I Know That You Know (And When You Know That I Know, Still There Will Be Magic)

I love this season of innocence. Even when it’s not so jolly. This weekend we cut down our Christmas tree and I was reminded of the look on Owen’s face in a picture I took last December, a picture I now love.

I was reminded of how hard things were mid-December, last year. How un-jolly it all was, during that particular week. And nothing tragic or life-altering happened. Rather, life happened. Sickness. Deadlines. Tantrums. Rejections. And then I was reminded how Christmas, still, ended up being magical.

This week a friend and I briefly chatted over email about the difficulties that come with parenting when so much in the world seems wrong. Bigger wrongs than colds that will end. Deadlines that will result in paychecks. Tantrums that exist because we’re lucky enough to have a child. Rejections that happen because I was able to write some words on a page. But it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of the holidays when beauty is so very much lacking elsewhere. So many elsewheres.

But kids, they make it easy. Easier.

They make it harder, too, yes, but mostly easier.

This week we decorated our too-big Christmas tree (if you turn sideways you can walk from our entry into our living room). And when we were nearly done, I looked over to see Owen sitting on the bottom step of our staircase, staring at the tree with the most content smile on his face. His eyes reflected the tree lights like something out of a Hallmark special. All was right in his world. All was bright. Despite.

I know Sophie knows about Santa. She doesn’t know I know. She’s not ready. She’s guarding the knowledge tight in her fists, much like she does when she hunts for fairies. She’s unwilling to let go.

At first, this bothered me, She’s 7. I had it all figured out at 5. In one fell swoop I learned about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. The sadness was slight, that of a soft sigh. And then I relished in knowing a secret my siblings did not. I felt grown-up.

The boys drill me about Santa constantly. “How does he get down our chimney if it’s closed up?” “How does he sneak around the hallways of apartment buildings and hotels?” “What about kids who don’t have a fireplace?” “If books say Santa goes all over the world then what about people who don’t celebrate Christmas? How is he going all around the world if many people in other parts of the world don’t celebrate Christmas?”

I half-answer. Change the subject. Wish they would just come out and ask, “Is Santa real?” And when they do I plan to answer as my parents did. “What do you think?” I’ve learned that coming to conclusions on one’s own always softens the blow.

But no one asks. Not the boys. Not Sophie. Sophie doesn’t even ask questions about the Big Man anymore. She answers the boys’ questions. She has an answer for everything. She’d scream his reality from the rooftops if she could. And so I let her. That is her realization to come to. Not mine to take. At least, I hope that’s the right thing to do.

And when they know, they all know, and they know that I know they know, I’ve learned this: I’ll still find magic. Because even with all of our life’s little wrongs and the world’s big wrongs, there’s so much magic, and innocence, during the holidays.

There’s the taste of bacon-wrapped chestnuts and buckeye candies and fancy cheeses we don’t normally buy and champagne. There are candles and white lights and colored lights and twinkly lights and just so much light. There are thoughtful gifts, homemade gifts, the gift of time spent with those we love. There are three kids singing the wrong words to Christmas songs while I play on our out-of-tune piano, rusty in my memory, missing notes. There are messes. So many big, beautiful messes. Christmas cookie-making messes. The mess of pine needles everywhere, always, no matter how often we water the tree. The mess of wrapping gifts in brown paper and decorating them with stickers and markers and glitter pens. The mess of making a quadruple recipe of Chex Mix and the mess of addressing too many Christmas cards and the mess of extra coffee cups in the morning when family comes in from out of town. And with those messes come the hugs. So many hugs. Great-grandmother hugs. Grandparent hugs. Sibling hugs. Aunt and uncle hugs. Parent hugs. Cousin hugs. Niece hugs. Husband hugs.

So during the holidays, I let in cheeriness and maybe even a little cheesiness. I let in some make-believe. I let in some sappy moments despite the realities both at home and out in the hard, beautiful, cold and light-filled world. I let myself soften while watching a little guy sit on the steps and stare with a small smile at a decorated tree. I let another little guy question me incessantly about the logistics of Santa’s big night. I let a 7-year-old think that I think she still believes.

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”
—Norman Vincent Pe

A Hike in November

Although Kentucky’s election results aren’t proving promising, we were gifted today with the most lovely November weather—75° and sunny. And so, after voting, we did what we love to do but don’t do nearly enough—we hiked. (This time, the Fort Thomas Landmark Tree Trail.) We slid on leaves, observed moss and mushrooms, and stood still as statues while engaging in a staring contest with a deer.

” …I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, 10 October, 1842

“I am struck by the simplicity of light in the atmosphere in the autumn, as if the earth absorbed none, and out of this profusion of dazzling light came the autumnal tints.” —Henry David Thoreau, 12 October, 1852

Dia de los Muertos

Today is Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. It’s a tradition I’ve long been aware of, but only halfheartedly.

Recently the children and I have been attending First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati. It’s a good solution for our family. Andy is an atheist. I’m agnostic. I wanted something that exposed my children to many different beliefs, something that focused on ethics, morality and community. This is First UU’s mission statement: “Our urban Unitarian Universalist community celebrates and supports one another on our spiritual and ethical paths. We work for justice, dignity and respect for the web of life.”

Lovely, no?

(UUs aren’t fans of proselytizing, so I’ll stop here. Except to say that for me, it feels like home.)

Sunday we celebrated Dia de los Muertos, which is apparently a First UU tradition. Because I’m not great at reading emails, I thought only children were asked to bring a photo of a loved one who has died. Sophie, blessedly, only mourns two living things now dead—my parents’ dog, Holly, and my sister and her family’s turtle, Shane. She drew a picture.

Sunday’s service, both in English and Spanish, followed the story of Rosita y Conchita, a picture book by Eric Gonzalez and Erich Haeger. Throughout the reading, the congregation was invited to bring up offerings for a deceased loved one—their picture, their favorite food, a flower and a cherished memento. For those who didn’t bring anything, candles were lit.

Slowly, a beautiful altar was made, filled with framed color photographs and black-and-white pictures, drawings, lit candles and so many small objects—a pear, a candy bar, single flower stems, a music box, a straw hat, a figurine. It was an altar covered in so much sweet, unspoken sentimentality I grew teary eyed for those I never knew.

Sophie took up her picture of Holly and Shane. When we were asked to bring up favorite food, I whispered to her that we should have brought lettuce for Shane. “And socks for Holly,” she said. It was a memory I had forgotten—the kids all handing my dad their dirty socks so he could stuff them in his pockets so Holly wouldn’t eat them.

I think at 36 I should be at peace with the concept of death. I’m not. But I find beauty in the many varied ways we humans acknowledge it, respect it and work our way through it.

So today I look at Dia de los Muertos differently. I think of the mementos I would place—a slice of peach pie, a small International toy tractor, a loved library book, a stuffed cat, a picture of my boys being tackled with a pillow, a ring with my name carved into it, a piece of sheet music covered in penciled-in notes, two dates written on a piece of paper, a perfectly written thank you note, a name of someone I would have loved to have met, a leash, fabric from a pair of khaki pants.

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” —Marcus Tullius Cicero

An Act of Love, in the Middle Years

Sophie is 7 now, and in the fall she will start second grade. We don’t really talk about Facebook at home but somehow she knows about it (school, friends, the life she’s now living for 6+ hours on her own Monday through Friday) and lately, when something funny or charming or sad or uplifting happens she says, “Don’t post that.” And this took me by surprise, so much so that I pretty much gave up blogging altogether, not sure how to handle writing about my life while at the same time respecting her—and the boys’—privacy.

But I think mothers, in general, tend to forget we also live our own lives and that even aside from the dishes and laundry and outside freelance work and capping of markers and wiping up toothpaste from inside the sink we have interesting stories to tell.

That and my husband, long ago, said I could post anything I wanted to about him.

A door open.

I walked down the street to a friend’s house for a few drinks and conversation tonight, after the kids were in bed. (To be fair, only one was in bed so I was “getting out of” two bedtime routines.) I was reluctant to go, though. We had had a lovely early evening at our local YMCA as a family, swimming at the pool. We went out for dinner, a treat, did a 20-minute clean-up at home and then Andy pulled out his dusty guitar and played songs on the porch while I sipped wine.

I had put Owen to bed (who had gotten in trouble for not helping with the 20-minute cleanup, so he had to go to bed early although I stayed with him and rubbed his back until he fell asleep, which makes me think he got away with a pretty nice punishment, all said). Sophie and James were running around in the backyard. Almost-summer at dusk. It was idyllic. Andy finished up a song and I said, “I really should go.”

I walked to my friend’s house while he put James and Sophie to bed.

Cut to midnight.

I was walking home, less than a mile, when I ran into the girlfriend of our neighbor who lives in an apartment connected to an automotive repair shop behind our house. She was distraught, as she couldn’t find her dog, Camouflage. She said she had no voice left from calling his name for two hours. So I walked with her and hollered for Camouflage, at a level I deemed loud enough for her but quiet enough for our sleeping neighbors.

I should note that we’ve had issues with her boyfriend, who lives behind us. Also, my friend was texting me, asking me if I was home yet. I worried about my situation.

We couldn’t find Camouflage. She asked if I could drive her. I have a strict “one drink” personal policy when driving rule. So I said, “no.” But then I added that my husband possibly could.

So she walked with me to our house, and I invited her in. The kids were asleep and Andy was in the basement, playing Xbox. I walked down, careful not to trip on our dirty laundry. I explained the situation. The look on his face …

And yet, he went. He looked for a flashlight, he put on his shoes, he gave me (another) look, but then he found the keys. And he invited her into his car.

He drove around for a half-hour plus.

They didn’t find Camouflage.

But he tried.

Marriage is tough, and three young children with their child demands can make it even tougher. But then, you walk home at midnight with the girlfriend of a neighbor your husband has had issues with, and you ask your husband to drive said girlfriend around to look for a lost dog. And he goes. And you think, know, that while he’s doing it a little for her, possibly not-at-all for the neighbor, and a lot for the dog, he’s mostly doing it for you.

That’s love.

We haven’t taken a solo vacation in years. I regularly forget to tell him important things involving both of us, our kids, our life. Sometimes he comes up to bed late at night only to find me sleeping in our bed, arms wrapped around one, two, maybe three children, and he simply goes back downstairs and sleeps on the couch.

And yet we love. In varied ways.

We make a banana cream pie on a Tuesday night. We drive someone around at midnight, hoping to find a lost dog. We make do. We make up. We make right.

So here’s to all of you muddling through the young-child years of marriage. And here’s to all of you who respond to unreasonable requests. And here’s to all of you who work for love, understanding that it’s simple, even when it seems that it’s not.

“Love one another and you will be happy. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.” —Michael Leunig

Things That Have Recently Upset My Children

• He discovered he had hair on his arms (Owen).

• The framed picture on his bedside table shows him wearing long sleeves and long pants, but he wants to be wearing short sleeves and shorts—in the picture (James).

• Snow got into his mitten (Owen).

• Only half the puppy tattoo stuck to her hand (Sophie).

• There is no more cantaloupe, despite the fact that they just finished eating an entire cantaloupe in one sitting (James and Owen).

• My birthday comes before his in the calendar year (Owen).

• I asked him not to use our living room windowsill as a trash can (James).

• She was rude to her brother so I quietly asked her to be kind. This resulted in Tuesday being “the worst day of her life—ever” (Sophie).

• He found out that just because the calendar says March 1 doesn’t mean warmer weather or that it’s a pass to wear shorts and no coat every time he goes outside (James).

• I told them we have to pick up Sophie from school (James and Owen).

• I told him he couldn’t eat toast in bed (Owen).

• I asked them to help pick up the carnival, which had a face-painting booth, magic booth, craft booth, game booth, nail-painting booth, racing hallway and dance area, and took over the entire upstairs, because it was their idea to make it (all three).

• He stepped on a Lego, which he left out (Owen).

• She stepped on a marble, which she left out (Sophie).

• I told them (again) that they have to flush the toilet (all three).

• I asked him not to draw all over the pages I was editing for a freelance assignment (James).

• We stopped the play, which was extending past bedtime, after 13 acts (Sophie).

• I made a rule that he couldn’t wear shorts to preschool when it’s below 20° (James).

• Tucker ate almost all the candy out of the candy basket, which I asked her to put away so Tucker wouldn’t get into it (Sophie).

• I told him we couldn’t drive to the beach. At 3:42pm. On a weekday (Owen).

“Anger is short-lived madness.” —Horace

Seeking the Bigness in the Everyday

I find comfort in the cyclical nature of life. I enjoy the changing of the seasons and the familiar promises they bring, the rhythm that accompanies the turning of the calendar page, the knowing that with the unknowing future there will always be some sameness—weather, holidays, birthdays, school seasons, work seasons, sports seasons, the coming and going of birds.

But it’s the cyclical nature of the everyday that I find myself struggling with during these so-quick-to-become-dark winter months. I recently came across a passage from Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin:

“I always wondered why the makers leave housekeeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn’t it what all the great wars and battles are fought for—so that at day’s end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn’t say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege and under the tyranny of the Alds. When the heroes came back from the mountain, they were welcomed with a feast. I’d like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.”

There is nothing exciting about washing the morning’s skillet or feeding the dog. It is completely foolish to expect someone to say “good job” when folding the tenth T-shirt or cleaning up the spilled applesauce. Housekeeping and cooking are background actions, set decorations for all the big moments and big conversations in all the big movies, big books and big plays. And often, it’s not even shown. It’s just expected, just there, as it has been throughout time. It’s a given that sheets will be changed and the almost-empty-toothpaste tube will be replaced and the apples will be sliced and that someone will wash the cups over and over and over again to quench the thirsty characters.

People talk about housekeeping but so often in the form of funny memes, a woman dressed in Victorian garb slumped in a chair, one hand across her forehead and the other holding a glass of wine. Or they say, “a clean house is the sign of a misspent life.” Perhaps to an extreme. But realistically, away from the fantasy world that exists online, you have to wash the cups. You have to clean up the spilled applesauce. You have to do the laundry so that your family may have clothes to wear.

I have long lived a life of always wanting more. There are flaws with this philosophy. While this want pushes me to keep sending out submissions (for example) it also makes mopping the floor, at times, so damn hard. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally. And yet, I truly believe it is the men and women who do this quiet work without acknowledgement or praise, and, more importantly, without needing acknowledgement or praise, that keeps everything in motion. In kitchens and over fires and in restaurants around this world people are chopping vegetables and cooking rice and baking bread to feed the mouths of our thinkers and doers and better-makers, and without those choppers and cookers and bakers our thinkers and doers and better-makers would be busy prepping food to nourish themselves versus doing the big work. And so, thinking about it in that way, perhaps we are all doing big work, even when that work is simply mopping the floor.

So I find myself searching for contentment in this stage, this cycle of my life. Yes, there will always be laundry to do and meals to prepare but with three little ones, it’s so much more. It’s more time-consuming, more things to do every day, more trying when accomplishing small tasks against the background noise of other needs—to play, to get some milk, to fasten a Batman cape, to find a lost glue stick.

And, in a frustrating-yet-funny way, I know I will miss this, too. When Owen and James were babies I would spend at least a half hour every night washing bottles. It was exhausting, all that washing when I was so exhausted from lack of sleep. Just the other day, while washing cups, I remembered the feel of the bottles’ squishy nipples in the soapy water, and I remembered the small joy I got from lining everything up just so as they dried. The entire house may have been a mess but there were my bottles and breastpump parts, lined up by shape and size, drying, waiting for the long night ahead. And those rows, in that moment, gave me more peace than a poem, science, an idea, an article, a big thought.

Owen loves to help me with laundry. It takes longer, but I don’t mind. He talks to me about school and classmates and TV shows and asks me big questions about life as he hands me shirts and pants, and takes it upon himself to put all the socks in a separate basket.

All three children love to help me cook. They ask so many questions and argue over whose turn it is to pour and they inhale the scent of vanilla and cinnamon as if nothing in this world smells better. And when cooking alone I often, lately, find joy in that, too. The sound of my knife slicing through the shallot on the wooden cutting board. The smell of garlic browning in olive oil. The contentment that comes when lighting the candles for a dinner I’m so lucky to share with those I love.

Still, often it’s difficult to embrace and appreciate and do what’s necessary for this small and short life of ours to keep cycling while also leaving plenty of time for the bigness of everything else that’s life. But it helps me to think that even the small tasks may really be the big things, the sturdy framework for the finished product, the clean canvas for the masterpiece, the organized outline for the great novel. These thoughts, I hold dear while dumping the dirty water down the drain.

“You’ll come to learn a great deal if you study the Insignificant in depth.” —Odysseus Elytis

It’s 2°.

We did not walk.

“[W]hat a severe yet master artist old Winter is …. No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel.” John Burroughs

Links I Love

• Maison Mobile for a Steal: I added this ($7.97!) mobile to a Christmas order and just got around to hanging it up. I’ve long-loved papercuts and this one is absolutely charming. The paper that came with it said it’s created by ige. She has several other gorgeous papercut mobiles, as well as other items, on her site.

• Free-climbing El Capitan: I remember watching tiny people dots climb up the side of El Capitan while on a family vacation to Yosemite years ago. A life goal of mine is to climb (the now traffic-jammed) Half Dome, but the end alone scares me. I just can’t imagine doing what this team is doing.

• Panoramic View of the Andromeda Galaxy: Look. Contemplate. Zoom. Contemplate some more. Repeat.

Cephalovepod Letterpress Valentines: Consider backing my friend Eric Mersmann’s Kickstarter project and receive these beautifully strange cards to give to loved ones for Valentine’s Day.

Old House Dreams: Do you remember my post about the Porter House? I recently found this site, liked it on Facebook and now I get to see links of houses just like the Porter House in my newsfeed weekly. (Andy’s not pleased.)

• Why the World Smells Different After It Rains: Did you catch this article, posted late summer? Petrichor.

This Is How to Draw Spider-Woman As a Hero Rather Than a Sex Object: My boys are all-in in terms of super heroes these days. Loved this.

Forty Portraits in Forty Years: Gorgeous.

Whoorl’s Capsule Wardrobe: 37 items, including shoes. I’m intrigued. Although I fear if I did something like this, I’d just end up shopping to “complete” my capsule in order to make it work. Still, intrigued.

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson

Thoughts While Putting Away My Children’s Toys

I recently read Maura Quint’s “The Entirety of My Thoughts As I Eat My Son’s Mac and Cheese Dinner,” cleaned my children’s bedrooms and closet-size playroom, and was then inspired to write this:

Didn’t 4 year olds work in fields 150 years ago? Probably not. That actually sounds awful. But still, mine should at least be capable of putting Chutes and Ladders back in its box, right?

I hate Chutes and Ladders.

They have too many toys. I should donate half of them. Most of them. All but three of them.

Why are there candy wrappers stuffed in the Lego bin?

I am not their maid. A maid would be so nice. And a laundress. And a chef. And a personal trainer. Definitely a personal trainer.

I wonder how many calories I’m burning shoving stuff in bins. I should get one of those Fitbits. Or actually go to the Y. They can play with toys in Child Watch. Toys I don’t have to deal with. I wonder if I can find a place to hide and read in the Y while they play in Child Watch.

Another capless marker, wasted. That’s it. No more markers. Ever.


Huh. A Barbie shoe. I thought surely I had vacuumed all those up by now.

Why are there 76 pieces of paper with one line drawn on each of them?

I’m going to have to hide these in the recycling bin to avoid the apocalypse that will surely happen if they find out I’ve recycled their one-line masterpieces.

Maybe my children are hoarders. Maybe there’s a mental issue here. I should email the pediatrician.

I will never allow their rooms to get this messy again. Maybe I should try the Saturday Box. Or the Marble Jar. Or the Popsicle Stick Jar. Or the Reward Chart. I should check Pinterest.

Or maybe I just get rid of it all. I mean, seriously, they’re downstairs playing with empty boxes. Empty. Boxes.

Isn’t it monks who find joy in everyday tasks? I don’t think monks have children, though. They’ve never had to deal with 8,000 .$97 Matchbox cars. Or Rainbow Loom bands. Or Perler Beads. I hate Perler Beads.

I wonder what my friends are doing at work. I bet they’re wearing heels. I bet they had a salad with some kind of candied nut on it for lunch. I bet, after a meeting, everyone picks up their papers and pens and tablets and coffee mugs and puts them away, without any reminders or timers or let’s-see-how-fast-we-can-get-this-done games.

All these crayons are broken and worn down to little nubs. They really need some new crayons. I should get some the next time I’m at the store. And markers. And glue sticks.

At least we’re out of the finger paint stage. Those were some colossal messes.

Gosh, I miss those finger paint pictures on the fridge. Why do they have to grow up so fast?

[SILENT CURSING. A LOT OF IT.] I will not miss the Legos on my bare feet. I don’t care how crazy creative they get with their creations I will not miss those pain-inducing little pieces of plastic.

Why do people even buy Legos anymore? It’s not like they break. Or get old. Where are all the Legos people have been building with since, when were Legos invented, the 70s?

Probably in the trash. Probably parents stepping on them and throwing them, one by one, in the trash.

I actually love that they got Legos for Christmas. They play with them for so long. So much silence for such long periods of time. I should send the Lego company a thank-you note.

Our house cannot handle any more toys. Can I tell people not to buy toys? Is that rude? Is that too minimalist? Is that too Grinch-like? My children do not need any more toys.

We should become minimalists.

Well, minimalists with a few toys. Five each.

But then there’s March. I hate March. How many toys will it take to entertain them indoors in March?

I need more bins.

“And this mess is so big
And so deep and so tall,
We cannot pick it up.
There is no way at all!” —Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

Happy 1st Birthdays, friends!

It has been so fun to watch two dear friends raise twins. Early 2014 we celebrated their birthdays. Happy 1sts, Anya, Isaac, Colin and Vivienne!

“There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared: twins.” —Josh Billings