On being nibbled to death by ducks.

This is a phrase a friend of mine used to use, and I love it. I get the full image: someone lying on the ground, as after a fall, perhaps one incurred while tossing bread crumbs from a muddy bank. The ducks, which had been happy recipients of this beneficence, see their chance at The Whole Loaf and come splashing and quacking up from the water. They surround the fallen, a frantic, feathery flock, pecking and snapping at any available morsel, bread or arm or toe.

The flaw in the metaphor is: the image is comical. There’s no real possibility of danger, as these are not creatures that will drag you to the pond and pull you under. The water is still a ways off, and is by no means closing over your head.

In real life, however, the accumulation of all these “little things” is indeed enough to drown you. It wears you down with all the different needs for attention, for action, for soothing, for strategy. It renders your will and your spirit the sole arbiters of how you hang on, and that’s not always a good thing. Some of us are a little shaky in those departments. Or, perhaps, we’re just inclined to see the probability of bad if we can’t see the near-certainty of good.

And so, when the rental lease is almost up; the house-under-contract-to-buy is messing around with closing dates; the house-not-under-contract-to-sell needs all sorts of sprucing up (and is four states away); the job is overwhelming; the kids aren’t sleeping; the hubs isn’t finding the work he loves; etc. etc. etc…well, it can be hard to keep moving forward in a cheerful way.

And this is what I try to remember, then: Crying is okay. Friends are miraculous (and BLESS THEM, my amazing helpers!). Children grow up (and, presumably, less hostile). These are problems of great privilege. This moment is only this moment, even if it seems like lasting all day. Things can turn for the good just as fast as they turn for the bad. And I’ve done harder things than this and survived. (But holy CRAP there are a lot of hard things right now.) So we try to treat each other gently and breathe in and out and read Anne Lamott and Pema Chodron and anyone else who can remind us with grace and humor that survival is possible and maybe even desirable. Whatever. One moment — one duck — at a time.

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On transition.

So it’s been, what, six or seven weeks since I went back to work. After five years off. After moving the family back from Maine with all the attendant chaos and confusion. And it’s been quite a ride.

Here’s what we expected: the five-year-old to wig out, because he’s lousy at transitions, and have huge trouble in school and at home; the three-year-old to be chill, because he’s always been chill and happy in pretty much every circumstance. I expected my hubby (now the stay-at-home parent for a while in this Grand Swap Adventure) to develop anxiety about being home and to get itchy and irritated because of missing his valuable and stimulating work. And I expected me to mope, missing the kids, and then to slip all too quickly into a crazy life of over-work, the glorification of busy.

Here’s what has happened, at least so far: the five-year-old took a week to recover and has since been largely philosophic about these changes, steering all of us toward a calm, forward-looking approach. He is, his teachers report, their most dependable helper. The three-year-old, on the other hand, has not only been flung headlong into transition, but he has also lost his transitional object (me, as a therapist friend pointed out). So he’s pretty much a basket-case. He sleeps poorly, is mostly grumpy, needs almost constant attention and support. Yes, of course, he’s three. So maybe this has nothing to do with transition. But surely it’s not helping. My husband is his perennial chillaxed and supportive being, and I am finding that, once past the first two weeks of chronic grief for lifestyle, friendships, and lovely house, I love what I do. I am not overwhelmed; I am balancing effectively; I am inspired and intrigued by the people I work with. Knock on wood.

So basically, don’t listen to a thing I say. I’m not at all right.

But here’s what has been happening, these last two or three weeks: all the transition baggage is starting to melt away with the snow. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still in transition (new house under contract, though we are sorting through the array of structural fixes it requires — ack). But it’s just that real life is starting to resurface. I suppose it’s the spring, the opportunity to dig in the dirt and plant some seeds. But suddenly I’m interested in cooking again, and relaxing, and writing, and flowers. All the leisurely details of life are back in the picture as my focus widens beyond survival mode. The boys, for example, are taking up soccer and watching birds.

When I was anticipating this transition, especially the shift from five years at home with kids and doing part-time consulting, I asked around. What is it like, I wanted to know, to go back to full-time work? How can I prepare us? No one had a meaningful response. Mostly because I don’t know anyone who went BACK to full-time work after five years at home. The one person I do know, a dry and witty friend, said merely: “There is no answer. Embrace the tragic consequences.” But I haven’t found tragedy. I’ve found change. And some of it is thrilling:

The other day, as we drive to campus, on our way to drop me off at work, our three-year-old is talking softly in his carseat behind me. I half-turn in my seat to hear — “what’s that, buddy?” He offers me a shy smile, pauses. Then: “Someday, I want to work at C____. Just like you.”

On changes. Big ones.

You may have noticed the echoing silence from yours truly over the last few months…it’s been quite a ride over here.

I was not looking for a full-time job.  I was not. But a brilliant one emerged, in the place we have most wanted to live, near family and natural beauty and amazing schools and a terrific food and sustainable-agriculture scene. And so I applied, and then it all happened at once, and so very fast. And we are thrilled, and also horrified at the chaos that has become our lives.

I will say this: children are resilient. So are the rest of us.

I will also say this: moving is hard. Very hard. On everyone.

And there’s not enough good stuff out there on how to help your kids through these big transitions.  I’ve found a few great resources I’ll share later — and really, maybe they are enough. Maybe the hard part is that they can’t do it for you. So here’s our approach, given the particular dispositions of our 3- and 5-year olds: involve them. Don’t share too much too soon, but involve them in the joyful fact of moving somewhere new. Help them think about saying goodbye and help them think about saying hello. If possible, have them see the house you’re moving into and the school they’ll be attending before the actual move. Invite them to plan out their room, if they can. Try to make special occasions of various stages — packing projects (pick your VERY FAVORITE animals to fit in this box…they will come with us right away! The others get to travel on the Great Big Moving Truck! What an adventure!); the move itself (we’re thinking walkie-talkies, though I’m sure we’ll regret it); the moving in (where to hang your favorite pictures? Where to put the always-necessary window-mounted bird feeder?). Build new rituals and say goodbye to old ones. You know the drill.  Parenting 101. Otherwise known as Being a Thoughtful Human 101.

We are excited. We really are. We are also very, very tired. Which is why I’m glad I had two babies’ worth of training in asking for help and accepting it when offered. Working that program pretty hard right now. And there are disappointments (not getting to see several new babies who will enter the world right after we leave) and worries (how will the kids adjust? What will it feel like to be back at work full-time? Will I lose all my hard-won compassion and patience and presence?). But I figure, that’s the deal. As the Indigo Girls say, “We’re better off for all that we let in.” And here we are, opening our arms up wide. Again.

On distraction.

It’s a well-known tenet of Buddhist practice that we all have monkey-mind: our thoughts leap about from place to place, seeking pleasure, worrying worry, pre-empting problems. I excel at this. Meditation, then, is about calming the monkey, sitting patiently with its antics until the time between leaps grows longer and the act of staying takes on some kind of reality. Or, perhaps, it’s just about watching the monkey jump. Silly monkey. Funny monkey. Desperate, sad, hungry monkey.

A central problem of modern life is that we don’t realize we are the monkey, and we don’t realize we have (or even might want) other choices. I get this. I’m all about meditation and being still and centered for about a third of every year, usually in fits and starts that last a month or two. And then I get so tired of being so present and so exhausted by my own inability to really be still that I seek comfort in distraction: Netflix, games, Facebook. The symptoms that I observe, that help me diagnose the problem and put me back on a path to some kind of health, look a lot like this: I now have Candy Crush Saga, Farm Heroes Saga, AND Cookie Jam on my iPad mini, and I play one until I run out of lives, at which point I switch to another. And so on. When, after an hour or two, not one game will let me keep playing without paying (and thank goodness I don’t have more disposable income or I’d be tempted), I become angry and then disconsolate. I don’t know what to do with myself. I laugh, of course, but it’s a little hollow.

I contrast this to my good times, when I feel present and centered in my life. I notice my kids and the garden and the quality and scents of the air. I feel stories and poems press in on me from all directions, and I even do an okay job at writing them down (though I persist in imagining that I will remember more than I can remember, and I feel the words slip through my fingers, spry and inky, gone for good).

So what works best, if I seek distraction but don’t really like it? Do I strive for a life composed solely of depth and meaning? Or is this the macro version of monkey-brain, the larger time-frame of noticing, so I can trust that noticing itself means that I’m on some sort of reasonable path? How do I practice sustaining the modes of living and working that feed me best, even when I also want the metaphorical french fries and disgusting fast-food burger? Let’s be clear: we all want these things from time to time. But the difference between a really good chocolate shake and a nasty-ass fribble (or whatever they’re called) is vast, and maybe the trick is to choose the really good distractions over the cheap and easy ones. Maybe the trick is like that eating-management plan some people have had to learn, where they realize they have never known what it’s like to be full, and they have to pay close attention to their sensations, stopping eating when they are sated instead of continuing on out of habit. I know what it’s like to be full. It’s glorious and magnifying and enriching and empowering. It makes all things possible, to live like that. So why choose the smaller version with the bad food and boring distractions? Sigh. Perhaps it’s too much muchness, this powerful life we have. Perhaps we still believe somehow that checking out will bring us peace. And after all, it’s very hard to stop. These are things I’ve noticed.

And these are other things I’ve noticed: yesterday, in the yard with the boys, we lay on the driveway to watch the clouds. (Okay, I did; they were all complainy about the sun in their eyes.) There were two osprey circling overhead, perhaps en route to the nearby pond. They called out their osprey calls, and Ezra called back. The clouds were mostly cirrus. Later, two hummingbirds flew invisibly fast from the hydrangea across to the apple trees.

On keeping it simple.

On days when the kids run amok and the rain pours down and everything seems to be breaking or peeling or falling apart, there’s only so much we can do to hold ourselves together. For me, that “so much” usually involves food.

I can’t bake in this humidity (well, I can, but we would all regret it), so I end up focusing a little more intently on the dinner process than usual. And that can have nice consequences.

The other day I made potato salad in the morning: my favorite kind, with new red potatoes from the farmer’s market and white wine vinegar and olive oil and pressed garlic and chopped lemon basil from the garden. I put it in the fridge with orders for no one to touch it, and come dinner time, it was astonishing: bright, intense, comforting, addictive.

To go with that, I had an unceremonious pound of ground beef from Clay Hill Farms, also acquired at our local market. I know it’s great beef, but honestly, I get a little bored with beef. I needed something Greek. Ish. So I got out the goat cheese and added maybe a third of a cup to the beef, along with a handful of chopped oregano and the ritual salt and pepper. Made some patties, fried them up, and OMG. Such good ideas. Add some fresh steamed broccoli (plain, for variety), and it’s a beautiful little meal.

I should add that we are slowly refinishing our kitchen table, which is where we always eat, so we are having most meals out in the screen tent on the deck. It’s kind of a hassle, but kind of a beautiful way to live outdoors more. Plus, we may eventually get a nice new kitchen table out of it, so there’s that.

This is where I want to wind up with something witty and reassuring about how kids grow up and it won’t be this chaotic forever, and aren’t we lucky that we get to be WITH all this astonishing youth and growth…and yes, I am lucky. And I’m also really really tired. Good food helps, but so would a long vacation. Solo. So I invite you to tell me: what are your ways of sustaining yourself, of keeping it simple? Cut flowers? Walks in the woods? Escape novels? Meditation? Bonus points for brilliant strategies I haven’t thought of. 🙂

On all the muchness of summer.

It’s hard to know where to start after being gone so long. From writing here, I mean. I’ve been doing some poetry and a little garden journaling, but mostly I’ve been out living so hard that I can’t seem to put proverbial pen to paper when I’m done. The checking-out impulse has been strong with me. But eventually you hit the stage I’m at now, where checking out is no longer as delicious as checking in, and this is a good thing.

So an accounting, of sorts, for me as much as for you:

1. Change is in the air. I don’t know if it’s this super moon or what, but we’ve finally given away our sixteen-year-old furniture and reshaped the living room — there’s more space and more air and less room for sitting on one’s ass, and these all seem like good changes. For now. Winter would be hard in this configuration, with only one small couch for snuggling. There’s a new rug en route from Overstock, and we seem to be living in shades of red and orange. (Full confession: the couch is purple velvet, a deep grayish plum, but it’s covered with an ivory canvas slipcover right now lest anyone find us garish…)

2. Since we brought the purple couch down from our bedroom and we wanted something else in there, we took the big blue chair and ottoman from Ezra’s room and put them in ours. It’s lovely and spacious and inviting. And best of all, we created, in the same corner of his room, a Nest. It’s an elegant affair: a folded bunk mattress on the floor surrounded by many sizes of pillows and stuffed animals, and he loves it so much he sleeps in it. It’s his favorite spot for reading and sitting quietly and rolling about in excess, and overall we’re thrilled with the whole situation.

3. Outdoors, the peas are done (those the groundhog didn’t eat): we have had enough to gorge ourselves senseless and to feel that every visit to the garden (morning, noon, or night) is an occasion for picking and eating, but we’ve had none to put by. I’m okay with that. The broccoli and cauliflower, on the other hand, were completely eaten, all 16 plants, by the groundhog, and I’m much less okay with that. But I’m breathing in and out and feeling mostly grateful that I don’t have a 22.

4. I’ve ripped out the pea vines to make room for the struggling melons, squashes, and cukes…a little composted rabbit manure from a friend, and they seem to be much happier. I’ve even discovered some beets languishing beneath the vines that now seem to want to size up, so we’ll see how that goes. And where other things were spent (bok choy, mizuna, lettuces), I’ve sown more carrots, some bush beans, and even an ambitious row of swiss chard. I heard we were getting a polar vortex and I figured why not take advantage? (For the non-gardeners among us, chard is in the goosefoot family, and many of those prefer cold weather for germination and even for actual growth — sowing chard now is bold and perhaps foolish, but for this little microburst of cold…)

5. We finally had the tree guys come and they rescued the poor chestnut in the bottom of the yard, overshadowed and leaned on by some aggressive box elders. They also cleaned out the huge red maple of water sprouts and dead growth, which was quite a project, and they took down a diseased cherry and a frankly dead spruce. I’m inappropriately excited that I thought to ask if we could keep the chips, so we now have roughly three cubic yards of wood chips in a heap on the driveway, and I am filled with possibility.

6. The only other thing of note is that we haven’t been on a date in what seems like months (and may in fact be months), and I’m figuring that’s why I felt it necessary to buy a Vitamix. Refurbished, but still. It’s outrageously expensive and it’s going to be stellar.

Basically, I’m feeling a little ADD about life — bouncing around from house to garden to boys to work to writing to friends to family to crafts to community-building. I’m not seeing much of a common thread these days except me, raveled or not. So I’m just trying to go with it. And it is rewarding: the new sightline from the kitchen into the living room is so spare and clean; the boys can play with their trains in whole new ways; the self-sown bachelor’s buttons and asclepias are feeding whole generations of bees and other pollinators; the new variety of oregano (Pizza Night) is more delicious than any previously. The plans to make slipcovers for the Nest pillows are coming along, though no actual sewing has happened; the kitchen table is half-stripped and awaiting some serious sanding in the basement. It’s all in progress, all at once, and I’m just trying to be there with it, running lightly and breathing free.

On festivity and resistance.

In times of absurdity and ongoing crisis, it seems hard, if not wrong, to feel festive.  At least, that’s one way that I struggle with the state of the world.  And yet, as my friends who are artists and theologians keep telling me (indeed, as the world itself seems to shout), we have to celebrate anyway.  We have to celebrate what we DO have, the people and places and purposes that fill us up, make us laugh, demonstrate glory and beauty and grace.

October is a tough month for me in this regard.  We have our anniversary, a bunch of family and friend birthdays including my own, and the whole greatness of fall itself.  And yet I always feel like, with winter coming and work to find and projects to take care of before the snow flies, we don’t have TIME for joy.  But then a little voice, lounging in a comfortable chair in the back of my head, tosses a chocolate in its mouth and says, “why not?  What the heck else should we do?  Pout?”

Which makes perfect sense.  The scraping and sanding and caulking and priming and painting might as well happen from a place of gladness, right?  Why not sing while we’re up there?  Why not marvel at these astonishing blackberry canes that gave us four years of fruit before succumbing to some fungal infection?  Of course it’s a pain to pull them out, but how grateful I am to have this little patch of earth in which to grow things.

I realized yesterday that I have a tendency to treat the flowers in my yard like rare objects, hesitating to pick them and bring them in.  Ezra has been helping me with this issue just by assuming that anything out there that’s gorgeous should come in, and that he should both carry it in and arrange it in its vase.  But even then: I pick small vases and make small arrangements, several even, instead of one big one.  Why is that?  It seems like a logic of scarcity, and that just isn’t where I want to be these days.  Abundance is.

Resistance is out.  Festivity is in.

That means maybe taking on a version of “Clay Days”: a friend whose nickname is “Clay” celebrates his birthday over a two-week period around the day itself.  There are many parties and picnics and walks and bloody-mary-brunches and general good times.  I want that.  Maybe it means letting myself do, for a change, exactly what I want when I want.  (Knowing me, this will not in fact lead to the chaos it might for others; it will more likely lead to more things getting done, perhaps with less advance planning.) Maybe it means making beauty for the sake of beauty.  Examples: this morning before I took the boys to school I did two things that will cheer me up all day. First, I combined the flowers from several tiny vases into one larger arrangement of purple and green and orange, and I periodically pass by it and just stop and gaze. I’m soaking up its presence.  The other one was making grape sorbet.  I KNOW!!  Grape sorbet.  We have these concord-type grapes growing over our pergola, and last year I tried to make jam and it didn’t gel.  But I froze it in jars, calling it “compote,” and yesterday I thawed one out and this morning put it in the ice-cream maker.  Beautiful beautiful beautiful.  We were all wildly impressed with ourselves.

So I say this: if we can’t play with flowers and make sorbet before school, what good is this life?  If we can’t paint a bench a crazy color, or sip wine with crafting friends, then what do we think we’re doing?  The serious stuff has a place, and I also need to remember that living in beauty, committing to abundance, is important stuff too.  Bring on the festivity.