I’m traveling alone. The last time I flew, I met Elise in Denver and we drove to Aspen to visit Paddy and co. There were so many joys of that trip, and sadness.
Traveling alone is weird. I’m used to running an odd errand alone, or commuting alone, or even from time to time connecting with a friend without my kids in tow. But flying alone feels a little like missing a limb. My carry-on backpack is so empty without the three days’ worth of snacks and books and extra-things-just-in-case.
When I was a new mom, other new moms would tell me they felt weird going out without their babies. They were so used to having to check on or hold or address the needs of their babies that when going solo, these moms felt like something was missing.
I felt guilty, sure, but also free. Like my old self.
Becoming a parent rocks one’s world in a way I could not have anticipated and still have trouble describing. Yesterday I met my college friend Pete and his wife and their eleven-month-old (super incredibly adorable) baby. Pete and I connected briefly about the weirdness of getting up in the morning and having one’s child dictate the routine, rather than having our old adult agenda.
When I went back to work, there was so much chaos around my new job: crammed into the only available office space, lacking a phone number (or phone), starting a week into the school year. Still, the instant I set up for my first class, I had an overwhelming sensation of being home. Where I am meant to be. Where people know me as a professional and not as “the mom of triplets” (which of course I am proud to be, but it’s odd to have that become my defining quality after over a decade of teaching).
Now my identity is so bound to my kids that I miss them like crazy already, and I haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.
My mom identity also has helped me look at others differently. More compassionately. Last weekend, we went to the crowded Tulip Festival and people-watched. Today I walked the length of the airport to get to an empty security line, and noticed. The people I used to silently mock for their pretension or their disorganization or their tackiness.
I mean, how do people look at me, corralling my troupe or in my Value Village playground-friendly fashion?
My new identity has become, simply, my identity. More complex than it used to be. At first it brought confusion and instability; now it is its own stability and comfort.
I’m glad I miss my kids now. It makes me appreciate solo travel and people-watching and working. And flights without negotiations over Mommy time are refreshing when they happen.
It’s about routine, they said.
If you don’t have a routine, then kids won’t know what to expect, and they’ll act out.
It’s about quality time, they said.
If your kid is acting out, maybe it’s their way of asking for attention.
It’s about Talking So Kids Will Listen. It’s about 1, 2, 3, Magic. It’s about Emotionally Intelligent Children.
It’s about time parenting experts shut up.
It’s not us. It’s the kids.
It’s two nights in a row of one kid throwing a screaming tantrum, throwing toys and running around–and last night, biting my husband on the shoulder–because it’s a rule in our house that you can’t eat dinner naked.
It’s fights with us at bedtime: No, you can’t have more water because I have to wash your sheets several times a week as it is. No, I already gave you plenty of hugs. Your question can wait till tomorrow. No, you don’t need a band-aid.
It’s about kids pulling the I don’t want to, I don’t have to, you can’t make me resistance to perfectly Normal and Routine requests that escalates said requests into crying and consequences.
[Incidentally, I bet my parents are rolling on the floor right now.]
We are doing everything we’re supposed to. We have routines. We have expectations (like, wash your hands before you eat). We get push-back all the damn time.
And oh, of course, they are adorable–like all three holding hands with their friend Ella as they walked to Children’s Liturgy yesterday. Of course they are hilarious–giving themselves and each other the giggles. Of course they are super sweet–like Theresa, without being asked, giving Audrey her balloon on Saturday after Audrey’s popped.
And of course they are boundary-pushing, sometimes overtired, sometimes hangry, jealous, shoving, biting, toy-throwing little…people.
I started this post two weeks ago. Then the brilliant Janelle posted this on Renegade Mothering the other day. Spot on, sister. With more cussing but more wit.
And there you have it.
I started this post just after Christmas over a year ago. Which is only fitting, because it takes us many weeks to take down our tree and put away our decorations. Anyway, happy holidays from us, 14 months ago:
On accentuating the positive: having the 24-hour stomach bug had two upsides:
- It was like a cleanse, but took a lot less time.
- It involved a very tired Theresa being plopped next to me on the bed and saying, “Mommy, the only thing I want to do is snuggle with you.” Good thing, too, because the only thing I could do was lie down and hug her.
Trip to CA:
Hanging out with some of our favorite people in CA (apologies to Maya, Noah and Mikey, and others I didn’t get pics of):
Lots of exercise:
And more moments:
My students wonder why all the literature we read is “so depressing.” It’s hard to tell these teens the truth: that much great literature, great art, great music are born out of suffering and teach us how to live with pain.
Some of them already know great pain. They have lost parents, siblings, other relatives. They endure deep betrayals, debilitating illnesses.
Not all pain has to do with death, but it has been much on my mind recently.
One morning last October I walked to our church to sit in our familiar pews among familiar faces and celebrate a funeral Mass for our friend Anne.*
Anne was 62 and had been suffering from several different serious illnesses. She was a beautiful spirit, musical, laughing, genuinely interested in others. Deeply prayerful and faith-filled. I did not know her as well as I know her husband, but I knew her well enough to know that her spirit radiated generosity and kindness. When she died, I wrote to her husband, who was and is devastated by the loss of his other half and true love:
And now death’s wake is only praise,
as when a neighbor writes and says,
“I did not know your father, but
His light was there. I miss the light.”
(from May Sarton’s “A Celebration for George Sarton”)
The light that day in the church poured through the stained glass like honey, illuminating the faces and heads of those who received Anne’s love and loved her in return. It shone on the lectern when the priest gave his homily focused less on Anne’s life than on her death.
“It was the most peaceful death I ever saw,” he said. “She gave her love to her family members and graciously received their love for her.”
Her husband eulogized her as authentic–that she lived her passions. In his homily, the priest told us to “take the best from her and make it part of the best of you.”
Anne’s daughter, herself a new mom, bent in half in her pew, unable to walk out of church after Mass. Her suffering seemed a tangible burden.
When I was a high school student in love with great literature, I considered the idea of grief in the abstract. Then when I was in college, my high school French 1 teacher was murdered by her husband, who then shot himself, with their 5-year-old son in the house. I did not know what to do with the weight in my chest that wouldn’t go away.
After Madame’s death over Christmas break, there was a heavy snowfall. Thick, wet snow bent in half the arbor vitae behind my parents’ deck. My mom asked my brother and me to help with snow removal, so I grumblingly trudged outside in pajama pants and snow boots, heavy coat and gloves, to brush snow off the limbs.
As I did so, it occurred to me that what I was doing for the trees, my teachers and former classmates had done for each other during Madame’s wake and funeral. Taking turns helping each other stand upright again after being bowed with grief and loss. That this is what we are here for: to help each other through the hard stuff.
Last week, I had a karmic moment with my friend Jen, who was our friend group’s point person during Paddy’s illness. Paddy or his wife would send her information, and she would relay it to all of us, and flow messages back to them. I called her to talk through my irritability, my lack of patience, my sadness.
She told me about how Paddy, from his experience losing his brother at such a young age, helped her learn her own grief process when her friend died years ago. These strategies she now teaches to her students through her Writing to Heal classes.
In this way, Paddy, via Jen, is teaching me how to grieve.
I know that he would not want us to wallow in our sadness, to let it overwhelm us to the point of not being able to function in our families or in our work. But it was healing to learn from Jen that it’s okay to have sad days, to let the sorrow come and also to let it go.
My yoga teacher loves the word “equanimity.” I am trying to reach a place where equanimity rests–where grief and joy can coexist instead of being mutually exclusive. Hamlet does not learn how to let his grief go. Hester Prynne does let her grief go, but does not attain any sense of equanimity with joy, either. Tim O’Brien turns his grief into “story-truth,” figuring out how to live with it.
That’s what we do. We read great literature. We listen to great music. We look long at the mountains across the water as their snowcap glows in the winter sun. We lean on our friends and family when we are bent in half by the weight of pain, and they help us stand up again. We do the same for them. And by being present to this pain, we may still experience our joys and loves in the face of loss.
“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.” –J. Krishnamurti
*not her name
When I turned 18 on the 18th, one of my high school teachers told me that in Hebrew, chai means “alive” and can also stand for the number 18.
Twenty years later, I raise a glass in gratitude:
- to my compassionate, hilarious, awesomesauce husband
- to poetry, from Hamlet read in my classes to “Casey at the Bat” read at bedtime
- to weeknight dinners with friends
- to theater
- to all my kindred spirits
- to health insurance
- to my students
- to my teachers
- to competent, supportive bosses, past and present
- to letting go
- to my children, whose initial foray into “Go Fish” was similar to their initial understanding of Hide-and-Seek: “Do you have any fives?” “Let me sort them.” [Kid spreads all cards from her hand on the table.] “No. I just have threes, eights, ones.”
- to those whose memories are blessings
One of my very favorite quotes (from one of my very favorite books, To the Lighthouse) is this:
What is the meaning of life?…the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.
L’chaim tovim ul’shalom (For good life, and for peace). L’chaim v’l’vracha (To life and to blessing).
Since Valentine’s Day gives me the great opportunity to reflect on love in all its manifestations (like chocolate!), here are some recent examples:
- my friend Cari’s husband, a nuclear astrophysicist, explained the spacetime continuum to me after I enthusiastically brought up the gravitational waves discovery. It’s about time that astrophysicists have their time in the sun (haha) to profess their love for the universe. Plus, he got an interview on the radio! He sent me additional articles like this one to help explain what happened and why it’s SO AWESOME.
- we saw Cari briefly with some other friends for the first time since she moved to Knoxville, and I love having friends with whom I can hug and laugh and drink wine and talk about everything from teaching to kids getting their learner’s permit to the Oscars, like we have never been apart.
- I love this new restaurant, Eve, which is reasonably fancy and delicious and has lots of things I can eat.
- a great pediatrician who prescribed eye drops for the kids when they came down with pinkeye–she prescribed an extra bottle because she recognized that more than one of them was more than likely to get it.
- my husband and I get to pretend we’re living the pre-kid married life for a couple of days. It’s very relaxing.
- our technician came back on Saturday with the necessary parts to fix our water heater, broken since Wednesday and not scheduled to be repaired until Monday. They expedited the parts to his boss’s house and he installed them Saturday afternoon.
- our neighbor let me shower at her house twice.
- I love that I found my wedding rings. They had been missing for two weeks and I couldn’t remember where I had last put them, so I tore apart our bedroom, the kitchen, etc. trying to figure out where they could be. Where they actually were: inside a finger of a kid’s play glove, on the floor of the basement by the toy storage bins. [I do not love that one of my children must have taken them to play with…but I do love that I found them.]
- my cousin met up with me at the Frye Art Museum for lunch and art and conversation. I love lunch and art, but mostly I love her.
- last week, my school had several fundraisers that clubs put on for Valentine’s Day, including individual faux roses. My very, very, very shy and withdrawn student, whom I make sit with some table group during discussions so he can listen but otherwise let sit by himself, usually sits with a group of four wonderful young women–the kind of young women that I hope my kids grow up to be like. My shy student sent each girl a rose. I cannot overstate how amazing this is. It makes me tear up just thinking about it.
“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Return of the King
Part of me has already said good-bye to my dear friend, Patrick, in the two years since his diagnosis of brain cancer.
Part of me never will.
Paddy died yesterday morning in peace and surrounded by love, especially his mother, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter. His passing brings grief to all of us who were blessed to call him friend. But I want to talk about how he lived, not that he died, because it is his living that changed me and impacted so many.
I met Paddy in college. A month before he had his first seizure that indicated the presence of glioblastoma multiforme, I wrote to him:
“I was searching through some really old e-mails yesterday and discovered a bunch that we had sent to each other in 2003-ish. An online spirit support group. They made me smile and miss your voice (in writing or otherwise). It has been a long time since we have talked! Marriage, children, careers, establishing new homes in new places: these things take our time, and rightly so. Still, just wanted to say that no matter how much time passes between our connections, you will always be one of my very kindred spirits.”
Paddy’s spirit left this earth far, far too soon. The best I can say I have already written, in a letter for his daughter; our college friends combined our letters and photos into a book for her, that she may someday know her dad.
When I think of your dad, I hear his laugh. If he finds something funny, his infectious “heh-HAH!” bubbles up from his deep well of humor, and he rocks back and forth, slowly clapping his hands as the guffaws roll.
When I think of your dad, I see his blue eyes, crinkled at the edges over his ear-to-ear smile or focused intently and earnestly on whomever is speaking. His eyes indicate his desire for understanding, his immense compassion, and his ability to be fully present.
When I think of your dad, I think of this quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“The creeks…are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation…The mountains…are a passive mystery, the oldest of all…Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”
When I think of your dad, I remember how he taught me to climb trees. I grew up as a city kid whose parents thought that trees around our house were dangerous, that woods were only a gathering place for illicit parties and a receptacle for broken bottles. At Middlebury, and later at Queechee and Plymouth and Great Barrington, I followed his lead, clumsily straining my arms to pull myself up onto branches the way he did so effortlessly. Once there, I understood why he loved this new perspective, being cradled in the arms of a tree after using muscle and grit and strategy to gain altitude, and looking out at the world through the leaves.
When I think of your dad, I remember how he played: tennis, soccer, skiing, biking, frisbee, hiking, running, swimming. I’m sure you know how he loved the outdoors–even at our New Year’s gathering in Great Barrington, before dinner we spent an hour or more on the basketball court near his house, slipping on the ice and playing basketball in the dark and frigid air. One of my favorite memories of senior spring at Middlebury is our hike up Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks. I was a pretty novice hiker, nervous about the slippery trail downhill, and he guided me all the way down, encouraging and offering a hand. Earlier that spring, he and Maya brought me swimming in the Middlebury River; I watched them splash in, buoyant and energized by the icy water. I leaped in, nearly had a heart attack at the shock of cold, and got out in minutes. He seemed so at home in the water: cold or warm, creek or ocean.
When I think of your dad, I remember our thoughtful conversations about spirituality, love, ambition. He introduced me to the writings of Terry Tempest Williams, Henri Nouwen, Wendell Berry. In 2003, he started a Spirit Circle with me, Jen Crystal, Elise, and later Maya: an e-mailed discussion of our lives, our struggles, our successes, our questions. How to change the world without ruining ourselves. How to make a difference–a real, systemic difference as well as personal difference. We talked about self-improvement. About how run-down we felt as young adults, eager to do good: save the environment, help children, advocate for the voiceless and powerless. How we weren’t sure we could sustain the level of energy we thought that goal required. I am happy to share any of his e-mails with you.
When I think of your dad, I feel his generous spirit, exemplified in his strong-armed bear hugs. He and his family opened their homes to all of us: we were not only welcome; we were family. He danced with me on my wedding day and became friends with my husband Alan. When I went through an emotional crisis, your dad sent me messages of hope and support and love. I hope we have been able to lift him up throughout his life in the same way he has lifted us.
When I think of your dad, I think about the work he has done: for Senator Houghton, for Orion, for the Aspen Institute. He has used his God-given gifts well: his gifts of thoughtful criticism, intellect, compassion, creativity.
Your dad lived the spirit of radical amazement: that constant state of wonder and gratitude that all of us aspire to.
Paddy was a fundamental part of my journey into becoming myself: that passage from teenager to adulthood defined by our passions, our failings, our experiences, risks, and loves. He taught me by being himself: asking thoughtful questions, living joyfully and in thanksgiving. It seems trite to say that all who knew him loved him, but I think that is the case for Paddy. His spirit of light shone through and illuminated the best in each of us.
I visited him and his family in Colorado last summer and processed a small part of his journey of illness with them. His wife, C., did what for me is unimaginable: helped her husband and best friend cope with dying while caring for their young daughter. C. poured out her grace, love, and strength to sustain her family through this most challenging time. Hers is a beautiful, courageous spirit, and I honor her here as I honor him.
C. helped him walk that part of his journey so that he could truly live every day of his life. He died with dignity, grace, faith, and above all, love.
This is what he wrote in an e-mail on Dec. 12, 2008:
“I wanted you to know that my beloved uncle…died last Thursday, and it has put everything else on hold. I flew home Tuesday, for the funeral Wednesday. It’s so extraordinarily sad. And yet, as always – the love rises up, covers the grief, rises above it – abounding, overflowing, covering us in light.”
Some recent winners in the cooking department:
Sweet Potato Chickpea Buddha Bowl (perfect for kids: tons of toppings to choose from, and they can eat every item “plain” while you toss it all together with the yummy tahini sauce)
Roast Pork with Apple and Mustard Glaze (takes about 2 hours but is sooooo delicious, especially with the crispy top)
Roast Pork with Braised Leeks (also takes about 2 hours–no crispy top but plenty of buttery braised leeks to provide sauce)
Vegan Polenta (I ignored the tomato-based toppings and just made the polenta)
Coconut-Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (gluten-free and OMG delicious!)
Vegan Pumpkin Cheesecake (relatively easy and not as pumpkin-y as I’d like, but if you ever have vegan guests, you could wow them with this. I used a silicone muffin pan without liners and they popped right out once frozen. Also: much, much better topped with chocolate chips.)
Finally: A recipe based on soup from one of my favorite cafes, Chaco Canyon. Their Egyptian Red Lentil Soup was so amazing, hearty, and perfect for winter that I tried making it at home, and even if it’s not an exact replica, it’s pretty darn good.
Egyptian Red Lentil Soup
adapted from Chaco Canyon Cafe
- oil for pot
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- ~1 cup carrots, chopped
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- pinch nutmeg
- pinch turmeric
- 2 cups red lentils
- 6 cups chicken or veggie broth
- 1 Tbsp. or so lemon juice
- salt to taste
- Saute onions, celery, carrots, and garlic in oil till mostly soft.
- Add spices and stir for 1 minute.
- Add lentils and broth. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 min.
- Stir in lemon juice and salt.
There’s so much going on these days. Here’s a snippet:
- My favorite time of day is a bit after 7 am (on days I’m not working): “Mommy? Mama, can I snuggle with you?” Yes. Yes, you can, kiddo. These drowsy half-light cuddly moments go straight into my heart to be held as I hold you against my chest.
- Two weeks ago: “Mommy, I peed in the tub.” Last night: “Mommy, I pooped in the tub.” Two different kids, same cause: laughing too hard with a sibling. At least it wasn’t intentional. Not like our cat, who apparently deliberately peed on our bathmat and then any subsequent towel on the bathroom floor until we went textile-free.
- One of my students had a small typo in a recent essay. This student laughed for five minutes after getting it back, and let me take a picture of it. (P.S. The intended word was “shift.”)
- The other best part of my day is when I come home from work and the living room explodes with voices and small bodies hurtling toward me to wrap themselves around my knees.
- Things have been crazy and busy but…feeling manageable-ish. If that’s not a word, it should be.
- We started kindergarten open houses this week. A few months ago, I was feeling anxious and overwhelmed; now I just feel excited. Any of our options (all in our city’s public school system) will be great. This hearkens back to one of the best pieces of advice I ever got: when I was about to graduate from college and had a one-way ticket to California with many applications in but no interviews lined up, I worried and worried about what would happen and was I crazy? and what if-what if-what if? My friend and sort-of mentor Paul (who also later officiated at our wedding!) said, “Who says you have to stay forever? If it’s not working out, you can change it. Come home.” It was radically soothing to me, who somehow thought that if I failed somehow, that I was doomed to a life of failure. He helped me see that a choice–even a turning-point choice like graduating and moving across the country–did not have to be the last choice. I see kindergarten the same way: if the school we choose isn’t working, we can change it next year.
- We had a spontaneous play date with some of the kids’ preschool classmates, and it was so fun watching them play with friends other than each other.
- I love this quote from Hot Cakes in Ballard (and I love that a cafe dedicated to molten chocolate cakes exists at all, much less ten minutes from me).
- I cleaned out the van tonight. Just picking up trash and recycling, not even vacuuming. Here are some of the items I found (after this, I didn’t even open the trunk):
- parking stickers
- Callie’s vet paperwork. From April 2015.
- an almond
- special sticks
- more Cheerios
- a hair clip
- special rocks
- popcorn bits
- more Cheerios
- approximately 1 box worth of used tissues
- granola bar wrappers
- One of our children has been a particular pill, especially when tired (and therefore at bedtime). I have been working really, REALLY hard at not blowing up at this kid. Because most of this kid’s antics come from where? Oh, you know–me, when I was a kid. Karma, man.
- Some great stuff I’ve been viewing / listening to: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (holy smokes, that was powerful–and sad to think that not much has really changed in the intervening 50+ years since its publication); the Okee Dokee Brothers’ albums (my favorite is Can You Canoe?); Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin; Taylor Mali’s spoken-word poetry, my friend Jen’s blog about living with chronic Lyme.
And finally: today while I drove home, hail pelted my windshield while sunny blue skies beckoned to the south, and on Tuesday, this appeared as I drove out of the parking lot (I pulled over to take the picture; don’t worry Dad). For all my friends and family members who need a rainbow, I send this to you:
I visited you two days before Christmas Eve, when the rest of those who celebrate Advent were waiting for a child to arrive.
Advent is all about waiting, but not the kind of agitated anticipation that precedes Santa’s arrival. It’s the kind of waiting that is a watchful, prayerful expectation.
In this way, our family was waiting and watching too. Witnessing your decline.
In your hospital bed in the nursing home, I watched you sleep. You looked so much like your older sister Marcie. The cannula fed you oxygen, helping you breathe slowly but regularly.
I held your warm, thin hand, so strong from years of cooking and gardening and hard work. I didn’t want to wake you, but I shouldn’t have worried. You didn’t wake up the whole time I was there.
My uncle B and aunt C joined me after their work days. B came every day to sit and hold your hand for an hour or two.
I thought of my dad sitting with his mother, my Nana, every Sunday for over twelve years as Alzheimer’s has taken over her brain. Of my husband who will care for his mother. Of my brother who will care for our mom. Of my son who someday, I hope, will do the same for me.
I hugged my uncle and told him he deserved a medal.
He shrugged. “It’s what families do.”
I shook my head. “Not every family.”
“It’s what our family does.”
Grandma, I did not understand until I was an adult and had more intimate knowledge of other families that our family is not the norm. I took for granted that you and Grandpa raised four deeply loyal children who married and raised eight deeply loyal grandchildren. I did not know what an incredible gift this is.
Our family had clambakes in the driveway at your house. Kids ran in the yard while adults chatted in folding lawn chairs. My cousins and I rode on the glider swing, played with antique dolls in equally antique baby carriages, ate Saltines stored in the side cabinet of the gas oven. We put real butter on our snowflake rolls and corn on the cob.
Your love for each of us was fierce and as unyielding as your legendary stubbornness (a trait that continues in my daughter with your name). You hugged us tightly, kissed us hard and left lipstick on our cheeks. When we became adults, you prayed novenas for us. You sent me prayer cards and statues of saints when I was having a hard time. You made sure that we never forgot that we were beloved, not for our accomplishments or talents, but for who we were: yours.
On Christmas Eve near midnight, as fireworks crackled near my parents’ house and kids all over listened intently for reindeer hooves, you went home.
I am not sad exactly–mostly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a small part of your dying, to say part of the rosary (out-of-practice as I am) and to tell you that it was okay, that you could let go. Grateful to be present as your spirit gathered itself to return to the Spirit.
Later this week we will gather together again, just as we do every Christmas Eve and for college sporting events and graduations. We will say goodbye, but you are not fully gone. You are part of us, as we were part of you, and we carry you with us.
This is what our family does.
Thank you for that.