Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Least Favorite Quote (Babble)

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This is the opening line of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.   It’s a great opening line for a novel, no argument about that.  (Although my own personal favorite is:  “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” from Orwell’s 1984.  If I get to go with the first two lines of a novel, my vote goes to: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” –Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

The line does its job setting up Tolstoy’s novel brilliantly, but the quote itself gets tossed around too often as a great truth.  If I dwell on this quote too long it irritates me.  This seems like a good forum for getting this annoyance off my chest, so if anyone feels like speaking up on behalf of Tolstoy, go for it, but here is my reasoning why this quote has it wrong.

I will acknowledge that there may be universal qualities to happiness that could make it indistinguishable from one person to another, but the same can be argued of pain.  Basic guidelines exist for trying to help unhappy families, so in some ways they are probably all alike too.  There are whole support groups that can nod in empathy when someone stands up and describes a family experience marred by alcohol abuse or drug addiction.  For many, struggling with a dysfunctional family is easier when they discover they are not unique.

For people who do not have a first hand experience with a happy family, they may in fact all seem the same.  There is trust and smiling and happy families usually lack drama.  It may seem bland or superficial.  If happiness is a prize, then defending happy families may seem as unnecessary as award shows often do, where equally beautiful and successful people congratulate one another on being beautiful and successful.  Why continue to congratulate winners?

But this quote rubs me the wrong way precisely because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a happy family even is.  I feel as if a judgment is being cast and the true nature of particular families is being dismissed as uninteresting and unworthy of consideration.  I disagree.  Happy families are not all alike.

I gave this a lot of thought this summer when I was visiting a friend of mine in rural Ohio.  I love her little family.  She and her husband have chosen a life for their two little girls that has much to recommend it.  They live on a large piece of land in the country where their kids run free and spot frogs and grow cucumbers.  They watch crops grow, can play with the hose all day if they want to, and see a million stars at night.  The girls get a lot of attention and go to school and art class very close to home.  By any measure these kids are thriving.  They are smart and funny and lively and I am always impressed when I hear about what they are up to.  As a family they enjoy cartoons, require a car, and have a loose eating schedule.  I couldn’t live how they live, but I understand the appeal.

My brother and his wife live in New York City.  Their daughter is also thriving, but the choices they have made to provide her with the opportunites she enjoys in the city are very different.  My niece’s world involves subway commutes, no television, a night sky with a solitary star, and by necessity a shorter leash.  She is one of the brightest, most charming children I’ve ever known, and when I visit my brother’s home each spring it’s always exciting.  The living space is tight, but there is a whole world of museums and parks and stores right outside the door.  It’s an amazing life.  It’s not one I could live happily.

My world is somewhere in between.  I like my quiet neighborhood in a moderately sized city.  I like to visit the country, but it’s too isolated for me. I like visiting big cities too, but I would not be happy there on a permanent basis.  Too much motion in every direction.  So what I was thinking about this summer while I relaxed on my friend’s porch in Ohio was how the different needs of specific families manifest themselves in the environment they settle into.  The things that make my friend’s family happy and able to achieve what they do would make my brother and his family very uncomfortable.  I also cannot imagine my friend trying to raise her kids in New York without its driving her crazy. I could be completely wrong in these assumptions, but I don’t think it’s chance these families have ended up where they have.  They are happy in markedly different ways and their choices reflect that.

I have a friend from high school who has a husband and three kids.  A few years ago we were all at my grandmother’s cottage on vacation and I passed the room they were all sleeping in right as they were settling the kids into bed.  I heard her say in soothing maternal tones, “They’re magically delicious,” and one of her daughters piped up, “Lucky Charms.”  Then she said, “Golden honey, just a touch, with grahams golden wheat,” and another child said, “Golden Grahams.”  It went on like this for awhile, and when the kids were down for the night and my friend came out to join the adults I asked her what that was all about.  She laughed and explained that that was just something they all did in their house.  They recited commercials while the others guessed what cereals they were for.  She’d never realized how odd that must look from the outside.  That is a happy family unlike any other and I’m glad to know them.

There are families that are happiest when they are hunting together, others when they watch sports or make music or go hiking.  Some families know things are going right when everyone’s talking, and others know bliss when things are silent.  There are families that stay amused by being sarcastic, and others that would find that appalling.  I’ve met many happy families that I admire and have learned from, but never one I’ve envied.  My happy family is just right for me.  There isn’t another one like it anywhere.  I cherish it and appreciate it for the unique entity it is.  Tolstoy should have gotten out more.
My second least favorite quote?  Five minutes before we head out to school in the morning:  “Mom?  Can you help me with my homework?”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Today I bought... (Babble)

A new house!  It hasn’t quite sunk in, but wow!  It’s starting to.  I’ll get a picture of the kids by the headstone in front of it soon and post that when I get a chance.  (Yes, you read that right–there’s a headstone out front.  I feel so cool right now, and I never feel cool.)   (EEE!)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Party is such sweet sorrow (Babble)

When I was growing up we used to take these whirlwind family vacations to the East coast.  My parents are self-employed which meant time off to travel was rare, so when they decided to close the gallery for a couple of weeks every few years we would cram into the car and see as much as we could in the time we had.  We went to Washington D.C., New York, Boston,  Rhode Island, Connecticut….  Every place we went we would go to museums and galleries, historic homes, college campuses and bookstores.  We had fun and it was all interesting, but my brothers and I used to complain that we always ended up doing just what my parents wanted to do, and we never got to pick. 

So one bright morning in the middle of a vacation mom and dad said, “Okay, you can decide today.  What shall we do?”  My brothers and I looked at each other and thought for a bit, and finally we said weakly, “Well, I’m sure there’s a museum around, and I think I saw a bookstore….”  The truth is we didn’t know how to pick what to do.  We only knew one way to do things, so even given a choice there was no choice to make.

That’s kind of how I feel now with my kids.  I’m used to having at least one of them around all the time and that’s the way I do things.  I don’t get out alone much, and when I do it’s for a scheduled purpose, such as a rehearsal or a concert.  I know I probably should make time to be alone, but when I contemplate an evening away from my kids I draw a blank about what I would do with it.  I’m so out of practice with the concept that I don’t even know what the choices are.  It’s especially weird since most of what I would want to do is at home, and finding a sitter who can take the kids away but leave me here is awkward.  I feel like if I’m home it doesn’t make sense that the kids aren’t here too.

So when my friend Carol told me she was having a party I automatically asked if I could bring the kids along.  She said she had envisioned a more adult affair, and that I should see it as a good chance to get out for a change.  She even found me a place nearby that was having a babysitting fundraiser event on the same night, so there were no excuses.  I was going to a party.

I’m not good at parties.  I adore my friend and definitely wanted to go, but I don’t drink and I’m a geek which always makes me worry about fitting in.  I don’t have a problem with this–it’s not a flaw and I’m fine with who I am for the most part, even if who I am means being uneasy at parties.  I don’t need to learn to like parties more.  I get by okay, because I can talk to almost anyone and when I have the energy for it I can be amusing (so I’m told), but it doesn’t help that parties are the kind of event where I intensely notice my husband’s absence. 

It’s hard to go to a party alone, even when everyone there is nice and you know some of them already.  When you come with a partner there is a default in place for when you don’t know where to stand or what to do.  It’s like home base in tag–there’s a safe spot to retreat to and catch your breath.  Plus my favorite part of a party is always that period after it’s over, when you can talk about it and compare notes.  I especially like it if we host a party, and as Ian and I clean up together we talk about how it went.  Some of my favorite memories are of the two of us washing and drying the dishes as a team, chatting about what went right and what we’d do differently next time, who was funny, who surprised us, me assuring him his sense of humor wasn’t too odd and him assuring me I didn’t talk too much.  Leaving a party alone has an unfinished quality to it.

So tonight you get to play Ian’s role in this one-sided post-party chat.  Here’s how my evening went:

I don’t know why leaving the house always has to have a Keystone Cops quality to it, but we can never just go in a timely and calm fashion.  Mona is the most reliable of the bunch in terms of actually following simple directions, which means sometimes when I tell the kids to use the bathroom and put on shoes, Mona ends up buckled in the car before Aden’s even dressed.  (I’m not exaggerating.)  But there is always some scrambling over coats and snow pants and gloves and hats that is frustrating, some kind of discussion about what toys they can or cannot bring, and no one ever remembers where we are going. 

Anyway, Aden and Mona both got into the van while I struggled to put a coat on a sound asleep Quinn lying on the family room floor.  About a minute before I was ready to leave (and about five minutes after we should have left), Aden came rushing into the house yelling frantically that Mona had spilled water everywhere.  I don’t know why there was that much water waiting to be spilled in the backseat of the van, or why they couldn’t figure out on their own that Mona should come in and change, but I told Aden to please go out and ask Mona to come in and find new clothes.  Mona clomped upstairs a minute later, jeans soaked, coat wet….  She found a new outfit, twirled in it for me, and got back in the van.  Quinn was sleepy and cranky, and I nearly forgot to grab all the cream puffs I’d baked for the party, but we were finally on our way.

But to where?  The babysitting fundraiser place was in a facility I’d never been to before.  I had an address, but my sense of direction is a strange and magical place where anything can happen.  Apparently even an inexplicable drive out to the airport.  I finally dug out the GPS and while I was fiddling with it and looking at the time, I reminded myself that I couldn’t really be late because none of it mattered.  This was supposed to be fun, and getting stressed about fun is stupid.  Carol would be happy to see me whenever I got there, the babysitters wouldn’t care as long as they got their money.  So I didn’t get agitated about being lost, which is good because it was better to laugh when it turned out the place I was trying to find was only a few blocks from my kids’ school.  From the backseat Aden said, “Why have we been driving so long and now we’re almost back home?”  Excellent question.  We chalked it up to one of those things that happens when her dad isn’t here.

The babysitting fundraiser was kind of cool.  Lots of people and activities and snacks and a movie.  There was a ball pit and lots of games.  The girls vanished into the herd of kids immediately and didn’t look back.  Quinn…Well, Quinn fell to pieces.  He clung to me for dear life, turned away from anyone who tried to help, and wept.  This is another one of those areas where deployment makes things more complicated.  In a normal circumstance I would probably be inclined to say, “Hey, he’ll get over it as soon as I leave.  We both need to toughen up.”  But this is not normal.  Daddy went away and now he’s just some guy we talk about.  I have no idea how deep Quinn’s fear of my leaving goes.  Maybe this is run of the mill separation anxiety, and maybe it’s something more traumatic, but I don’t know, and it makes it hard to decide what to do.  I know to other parents it looks like I’m being too indulgent sometimes, but I’m just trying to be sensitive to what might be a bigger problem.  In some cases the regular parenting techniques might prove to be cruel, but again, I don’t know.

So I walked about with Quinn glued to me as long as I could and I finally had to just peel him off, hand him to another mom, and listen to him scream as I walked away.  I burst into tears before I even got out of the building.  I sat shaking in the car for a bit before setting the GPS for the party (because it was close but I didn’t want to risk seeing the airport again).

The party itself was really nice.  It was a tropical theme, which in Milwaukee during winter is particularly welcome.  The food was abundant and tasty, and I met some interesting people and ran into a few friends.  I had volunteered to make something sweet (and no, cream puffs are not tropical, but who turns down cream puffs?), and one of the best parts of my night was when I went to see what else was on the dessert table and a couple of guys sitting near it kept pointing me toward my own cream puffs saying, “You have to try these, they’re really really good.”

It was pleasant, but the moment when I felt most comfortable?  When Carol’s youngest daughter who is Aden’s age came up to ask if she could take my picture.  I said yes, but only if she was in it with me.  I was much happier sitting with Carol’s kids at the back of the room than I had been anywhere else.  Proabably because I don’t know how to choose not to be around kids.  It’s what I know, it’s where I fit right now.  (Plus she’s got super great kids.)

(Me and Anna, photo taken by Sara Kraco)

I was tired, and decided I’d done as much of a party as I felt up to.  I missed Ian.  I missed my own kids.  I think I hit the time limit someone who doesn’t drink can do at a party where other people have glasses of wine in their hands.  Carol gave me some colorful pinwheels to take back to my children and I headed out with about an hour to use up before having to get the kids out of hock.  What to do with it?  Should I go home?  That sounded lonely.  I chose Target.

It’s nice to shop without having to chant an endless litany of, “No.  No.  Put it back.  No.  Did you hear me say no?  Maybe later.  No.  Put it down.  I don’t care, put it down.  No.  No.  No.  I love you, but no.”  I picked up a few things we needed, like paper towels and shampoo.  And then I thought, “Hey, it’s my fun party night out–I’m going to treat myself to something nice!”  My husband, if he’s reading this, is already thinking (correctly) “Good lord, we own another flashlight.”

I don’t know why a nice flashlight puts me in a good mood, but it just does.  I like one with some nice heft, a good grippy grip, and a button with a satisfying click.  I have no explanation for why I enjoy buying flashlights, but it works in my favor a little that my kids are always absconding with them and running the batteries down and breaking them.  I like to have one in my nightstand and one on the refrigerator in case of blackouts, but especially since we hung a mirror ball in the kitchen and the kids use those to light that up, I can never find either one of them.  So I found myself a nice new flashlight for on top of the fridge.  I put the batteries in it in the car and clicked it on and off happily a dozen times before it was time to go get the kids.

The girls didn’t want to leave they’d had so much fun, and Quinn had eventually calmed down enough to hang out with one particular mom.  The mom kept saying to me, “My goodness he’s smart,” and couldn’t get over how much detail he was able to bring to his descriptions.  Between that and the big happy hug I got from my cutie boy it was the complete antidote to the upsetting dropoff earlier.

A weird emotional mix of an evening, but it’s a start.  I need for all our sakes to get out alone a little more often where it’s not for work or errands.  I signed the kids up for the next babysitting event at the same facility in a couple of weeks.  Quinn promised not to freak out next time, and I’ll try to find something quiet to do by myself.  I have no idea what, but at least I’ll have a nice flashlight to do it with.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Friday Night Movie Night (Babble)

When Ian began his latest deployment back in September, I decided we needed to establish a little more structure into our routine.   Kids do better when things are predictable.  Too often that means being disciplined about responsibilities, like practicing for weekly violin lessons or choir or being in a habit about when to do homework or picking up toys.  So we added a new thing just for fun:  Friday Night Movie Night.   I realize this is not unique or clever of us, but it’s been one of the best things we’ve added to our lives in a long time.  We love Friday Night Movie Night.

First of all, everyone looks forward to it.  It’s good to have something coming up that’s never more than a week away that everyone is excited about.  If the kids are down about anything, I can always ask for suggestions about the next movie night and they perk right up.

Second, it gets us all thinking about each other’s needs and tastes.  The first rule of movie night is that we all have to agree on the movie.  This is not easy, since we have to find something that’s not too scary for the three year old, but will still interest the six and eight year olds, and not bore this forty year old to death.  I have vetoed Pokemon movies, they have nixed ‘My Dinner with Andre’ each time I’ve answered honestly what I want to watch, but overall we’ve had great success. 

Among the things we’ve enjoyed so far are: 

Kiki’s Delivery Service, Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Up, Monsters Vs Aliens, and Safety Last.  I’ve discovered my kids love silent movies, and I’m hoping to talk them into trying out maybe a Shirley Temple or Lassie film sometime just to expand their cultural references a bit, although it’s harder to convince them that a non-cartoon movie is going to be fun.

Third, there is popcorn.  Popcorn is big for a few reasons.  Aden gets to make it (which just means pushing the button marked ‘popcorn’ on the microwave, but she is proud of her popcorn making abilities).  She takes this responsibility very seriously.  Also, we get to eat the popcorn upstairs by the TV, and normally there is a ‘no food upstairs’ rule, so the popcorn upstairs is very exciting.  Plus, it’s popcorn.  One of the first things I bought for my violin store was a popcorn machine, because the quickest way to make any business better is to add popcorn in my opinion.  (I still have a little trouble justifying to people why a violin store offers free popcorn, but hey, it’s my store and I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t violate some code.)

And last, there is the group snuggle.  We shut off all the lights (that’s Mona’s job), pile together under blankets, and cuddle up for the length of the movie.  There is a bit of contention between Mona and Quinn about sharing my lap, but it’s usually worked out by the end of the previews.  I love having them all so close.  It’s warm and cozy and feels like everything being in a family should be.

When people come to visit, we lay out the rules of Friday Night Movie Night very clearly.  No working on your laptop while watching the movie.  You are either in, or you’re out.  No hogging all the blankets.  No blurting out bits of the plot, but Mona is allowed to announce if something coming up is ‘a funny part’ and Quinn will repeat bits of dialogue throughout the movie and we will like it.

I’m still surprised by just how fiercely the kids have all latched onto the Friday Night Movie Night routine.  The few times we’ve had to move it by a day because of some conflicting event they’ve been very concerned.  It’s not quite the same on a Saturday to them for some reason, so I do the best I can to not let things get in the way of actual Friday nights.

I’m looking forward to keeping this routine in place well past Ian’s eventual return from Iraq.  I like the idea of watching more varied films as the kids get older.  Movies and books are such a great way of launching discussions on important topics, especially about things that are embarrassing in the first person.  If you can talk about fictional characters you can express opinions and pass judgments without feeling directly exposed or attacked yourself, and that can be useful.  When we watched ‘Mulan’ recently I was able to talk to Aden about how lucky we are to live in a time and place where girls can do whatever they want.  That she doesn’t have to get married in order to be considered valuable. 

Not that Friday Night Movie Night is primarily about teachable moments; there weren’t many deep lessons to be drawn from ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ other than every landscape apparently needs a moon.  The real joy of Friday Night Movie Night has less to do with movies than it has to do with love.  Sitting under a pile of kids and knowing they are happy and safe and warm is the nicest routine I can think of.  (Plus there’s popcorn.  Doesn’t get better than that.)

Any movie recommendations?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If it looks like failure and it quacks like failure.... (Babble)

(NOTE:  I started this post in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep and was pretty down.  I’m much better now, but decided to preserve this post as it was because it does capture what the complicated days are like and how depressing they can get.)

This was Tuesday:

Today I hit my limit.  There was just too much.  I feel guilty and ridiculous because there was no tragedy or trauma worthy of anyone’s sympathy.  No one was sick or hurt.  Our house is still standing and business is still good.  No, it was just a collection of moments where I failed to live up to basic expectations.  I feel inadequate on so many levels.  I’m tired.  The worst part is I let people down.

There was too much to do and I couldn’t hold it all in my head anymore.

I had to get up in the middle of the night to change all my sheets because Quinn had an accident, so I started off sleep deprived, as well as behind on laundry and dishes.  My clock radio woke me up to the news that a local soldier had been killed overseas.  That always makes me feel ill and a little dizzy.  I had to drag my poor son out of bed so he could go with me to drive the girls to school (to which we arrived late).  I had to go into work first thing because all the work I had planned to do Monday didn’t happen because since the kids were off school they all came with me, and one of them accidentally overflowed the toilet and I spent all my work time cleaning up the mess.  I had planned to do one quick bow rehair today, then take Quinn home to catch up with things at the house and go grocery shopping, but I got so overwhelmed with unexpected customers we stayed until it was time to pick up the girls at school again.

The one distraction that should have been nice was that Ian was able to catch me on Skype before he went to bed.  He showed me what his tiny living quarters in Iraq look like.  He looks good, he sounds fine.  He just never catches me at a convenient moment, which is frustrating.  I had Quinn in my lap while I was trying to tune a violin and one customer heading out the door while the next one was coming in.  And it hit me while Ian was smiling and chatting away that I have no idea what to say to him.  I say “Hello,” “I miss you,” and “I love you,” and then I’m tapped.  I can’t burden him with any of my problems, and seeing him reminds me of how much I wish he were here.  It hurts to see him.  I want to, and I don’t want to at the same time, and I feel bad that any part of me doesn’t appreciate seeing him whenever I can.

I had to bring the kids back to work with me after school to redo one more bow, then we had to dash to the grocery store because I had nothing set for dinner.  I kept thinking I was missing something, but every time I tried to collect my thoughts something came up.  Aden handed me a notice that her lunch account at school was overdrawn.  Both girls handed me birthday party invitations I had to think about.  Aden forgot her homework and I had to make up something for her to do.  Mona broke a glass jar that I had to sweep up.  I reacted badly to the glass everywhere and then apologized to the kids for being so upset about it.  Quinn was just generally needy which is distracting all by itself.

We had a small window of time when we got home to eat and start the laundry before my neighbor, Julie, was set to come over and watch Quinn while I took the girls to choir.  I had arranged for a friend to bring the girls home afterward because I had an orchestra rehearsal that ran until 9:30.  I hadn’t found enough time to practice and wasn’t feeling good about some of the music.

When we walked in the door–the first time I’d been home since heading out at 7:30, I saw the light blinking on our answering machine and had a bad feeling about it.  I finally realized what had been nagging at the back of my brain.  I was supposed to teach a violin lesson at my house today.  The student and the music therapist I team teach with had both come and no one was here.  I was so busy juggling so many things and had so many distractions tossed my way that it completely slipped my mind.  It didn’t help that with school out for MLK day, Tuesday felt like a Monday, but I don’t have a good excuse.  I screwed up.

My heart sank, I called and left an apology on my teaching partner’s voice mail, and started scrambling to get dinner on.  The kids barely had any time to eat before it was time to leave for choir, and as we headed out the door Quinn fell apart.  Poor Julie told me to just go and Quinn would be okay, but it was absolutely gut wrenching to have him wailing and screaming and holding his arms out to me and to have to turn away from him.  He tried to run after me out the back door into the snow with his bare feet and I started to cry too.

I was starting to feel bad about everything I want to do.  I want to teach, but had let that slip through the cracks.  I want to be a good mom, but left my kid screaming.  I want to be a good wife but couldn’t talk to my husband.  I want to be a good musician but don’t have enough time to prepare well and feel as if the rehearsal time is selfish of me.  I want to run my business well but the work is piling up.  I’m gaining weight again because I eat badly when I’m stressed, there are projects that are important to me that I fear I will never get to, and I’m closing on a house in about a week and still haven’t figured out how to contact all the utilities about that.  It’s just all feeling hard today.

Part of the problem is I’m trying to live a life that was set up with a partner in mind.  I don’t feel like dismantling my life because Ian’s gone, because that’s supposed to be temporary.  I’ve scaled back everything I do so that parenting is the primary focus of every day, but maybe I’m fooling myself that I can still be a musician and a teacher and luthier.  I haven’t worked on an instrument of my own since before Ian shipped out.  I don’t feel like myself.  I feel hollow and sad, and ashamed of myself for not appreciating better what I do have.

UPDATE:  Okay, it’s the next day, and sleep makes a difference.  Time to tally things that are going right.

My neighbor Julie is amazing.  She manages to help me out and make it feel like I did her a favor somehow.  While I was at rehearsal she washed my dishes and emptied all the garbage.  Best presents ever.  She listens to me whine and gives me hugs when I need them.  Life without Julie across the street (and soon next door!) would be many times harder.

I got to play music last night.  The last page of the Britten we are doing is depressing because no matter how much I practice my part there is a giant three against four timing thing that loses me a few lines from the end when we do it as a group, but it was just the first rehearsal–I have time to get it.  The fun part was we also ran Handel’s Water Music.  For those of you who think you don’t know it, trust me you do.  I’ve played it a million times at weddings in reduced versions, but I don’t think I’ve ever done it with a full orchestra.  It’s beautiful and fun and much more exciting with trumpets.  We’re also doing Haydn’s Symphony No. 99, and that’s fun, too. 

The group I play with (the Festival City Symphony Orchestra) is such a lovely collection of talented people.  It’s a privilege to make music with them.  It’s not too selfish of me to go to an occasional rehearsal.  It keeps me challenged in a way that’s completely apart from parenting, and that’s good.  Why should I be investing so much in getting musical training for my kids if they would just have to set it aside one day just because they might have kids themselves?  I wouldn’t want them to do that, so why should I?  Not going to happen.

And Aden was a huge bright spot in my troubled day.   Mona didn’t notice I was crying when I got in the car to take them to choir, but Aden sure did.  She told Mona to quiet down and asked me what was wrong.  I told her nothing was really wrong, that I was just having a hard time handling everything as well as I should.  I could see her nodding in the rearview mirror, and she said, “I know what that’s like.  I had a hard day too.”  And she proceeded to tell me all about how she didn’t get her work done at school because she’d been daydreaming and she got behind and how some days are just like that.  Aden did everything I asked right when I asked yesterday.  She knew I was at my limit and made sure not to add one more problem all day.

Today is going better.  Quinn was well rested and up in time for breakfast.  We’ve started setting the kitchen timer so the girls know when to get on their coats to go and that’s working.  The timer beeping is better than me repeating myself and getting annoyed.  My first customer of the day brought me a blueberry muffin when he picked up his bow.  I told him I was feeling bad that I’d forgotten about a student yesterday, and he admitted to having done that himself.  He said, “It happens, you just find a way to make it up to them.”  That helped.

I’ve still got too much on my plate, but I have things in a healthier perspective today.  Tuesday’s over.  Wednesday’s fine.  I can do this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Home of the Sensitive (Babble)

I’m the first to admit my kids have it pretty easy.  I expect them to help keep their toys and clothes picked up a bit, and to be responsible for their schoolwork, but I don’t make them do scheduled chores.  I remember how hard it was sometimes just to be a kid, and when I see them playing in the yard or creating a pretend restaurant for their stuffed animals or spinning in circles and just being kids, it makes me incredibly happy.  They are still so innocent and sweet and I want them to enjoy that.  It doesn’t last long, and they will have the rest of their lives to work hard and know unpleasant truths about the world.

They are good and kind little people, and I want them to look back on childhood as a loving, creative time with a lot of freedom.  I was lucky enough to have had that kind of childhood.  I want that kind of foundation for my kids, too.  They take a lot of things for granted, but only because they don’t know anything different.  And every now and then my kids stumble against some other reality that they find jarring, and I am amazed at how sensitive they are.

Aden has always been incredibly empathetic.  From the time she was a baby she hated to see me upset, and she is deeply affected by the suffering of others, especially children or animals.  When she’s moved by the plights of others she often comes up with creative ways of trying to help, usually by drawing people pictures or creating little plates of food for them.  I found out the other day that she gave away all of her birthday money to the charity drive happening in her class.  I asked her why she didn’t have money to buy the Yu-Gi-Oh cards she wanted, and she said when the funds came up short for the kid her class sponsored to buy him warm clothes for winter, she emptied her piggy bank and donated every last dime.  It made me proud.  I don’t know how much credit I can take, but I’d like to see this as evidence that I’m raising her right.

But it’s hard to know.  With Aden it may just be innate.  We read a book in the Magic Tree House series for a new parent/child book club we’re a part of, and there was a description of New York during the Great Depression.  The Magic Tree House books are pretty tame.  There is some suspense but no one really gets hurt and problems are solved quickly, yet they still make my kids nervous.  The moment things aren’t going well, one or both of my girls will insist I tell them it comes out okay so they can relax and listen to the story.  The descriptions of the Great Depression were mostly soup lines and people without adequate clothes for a blizzard–nothing too graphic–but Aden couldn’t take it.  “This book is too sad, mom,” she kept saying, tears streaming down her face.  “What’s going to happen to all of those people?”

I tried to tell her about how her grandparents on my mom’s side of the family lived through the Great Depression right here in Milwaukee.  How her great-grandma’s family had to sell their piano, and great-grandpa had to drop out of school to make money on a farm to support his parents and siblings, but it all worked out eventually.  Aden just kept wiping at the tears on her face and saying, “I don’t want to hear this book anymore.”  We did finish the story (I told her we had to if we wanted to go to the book club), but I had to keep pointing out the positive elements to string her along.

The stories out of Haiti since the earthquake have been particularly hard for her.  I often watch the news while preparing dinner, and Aden was transfixed by a story about an orphanage in Port-au-Prince.  I think it cuts too close to home for her.  She doesn’t have to imagine what it’s like to have one parent gone, and she’s fearful of the idea that something could happen to me.  I tried to point out that in the news story there were kind and generous people from all over the world who had come to help those orphans, and we should be happy there are such people in the world, but Aden put her arms around me and sobbed, “But I wouldn’t want another mother.  I want you.”  I told her I was very careful crossing the street and would do my best to be around a long time.  When she was satisfied that we were going to be okay, she asked what we could do to help the orphans in Haiti.

Mona wasn’t born with the same level of empathy her sister was.  For the first couple of years of her life I was a little worried about how oblivious she was to the feelings of others, mostly because I was used to Aden.  Mona continues to dance along through life keeping herself amused, but in recent years she has developed an incredibly sensitive streak.  Most often it’s about herself, but it was surprising when it first surfaced.  You used to be able to say anything to or about Mona and she would smile and move on, but now if she thinks anyone is being critical she bursts into tears and runs to her room.  She cares about the opinions of others in a way she never used to.  Her reaction to accidentally hurting other people is to get angry and sullen.  It’s hard for her to deal with the guilt of making her sister sad or disappointing her mother.  If I express frustration with her about anything she gets very huffy and can’t look at me.

When sad things happen to other people unconnected to Mona, that doesn’t usually affect her much, so I was shocked the other day when she cried during a movie.  I was in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner and I’d told the kids they could go upstairs and watch a Pokemon DVD we’d just rented.  After a little while there were wailing sobs from Mona and I thought she was injured.  I raced upstairs expecting to see broken bones or blood, but Mona was under a blanket, crying uncontrollably, with Aden and Quinn patting her lightly and saying it was going to be okay.  Apparently one character had sacrificed its life for another and it was too traumatic for her.  Aden kept saying the character wasn’t really dead because part of his essence had been passed on to the other character (I have no idea about the details because I just can’t bring myself to sit through a Pokemon movie), but Mona kept weeping.  She curled up in my lap (as much as her six-year-old self will fit there anymore) and I stroked her hair until she calmed down.

Mona had a scary accident back when she was two that caused part of her face to get badly scratched up.  Due to the miraculous healing powers of toddlers you can’t tell, except when she cries.  When Mona is really upset I can see the ghostly image of those scratches appear across her forehead and cheek.  I held her until those little pink marks faded again, and then offered to read her some Amelia Bedelia books to make her laugh.  She liked that, and cheered up considerably, but looked sad again when I tucked her in to go to sleep.  Mona has declared she won’t watch that movie again.  Aden’s emotions may be close to the surface, but I think Mona’s run deep because they are so strong and she needs to be insulated from them a bit in order to function.

Quinn is only three, and most of his tears are related to being tired.  He’s very cooperative and self-sufficient so he doesn’t get told ‘no’ very often.  The minute he does, though, and if he is overdue for a nap, his face dissolves into sadness and the tears flow freely.  On the sensitivity scale he is definitely closer to the Aden end of the continuum.  He hates to see me sad.  He hates to see his sisters sad.  I love my sensitive little guy.

The tricky thing from my perspective right now is trying to figure out how much Ian’s deployment may or may not be influencing any of their tears.  Back in 2006 we had to have both our pet bunnies put to sleep around the same time their dad left for Iraq.  Often that year Aden would start off being sad about the bunnies, and it would turn into a crying fit about her dad.  There was too much loss in her life at one time, and there were days it overwhelmed her.

This time I think I’m doing a better job of keeping them occupied.  I know it’s hard for them to see other kids with their dads, but they aren’t as quick to tell random people this time that they have a dad too.  I used to think families living on a base were at an advantage in terms of support during a deployment, but now I’m not so sure.  I don’t think being surrounded by reminders of what you don’t have is very useful.  We are always looking ahead toward fun things coming up, like the book club or movie night or events at the school.  We talk about all the fun things we’ll do when their dad gets back, and I only bring up their dad in a positive light.  There haven’t been any crying fits about their dad this deployment, but it’s possible they were disguised as tears over Pokemon characters.  It’s hard to know.

I like that my children are sensitive.  I know it makes them more vulnerable in the world at large, but they are so willing to help others that I believe the connections they form because of that will provide them with great strength in the long run.   I love them.  I know that’s the most unoriginal thing ever posted to a mommy blog, but it’s true.  I love my kids more than I know how to say it, tears and all.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Plan (Babble)

We close on the new house at the end of the month!   And my favorite distraction of the moment is thinking about the move.  I have a plan.  (I like the idea of starting the new year with a plan.)

We are in the fortunate position of not being in a rush.  We can take our time and spread it out over months if we want.  I’m hoping this will make the transition for my kids (and myself) easier, but we’ll see.  (And this starts off as a basic packing list, but there’s some parental psychology stuff mixed in so stick with me.  Aden doesn’t want to go, so I’m not going to tell her to.  I’m going to see how long it takes before she asks.)

Step one:  Start with everything the kids won’t notice and does not impact their day to day lives.

I want to move my shop first.  It’s my own special favorite room and I’m looking forward to organizing it fresh.  I’ll pack up my wood and tools and cart them across the street and probably lay them all out in the kitchen so I can keep reusing the same couple of boxes every trip.  When all the bits and pieces are moved over I will find a couple of strong friends (who like pie) to help walk over my desk and workbench and drill press and anything else I wasn’t strong enough to already do myself.  Once the whole shop is put together and ready to use, I can turn my back on it for awhile and know it’s waiting for me as a treat when the rest of the move is over.

After the shop is in place, I’ll move on to the storage items.  The new house has much better storage space, so I’m really looking forward to the odd things we own having a home.  We spend a lot of time in our current house just shifting things around, and some stuff I really don’t know what to do with.  For instance, my grandmother had my wedding dress professionally boxed up.  I can’t get rid of it, but I have no idea what to do with it.  I have saris I wore in India that I doubt I will wear again but don’t want to part with.  I have interesting bits of wood and old negatives (remember negatives?) and an electric bass I never play but won’t sell.  And much more.  My highest hope for this move is that I will lay my hands on everything we own and really decide what to do with it.  I’m hoping a bunch of it can go, and what’s left will have an accessible home on a shelf and not be forgotten.  (I’m so excited by the idea of sorting everything that even if disaster strikes somewhere between now and closing, I would even consider sending the kids away somewhere for a couple of weeks, emptying the existing house, and moving back into it more neatly.  Yes, the clutter has driven me that insane.)

Step two:  Take all the pictures off the walls.  (My parents own an art gallery, so this is no small task.)  That’s just a lot of simple trips across the street and back–nothing to box or wrap.  I will store all of those in a corner and when we are all moved in, I will spend an enjoyable day hanging things.

Step three:  Start boxing books.  This one is a pain.  I remember when I filled out an application to a charter Montessori school for Aden before she got off the waiting list for the public one, there was an innocent looking question on the form asking how many books are in our house.  I came up with a rough estimate of 3,000 if I’m remembering correctly.  If I’d thought to add in cookbooks and some of the textbooks hidden by the toy shelves it would be higher.  I’m not looking forward to dealing with the books.  Every time we’ve moved and Ian has had to lug my books somewhere, he always takes a moment to show me how light his library card is.  But hey, I’m also a geology geek, and it’s better than the boxes literally filled with rocks he’s had to haul around because he loves me.  This time Ian is not here, so I get to move my own rocks and books as well as his library card.

Step four:  The doodads.  One of the things I love about the new house is not just the storage space, but the display space.  There are surfaces available for vases and rocks, objects both beautiful and weird, important bits of art and highly sentimental pieces that I’m looking forward to having out finally.  My mother is probably reading this and feeling alarmed tha I’m going to clutter things up in the pretty new dining room, but not to worry!  With the new storage available I will rotate things—I’m not going to display everything at once.  I will box the doodads and enjoy sorting through all of them with my kids later in a home game of show and tell.

Step five:   Now we start dipping into the real spaces.  I’m going to move over everything from the kitchen but the most basic things and start stocking the new fridge with the things the kids like.  All the snack crackers, cookies and bananas will be in the new house.  The old house will be a wonderland of vegetables.  (What’s that, Aden?  You want grapefruit?  Well, let’s walk across the street and have some!)  I’ll also start moving over all the bathroom items that aren’t often used.  (Hot rollers from the 90’s?  Can’t part with those yet, but now they’ll have a drawer.  Plug-in heated foot bath?  Yeah, there’s time for that–in some parallel universe where my novels also get published and my kids remember to put their shoes away.)

During all of this time I’ll have let the kids start working on their rooms.  Quinn’s will be purple, apparently.  With orange rabbits.  I’ll let him pick whatever he wants off the sample cards at the hardware store and all the kids can help.  I play fast and loose with paint so they can do whatever makes them happy.  I’m hoping by decorating their new spaces they will start getting attached to them.  Mona wants her side of the room to look like the sea.  I’ve been going through old photos that show anything of their current room but the best I can find are these:

The far end of the room is Aden and Mona’s and it’s split down the middle, purple on Aden’s side and yellow on Mona’s.  The front half of the room is Quinn’s and it’s all blue with clouds.  The funny thing is, I painted shapes among the clouds (a bunny, a sheep, a duck) but the kids find shapes in the regular clouds I made.  They see a mouse and fish and bird somewhere.  I wanted them to have defined spaces that were their own, even if they were all sharing a room.  Aden and Mona are still going to be sharing a room at the new house, so I need them to get coordinated about what they want to do.  Aden currently has no opinion because she’s trying to look more victimized, but I think once Mona starts going at her half of the new room with bright blue paint and picks out a new comforter covered with fish, Aden might start taking an interest.
Other fun with paint in our home:

Those are Mona’s footprints running across our lower kitchen cabinets.  Now I’m just distracting myself thinking about paint.  Back to the moving plan!

Step six:  Big furniture.  Living room and music things go across the street.  We disassemble the guest and dining rooms.  Bookcases and cabinets move.  Most of my bedroom moves, and some of theirs.  This step involves lots of friends and pizza.
Step seven:  Clothes.  All but a few basic outfits per person, across the street.
Step eight:  Here is where I hit the kids where they live.  Moving the bulk of the toys, the art supplies, and the TV.  My thought is we can keep sleeping and doing meals at the old home, but more and more be spending time in the new one.  Eventually we’ll do all the meals there, and I’ll have to get them up early to cross the street with me to have breakfast before school.

At this point I’ll work on fixing up the old house and freshening it up for sale while I wait Aden out.  I have no idea how long she can take our house just being her mattress, a blanket and a stuffed bunny, but it will be interesting to find out.  My hope is she will volunteer to move over and we will go and have a little party and all will be well, but it’s hard to say.  As bad as she is at change, I was much worse at her age, so who knows how much of my stubborn gene will come back to bite me in Aden form.

So that’s the plan, at least for the moment.  It evolves and mutates as I play with it in my mind while I wait in line at the bank or fold laundry, but I’m excited about it.  I think this move is going to be a really enjoyable distraction, and I’m looking forward to emailing Ian pictures at each stage.  (If only having a new house didn’t involve losing two of our favorite people as neighbors–Paul and Melissa, we’re going to miss you guys.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Safe and Strong (Babble)

My husband doesn’t complain as often as he should.  He tends to keep things to himself and small irritations fester into deeper frustrations, and I end up telling him later he should have just spoken up and I could have helped.

So I was taken off guard early in his last deployment when he made a clear point of telling me he didn’t like people asking him to “Stay Safe.”  He had discussed it with other soldiers, and they all agreed it bothered them.  They found it insulting.  He said it was as if their talents and training and skill counted for nothing and we had no faith in them to do their jobs.  Now, all of us–his mother, my mother, our friends, myself–we all expressed in our emails or letters that we hoped he would ‘stay safe,’ and at first I was miffed at him for finding fault with such a universally heartfelt sentiment.  He was at war, and we worried about his safety.  I don’t care how much talent or training or skill he has, war is dangerous and I want him home in one piece.  We all wanted him to ‘stay safe’ and asking us not to express that seemed unfair.

First the two of us had to get past the point that he was doing what I asked, and telling me when he was bothered by something.  Eventually I agreed that if it bothered him that much I was glad he told me.  I promised him we wouldn’t say it anymore, but that he should understand the spirit in which it was meant in case others continued to do it.  No one was doubting his abilities, we were just scared in general.  He accepted that, and I’ve never asked him to ‘stay safe’ ever again.

I think about that often, because it’s the most common thing people still say to me when they hear my husband is deployed–that they hope he stays safe.  The problem may be that most of us have a view of war that is constructed in our imaginations from what we’ve read or seen on the news or gleaned from popular culture.  In my mind, war is synonymous with chaos.  I don’t understand it, so it is random and terrifying.  I suppose with study and training it would seem less so, but it’s not easy for me to picture how. 

The closest analogy I can come up with in my area of training would musical improvisation.  For people who don’t play music and don’t have an understanding of basic theory principles, the idea of making up music on the spot must seem akin to magic.  But with training you come to know the rules and patterns and it’s not the crazy free for all some people seem to think it is.  There is order, and skilled people work within a framework that is not hard to navigate once you know what to focus on.  Soldiers see a framework that many of us do not.  My husband would know what to do in a circumstance where I would be lost, and that’s thanks to his talents and training and skill.  For me to imply in any way that he can’t conduct himself well in the war negates all his years of hard work to prepare for that circumstance.  I know how annoying I find it when people think creating music just happens because you’re born with some gift, and don’t acknowledge the great effort and preparation behind it.  (A pitiful analogy, but it’s all I’ve got.)  So I think I get it.  It reminds me a little of how one of my brothers doesn’t want to be wished ‘good luck.’  He always corrects me and says, “No, good skill.”

The problem is Ian’s job literally comes down to life and death, and there is an element of luck or chance to everything we do that is beyond our control or level of skill.  We have no power there, so we throw wishes and good thoughts that way to help manage our fears.  I can’t help Ian stay safe, so I hope for it instead.  We send him cookies, we remind him he’s loved, and that’s about all we can do from here.

On my end, the word I struggle with sometimes is ‘Strong.’   People want Ian to be safe and for me to remain strong.  I don’t resent it in any way, but I don’t know what it means.  I can only do what I do, and there aren’t many choices.  I suppose it means not falling apart, but I’m also human.  I arranged to have someone babysit my kids on a Saturday about a month after Ian left so I could work at the violin store without having everyone along for a change.  I got the kids ready, swung by the post office, dropped something off at the video store, took the kids to the sitter’s, and on the short drive from there to the violin store I burst into tears.  It took me completely by surprise.  I wasn’t sure what was happening, but then it occured to me that it was the first time I’d been completely alone in weeks.  I hadn’t cried since saying goodbye to Ian at the airport, and I guess I needed to.  In that moment was I failing to be strong?  I have no idea.

I’m pretty good about not losing it in front of my kids because I don’t want to upset them, but that’s not much different from simply being a plain old responsible adult.  I can only remember a few instances in my life where I let myself completely fall to pieces, but even in those instances it didn’t matter.  When my dad was badly injured on a trip to India, I remember freaking out and hyperventalating on a train platform because I was so upset and worried, but he was in the more than capable hands of my brothers and their friends, so I had the luxury of being useless at that moment.  Once we were on the train to Mumbai, I gave myself the job of keeping dad company all night long as he faded in and out of painful consciousness.  I held it together because I was needed.  I don’t know if ‘strong’ applies anywhere in there, just as I don’t know where or if it applies now. 

Most days are just days.  There is grocery shopping to do, schoolwork to help with, and laundry to fold.  Those things have to get done rain or shine, sick or well, strong or weak.  But now when I complete ordinary tasks I’m considered ‘strong,’ which seems to me to be way more credit than I deserve.  I’m just doing the best I can any given day like almost anyone else.  Most of the world has it much harder than I do.  I’m healthy, I do work I enjoy, I get to see my children smile every day, and we have a comfortable roof over our heads.  If I can’t draw sufficient strength from that to survive each day then I’m not even trying.

But words can be funny things.  They have power when we choose to give them power.  If in this new context we live in, the word ‘safe’ rubs my hsuband the wrong way, then it is easy enough to avoid it.  If when Ian’s gone, washing dishes somehow makes me seem strong, then I’ll pretend I’m wearing a cape.  Maybe for variety this week I’ll hope to keep myself safe and tell Ian to be strong.  Couldn’t hurt.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Other Work/Life Balance (Babble)

I am fortunate that my life has played out in such a way that I’m able to work and still be with my kids.  Owning my own business provides me with some needed flexibility, and although some days it plays out better than others, I don’t experience any guilt about working and parenting at the same time.  That part of my life is fine.  It’s the other work/life balancing act that I struggle with on a daily basis.  The one that has nothing to do with having a paid job.

The balance I’m talking about is the one between the work of keeping on top of basic responsibilities, and appreciating the joy that can exist in every moment.  I would like to be the kind of person who can make those things coexist effortlessly, but I’m just not that good.  I try.  I make a point whenever I’m putting a shopping cart in the little parking lot corral to remember how lucky I am to be able to walk.  Even when it’s rainy or cold, that’s a moment when I think about how much I know my grandma liked being able to take herself to the store, or even how other people in my own community can’t afford food.  I’m consistent with those short bursts of gratitude.

But operating as a single parent is hard.  It just is.  And I feel there are days when I have to march ahead, grim-faced and focued, because I can’t afford distractions.  I keep a lot of lists and I have many things to juggle, and it’s all on me.  There is no one to take up the slack or give me a break or catch anything I might have missed.  And there is so much of it that I am in perpetual fear that I’ve forgotten a field trip or missed an appointment or neglected to pay something. 

Now, most of the time I do fine.  And there are people who find ways to help, but I’m not entitled to it and I can’t assume it will be there at the right moments.  I have to be the one my kids count on.  I try not to worry about people passing judgment when I unwittingly send Mona to school in shoes with giant holes in them, or I haven’t had time to read and initial all of Aden’s school assignments.  I’m doing the best I can but some things slip past me.  I can forgive myself for that.

But the days where I feel I’ve failed are when I lose it over something unimportant.  A lot of that is ‘the last straw’ effect.  It’s not that the kid spilling the juice was worth yelling about, it was the endless unheeded warnings about not putting the juice so close to the edge of the table after I just washed the floor again and this is the last of the juice and there is no time to clean it up but now I have to and we’re going to be late and I hate my life at this moment and now I feel guilty kind of stuff that goes with it.  It’s never just the spilled juice.  And I have many more of those last straw moments when I’m already carrying all the straw.  I miss being able to laugh off the stress of my day with my husband and start fresh the next morning.  When he’s away, most of the time I just carry that stress with me into the next day.  And my fuse gets shorter.

And I end up with mornings like Thursday.  Thursday it snowed and snowed and snowed.  Enough to cancel everything in Milwaukee but the public schools, so I got up and made French toast and put in a load of laundry and started nagging the girls to get dressed.  They don’t listen.  We’ve had discussions that are calm, loud, tearful, and silly, where I’ve even been down on my knees begging about how they need to do what I ask when I ask them.  I don’t have time to repeat myself.  I don’t ask much of them and I resent it when I have to say something more than twice.  I hate that they don’t move sometimes until I yell, and every time I yell I ask them why they let it get to that point.  In any case, I refrained from yelling and asked them at least a dozen times to get dressed before they finally got their clothes on and went to breakfast.  I tried getting through some work emails and bills but kept getting interrupted with various breakfast related requests.  Aden didn’t want to do her eyedrops.  Quinn never stops singing or talking, which is sweet unless you want to think about anything.  Mona had left her snow pants in the car and I had to send slow-poke Aden out to get them.  Quinn can’t put on his own coat.  Aden’s backpack was broken and I had to rummage around for safety pins.  I never did brush anyone’s hair.

So my last straw moment that morning was that after a rocky start to the day and running a good ten minutes behind (despite my getting up two hours before we had to leave), I sent all the kids to get in the car while I gathered my own things to take to work.  All I wanted was for them to be in the minivan and buckled.  But I asked nicely instead of yelling, so when I stepped out the back door they were all playing in the snow.  Aden was on the swingset kicking snow drifts with her boots, Quinn was shuffling in circles, and Mona was flat on her back making snow angels.  I’d had enough and shrieked a little before I burst into tears.  They all looked apologetic and ran into the garage and buckled up as fast as they could.

So here’s the thing:  I love that they wanted to play in the snow.  They should have a chance to play in the snow.  In the grand scheme of things being late to school doesn’t matter at all.  But when does it, then?  I get frustrated because I have to run such a tight ship just to keep the ship afloat that I don’t get to stop and admire the sea.

I’ve always had trouble with the attitude that you should live each day as if it were your last, because if I knew today were my last I would not do the dishes.  And assuming I’m still here tomorrow, I don’t want to face that day with a mess of dishes in the sink.  It’s the same with spending time with my kids.  If I knew today were our last day together, we’d skip school to make snow angels, eat ice cream for dinner and go to sleep in a pile on the floor of all the pillows and blankets in the house, giggling and snuggling in the dark. 

But if I have to get them to school the next day, I don’t want to do that.  To be ready for tomorrow I need them to eat well and do their homework and get enough rest.  I like to feel prepared.  I suppose I see the forest and wish I had more time for individual trees.
The days I’m most proud of myself are the ones where I do find a balance between what has to get done and what is really important.  When the kids help me make quiche by cracking the eggs and grating the cheese that makes me happy.  When Quinn holds my hand in line at the post office, that makes me happy.  When I accept I can’t change the fact that we are running late and we decide to sing on the drive instead of fret, that makes me happy too.  Some days that comes more naturally than others.  And some days are just hard.

I don’t expect that it’s possible to be appreciative of my life and my health and my good fortune every minute.  But I do suspect I could do a better job of it during some of the drudgery that threatens to consume too many of my hours on this earth.  I want to somehow keep things running smoothly while finding space to loosen up a bit.  I want to learn to let the snow angels fly where they may.

(Mona my snow angel)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Amnesia (Babble)

I like to think I have a pretty good brain.  It keeps track of all kinds of appointments and everyone’s shoe sizes and a long list of arbitrary toddler preferences about food and silverware.

But some things I never remember.  Not until they recur, at least, and then every time I think, “Oh yeah, this again.”  The classic example for me is every month I think my period is done early, but my husband (when he’s here) reminds me it’s just the fake-out before the last couple of days of flow.  So while I’m thinking of some of the things I never remember specific to my husband’s recent visit, I thought I’d jot them down in the hopes that maybe they’ll finally stick.  I feel as if future homecomings will go smoother if I can just not let that selective amnesia creep in.

The first example that came up during the Christmas visit was that my husband is always allergic to the house when he gets back.  Apparently the desert is great for combating allergies.  Ian said in Iraq everyone’s skin cleared up and no one sniffled.  Ian’s always had trouble with certain kinds of pets and dust, and every time he comes home I forget that I need to do a really thorough cleaning before he arrives. 

We wasted two whole days of our time together washing all the bedding and curtains and futon covers and beating the rugs to death in the backyard.  Dusting is just not a priority for me normally, and since it doesn’t affect anyone else in the house when Ian’s not around I don’t think of it.  It’s all I can do to keep the kids fed and bathed and the toys picked up, so dust is unsightly to me, but it never strikes me as an urgent problem.  When Ian returns from any time away with the Army there are a few minutes of happy greetings, and then he starts sniffling and sneezing and I feel about as horrible as he sounds.  I’m trying to etch it into my brain that I need to attack the dust before he comes home, not wait until he gets here.

The other thing is not really specific to deployment, but it’s more noticeable because of it.  I have to stop expecting that he knows what I want.  I don’t know why this takes me by surprise every time, but it does without fail.  I know during this last visit he was technically the one on a break from something, but I just assumed he would do what needs doing and I would get a break too.  I don’t mean to say he did nothing, because that’s certainly not the case, but he never seems to pick the things I want him to do when I want him to do them.  (As I write that down it looks completely unreasonable, but it doesn’t feel that way in real life.  I’m sure I’m guilty of the same thing, but he’s too polite to say it.) 

Certain things seem to me to be obvious, and apparently they just aren’t.  He was great about dishes and a couple of specific projects I requested, but I was up extra late every night playing catch up with the cleaning.  He gave me time to myself at the violin store which was great, and I got to take Aden out alone to see the Nutcracker for an afternoon, but then I got home and all the stuff I would have done in that time still needed to get done.  The laundry still needed to be finished and the kitchen table was sticky (that one really bugs me) and there was massive clutter everywhere.  I hated that I spent any of my short time with him home being annoyed, but there were evenings where he just read a book and went to bed and I muttered to myself while tossing legos into a box so I wouldn’t step on them in the night.  I know in his mind he’s keeping out of my way somehow, but it ends up feeling like instead of sharing the work I am just picking up after one more person.  Next time I will try to be clear about what I want so there won’t be any misunderstanding. I won’t assume he’ll jump in and tackle the projects I think look obvious.

I need to remember to buy food my husband likes that I don’t.  He gets home and the first day he doesn’t know what to do for lunch.  Not that this isn’t easily remedied, but still, I’m amazed that I can’t think to pick up pickle relish until I watch him open the fridge.
We both need to start remembering that when Ian comes home and tries to get the kids to toe the line that he sounds scarier than I do.  He can say exactly the same things I say and in the same tone, but coming from a man it sounds more threatening.  Ian’s a gentle and sweet guy, but we always have at least one episode when he comes back where someone winds up cowering behind my knees because the way daddy told them to pick up toys scared them.  I want to avoid this, so if I can just keep it in my head that maybe Ian shouldn’t be doing any disciplinary things for the first month until they’re used to the sound of him again it could help.

And this has nothing to do with deployment, but while I’m on the subject of memory, before I go to bed tonight I’m going to try and remember to sew up the holes in my coat pockets.  I think there are at least two sets of keys currently in the lining of my winter coat because I never remember the holes are there after I take the coat off.  Every time I’ve gone outside in the past two months I’ve thought, “Oh yeah!  Got to sew up those stupid pockets!”  Of course, living in the mental obstacle course that is raising children, it’s not surprising that every time we get inside the house someone is offering up a distraction that boots the pocket problem right out of my head, but still.  (Stupid pocket holes.)

I’m sure there are many more things I could add, but compiling a list of things I can’t remember is, by definition, a bit of a paradox.  (Sort of like when my grandmother was given pills for her memory and couldn’t recall if she’d taken any.  Don’t know why the doctors didn’t see that one coming.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

When four feels like a small number (Babble)

As of this afternoon the house is down to just me and my three children again.  It’s very quiet, and surprisingly spacious.

I was sad to see my parents, brothers, sister-in-law and niece go today, but I think it’s good we’re getting back to our regular lives.  I envy other families where everyone lives close enough to one another that they can visit for an afternoon or a meal and then go back to the comfort of their own homes.  When a large group comes to visit us, they don’t get a real sense of what our lives look like.  I take off work, the kids stay up late, my shop becomes a necessary extension of the kitchen, futons and air mattresses dominate the family room…. 

I have some relatives who have never seen my house without the extra leaf in the dining table, or know how the furniture is arranged in the living room without a Christmas tree in it.  It would be lovely to have family over without having to transform the house, but it’s okay.  Next year we get to see what happens in the new house and that will be interesting.  (I thought about that every time I had trouble squeezing past someone at the dining room table at least a dozen times a day.)

Right before everyone arrived and I tried to get the house presentable, I started feeling a little silly for wanting to move.  Then all the people arrived and I realized, no, this is crazy, we need more room, and I wished I didn’t have to wait one more month until the closing.  Now that they’re gone again the house feels huge and I’m back to wondering a bit why I couldn’t make do with what I have. 

I’m still looking forward to the move, but I have trouble letting things go.  Once the house is truly ours I know I will be very happy about it.  My neighbors were kind enough to let my relatives take a tour while they were here, and all of them came back so excited for us.  My sister-in-law in particular was wondering why we would want to move since she’s always liked the house we have, but when she saw first hand what a wonderful step up the new house will be she was just thrilled and wished we could start walking furniture over that night.  Still, it was sad knowing this was the last big family event in this house that has served us so well for a decade.  (I’m sure I won’t miss it while I’m loading the dishwasher across the street and putting things in roomy closets, but I have such a sentimental streak.)

My kids are really tired and I feel like I haven’t seen them in a long time.  The girls have been playing with their cousin non-stop for a week.  They shared a room, got up early to giggle and make thumping noises, and went to bed after ten every night.  There was sledding in the dark, charades on New Year’s Eve, fun with play dough, and lots of games that for some reason required they dump out most of the toys and spread blankets on the floor. 

Aden cried after we took her cousin to the airport, but she’s starting to adjust to the quieter house.  Mona is often the most adaptable of all my kids, and she’s fine.  She loves having people here (and never did figure out which twin was Uncle Arno and which was Uncle Barrett) but she is content with our regular life, too.  Mona came back from a birthday party to a house empty of extended family and promptly put on a kangaroo costume.  In other words, Mona seems just like Mona.

But I don’t know what to make of Quinn right now.  He’s been exceptionally clingy and a little sick, but I think the biggest problem is that there have been too many things to adjust to lately.  Daddy was here for Thanksgiving, then daddy was gone again, then there were all the birthday parties and daddy came back and we rearranged things and daddy left again and the house filled up with relatives and what was left of our routine went out the window….  No wonder the little guy’s confused. 

Tomorrow there is nothing on the agenda but a trip to the grocery store, so I’m hoping once we’ve restocked his yogurt supply and he doesn’t have to wade through a sea of grown-up legs to find me in our own house, he’ll start to smile more.  He’s been in what we call ‘Contrary Quinn’ mode for awhile.  No matter what you say to him, you’re wrong, and the answer to everything is ‘no.’  I’m sitting on the floor next to him while I type because he supposedly wants help with his puzzle of Africa.  He neither needs nor wants my help putting together Africa.  I’m just supposed to be next to him.  Easy enough, so long as I can have a book or a laptop with me while I pretend not to notice as he puts Botswana in place.

Right after I post this we will head off to brush teeth in a bathroom that is down to just four toothbrushes.  We will walk through rooms where no one is camped out on the floor, and will pick up where we left off reading the first Harry Potter book back when there were bedtimes.

Ian recently arrived safely in Kuwait.  I’m sure in another couple of weeks four will seem like a noisy number again, but right now it feels sadly and strangely small indeed.