, but they do.

Sometimes I secretly think that the best thing anyone can do to bring their marriage peace is to give up being right. And I love being right.

So I will pick up the kids today, and he will come home from work. We will eat a dinner in which all computers are turned off and we pay attention only to each other. And maybe I'll still be mad a little, or maybe not. And maybe the next time there is car trouble, the same thing will happen.

But this time, I'm gonna let it go.