Friday, April 30, 2010

I feel disrespected when you slap me in the face with a large stick.

Yes, the boys are back. And what a difference NOT being deathly ill makes! I so easily forget how deeply I rely on my physical health. Going to work, getting the groceries, doing the laundry, taking the boys to the park, returning books to the library....without a car, all of these little chores require inordinate amounts of walking, cycling, toting, pulling, lifting. When I am too sick to travel about, life --for all of us--comes crashing to a halt.

For this reason, difficult as it was to do, I signed up last night for Driver's Ed.

The decision not to drive was a very informed, conscientious choice when I made it. I had seen what cars and their emissions could do, and I wasn't impressed. I did not really need a car to get around. It seemed to me that the choice to drive was based on laziness. And so I used my own energy, rather than that of decomposed dinosaurs, to propel me around.

Lately, however, the decision not to drive has felt less like a decision and more like a corner I've backed myself into. It is one thing to use one's own energy to propel oneself around. it is quite another to use it to propel oneself, a sturdy and obstinate five year old, a squirming toddler, 20 pounds of groceries, and approximately a metric ton of wet laundry. The energy--even mine---runs out, eventually.

So, sea change follows hard on the heels of sea change. I am growing accustomed to spinning new identities as fast as I can shuck the old ones. I tell myself this is healthy behavior for the boys to see modeled---not getting caught in ideas about who I am, but staying vital and flexible, willing to change to suit my environment. Or maybe I am breeding a little nest of schizophrenics. Hard to tell, at this stage.

I can already feel the tingle of anticipation, though. What doors driving will open for me! What broad new vistas! Piling the boys in the truck (it was always going to be a truck) and setting off into the mountains for a long weekend of getting lost in the woods. Packing off at a moments notice to check out a fiddle festival in Oregon. Scouting out the country in Montana, and Idaho, and Colorado, determining where to land and plant my orchards. Heck, I could even, finally, be a park ranger!

But I am getting a little ahead of myself. Prior to all of these blissful projections lies the stark, cold reality of thirty-one-year-old me in a dim little room with fifty-some wise-ass teenagers. For week after week. And then panicky me in a close little car with a controlling, perspiring gentleman next to me shouting "not THAT one you moron! THAT one! O NO WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIIIIIIIE" or maybe that was just a John Cusack movie I saw. Nevertheless. It is not going to be pleasant.

Meanwhile, however, there is more good news. Sweet, almost unbelievably good news. Laura, in addition to a renowned sense of style and generous amounts of gypsylike beauty, has a mother-in-law famous for her parenting techniques. When my daily lunchtime whinge-fests grew too shrill for her to bear, she popped a few of her mother-in-law's parenting CDs into my bag and begged me for the love of god to just listen to them.

I did. They WORK. The main point is to listen to your children, use I-messages ("I feel embarrassed when you run shrieking through Trader Joe's and just laugh like a hyena when I tell you to stop") rather than you-messages ("Stop running and shrieking right now or you are going to the Gulag on the first boat"), and let the process unfold as it does, messily or not, instead of trying to rush through to some sanitized result.

I knew all of this already. But I had forgotten. And, to be honest, I sometimes find the I-messages a little lame. ("I feel sad when you vomit on the carpet, break my dishes, flood the house and pour milk on my clothing"?! I mean, come on, grow a backbone!) But after last weekend I would have tried ANYTHING just to make it STOP. So this afternoon was all about taking it slow, enjoying the process, talking about feelings, and listening. And we had a wonderful time. I mean, here it is, 9:00, and I am TYPING ON THE COMPUTER CALMLY WHILE BOTH BOYS SLEEP. This is unheard of. Of course the sheer floorspace demanded by all of these simultaneous activities strains my little house to the max, but with Xir's head snugged comfortably under the kitchen table, we make it work.

God bless you, Mary Hartzell. And Laura, for making the radical suggestion that I try listening to my son instead of just laying down the law. And to sweet little Xir, who was so ready to swing back around the moment Mama got a clue.

Least favorite thing about my house tonight: having to step over two sleeping sons, twice, just to get a cup of tea.

Favorite thing about my house tonight: having two sleeping sons to step over to get a cup of tea.

Good night, everybody.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


I love this world. Just when things have become too much, just when I begin to get a little Hobbesian in my outlook, an afternoon like this one comes along: a sweet kiss on the head from the fates.

I've biked past the Museum of Jurassic Technology for days now, and decided this afternoon to stop and wander through. It is an odd, twilit, moth-eaten sort of a place, and I had the feeling I was the only one in there who wasn't a talented musician from Eastern Europe. The first exhibit described a rare bat from South America that focuses its echolocation soundwaves so intensely that they actually cross over the spectrum and become x-rays, thus enabling the bat to fly directly through solid objects. (Credulous as I am, I happily expounded on this extraordinary bat to my slightly smarter friends this evening, and they set me straight. Evidently you can't believe everything you read in museums.)

Then I found this amazing quote on an exhibit devoted to the art of the mobile home:

"The verb 'to dwell' has a distinct meaning. At one time it meant to hesitate, to linger, to delay; 'to dwell', like the verb 'to abide', simply means to pause, to stay put for a length of time; it implies we will eventually move on. So the dwelling place should perhaps be seen as temporary."
-J.B. Jackson, The Moveable Dwelling

The dwelling place should perhaps be seen as temporary. I like that. That's what meditation teaches us, after all. To take the long view, and realize that nothing stays, so why get so uptight about it? (I meditated this morning, can you tell? What with the chipper worldview and flitting around from topic to topic and all?)

Then, walking home, I passed not one, not two, but THREE places in which one could purchase a cupcake. And then I walked past the mother of the boys Xir recently befriended, the one with the amazing house, and she recognized me. I was so glad to run into her when I was relatively nicely dressed, doing something normal, and not accompanied by puking children. I feel it can only serve to elevate me in her eyes. Perhaps she will be a friend! How lovely it would be to have a friend in walking distance, with children of similar ages. Unimaginably lovely.

And, finally, checking my email upon my return I found a program at the Hammer museum combining group therapy and needlepoint. Free. Did I not just write about how therapeutic the making of things is? And was I not just telling myself that I ought to look into the practice of psychology a little more deeply before committing myself to a three-year graduate program?What an amazing answer to those unspoken queries, the little whispered longings of my soul for help.

Yet another exhibit at the Museum for Jurassic Technology was an exploration of the life work of Athanasius Kircher, who believed the world was composed of secret knots of magnetism. These secret knots were all interrelated and the changing of one would set all the others into motion. I felt those secret knots at work keenly today. And am headily grateful for it.

Biking to my friend's house for hand-shaken margaritas and laughing conversation later this evening, I watched the sun go down along the creek to this enchanting music. I want to share it with you in case there are any doldrums lurking about in any of your lives. I don't know of a single doldrum that can survive the playing of this song at high volume.

my least favorite thing about my house today: having to unfold and make the bed when I'd rather just fling myself rapturously into it.

my favorite thing about my house today: the leafy shadows my plants cast on the shower curtain as I bathe by candlelight.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


This morning was so beautiful--that atmospheric phenomenon was going on where the clouds appear opaque, lavender-colored and flat against the sky, as though we inhabit a particularly complicated mural. I wish I knew what this effect is called. All I know is that it seems to be maritime (the three places I've noticed it are here, Greece, and coastal Ireland) and that this morning there was a pretty intense and constant wind coming off the ocean.

So, I biked along in my insanely impractical biking outfit (a lovely knee-length peasant skirt that kept blowing up around my waist and an embroidered top with an unfortunate tendency to gape open in the, basically, a biking bikini), admiring the atmospheric-effect-that-shall-not-be-named and striving to maintain whatever scraps of modesty my ill-considered wardrobe would allow me. Then a lantern-jawed humorless looking fellow with calves like clenched fists came zooming past me wearing the most spandexy, eye-offendingly garish biking ensemble known to man. His neon green shorts alone were padded with more attention to detail than Black Adder's Russian codpiece. Of course my first inclination was to laugh at him. Because I always laugh at these grim-faced cyclists, who make the very act of cycling seem like such a chore, almost a duty. And in such brilliant plumage, too.

But then I thought about it. Was there a scrap of justification for me to feel superior to this fellow? His bike was well maintained, he was wearing a helmet, and although his clip-in metal shoes would have to be ditched in the case of a survival situation (all right, I know this is weird but since my wilderness class I tend to evaluate people with an eye to how well they would weather a survival situation in what they're wearing. I have to say, in LA, it's an amusing preoccupation. Maybe she could pry the rhinestones off the butt of her pants and strike a spark with them? ...and so on.) he was actually far better off in his rainproof sweat-wicking gear than I was in my silly cotton. Not to mention that rescuers would be able to track him by the simple expedient of locating the herds of animals fleeing in distaste from his obnoxious shorts.

And then I realized with a start that somewhere along the line I have begun to dress for attractiveness, not practicality. This is HUGE for me. I have actually tried in the past---tried hard--to care enough about looking good to invest in impractical clothes, but it always came to nothing. If I couldn't kneel down and garden in it, I wasn't interested. Nowadays, I own many things I cannot kneel down and garden in (or shouldn't. Which doesn't mean I don't. Which means that, although I can look cute upon occasion, I am almost always grimy. Baby steps.) But this was quite a revelation. I actually had to pull my bike over and stop to think for a second. When had style overcome practicality? What could possibly have had the power to overrule the Quaker voice in my head with its incessant whisper of frugality, simplicity, industry!

I'll tell you what. A little something called my friend Laura.

Laura is a diminutive beauty with full lips, dimples, cascading raven tresses, and a sense of style so artistic, so bohemian and creative, that it silenced even my scoffing Quaker critic. (How do you like my blog NOW, huh?!) Since working with her in the art room I have transformed from a frumpy pregnant woman with one pair of pants to the kind of headcase who bikes 26 miles in an embroidered skirt while recovering from the flu. Because I wore my pair of pants yesterday.

I have also, lately, caught myself looking at my reflection in the windows of shops. I used to pride myself on NOT being the kind of person who looked at herself in the windows of shops. I would get a little thrill of smug superiority every time I noticed someone else doing it. I went so far as to imagine that as I walked down the street, people in their cars would gaze at me admiringly, saying to themselves, "Wow, look at that woman. She is not looking at her reflection in the windows of shops!"

But maybe this new impulse toward beauty is a hopeful sign. Life isn't a race, after all. Time taken to appreciate beauty, to see the beauty in the world and try to emulate it in oneself is not wasted. I think it is all a part of the balance.

For example: I found an old bureau in the street and hauled it inside, but it was too large for the house. Then I realized that I could pull the drawers out, fill them with soil, and have more gardening space. And a few years ago, that's just what I would have done.

But I've changed. So, I got out my paints and gave those hideous drawers several coats of a cloud-washed blue before I planted them. And now I smile every time I see that little slice of sky sprouting spinach just outside my door.

Maybe we are only here to be witnesses to the beauty, after all. It's as good a reason as any.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

beginning anew. again.

This weekend almost did me in. It is hard to watch your children get hurt because of bad decisions made by their other parent. It is even harder when you realize that you are the one making the mistakes that hurt them. Listening to my elder son, I hear an endless argument with the world, a bitter, angry recitation of all the things that are wrong. When did that happen? Where is the joy, the easy embrace of life that ought to be a child's birthright?

Then it dawns on me. What do I say when he suggests an activity? "Oh, that's a good idea, but..." "We could, but here's the thing..." "We're going to do something else right now. You know the plan." How often do I jump up joyfully and say "Yes, LET'S!" Well... never.

[a note here--it is awkward to keep writing "my oldest son" and "my toddler", but I can't bring myself to use their names and violate their privacy. That's not really my choice to make. So henceforth I will call my baby "Anainn" (Uh-NON), the name he would have if I ruled the universe. And though it's tempting to then call my 5-year-old "Amos" I will with difficulty restrain myself and call him "Xir", the name he briefly bore and would still bear if humans were monoecious.]

So now the boys are with their father---getting their weekly dose of his own special brand of crazy---and I have a guilt-laced reprieve. Knowing something needs to change. Knowing that if we are to make this little house a happy home, I will need to find some last hidden reserve of power and turn things around. How do I plan to do this? With SCHEDULES! Yippee! You know, get up at 5, face the rising sun, ask for strength, then proceed to do craft projects and reading lessons and community service and playdates and chores and language exercises and wilderness survival games. And I hope, deeply and fervently, that I will find some co-conspirators in my new neighbors, what with summer coming and all.

Also, much as I love this little house and the new life we are building as a family, I need to acknowledge that I would like more in my life. More what? More...LIFE. Traveling. Friendship and dinner parties and plays. A willingness to grow up and move beyond this self-imposed poverty mentality, to shake off whatever it was that sent me into that particular 8-year eddy and find a place of strength, comfort, and joy. To agree that I deserve a real home of my own, a home I can make lovely and welcoming and warm, a home to build memories in, a home the boys can look back on and say "what a wonderful place that was to grow up."

But there I go, I'm doing it again. I am their home now. I am primarily responsible for creating their memories, and the quality of those memories has nothing to do with the beams and plaster that surround them. Well, very little anyway.

Biking home today I paused to harvest some cattails from Ballonna Creek. The new heads aren't ready yet---soon their pollen will be ready to gather for sprinkling on pancakes and in juice---but there was an abundance of last year's heads, and I need the down to stuff pillows. There was an egret fishing very solemnly nearby, and an abundance of coots. The water was flowing east; I guess the tide was in. Just snapping the heavy stalks in my hand, watching the seeds take off in the wind like living things, brought me firmly back into place. Making things matters. If I do not forget that---though I always do---I will be all right.

Cattail Song

She has gone out from among you.
Her voice has dwindled. She has crossed.
She has set her face against you.
Turn the tide, and one more turning.
She is lost.

Hang the heavy-headed barley.
Hang the golden sheaves of grain.
The aspen quakes to keep from breaking.
Their hands are shaking.
She'll not speak again.

Mend your nets, and fish the quiet waters.
Mind your words, and draw your friends close in.
She has gone out from among you.
Weave each prayer. Let every spindle spin.

Once there was a silver ocean.
Once there was a golden bird.
She has gone, and gone out from among you.
Turn the tide, and turn again.
She'll not return.

Monday, April 26, 2010

the trouble we all get into

If any world record has been set for maximum trouble gotten into within a 12x12 space in 24 hours, I think my 5-year-old just broke it.
For posterity, here is how it's done:
1) stuff a plastic knight down the bathroom sink and then leave the water running while you play outside, thus flooding the entire house with 4 inches of water. (make sure you remember to leave your mother's laptop on the floor).
2) eat a huge meal and then bounce around insanely until you projectile vomit, such that you manage to spew all over both mattresses, the carpet, the chair, the walls, and your baby brother.
3) "accidentally" spill an entire glass of milk into the wardrobe, ensuring that all your mother's clean clothes get saturated.
4) cut a pile of magazines into confetti and strew around liberally.
5) pull every book from the shelves in an attempt to find the one you want, then trip over the pile of books and knock over the table that your mom has just set for dinner.

and so on.

I've learned some things this weekend. Primarily, that comfortable living in small spaces is predicated on keeping things in their place and picking up after yourself immediately. NOT skills that the under-5 set is particularly known for. It can get pretty ugly, pretty fast. Especially since I was too sick to do much more this weekend than shriek at my kids, banshee-like, from a prone position. Not pleasant.

But, the good news is that there are lots of children in this neighborhood. My five-year-old engineered himself a playdate by climbing up the ladder in the backyard and throwing lemons at the kids whose yard adjoins ours. After some shouting back and forth about how old their respective mothers were and what level of belt each had reached in karate, they decided to meet. I walked him over, met the parents, and watched my grouchy little monster tranform into a happy kid. Here's the thing, though: I can be totally happy in my tiny nest, but when it comes to introducing it to others, I quail a bit. I know that this playdate will lead to others, and eventually, naturally, the playdate will happen at my house. And then I will have some explaining to do.

And these people live in the house you dreamed about as a child. Huge yard with a treehouse, big room for each child with nice beds you don't have to fold up every morning--with real sheets and everything!--big chests filled with toys, all nicely organized, walls filled with children's artwork and an entire room downstairs for dress-up and messy games. The kind of house that makes me start to wonder where my life went wrong.

But I never wanted that kind of life, right? I wanted to be wilder, freer, wander the world and not get stuck with a mortgage and car payments on two (yes, TWO, can you believe it?) Priuses, wanted to teach my children that material things can be useful, but are not all that important. So it's all right. If my son's new friends ask him why his house is so small, it will be interesting to hear his response. And if they ask me? I'll say: we like it this way. Because that's the truth. Sometimes.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

verbal vomit

So, the one person who reads this has informed me that "it's a little like you're throwing up." And then, hastily--because she is a nice person--"but in a GOOD way!"

Ah, yes. There's nothing like that good vomit.

But having been sick in bed all day I did notice that there was a lot of action in my head. I mean, it's an incessant conversation between seven or eight protagonists with commentaries and editorial thrown in. I think I'm a little bit of a word addict. I love language, and my general approach to problem solving involves throwing lots and lots of words around. There is very little I cannot talk myself into, or out of.

But, life has taught me that there are certain situations in which wordiness is not helpful. Negotiations with a five-year-old. Meditation. Labor. And now, it appears, the writing of a blog. So. I'm just going to stop there.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interminable tales of two kinds

I love my new city. While waiting companionably for the light to change this afternoon, a woman turned to me and said "It sure has gotten cold, hasn't it?"

This may not seem particularly earth-shaking to some, but a friendly conversation initiated by a complete stranger has become as foreign to me as a house-high sugar maple. Then, as I biked a few blocks further (yes! my bike is back! you can tell the new parts by their lack of rust) I was WAVED TO by some passing joggers, and then I saw a happy man skip down a flight of stairs from his workplace on the second floor. These people are people who like being alive. My tribe!

There is a new game I play these days that has helped to develop my sense of this community. Every morning when I first wake, I write down any urgent questions that spring to mind. The other day my questions were: "how does one enroll a child in public school?" and "where would I find the best cupcakes in town?" Sometimes they're deeper, like "Can you teach a child gratitude?" Then, throughout the day, whenever I see someone interesting---the sort of person I would normally be too shy to approach---I ask them one of my pressing questions. So far the response has to put this? Worldview altering. People, it seems, are hardwired to help other people. These people are unanimously overjoyed to be asked. They call friends who might know. They tear a page from their calendar to make me a hand-drawn map. They apologize, profusely and repetitively, for not knowing more. And here I was scared of them all these years. I have learned through the playing of this game that we are not meant to figure it all out by ourselves. There are BILLIONS of people who know all about any given subject and their knowledge bank is like a lending library. (I'm sure there are exceptions to this, very private people or cruel ones, but I'd be surprised if they comprised more than a few percent of the population).

When I arrived home I found that the recent rains have made my little collard seedlings swell into plants large enough to harvest from. I sauteed the bright new leaves with garlic for dinner. The zucchini has finally sprouted, I saw one pole bean poking up, and little sunflower sprouts are unfolding cheerily all amongst the grass. There would be no grass for them to be cheerily amongst if I had my druthers, but I am renting, and grass is sort of like bike helmets. So I'm treading carefully. (Ha! Don't tread on the grass!) I took some cuttings of my friend's concord grape vine; when they have rooted I will plant them where they can climb up the pergola and provide both shade and a Bacchanalian atmosphere for the summer.

Try as I have (with the grit-teethed hatchet-faced brick-brained determination I've become known for) I cannot interest my eldest son in gardening. He is five, and although "defeating" earwigs has been known to appeal to him, there is nothing remotely of interest to him about vegetables or the boring old "environment" mom is always yapping about. This boy proves that children are matched to parents for the sole purpose of providing belly laughs to a mischievous universe. Why else give a dippy, wifty back-to-the-land neo-Luddite vegan-affiliated bohemian mom a child who was born knowing how to log into Youtube? And who said the other day when I asked him to join me in the garden "But I want to be entertained." GAAH!

The one place we share common ground is in the telling of stories. We spend hours this way, marching alongside the stroller, stretched languidly in the grass of some park or other, perched on the back seat of the bus. In the evenings when I build a fire outside he will sit there happily exchanging stories and jokes with all comers long past the rising of the stars. This weekend I told him a story he loved so much that he even made a painting of it, a painting which now hangs on the refrigerator. I can see it from where I write this. (Well, I can see it from everywhere really. The bathtub, the front door, the kitchen sink, the inside of the closet...) Joan Didion wrote that the telling of stories---the imposition of a plot, a moral, a storyline on what would otherwise be just an overwhelming jumble of experiences--is what makes us human.

The sun has gone down and it's time to light a few candles and unfold the bed. Good night to my new town, and to my new friends, and to the mountain that looms over my own little house in the valley. Good night to the painting of a bloody smear and a baby and a lion and a crying mom--tears flying out liberally on either side of her--that I can see from anywhere.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where I am, and Who.


That’s the size of the space I live in. It’s bigger than the 5-foot-diameter debris hut I lived in during my final year of college, and about the same size as the dorm room I shared with a roommate in boarding school. Those days I had a loft bed (I was, after all, a PREFECT—just letting you know with whom you are dealing) and an inflatable dolphin suspended from the ceiling. These days I have a folding mattress of which I am inordinately fond (it is red) and TWO roommates. The main difference between the roommate I had back in the day and the ones I have now is that SHE was potty trained. Also, she wasn’t begging me to tell her a story every five minutes, or buy her something called an “Execudent Battle Ball” (something, I believe, has been lost in the translation) so it’s altogether a different experience.

I love my little nest, it’s cozy and frequently candlelit and there’s a firepit in the backyard. My books are cradled in a shelf my father built by hand and the paintings I made, the ones that helped me struggle out of a labyrinthine, life-starved marriage, encircle me. My children, at first dubious, have come to love the intimacy of this place, the sleepover-every-night-all-up-in-each-others’-business quality that life in one room serves up.

And I love the sense of unity it gives me with so much of the world. I love the simplicity of being able to turn around once and survey all that I possess. I love that one bouquet of flowers lights up the whole place and that whenever I open the cupboard for a snack I see my art box and am reminded to paint...

Sometimes at the end of a long day I do wish that I could simply dump the children in their beds and shut the door. There are times I am so bone-weary that the thought of unfolding the futon, reaching the bedding down from the closet and making the beds utterly defeats me.

But right now, in the lavender light of dusk, with a candle flickering in the slight breeze from the window, the windchimes ringing from the boughs of the lemon tree just outside, I feel more content than I can remember feeling in any of my other homes.

So, 12x12 is going to be a little gift to myself, a means of practicing my writing and documenting a year of my life—12 months in this 12x12 space—that promises, at the very least, to be interesting. As in, may you live in interesting times. As in, oh, don't you look interesting.

I hope this is my final year in California. I desperately wish to go study wilderness psychology in Boulder. Or become a field naturalist in Vermont. Or a midwife in British Columbia. Or a permaculturist in New Zealand. Or rent a pony cart and travel through Ireland a la Vashti Bunyan and write songs on the guitar and poems to the crumbling walls.

But right now, I am here, and determined to stay as present as possible. I brought from my marriage a beautiful meditation practice that I refuse to relinquish as collateral damage; it gives me on the rare occasions that I allow myself to actually DO it a sure, strange calm in which the meaninglessness of all of my worries, aggravations, fears, disinclinations, deficiencies, and mistakes is as tangible and sure as this candle here. This room. Those windchimes. We are here to serve, to learn, to remember.

So, here's to this year, this twelvemonth, this 12x12 dwelling. Let it be a home filled with laughter and grace. Let it be the place in which I finally make of my life something good, the place I remember to serve, to learn, to…what was that last one?