On letting go.

This feels like the first spring since we left Maine, though it’s not — but it’s the first in our new house and so by contrast, the old one rises in my mind…

To the new owners of our house in Maine:

The dicentra is unfurling by the eastern wall
And the daffodils are in bloom, or nearly so.
I know the crocus came earlier, and I hope the
Bees did too, crawling their fur against the stamens.
I’m sure the aquilegia is up already, in its low lovely
Mounds of deep graypurplegreen.

Soon, whether you know it or not, the asparagus will come,
And the strawberries will put out their blossoms –
Before that happens, you will want to bring them compost,
And to press their flailing, frost-heaved roots back into the soil.
I always forgot to mulch, you see, and I imagine you did too.

Will you plant vegetables this year? Would you like to see
My crop rotation plans? What did we leave there for you,
Sunflower stalks? Occasional herbs? And generations of
Red mustard seeds, already sprouting. I hope you know
What they are.

The trees will blossom soon, the pear and apple, peach, plum, Asian pear,
And you will be overwhelmed by so much beauty and perhaps
also the responsibility. What do these things need?
In the still-wet bottom, you’ll see elderberries clumping, and
Two young brown ash trees, planted to replace the aging willows.
How is the chestnut?

I always meant to write a calendar of smells in that place;
For eight months of the year I could know the time by scent.
The hyacinth, the blossoming pear, then philadelphus,
Syringa vulgaris, then Korean lilac in the neighbor’s hedge.
Then Linden trees along the street, then roses, phlox.
Then the fruits begin, and goldenrod and hot dry grass.
Then grapes and leaf-fall, then sharp wet mud of autumn
And the pale tastelessness of the overlast tomatoes.

You will get new firewood in this year, and look out for
The groundhog who nests beneath the pile. Trap him
If you know what’s good for you.
Be sure to line the car-hatch with a towel before you cart him
Out of town.
There is no redeeming merit to a groundhog.

On winter nights, you can keep that basement woodstove going
To good effect, and if the furnace gives you trouble, call
Bruce, his number’s right there on the side.
I hope to god that French drain sump pump doesn’t die
On you this spring; we had the good luck of no attention
Whatsoever to it and it worked like a charm. Though
The access door falls off its hinges if you try and open it
(one reason we never tended to it much).

I apologize for the noisy nature of the forced air;
We took what may have been poor advice and
Chose the reliable furnace over the quiet one, a
Dilemma I feel sure we did not understand properly
Until later.

And yes, you are welcome for the kitchen; that bank
Of windows and the new insulation are indeed a dream.
Best room I’ve ever had. The paint color, should you need it,
Is Vanilla Ice. The living room is Linen White; the dining room Buxton Blue.

I recommend you put bird feeders on the north windows, preferably on the
Second floor; the windows tip in so you can easily refill them.
And squirrels can’t come.

Prune that front lilac from time to time, and give the azaleas
Under the maple a good watering and deep mulch.
The white rugosa/bayberry composite out there by the driveway
Sort of grew together, and it’s a mess but so fragrant we’d just
Mow around it.

Do you know yet about the side yard shade and the virtues
Of a picnic blanket there on a hot day? My heart hurts now
To think of it; that is where I spent most summer with
My sons, from their smallest chubby days. They learned to
Crawl in that grass and to stroke a kitten very gently
And to build a house of sticks in several designs.
They constructed zoos and wild animal scenes
Among the asarum and the maidenhair fern (I hope both
Have survived), cushioned by the moss we never did try to
Remove.
Owls occasionally nested in the roots of the cedar tree.

Those straggly trees before the neighbor’s are witch hazel,
And they are lovely, or should be by now, you tell me.
And there’s a mighty auruncus and a lovely little fothergilla,
Mostly obscured by the spruce which has gotten
Entirely out of hand.
The white pine was tipped by tip borers and so bears
A premature crown, but those can in fact be pruned
If you can see any reason to do so.

Oh! The mountain laurel! Is it there? It took so long to establish
But then my goodness.

What else? The allium; the Echinacea; the weigela; the iris and my
Karen Grey peonies, which I miss.
I hope the red maple buds are falling soon all over the driveway,
With flocks of cedar waxwings nipping them up, flying
Flapping, and chatting. You can sit on the pebble patio,
Out from under the grape vines, and look up.

 

On small gratitudes.

I’ve officially hit the point where I think about work all the time. Not in a pathological way, but because it is interesting and there is a lot of stuff going on and there are good challenges to mull. But let’s face it: I think about work all the time. This is a problem for me.

However, I don’t believe in un-thinking, or in chastisement, or in turning away from interesting things; I just want to give myself something better to think about. Something more whole, more shared. Like my brilliant, beautiful, beneficent husband; my fabulous but struggling kiddos; my bizarre good fortune at having a rental situation good enough to miss when we move again in another month. But when I stack up mental lists of gratitudes, I just feel cluttered. I get overwhelmed by all the thoughts.

So this morning, when my young sons went running out into the grass at 6 am in their stripey pajamas, I was otherwise occupied. I did not in fact see their small bare feet grow wet and stain green; I did not see their glee in locating the first dandelions, nor their careful planning of a Surprise for Mama. The first I heard of it was when they came back to the open doorway, faces bright with delight, with handfuls of yellow. “LOOK MAMA! THE DANDELIONS ARE HERE! Quick, let’s get a vase.”

Even the vase-hunting process had me in busy-mode, trying to find something small enough to be convenient in our under-equipped kitchen. But at least that hunt slowed me down and made me use my eyes, my hands, to size up the stems and faces of these flowers, to consider the array of vases we have in storage, to understand again what a central role flowers (growing, picking, arranging, admiring) have in my family’s life. I breathed. I became, for a moment, just a human deeply touched by the love and givingness of others.

Then I saw it: the small green vase a dear friend had given me the day before we left. It held all my gifts perfectly. I packed up my gear for the day — my computer and backpack, of course, but also my little canvas lunch bag from another friend, holding a container of the delectable soup my husband had made the night before and a few other treats. And I picked up my little vase of dandelions. And I felt, for the first time in days, ready to face the world, bolstered by these reminders of who I am, small gratitudes in hand.

On good sportsmanship.

We recently made a brilliant family investment by purchasing Dinosaur Bingo for our sons.  It is a total blast.  We really enjoy playing it together.  And it’s educational: you learn about the dinos themselves (lots of different kinds); you learn to scan for text and image; you learn letters and counting (how many spaces do you have left?); you learn the value of close attention (“Follow your BOARD, Papa!”).

It’s all fun and games until we get to the end.  The end really is the climax of the game, not just because we get to sort the world (again) into winners and losers, but because the winner gets to throw his arms in the air and shout “TERRIBLE LIZARD!”  “Dinosaur,” you see, means “terrible lizard.”

So we are happily playing in the kitchen one morning and then Malachi wins and shouts “TERRIBLE LIZARD!” and Ezra (4) has a hissy fit about how he wants to win TOO and maybe Chi is the VERY FIRST winner but he will be the FIRST winner and Chi is protesting vehemently and I am quietly resting my forehead on the table, perhaps giving it a gentle occasional thump.  I am breathing deeply.  When I have gathered my resources, I shush the boys and begin my lecture about how people don’t like to play games with other people who are always grumpy at the end, and good sportsmanship is about being happy for other people and can’t we just enjoy the GAME and PLAYING without having to worry about the issue of winning and losing?  And in the middle of my stream of thoughtful and strategic guidance, Malachi (who is two) turns to me, raises his arms, and shouts: “TERRIBLE MAMA!”

You’d think that might be the end of our day, but really it was the beginning.  I couldn’t help myself.  I guffawed.  I laughed till I cried, and the boys laughed too.  Laughing, you see, really IS more fun than winning.

On the physics of kisses.

Okay, this post is not about what you think it’s about.

These kisses are the kind that our sons blow to us — across rooms, down the driveway, through closed windows.

They used to be content with the blowing of kisses, but about a month ago they got worried that the kisses wouldn’t reach their destination, the kissee, if you will.  Which led to a brief lecture by me explaining that they, the kissers, can only control the love they send out into the world; they cannot control how it is received.

But they can surely trust that kisses are fast and smart: they fly faster than any car and they can find their person no matter where they are. Kisses always reach their kissee when we send them out into the air.

These are some established truths at our house.

Today, however, posed some new challenges, as Len and I backed out of the driveway at the same time (me with the kids in back) and headed off in opposite directions.  The sweet boys had waited until we drove off altogether before starting to smooch their little palms, and as they took their big breaths to blow those kisses toward Papa, they realized HE WAS BEHIND THEM!  What would happen if they blew their kisses in the WRONG DIRECTION?  We revisited the physics of kisses (see above), which reassured them, and then led to this:

Ezra, after a moment of quiet reflection: “My kisses are shaped like hummingbirds.”

Mama (eyes welling up with the awesomeness of this revelation): “Wow.  That is pretty fabulous.”

Malachi: “Mine are shaped like bluebirds.  Blue and RED.”

Ezra: “Yes, because bluebirds are your favorite birds.  But not blue and red, blue and orange.”

We haven’t yet discussed whether these shapes and colors and their breathy essences always embody kisses (what a world!) or whether these particular boys have particular kisses the shape and color of small birds…but I feel sure we will.

On recovery.

It’s been a long week for all of us, including flu shots and incipient molars as well as a host of other, more significant challenges.  Friday comes and we’re pretty much beat.  More than beat, we’re beaten down, a little, by circumstances and the persistent tiredness of not being able to see what comes next that might fix the things that need it.

So what else is there to do, really, but head out into the evening garden for potatoes?  The fingerlings have gone untouched so far, since they were planted late and we harvested the yellow potatoes earlier and are still working through them.  But I wanted fingerlings, specifically, to go with the local lamb burgers and sauteed kale I was planning, and the boys surely needed some kind of existential shift.  We all did.  So out we went, with pitchfork and hod, and I dug and sifted while the boys pulled the bright beads from the soil.  Some were serious potatoes, but most were the kind of thumb-sized beauties that gave rise to their name.  Every time one came to light, Ezra would shout with joy, and he had a hard time taking turns with his brother (assisted, no doubt, by said brother’s stubby one-year-old arms).  Two-thirds of the crop is still in the ground, since the bugs found us shortly after we hit our stride, and we had enough for dinner, anyway.

While we were out there, we brought in a massive bunch of kale, a smaller assortment of late zinnias, marigolds, and bachelor’s buttons, as well as a few carrots whose impressive tops made us pull them just out of curiosity.  (Our fridge is full of carrots already.)  And of course, the raspberries have been loving this frost-free October, putting forth nearly as much ripe fruit as they did all summer, and better.  It was an evening to remember.

Every time we bring in flowers, Ezra helps arrange them in a vase, and then he says, in a tight, excited voice: “We have to have a celebration!  To celebrate these flowers!”  And indeed we do.  Three-year-old vision is sometimes so impeccably clear.

Best of all was Ezra’s request, at dinner, that we give thanks (which we do sometimes, but not often enough).  We held hands, and I spoke my gratitude for these sweet men, for this good food and the land on which it grew.  A few bites later, Ezra wanted more: Papa gave thanks for our family, and for all the love, and for the many people who grew the food we eat.  And then, Ezra himself spoke a bit later:

“Thank you for the good Ezra-Mama-Chi day and for whole-family-day tomorrow.

Thank you for the fruit and flowers that grow all around us.

And for the vegetables that grow all around us.”

As I write, my heart spilling over, my eyes rise to the prints on my desk, gifts from my artist friend Kim Crichton: “Grow.”  “Nurture.”  “Sow.”  (You have to see the images to really get them, but when you do, you’ll see why I’m all weepy over all this together.)  From a day when it seemed like nothing could come together, I all of a sudden see that in this moment, everything has.

On the warming and strengthening properties of snuggles.

It was cold this morning as I opened Ezra’s door and peeked inside.  Just a few moments earlier, he had hollered for me in a particularly full-voiced and dramatic way, with a long tapering tail, suggesting he was wide awake.  But in the dimness, I couldn’t see him.  Turns out he had pulled his covers up over his head.  As I pile onto his bed, hugging the (to me) enormous lump of his self under the covers, he peeks out his head.

“Mama.”

“Yes,” I reply.  “Cold Mama.”

“I will warm you with my snuggles.”

“EXCELLENT.”  And he does, wrapping me up with the one arm that has fully emerged from his nest, and pressing his sweet warm cheek against me.

He says, “I have six snuggles for you.”  And he counts them.  Then…

“I have six more snuggles.  Seven, eight, nine, ten.”  We discuss subtraction and the number four and the number twelve, and he counts out my remaining measure of snuggles.

Then, curious, I ask: “How many snuggles do you have, anyway?”

“Twenty.”

Oh!  “So giving me twelve is a pretty big deal.”

“Yup.”

“But what happens when you use those up?  Do you make more?”  Yes, as it turns out.

“Where do you keep your snuggles?” I ask.

“In my ribcage.  In my ribs.”

I point out that that makes good sense, since snuggles are so strong and the ribcage does such important work protecting the heart and the lungs.  I’m sure the ribs benefit from the presence of all those snuggles.

As we head downstairs, later, he explains the whole thing to Papa, how he warmed me, and where the snuggles live, and how they are useful there.

But all this is shortly forgotten as he piles animals into an airplane and an ambulance for their trip to North Africa.  Some frogs live on planes, he points out.  Well, sure.

On counting with children. And aging.

We’re at the breakfast table.  Ezra (3) says he has no idea how to count to twenty.  Papa says, “Of course you do!  You count to twenty all the time in your counting book!”  Ezra denies this.  He insists he has no idea.  I offer this: you count to ten and I’ll count with you up to twenty.  So we do.

At twenty, Ezra wails, “But there are lots of other numbers!”  Indeed.

So we keep counting.  At twenty-three, I realize that we’re enumerating the years of my life, and I try to recall each one.  I know I loved twenty-eight, the birthday I first held my PhD and had a job I loved and a husband and a house and two beautiful dogs and a keen sense of gratitude about all of it.  Thirty was lovely, too, building a new community of amazing friendships in a new and welcoming area.  Thirty-three and -four were stressful for a bunch of reasons; thirty-five was when I got pregnant, finally, and went through massive, life-altering and transformative changes deciding to leave my job/career.  “Thirty-six is how old I was when you were born,” I say to Ezra.  “Thirty-eight is how old I was when your brother was born.  Thirty-nine is how old I am today, and forty is how old I turn soon.”

Hurray!  Birthdays!  We love those!  A brief flurry of shouting.  And then…

“Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three…”

And I head for my computer, smiling to myself, because how can little kids offer such wisdom and perspective?  After all, that’s what this birthday thing is, right?  Another step, another day, another year, stretching out in front of us.  God willing.  I hear Ezra chanting from the kitchen: “Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six…”

On getting off the couch (or not).

I have this strange rhythm to my life, with two days a week of daycare and all my “work” crammed into those two days.  I say this not to discount the important work of homemaking and childrearing and keeping our lives moving ahead that fill all the rest of my days; I say it because I’m guessing lots of other people struggle to differentiate between paid (or pay-able) work and the other critical unpaid occupations of our lives.

Anyway, I jam these childcare days FULL of expectations.  I schedule appointments and meetings and regular commitments; I plan major writing initiatives; I intend to do research and also tackle the big household projects I can’t take care of with kids around.  But then I end up overwhelmed.  My task management app, Any.Do, invites me DAILY to “manage my to-do’s.”  Clearly it thinks I’m overwhelmed, too.

Today, for example, I left the house shortly after 7 am to take Ezra to a specialist appointment in Portland.  An hour down, fifteen minutes with the doc, and an hour back.  I make good use of the time singing endless rounds of ABCs and “Three Little Birds” with Ezra, so that feels fulfilling, at least.  And then I go straight to the gym after dropping him at daycare.  (Let me stop right here to say that I’ve contemplated saving time by skipping the gym, but apparently I have the good fortune of a crappy back that causes pain if I skip my lifting regimen for more than three days, so I guess I’ll run with that.  But don’t mistake this exercise commitment for either Virtue or Vanity.  It’s simple self-preservation.)  Anyway, I’m home, dripping with sweat, by 10:30, and I’m so starving that I have to eat right away rather than shower.  So then I’m disgusting but dry, and I figure I’ll Get Things Done before I shower, and that lands me on the couch with the computer, and from there on out, my friends, it’s game over.  I’ve cleaned out my inbox; followed up on old business; drafted letters of recommendation for former students (in my head).  I’ve played innumerable games of Bubble as I strategize my next move, and I’ve strongly considered showering.  And napping.  And Doing things.  But to consider, alas, is not to do.  And when I get this tired, there’s a whole phenomenon of not-caring that kicks in.  I need to mobilize to CARE and then I’ll do things.  Or I can just get really hard-nosed about it all and force myself to do things, assuming the caring will follow…the arranged-marriage version of life-planning.  Huh.

And there, you see, is the rub.  It’s a considering kind of day, not a caring kind of day.  I want to loaf about.  I want to read novels and watch bad tv and sip cocoa.  Is that so wrong?  Am I allowed to just DO that?  It feels like no, not with the board meeting tonight that I need to present at, the upcoming discussion group I need to plan and write an email to, the three novels by my bedside I need to finish before I can finalize the discussion group work.  Not to mention the excellent contacts I need to get back to regarding the Possibility of Paid Work.  Sigh.  Perhaps I should organize my day into segments: gym; computer; existing work; board work; potential work; house/yard work.  Maybe that would get me off the couch.

Or not.

On meetings.

I used to have a lot of meetings in my life.  From, say, 8 am to 5 pm most days.  In fact, we were so busy meeting that we never had any time to do the actual work we were meeting about.  Which, some might argue, is an issue.

I’ve also been part of a culture where folks not only don’t like to meet (in “meetings), but they are really conscious of meeting practices.  Best example comes from my old camp counselor days, when we were all so tired by Sunday night staff meetings that we wanted maximum efficiency…and worked well to get it.  My favorite group practice was the subtle (and not) mimicking of holding a huge steering wheel — when someone got going on a rant, we always described it as “driving a big bus,” and we would demonstrate.  It was astonishingly useful and not too painful to experience as the driver, which is perhaps why it was so effective.  It called your attention without really calling you out.

I’ve been at meetings with agendas, meetings without; meetings with strong leadership and meetings with none.  I’ve met with presidents and provosts and with middle-schoolers and with everyone else you can imagine.  And still, the best meeting I’ve had yet happened today, on the second floor of my house, called and managed by my three-year old.

He requested a meeting formally: “Mama, Chi, let’s have a meeting, okay?”

He pointed out his need for a “hammer” (a gavel) but accepted my alternative offering (a full tube of A&D ointment).  He pointed us to seats around his foot-high table but graciously permitted me to sit in a chair I would not break.

He declared a clear purpose: “This is a muffin meeting.”  And he ran it with clarity and vigor: “Mama, what kind of muffin do you want to make?”  Pumpkin.  “Malachi, what kind of muffin do you want?”  Pumpkin.  He then asked the same thing of himself and of four or five participating stuffed animals; he had the grace to be amused when the rabbit answered “carrot” to everything.  His own preference was zucchini-banana, and although his was the only voice for it, he declared it the winner.  (In equal and opposite reaction, I later went downstairs and made pumpkin muffins.  There was no rebuke.)

After the muffin meeting there was a cake meeting (“carrot,” said the rabbit), and a soup meeting.  There was a bizarre and abbreviated “lamb” meeting (at which we were surprised to learn that Elmo, at least the one who lives with us, declared himself a vegetarian) before we turned our attention to the birds at the feeder and adjourned by default.

It was short; it was sweet; it was participatory.  No decisions were made, except by the leader in the moment and by me later, but I suppose that’s all pretty typical.  I wonder if most meetings wouldn’t be a little bit improved by two parties under three years of age?

On putting things to bed.

The rain is falling outside for the first time in weeks; it’s a sound I love.  It’s also surprisingly cold, and the leaves are suddenly coming down faster, and it makes me realize that this weekend, or maybe next is peak leaf weekend.  And then we’re heading downhill fast toward the dead of winter.

I try not to think this way, most of the time.  I try to stay more centered in where I am and what is beautiful there.  And so I’m supporting those habits by spending a lot more time appreciating the rituals of fall, especially since this is the first year in a while I’ve had that luxury.  (Babies do not permit a great deal of house-and-garden time, at least not mine.)  So here’s what that looks like:

1. Mums on the steps, orange, white, and maroon.  A daily reminder of what’s lovely and right, even when we’re barreling past them with arms full of squealing, squirming kids en route to or from some hideous ordeal like the grocery store.

2. PUMPKINS on the steps.  This is totally new to me, since I’m one of those freak shows who sees the pumpkin primarily as a foodstuff rather than an item of decor.  But today at the farmers’ market, as I’m asking Ezra if we should buy one pumpkin “to look at and then to eat,” our farmer Trent Emery (of Emery Farms; love them a lot) points out that he has sacks of ten pumpkins for ten bucks.  Sugar pumpkins.  In great shape.  Decorate and then devour.  That’s right.  Who am I to say no to a sack of pumpkins?

3. Leaves actually getting raked.  Since it’s been so dry, they’ve been incredibly easy to manage, and it’s become my little twenty-minute workout to whisk them into the driveway and then on down the slope to our Massive Epic Leaf Pile at the bottom.  The kids are doing a banner job of breaking them down into the leaf-crumbs that I like to put all through my garden beds, so this is a win-win-win.

4. Finally doing some serious weeding of the garden and, eventually, harvesting the last of things.  But if the weather is mild, we can harvest kale without protection through early December.  Putting the garden to bed isn’t quite as finite and rhythmic a process as one might imagine.

5. Mulching the perennial beds.  Poor things, they straggle through the summer without the moisture they need because I’m cheap and water-conscious (okay, and lazy), and then fall comes and they get an inch of mulch and suddenly revive.  Makes me realize what lovely gardens I’d have if I, you know, tended them.

All this settling in, tending to, quieting down has made me think more about the kids’ bedtimes, and ours, too.  After all, we’re organisms in need of rest as well.  I’ve tended to focus on the obvious: the stories, the sips of water, the schedules and routines.  But I find the outside gives me new perspective on the insides, too.  My understanding of the value of blankets shifts after watching the plants respond to the mulch: it’s not just about keeping out the cold, but about snuggling, protection, nests.  My imagination of my children’s needs shifts after thinking through the garden soil and its many forms of symbiosis: no organism stands alone, and sometimes we want company and stories together, and sometimes we just need the nurture of one primary caregiver.  Sometimes we need water, sometimes mama milk, sometimes a snuggle-animal, sometimes light, sometimes dark.  We probably meet the needs anyway, since that’s pretty much our job, but there’s a difference between scattering fertilizer and layering compost.  There’s a difference between rushing through a story and giving the characters their full voices.  I save the singing for the crib-time, after the nursing, just as I save the compost for the spring, just as I rarely water.  But why?  My garden survives on this rhythm, but it could do better.  Listening and watching and smelling and being THERE can help us understand the whole range of organic needs that our people and plants profess, including the need to thrive, to blossom, to yield fruit, to be the whole and stunning miracles they can be.