A Bear, Tomatoes, and an Exercise in Resisting in Metaphor

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A black bear is wandering our small city. Braving the busy main roads, trotting down quiet side streets and into little backyards, finding temporary refuge in the marshes and sparse woods. Two days ago, he was across from my mother’s house, moving so stealthily through the neighbor’s yard, he didn’t even disturb the laundry on the line. He took the beach route to our side of town, must’ve walked right past our house to get to the tennis courts by my dad’s where he was last photographed. He’s a young male black bear, alone, and most certainly lost. I wish he’d stop by our backyard and rest awhile in an Adirondack chair. I’d bring him a stack of toast with butter and jam and a drink of cool water, walk him over to a good fishing spot where the woods meet the marsh, and invite him back when the tomatoes are ripe.

Days of rain kept me from the garden. When the sun finally returned, I went out to weed and see if it was too late to plant cucumbers only to discover there wasn’t an inch of space. The garden is wild with tomato plants, volunteers from last summer. I have only a little tending to do: some transplanting to reduce crowding, a bit of weeding and watering. Sometimes the things we create take on a life of their own. Some growth comes not with labor but with ease.

Before I get metaphorical and compare gardening to writing, I want to pour my Marie Howe collection of observations on the table. If you decided to play along, I hope you’ll leave me a few (or a whole bunch) of yours.

A man, large and bald with thick glasses, sweeps the cafeteria floor near the table where I sit writing, looks at me and asks, “How do you like world war three?”

The boy with the missing front tooth and greasy hair always wears the same grey-brown clothes and sits alone, but at least he has a phone, and today talks briefly–so briefly–to a girl sitting nearby.

The copy machine in the teacher’s room whirs and chugs and spits so loudly, I can practice my poem in full voice without anyone hearing.

My daughter runs across the wet, green grass through the sprinkler and shouts, “Drink, mommy, drink!” I bend down and lower my face to the spray, catching the cold metallic-tasting water that feels somewhere between a tickle and a sting. I shriek with laughter.

Thin clouds gauze over the blue sky. We count two lobster boats, one barge, four sea gulls. Charles Island in the distance.

Tiny 3-year-old feet with chipped red nail polish run through the sand.

I press my nose to the back of my daughter’s head and breathe deep the scent of salt air, sunscreen, and a sweetness that belongs only to her.

The tides comes in and we watch the seaweed–green, brown, red–dance around our ankles.

Evening on the front porch. The swish-swash of the swamp maples waving in the wind. The tink-tonk of the bamboo chime.

The full moon casts a glow over the rippling water. I sit in the wet sand and watch.

 

 

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Reclamation

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This morning as I was slicing an apple for my 3-year-old, she marched around the kitchen chanting, “You’re the best mama!” It’s the first time she’s said that, and I don’t know where the heck it came from, but it sure felt good.

This first week off from daily writing was filled with excitement and events, and then when it got quiet, I crammed the silent spaces with volunteer work and course work and mini social media binges. I became distracted, my brain ballooning with noise, lifting me off the ground. Untethered.

I knew it was time to sit down and write.

Before and after the inauguration, I channeled my energy into volunteer work, uploading submissions to the Disability March, a project spearheaded by author, activist, and Fairfield University professor Sonya Huber. It’s been an honor and a gift to work on this project, to be able to take a positive action, to help give voice and visibility to those who were unable to march, and to spend time with individual photos and stories. These marchers carried me through the inauguration and reminded me of the way our stories keep us connected.

On Saturday, I marched. My 8:30 a.m. train to Manhattan was packed. A group of seniors moved slowly down the aisle in pink hand-knit pussy hats, holding cardboard signs that read, “RESIST.” The train was filled with a contagious positive vibe, and at every stop, the conductor reminded passengers, “Make room! Today is the Women’s March.” Grand Central was humming with electric energy.

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I met my friends by the clock and we hugged and talked national news and personal news, and my friend Kelly brought me an extra pair of sunglasses, and we walked city-quick, into the cool, damp air and headed east toward Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. The streets were already filled with marchers and signs and sporadic low-level chanting. We slipped into the rally just before the blockade closed and listened to speeches by Cynthia Nixon, Helen Mirren, and Whoopi Goldberg. There was music and dancing, and then the entire crowd sang “The Star Spangled Banner” with solemn gusto. In that surge of unity, I felt a reclamation of the hope I’d lost after Election Day.

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Later in the afternoon, as I wove through crowds on my way back to Grand Central, I felt light and joyful, buzzed on solidarity and goodwill. On the train, scrolling through my phone, I was awestruck by the photos and videos pouring in from sister marches across the country and around the world.

Over the last few days, my joy has fizzled amidst the signing of executive orders, the suppression of factual tweets by the National Park Service, the inevitable in-fighting among groups within the Women’s March movement, the inane memes circulating, the inflammatory, clickbait articles. It’s easy to forget I have the option to quiet the cacophony.

Last night I opted out of all that noise and focused on uploading the last submissions to the Disability March. Today I promised myself I would not engage with news or social media. Today I’m retreating to my small patch of earth, my own story, my own work, my own day. It’s going to be a long haul, this process of reclaiming our collective hope and continuing to march forward, and tending to ourselves is an essential part of the work.

Today I duck the swell and catch a small wave of joy, that tiny voice declaring I’m the best mama.

Mother-Writer

There is a thought that’s repeated in my head over the last year like a mantra: “I write because of and in spite of my daughter.”

At this time last year, her just-turned-two-year-old self was small enough to fit in the cradle of my legs folded indian-style, nursing while my hands typed. That was my method of buying time to write in the beginning. I know I felt touched-out and drained, and the recurring sentence fragment in my brain was, “To think a clear a thought.” But I can only see it now through a rose-haze, those little hands, the newness of language, the cure-all comfort of breastfeeding. In fact, at the start of this project, I had never spent an entire day away from my baby. Not until Day 32.

Shhhhh.

Do you hear that?

QUIET.

Not the temporary quiet of sleeping baby. Not the little old lady from Goodnight Moon whispering hush. I’m talking husband with toddler taking a day trip across state lines to visit grandparents quiet. Blue sky almost-spring sunshine fed cats asleep in windows quiet. Alone in the house for a good big stretch of day quiet.

Drink. That. In.

This has not happened since I’ve become a mother. A whole entire day alone. I couldn’t relinquish her to the world for the span of an entire day until today. I know how bonkers that sounds. But it’s the truth. It took so long for the miracle of her to arrive, my life’s sole mission became protectress. It was nothing I planned and everything I had to be.

I’m glad I trapped that moment on the page. That version of me, now gone. Are we like snakes molting minute-to-minute or Matryoshka dolls, former selves stacked within us to be cracked open again and again?

When I was pregnant, a friend told me, when a baby is born, a mother is born too. I heard “mother”–that part I understood–but I didn’t quite hear “born.” I couldn’t grasp the way an entirely new version of myself would be born. Or the mysterious way those former versions of me would show up. My daughter reignited my desire to write, to be true to myself. And at the same time, she made it so darn difficult for me to take up the task of writing. To think a clear thought. But for all the essays lamenting the incompatibility of motherhood and writing, I think they pair well, the push-pull, the toggle. Because of and in spite of. What better training is there for a creative pursuit than motherhood? Motherhood, that supremely creative act, that exhausting slog. What else could have taught me to dig so deep?

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This is 3!

 

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This is 3! We hung the birthday sign and the paper chain and blew up balloons. I made blueberry pancakes and lit a candle and we sang, all before sun up. I was a full and present parent who didn’t try to juggle other tasks into the day. She chose the Peabody museum, so we went to New Haven and, as luck would have it, they were feeding the bearded dragons and frogs and Vietnamese walking sticks, so we got to hold and touch and marvel up close. In the afternoon it was warm enough to go to the beach and build sandcastles. I’m still off food from the stomach flu, so when my mom offered dinner and a birthday muffin, I said, oh yes please! (I’m getting a lot better now at saying, yes, thank you for your offer to help, I’ll take it!)

I would like to write another ode to age 2, but I’ve been catching up on my course, and must save it for the weekend.

Thank you, dear readers, for hanging in there and leaving so many kind comments during this stretch of thin posts and two bouts of illness. It was a beautiful day celebrating my sweet girl and I’m feeling so grateful.

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A Breath

A breath. A grey morning. A toddler and her father peacefully constructing a marble run in the other room. A cup of coffee still hot. A mother-writer typing these words at the table next to the Christmas tree.

Yesterday, the mother-writer attempted this very same thing. She sat for a few early morning minutes with her coffee, desperate to type fleeting thoughts, to tie a loose knot, to knit the past to the present, to patch the precarious scaffolding she’s been building for 343 days, to locate the place inside, self, to tap the wellspring, to mine a vein and perhaps discover a glint of newness. But the family could not conspire on behalf of the mother-writer, who was on edge after giving and giving and giving. She simply could not give in to more giving, and so she hollered loudly, ferocious for the scrap of time she was not allowed. And then she got in the shower and cried. And then the busy day began.

It’s easier to write about failure in the third person.

In the evening, we had friends over for dinner. Children entertaining themselves in the den. Adults in the living room sipping wine and relaxing by the fire. I stood in the kitchen with my friend from California as she sliced a pear and assembled the salad items she’d brought. Our conversation swirled around itself, mine streaming from that place of I’m trying to get her into preschool and get my freelancing off the ground and I feel like I’m failing at mothering and failing at working and I wish I could split myself in half, and hers streaming from a place of working long days with high-risk students in Oakland and pursuing career ambitions but feeling like she needs to go part-time because she’s not with her kids enough and wishing she could split herself in half. We were coming from different places, but our feelings were so much the same. After she scattered the last of the sunflower seeds over the lettuce, she turned to me and hugged me for a long time and said, “You’re doing a really good job. We’re doing a really good job.” We were both crying, and she said, “It’s hard. It’s just really hard.” I poured olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the salad, and we drifted back into the living room with everyone. There was lots of laughter and catching-up and the kids running through, laughing through, dancing through before disappearing again. We spread out on the couches and floor and ate pizza and salad on paper plates. We talked about work, kids, politics, activism, parenting. We enjoyed that very particular contentment and ease that comes from being with old friends.

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If the Season We Could Keep

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement during this wacky week of Intro to Potty Training. I swear I’m going to stop writing about it. Today is a better day for no particular reason other than it just is. These last few days I’ve wanted to hit fast-forward, but last month I wrote this essay about the moments I wish I could keep, and it’s on the Brain, Child blog today. A good reminder that there are so many little joys and that things are changing all the time.

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Tiny Triumph

[Photo of naked toddler with fairy wings decorating Christmas tree.]

Isn’t it magical? A naked Christmas faerie appeared this morning and rearranged the ornaments on the tree. Later in the afternoon we cut paper snowflakes. And between those two short-lived activities, we potty-trained. Which looked mostly like this:

[Photo of child in high chair with hand raised, tearfully expressing the word “no.”]

Potty-training the resistance, an utterly exhausting process that requires equal parts enthusiasm and patience. But we did it. We had that triumphant moment when she initiated the potty before the timer went off, and she did it! Cheering and high-fives and stickers and smiles. That was our win for the day. I wanted to write about Lucia Berlin, but that will have to wait until tomorrow (because a migraine is now taking over.)

Goodnight, sweet readers. Sleep well.

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Changes and Traditions

These last couple of months leading up to age three are all rapid change and growth. Increased vocabulary and refined pronunciation. Heightened awareness and comprehension. Assertiveness, a strong will. There’s a lot more resistance, a lot more “no!” She will hold up her hand and say, “No, mommy, leave me be!”

She still has an ethereal essence, a sweet and gentle soul. It shines through her big brown eyes even during crabby moments. But a fierce will is emerging, and though it sometimes wears me out, I’m glad for it. I want her to claim her space, raise her voice, stand her ground. She is an incredible combination of peace and strength and silliness, teaching me all the time.

If you ask her what she wants for Christmas, she will answer, “A present!” There is no material good she longs for, except perhaps another book to add to her collection. She is still blissfully unaware of our consumer-driven culture. I know it won’t be long before this changes, and I’ve been thinking of little traditions that focus on what truly matters. I love the tradition of decorating a tree in the yard with edible ornaments for the animals, detailed over at Wilder Child. It’s a simple craft project, an experience, and an act of giving. It turns our attention to the creatures we share space with and instills a sense of responsibility to wildlife. And it looks so lovely, the cranberry strands and orange cups of birdseed hanging from the tree. We’ve been reading Jan Brett’s The Mitten every night and thinking about all the creatures in our backyard.

If I had any talent for sewing, I’d quilt an Advent calendar. My favorites are the fabric ones with pockets for little felted ornaments and candy canes. This year we have a beautiful paper one from my sister. Perhaps next year I’ll craft one from fabric…

How are your little ones changing? How do you celebrate the season?

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Thanksgiving

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Today I give thanks. For able hands to create with. Hands that can braid dough, hold a pencil, type these words, lift my child, change a diaper, shovel earth, wipe tears, wave hello, grip a steering wheel, strum a ukulele, cup water, peel a clementine, fold laundry, pet the cat, build sandcastles.

There’s so much I’m thankful for. A strong and loving partner. Our daughter, who will never cease to feel like a miracle. The precious and valuable gift of good health. Parents and stepparents, who are alive and well and vibrant. A big family I can always rely on. Sisters who I can turn to for anything. Friends who are like family. Two sweet kitties. Our house with its cozy front porch and old stone fireplace. First world luxuries so easily taken for granted like a dishwasher and washing machine and health insurance and a car. The beach. Salt air. Seasons. The freedom to express my thoughts, speak my mind.

And I’m so thankful for everyone I connect with in this space, the readers and writers and thinkers and creators. Thank you for taking the time to read and for sharing your thoughts with me–it truly means so much. I hope you all had a blessed day!

Molasses Cookies

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We began baking at 6:00 this morning. A double-batch of chocolate chip cookies, and then molasses cookies. The molasses are tricky. The recipe is from my grandmother’s original handwritten recipe, an ingredient list with measurements and oven temp. No instructions. But bright memories. She would always let me lick the molasses-coated spoon. The recipe is so sensitive, you have only to be in an off mood to botch the batch. So this morning’s achievement, that perfect crackle, the smell of cinnamon and ginger and cloves, was like my grandmother arriving in my kitchen. Her calm-busy-gentle essence filling the room as I roll the dough into little balls and cover them in sugar.

For the first time in years, we’re spending Thanksgiving at home. The week is bookended with travel–our trip on Monday, and then my husband’s trip to London on Sunday–so we decided to stay local. It feels so peaceful and relaxing to be home for the holiday. Tomorrow we’ll wake up with a morning fire, watch the Macy’s Day Parade, and bake the apple pie. Maybe I’ll even get some writing done.

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