Tuesday, August 31, 2010

why i haven't saved the world this summer.

It was brought to my attention recently that, although this journal is supposedly about living in a small space, I never really talk about it. Everything BUT that, actually. My sex life gets more air time than the 12x12. Maybe that's false advertising. So...

Here's a day in the life of the 12x12, and all the hijinks a family of three can get up to in a room of one.

4 am. Anainn wanders from his bed, blunders by chance into mine, and falls asleep on top of me. I plop him back onto his bed. He wanders back onto mine. I return him to his bed. He wails. Xir wakes up and grumbles something incoherent. Anainn crawls back to my bed. I give in.

5 am. Xir wakes up and announces this fact to the world at large. Also his desire for pancakes.

5:30 am. Xir and Anainn go outside to play. This is because the beds take up all the room in the house and I refuse to get up before 6 when it is still, technically, my vacation.

6 am. Xir and Anainn are both screeching about something. I give in and get up. After poking my grizzled head outside and hissing "QUIET!" I proceed to fold the blankets and stow them in the closet, fold up the futons, and tuck the pillows away. Then I spend about a half an hour clearing away the avalanche that tumbled out of the closet when I tried to stow the blankets in there. (Closet: about 6 feet tall, 2 feet wide, one foot deep. Its contents: my entire wardrobe, most of the boys' toys, all of my camping equipment, all of my shoes, my sewing machine, and if the stars align, the bedding. )

6:30 am. With the floor space thus freed, I proceed to make a cup of tea. I join the boys outside and water the garden while they chase each other around and get thoroughly muddy.

7:30 am. Breakfast time! With most of the garden's fertility now deposited on my floor, I serve up the food on the tiny table and then frantically scoot around sweeping and mopping while the boys are occupied. Then, when they're finished, I frantically scoot around under the table sweeping and mopping up all the food that used to be above it. Meanwhile they, of course, are merrily shedding food and mud all over the rest of the house. Sigh.

8:30 am. I clean the dishes right away, since the kitchen sink is no bigger than a dictionary. By the time I've executed the precise geometry of finding a place for everything in the cabinets, most of our worldly possessions are strewn across the floor. That's how Anainn plays. Throwing things. Preferably breakable things, or, failing that, throwing water over electrical devices that are, preferably, very expensive.

9:30 am. If I spend another minute in this toy-strewn mud-spattered egg-smelling tomb I'M GOING TO EXPLODE!!!!! The boys know this mood. They meekly put their shoes on and meet me at the stroller. It's outing time.

11:30 am. Back from the outing. I unload the groceries/library books/wild foods/pinecones and pebbles from the stroller, take one look at the house, and remember that there is no place to put them. I leave them in the garden while I do a whirlwind housecleaning and fix lunch.

12:30 pm. Naptime. This is tricky with only one room. If one of the kids is sleepy but the other isn't, the wakeful one always ends up keeping the other from sleeping. So usually I'll put the sleepy one inside and take the other out into the garden. If by some miracle they both sleep, I can't do anything in the house for fear of waking them. So I bring a book out to the garden or take a nap myself on any available surface. Usually the kitchen counter. Seriously.

2:30. If I spend another minute in this book-strewn mud-spattered peanut-butter-smelling tomb I'M GOING TO EXPLODE!! Outing number two.

5:00. I clear a path across the floor and make dinner. By this time of day clearing off the table would be a task too onerous to contemplate so we usually dine al fresco. Sometimes I build a fire in the firepit and we cook our food over it on skewers and tell stories. This method has the advantage of keeping me out of my dirty house until it is too dark to see, thus enabling me to postpone cleaning until dawn.

7:00. The kids have to sleep. Square footage has to be liberated for the unfolding of the futon. I put on some good music and we all boogy down whilst sorting toys and books and dishes and hummus-coated thingamajigs into the proper receptacles. I hose the kids down, we unfold and make up the beds and read a book, and then I tuck them in.

8:00. This is the part that blows the big one. The kids are resting quietly. If I want that happy state of affairs to continue, I'm done for the day. I've discovered that I can type quietly on my laptop, IF I dim the screen to an almost unreadable level and pop in the headphones. But I can't read (the light wakes them) or visit with friends or watch a movie or play guitar or cook...or any activity that requires any floorspace whatsoever. Sometimes I'll do some writing, and then take my guitar outside, build a fire, and sing and watch the stars. Mostly, though, I just go to bed when they do.

So: up at 4, in bed by 8, every moment accounted for. Hence the title of the piece.

Monday, August 30, 2010

small kindnesses.

A woman sitting behind us on the bus to Malibu made faces to calm a wailing Anainn. When that stopped working, she gave him a cookie, and then a juice box. She told me not to worry, they grow up fast.

Xir, catching tadpoles in the creek, scooped up a drowning dragonfly and set him to dry on a boulder.

My friend, who started back at work today, phoned me to offer the reassurance that it's not all that bad. She wanted to spare me two days of dread before I start in again on Wednesday.

Two people offered my toddler-toting self a seat on the extremely crowded bus home.

Xir ran ahead of me as we walked from the bus stop and ducked into the entrance of a candle store to hide. I followed him in, and the proprietor offered both Xir and Anainn little battery-powered votives to carry home.

Hanging from the doorknob was a little sack of croissants and english muffins from my sainted landlady.

Would any of you be interested in sharing your insights into nostalgia with my dear friend Sarah? She is a freelance journalist writing an article about it...this is her request for interviews.

Quote of the day: "I'm glad I'm living."

-Xir, apropos of nothing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

repose in action.

That, according to Jules Verne, is how a physiognomist would describe the face (and therefore character) of Phileas Fogg.

I was reading Around the World in 80 Days to my boys this evening and that line stopped me cold. I kept reading and re-reading it, my brain churning furiously, my gut twisting in that hollow way that usually signifies a) an epiphany is coming and b) I'm not going to like it.

"Repose in action", Verne goes on to say, is "a quality of those who act rather than talk."

Yep! There it is! Epiphany! Don't like it!

Because, much as I hate to admit it, much as I have always aspired to be one of those elegantly sedate-yet-effective doers, repose in action is a quality that eludes me.

I do take refuge in action, and often. Outings to the park, the woods, the ocean, the store are my go-to remedy for bored children or midday blahs. I am prone to bouts of superhuman physical activity (lawn to raised-bed-garden plus pond in one day, and all with a baby on my back!). It is the efficacy of the action, the economy and deliberation, that I aspire to. At the end of the day, I'd like my actions to have been effective, a means to an end rather than a distraction. I'd like my actions to deliberately, carefully, intelligently mete out my life force in service to carefully considered values and objectives.

As I grow older I become daily more aware that the meaning in my life is not measured in glamorous work or grandiose gestures. It is in the cumulative impact of small daily choices: the decision to build a new lampshade of handmade paper and bamboo rather than buy one at Target when the old one cracks. The decision to wake thirty minutes earlier every day to meditate. The decision to take advantage of an unexpected evening off to practice violin instead of watch a movie.

It disturbs me to find that I have increasingly been taking the lazy way out. I sleep in rather than meditate. I read a mystery rather than take the time to record ideas in my journal. I let Xir watch Walking with Dinosaurs for the umpteenth time rather than make the effort to set up the paints and make art with him. The scary thing here is that, even though it is the quality of my life---and, by extension, my children's lives---that suffer from this laziness, that is not enough to stop me. The laziness is stronger than the desire for a better life. And how, pray tell, does one address THAT? The prescription would seem to be diligence, industry, but if laziness is the problem how on earth is one to miraculously sprout enough diligence to overcome it?

Two methods spring to mind. I was recently reminded that in co-counseling, the idea of the brain aging and becoming less flexible with time is considered hogwash. It is built-up emotional baggage, say RC enthusiasts, that causes these incursions of entropy. If we take the time to release built-up emotions and clear our heads of distress, we can come to life refreshed and ready. Our intelligence can respond directly to the issue at hand without having to sort through years of accumulated games.

Or, there is the more direct route. Benjamin Franklin used to prescribe himself one virtue at a time--sincerity, say, or industry--and steadfastly try to incorporate it into his every action, recording his successes and failures every night in his journal. Only when he had gone several days in a row with no failures at all would he allow himself to move on to the next virtue.

For some reason I find this method more appealing. Industry through industriousness! Diligence by means of diligence! I'm going to try it. I'm going to diligently, sincerely, industriously pursue repose-in-action.

And if obstinate, thoughtless repetition should fail to bring my actions in line with my values, I can always fall back on dealing with those messy emotional patterns. Ugh. I've got that hollow-gut feeling again...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

filling the space.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So, what is going to take the place of all that nostalgia that was so recently cleansed from my system?

I realized this morning that when we stop investing in the past, we are suddenly fully accountable for the present. When I stop telling myself how adventurous and interesting and musical and wild I USED to be, it becomes painfully obvious that I've been using those stories as an excuse to halfheartedly drift through my present life. Yeah, it's a nonstop furious ass-kicking job being a single parent, but no one is going to live my life for me. If I want wilderness, if I want adventure and music and all the big stuff, I've got to step up and put it there. (Ay yi yi, the voice inside whines, all I REALLY want to do is take a nap!)

Here is what I am appreciating about nostalgia: if we are in control of it--though that is rarely the case--it can serve to give us a sense of perspective. Nostalgia gilds moments from the past with a patina that was never there at the outset. If we acknowledge this, we can understand that each moment we are living now has the potential to be one of those golden memories we polish long into the future. It gives the present more power. It provides a lifeline out of even those most dark and hopeless days, the idea that with the passage of time, even this will be fondly looked back upon (remember when the boys were so little and cute and I used to get so depressed about my difficult life? back when I lived in Los Angeles and never had to deal with snow or seasons or the DMV? Oh, i was sooo young...)

I am already fondly looking back at my summer of love with the rocket scientist; I know that in time even this tiny 12 x 12 house will become a cherished anecdote. I am amazed to realize that someday my boys will be nostalgic for their childhoods here in Los Angeles. I am already a character in their memories. Life just keeps going on. As Jonathan Kabat-Zinn said on a Speaking of Faith program that Zoe recorded for me:

"We have a choice: to race toward our death or open to our life. It's a choice we make moment to moment, by how fully awake we are. Or as Thoreau put it: Only that day dawns of which we are fully aware."

I so appreciate your comments. We are never fully alone, are we? Thanks for reminding me of that, and sharing your stories.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

what remains?

These past two weeks feel taken out of order, somehow---an odd chance to revisit the past, to try and pull it into the present, to re-evaluate some choices.

I realized that I was carrying this odd belief that the life I left behind on the east coast had gone on without me. I imagined the farm, my friends, continuing as ever--only without me. I think I was vaguely resentful of this; I felt slightly displaced, as though my life had never fully arrived here, as though there were aspects of myself left in other places. I felt stretched-out, as though too much experience, too much moving around, had left me less.

After my brother's wedding, a blur of cooking, handshakes, mosquitoes, hurt, heat, rain, heartbreak, and love, I flew north to visit old friends. Zoe and Sarah were in boarding school with me, and something about having known each other in that time of hormonal intensity fused us into a friendship that distance and time seem powerless to weaken.

We travelled together to Sarah's family's isolated cabin in upstate New York, a cabin outfitted with a wood-fired sauna and perched on the edge of a spring-fed pond. Zoe and I had brought along love letters from our first loves; Sarah had old photo albums and sketchbooks. We dove into a few days of committed, deep nostalgia. We WALLOWED in it. Taking breaks for saunas, feasts, swimming, and naked photo shoots (a guy's fantasy of what women do in the woods, right?!) we tirelessly worked and reworked the past, evaluating first love from every possible angle, exhaustively analyzing the mistakes and motivations of our earlier selves.

Nostalgia can certainly be hypnotic, but one can overdose. I discovered this on the third day, when suddenly my brain balked at the bittersweet what-ifs and demanded to go swimming. I borrowed a bike and followed the verge of the road down to the river crossing, collecting armfuls of queen-anne's lace and tucking it into my hair; gathering handfuls of blackberries and cramming them into my mouth. The river was crowded with tight knots of young people in scanty swimsuits, building their own nostalgia.

I picked my way upstream until I was alone, then stroked out to the middle of the river and spun, looking up at the eastern sky, blurring the horizon with the water. I swam for hours. I dove deep below the surface and hovered in the coldness just above a spring, letting my mind and body go quiet.

Sarah and Zoe had made their way to the river as well. We stood in the water, looking at each other, laughing. We are still here.

Some days later I stood in the field of the farm that has loomed so large in my memory, the site of so many important choices. At this farm I first learned to be still from time to time and listen. I learned that I am more than what I do. I held down my first real adult job. I felt myself to be one of many fellow travelers. I experienced my first real, full love.

All of it is gone now. The barn where we ate and danced is padlocked, filled with boxes and old rugs. The fields and orchards are overgrown in sumac and goldenrod. The little hut I lived in for several summers has fallen in on itself. No one was left, of course. They had all moved on long ago.

What I felt, oddly, was profound relief. I no longer had to carry this around with me. It was gone. I could let it go.

On the plane home I felt hollowed out, as though much of what made me up was memory, memory that has been cleaned out and washed away. There is room, room to fill with the only life I ever had, the life I am living now.

I have learned that I did not make a mistake coming to California. I have learned that memory reinvents itself daily. I have learned that there is nothing better than a good friend--one who, by knowing us, by watching our changes, provides an anchor in the ceaseless change.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


  • Xir's hand-drawn card for my brother--whom Xir has never met--wishing him 'a happy wedding' and containing a watercolored portrait of my brother surrounded by a circle of hearts. On the back is a floating stick figure all in gold, surrounded by a golden bubble. "That," says Xir, "is me floating to the wedding in spirit and putting love all around my uncle."
  • A box, carefully collaged in images of fruit, coffee, artists, boots, Paris, and musicians, filled with the fruits of my wee garden. Figs, mint, lemons, snap beans, large lobed tomatoes, huge basil leaves, sprigs of sage and oregano snuggle in beside a characteristically gushy birthday card. Meant for a friend, this box was accidentally abandoned on the bus after a tearful and disorienting conversation with the boys' father, who has refused to allow the boys to attend my brother's wedding.
  • A package left against my gate contains an elaborate puzzle. Sniffling from the aftereffects of the horrible conversation, I root around in the pieces and find two new novels and a postcard. The novels are to read on my plane trip to my brother's wedding. The postcard reveals that my new boyfriend drove all the way down from San Luis Obispo to bring them to me. And then drove all the way back.
  • People. This life.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

hyper! links!

do any of you remember the former park ranger for whom I had to devise a cute outfit? he made a cameo reappearance in my life this afternoon, just long enough to teach me how to make those enthralling words in blue. so here goes.

soundtrack of these days. ignore the cheesy pictures, if you will.

all right, i know that's enough. I am just so excited at my inestimable technological prowess. soon i will be designing computer programs that devour computers from the inside and then set about gobbling up carbon dioxide molecules from the air. probably.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

dancing in a circle.

I had only one task to complete today. On the surface, it's a simple one: I subscribe to a CSA, and today is the day I pick up the veggies.


The veggies are delivered a few towns away, quite near my workplace. Naturally this is not a big deal when I am working. I simply remember to bring a large backpack, transfer the vegetables into it after school, and bike merrily home (I do deal with moderately sore shoulders for a day or so.) In the summer, though, with two small boys to transport there and back, it might as well be the moon.

This is because of the odd schedule of the one bus that travels approximately from my home to the vegetable pickup (by approximately I mean that there are about 4 miles of additional walking, all told). The last bus of the morning leaves at 8:34 am. The first bus of the afternoon arrives 10 minutes past the pickup time, so in order to ensure that we do indeed get our veggies, we must plan for a full day in town. This entails packing lunches and diaper bags and toys and sunscreen and changes of clothes the night before and rousting everybody out of bed before dawn.

When we arrive in town, we have about 6 hours to kill before the veggie pickup. The whole reason I undergo this bus schedule madness is that by the end of the day I have a full bag of kid accessories, a cumbersome stroller, a majorly heavy and fragile bag of perishable veggies, and two tired kids to transport. Trying to cram all of this into a rush hour "normal" bus is at best glare-inducing and at worst borderline suicidal. Not to mention that if we do not take this one oddball bus, we have to transfer twice. Getting all of that junk in and out of the bus---finding a place to stow things and restrain babies without stepping on people or blocking the entrance and exit of the bus--and then those horrible waits for multiple buses with the children constantly almost running into the street and the stroller falling onto the already squishy fruits....you get the picture. The six hours are a small price to pay.

So we play at the park, eat the lunches I packed, wander through libraries, get sunburnt and irritable, tell endless ankylosaurus vs. allosaurus stories, whine, visit friends. Finally the hour of pickup comes and we rush at our veggies like long lost friends---they are our ticket home!

Then comes the lugging march back to the bus stop with wilted children carrying wilted greens. The deconstruction of the stroller. The frenzied dash back and forth after children determined to get themselves killed either by oncoming traffic or headlong topples from cement embankments, one. And then, EVERY SINGLE TIME, the failure of the bus to arrive. Because it is an oddball bus, it seems to think it gets special dispensation. It doesn't have to follow the rules. After all, nobody rides it except for that one banshee-voiced woman and her lobster-hybrid offspring. So we wait. And wait. And nearly die grisly deaths several times (the boys from previously mentioned causes, I from apoplexy or nervous exhaustion).

Sometimes the bus arrives around 5:30 (a mere 2 1/2 hours past its scheduled arrival). Sometimes it never arrives at all, and my carefully laid plans to avoid bus transfers and crowded buses are squashed as flat as the organic tomatoes in my shoulder bag.

But, somehow, we always make it home. Somehow, those last weary steps to the front door always feel triumphant, as though we have REALLY accomplished something today. Tonight was no different. To motivate me through the cooking of dinner, I put on a bluegrass CD. I giggled as Anainn did the frantic back-and-forth stroll that passes for dancing in his adorable mind, and melted when Xir took my hand and Anainn's and led us in a circular dance.

"That was my favorite part of the day," I said when the song ended. Xir was silent as I went to dish up the zucchini-and-onion stirfry. But when I tucked him in, he said "I don't know what my favorite part of the day was. Everything was so great. We got to stay out ALL DAY and you played with us the whole time!"

Is it Frost who wrote the line "...and saved some part of a day I had rued" ? That line has been running through my head this evening as I watch my boys sleep and think about how our perspectives vary. How silly of me to be stressing out, trying to adhere to schedules and plans and worthwhile occupations. The boys were just having fun. For someone who blathers on about the importance of process all the time, I sure do fail to recognize it when I see it.

So is it wasteful to spend 10 hours picking up one crate of vegetables? Couldn't that time have been better utilized, oh, I don't know, cleaning up oil spills or translating from the Greek or reseeding the wilderness?

All I know is, the boys are fast asleep, with smiles on their sunburnt faces and organic zucchini in their round little bellies.