Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Sugar Hill

It's summer, and though I'm tired into my marrow (the Urplet has entered a new and exciting phase wherein he refuses to sleep more than two hours at a time EVER, and the Rabbit is in the "I need a glass of water," endless-bedtime, nightmares-and-soaked-diapers phase) and the humidity is foul, and the Urplet has taken to biting while nursing (hear Mama swear vigorously, loudly, at length, etc.)--though all that is true, I'm still finding that taking the Rabbit to the beach (see previous, annoyingly rhapsodic Ocean post) and swimming in my aunt's lovely lagoon of a pool and driving around in my brother's Jeep with the top down and riding my aunt's beautifully dependable hunter through the fields where I rode twenty years ago is giving me great joy. So I'm going to rhapsodize a little more, maybe even veer into maudlin territory. Consider yourself warned.

Until I went to college, my family spent every summer in New Hampshire, at a house we rented year-round in Sugar Hill, which is a tiny town just outside Franconia Notch, in the White Mountains. So my memories of summer feature hiking, swimming in our tiny, freezing pond, eating pancakes at Polly's Pancake Parlor (where you should also eat if you find yourself in that neck of the woods), learning to ride a horse, and spending long afternoons in the tiny library browsing through the musty books. We had no television at Westfield (that was the house's name), but there were five big rocks arranged in the front yard and a big hedge bordering the front walk, and these became jumps for horses, stalls for horses, obstacle courses for horses-- I had a whole stable of imaginary animals, whose pictures I cut out of magazines and whose names ran the gamut from Mia (my favorite, a bay mare) to Green Beans (a five year old grey gelding--where did I come up with THAT name?). We could see Lafayette (the mountain, not the general) from our porch, and in the evenings the light deepened to purple on its summit, and I raced my imaginary horses around the yard and watched the mountains glow amethyst in the twilight.

The countryside itself looked like the Cotswolds--small roads twisting through hedge-bordered fields: old houses of stone or rosy brick with fanlights over the front doors: bushy gardens full of lilies and foxgloves: a bewitching, human-scaled rural beauty--but with the added fierceness and freedom of high mountains. Copses of birches glowed green and gold in the sunlight, with ferns crowding thick as emeralds at their feet and pastures rising up behind them. In the autumn, the woods caught on fire with color: not just the obvious golds and scarlets, but subtle, delicious salmons, umbers, and old-rose. But in the summer the whole country shone with sun in the leaves, in the grass, on the water. When a storm blew up, the leaves all turned over and showed silver--that, and gusts of wind told you to get out of the pond and wrap up in your towel and scamper.

And while it rained, I'd go to the library. Or when it was hot, or cold, or just right--it didn't matter: the library was (and remains) my favorite place, with the possible exception of the bookstore in Littleton, NH. The Sugar Hill Library was a one-room, white frame affair with a small porch and a trellis which memory embellishes with roses, I suspect inaccurately. My idea of bliss remains exactly what it was then; indeed it was probably formed then, in the afternoons when my mother would drop me off and I would walk silently up and down the rows of books, alone except for the tiny, ancient, silent lady librarian who wore her gray hair in a pageboy. This fascinated me--all the old ladies I knew had either buns or perms. But the books fascinated me more, and I got a crick in my neck from walking with my head sideways, reading the spines. I pulled books out because of their titles, or covers, or because they just called to me and said, "Pick me up," and eventually I collected five. Then I'd go down to the basement bathroom, because I had Library Syndrome and always got so relaxed that I had to poop. Then I'd check out my books and go out and cross the road and sit on a little white bench awaiting my mother and reading the first chapter of each book. The sun would shine down on the back of my neck, and the town would lie in a mid-afternoon August haze around me, and the books would sit quietly beside me, shimmering with promise.

I suppose that's still pretty much my idea of perfect happiness. Solitude, summer, books, mountains. And a pond. Don't forget the pond.

Monday, July 25, 2005


I have just been out for a wonderful, marvelous, luxurious dinner with one of my favorite women in the world. No children (hers are four and a half, and one; mine are two and a half and five months). No husbands. No parents, in-laws, or therapists. Just the two of us, a tiny Italian restaurant with good wine, a peaceful table against a brick wall, and time to talk. We ate bread dipped in herbed olive oil, then a wonderful salmon over endives (endives!), then chocolate truffle cake with zabaglione sauce. She drank the house Cabernet, I drank the house Pinot Grigio. No one interrupted us, unless it was the waitress bringing more wine. No one smeared us with sticky fingers. No one demanded we give suck. For two hours, we could actually reflect, with another woman in the same situation, on our lives. Oh, thank you God (and my parents and the babysitters, who, like the Mobil corporation with PBS, made this broadcast possible).

I'm not being facetious when I give thanks here. I miss my friends (because I've had kids: because we've all scattered to the four winds: because I've allowed my piorities to turn themselves on their heads [with their little asses sticking up in the air most fetchingly] so that I fold laundry before I tend to my friends on the phone or next door). And when I get to see someone who is truly, as Madeleine L'Engle says, "a friend of the right hand," I experience great joy. We talk and talk, puzzling out our lives, trying to make sense of great chunks of indigestible experience (marriage, motherhood, career, what my friend of tonight styles "the Hegelian dialectic of the Paunch") which have crammed themselves down our gullets since we last saw each other. We weave a web for each other, of understanding and mutual experience and support, which will hold us up over the next months until we see each other again. We walk down the path through the woods together for a while, instead of alone.

This all sounds kind of abstract and rhapsodic, I know--chalk it up to chocolate truffle cake delirium. Let's see: what did we actually discuss?

1. Betty Friedan Had A Point: how being home a lot with small children has radicalized us
2. Gendered for the Very First Time: how having breasts and uterae (uteruses?) has influenced/affected our career prospects
3. What To Do When the Kids Hate Stained Glass: where to bring the kids to church when you grew up Anglican (salvation through good taste: The Book of Common Prayer: Orlando Gibbon) but are now Catholic (Holy Mary, Motheragod: pale green paint: blond wood: Praise Songs; guitar masses) and married to a Christian Reformed Protestant (five-point Calvinism: Worship Teams: extemporaneous prayers: "Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?").
4. The Unconsidered Life: how to survive when your vocation is thought and reflection, and now you're just surviving amid the toddlers and even though you know said survival will probably be integral to the making of your spirit (someday? one hopes?), it still sucks in the present moment.
5. Husbands: care and feeding of; how to avoid making them into a third child.
6. And a lot of other stuff.

It's midnight now, which means I am going to turn into a pumpkin. But here's a cheerful thought: I actually saw the stars tonight, all juicy and big in the summer sky, and when I did, I realized how little I actually get out at night. Not just out as in going out; out as in stepping out the door and looking up. Note to self: step out and look up more.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Family Name

The Rabbit, like me and also like his brother, has an unusual name, because my mother is from Alabama.

That's it, you're thinking: she's lost it completely. No (though I am writing this at midnight, with Urplet sort of sleeping/sort of wriggling beside me). I can explain. See, it's common in the South for people to use family names as first names for their progeny--hence the girls named Chapin or Spencer, and the boys named McLean or Claiborne. My mother has such a name, as do I, and now I've gone and given fairly unusual family names as first names to MY boys. And I guess the Rabbit is used to hearing me explain this, because today I overheard the following exchange between him and another child's mother on the playground:

Rabbit (buzzing happily over to other child and other child's mother so he can practise a newly-learned phrase): "Hello. Nice to meet you."

Mother: "Hello to you, too."

Child stares blankly.

Rabbit: "What's your name?"

Child stares suspiciously and clutches dump truck.

Mother: "His name is Allen."

Rabbit (with an air of weary noblesse oblige): "I'm two and a half. That's two years and six months."

Mother (with the desperate sunniness of a mother of a small child at 5:30 pm) : "That's RIGHT! And what's YOUR name, honey?"

Rabbit: "[Insert strange name here]." Pause. "It's a family name."

OK, cute, but what I always wonder is, how much of what he parrots does he really GET? Then again, I shouldn't even ask, because he gets way too much in general, as all toddlers do. I mean, there's a reason "dogs and small children" get lumped into the same category: all antennae up and aquiver at the most inconvenient times. For instance, lately the Rabbit has become unnervingly perspicacious where my moods are concerned. (What, me have moods at five months post-partum, on four hours' sleep a night? I know, it's hard to believe, but work with me here.) And whenever I'm slumping around the house like a sloth in a snit, or reading him a story in an unsatisfactory monotone, or giving him an order with that "resist at your peril" edge to my voice, he turns to me and says, "You're very happy!"

The tone of voice in which he says it makes me think it's meant as a command rather than an observation, and this raises the ever-interesting question of my own response. On one hand, I very much do NOT want my kids to have to spend any energy (at this stage of their lives) dealing with my emotional states, and I very much DO want to provide consistency and a safe harbor for them. On that other pesky hand, they do have to live in the world, and I cannot and should not Pollyanna it to the point where I get frantic and chirpy and fake. Obviously, the answer lies somewhere along the path marked "Balance and Common Sense," but it's amazing how much time I spend swinging wildly around and NOT managing to walk that path. Too often, I careen from delight to despair twelve times before lunch, and take the kids on at least part of the journey with me. (Then again, sometimes the reverse is true: you know those days when everything in the toddler or baby universe is just WRONG for no discernable reason?) It's distressingly humbling. I've always prided myself on maintaining a useful detachment at work (detachment, Kathleen Norris says, is "the ability to live at peace with the reality of whatever happens"), but it seems I have much, maybe everything, to learn about maintaining it with my children. How do I stay as close as they need me to be while retaining the perspective which will allow me to look past the loud, smelly, messy moment and remember that I am raising future autonomous adults here? How do I take care of myself properly so that I can set myself aside when I need to?

What, you were expecting an answer? Actually, though I don't have AN answer, I am beginning to learn some of the actions and reactions which are helpful to me in the hunt for appropriate detachment. Prayer. Running. Writing. Rock climbing. Galloping a horse. Reading People magazine. Reading a good book. Going to Mass. Going out for a drink with a woman friend. Going on a date with my husband. Working on the medical project which the Tall Doctor and I partner with in Mali. Spending the evening at the Free Clinic. Blogging.

All of which is nice, but which begs the question, what do I do when I can't do any of the above because there are these small boys in my life 24/7 ? I can always pray Anne Lamott's favorite prayer, ("Help me! Help me! Help me!"), but I'm a corporeal being, not an angel, so I need physical, do-able things as well and often I can't get at them. I suppose that's where the inconvenient and boring things like patience and endurance come wouldn't it be nice if I had more of them. And like detachment, I always thought I did, until I had these kids, and gave them strange names, and now here we are, introducing ourselves to similarly desperate mothers in playgrounds and going off on tangents in the middle of the night. All of which is to say, this show is a little under-rehearsed and ragged around the edges, and if you feel yours is too, I say hoorah and you're not alone.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Rock Climbing at the Ocean and Other Joys

I don't realize how much I miss the ocean until I come back to it. I grew up about a block from the beach, and went to school in Boston and Connecticut (before Iowa) and so home to me means that combination of dazzled light and salt tang which fill the air near the sea, and that feeling of turning a corner and seeing the vast spread of the ocean churning away toward the horizon. I'm not a sailor (though I did spend two weeks once on a 53 foot sailboat in the Caribbean with 13 teenagers--a story for a different day) or a marine biologist; I haven't spent a huge amount of time ON the ocean. I'm just addicted to being able to see it, to having access to its possibilities--escape, perspective, storms. You can't plow the ocean or change the tides; it's not domesticated, and it doesn't care. I love that, and I don't realize how I miss it until I come back to it.

The beach near the house where I grew up is a mile long, with huge piles of rocks at either end and big old houses set well back along the waterfront. There's a tumbling-down pier, really just slimy, splitting posts rising from the water, and a jumble of black rocks which emerge when the tide's low, and the usual litter of seaweed and buoys and rope which washes up at high tide. Two islands dot the water near the shore, and away to the south you can see the roofs and masts of Marblehead and its harbor. In all seasons except summer you can have it pretty much to yourself when you want to walk, and in the winter the water is iron-grey and the wind knifes off it into your bones. On a quiet day the tide hardly ripples as it comes in; during hurricanes, the beach disappears into the ocean's maw. Cormorants like to stand on the pier posts while they dry their wings.

The beach near my parents' current house is smaller and whiter and cleaner and more populated, though it still has clusters of rocks at either end. The Rabbit is loving it, and I am loving him loving it, and we go down there every morning. The cool, salty haze over the water is delicious after the heat of the twenty minute walk down there, and the pleasures of sitting down in the wet sand and digging are unparalleled. There's a lot to do: we have to dig pools for the Rabbit to splash in, build at least one castle (I am very bad at this: all my castles look like collapsing wedding cakes or minor Middle Eastern ruins), steal at least one other two year old's shovel, run down to the end of the beach and rock climb (he's not kidding-he really scrambles up there and he's going to brain himself someday soon), and jump waves in the water. Then we have to pack up and go have a watermelon ice at the concession stand before starting the trek home. We get salty, sunscreeny, sunburned, sandy, sweaty, and sticky, and are pretty much delighted with ourselves. It's excellent, except for the cleaning-up-the-kid-afterward part, and the complicated plastic-bucket-sharing dynamics of toddler socializing.

I was going to go into a long riff on the joy of having my child love a place I have loved, but now that I'm here, I don't think a riff is needed, because what else is there to say? I stand ankle-deep in the ocean and the tide sucks the sand out from between my toes, and the sailboats wing along out in the heat haze and the Rabbit shrieks with delight and splashes around me, and it is good. He gives me back a lot of the joy in things which I had as a child. It's worth the diapers (the less revolting ones, at least).

Sunday, July 10, 2005

We Are What You Fear

Yes, we are. You've endured it before: you're on a plane, settled nicely into your seat, your spare and convenient carry-on safely stowed in the overhead compartment and your one tidy book open on your lap, and you look up and see....dum dum dum...a vision of purgatory coming toward you down the aisle. A wild-eyed mother trying (and failing) to look composed as she herds a two year old down the aisle ("No, sweetie, DON'T tap all the people's knees") while balancing a baby on one hip and bonking people on the head with a bulging diaper bag and juggling a toddler backpack in her remaining hand (I know, that makes three hands. You get the invisible third hand when you have the second child; quite useful). She takes half an hour to get settled, because she has to 1) herd the toddler into the window seat, 2) set the baby down in the middle seat, 3) hand the toddler the backpack, 4) dump the diaper bag into the aisle seat, 5) pick up the baby, 6) plonk herself into the middle seat, holding the baby 7) cram the diaper bag under the seat in front of the toddler, 8) heave a huge sigh, 9) try to bend double while holding the baby to extricate two trains, a book, a sippy cup, an urp rag, a tupperware of goldfish crackers, and a cell phone from the now-inaccessible diaper bag and 10) smile apologetically at the apoplectic businessman who's been waiting to get into the aisle seat he's paid for but which she or the diaper bag or the baby have been occupying for fifteen minutes. And THAT's the easy part. The really hard part is the security checkpoints, when you add a stroller which needs to be folded, and shoes and coats and bracelets which need to be removed, and a laptop which has to be unzipped from the diaper bag to the whole mix, and in so doing incur the wrathful glares of half the airport.

Yes, it's true. Tomorrow morning the boys and I (minus The Tall Doctor, alas) will be boarding a plane to Chicago, then another to Boston, and I have a feeling that, for tortured journeys, The Grapes of Wrath will have nothing on us. I try to be low-profile when I travel with kids; I really do. I have a relatively small double stroller, not one of those tremendous ones which, as my husband says, looks like it should be heading west across the prairie, pulled by oxen. I dress the kids and myself nicely and try to maintain some level of grooming throughout the trip (not usually too successful). I say please and thank you to the flight attendents. And I pack the diaper bag for disaster, i.e. an overnight with two kids on the floor of O'Hare: diapers, wipes, new books, snacks, diapers, trains, DVDs, laptop, diapers, Tylenol, Motrin, band-aids, thermometer, diapers, changes of clothes, sippy cups, diapers, urp cloths, lipstick, and diapers. And still, I emerge from every flight with kids feeling like I've just spent three weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway with all my possessions in plastic bags around me. Oy.

I try not to remember the days when I could, and did, spend three months alone in Southeast Asia with a carry-on size pack and a shoulder bag: hmm, it's Thursday, think I'll go to Burma. Someday I'll pare down again, I know, but right now my kids are not at the embarassed-by-Mom stage, or the traveling alone stage, or even the reading-on-the-plane stage. No, they're in the full-on dependency stage, so not so much with the packing/traveling light for me. And there's nothing like a plane trip to bring this home to me in a most literal fashion.

So when you see me heading down the aisle, be nice. Don't glare. Know that I'm trying, and that I am dreading an outburst from one of my kids just as much as you are (after all, you just have to listen to it: I have to prevent/prepare for/stop it). Don't pull a Barbara Walters when I whip out a breast (consider the noisy alternative of a hungry infant on a plane). And remember: some day it could be you.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


I went to see the new Batman movie the other day. I hadn't been to a movie for a while (like six months) and just going to a theater and sitting down in the dark with popcorn and being entertained loudly and mindlessly by beautiful people for two hours was absolutely worth the price of admission. And there was a lot to enjoy about the movie: Batman was very easy on the eyes, the settings were way cool (Bhutanese monastery on a glacier, anyone?), Michael Caine and Morgan Freemen were gleefully funny ("We hadn't really thought about marketing it to the billionaire spelunking BASE-jumper crowd"), and the Batmobile was excellent, kind of a hopped-up, low-down Humvee. All in all, certainly worth a matinee's fee.

But I found myself a little frustrated as I drove away from the theater, and as I nursed the Urplet at 2 am (he has a cold and basically he slumbers not, neither doth he sleep) I decided the movie could have been a lot better if the filmmakers had listened to me and done a few things differently. Namely:

1. The leading lady should have been a leading lady.
Katie Holmes is all very well (at least Tom seems to think so), but why not let this really very hunky version of Batman have a real romance with a real woman? Someone developed and delicious like Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair, or Charlotte Rampling in anything. Why not have the "assistant DA" lady be a powerful grown-up woman, a full-fledged DA, older than the embryonic Batman, flawed and irresistable, a real challenge to him and someone who can break his heart a little at the end? Also, someone who, for a refreshing change of thriller pace, DOESN"T walk wide-eyed down a dark corridor and end up, oops!, needing to be rescued. THAT, I'd pay the full evening price to see.

2. The Eastern mysticism should have been Eastern mysticism
If you're going to have Bhutanese monks spouting philosophy, then have them spout real philosophy. If you're going to have your hero study martial arts, have him STUDY them, for heaven's sake. The movie is awash in black-clad ninjas and strange and content-less statements on the order of, "To conquer fear, you must first become fear." Huh? Why not use actual content from the Vedas and the Sutras and Tibetan Buddhist texts? There's all kinds of cool stuff in there. Why not show the hero actually learning, say, tai kwan do or whatever? Don't have a monastery as a kind of placeholder for mysticism--put it to work and show the power of a contemplative in action!

3. The suspense should have been suspenseful
The movie starts off well, or at least entertainingly, and all the assembling-the-Batcave stuff is a hoot. But then you get this crime-lord-meets-righteous-Old-Testament-wrath-Ninja mixture of villians plotting generic mayhem, and it's just too patently a device to let Batman fly over Gotham (which, incidentally, is excellent: a mix of Hong Kong, Delhi, and NYC) and wreak his own righteous havoc and save everybody. I've always been a sucker for movies in which the hero solves the big problem elegantly, using some thought and A Plan. If an action movie can put the action to the service of character development and plot advancement, I'm right there with the explosions. But if things start exploding for the sake of making a big noise, you lose me.

4. The psychology should have been psychology
OK, Bruce Wayne's mad and sad and bad because his parents were shot before his eyes when he was ten. But psychology is, I would venture to guess, rather mysterious and complex, so why boil the movie's motivation down to that? Why not let that be an onion in the stew of old Batman's emotional torment, or whatever? Don't tie it up in a bow for me, and don't paint it in letters three inches high on the hero's forehead with the caption, "Motivation." Show me, shock me, let me infer.

Reading this over, it sounds as though I'm asking rather a lot of a Batman movie. But hey, the movie starts out with the hero journeying to the top of a mountain carrying a blue flower so he can find what he's looking for, so I think the movie's asking for it! And whatever my dorky thoughts are, the movie is entertaining and full of gorgeous things, Batman chief among them.

But I'd stick with the matinee price.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Brand Spanking New

A friend of mine had a gorgeous baby girl on Wednesday the 29th, and I say welcome, Sweet Thang, to this odd place called Earth, and welcome, New Mama, to this odd place called Motherhood (and let's not leave out New Daddy, who will have his own place and his own oddness).

I dropped by the hospital room yesterday and saw the lovely new person (and I'm not just saying that; she really is one of those pretty babies who looks like a real person right from the start) and her very together parents, and was astonished all over again at the force of joy which accompanies a new life. And I use the word "force" advisedly, because the feeling I had seeing this tiny girl made me think of Dylan Thomas: you know, "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower..." THAT kind of force.

I'm not being misty-eyed here. I am only four months away from Number Two Son's no-drugs birth and still in the middle of the severe-sleep-deprivation-and-constant-looking-after part of having a baby, so I am not one to romance childbirth and newborns. Anyway, I never was: always hated babysitting, was never charmed by random kids, was basically the misanthropic old lady at the wedding reception who smiled icily as someone's four year old spilled chocolate cake on her (auntie's) dress. So it's not that I see a friend's infant and think, "OOooh, how cute, got to get me one of those!"

No, it's not that. It's this: that baby blew me away because she's NOT mine, and so for a moment I had enough distance to appreciate the stunning fact of her arrival and her life. It's like crying at someone else's wedding: so much fun, and so luxurious, because you're not in charge of all the arrangements and you're not the one making a lifelong committment, so you can sit back and take in the beauty of said arrangements and said committment. I mean, I was fairly astonished at the power of my own children's births, and of my wedding, but both occasions were so close to me that their very immediacy, plus the physical facts of tight shoes (wedding) and sore bottom (birth) and exhaustion (both) impinged heavily on my appreciation of the reality of what was happening.

That's what's so great about both art and ceremony. They help you figure out that reality, or at least they control and present it in a way which is both truthful and accessible. I think that's why we humans have so many rituals, from circumcision to funerals. And I for one am grateful for them, the moreso the older I get.

I'm also grateful for New Little Girl's safe birth, and I wish her very well. And I would be even more starry-eyed if my sons would deign to sleep tonight, because, as I said, this birth stuff is still pretty immediate to me and at four a.m. reality starts to feel something like the summer humidity: heavy, sticky, best avoided by sitting very still in an air-conditioned room. So to all you new mothers, I wish you healthy children, safe births, and A/C, and to New Little Girl's mama in particular I say, congratulations!