Monday, October 12, 2015

Breathing Places

 Grey and windy and frothy today.  All of the leaves on the sidewalks scuttling and all of the leaves on the trees torched and seething.  It feels exactly like October today but yesterday felt like mid-August, like we were on the verge, all over again, of summer ending.

Thisbe came home from the park barefoot and skirted and wearing a leaf crown another mother had made for her.  At rest time she practiced writing numbers, the middle of the page filled with scribbled black circles that looked like mistakes but that she said were "breathing places."

We spent the afternoon in a friend's backyard, drinking cider and beer and Manhattans, eating chili and pita chips and Halloween-themed Oreos.  You guys painted pumpkins on an old shower curtain and drew with chalk on a wooden fence and tried to steal the football that the grown-ups spun through the 85 degree air.  The grass was short and green and the bugs were gone and sometimes, in the middle of talking, there was the extra weight of a leaf falling onto a shoulder or arm or leg.  Matteus, you pushed the bubble lawn mower and drank cup after cup of cider.  Your sister swung back and forth across the monkey bars so many times that in the evening as we read stories she peeled white, calloused skin from her palms.

The first weeks of school for your dear darling sister have been a bit of a shit show.  She got in trouble for hugging when others didn't want to be hugged, for hugging in the middle of lunch when she was supposed to be focused on her peanut butter and jelly, for hugging on the classroom carpet in a way that looked a lot like wrestling.  She came home sobbing, saying that no one wanted to sit next to her on the bus.  She cried because we told her she couldn't wear her silver shoes to school, she screamed because we wouldn't let her wear a short-sleeved dress in the cold, she raged because I corrected her when she read the wrong word in her book in a bag, she shrieked "you don't love me, no one loves me, no one will ever love me" when we told her she couldn't leave for the kindergarten dinner until she used the potty.  No accidents at school but accidents at home as though, at a very physical level, after holding it in all day, she has to let it out as soon as she gets home.  So it has rained down on us: urine and snot and tears.  It rained a lot in our house this September.

 October seems to be better.  It turns out your sister needs time in her room, alone, each and every day.  She needs to play school so that she can have a chance to be the teacher.  She needs to order imagined students to sit on the buttons printed on her carpet, she needs to cut scraps of paper and distribute them to willing imagined participants.  She need to chasten others.  She needs to curl up with Grimm's Fairy Tales, a book without pictures that she cannot read, and she needs to read that book, to tell those invented stories until she reaches a place of equilibrium again.

On the other hand, you are a fairly stalwart example of equilibrium unless your sister is behaving in which case you start to whine and writhe around on the ground.  You want your shoes on but you do not want us to help you but now you do.  You are done with your yogurt but holy shit how could we possibly have taken your yogurt away from you???  You want three blankets tucked around you at every nap time.  You want Snow White read at least five times per day.  You want to do everything that Thisbe does and sometimes your exact mirroring of her actions is hilariously sweet.  Until it's not.  Then you're both spraying mashed potatoes at dinner and Daddy and I are yelling and you're both laughing in reflected tones of crazy.

Fall is my favorite season and also the season in which inexplicable sadness most often rears its head inside me.  Perhaps because fall always feels like a time of accounting--for what has been lost, for what has failed to grow or thrive or come into being and also for what we have, for what has been given and offered and shared.  Fall is the place from which winter is visible in the distance, even as the foreground blazes with bounty.

On Saturday we went walking in the woods.  You and your sister poked soggy leaves with sticks, clamored up rocks beside a waterfall, examined mushrooms and discarded sunflower seeds, acorns and insect eggs.  We ate apples on a bench and wiped snot from your nose, argued over water bottles and doled out jellybeans when the whining commenced.  You rode on my back.  Sometimes, your sister took your father's hand.  Sometimes the two of you showed each other the way.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Labor Days

You are likely currently submerged at least partially in water, your backside weighed down by the sog of a swim diaper.  Your sister is likely saying "Daddy, Daddy, watch this" somewhere relatively nearby, then jumping off a ledge into deeper water or dog paddling as long as she can before, gasping, she needs to stand.  You are at the Y with Daddy and Mommy is at the cafe so that Mommy doesn't kill any of her offspring. 

Today is Saturday of the longest weekend of the year.  Everything feels bloated and pregnant.  It's 85 degrees outside but feels like 92 because of the humidity.  Your father and Thiz spent the morning at the fair, eating chocolate chip cookies by the handful and cotton candy spun into frothy wigs; cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches.  Right after they convinced Monarchs to land on their arms in the butterfly house they let themselves be swung through the air on "jets" at the end of greasy, metal poles.  I don't like the fair because I can feel it from here: that press of bodies, the sweat of grease on wrappers, grease on foreheads, children writhing in strollers, lethargic animals below huge, churning fans, the fevered excitement and noise; people sitting on curbs eating fried things on sticks; rows of shining green farming equipment on matted grass; teenagers trying to keep their makeup on in the heat; carts where people stand over frothing vats of oil.  And that strange sense of urgency that wherever you are you are missing something far more interesting somewhere else.

I stayed home with you instead.  You woke at 5:15am.  We read Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, we ate yogurt and honey-os and strawberries and bananas with peanut butter and raisins balanced JUST SO.  We went to the Y and I found you at the end of an hour, happily tracing the path of a car on a road inscribed into the carpet.  We went to the cafe and looked at "Cars and Trucks and Things that Go" and ate noodles and applesauce for lunch.  You slept for an hour.  "I'm awake, mom!  Come and get me!  I'm awake now!"  You "baked" muffins and I thumbed through a J. Jill catalog.

It has been a long two weeks of transition events.  Thisbe's last day of daycare.  Thisbe's birthday party.  A "special birthday" trip to the indoor water park with Thisbe.  Agnes and Greg's pre-wedding party.  Agnes and Greg's wedding.  A trip to the cabin.  Your first day of daycare.  Our first day of Olaf events.  Thisbe's Ready, Set, Go day at school.  Big moments.  Everything ratcheted up.  Everything meaningful.

School begins on Tuesday.  Thisbe will show up to the bus stop sometime before 8:01am with her owl backpack (featuring wings that flap if you squeeze a tiny pump on the strap) and dressed in an outfit that has yet to be determined.  We'll (likely) bike furiously behind the bus in an attempt to see her climb down those extra large steps and orient herself on the playground.  Then Miss Malecha, part kindergarten teacher, part Disney princess, will call the class toward her (I am imagining mother hen and flailing chicks) and Thisbe will enter a building and begin a new part of her life.  I've seen her name on masking tape below a cubby, seen her name stenciled in purple on the top of a "desk" (one third of a hexagonal table), I've seen the wide open space of the library, and the nondescript cafeteria but it feels like a space that will be hers, that I will never quite reside in or know the way I knew Northfield Daycare.  Though perhaps that will change.

We've tried to stock the rest of the weekend with as many activities as we can--playdates and pickling parties, church and BBQs and visits from Gak--but the time between now and Tuesday still feels immense.  I am rabid for a routine, rabid for your sister to be challenged, for something to finally exhaust her. 

On Sunday evening the weather is supposed to break.  Next week the temperatures look cooler, less humid, more livable. 

Today is that moment in a pregnancy when you are ready to meet the baby but someone says to you, a little knowingly and a little condescendingly, enjoy these last few moments of being pregnant.  Trust me, enjoy them.  And you want to punch that person in the face because that person does not currently feel like she has a wet bag of sand hanging between her legs, waiting to fall out.

But then the baby comes and you wish you had been able to find a way to do that better.  To be present fully in your world right before it shifts. 

 So for the next 48 hours I'll aim for presence--but I'm awarding myself an extra glass of wine if I make it through bedtime without cursing, crying, or committing myself.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fire into Wine

Another beautiful day in Northfield.  Yesterday we watched giant excavators pull up bits of Second street.  Their noises were so loud and their immensity so overpowering that you, sweet boy, did not feel comfortable standing alone to watch.  You settled into my lap, beside your friend Aubin, and stroked your stuffed kitty and stared with wonder and terror.

Today, fire surrounds Holden.  We are watching with wonder and terror the pictures of a smoke filled valley, of firefighters lined up at the silver counter, of a red-flame horizon along the Tailings pile.  We are refreshing our browsers, we are living inside other people's dreams, we are zooming and re-zooming on maps that depict the fire as a red mouth slashed with lines to indicate strength of heat.  We are singing and praying and tagging each other in pictures from long ago.  We are remembering ponderosa pines and fiddlehead ferns and cottonwood leaves shimmering in late afternoon light.  We are wading though our memories, touching with our minds the blond beams in the fireside room, ice cream containers housing yarn, scalding knives fresh from the Hobart.  These memories and prayers are the warm lap we sit in while we watch the fire unfold.

Yesterday, while digging for a recipe for Rita's Triple Treats (to make for tonight's Holden Evening prayer gathering) I came across a recipe for Blackberry "Fire" Wine.  The note says "This wine was made with the blackberries at Field's Point during the 2007 evacuation."  I loved this--partly because it made me laugh, partly because it made my mouth water, partly because I love the sense of creativity bursting forth in the middle of exile.  If Jesus can turn water into wine, why can't fire be turned into wine too?  I sort of like the idea of Railroad Creek valley as vineyard.

I have never really believed in praying for miracles.  I have prayed for miracles, for huge shifts of the heart, healing in the body, peace between warring nations.  But I have always understood that the real prayer I should pray, the one I can always expect to be answered, if for God's presence through all of it.  I've always understood that God reminds us of this presence through human contact mostly, through hugs and smiles, through offerings of food and quiet listening, but sometimes also through moments in nature or words encountered at the right moment on the page, a song working its way to the heart at the right instant.

I am wary of praying for miracles because I fear what will happen to my faith when the miracle doesn't happen.  Certainly, miracles do arrive for some people--but for every cancer patient saved by a miracle, what of the thousands who are not?  For every person miraculously saved from an avalanche, what of the broken bodies never found?  Miracles seem like fishy business to me because they seem to suggest a hierarchy--certain people or places are saved while others are not.  I don't believe in a God of hierarchies.  I don't believe in a God of this person but not that one.  I don't believe in a God who shows more favor to a remote village in the mountains than a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

But the Bible is filled with miracles.  Blind people see, lame people walk, water turns into wine, water turns into something you can stand upon, men spend days inside large fish, arks hold two of every creature and a sea parts so that people can walk through to safety.  In the Bible, people and places are chosen.  I am having trouble reconciling this, making sense of this in my head.

Because the truth is that I want Holden to be chosen.  I want God to save those buildings.  I want a bubble of safety over it.  I want a story to tell my grandchildren of how the fire came and went but Holden was saved.  

I am wary of miracles and I am praying for a miracle.

The village has been planning for fire for a long time.  If Holden is saved, it will be due to the forethought of smart people, to the hands that installed sprinkler systems and cleared brush, to the firefighters wrapping the buildings in tinfoil skirts, to the "fab five" villagers who are working without ceasing.   But I am not certain that all of that intelligence and bravery and preparation will be enough; fire is, by its nature, unpredictable.  I am sitting and waiting.

I am wary of miracles and I am praying for a miracle nonetheless.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Birthing and Burning

It's August and you, Matteus Mark, are two years old.

It's August and here in Northfield the humidity has cleared and the blue skies are shimmied with puffy streaks of white.  Flower boxes are overflowing and bikers stand outside Blue Monday, wiping dust from their spandex shorts and blowing cool air over the tops of their coffee cups.  You're home with a babysitter, probably cooking cupcakes in the play kitchen or watching the diggers tear up Second street or taking Baby Tay for a ride in the doll-sized stroller.

Across the country, a fire is creeping closer to Holden.  There are no people left in the village, just whatever sound the huge sprinklers make sending water over the forest and buildings.  Just whatever sound the fire makes, deciding what to devour next.

You speak in four or five word sentences.  "What happened in this book?" "Mama sit right here." "Thisbe wake up now." "Pushing Baby in stroller." "Raisins in oatmeal please."  You like present participles, everything happening right now and continuously: sitting, standing, sleeping, eating. 

The dim scabs of bug bites decorate your arms and legs, your right cheek, the back of your neck, the bridge of your nose.  You like to cuddle and tickle.  You are ridiculously sweet.

Thisbe is dressed in green today (actually turquoise that she adamantly swears is green) for her second day of Vacation Bible School.  The theme is G-Force and the hallways of Bethel are decorated with orange cones and rolls of black paper dotted with white lines.  A cheetah puppet talks to the children about God while they roll on the floor or sit slack jawed, staring.  Thisbe's learned half of one song (something about "small as a bug" and "tall as a tree").  On the first day she made a shrinky-dink in the shape of a shoe, "helped everyone remember that story about Moses in the basket" and made a "real tornado!" inside two water bottles held together with glitter tape.  For snack, there were white chocolate chips and M and M's.  She's in heaven.

Above Lake Chelan is a cloak of smoke.  It's sometimes a haze and sometimes a high white plume and sometimes gauze in the lungs.

You demand to read a book filled with fire trucks but empty of plot at least 73 times each day.  You subsist mainly on yogurt and fruit and oatmeal and eggs and noodles and bread and peanut butter and rice.  On Mondays we go to the farm and choose eggplants and peppers and bushy stalks of kale.  We clip the flowers that don't have bees nesting inside them and we're thankful to see the bees nesting anywhere at all.

What we know about fire in a forest is that most of the time it's part of a cycle that's good and necessary.  It's the way nature needs to behave in order to be healthy.  But it's also true that global warming has caused higher than normal temperatures, has sucked the water from much of the west coast this summer.  This fire's blossoming spread may have more to do with the harm we've caused the earth than the earth cyclical ability to rejuvenate itself.  But the truth is that whatever caused or prolonged the fire, Railroad Creek Valley was going to burn eventually.

But there is a village in Railroad Creek and that village is the spiritual center of my life.  I learned to become myself in that village.  That village has transformed and sustained thousands of people over the years.  All of us are different for having passed through that place.

I am, you are, part of a community that believes death never has the final word.  We believe in resurrection.  And we believe good care of the planet is part of our job and our responsibility.  But on the other side of that village burning are so many unknowns: whether we would be allowed to rebuild, whether there would be enough money to rebuild, whether people would care enough to make that happen.  And even if rebuilding occurred, there would be many long years of absence and charred remains.  The truth is that for all our preaching and belief otherwise, to face the death of some one or some place you love is terrible and terrifying. 

So, like you Matteus, we occupy the present participles that pull us through these hours and days, that make time a river instead of a past or a future.  Railroad Creek is still running.  And we are waiting and hoping and praying...for the village to be saved, yes, but also for the good courage to face that possible death and the faith to believe in the new life that exists on the other side.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


We're in Cork, Ireland.

You slept a little on the plane, curled on my lap or Daddy's, arms bent below the thin, navy airplane blanket that I think has been around since the dawn of time.

Before you slept on the plane I tried to get you to sleep on the plane by bouncing you in the Ergo, your head forcibly pressed to my breastbone, whispering all the animal noises on Old MacDonald's farm.  I stood between the lavatories, facing the blue curtain the flight attendants drew to give them privacy as they heated tins of food in the galley kitchen.  As I bounced and pressed and sang, little fragments of rainbow light appeared on the curtain, a reminder that we were following the sun.

You have a rash, a constellation of red pimples below the right corner of your mouth so when you squirm and writhe in the stroller because we've walked too much and you've walked too little you look like an angry teenager.

In the stroller cup holder we keep chocolate eggs with fragile pastel shells, Twix bars I buy with the extra money I'm given at lunch, and a variety of different kinds of biscuits.  Bribery has become a way of life.

Lift, flat, trolley, biscuit, hob.  We're re-learning how to say what we mean.

Thisbe a fluorescent speck below the white sweep of an amphitheater, dancing.  Thisbe a fluorescent lemur in a flowering purple bush the size of an RV, trying to mimic a new friend's accent.  Failing miserably.

Houses like a row of Necco wafers, repeating in the river.

Everything and nothing about our lives is different here.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

To Do the Impossible Thing

It's been an embarrassingly long time since I've written, as evidenced by the Carleton students crossing the street in shorts, the men resting their bikes against the side of the coffee shop in even tighter shorts, in the green fuzzing of the bush across the street, in the songs melting out through the open windows of sedans and minivans alike.

Thisbe went off to Gak's for an overnight (and procured gold and shiny and glittery flip flops that don't even have any straps on the back!!!!!--according to her breathless voice on the phone) and so you sat with us in the breakfast nook this afternoon, after you'd finished your peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  You looked out the window and said "kitty bye-bye," and "Di-dee bye-bye" and "boat swim" and finally, noting the Kristen Gilje painting on the wall, "Holden!  Holden!"  You're a tiny parrot, often spitting the last few words of my sentences right back at me.

"Should we go to the library now?"

"Library!  Now!"

"I'm going to put the chicken in the oven."

"Chicken!  Oven!"

Or, at lunch:

"He is just so sweet sometimes."

"So!  Sweet!"

Then again and again, wrinkling up your nose and laughing: "Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet!"

You love to be outside and you cry as if we were ripping the very world from your skin when we bring you inside.  Even if you're not actually doing anything.  Yesterday you were just sitting in the pebble-filled playground of Way Park, absent-mindedly running your fingers through bits of rock, when we told you it was time to go.  "No, no!" you said.   Hysterics ensued.

Today at church I was sitting behind a couple with a seven-month-old.  Midway through the service the baby started smiling at his father, that very first newborn smile where the baby is learning his lips, trying to stretch them in a way that says here is some joy for you.  And you could tell, from the way the parents bent their heads over him, that he'd never smiled so much or so long.  And the parents were clearly so hungry for the glimpse of the baby's personality, to know how he wears joy.

I felt the tiny stab of course--the never-again-that-moment-exactly-with-a-baby-of-ours stab--but gratitude for getting to witness that moment.  The purity of that sort of happiness.

And I was also grateful for how much better we know you now.  Your sweetness, yes.  But also the way you cock your head to the side and look downward if you've done something wrong.  Also the way you'll pick your nose or drop food off your tray or pull your own hair if I tell you in a faux-stern voice absolutely NOT to do that.  You slide in and out of sleep easily and you're generally content as long as you're with us--until you can't get a Lego affixed or open the lid of a jar of beads or push the shopping cart over the lip of metal that separates the kitchen from the dining room.  Then you shriek and yell "hep!  hep!" until someone comes along to help you.

I got to wear my joy face a lot this last week.  I won an award for a book I wrote and many people I love were there at the ceremony: Daddy and Gak and Ampa and Mark and Dot; Emily and Ally and Bonnie and Jodi; friends from Supergroup and buddies from the Mentor Series.  I wore a black dress and a necklace I made our of fuchsia, rectangular stones.  I curled my hair and swirled blush and powder around on my cheeks.  When I won I was stuttery.  I walked to the podium with hunched shoulders because I was so intent on not tripping in my heels.  They projected my joy face on two big screens and gave me a glass trophy that was almost as heavy as you.  I was very happy.  (Or: I was happy as a writer can be who also feels bad for the people who didn't win and thinks maybe she really shouldn't have been the one to win and hopes she's being the right amount of not-acting-narcissistic but also not being the too-Minnesota-humble that's a little pukey in it's own right).

But the best part was seeing Daddy's face.  And Gak's face.  And Mark's face.  Because the joy dies pretty quick if when you smile no one returns it, no one reflects it right back at you.  I got a lot of smiles--or e-mails or Facebook "likes" or phone calls that were the equivalent of smiles this week.  And for that I'm really grateful.  Because it is not always an easy thing to be happy for someone else.  I have friends who are hurting in some of the deepest ways someone can hurt right now, friends who have lost relationships or miscarried; friends whose writing is not getting recognized in the way that it should be or who are hella tired from supporting the other beings in their lives.

We all deserve to be recognized.  We all deserve the walk to the podium and the statue that looks like Elsa's frozen mucus.  But most of the time no one sees our bravest moments; the ones most worthy of a standing ovation.

So we're responsible, I think, for trying to see them in each other.  For trying to recognize the person sitting with grief rather than shoving it away or the friend who manages to ask how you are in the hours before the scan to see if his cancer has returned.  

I'm so proud, Matteus, of each two-word sentence, each new expression of yourself.  I'll be watching you, sweetest.  I'll be marking the moments where you muster the courage or the skill or the grace or the compassion to do the impossible thing.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


 Cold and bright today.  Wool sweaters.  Car panting in the driveway for long minutes before we could climb inside.  Sunlight banking off the frozen slugs of ice still clinging to portions of the sidewalk, the street.  It's Lent and today is the day when Jesus gets baptized and then tempted in the desert.  Because it's winter the temptations we face don't seem deeply interesting: zoning out in front of the computer, pouring a highly unnecessary extra glass of wine, circling too anxiously around ourselves (our own fates, our own jobs, our own book sales, our own pale and flaking reflections in the mirror).  Not interesting, but problematic nonetheless.

When I left the house you were screaming.  You pooped yourself awake after sleeping for about half an hour and refused to lean back into the arms of slumber.  You've grown up a lot in the two months since I last wrote.  We've been to Holden and back and you've slept in the rocking car of a train and in a (relatively) unmoving glaciated valley.  You now say tons of words: bus and cracker and milk and water and truck and baby and book and nana and buh-buh-wee and flower and piano and bye-bye and hi and hat and...on and on.  You insist on calling Daddy "Ga-Ga" although the fact that you call Thisbe "Di-dee" affirms that you can, in fact, make the "d" sound.

Di-dee, books, baths, and vacuums are a few of your favorite things.  You're content paging through books for endless amounts of time; you patter around in search of where Di-dee has hidden herself; you squeal and hop from foot to foot when the vacuum roars to life; you would spend your life in the bathtub if you could.

You played by yourself quite well yesterday, puttering through the room with a block or a spatula or your stuffed kitty while Daddy and I talked to the Holden students over cinnamon rolls and Cougar Gold cheese and coffee--or later when we ate pizza and drank wine with old friends.  The workers in the toddler room describe you as "chill." 

And your sister has changed too.  She is more amenable, less vitriolic.  Fewer tantrums, fewer accidents, no constipation issues.  Holden was tough but I think being in a new environment, around older kiddos, helped her become a better self. 

Yesterday I watched you and your sister in the bath, both of you crowded beneath the running faucet.  Thisbe's body is now skin stretched over bones that threaten to poke through that surface for air.  Her shoulder blades and collar bone look like sheathed weapons.  You are still all pudge: rolls at your belly, under your chin, bubbles of pudge where your arms meet your armpits.  Thisbe was holding a yellow plastic bowl and feeding you water with a silver spoon.  You kept bending forward to accept the spoonful and then leaning back and touching your index fingers together to signal "more, more."  The water had darkened your hair and her hair and your eyes looked unbelievably huge, your lashes tremendously heavy. 

Sometimes my temptation is to look away when things are going well.  When you're puttering quietly or Thisbe is doing a puzzle, when you're both actually playing together away from me without screaming or needing.  For me that moment is a temptation to shift my focus.  Given the opportunity to relax for 30 seconds, I usually start cutting zucchini or checking Facebook or asking Daddy a question about who is going to write the check for March release days.  I mostly interpret your moments of contentment as permission to look away rather than looking more deeply toward.  And sometimes, God help us, looking away and reading an Onion article is absolutely necessary.  But I think sometimes my venting about the two of you comes from the fact that I choose to look away from the moments that would bring me the most joy.

So I think my Lenten discipline will be to try not to look away.  So seek out a view of you both in those moments of peace, of calm, of discovery, of cooperation, of silly and exuberant joy.