Saturday, April 05, 2014

Spring light

We had a birthday party for Ian a few weeks back and I was forced to clean the house, well, at least the first floor of the house. This was one day later when it was still clean. Alas, it doesn't look like this right now. If only they could make some sort of preservative that makes your cleaning jobs last longer.

Since that bold night, when I invited half the town over and never considered where they would park, we've been riding out the rest of a particularly grueling winter. I knew we had turned a bend when we got invited to a sugar house to watch some farmer friends do their first boil of the season. I think I heard the world sigh when that sweet steam hit the sky.

Then I know I heard the girls sigh when they took their first sip of sap tea, tea made with boiling hot, sweet maple tree sap, instead of hot water. I've been telling them about it for years and they finally, at age 12 and 8, got to try it.

Other signs of spring are the sound and sight of the farmer whizzing by on his tractor pulling huge vats filled with sap to the sugar house. There was a panic there for a moment, when the sap wasn't running and it was already April.

And I heard the distant sound of honking Canada geese on a walk the other morning. I looked up and there, way high in the steel grey sky was a large formation of migratory birds headed north. North. Of all places.

Maybe my father can finally take his long johns off.

Speaking of my dad, I wrote about him and posted it to the BabyCenter Blog this morning. Read it if you feel so inclined. It's a lot more illuminating into my reality than this post has been.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

What's posterity got to do with my posterior?

Strange how life happens, and happens, and keeps on happening, even when you don't stop to record any of it, not in writing, that is, for posterity. What is posterity, anyway? Does it have anything to do with our posteriors? Our behinds?
I'm thinking yes, yes. It has everything to do with our behinds.

I've vowed to stop dwelling on my behind. Not that I ever truly 'dwelled' on it. Well, now, come to think of it... I spend a lot of time sitting, thus sort ot dwelling, on it. But I certainly have a habit of needing to see what it's doing, or how it's looking doing, back there whenever there is a mirror handy and no one is watching. You know.

What a strange and vain, in every sense of the word, habit. And the day I see my daughters doing it is the day I realize I am a terrible role model. Check your asses before you leave the house, girls. You never know. You never know what, exactly? You never know who might be judging you by the shape, size and volume of your ass?

Oh dear. This is not at all why I stopped in here to write today. This is what happens when I'm presented with a blank page and I'm alone in the house with nothing and no one but the dog curled up on a sunny spot on the floor and the guinea pig around the corner by the chimney noisily nosing her water bottle and chewing on the bars of her cage. Having a caged animal in the house has got to be one of the more bizarre aspects of parenthood. Why? Why, what with the horses and the dog and the squirrels and the birds and the weasels and bobcats and chipmunks and foxes, and bears, and wild rabbits and mice and the voles, and lowing cows in the distance, do country kids need a caged pet in their house? Why?

There I go again. Another tangent. So anyway. It's been awhile. Winter, it's safe to say, came. It's still here. Take a look.

The thought keeps occurring to me, that it isn't what's in the picture that makes Vermont unique, but what's missing from the picture. 

And, while we're on the topic of posteriors....

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The apple and the tree

I woke to the gauzy, unexpected light of snow in the air this morning. The flakes were unsure of themselves. New to the stage. They meandered and floated more than they actually fell. But they were there. We saw them. Huddled together for warmth on the roof of the barn, collected on the top edge of the windshield wipers, stuck in a spider's web. We saw them. 

Like shuttling through darkness, turning the bend and seeing that glimpse of light, we’ve broken through. No more waiting and wondering and lamenting and regretting and reminiscing about things, warm and breezy, easy things left behind.

Winter is approaching. Our world has been stripped bare and stands exposed, ready and waiting, unafraid, un-self conscious, unashamed of its nakedness. Prepared.

 Fall agitates. Winter soothes. Spring promises. Summer lulls.

How sensitive can one be to the seasons? How is it that the spinning of the earth, the proximity to the sun, the length of days, the attitude of light, the precipitation or lack of precipitation, can dictate my outlook, my chemistry?

Did I inherit this hyper connectedness? My children may be learning it from me.  The rain draws them outside to dance. Dark days soothe them. They love snow-- the smell of it, the look of it, the feel of it, the sound of it.

On this, one of the darkest mornings we’ve had in a year, the house was still dark, their eyelids shut tight, at 7:05 a.m.

"Wake up, wake up, we’re going to be late for school," I shouted. “No light. No light.” Isla said, scootching backwards under her blanket to escape the rudeness of the bedside lamplight.

And Esther, in the dim light coming through her attic window, her body shaped, no contorted, into its usual arched , jumping fish pose in a tangle of covers. Her head never in line with her feet. Nothing, not even the fear of being late for school, stirred these children.

That is until I mentioned the snow. In an instant they were up, wide eyed, running, barefooted, to the windows, down the stairs, back door flung open, hands out, tongues out, itching for a feel, or a taste, of the sky.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I cannot claim to love the fall


I cannot, will not, despite its wiles, claim to love it. Fall leaves me feeling weak. Superficial. I ignore her message, disregard her true character, while admiring her beauty.

How can something that is dying be so stunning? How can we walk amongst the death, feel it thick and moldering beneath our feet, hear the crunch of its fragile bones, smell it on the air, feel it in the anemic sunlight on our skin, yet revel so unabashedly, so irreverently, in its temperate nature? Nothing this good, this delicious, comes without consequence.

But we, I, do revel. I let my guard down. I allow myself to be bowled over. I comment, mindlessly, on the beauty of fall every single day.

It's turned the bend now. The mountains have transformed from feisty fashionistas, to aging, skeletal homeless ladies. A balding old man. A near -empty coat rack, just a few tattered jackets left hanging.

But the sun, she tries. Her dutiful perseverence is almost pathetic.

She's tiring. You can see weariness in her pale eyes. You can feel it in her nonchalant touch. She's growing weaker. Hesitant to rise in the morning. All too eager to retreat to the safety of that place, out of sight, beyond the horizon, below the distant mountain tops, at day's end.
A lot like me.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Power of Yes

It's getting harder to make jokes about my dad's Alzheimer's these days.
It's never really been funny. But we manage, as we do with most of life's heartbreaks, to find the funnier sides to it.

We particularly like the way he throws his money around. After years of being thrifty guy, he's got his wallet out every chance he gets, offering to buy my kids things they want but don't need, or to pay for my groceries as if I were still in college.

Or the quirky things he does. Like the time we went walking on the Equinox trails and he complained and complained about his underpants "feeling strange" until finally I made him step off the trail and drop trou, praying no one would come along and find us-- an old man with his pants down and a younger woman trying to straighten out his underwear. After having ignored his complaints for half a mile, like I would a toddler, I discovered his was not an idle complaint. He had on briefs and boxers together.

And the boxers  had somehow ended up around his knees.

Or the things he writes down on scrap paper but can't explain. Like  "intelligence + personality= important."

Or things he says. Like in the car in Maine just recently, when he responded to some upsetting news I was telling him by saying, "That's a bunch of birdshit!"

Then, in a moment of great clarity, he said, "I don't think I've ever said that before, have I? That's not what people say. A bunch of birdshit?" And I said, "No, Dad. I've never heard it before. I think you just made up your own brilliant expression."

Bird shit! It doesn't necessarily stink, but it's still super annoying. 

We have so many laughs throughout the day with my dad. We laugh with him. But we're often laughing at him, and he seems to know that, but he never gets upset. My dad has always been a fan of laughter. He likes to make people laugh.

But, just lately, the humorous side of things is harder to spot. He seems so.... vulnerable. And, I'm guessing, he feels vulnerable too. The other day he said something about being a baby. "But you're not a baby anymore," I said. And he said, "Yes, but I'm just as damageable."

Telling him where we're going, twenty times along the way, isn't what gets to me. What gets to me is seeing him, once an incredibly alert man, a conversationalist, at a loss for what to say because he can't follow the conversation. He's lost the thread. He's forgotten what we're conversing about.

And what gets to me, is seeing this once perpetually busy, restless man at a loss as to what to do next. This man who was never caught without a plan. Never to be accused of idleness. Never under remotest threat of gathering moss on any of his many surfaces. A moving target, his motion was his sanity. As long as he kept moving, doing, doing doing, he was safe from whatever it was he was hiding from.

And having heard the distress in his voice the day I stupidly asked him what his most powerful childhood memory was so I could write it in his grandfather book and one day give his memories to Esther and Isla, and he started telling me the story of his father's suicide when my dad was only five, and recounted a vivid memory of his mother howling and pacing on the sleeping porch, I can only imagine that running, constant forward motion, is much more preferable to ever, ever going back there. 

But now the movement has stopped. Lurched to a halt, unsettling all that was not bolted down with the abruptness of the transition. Yet it's not my father who is unsettled, it's us who love him. It's us who look at him and see the same man as always, yet do not recognize the docile aimlessness, the lack of certainty in his eyes. The idleness.

Yet his brain is not idle. He remembers so much-- like the Boy Scout law, which he recites at least once each and every time I see him.
"A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,
brave, clean, and reverent."

He gets a big kick out of the clean part. I'll have to ask him, now that I've just Googled it, if he remembers the Scout's Promise as well.
"On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight."

And, ever since he was in the hospital with five broken ribs, sustained last winter while cross country skiing, and they kept him on morphine for several days, he has developed a new quirk. You might call it a verbal tic.

And, so fitting with who my father has become, the master of gratitude, who feels blessed for  everything that comes his way, with the exception, perhaps, of rainy days,  this tic involves chanting the word "yes" as he makes his way through his day.

He sometimes says it with every step he takes, like a child learning to walk, "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
He says it when he's fixing himself breakfast, all alone in the kitchen. "Yes," he says, as he takes the milk carton out of the ice box. "Yes," he says again as he fishes a spoon out of the drawer. "Yes," he says when he reaches for a bowl in the cupboard.

And when he's about to do something tricky, like step across the boardwalks around Equinox Pond, or climb over a stone wall on his property in the woods. "Yes. Yes. Yes." he chants, as if the very word is what propels him. The word is his crutch. His cane. His gas pedal. His teddy bear. His pacifier.

That he's chosen this word, out of all the words in the world, fascinates me. As annoying as it is, mostly in its repetition and its foreshadowing of mental instability, it's brilliant really.

I found myself imitating him the other day, all by myself. It was soothing to say. Yes. Over and over, not letting any other thought, or word, enter your mind or cross your lips. You can't say yes without smiling. Whereas "no," forces the mouth into what feels and looks like the beginning of a frown.

Try it:

"Maybe, maybe, maybe" this is all going to be okay.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Into the middle of things

My oldest daughter might be having the summer of her life. I’m insanely jealous.

Earning money babysitting.  Immersion soccer camp. A week at the lake, inviting friends one at a time. Learning to water ski. Several weeks at home doing nothing, calling no one, redecorating her room, and reading books, sketching, climbing trees, hiking with me, taking pictures, playing with her little sister. Plenty of family gatherings with cousins, and a two-day stint working as a 'stable girl' for one of my older sisters at a horse festival in town.

As I write this, she's on a beach, or swimming in the Atlantic, or scaling a bluff, or flinging across the marina in a child-manned dingy boat, or fishing in the deep sea, or checking out the seals, on an island off Massachusetts with her friend who happens to be the daughter of my friend.

She's been waiting  all summer for this particular trip. 

Watching her lately, I’m convinced that eleven just might be the best age there is. She's teetering ecstatically on the precipice of young womanhood with no reason to fear the fall.

She's all confidence, hope, ideas, curiosity, positive optimism. None of that pure zest is getting bogged down by a fear of being disliked, of being fat, of being ugly, of being stupid, of being unlovable, of being inferior, of being anything less or more than she is.

She is content, a human being, being and feeling fabulous about what life has to offer and how comfortably she seems to fit into it.

Being out of school is a bonus. Being away from the confines of schedule, forced learning, and forced social interaction, being able to pick and choose who she spends her time with, aside from me, is liberating for her.

When I saw her working at the horse show, she was running to fetch a girth back at the barns. She was so assured. So pleased with herself. I chased her playfully to where she had left her bike, as she rode off through the sea of makeshift stables, I shouted, “you are so lucky, you are the luckiest girl in the world, I want to be you.”

But the thing is, I don't want to be her. I don't need to be her. I already have been her. And that's what makes it so alluring. The remembering after all this time. The awakening. The tasting of the past. The almost feeling what it felt like, but not quite, to be 11. As with all endangered stages of growth and states of mind, it doesn't last.

Which is why I've been obsessed lately with trying to capture the unique space in time Esther is occupying in words, before it morphs into something else entirely. Something more complicated, self aware and brooding.

I came upon a description from Annie Dillard in her memoir An American Childhood. If you haven't read this, you should.

I absolutely love this description of children recognizing they're no longer children, not yet adults, and that there's no stopping the trajectory.

 Annie Dillard  An American Childhood:
“Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning in media res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills.

They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well underway.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.
Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand; precisely, toe hits toe. The tern folds its wings to sit, its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast. Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in  a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after. "

See what I mean?

Do you remember this? 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Choking on the fragility of life

When Isla emerged from her swimming lesson at Crystal Beach, her lips were blue. Her skin was a carpet of goose bumps. She’d been in the water for an hour. The sky was overcast, absent of friendliness or warmth, a quilt of steel gray.

I wrapped her little, shivering body in a towel and sent her straight to the car. “Go on the grass,” I said. “Follow the lawn until you see our car. It will be nice and warm in there. Don’t go through the parking lot. I’ll be right behind you.”

It didn’t occur to me to say, “Don’t eat any candy!” because I didn’t know she had any candy.

I walked across the short, empty beach to where Esther and her friends were sitting on a blanket under a tree watching YouTube videos on an iPod Touch, the gateway drug for handheld gadget addiction. We hesitated a moment to admire a family of fuzzy baby ducks waddling across the grass.
“C’mon, Esther,” I said. “Isla’s already in the car.”

Esther jumped up, picked up her things and headed toward the parking lot. I followed her and, as socially-deprived parents tend to do, stopped to chat with several other moms along the way. When I got to the car I opened the back door and put my bags into the back. I rummaged around to find something the kids could snack on while we drove home, so they wouldn’t beg to stop at Dunkin Donuts like we did the day before.

Before I could do anything, Esther said, “Isla’s choking on something.”

“What do you mean, something?” I said.

“I don’t know. She’s choking,” she said, a recognizable edge of panic in her voice.

I went around and opened Isla’s door. She was in her booster seat, struggling to breathe. She coughed, once, twice, but then I only heard gurgling.

“What is she eating? What on earth is she eating?” I yelled, unbuckling her seatbelt and lifting her outside. I pried open her hands and found three soggy Dots candies.

“Where did she get these?” I shrieked as I pounded on her back and bent her over.

“I don’t know,” Esther yelled back.

There’s no way I can tell you everything that happened next. I suspected I should be doing the Heimlich, but wasn’t sure if Isla was too small. I got behind her and reached around, all the while looking around,wondering if it would be better to yell for help, or keep doing whatever pathetic thing I was doing.

I do remember the trajectory of my emotions, from fear, to anger, to disbelief to anger, to  fear to eventual panic once it occurred to me that if I didn’t do the right thing, Isla  could actually die, right then and there.

But she couldn't die right here, right now in this beach parking lot, wearing only her bathing suit, with her mother smacking her on the back. Could she? She wouldn't die like this. Would she?

There's a surreal quality to the moment when you realize that, yes, your child could die right in front of your eyes, right in front of all those people standing there watching you, some friends and some strangers, all with concerned looks on their faces, and cell phones poised, as you try to remember how to do the Heimlich maneuver.

Lucky for me, and for Isla, a friend, a young woman who looks after one of Esther’s friends when her mom is busy, a woman who works with  kids with development issues and special education needs , a woman who also works as a lifeguard, a woman who is so confident and comfortable in times of crisis, she later told me she has saved an untold amount of kids, and adults, from choking, appeared.

When she saw me pounding Isla on the back, she ran towards us and grabbed her from me. She did a few Heimlich moves. Then she also tried some back blows. Isla started to cough and coughed up a small piece of chewy candy. “Is there more in there,” Jen asked. Isla nodded yes. Her eyes were getting bloody and  a horrifying gurgling sound escaped from her throat.

Esther started to scream. Someone took her away. I remained strangely numb. Stoic. A woman standing nearby asked if she should call 911. My head reeled. “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening.”

Isla started to gag and cough and spit up some more. Then she spoke. “Am I going to the hospital?” she said.

Then the gurgling noise again. Then another big gag and then, there on the blacktop, lying in a puddle of spit, was a completely intact yellow Dot candy. When it was over, 911 calls retracted, and  Isla could speak again, and Esther had calmed down, we sat in the open back of the car and hugged and laughed nervously.

“Where on earth did you get that candy?” I said, desperately grasping for something tangible. “I have never bought you Dots.”

“Daddy bought them for me yesterday," she said. "They were in the car.”

“Were you trying to eat them fast before anyone saw you eating them, by any chance, Isla?”


“Do you think choking on Dots is better than being scolded by mommy for eating candy at 11 in the morning?”


"Death to Dots!” I said out loud. “Death to fucking Dots!” I screamed on the inside. Death to the constant fear of death. Isla’s not a toddler. She’s seven years old for crying out loud. Seven. Who on earth would imagine a seven year old choking to death on a piece of candy. Will I never, ever be able to let my shoulders relax and feel sure my children won’t die or be maimed somehow, every day of their lives? It appears not. 
Motherhood is relentless.

Then we got in the car, backed out of the parking lot, pulled onto the highway and headed home as if nothing had happened. Nothing had changed. Life goes on.

Nobody spoke. That car was stone silent. I tried to focus on my driving, feeling suddenly vulnerable on that narrow road with nothing but a guardrail between our car and the short cliff that dropped down to the lake. I reached back and held Isla’s hand. It was cold. Then I reached for Esther’s hand.

That poor girl carries such a burden when it comes to her little sister’s suffering. 
My mind kept returning to that place, that moment when I was unsure that Isla would breathe again, when I felt the most complete absence of control over life and death, over anything. And the tears finally came. They came from someplace deep, hot and familiar. And their source seemed endless.

There was no sobbing, or urge to sob, accompanying those tears. Just hot liquid pouring forth through my eyes. Crying is so strange. It feels so animalistic, yet I know of no other animals besides humans who do it.

I cried the entire 20 miles back to our house, keeping my eyes fixed firmly to the road for fear if I turned my head even slightly, Isla and Esther would see me.

For some reason, I didn’t want them to know just what a wreck I would be without them.

This happened nearly a month ago. I only just now have managed to be able to put it into words. I've been feeling a bit floored by the fragility of motherhood. I'm also kind of obsessed with the thought that there is only so many accidents your child can have on a mother's watch before someone wonders what the heck is wrong with that child's mother. I know, I know. Balderdash. Right? 

(More than 12,300 kids per year visit Emergency rooms for choking on food. I posted about this over at BabyCenter as well. )