Monday, May 31, 2010

Brief Peaceful Reprieves in the Ongoing Battle

We biked twice around the lake today before nine o’clock. Despite the early hour the sun was already high in the sky and the air hot, buzzing with gnats and the energy of summer. Biking is our best family time, these days. Twila plays with Jada in the chariot, makes up imaginary games and watches the wildlife go by, a temporary armed truce in the midst of the seemingly constant battle.

This fourth year of Twila’s life has proven the most challenging yet. She is throwing tantrums for the first time in her life. Having gotten through the two’s without a single knock down drag out, I was thinking we were in the clear. But here we are in the throes of absolute insanity and I am out of my league.

She screamed herself horse at the grocery store the other day because she wanted me to buy flowers. Flowers? That’s right, a potted plant. Not candy or gum or a toy, a floral arrangement. She screamed with such anger and desperation that the manager came to see if we were okay with a kindly smile and a look of sympathy in her eyes.

The woman at the checkout looked like she might cry as she observed my desperate three year old about to spontaneously combust in the car portion of the long cart, whose impossible-to-steer chassis did nothing for the nightmarish situation. She leaned into me and said that we could have a flower arrangement—free of charge.

I smiled courteously and shook my head. “I just can’t reward this kind of behavior,” I said.

As I often do when I can step back from these crazed moments of anti-ration, I thought about my own childhood. I wondered how my mom managed four of these small, but frightening creatures. I wondered what I would have wanted my mom to do: just give in, probably. I can remember the feeling of desperation when you are not being listened to. I remember thinking that if my parents only knew how important to me this one thing was, they would feel terrible for not just giving it to me, letting me do it, eat it, whatever.

Surely there must be equilibrium to be found.

It’s been a week of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. All of our bodies are battling various viruses and our temperaments battle each other. The battle between Twila and her parents lately has been about power, and choice. Twila wants to do everything for herself and when we allow that, she wants also to do everything for us. She keeps wanting until her wants are either physically impossible or unacceptable for some reason or other. She pushes and pushes until we resist and then she falls apart in despair.

The battle within my own head lately has been the same battle in many ways: to care for the family, insulating, protecting and mediating, or to sit down and begin writing. Once I just start writing, the portal is opened, there is a ledge created that I can climb back on later. It is the starting that is most difficult. Its saying: okay now is the right time to sit down and begin. And so I battle in my head constantly about what right now this moment, is the right time for: sleep, playing with the girls, cleaning, or writing? “If I had it my way I would write all the time.” That is what I tell myself so my lack of productivity can hide behind the vast blanket excuse of family chaos. My attention span seems to be shortening.

I have long thought that I should invest sixty-nine cents in a small notebook on which to write my brilliant ideas for novels, plays and blogs. Or maybe even six ninety-nine and get one of those fancy little moleskins I always pet at the books store. I have never actually executed this plan because…I don’t know why. But lately it seems to be a necessity. I keep having these brilliant flashes of ideas throughout the day. At least I remember them as brilliant. Later when the girls are in bed and I open up my computer, they are gone—simply, completely gone; irretrievable.

All my brain seems good for by evening time is reading (if I’m lucky) and (more likely) watching old episodes of Arrested Development or Party Down.

In the Volvo that we’re driving now, there is a DVD player in the back seat where my three year old can operate and watch it. It’s hard for me to state these facts out loud because I spent the better part of my young adult life swearing I would never own a vehicle with DVD players. But I guess motherhood is largely about eating your words so it is appropriate that I love the DVD player. Some days driving is the only time I experience quiet. Jada falls asleep (she’s not allowed to watch TV until she’s two) and Twila watches The Princess and the Frog: the best Disney movie ever made, in case you were wondering.

I have a love/hate relationship with the movie actually because as I sit listening to it over my speakers, getting tears in my eyes as Prince Naveen and Tiana fall in love, I realize that this cartoon is truly a well told story. Its creative, it has characters that are unique who you care about, it is the classic hero’s journey, perfectly woven together and I fully enter into it as a willing witness. What bothers me is that I am spending the hours in my day listening to this story (over and over) and not writing one of my own. And what bothers me even more is the nagging, terrible thought that what I write might never be as good as my daughter’s Disney movie.

Perhaps the classic writer’s fear: that your writing won’t amount to the drivel you see in main stream media. But I listen anyway and enjoy the movie because it is simple and fun and has a great message about life and love and strength of the human spirit which is all it takes to create a story that people care about. And I listen because for the brief moments that Twila and I watch the movie together, we laugh together and sing along, and there seems to be nothing at all to battle about.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Avalanche of Ambition

I think my computer makes me shy. For days I have these moments, insights, realizations that I think I must write about, insights into the secrets of the universe. But the minute I even think about opening my computer to capture any of them on paper, they flit away. Something jiggles the vibrations of the universe when I think about writing and the vibrations tell the thoughts in my mind to scramble and distort and they are lost.

The vibrations of creativity combined with action also jiggle my infant’s sleeping brain, telling her to wake up and call out. If she has taken a long nap and I have accomplished chore after chore after chore and suddenly realize that this is a good time for writing, she wakes up to correct me. Indeed if she has taken only ten minutes of a nap and I think, now I will catch my opportunity to write, the universe vibrates with my anticipation in such a way that she must wake up, realizing that it was not the right time to sleep, after all.

So the arduous task of balance and pushing forward on the career path of writing continues. And so does the heat wave in Minnesota. Hundred degree heat with high humidity these past four days makes Minnesotans feel more like it is July than May.

The cottonwood tree has been raining cotton this past week. Like a strangely magical snow storm, the giant plumes of white cotton glide slowly to the ground where they accumulate in the grass like mounds of snow. I used to call cottonwood puffs, Logohomes and pretend they were little creatures. I created houses and hospitals for them in their tiny communities. I don’t know why. I imagine it is for the same reason my daughter finds friends wherever she goes like Kia looking for rocks in our garden.

In moments of chaos and ferocious frustration I do my best to draw on the amazing, the beautiful moments like these. It was raining cottonwood in our yard and Twila was outside in it, in a stream of sunlight looking like some kind of ethereal angel with stage snow falling on her bare shoulders. There as the moment came unfrozen, she turned to me, a sudden smile spreading across her face like she had just found a gift with a bow in our woods and said, “Mom this is Kia—do you want to meet her?”

And I smiled and said I would. “Where is she?” I asked knowing that Twila knew.

“She’s right here, looking for rocks in our garden.

And suddenly I could see her quite clearly, tall and slender, stooping low over willowy legs, picking through smooth stones next to Twila, looking for just the right one.

“What does she look like?” I asked because this is not the first time that Twila has shown me someone who I can’t see. And I want to see her more clearly.

“She has very blond hair,” she smiled, “and brownish skin.”

It was near one o’clock and very hot and Twila was beginning to glow a bright pink on her cheeks and shoulders.

“Would Kia like to come into the hammock in the shade with us?”

Twila turned and quietly consulted with Kia in the rock garden and reported back that she would.

We piled into the hammock looking out over the grassy shoreline, where steam rose from the humid foliage as the sun streamed onto the water. Sometimes Twila stepped out to push our heavy load in the hammock and sometimes we were too heavy and she had to ask Kia for help.

That night we sat looking out over the black lawn as I combed out her wet hair. She yawned and asked where Kia was sleeping and I said I didn’t know. Twila mused that maybe she was with Sola, which made Twila think about her oldest friend and she launched into a story about one of their many adventures.

Twila and Sola have been everywhere together. They have traveled the world, seen great sights and overcome great adversity. Sola was the one who took Twila to the hospital when she needed stitches. Sola and Twila have been parents together and even given birth to each other. I relish her stories about Sola because she gets the most endearing smile on her face as she speaks about her dear old friend. I don’t often tell people about Sola because she is sacred and belongs to Twila alone. She doesn’t like to be questioned about Sola and simply gets a look of indignation on her face if I prompt her to tell me about her. Stories about Sola must be spontaneous and authentic, from the source of Twila’s memory and not to be produced or fabricated.

When I am patient and listen, I am rewarded by Twila’s wisdom, her passionate story-telling abilities, the way she delights to live in the moment, to play as if nothing else in the world will ever interfere. When I slow down and let go of need-to’s and have-to’s and shoulds, then I become worthy of receiving the secrets of life. They are all contained in my small children. We are born knowing all of them, I think. Perhaps that is why we are born unable to communicate with adults, because they are not worthy to hear them.

As we grow older and become more effective communicators the world distills our pure knowledge of truth and we lose the memory of those secrets. The meaning of life is hidden deep in our cellular knowledge but is buried too deep to access as long as we are distracted by our drives and desires. There is only that small window of time when the very young can communicate clearly enough to share what they still remember about existence. Soon we effectively quiet them, teach them how to distract themselves with television and homework and need-to’s. Soon they stop seeing the angels all around.

But the memories of them are buried deep in our cells and when I allow myself to be distracted by my daughter and her friends, her rock hunting expeditions and stories and games, they come closer to the surface and I can almost recall what it was like to see behind the veil.

But then I try to capture it, to bring it to the surface, to examine and talk about it, to write it down, and the universe vibrates and trembles with my rebellion and it falls away, hidden in an avalanche of my ambition.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stolen Moments

As I ran along the path of my neighbors' carefully manicured gardens this morning, the sun spilled over the treetops washing away my frustration from the night before.

The girls would not go to sleep last night. After many attempts to tuck-in and say goodnight, we all lay awake in the wide king bed atop the fluffy feather layer that made us a little warmer than we preferred in this early season heat. Twila hasn’t slept well since the spring days became luxuriously long and sunny. She has never been a champion sleeper but had at least been going to bed before eight. These days temper tantrums and panicked whaling accompany each evening as the sun sinks low on the horizon. Jada for her part falls asleep quite easily but is woken by the slightest whisper of a noise.

So up and down we all went last evening, until near nine thirty when I laid Jada on my chest, and nestled Twila by my side in our great king bed. I dimmed the light and began reading a collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov. Twila asked me to read to her and I did, editing when I needed to and reading in a slow monotone. And soon I felt her twitching in sound sleep.

I went for a run this morning, not because I like running but because it is the only exercise I have time for. I slid from the deep down of the feather bed, slipping out from under my two girls who had slept the night through on top of my arms. They stirred for a moment and then found each other’s small hands in their sleep and resettled.

As I ran past tall pines, the sun flashing through the spaces in the trees revealing wide meadows and fields this morning, I thought about chaos. My husband and I are no strangers to chaos. Chaos accompanies transitions in life and over the last ten years we have been in a series of transitions: from meeting to dating to traveling, to engagement, to homeownership, to parenthood, and moving and parenthood again. Life has been in constant flux and yet we are not comfortable with the chaos that accompanies change. When the energy of new circumstances backs-up and new routines don’t flow yet, chaos ensues and I’ll be the first to admit, my husband and I don’t handle it well. We get tense and blame ourselves and then each other. “I don’t like how bed time is going,” He shoots at me in a whisper while our girls are not sleeping in the other room. And it feels like an accusation. My response swirls from comforting to retaliation to irritated silence before it even leaves my head.

As I run, distant from frustration, I have tremendous perspective on the situation, on any situation. I am not troubled by children who won’t fall asleep and stay asleep, or by the mess that is ever-growing, that which remains undone every day, or the disillusionment my husband and I both feel with our failing bedtime routine. I hear only my feet thumping on the pavement, the sprinklers ticking in time; smell the dewy grass and the scent of moist earth and fresh, early morning air. I see the sun rising brighter and growing warmer over the eastern horizon as I run. Nothing in the house seems powerful. All that is powerful is what I can smell, hear and see right now as I run.

In these moments stolen, I am full of peace, restorative, healing peace. So full am I by the time I get home of this gentle quiet that I think I just might be able to face another day of chaos and noise. When I tip-toe in tennis-shoed feet back into my bedroom where everyone still sleeps, I can hear the birds chirping through the window. They think morning is just beginning.

I peel off my sweaty tee-shirt and pull the hair binder out of my ponytail, and feel the cool air that I have just left behind spilling into the bathroom window with the heat of summer sun right behind it. I know it’s going to be a good day; loud and chaotic and messy maybe, but good.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Striking Some Semblance of Balance

It seems like there is always a moral dilemma these days.

The days when Twila has school are busy in the morning. There is so much rushing around to get a few things done in between breakfast and the getting-lunch-down-and-clean –clothes-on swirl just before school begins at 12:20. But once she is gone, those two hours and twenty five minutes are quiet.

It is blissfully, peacefully, almost eerily quiet around here. Once that quiet ensues, I am faced with a choice, spend quality one-on-one time with Jada, or put her in the flashy lights, bouncing, buzzy, jumper, and do something for myself. Clearly I have chosen the later today as I sit and type while she bounces and drools beside me, joyous marry-go-round-style music resounding in our little sun porch.

Most often what I choose to do is some combination of me-time and she-time. Usually Jada sits on my lap and plays with a toy or nurses while I type one-handed, narrating my every move for her amusement.

My kids are not easy going. They are so many wonderful things including extremely bright and inquisitive, and that is why, (I tell myself) they do not sleep well, nor are they ever willing to sit and chill for more than say…three minutes. They are always in need of stimulation, entertainment and face time. They are, in other words, exhausting.

But I’m okay with that. I am happy to have kids that aren’t “easy” because I enjoy them, because their personalities mesh so flawlessly with mine and Ryan’s and because I know this time of chaos and intensity will be so quickly passing (Jada is now in my arms having exhausted her enjoyment of the flashing lights and merry-go-round music).

I have made peace with not having easy babies. The trouble that remains is this: where do I draw the line, find the tipping point between my own needs and theirs? I thought, not for the first time, this past week that life would be much simpler if I didn’t write. I would have more mental energy to devote to my girls, we could play, bake and read with every free minute, I could use this quiet downtime to clean and organize rather than frantically making the choice between doing the dishes and writing the next chapter in my novel.

This is a thought I have at least once a month. I think: what if I just put it aside for a few years, just until they’re in elementary school? Maybe then I would have the time to really devote to becoming a writer. It comforts me to think this thought because it reminds me that I have options. But it also terrifies me, because I know there is a chance that if I put the craft of writing aside for a few years or even a few months, I might not pick it up again. My time might fill with other hobbies that in time will feel essential and writing will be something I used to do.

I also cannot imagine what my weeks would look like without the hope of spare time to write. Just hoping for that quiet few minutes when Twila engages herself in something in her room and Jada is still napping and I can sneak to our sun porch and peck at my keyboard and visit with my characters, is enough to keep me going some days.

After four years of writing almost every day, I cannot imagine my life without writing. It is necessary at this point.

So I go through each day, imperfectly striking some semblance of balance between myself and my children. I’m not the only mom who struggles to do this; I think I am counted in the numbers of women who seek to not lose themselves when they have children. It’s a difficult balance to be sure and some give up trying to find it, instead choosing only their children to care for or only themselves. But many of us keep fighting on.

We fight for our passions, we fight for our hobbies, our careers our bodies, our marriages, our serenity. Because, becoming a mom wages a kind of battle on each of these territories and I don’t pretend to know how to win it. For me, I just go through each day trying to show my girls (and my husband) as much love and patience as I can. And I never give up on myself and seeking those rare precious moments of solitude. I play with Jada and sing her songs when we have time alone. I take her picture when Twila is at school so she will have baby pictures by herself just like Twila has.

Then I put her down for a nap and ignore the dishes, the laundry, the soon-to-arrive house guest and turn to my computer.

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.

-Leonard Berstein

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It’s Hard to be a Kid

It’s hard to be a kid because people are always telling you what to do. It’s hard to get it right when you’re a kid. As I lay in bed next to my three year old in the wee hours of the morning listening to her ultra-loud whisper voice asking for drinks and snacks and the potty, I did my best to be patient, to meet her needs and stay calm in the face of sleep deprivation.

Eventually I got a bit…short as I so often do when I’m tired. I snapped in a whisper voice that it was time to sleep and eventually she did. But I lay awake thinking of how hard it sometimes felt to be a kid. I remember wishing my mom would just buy me the bright-orange, peanut-shaped, fluffy candies. I distinctly remember thinking what’s the big deal? When I’m a mom I’ll buy my kids whatever they want. Of course I don’t do that. But the memory remains that childhood can at times feel powerless.

You have no money, very little influence; you are completely at the mercy of your parents’ power and decision making. Usually, this is a very good thing; it creates a feeling of safety and routines, reliability and trust for a growing child.

But I will be the first to admit it can also be a real drag to be my kid. So I lay in bed thinking of all the orders and commands Twila hears almost daily:

Hurry up
Let’s go
Slow down
Watch where you’re going
Speak up
Quiet down
Put this on
Take that off
Wash your hands
Sit up
Climb off of that
Don’t touch that
Hold on
Let go
Come on
Stop that
Get in
Eat up
Climb down

Now that I am a parent, I would never buy those orange candies for my daughter either—no matter how much she wanted them—but there is wisdom to my youthful perspective what’s the big deal? Sometimes as a parent I forget that life is not about learning to follow the rules. So today I will try to say yes more than I say no. I’ll practice a different set of commands:

Go ahead
Try that
Keep going
You can do it
Let me try too
I’ll play with you
Take your time
Go crazy
Yell it out
Be silly
It’s up to you
Do what you want
Hang in there
Try again
Touch it
Grab it
Squeeze it
Do your best
Have fun

It’s hard to get it right when you’re a kid, there are rules at every turn and all your small body wants to do is dance through life, exploring every option, pushing against the constraints of the world.

As parents we must protect, guide, comfort, nourish, educate and discipline. But we also need to remember that it’s hard to be a kid.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day Then, Now, and Always

Mother animals are waiting for their babies this time of year. Out here on the lake, some babies are beginning to emerge from nests and burrows but most of them are still incubating, nursing, nestling against their siblings with eyes squeezed tightly shut. Baby raccoons are not yet old enough to follow their mothers out into the night in a line; baby ducklings are hatching but not yet venturing from underneath their mother’s down. This Mother’s Day, mother animals are still working hard to care for their babies, unaware that they are entitled to a day of rest and pampering; not unlike many human mothers.

Mother’s Day is a magnifying glass held above a family. The day draws attention to the interworking of families. How they celebrate reflects something of how they live. Growing up, Mother’s Day was always celebrated by going out to brunch—Mexican brunch; reflecting both that going out to eat was one of my mother’s favorite things, and that my mother loved Mexican food and could never get enough of it. So when it was solely up to her, we ate at Pepito’s in South Minneapolis (also the home of the best margarita in the U.S.) and lined up at the buffet where you could get enchiladas, empanadas, chicken mole, churros, fruit and scrambled eggs.

After my birthdaughter was born (eleven Mother’s Days ago) my mom started consulting me about what we should do to celebrate. We still went out to eat, my parents gave me flowers and my siblings made cards for me. My youngest brother started that tradition on my first Mother’s Day as a birthmom. We were passing cards to my mom and suddenly he popped up and slapped down a homemade card in front of me. I hadn’t even opened it before I burst into tears.

Mother’s Day was the most confusing day for those seven years between becoming a birthmom and having my first daughter. For some birthmothers, their birthchild’s birthday is the most difficult. But that was always a day of celebration for our two families. The hardest day for me was Mother’s Day.

It was the hardest day for me because I didn’t know what to do with it. Did I celebrate it or not? Did I stand up in church when the congregation applauded mothers? That first Mother’s Day, my Dad wrapped his strong arm around my shoulders and lifted me to my feet; he stood with me, my mother on my left, as the church body clapped for all the mothers here and elsewhere and already gone. The next year I remained seated.

For those years I was a mother in the middle. Not fully a mother, but something; something people wanted to honor but didn’t know how. I didn’t know how either.

The Mother’s Day that I was pregnant with Twila was emotional; for me, my whole family, my birthdaughter and her whole family. Something was made complete that year and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The first Mother’s day that I held Twila in my arms was still fresh and new. Something was different, and wouldn’t ever go back. As the years past, the new became more familiar, more comfortable. My family was used to me being a mother now; a real mother who could talk about her children without going into long expository background.

And this Mother’s Day, this Mother’s Day was full and busy and tiring, but with many bright spots and joys. Twila wrote her name on my card all by herself and decorated it with beautiful shots of color, swirls and squiggles. She pointed out the sparkly letters on the front and the shiny material it was printed on. She said over and over again, “Happy muthoes day,” and kissed my lips while cradling my face in her tiny, soft hands.

I held Jada, cradled in my arms at the Mexican restaurant we went to for brunch and she looked at me like all the secrets of the universe were hidden in my eyes and sang in her little cooing voice as she smiled her three-dimpled smile and it felt like a gift.

Though my ideal Mother’s Day is never quite possible, with two families and lots of plans we spend more time bustling, preparing and cleaning up than planting trees and lolling in the sun (which is I guess what I always picture). But I did get to nap in the hammock while my husband prepared for his family’s arrival and he rubbed my feet and, let’s face it, I have two beautiful girls who make being a mom fun, if not slightly crazy. So the day was good. And it’s hard to remember those days that I didn’t feel yet like a mom.

The giant Blue Heron that visits our dock from time to time was waiting when I woke up in the morning. It stood at attention on the edge of the dock, perusing the shallows for fish. Then it spread its giant wings, which miraculously lift its bulbous body into the air, and it was airborne. I wondered if it was a mother, if she had ever laid eggs, if Herons stayed on the same lake as their mothers or flew the nest as it were. I pictured her flying off to her daughter’s nest for brunch, for fish and whatever else Blue Herons eat. I imagined them chatting about the weather and if Mamma Blue Heron will ever be a grandma. She flew over the lake and disappeared behind the trees.