Sunday, March 30, 2014

Coming Out of the Gray

In Northfield, the temperature is finally veering toward the abnormally warm today.  For one day.  But for this one day the coffee shop is a-bustle.  Students bend over notebooks, sporting Birkenstocks and newly pedicured toenails; families shuffle in with mud clinging to boots and shoes, the kiddos pressing their faces to the glass refrigerator door, pointing out Oranginas and fruity sodas.  Your father wants to put in paving stones this afternoon while the earth is pliable.  I'm on my way to a meeting at church, a mock interview to prepare us for how to really interview potential new pastor candidates.

We have been to Florida and back.  Thisbe was the happiest of all of us I think.  She swam in a heated pool with a waterfall, made sandcastle after sandcastle on the beach (and then pressed the plastic figures of Anna and Elsa and Ariel into the impressionable walls), played mini-golf, rode on the shoulders of uncles and almost-uncles, fed giraffes, played dress-up at the Naples Children's museum, watched Frozen for the fourth time, laid out her clothing carefully in her room that was actually a closet, collected bits of dried coral and gingerly toed dead sea slugs, and just generally had a grand time. 

Somewhere over Georgia

"Look, Mom!  A hat without ear flaps!"

Watching "Frozen" with Auntie Agnes and Greg

You, on the other hand, became steadily less pleased with the world as the week progressed.  Maybe it was teething, maybe it was exhaustion or a growth spurt or over-stimulation, maybe it was too many people or the absence of familiar objects or the desire to move and the inability to do so--who the hell knows.  But by the end of the week you needed to be held almost constantly in order to stem the tide of shrieks.  You woke more and more often at night and were less easily pacified.  Letting you cry it out is one thing back at's slightly different when there are a band of relatives to disturb in addition to your parents.  On Thursday, when you woke at 5:45 and wouldn't go back to sleep, I bundled you into the stroller, cap on your head and pink striped beach towel cocooned around you, and set off in the pitch black 55 degree air.  I ate a cinnamon roll and drank a latte at the cafe while you sucked on an indestructible baby book and attempted to nurse the nose of Mr. Bear.  You've been slightly better since our return but you are still prone to flapping your arms like a tethered pigeon and shrieking for no apparent reason.  You still don't roll, still don't utter consonant sounds, still prefer an expression of stoicism to one of glee.  When placed on your belly you fuss and raise your butt in a half-hearted Jane Fonda exercise move.

Refusing to roll down the Rolling Hill at the Children's Museum

After you and you sister wake up from your afternoon naps, we'll go outside.  I'll push you in the stroller and we'll gulp in the warm air.  Thisbe will wear her rubber frog boots and experiment with the tonalities of mud stomping and slurping.  Dada will putter with paving stones or dead branches or the broken car window.  We'll eat an unimpressive meal from the crockpot (something involving frozen stew vegetables and chicken and a gravy packet) and if I remember we'll attempt to make a Lenten centerpiece with felt and burlap and a candle holder from church. 

The weather in Florida was lovely, but it was a kind of boozy happiness: imbibed quickly and resulting in warm and fuzzy feelings for a limited amount of time.  Today is happiness for real, the happiness that comes after you have waded through grief or cold or loneliness.  The kind that feels earned rather than bought. In Naples you could see, on the skin of the tanned and weathered crowd, how the days there just keep unfolding into nests of predictable warmth and ease, a permanent blur of sun and shimmer.  Here we know spring as tempestuous and fickle.  Sun and then snow and then warm and then ice again. 

Oh Spring, you changeable vixen!  You equivocating ingenue!  You budding sociopath!  Your strip tease is endless but we will wait.  Wait and wait. Until the gray fades into a distant point. Until green burns our eyelids down.     

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Making of a Man

 It's officially spring and the weather is appropriately bipolar.  Today it's 45 degrees and when the sun appears life is glorious.  Thisbe runs with her coat unzipped, her hands holding the front corners open like wings.  When the sun is out the eye moves to the patches of grass, to the glint of light on the rivulets in the gutters.  Each inch of dry pavement is beheld with glee, each naked finger an act of grace.  And then the clouds come and it's still 45 but instead the wind finds the corners of the lighter coat, slides inside the cuffs and chills.  Gray stipples the hulks of snow and the grass is dun, the trees still skeletal.  No wonder it is the time of year where we remember death on Friday and resurrection on Sunday.

You are in full force darling baby mode and we dote on you continually.  You have two teeth making their slow slice through the lower gum line and you devour slurries of prunes and apples and peas and mangoes and kale with a variety of enthusiastic grunts.  You're an expert at sitting and blowing raspberries but you still fail to roll or make consonant sounds.  Crawling is a distant continent.  But as long as you have a full stomach you are generally a happy boy, content fingering backpack straps or testing the texture of a jar lid with your tongue.

You are far more sensitive than your sister.  If your father sings too low a note or bangs a rhythm on the kitchen table too loudly your face crumples in distress.  If you're left alone in a room or (lately) taken away from me you squeal unhappily.  But your sensitivity to sound has also proved useful.  Though we've now weaned you of night feedings (can I get a "Hallelu--" oh, wait.  maybe not so much during Lent) you still sometimes wake at 5:00 or so.  Then Dada goes in and turns on a classical lullaby CD and within a few minutes you sway back into sleep.

But this sensitivity in you, this part of who you are and who you are becoming--well, it's the first time I've really had to face that I (and others) think of you in a gendered way.  Specifically as a boy and thus as someone for whom being highly sensitive might prove to be a problem in the future.  If you were a girl, our culture would chalk all this behavior up as "shy" and "sweet" and well within the realm of the ways girls should behave.  But each time I hear you cry at a loud sound or buckle at my absence I am torn between deep love at the emergence of this part of your personality and worry that the culture you live in will view this behavior as weakness rather than as strength.

Your sister, meanwhile, faces a similar problem.  Teacher Sarah had to tell me at our very first conference that I shouldn't use "bossy" to describe my daughter--that she was showing leadership skills and though she needed to learn to manage these skills, they were nothing to roll my eyes or shake my head in embarrassment about.  Indeed, there's even a campaign rolling through the internet right now called "Ban Bossy"--Sheryl Sandberg's attempt to promote leadership in girls.  Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) I worry way less about Thisbe's fierce, intense, and strident personality than I do about your more attached, sensitive, and observant one.

And I wonder (and I'm going to try to say this without weirding you out too much) if it's more complicated with you because I have both a practical/rational version of what makes a wonderful man and then I have a biological/sexual version that stems from my own experience as a woman.  The first, much more PC version is all about sensitivity and kindness and compassion and intelligence.  That version of myself cares not a whit if you excel at athletics or know how to wield a hammer.  PC me is glad to buy you a doll to cradle and muffin tins to fill, glad to paint your toenails purple and purchase princess paraphernalia for Halloween.  But then there's the Un-PC me who, truthfully, has never been attracted to a man who was my height or shorter, who likes watching a man's body kick or throw or race shirtless down St. Olaf avenue, who is turned on by authority and strength.  And maybe un-PC me is just a product of social conditioning.  But maybe un-PC me is a product of biology too.  (If I wasn't lazy I would link to a bunch of articles that suggest this hypothesis).

I have no qualms about raising Thisbe to be intense and sassy and bossy--I mean AS A LEADER , in part because shunning some of the feminine "virtues" has worked pretty well for me.  I am all of those things and though there have admittedly been a number of romantic dry spells in my life--I've loved and been loved by incredible men (most notably your father, of course). 

But the bespeckled, soft-spoken, spongy, overly-sensitive guy?  I was never attracted to that guy.  He was always the friend I tried to set up with a single female friend...right before both the friend and I chose instead to date the inappropriate guys who couldn't speak in complete sentences but ran ultra-marathons.  Obviously with your father I managed to find a wonderful combination of both sensitivity and strength, of typical masculinity and the ability to listen without being an asshole.   And I hope for that combination within you--though I think it's unfair for me to hope for anything at all.  I'm called to love you for who you actually are not who I think you should become.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm sorry if I fail you on this front.  It's so easy to blame OUR HORRIBLE SEXIST CULTURE for pushing kids to be something they're not.  It feels decidedly more unsettling to realize that my own biology and identity as a heterosexual and sexual being might get wrapped up in how I raise you, in the subtle ways I reaffirm or question your behavior.  It feels, in fact, like Freud is gleefully haunting the edges of this post.

In this season of little deaths, I would like to practice burying the expectations I have for you that come from a place other than complete love and grace.  Those that come from my insecurities or cultural pressure or those that are weirdly entangled in my own sexual psyche. 

Birth is, in part, the act of catching the being as he or she emerges.  And this is the great blessing, of course: that you are mystery and so the act of catching is repeated each day, our hands open and trembling to receive your screaming, messy, beautiful life in whatever shape it comes.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday With Hives

An inch of new snow last night now rapidly deteriorating in the sun.  Patches of ice at intersections turning soft.  25 degrees feels like almost spring.  The raven on the branch outside is almost a robin.  Then he turns and he is a robin, breast a tawny orange instead of red, brown wings looking a bit rumpled and thin, very much the absent-minded professor who hasn't had time to iron.  Last night we went to Thisbe's school for an art show.  She showed us her work: a newspaper hat painted gold and topped with silver star and white rose; a drawing of Ariel standing upright on her tail, fins split and splayed at the bottom; faces drawn big and close, swirls in between and a caption "a party at my house"; a spindly house with windows and roof, a line of blue sky, our names etched into the siding.

Your face is a mass of red welts.  Your body is spotted red.  Fever of 101.5.  We're on day 15 of your cough and runny nose, an ear infection in there somewhere, another doctor visit to check your wheezing breath sounds.  You might be allergic to amoxicillan.  Or this might just be a virus passing through you.

It's Ash Wednesday, a day that some winters comes as a relief.  We are here in the darkness and cold anyway so why not think about sin?  Why not fast and pray?  Why not circle a little around our limited mortality?  But this year it feels unfair.  My eyes hurt from trying to find each small bit of animal motion in the treetops, from searching too long for spring in the brightness of the snow.  On a day where the winter feels like it's finally offering slivers of resurrection it seems brutal to march over to church and be marked on the forehead with a smudge of ash.

And your sister is fighting some kind of demon of her own.  She speaks to us in whiny, bossy, uncompromising tones and when we ask for kindness, for please or thank you, she goes ballistic.  "Get me my cereal/turn the CD on/I will NOT put on pajamas!" she shrieks.  Or she tries on "I won't do that.  I just won't.  You can't make me." And then she looks at me, red-rimmed eyes, crossed arms, tears.  Teacher Sarah says all parents get it sooner or later, we're just getting it sooner.  And love now, in her case, seems to be firmness, seems to be holding a solid boundary, devoid of emotion as possible.   It's our fault a little that she's in this place.  After your birth, and more recently in the midst of sickness we've bent over backwards to shower her with attention, to make sure she knows she is loved via kisses and kindness and hot cocoas at Blue Monday and special dates with Mama and on and on.  We forgot, a little, that sometimes loving your sister means saying "no."

A poet colleague recently said that sometimes what got her through the early months of mothering (new baby, no real time to write, unfinished housework everywhere, job responsibilites encroaching, etc.) was saying to herself: this is impossible.  To admit freely that the kind of balance she dreamt of simply would not happen for a while.  That it was literally impossible to do it all. 

So much of my frustration these past few months has come from "ifs."  I would have time to write IF the kids weren't constantly getting sick.  I would have been in a more pleasant mood today IF my husband had opted to serve something other than leftovers on his one cooking night this week.  The house would be a lot cleaner IF we hadn't had that blizzard.  And on and on. 

Another writer friend wrote a wonderful post about lent today.  I especially like Lenten Approach #3.  But I think maybe what I need to give up this year is the possibility of having it all.  The idea that under certain circumstances I could currently be a great mother/writer/teacher/wife/friend/citizen all at once.  I am tired of failing over here, within the American myth of the possible.  So tonight I'll offer up (likely with a hive-covered baby strapped to me and a four year old whining about how her cross itches) my dream of perfect balance and complete fulfillment.  And I will pray that leaving that longing behind makes room for a different kind of possibility to enter.