Category Archives: Family
I would explain what is happening with the blog (that I posted on like clockwork for two years and then disappeared into silence for the last months) except I’m not entirely sure. My life does not always feel like my own. I lack a fair bit of control over my time, not to mention the needs of others that I appear tasked to meet. The juxtaposition to that reality is that there is some kind of volcano of desire at work in me these days, daring me to live in ways I long to but have not dared hope for, except in whispers. Little personal time plus risky soul searching has left me without a lot of words.
This weekend I found myself on our pond shovelling. Despite the lack of decent snowfall, it needed quite a bit. Boy two and the girls had done some. Sunday was supposed to be a group effort plus me, but the excitement of my presence lulled them into happy skating while I put myself through my shovelling paces mostly alone.
It hit me as I worked that pond clearing was a pretty good metaphor for the state of my interior life right now – which has similarly required a lot of shovelling. To carve a path where there wasn’t one before. To clear the ice and reaffirm for another season that there is magic worth working for. That underneath the snow, there are possibilities hidden, waiting to be uncovered, discovered, and skated upon with abandon and laughter.
My last post mentioned my shopping intentions. With not a little bit of trauma and drama, I followed through on it. I’ve been told in moments I lack the strength to argue that I’m not finished yet. No comment about that. But buying clothes that fit, feel good, and look nice, has been part of my shovelling. . . I thought I was going to say a bit more about this, but I’m finding I can’t. Thinking about how I look, as opposed to what I think or believe, is for the time being just a little too threatening to write about. Saying that much is the end of my brave acts on discussing the subject.
The pond is easier to talk about. It looks very big when you arrive. But regardless of size, clearing begins with a single shovel full. I start out to clear a section. Then I get bored and start paths here and there down through the middle of the snow. After that I start other sections, which sometimes merge with previous sections and sometimes don’t.
This is my explanation for why the muscles in my soul feel like they’re getting a good workout. Because if the clothes were a section of my pond, the shovelling has certainly branched out. I finished my work on the children’s novel with a good sense of accomplishment. Then realized that although I would love to see it published, I’m just not ready to hang my daily energies on its success or failure. I’ll work at queries here and there, but I’m not willing to die for it. I haven’t stopped loving words, dreaming of books, or writing in my head while I drive down the road, but I don’t want my success or failure as a person hanging on the validation of a publishing contract. Can one still be a writer and say that?
Crazy thinking had other branches. In December, I wondered what would happen if I went back to school for one of those things I would have given my right arm to do twenty years ago, but I can’t now because it’s too late. The thought was so shocking I almost fell down thinking it. I’m a mother of four. In her forties. My life path is already decided. I knew going to school was unrealistic . . . until I didn’t know that anymore. Until I started wondering if my tiny shovel and a little grace might be able to carve out a path big enough to skate on.
When not despairing at the obstacles, I whisper to myself that there might still be time – that dreams long buried really can come true. Nothing is decided. Nothing is assured. But a few times, when no one was watching I have leapt into the air and laughed on the chance it is possible.
We live in a very risk adverse culture. Safe schools, safe fun, safe kids, safe world. Because if we are careful enough, no one will get hurt. Ever. We make allowances for risk only under the category: calculated risk.
But safety isn’t enough. We need love. And love is the fly in the ointment. Because love is a calculated risk only if you calculate that all your expectations are guesses unobligated to attach themselves to a single one of your calculations.
I organized a work day recently, which among other things involved some crews with trucks going around to pick up donated furniture and household items. I came home exhausted to messages of further donations, which I declined. The little old lady after church was a different story. My message that no further donations were needed was not welcome news. I felt the same about her insistence that I come retrieve a fiftieth set of dishes for our cause. I countered. She countered. Her dishes will probably be passed on to some other charity, but not before they land in my car. I went home feeling the impossibility of defending myself from old ladies who had set their minds to something.
That afternoon I dreamed of great lengths of silence. Perhaps the sound of wind or birds. Instead I heard the sound of children fighting. About the phone book of all things. One had the idea to count the number of Smiths. This set off the counting of several different names, disagreements about accurate tallies, and believe it or not, pushing and pulling over whose turn it was to hold the phone book.
I wasn’t at home tired from doing the wrong thing. I was at home tired from trying to do the right thing. But when you want to swear even at the memory of the wrinkled lady in the jaunty hat, it doesn’t feel that nice inside yourself. Love. Messy. Overwhelming. Uncalculated.
I feel incapable, inadequate, unequal to the tasks I see before me. I feel, I said to a friend, like Moses with a stutter being asked to speak. Like I’m sitting in a hall of dreams I believe in, not sure if I even know how to stand up.
Maybe it was Moses who had a word with me after that. At least a fuller version of his story came to me. Moses didn’t feel adequate for the task ahead. But it was his arm asked to hold the stick that parted the Red Sea. Adequacy is not a prerequisite for giving what we have. Love asks us, the inadequate (and we who are risk adverse) to gamble on the chance that what we have to offer can be used. To pay the cost without knowing if our gifts will be accepted. To trust in our smallest moments. In our caught by surprise, brimming over with fear and tears moments. To believe, in the midst of messy, overwhelming and unexpected, that love is big enough for all of it.
We’re a little more than halfway through this year’s birthday season. I’m limping a bit on the enthusiastic party zeal, but working hard to fake it. No one knows how many times I’ve fondly rememberd the conversation where Boy one said he didn’t want a birthday party this year. No one knows I shed tears wanting him immediately crowned my favourite child when I recall it.
I find strange comforts in the midst of afflictions. Girl two’s birthday party (not to be confused with her family birthday dinner – the math on this is 4 kids x 2 celebrations minus one party thanks to current favourite child = 7 events in just over two months) was an example of this. I didn’t use to serve lunch at parties but it’s a good time killer while you’re looking at your watch to see how many more minutes until the party your child looks forward to all year is over.
I went to buy hot dogs for the party, only to broadsided at the store by my North American-waste-panic, concurrent with my panic about nutrition vs. people eating what feels like fun to them. Illogically, I could deal with the hot dogs themselves, but the thought of white buns instead of whole wheat sent me over the edge. In went the whole wheat buns to my cart. A minute later I was back exchanging them for white. I got them in, then I took them out. After much deliberation, I resolved to buy precisely one package of 8 white buns, come back another day when I was stronger to finish the shopping, and make this the last time I ever bought them. Driving away I pictured future birthday parties and the possibility of blindfolding picky visitors until they had finished eating their proper brown buns.
Of course, I never made it back to the store. The party began. There were 6 children in attendance. Celebrations are about extravagance. I decide to gamble on eight hot dog buns anyway. Some people take chances on cards, some people take chances they can outmaneuver seven year olds. We all have our vices. I sweat, but I do not panic. There’s actually a strange kind of pleasure in the challenge.
I put some fries in the oven. I prepared the hot dogs and cut each one in half. I made a mountain of carrot sticks and apple slices. Each child got a plate with half a hot dog, some fries, and their choice of fruit or veggie. I poured milk and I served slowly. Everyone who asked for seconds was served. Eventually, I brought around seconds until everyone refused more and gave the leftovers to a stray sibling.
The white bread guilt is gone. Party weariness disappeared that day. I served 6 children as much as they wanted with a mere 8 hot dog buns, none of whose pasty whiteness remained on my counter. And yes, there’s a bit of an afterglow just remembering it again.
The best representation I could find of the family this week . . .
I don’t know how someone thought to put the music in this second piece with the Peter Paul Rubens picture, but I’m glad they did. To me it captures the juxtaposition between the hundreds of dances we do and our profound longing for deeper meaning and reality. We engage in the here and now, and yet we sense something beyond us that is bigger and more beautiful. We reach for one another, twist and turn. Meanwhile in all the jostling, the shape of divine love walks among us whispering an invitation.
This last offering was a recommendation from my oldest who says it’s the beautiful piece out there.
photo compliments of morguefile.com
My husband looks forward to Sundays from September to January with great anticipation. Watching NFL games is like reading poetry for him. Unfortunately, his poetry does not fit softly around the edges of my preferred Sundays (quiet slow spaces and outside time).
In the early years of our marriage, I spent considerable energy perfecting my approach to the epic battle. He for his part developed an outer disposition impervious to assault and especially predisposed to withstanding a battle irregardless of intensity. The matter of Sundays is one for the long game.
I don’t fight about football (this is the goal), I plan parallel things that are infinitely more fun. I’ve taken kids for walks, tennis, and canoeing, organized cookie making and board games. This past Sunday held promise of two or three options until they all fell through. Disappointment sat with us for a minute or so and then a rather epic response occurred.
When my brother and I were young, we would bike with friends for miles to the top of a very large hill. The very last house where the road ended belonged to a couple from our church with a boundless supply of ice cream cones on hand. We never asked, but they always offered and the thrill never wore off. Some thirty years later, the rides remain bright in the fabric of our legends. So to follow suit . . .
Boy one was away. That left me with a seven year old and an almost 10 and 12 year old. We didn’t have a hill, but we had a goal: 22.6 kilometers and ice cream when we got home (14 miles for the unmetric friendly). My contingency plan for failing young legs was a drive by from the NFL man after an hour and a half of cycling. (Our destination coincided with his father’s superior NFL cable package so there was no worry of him minding the wait for those of us who went the distance.)
The first seven km was our roughest road. The traffic was fast and staying well out of the way involved plowing our bikes into thick gravel 482 times. After that, it was an absolutely perfect fall day. The voices asking how much longer until Dad came by to pick them up went silent. We saw a mailbox shaped like a miniature barn. we saw a house set back from the road we’d never seen before (even though we go by it every day). We passed three bee hives and a lot of dogs, none of whom chased us. We discovered that if you drive your bike over a dead frog, it can make a popping sound and that persons equipped with easy apparatus for road side peeing can stop twice in one bike trip for that purpose, even though they went before they started just like the rest of us.
When my husband came by as planned to pick up the weary, all proudly declined. We biked over brand new black top on a fairly deserted road and followed Boy two’s lead by reaching out with our toe to touch the orange striped construction barrels on the berm as we rode by. (Myself, I prefer the sound of toe tapping construction barrels to popping frogs.) We arrived together, proud as can be of our accomplishment, rested, snacked, then loaded our bikes in the car and went home for ice cream.
After this the moral of story and the point of the long game falls apart. Glowing with pride but rather tired, we sat contented without trying on the couch beside the NFL man (who was cutting up apples), to watch the little men in their helmets running around the painted lines and plastic field.
picture compliments of morguefile.com
Girl two approached my kitchen sink with a question.
Is tube vision a real disease?
I asked to have the question repeated.
Girl one and are arguing and I want to know if tube vision is a real disease.
Light dawned on marble head. Do you mean tunnel vision? I asked.
Yeah. Tunnel vision. Anyway, is it a real disease?
I explained that the way she’d heard it was an expression. A minute or so later she was back with an empty toilet paper roll held over her eye.
See, Mom? Tube vision. I have tube vision. She left laughing, the tube still over her eye.
I sat down and wrote her a letter for another day.
Dear Girl two,
I don’t want to scare you but the truth is, tube vision is a real disease. Just like a cold, everybody gets tube vision once in a while. Just like cancer, tube vision can take over your whole life.
The dangerous version of tube vision is pretty much an adult disease. People wait a long time to become grown-ups. They are very happy when their teacher and their parents stop telling them what to do. But then they find out that instead of three people telling them what to do, there are almost a hundred (people who make you pay taxes, your boss, your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, people who make you buy snow tires, house insurance, car insurance, people who make you redo the tile around your woodstove … the list is very long). That is annoying, but not as annoying as the fact that the things everyone tells you to do when you are a grown-up are easy things. All the hard things, no one tells you anything. You have to figure them out by yourself. This is the basic job of being a grown up: get up, do what people tell you, guess the answers to really hard questions and go to bed wondering if you should have guessed differently. As you can imagine, the stress of all this can cause tube vision.
Kids, woods, frogs, or a river to watch and listen to, these things (or things like them) can prevent tube vision. They are also effective treatments. Healthy people require quiet places. In order to stay healthy, people also need to be interrupted with the laughter of the unexpected. People with tube vision can recover if they see a bird try to catch a bug through a screen and stop to watch it cock it’s head confused that the fly is right there but somehow not going into its beak.
People have tube vision because looking through a tube makes the world smaller and less scary. Problems feel smaller when you look through a tube. That is the reason that everyone, including you and I, will get tube vision. Sometimes we might not even want to get cured of it.
The reason to get rid of it is that the world is scary but it is also full of laughter and surprises. Tube vision can’t make scary things go away, it can only make them feel like they’re not there. But by making everything so small, tube vision takes away our windows to surprises and laughter.
Kids are good medicine because they are experts at putting the windows back. That’s how they help grown-ups not get sick from tube vision. You have always been good at that. And you guessed it: tube vision is a lot like looking through a toilet paper roll.
The Walk to Work, by Jean-François Millet. 1851
The black flies always drive me out of the woods by June. This is usually the end of my quiet walks for a few months. Not expecting much, but missing the walking time, I tried a route along the road this year. It was different than the woods, but to my surprise, I really liked it. On lucky days the litter and the cars are fewer, but regardless, the sky is always bigger.
My mom was a walker. Often by herself, but almost everywhere we lived, I remember places that we walked together. She probably got it from her parents, who walked twice a day, often for a good two miles, well into their eighties. When I picture my mother or grandmother, I picture them drinking tea or taking a walk.
People who meet us together often consider my husband the quiet one. Depending on the situation, he can be happy to let me do the talking. But when it’s just the two of us, I can be lucky to get a word in edgewise. Without intending to this summer, we’ve made a habit of an after dinner walk together. It’s nice on lots of counts, but the biggest is how much easier it is to feel connected to each other.
There is something about walking that is hard to put your finger on. Cars, dogs, and people intersect our time without intruding on our space together. Curiously, the circle of togetherness feels both small and big. Walking with my husband, I feel connected to my mom, my grandparents . . . and it probably sounds crazy, but people in general. I walk, listening intently of course, to recaps of NPR, ESPN, etc. Meanwhile pictures of people walking amble through my head. Not just my heroes, the pioneers, but escaping people, exploring people, refugees. Mothers with babies on their backs, teenagers holding hands, tired people, laughing people, amazed people. All kinds of people go through my head. I think again of the man beside me. How much he drives me completely out of my mind. What a gift it is to be an us. The mystery of imperfect love. The kindness of slow time. How much simpler, easier it is to listen here on the side of the road.
Humans, I learned, walk about 3 miles an hour. A friend recently walked from Ottawa to Montreal, which took twelve days. Afterwards she was struck by the speed of car rides. She said all she could think sitting there was, “Why would anyone want to go this fast? You can hardly see anything like this.”
She’s right. You see things when you walk. You hear things. Walking alone, there are windows to wholeness and peace that pass my understanding. (Alone walking is where I bring my disordered fragments for realignment.) Walking together, a doorway opens between the separateness of souls. We walk, like breathing, without thinking about it. Unhurried space that is both ordinary and intimate. Gallons of water, misunderstood, assumed, taken for granted, criticized, and frustrated, have gone under the bridge (along with a few cats, some kids, missing tax receipts and a broken lawn mower) by the time we walk each day. It doesn’t all get said but it all gets sorted out. Because baptized in the shared humanity of 3 mph, we hear and see each other as friends.
Fest der Kentauren. Edoardo Ettore Forti. 1880 -1920.
I undertook a small trip this week. The four and a half hour trip down with the kids was almost pleasant. I filled the gaps with pep talk reminders about the joys of project work. Despite a late breaking meltdown ten minutes from our destination, we were happy to be out of the car and got down to business pretty quickly.
The boys were pleased to be cleaning out eaves troughs. Our roof at home is too steep to walk around on,and in seven years we haven’t managed to put up the eaves troughs on our house, so it’s not a job they’ve ever done. The girls and I emptied out a small greenhouse, then set to work with hammers and wrenches to take it apart.
The newness of the tasks made them fun. Milk and cookies from great grandma (who said they needed a break before their mother would have) didn’t hurt. Watching the girls play with toys that I played with as a child made my heart happy.
The way home was a little less fun. All we were doing then was going home, and we weren’t there yet. The movie choice was hotly debated by three. Girl one was the swing vote with the two’s (Boy and Girl) duking it out to win her over. Peaceful resolution required intervention. I chose Boy two’s movie with an option for Girl two to vote it down at the fifteen minute mark if she didn’t like it. She magnanimously said she would add five minutes and make her assessment at the twenty minute mark. I mistakenly thought we were home free.
Girl two lost track of time as planned. After half an hour she wasn’t sure if she liked the movie but it might be okay. In five minute intervals for the next hour she was alternately convinced, distracted, or placated with snack. We then declared it too late to change the movie. For the rest, in between watching intently, she told us every three or four minutes how much she hated Free Willy. It was the second worst movie she had ever seen in her life. She liked the sound of a statement so sweeping and repeated it periodically for the rest of the trip.
We arrived home in one piece, albeit not in one peace. I thanked everyone for their help. The kids said they’d enjoyed the trip excepting the return. A furtive tap on my door brought this counsel:
Mom, my advice is, while we’re still in the working mood, you better work us hard this weekend for as long as you can . . . but don’t let anyone else know I said that or they’ll kill me.
In their own strange ways, they look out for me.
The Captive Robin, by John Anster Fitzgerald, 1864. Public Domain
I started a piece called, “Fairy tales I tell myself.” It was about failed work projects and the fact that the idea of the children pitching in is a fairy tale I tell myself in order to make it feel like a team effort. I wanted to discuss the mounting level of fantasy required to plan a list of jobs (as if there were other creatures intent on their completion).
So a wee bit of cynicism, and “fairy tales” was not supposed to be a compliment. At which point, God laughed and hijacked my train.
Girl one lost another tooth. (A relief for the scales of justice as her sister’s teeth have been raining down like manna from heaven.) I thought a tooth fairy conversation was not far off, but I didn’t see it going the way it did.
I don’t know whether to believe in the tooth fairy, she said. I pretty much know there isn’t one. That’s what my friends all say. . . but I’m . . .I’m not completely sure.
The man in the red suit (who we don’t campaign against, but who’s never really caught on as a tradition for our family) came to my rescue.
Kids want to believe in Santa Claus, I said, because they want to believe that there’s magic in the world. That love does things so amazing we can’t explain it. A kid might find out that Santa isn’t real and worry that miracles aren’t true either. But they are. Someone might have made up the idea of Santa Claus but love really does do things so amazing we can’t explain it. So amazing that it’s magical like flying reindeer.
She didn’t say anything, so I kept brushing her hair.
What would be better? I said. To believe the tooth fairy isn’t real and you don’t feel dumb with your friends or to believe she is real and you don’t have to feel sad that part of what you imagined is pretend?
Girl one took these things and pondered them in her heart. I brushed hair that no longer needed brushing.
Your sister puts her tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy. Your brother doesn’t want to so he brings me all his lost teeth and I hand him some money. It’s okay both ways and the money’s the same either way. Which way do you want it?
I want to believe, she said.
I didn’t know how much I’d wanted her to say that until she said it. She danced downstairs the next morning waving the money that I’d put under her pillow myself. I saw her eyes and found it impossible not to imagine a tooth fairy with wings. Look what I got! she said. Girl two and I gasped with her.
Girl one wasn’t asking about the existence of the tooth fairy. She was asking if it was okay to believe in fairy tales. If it was okay to find in make-believe, things so true it made your heart hurt.
C.S. Lewis’s Narnia is that for me. I don’t expect to walk through a wardrobe in my daily life and find a different world (although I wouldn’t rule it out entirely). Rather, I expect that we may awake one day to the realization that where we are is Narnia. In the wordless places we see in part but are afraid to say, so we make poetry, and art, and music for each other to admit to what we know. That the trees have always talked, we simply haven’t heard them. That Aslan is real and on the move and without understanding why, that is precisely what we have been hoping and whispering so earnestly to each other.
We tell fairy tales to give back to our children what they give to us. That thing we so desperately need. Permission to believe.
Pink line of “y” in right hand corner is a movable replica of a worm.
Summer brings with it a fierce and lasting deafness to my clarion calls for order. My subjects, I discern, fancy themselves as fellow royals. The concerns of their dominions are too loud to hear me most of the time.
Boy two is responsible for chicks. Food and water are not overly interesting to him. Worms, on the other hand, are. And chicks, he believes, need worms. The girls love to play with the chicks while they’re new. Unbeknownst to me, Boy two forbid them from even seeing the chicks unless they paid admission. Morning admission: one worm. Evening admission: two.
Boy two said instead of explaining himself, we should come to Chicky, Chicky Worm Fest (invitation reminder via a sign on the bathroom door, later moved to the coop before our arrival). The girls agreed. Wearing a wig and a large brimmed hat, Boy two introduced himself as Raul. He held a worm until a chick got hold of it and ran. Mad races then ensued. Chick with worm ran determined to maintain the prize, anyone who saw the dangling worm ran to steal it, the rest of the chicks ran to see what all the running was about. Two chicks with worms meant even more chaos and the possibility of crashes. Raul proudly extolled the excellent exercise opportunities of worm racing, a clear but unspoken defense of his admission policy.
Boy one’s established kingdom is primarily focused on information. For free, he provides all kinds of facts necessary for our betterment. He also asks a lot of questions. The other day he asked me one I didn’t know the answer to and didn’t particularly feel like talking about it.
“I don’t know,” I said. Closing down his bid for further knowledge, I added, “as a wise man once say, when person not tell truth, it not worth asking the story.”
“Wow,” he said in awe. “That’s amazing. I mean, that’s really true. I never thought about it, but it’s true.”
The bequeathing of a minor earldom in my direction is absolutely one of the highlights of my summer. It may in fact turn out to be the last thing I ever say that impresses him. When I told him I’d made it up, he was speechless (briefly).
“I seriously thought it was Chinese or something. It was that good,” he said.
Girl one fights for the shape of her kingdom more quietly. (Girl two keeps us steadily informed on her behalf.) Girl one hates passing on clothes to her sister. We talk about it. We let the outgrown clothes sit around for awhile. Slowly, a few things at a time, we change them over to Girl two’s drawers. Often Girl one see them there and takes them back once or twice before it sticks. For her part, Girl two makes a point of mentioning how good the favorite previously owned items look on her whenever possible. There is a particular pink kilt beloved by both girls. Girl two wore it a few days ago. That night she told me she was giving it back to Girl one.
This had never happened before. “I thought you liked it,” I said.
“I do,” said Girl two, “but she told me if I ever wore it again she was going to put a witch’s curse on it so something bad would happen to me.”
Kingdoms come, kingdoms go. Summer marches on.
Raul luring the next racer (hard to see the worm)