Category Archives: Childhood
I guess I’m writing about mercy because I don’t have very much of it. I admire it in others and I’ve got most of Portia’s mercy speech from the Merchant of Venice committed to memory. Does that count for something?
Ten days ago I had a thought. The whole Lent giving up criticism thing has been a challenge. Not the least of which has been how to sensibly apply it to say, I don’t know, the bold, over energetic, extremely forgetful, thirteen year old I live with. While it might not be my job to criticize him exactly, it is clearly my job to point him in the right direction, which sometimes sounds the same. My hands are tied. In all directions I confirm, it is hopeless. But then, as I said, I had a thought.
What would happen, I wondered, if for one week, I pretended that he was doing the best he could. Not that this is true, (obviously no one could be so systematically challenging and actually be trying) yet for the sake of discussion, could I, for a limited time only, pretend it was true and act accordingly. Direction pointing still required, even criticism. Consequences, regular life, the only difference would be inside of me, approaching each interaction as if I believed that he was currently doing the best he could.
I tried it because I don’t do fad diets and humans need to try things. Also because you can do almost anything for a week. For ten days, I was still trying it. I liked what was happening. Before my eyes, Boy one was kinder, gentler, with evidence of trying that I could see without pretending. He reminded me of some of my favourite off the walls, silly, and good hearted students, and not nearly as much like a growing proof of my failure to raise civil persons.
Oh, and I liked me better too.
Everything was going great until it was not. Then I could tell that he was trying alright – trying to be entitled, ungrateful, condescending, and surly. Boy two used up all my transition/changing schedules sympathy. The girls used up all my everybody just needs spring to come soon empathy. For Boy one, I was just mad. He got ten days of pretending didn’t he?
Mercy? said quiet voice.
Mercy? I spat. He doesn’t deserve it.
Yeah, said quiet voice. That’s um, kind of the point of the word.
Sunday, last, I knew that deserving wasn’t a requirement for receiving. That Sunday I was so happy with mercy, I dared to hope it meant me too. By Wednesday it was too late. For everybody.
Quiet from quiet voice.
Well? I demand.
You were more right on Sunday.
So mercy? That’s it?
It’s for everybody.
I made a few more meagre stabs at opposition but quiet voice was into humming by then. Amazing Grace, or something like that.
Girl in a Field. 1920. painted by Alberto Plá Rubio (1867 – 1937)
We went to the National Gallery in Ottawa, recently, compliments of my mother-in-law, an avid lover of art. I like THE arts. I like artists. I like the idea of liking art. But I do not fall over myself very often about art. More than one tear has been shed in my house over a masterpiece (fed by me) to the woodstove. I don’t feel about art museums the way I feel about fabric stores. (Fabric stores give me a headache in thirty seconds and make me want to lock all the crafty people in cupboards with their bead collections.) But visual arts are . . . far away.
I learned two things at the art museum last week. First, were I able to view art without having myself so thoroughly viewed as I viewed it, if there were say two, instead of thirty guards hovering and trailing us from room to room, I might be evolved enough to enjoy art. (If the guards were behind a glass and viewing them was part of an exhibit, set against different colors and fabrics perhaps, I would definitely enjoy that.) Not all of it. Not even fifty percent, but ten percent of what was there called art, would honestly interest me, ask questions of me and even provoke delight.
The second thing I learned was about my children. Three of them were on the excursion. Girl two’s relationship with art is not yet clear. For the other two, art is poetry. Obscure and accessible only to the erudite poetry does not particularly interest me. With instruction, I am appreciative of its intricacies. But poetry that sings. Or cries. Poetry that you can understand with your heart, no preparation required. Poetry that moves down, down in the deepest corners. I drink that poetry as water. I go months without it, then stumble headlong, desperate for its taste. It refreshes and restores like no other.
To be kept from poetry would leave a part of me stunted. Poetry is a private sunshine, an old and faithful well. Whatever the metaphor, I am more me with it than without.
Art is like that for Boy two, even more so it seemed, for Girl one. I saw some paintings at the museum I liked, but the most remarkable thing I saw were my children, walking from room to room, oblivious to glaring guards, or ticking time, caught up in a magic I couldn’t see. Or if I saw it, it was in their eyes.
I learned that despite my lack of vision, they need to see art because it’s a place where they see poetry. We’ll need to go back, and we’ll need to find other places to do art. It might not be my perfect cup of tea, but we’re not tall enough in this family to chance having a few inches of anybody stunted.
The cottage where we stayed last week has the most delightful chess board I have ever seen set out on a table in the living room. It was impossible not to play chess. Boys one and two are learning. Girl one has the barest basics. Without even playing, the kids would stand by the board intrigued with the figures.
Come play chess with me, Girl two said to me on the second day.
You don’t know how to play, I said.
Yes, I do, she said. I learned yesterday.
She turned, expecting me to follow.
You might have to go easy on me, she tossed over her shoulder.
Would you mind, said Boy one. (It may be established by now that Boy one doesn’t say things unless he means them seriously, but just in case it is not, picture the way you might ask someone to consider giving you a kidney and you have about the right level of earnest.) Would you mind, if I shovelled the yard?
I blinked for a few minutes trying to figure out what I was missing. I could not come up with anything.
Where, I said.
On the other side of the driveway. I know it sounds strange, but I want to break in my cleats and I don’t want them getting all wet. I thought I’d shovel down to the grass and make myself a field big enough to take shots on a net.
Of course, he was still serious. If the goal was grass, he failed. If the goal was fun, he and his brother made wild success out of a few hours with a soccer ball, ten minutes of which involved a shovel.
I make it my business to read anything left lying around. Things left around the house are considered voluntary donations to my curiosity. The latest secret journal in tatters opened to the following page. Journal: date unknown. Content: unexplained. Original spelling: preserved.
To My Dear Huspin.
I culd nevr love u anuf
Bent over the dryer, I hear footsteps and a chair is shoved across the floor. I emerge to see Girl two climbing up onto my laundry table.
What are you doing? I ask.
I want to own that rainbow, she says eyes intent on the wall.
Over top of the laundry baskets, on tip toe she reaches a finger to a little square of colours reflected on the wall.
There, she says, and begins her descent. Now I own it.
I own a lot of those, I hear her say to herself as she disappears down the hall.
There seems to be a revolving door of normal around here. Boy two has stopped being Phil and has taken up counting telephone poles. It takes about fifteen minutes to get to school each day and he counts the whole way there and the whole way back. He was so pleased with himself that he had to get his sisters on board. Now the counting is out loud.
This is problematic, not because of the noise, but because counting out loud makes it obvious that they aren’t doing it right. It is impossible to cultivate inner peace when people that claim to be counting EVERY telephone pole, miss poles at random intervals and refuse to stick to any kind of system. Unlike some people, at least I can at least remain civil in the face of numerical defilement. The day Boy one had no school and came along to hear his sister’s play, he became so distressed at the counting mistakes I thought we might have to sedate him. Threats to leave him in the car were the only thing that managed to calm his nerves enough to stop talking about it. I’m not convinced it won’t resurface.
With the kids on school break, I forgot about counting until we were coming home from our time away at the lake. “Nobody’s even helping me anymore,” yelled an exasperated and exhausted Girl two into a previously pleasant silence. “I’m counting all by myself and it’s too hard.”
“You don’t have to count,” I ventured hopefully.
“But we’re trying to set a record. This is a long drive, so we can go higher than ever before,” said Girl one.
So it’s official, we currently have an issue with telephone poles . . . which may require medication to get all the parties involved through to the next normal.
Out there somewhere is a man who was once a boy. A particular boy who helped to save me.
But what did I do? he might ask?
Nothing. You were you.
I couldn’t have been more than 21 when I first met Josh. He was a baby: settled, happy, content, and unconcerned about anything beyond the present moment. Josh was easy to please. When he wasn’t pulling himself up to stand on top of his cousin’s head, we got on very well.
If I had to pick a word to describe myself then, I would go with tormented. By day I put one foot in front of the other as best I could. I washed lettuce in large sinks for hundreds of people. Delivery from this life by car accident seemed unlikely (as I rarely had reason to go near a road) but it didn’t stop me from wishing. Sleep was nightmares and more nightmares or the agony of days that would not end, and tears that would not come. Along the way, I was asked to work in childcare. I shared responsibility for six children during the morning (four three year olds and two babies). In the afternoon, I took three boys for naptime routines and quieter playing. One of these was Josh.
While I sagged in my insides feeling hopeless, my outsides condemned my failure to sleep, elude nightmares, and feel joy as proof of my basic worthlessness as a human being. Self hatred was justified more every day that I failed to be happy. I tried, but I failed to feel much beyond numb.
The exception was when I was with the children. My dysfunction had to be set aside if it was circle time. There were stories to be told and songs to be sung. We sang, The Itsy Bitsy Spider as dainty as you please, then we picked up pot lids, smashed them for all we were worth and sang verse two, “The Big Fat Spider.” (An excellent and quickly beloved variation.)
My three year olds tucked in, I would carry Josh to the rocking chair every afternoon. I advised the state of my soul to wait until the middle of the night to haunt me, Josh had a back to be patted just now. Every day I rocked him to sleep and stayed a little longer than I needed to, singing softly and gently holding something good.
Salvation rarely comes quickly in these places. But it comes.
What would you do, I wondered one night, if someone were to come in and try to hurt Josh?
I would die for him, said my thoughts. As soon as I said it, I knew that it was true.
A little light broke through. If I would die for a baby that wasn’t even mine, then there was something good in me. If there was something good in me, then there was hope.
Little windows to all that is meant to be. Oh the children that lead us.
Is it lice season? Her voice is anxious, her eyes nervous.
I don’t know. Do lice have seasons?
I just found a piece of something white in my hair. It was this big. She shoved a piece of lined notebook paper at me. A dot the size of an aspirin had been scribbled down in bright red pen. I didn’t know what it was so I threw it in the fire and burned it, but I made a picture so you could see.
I began checking the base of her neck and behind her ears.
It was in my bangs. I found it in my bangs, she said desperate.
No lice, I said soon enough. Her breathing and heart rate began their return to normal.
Girl two at bed time:
Are there nuns in our country?
In our country?
Good. I want to be a nun.
She smiled dreamy then frowned.
But there is a problem, she said in a lowered voice. She furrowed her eye brows.
What is the problem?
I’m going to be a figure skater. Her mouth drooped heavily.
Why don’t you be a figure skating nun, I say delighted with the picture in my mind of skater in full habit with wimple gliding past a tights and tutu girl to start her long program . Girl two’s eyes brightened with joy.
That’s perfect, she said, a broad smile filling her face. She crossed her arms content. That’s exactly what I’ll do.
I have in mind to write about pianos but sitting down to do it, I feel myself pulling back. I feel about pianos the way some people feel about God. The thing that’s between us is so personal it hurts. It runs deeper than the realm of something as limited as language.
Listening to me play, you wouldn’t know about us. You’d be sitting there thinking about what my fingers did with the notes. Fine for country churches, fine for a group, not even in the ballpark for a professional musician. But playing for other people was never the point. What connects us isn’t about what I do with a piano, it’s about what the piano has done for me. My throat fills up trying to say it.
I heard my mother practicing a Bach Invention when I was younger. I fell in love. I didn’t care about the piano. I took lessons because I wanted to play that Invention. My beloved, eighty year old Mrs. Murdoch took me there and beyond. A wonderful high school music teacher, Ms. Liszka, let me learn to accompany, giving me a lifetime of ways to be part of music. These two who helped me, without whom I could not have known the piano in the same way, will get their own piece someday. This imperfect piece with the wordless tears is for the piano.
For a lot of high school, I was afraid. There were lots of things to be afraid of.
Play me, it said. And I would open the hymn book and touch those promises until I believed them.
I wanted to dream. About all kinds of things – acting, writing, boys, running a home for kids nobody believed in, happy endings.
Play me, it said. And I would take out sheet music from our choir and play my heart out with, “Somewhere Out There,” and other such.
I was sad. Life was sad. I was young and I didn’t want it that way.
Play me, it said. Weep into me for as long as it takes. So I did.
I was so mad I wanted to smash things. If cars ran on rage, I could have driven to Pluto and back. Ten times.
Oh for heaven’s sake, it said. Do you honestly think there’s not something your fingers can do here that will fit the occasion? When in doubt, play louder, dear. Play softer, and you’ll figure out how much you need to cry.
To worlds gone mad, it gave me chromatic scales played contrary at lightning speed, rhythm perfectly precise.
For my sorrows, my hopes, and my happiness, it spoke to me in the places without words and gently filled them with music.
I don’t know that I ever sit down and play without remembering. When we are alone together, I am home. A thousand thanks, beloved friend of my heart.
“Holes In A Shooting Target” by anankkml from freedigitalphotos.net
Boy one inherited his father’s one eye raised about my pioneer leanings. But few boys are immune to the allure of a BB gun. When it was time we got him his own.
He also came pre-programmed with an “adherence to rules” setting (we are still looking for the flexibility button). We knew he would follow “no chickadees,” and safety guidelines carefully and he did. Target practice became a source of great joy.
This brings us to his 11th birthday. We suggested that he invite old friends, but to be brave and invite at least one friend from his new school. Boy one chose Turd (not his real name) and I picked them up from school. Turd spoke in sentences and was comfortable acknowledging my existence. Promising, I thought. Turd also discussed the BB gun he had and loved at home.
There was an hour or so before the party started. I sent the boys outside.
Would you mind if we did some target practice with my BB gun? asked Boy one.
Normally, I would not allow this, but Turd clearly seemed like a country boy, he owned his own gun, and besides, he spoke in sentences.
Ok until other people get here, but ALL the same rules still apply.
I know, Mom. Don’t worry.
Ten minutes, or was it twenty, minutes later, Boy one was at the door, his mouth dripping blood.
“Ter sho mah too,” he said, conveying rather unclearly that Turd HAD SHOT HIS TOOTH.
We left emergency messages for our dentist. In the meantime, we had a party. Boy one was in pain, but propped up with ibuprofen and icepacks. He kept a brave face while everyone else ate pizza. Never was it discovered, why, when Boy one said, “let’s go in now,” and started walking across the field, Turd lifted the gun and shot him in the mouth.
Boy one’s tooth was fixed as best as can be until he is older. The BB gun sat untouched after that.
I really can’t even look at it, said Boy One softly.
I apologized many times for my failure to protect. I ached for the delight that had become a sorrow, and life went on. Two weeks ago, Boy one (who appreciates most company except his own) stayed outside after everyone was in.
What’s he up to? I asked Boy two.
Oh, I said. I didn’t say more because I didn’t want to admit how much I wanted all this to be ok now. I wanted Boy one free to not be ok.
Did you see my target? Boy one asked a few days later. I strung cans on baling twine so I can hang it from a tree.
Great idea, said my husband
Yeah, pretty cool, huh? Boy one kicked off his shoes. I love target practice. It’s just so relaxing.
And me mother heart breathes out again.
When I was about 10, my brother and I were given a BB gun. Few gifts have ever meant more to me. I owned a BB gun and I could shoot things. I feel the need to apologize now (me having been a girl and all) for the delight I took in that gun. I didn’t have any apologies then. I was a pioneer for heaven’s sake, stuck by no fault of my own in the 1980’s. Obviously, I needed a gun.
I was born believing that the end of modern technology and a return to simpler times was merely a matter of time. Call it unflinching optimism. Whenever the pioneer times did return, I had no intention of gathering herbs or stirring pots. I needed hunting experience if I wanted to save myself from the gatherers fate assigned to my gender.
Harper Lee’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” references the sadness of innocent life, killed for no purpose. It’s one of my favourite books of all time. I love the story, but I also know about that bird.
My goal was to get a rabbit and bring it home for dinner. Bring it in the back door, say nothing, and put it on the kitchen counter like I did it every day. Even a squirrel would have made me happy, but every time I went out walking, I saw nothing but trees and grass.
Which is when I thought of chickadees. There was a big bush at the top of the bank by our front yard. Birds came to eat the berries. They flew off en mass all a flutter when I laid down on the grass nearby, but after a while, one came back. I shot it because that had been my plan. It fell to the ground. I dropped my gun and stumbled forward knelt and touched it. It was wounded but not yet dead. I laid on the ground beside the chickadee and sobbed. I stroked it softly at first, tears falling, then realized I didn’t have the right. The miracle I begged for did not come. When it was over, I buried the bird, still weeping.
I have explained the title of Harper Lee’s book to classes of thirteen year olds. I know, I have told them. I have done this thing. The darkness is not out there somewhere. It is inside us. Not all the lines you cross can be uncrossed. It is a thing in need of many tears, a thing to look in the face long enough to be sure you can say afterwards, no, never again.
Saturday was a deep thought day. I wasn’t feeling great. No suffering worth empathy, but my body was tired and fighting something. Of more significance, my insides were pensive, broody, and on the slow churn sorting out my trials. I was in the girls room because: a) it has a couch, b) it was quiet, and c) unlike my room, it is warm without blankets and a winter hat.
I stayed for a while. When I stood up to go, I noticed a small sign on the floor. In pink chalk, I read the words, “fly home.”
It felt like an answer. Fly home. Maybe it’s that simple, I said.
Fly where? said my other self.
Home. Simple. No matter the darkness, sometimes we just need to fly home. I could feel my spirit’s lifting. The magic, the miracles. Here, right when I needed it, a tiny message written for me. Fly home. Even written from hand of one of my lovely children.
Which is when my other side said – Why would they write that?
I took another look.
It wasn’t a sign. It was a little black box. Click. Processing information. Click.
So yeah. “Fly,” was an adjective explaining what kind of home the box was, not a verb followed by a destination.
I pondered it all for a minute. My disgusting children who cannot be convinced that flies are disease transport vehicles with bulging eyes. The helpful results of my misread. I thought about destroying yet another bug captivity contraption, but really what’s the use? I went and got the camera.
What the heck. It was good advice all around. Flying. Home. Kids to keep your feet on the ground. There’s gold in them there hills.