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You know things you don’t know when you’re young. It’s funny how you can look back, through that cloudy, soft focus lens times gives you, and see how much you knew when you didn’t feel like you knew anything at all. I used to be a little girl who was afraid all the time. I was afraid of being at school, I was afraid of being at home, I was afraid of my dad. I was afraid for my brother and my mom. I can see myself 29 years ago, trying to use my four year old brain and hands and soul and words to keep everyone I loved safe. I would perform small rituals constantly, begging the universe for my mom’s happiness and my survival. I started having anxiety attacks at four years old, and while my behavior back then must have seemed strange, erratic, and irrational, I look back now and all I see is a little girl who was trying desperately to feel safe with what limited resources she had.
I moved from one suburb to another, from school to school, into the gifted program (and then straight back out again, with baby me quaking under the pressure, refusing to eat, to leave the house, to thrive), and finally into an old, wooden two story house in the middle of 50 acres of forest. In that house, everyone’s presence changed. With an extra two hours added to my dad’s commute, he was present less and less as my mom became present more. She built on her writing, she started a business. My brother moved past babyhood, and I felt a little stronger, too. In our old wooden house surrounded by miles of trees, we built our strength, we came back to ourselves, and eventually realized what needed to be left behind.
It was dark, past my bedtime, when my mom asked me if I wanted to go on a walk. We left the house, walked past the disused pasture behind it, and went into the woods. We walked through the trees, and every once in a while she would squeeze my hand. She was talking to me, but I was eight years old and intoxicated by this dark moment in the woods with my mom; we were alone! Inside the house, when my dad was home, we were rarely allowed to interact with each other. Her words broke through my own cloudy and self-centered internal narrative and I realized what she was telling me: we were leaving. We were leaving this house in the woods and we were leaving my dad. She stopped and turned to hug me, studying my face. She was trying to say all the things correctly; that it wasn’t my fault, that sometimes mommies and daddies just can’t live together anymore. I’m still not sure what she expected to see. Tears? Anger? Guilt? What she found was an elated and grinning little girl who wanted to pack a bag and leave that very second. A few days later we moved into our own tiny little house with two bedrooms and wooden floors and a giant tulip tree in the backyard.
At 33, 25 years later, I use the woods as medicine. With my dog and my music, we follow trails and watch birds and explore. In the summer we hike the creeks. We find treasure: little skulls and big strips of birch bark. Once, in the hollow knot of a giant oak tree, a single electric tea light, still flickering. The woods is a place where I always feel safe, from the world and from myself. I don’t question my thoughts, I just let them run. I imagine anything I want, follow every errant path, allow myself total freedom to believe anything that occurs to me.
I’ve been struggling a lot recently with the concepts of shadow and light; I feel like I’ve forgotten how to be whole, I’ve forgotten how to balance these things and actually exist. I swing between shadow and light pendulously, bingeing on one and then the other. At the end of every day I feel exhausted, imbalanced, in pieces. It occurs to me, though, that there are precious few places where I feel comfortable being all the things that I am. Life becomes so compartmentalized; we have our work selves and our social selves. We have our parent selves, our child selves, our alone selves. Any place or person or thing that allows you to be all things at once deserves to be treated as sacred, and the art and words that allow us to be whole and confront all of ourselves; the dark and the light, the good and the bad, safety and oblivion, should be treated as the same.
The photos in this post are by my friend Oliver Leach. When I see his work, I feel safe and uncomfortable. I feel still and exhilarated, I feel whole. In writing this, it seems strange to write about someone else’s art in such a personal manner, but this is my favorite thing about art like his: he pays service to all things, all at once, simultaneously. And it feels true in an unfathomably deep and dark way; with beauty and simplicity, the perfect combination of light and shadow.
in church a few weeks ago, I walked up as my mom was (for some mysterious reason) telling the pastor that when she was a little girl, she lived in an old farmhouse where raccoons would climb into the walls when it was cold. he sort of gasped and raised his hands up slowly towards my mom and he said, with this sympathetic look on his face, ‘oh, you must have been so poor!’ POOR, he said, with the sort of posture and tone you adopt when comforting the infirm or the bereaved, like it was a terrible disease.
and my mom looked up, with genuine shock on her face; she laughed and she said, ‘I just thought it was nice to have the company’
today at the humane society, we attempted unsuccessfully to adopt a series of dogs. we went to meet a specific dog: Butterbean. a smiling, cylindrical creature; part-bulldog, part-beagle, part-something. but Butterbean was gone, someone had already adopted her. we walked through the kennels, where my kids saw two dogs who felt right.
the first, a 13 year old hound-thing (‘she still needs a HOME,’ stamped the 7 year old, after being informed that old dogs do not usually live nearly as long as young dogs) named Raven (hindsight! so many bad omens!) who was wonderful and sweet, but who would bark at my son every time he moved. not an aggressive bark, but a steady, unrelenting, ‘hey. hey. hey. hey.’
the second dog, a scruffy terrier thing named Kitsy. my daughter asked about her and a very quiet teen brought her to us. he stayed in the room, while we scratched Kitsy’s ears and underneath her cone (a great sign!), while the quiet teen cleared his throat and said, quietly:
'she has some medical issues'
‘oh, like what? heartworm or?’
‘she has some issues with a. prolapsed. ah. loins.’
‘oh, you mean it’s—’
‘it would be a daily task. a lot’
‘do you just put it—’
[sweet tinkling voices of children] ‘what’s thaaa—’
‘just some lubrication and—’
[quiet teen exits]
I am grateful though, to the quiet teen, who somehow managed to explain the sad issue of a dog’s prolapsed vagina so gracefully that not only were my children were barely interested, it fell immediately off their radar.
you’re walking on a trail you don’t know well and the snow is heavy and deep. the sun is out, the day has warmed, and the layers of snow—like a geologic map—are laid out one on top of the other, according to temperature and wind velocity and the time of day when each layer appeared. there’s a catch in your boot, an annoyance. just a small rub on the tender top of your right foot. you shake the boot a little, you keep walking. further on, near the river: the rub. the rub, and a poke; unfamilliar pressure. enough to wince, but not enough to take your boot off in these 18 inches of snow and shake it out. what could be in there, anyway? gleefully your mind fills in the blanks: hypodermic needles, razor blades, hard shiny bugs with pincers as big as their bodies. a thing is chosen: a mangled piece of metal is in your boot, a curved thing with jagged edges is wedged between the hard rubber of your boot and the soft, pale skin on the top of your right foot. your breath catches as the thin skin is pierced, the world shifts a little to the side as the metal twists in past those winding blue veins, so much more apparent in these cold months. you hang on, you find a place to stop and support yourself. the boot is removed. it contains no hypodermic needles, no razor blades, no hard shiny bugs with pincers as big as their bodies. no mangled piece of metal. there is the river, here is the frozen path underneath you. the boot is replaced, the dog is patted, and you move on.
adventures in therapy (in which I make my therapist explain why she chose the art in her office)
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
Today I have a piece in the Atlantic online. Growing up, my mom always subscribed to the print magazine, as her mom always had. It’s always been a staple in my family: My parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles. I remember being very small and stealing my mom’s copies, hiding away and reading the fiction every month. A very sappy confession: As young as ten or eleven, I would read the short fiction pieces the Atlantic published every month and daydream that maybe one day I’d be in there, too.
So today I am grateful and so happy and also shell-shocked and nervous and HOLY CRAP do I ever need a cigarette.
Anyway, here it is.
Some nights your beautiful, sleepy daughter walks quietly down the hallway from her room and hands you Susie, the brown stuffed dog (which, she shows you, has a torn ear). She smiles when you promise to fix it; frowns when you tell her not right now, though, but puts Susie down calmly by your chair anyway. She walks back down the hallway, returns a minute later with Rainbow, the black and white stuffed yorkie, and sets her down next to Susie. She straightens, bare feet shuffling under spindly legs under her dad’s old worn out pacman shirt, and explains: for company. they’re sisters.
We stood at the bus stop in the dark. My hands were wrapped around my coffee mug. I watched the kids growing more and more illuminated by the sun rising behind low gray clouds. Him, in his layers of mismatched, old pajamas and Spiderman slippers. Her, in her carefully planned outfit: torn jeans, red chucks, polka-dot jacket. She threw her backpack down on the sidewalk and they started to play together. Running, jumping over cracks, shouting and laughing and calling each other’s names, showing off. I caught myself frowning at them; she and I had argued that morning after I’d asked her to buy her lunch from school instead of packing one. You would have thought I had asked her to do something painfully impossible. Requesting that she buy some chicken nuggets for lunch was akin to asking her to deny her own very nature; she froze, panicked, begged. She simply could not imagine a reality where she would have to eat cafeteria food. It became a stand-off, she and I glowering at each other while her dad silently got out of bed, shuffled to the kitchen, made her a sandwich, and threw it in her lunchbox.
Later, at the bus stop, I crouched down in front of her. I told her that I love her strong will and the way she has so many ideas about the way the world should be. I asked her, though, to practice flexibility. I told her that this world is vast and things are going to happen whether they are part of her plan or not. I told her that she’s very young and brilliant and thoughtful, but sooner or later she’s gonna have to learn how to bend. I told her to think of those small little bends like exercise; the school lunches, the playdate activities, choosing the books we read and the shows we watch. Maybe bending about small things keeps us flexible, so we don’t grow brittle and snap when confronted by the Big Things that sneak up and shake us to our very core.
She listened, smiled, hugged me. Her brother walked up, hands tucked inside his sleeves, and whined that he was cold. She sighed, opened up her backpack, pulled out a pair of pink gloves, and handed them to her brother. "Now," she said, "These are my favorite. They’re fuschia, which is not quite pink and not quite red. You can wear them at the bus stop. When you go inside, though, take them off and put them together on my bench by the front door. Remember, your bench is blue and my bench is butterscotch. Put my gloves inside the door on my butterscotch bench and don’t touch them again until I get home." Gratefully, he nodded as he pulled on the fuschia gloves. I shook my head, looked down at the tops of their heads, sipped my coffee, and decided that maybe we’ll start practicing bending tomorrow.
[this is something I wrote a long time ago]
Remember when this image popped up on all of our computers and then the Internet exploded? I saw it and was taken aback for a moment. My first thought was, 'Those are NOT mom arms!' followed immediately by, 'Oh! He's. Big.' And that was that. I was done. (I do feel like I need to say that my ONE major problem with this Time cover is that the little boy’s face is unobstructed. He’s too young to have decided to appear on this cover by himself. I hope he is one of those little boys who grows a new face around puberty.) I try not to read too much of these Mommywars types of articles because they upset me. I don’t like things that classify and sub-categorize moms. Are you an attachment parent? A free range parent? A tiger mom? Neglectful? A helicopter parent? Are you ruining your child by paying too little attention to him? Are you ruining your child by paying too much attention to him? Are you spoiling your child by buying him too many toys? Or is he going to be a serial killer/cold-hearted investment banker because of his horrible, deprived childhood? Are you one of those stuck-up, suburban rich-lady moms who only feeds your kids free range, organic, level 7 vegan food? Or are you one of those fat slobby ones that puts soda in sippy cups and carries around a box of fruit snacks in your grubby purse?
I am not any of these things. And I am all of them. What kind of parent am I? I listen to my kids. I let them play. If they ask for something and they are being good and I can afford it, I give it to them. I feel them healthyish food. They eat vegetables. They also eat cookies. Sometimes they drink only water for days. Sometimes they drink chocolate milk. Sometimes (shock, horror, gasp) I’ll let Henry have a little Pepsi in a grown-up glass, because he loves it and it makes him feel like a big boy for a minute.
I nursed both of my kids for a year each, and I feel lucky to have been able to do that. With Ruby, as a new mom, I lived on those La Leche League forums; swapping stories about over-supply and nursing habits that seemed so fascinating and important at the time. I said things like, 'I just don't understand women who don't nurse. Why would they deprive their child?' and, 'I bet they didn't even try. Formula is basically poison, you know.' I was a crunchy, baby-wearin’ mama and proud of it. I would see crying babies in public, holding bottles and being pushed in strollers and feel sorry for them, because CLEARLY their mothers didn’t understand their needs.
And then Henry came. Henry was a good nurser and a good sleeper, but he did not like to be worn. He did NOT like schedules. He did what he wanted when he wanted (he still does). And as a family, we learned to adapt. We became more fluid and relaxed. I feel like Henry saved me from staying the sort of judgmental mom I had become. He brought a whole new set of insane challenges to the table (AND CONTINUES TO BRING THEM; THANKS, HENRY) that made me stop short and realize just how hard parenting is. I do a lot of the things now that I used to turn my nose up at three years ago, and it makes me giggle. Because I see now how little those things matter. What matters is that my kids are fed, and warm, and clean, and loved. They are who they are. And they will be basically the same person no matter what I do.
They are not currently on fire. I am doing okay.
So maybe think about this. As parents (especially mothers), we all feel inadequate. We all feel like we’re grasping at straws sometimes. We see other parents all around us doing things differently than we do and we think, 'Is THAT the right way? Am I ruining everything?' As a parent, I am never absolutely confident in the choices I make, because the circumstances and situations that caused me to make those choices are always changing. It’s like trying to paint on a rotating canvas; use the paint you have to try to fill in the spaces that you can and just hope that the colors will blend in together somehow. In the end, you’ll probably have something that’s reasonably nice to look at (just don’t let it catch on fire.)
Our job as parents isn’t to judge. Our job is to love and protect our children. To clothe and feed and snuggle them. The next time you feel compelled to say something snarky about another human’s parenting, maybe go give your kids a hug instead, because those are the kids that are your business.
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