life

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

Reclaiming My Bedroom—My Messy Beautiful

Glennon Melton of Momastery recently asked writers to post an essay about their messy, beautiful lives to celebrate the paperback release of her book Carry On, Warrior. I realize she’s using “messy” in reference to life’s big things—parenting, work, marriage, friendship, health. But I decided to take a literal spin on the project and write about one of my own messy beautifuls that I carefully hide behind a closed door—my bedroom.

For months, it’s been a disaster.

Something had to give. Every child goes through tougher periods and for Owen and James, 3 has been hard. With everyone in school in the mornings, I’ve tried to pick up a lot more freelance work. Thankfully, I’ve been successful. Unfortunately, it has taken me many months of 2am bedtimes and feeling like I was failing at stay-at-home parenting as well as freelancing before I allowed myself the grace of sometimes hiring daytime babysitters. I’ve had some odd health things going on, the latest of which requires light therapy treatments up in Cincinnati three times a week. My current life story is the same as all of our current life stories. We’re all busy (even when I try, daily, to live a life of not-busy). It just happens.

Still, something had to give.

So I threw in the towel (literally, into a pile of all the other clean clothes on the floor, waiting to be folded) on trying to maintain a clean bedroom.

It was so easy.

Sophie has a play date and I don’t want the kids getting into the paint? Throw it into the bedroom. Guests coming over and I don’t have time to properly put everything away? Throw it into the bedroom. Seasons change and I don’t have time to switch the clothes over? Stack the boxes in the bedroom.

I would go through and pick things up, put things away. But always there was a clothes basket filled with odds and ends that needed sorted and put away—wooden beads, game pieces, Barbie shoes, car wheels, a broken Nutcracker, loose change, a half-empty pack of wipes, mesh bags used when traveling, pencils that needed sharpened, too-small socks, too-big shorts bought on clearance, the extra contents of a purse acquired when I switched everything else of importance over to another one.

I wasn’t always like this. In my previous life I was managing editor at several magazines, a job that is based around organization. In my previous life I prided myself on having an always-cleaned-out fridge, an organized basement and books arranged alphabetically on my bookshelf. In my previous life I hung up my clothes by sleeve length with a nod toward the color wheel and sorted my M&Ms before eating them.

Children change you.

These days, I’m lucky if my clothes even make it to the closet. Turns out, when I have more than just my wardrobe to deal with, I’m terrible at laundry. Every morning, while sifting through the piles of washed-thanks-to-Andy-who-takes-care-of-that-every-time-he-video-games-in-the-basement-but-per-our-deal-I-never-actually-fold-and-put-away clothes I silently curse and swear I’ll fold everything that night. I continue silently cursing while ironing everyone’s outfits because everything is wrinkled and while giving up on matching socks because everyone has approximately three minutes to get to school before they will be considered late.

While lamenting to a friend about my laundry woes she mentioned that she was hiring a laundress. A laundress. It sounded so decadent, so Downton Abbyish. I daydreamed about my own laundress (a modern Cinderella came to mind) before coming back to the reality that some days the kids are going to have to play a board game (or five) without me and some nights I’m going to have to forgo freelance work and/or skip puttering around on the Internet, reading a book or watching a show.

There’s a threshold for everything. And last night, I reached mine.

Despite my freelance deadlines, despite the fact that I had pulled late nights two nights prior, despite the fact that I’m three episodes behind on “Parenthood,” I cleaned my bedroom.

And instead of dreading it, all day, I looked forward to it. All it took was some rethinking. I wasn’t cleaning my bedroom. I wasn’t giving up play time with the kids or my nightly TV show with Andy. I was reclaiming my bedroom. My beautiful bedroom I purposefully painted off-white and in which I hung floor-to-ceiling white drapes from Ikea to create a sense of calm. My beautiful bedroom with the huge leather chair I found on Craigslist, with the ribbon board my mom made for me years ago hung up behind it, filled with loved mementos, and the broken brushed-brass floor lamp next to it, held together with some twine—my reading nook I never used, because of the pile of clothes encroaching it. My beautiful bedroom with the queen-size bed that more often than not holds five instead of two, the same bed with the wedding album tucked underneath it, which Sophie loves to pull out and look through (when the room is clean enough for her to be able to). My beautiful bedroom with the two Target dressers I so desperately want to replace with antiques, the same dressers that now hold framed photos, alarm clocks and perfume bottles but for years held handmade burp cloths and breast pump parts and were decorated with rings of milk leftover from bottles. My beautiful bedroom with the handmade jewelry cabinet my uncle made filled with handmade jewelry my mother-in-law made. My beautiful bedroom with the non-working fireplace and gorgeous wood-and-mirrored-and-columned mantel that surrounds it, one of the key things that made me fall in love with the house before we even purchased it.

So I took out all the dirty clothes. And old water glasses. And gathered all the loose items and put them in their proper places, which took a ridiculous amount of time (and prompted a glass of wine). Then I turned on “Weeds” on Netflix and for two hours I folded. I folded all the clothes. All.of.them. And put them away.

I reclaimed my bedroom.

I reclaimed my office (which is my bed).

I reclaimed my reading nook and dusted off the pile of magazines next to it, noting the bookmark in my book that hasn’t been moved in weeks.

I reclaimed the floor, another play space in our small, old house.

I reclaimed my bed, which the boys immediately jumped into the next day insisting I make a cave with our down comforter and my arms and feet for them to play in.

I reclaimed my sanity. My sanctuary. The place I go to read. To write. To sleep. To be on my own. To be with Andy. To snuggle with the kids during a middle-of-the-night thunderstorm. To dress for the day ahead. To retreat after a day done well. To hide after a day done poorly. To be.

And now my door is wide open. I’m calmer, just thinking about it. I’ve already allowed myself grace, for when it will invariably get messy again. But I also have given myself permission to reclaim it more quickly. Life is easy when you can throw a bunch of stuff in a room during a super-quick cleanup and close the door. But it’s a short-lived easy. Because even though the rest of the house may be beautiful, there’s still a hidden mess to deal with (isn’t there always?). And already, this morning, I’ve learned this: Life is a whole lot easier when clothes are in drawers and all the socks match.

“I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.” —D.H. Lawrence

And now, a giveaway! The folks at Simon & Schuster were kind enough to send me a copy of Glennon’s book, Carry On, Warrior, which I would love to pass on to you. Simply post a comment telling me how you deal with laundry by Saturday, May 10. I’ll randomly choose a winner on Mother’s Day, and send it your way!

The Garland.

It’s February. Our Christmas garland is still hanging on our front porch.

Ever see the Everybody Loves Raymond episode titled “Baggage” (season 7)? In it, Ray and Debra return from a weekend trip and temporarily leave their suitcase on the staircase landing. Weeks pass with them both refusing to carry it the rest of the way, believing it is the other’s responsibility.

Their suitcase = our garland.

Everything else in our house Christmas related is packed away—the indoor decorations, the tree, the outside lights, the taped-to-the-bookcase Christmas cards—everything.

Except the garland.

Andy graciously, selflessly and in only a slightly (mostly) Grinch-like manner hung all the outdoor lights and garland. “It’s for the kids,” I told him when I handed him our new Dyno Seasonal Solutions St. Nick’s Choice Professional Pole for Hanging Lights, 16-Feet, which I ordered on Amazon this year.

I, in turn, took over all the indoor decorating.

After Christmas, I put away all the indoor decorations.

He took down and put away the Christmas lights but for some inexplicable reason, not the garland.

When I remind him of what he’s done and what I’ve done in regards to why he should take down and put away the garland, he’s quick to point out how he carried all the large Christmas bins all the way down from the attic.

I then remind him that I’m the one who shoved all the too-small clothes and extra hangers and beach towels out of the way on the attic stairs, creating a path so he didn’t fall and die. And then I remind him how I’m always the one to create stair paths all the time and it’s something no one gives me credit for, ever.

THEN he brings up the tree. The tree he says he had to trim in the house because I always pick one that’s much too tall, which I say he wouldn’t need to trim in the house if he had a better understanding of how tall our entryway is when we’re out in the field. THEN he says every year he’s the only one who does the lights and then I remind him that he doesn’t let anyone else do the lights because we don’t “push them in far enough” or something along those lines. AND THEN he says the kids help both of us hang up the ornaments so I shouldn’t get credit for that. “Help,” I say. “Yes, they help.”

Every weekend we make an idealistic to-do list of which we accomplish about 20 percent, on average. Every weekend since January 1 “take down the garland” has been on the to-do list and yet it never gets taken down.

Some days it was -5°. I get that. No one should be taking down garland in -5° weather. But this Saturday, it was 56°.

“If you want it taken down so badly, take it down,” he says, reminding me of how he took the tree out to the curb on our town’s tree recycling day, carried the decoration boxes back up to the attic and took down all the outdoor lights.

And then I remind him how I made our Christmas card list, updated all the addresses, ordered the cards from a friend, addressed and mailed them. I remind him how I did 95 percent of the Christmas shopping and 98 percent of the Christmas wrapping. (He reminds me of the “help” I had wrapping from the kids.)

And round and round and round we go.

And there our garland sits, for all to see, 40 days after Christmas.

“It’s growing on me,” he says. “I kind of like it.”

“We are that house!” I say. “We are totally that house.”

“So TAKE IT DOWN,” he says.

“It’s YOUR JOB!” I say.

And round and round.

I let him read this. “This isn’t even a fight!” he says adding something about “understating my arguments” and then adding something about how “it’s not even an argument.”

“Then what should I call it?” I say, changing the title from “The Garland Fight” to “The Garland.”

“A standoff. But it’s not even that! I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

I smile.

“So … tomorrow?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he says.

And round.

“In the early years, you fight because you don’t understand each other. In the later years, you fight because you do.” —Joan Didion

An Extra 24 Hours, Please

I think I saw on Facebook or on a blog or in an article or something somewhere about someone lamenting that people don’t tell the truth online. That lives are depicted as rosy perfect when, in reality, things are often messy (sometimes a happy mess, yes, but messy nonetheless).

This is just one of the piles in my house. And note that this is the right side of the desk. The left side isn’t pictured. (Also, I think it’s funny that the blue pamphlet sticking out, the one about needing an oil change, says OVERDUE in bold.)

I have piles of folded clothes and unfolded clothes all over my bedroom.

I (finally!) found a corner TV stand on Craigslist. It’s in a pile of pieces, in the basement, waiting its next coat of paint. As such, our TV is on the floor in our living room and our window seat is covered in piles of DVDs, cords, players, speakers and whatnot. (Turns out I should have held onto our old TV stand a little longer before selling it.)

There are piles of train tracks in the boys’ room.

There are piles of dolls in Sophie’s room.

The playroom is pretty much a big pile of stuff in and of itself.

I have piles of freelance work to do.

I have piles of picture book queries to send out (thanks to the piles of rejections I’ve received).

I have piles of e-mails to respond to.

I have 21 saved voicemails on my cell phone and I’m pretty sure I saved them all simply because they needed something more from me.

I’m drowning.

I know, I know, I know. Playing with my kids is more important than a clean home. But I’m not talking about dust-free baseboards here. I’m talking about being able to walk through my bedroom without tripping.

So there you have it. My Wednesday morning truth.

I hope, at the very least, to be treading water soon.

We’ll see.

Right now, someone stole a train from someone else and that someone else is screaming like a banshee, threatening with a plastic dinosaur.

Off I go.

“He was swimming in a sea of other people’s expectations. Men had drowned in seas like that.” —Robert Jordan

Sometimes

My orchid is blooming. It was a Valentine’s Day gift from Andy last year. We only do cards for Valentine’s Day, so it was unexpected, as are all good surprises. And it’s the first time an orchid I’ve owned has ever re-bloomed without me killing it first. Per the instructions, I put a couple ice cubes in the pot every few days—nothing more, nothing less.

I like to pretend I’m an optimist but I’m not. I was skeptical, so skeptical that once the first blooms fell to the marble tabletop and I cut the stems back, I pulled out the propping stakes. I remained skeptical as two new stems grew in deep curves, never properly staking them. And now the stems are heavy, bent with the weight of beautiful, bright white blooms.

Sometimes (a lot of times, if you look for it) good happens.

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen to you.” —Sheenagh Pugh

Today

Last night, tired of folding laundry, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom, back against my bed, opened my laptop and looked. I looked at the pictures of those who lost their lives at Sandy Hook and I cried heavy, messy tears. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know if it’s right to look at those children’s faces and whisper “I’m sorry” to the screen over and over and over (too many times over). But having spent all my time not crying in front of my children, I needed to mourn. So I noted a little girl’s ladybug wings and I thought about another little girl’s headband, how a parent had taken the time to adjust it just so, and then I read about the twin who lost her sibling and I cried heavier tears, messier tears until Andy came up (with more laundry to fold) and closed my computer.

“Stop,” he said. “Stop reading. Stop.”

I have never handled violence involving children well—not in books, not in film, certainly not in real life. Horrible things happen every day but this. This. This is almost too much for me to handle. And I write this as someone not directly involved. I write this not understanding how someone directly involved is supposed to handle such horror, such grief.

I’ve given money, signed several petitions and have read many articles, essays and opinions on all sides of the matter trying to form my own. I think it’s honorable to have the courage to take a tragedy and use it as a springboard to better our country and better ourselves. But I don’t claim to know how.

So while I don’t feel qualified to talk about how grieving loved ones must feel or the merits of gun control or the state of mental illness support in this nation (although I commend those who do speak up, with the hopes of bettering), I do feel qualified to talk about today.

Today I was one of the lucky ones. Today I was able to walk around with only a dull ache in my heart, like the buzz of a distant fly that follows you around the house, and surround myself with goodness.

Sophie and I dressed in our holiday finest and drove north, for a benefit concert to raise money for the Coleen Mangan Lunsford Memorial Library in Belmopan, Belize, a project close to our family’s heart.

There, in the church where my parents were married, where my sister was married, where my grandma volunteers countless hours …

where a beautiful, handmade cross dedicated to my Grandpa hangs …

and a large Christmas tree shines bright …

and greenery adorns the organ …

we listened to the voice of Richard Lewis fill the church with Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Adolphe Adam’s “Oh Holy Night.”

He was joined by vocalists and musicians Alex Wunder, Catherine Lewis, Ken McFarlan and Susan Trissell, with songs like “Let it Snow” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for a beautiful and needed release.

I read about Belize and the library project.

I bought homemade toucan cookies for my kids …

and T-shirts …

and raffle tickets for baskets filled with goodies (which Sophie managed to draw her own name for, and win).

We passed out programs.

My grandma helped give out handmade cookies and punch during intermission …

which Sophie enjoyed.

People from all over came …

to be with family …

and recognize the countless hours volunteers (largely my uncle Corey, Aunt Ann, and cousins Ben and Kelsey) have spent collecting books for children most of us will never meet and build a library for an elementary school most of us will never visit.

Sophie and I had to leave soon after the concert finished so that we could meet Andy, Owen and James, along with close to 30 of our friends (including many children) at Ferrari’s Little Italy for our annual holiday dinner. We were loud. Two tables were covered with pizzas and pastas and lasagna and salads and chocolate milk and glasses of beer and wine. There were crayons and Matchbox cars and books and swirly dresses and bottles and nursing covers and sippy cups and so much life.

I’ve long struggled with our messy, beautiful, horrific world. Although my eyes glistened while singing “Silent Night” with Sophie in church today, I struggle with religion, too. Still, I needed that moment. I needed to be surrounded by family and beauty in a place rich with history of things gone right.

When we came home from our holiday dinner, it was bedtime. Pajamas, toothbrushes, stalling, books, sips of water, lost blankets, found blankets, medicine for a fever. The sweet normalcy of bedtime.

Once my children were asleep, I got online, for the first time today. Rich-with-talent writer Eros-Alegra Clarke had posted a poem.

Try To Praise The Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.
(Translation: Renata Gorczynski )

I will try.

“I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.” —Charles Dickens

My Kitchen Salon

We often make bread in the bread machine. And mix milk and whipping cream together to make our own half-and-half. And we try, we really try, to never eat out but by never I mean at least once a week at around 6pm we look at each other, exhausted, and we look at the kids, screaming, and we go out.

We have our indulgences. We’ve given things up. And while I don’t think I could ever give up my haircuts with Nicholena at Mitchell’s Salon & Day Spa (see her at the Northgate location, especially if you have curly hair—she’s amazing), I did agree to give up professionally dyed hair purely for budgetary reasons.

Only recently has my mom encountered a few gray hairs on her head. My head, though, has hundreds of them. I’d like to blame my children but she had three children, too, and taught a classroom full of kindergartners for 30 years so I don’t know why she’s just now going gray and I’m long past the plucking stage.

I can’t dye my own hair. I’ve never tried, but I know it would be disastrous. I’m not good with hair. It took me a long time to discover product for my own hair (and my hair needs product). My friend Greg once asked me to cut his hair with seemingly fail-proof clippers in college. He ended up with a bald spot on the back of his head. My sister asked me to dye her hair in high school. I still feel bad about the red streaks that resulted.

So Andy and I made an agreement: I would stop having my hair professionally dyed and he would dye it for me.

And that’s what we do.

I like to pretend I hate it. My kitchen is not a fancy salon. In fact, it’s not even a fancy kitchen, what with its laminate, muddy brown floor and 1980s cabinetry and chipped laminate countertop. Every few months I pull one of the cheap Ikea chairs the kids use at our dining room table and scoot it next to the dishwasher. I grab an old towel—the same towel we use for Tucker’s muddy paws, sick kids and large spills—and, after taking off my shirt, I wrap it around myself securing it with a wooden clothespin. I pour a glass of wine and while the dishwasher cleans the night’s dinner plates next to me, I debate: Garnier Nutrisse Dark Brown or Feria Deeply Brown.

Andy weighs in, takes a picture of the top of my head with his cell phone so I can see the difference between the previous color and my roots. We decide. He opens the box and fights with the plastic gloves designed for women. I note the brown bananas on the plate on the counter and consider making banana bread. He pierces the “colorant” tube and squeezes its contents into the “developer” bottle. I look at the paper-plate ghost Sophie made in preschool, hanging on the refrigerator. It’s December, I think. I should switch that ghost out for the Christmas crafts she’s bringing home. He opens the “fruit oil concentrate” and adds it to the mix. I try to guess what the crumb is underneath my bare foot.

Then, Andy attacks. He goes about his job with great intensity in part, because of love (I like to think) and in part, because he knows if the outcome is not good I will insist on having it professionally color corrected, which I’ve informed him is more expensive than just an all-over color. He apologizes for constantly poking me in the head with the bottle. He lifts up large handfuls of hair and applies, applies, applies, swishing hair this way and that, up and over, back and forth (I have a lot of hair), muttering to himself. He runs out. Determines he needs another box to adequately cover. He remixes. He applies some more.

Throughout the process he breaks to wet a paper towel and dabs my face—a lot of my face, I always think—to rid my ears, forehead, cheeks, sometimes nose (?) of dye gone astray.

Always, when finished, he swoops up my heavy, wet hair (he uses two bottles, after all) into a pile on top of my head. He peels the gloves off his hands and sets the microwave timer for 25 minutes. He brings me my laptop. And I sit. And I wait.

There’s not a Vogue in sight. There’s no softly playing music. My towel is often itchy. I grow impatient.

The timer rings. I go up to the bathroom, checking on the boys who we just moved to twin beds. I turn on the fan, start the shower and rinse and rinse and rinse, until my fingers wrinkle and the water runs clear—and cold. I exit, put on on my flannel pajamas and sit next to Andy on the couch. He critiques his work. He points out the few grays he missed, the nonuniform color. I realize the hair blow dryer is tucked away in Sophie’s bedroom from her night’s bath and I debate risking waking her up to get it or going to sleep with a head full of wet hair.

My kitchen salon is not glamorous. And I would be lying if I said I never wished for a salon-color experience. But there’s beauty—different than salon beauty—in my kitchen, too.

And for that, I am grateful.

“By common consent gray hairs are a crown of glory; the only object of respect that can never excite envy.” —George Bancroft

Moments and Phases

This week, Sophie and I have had a tough week. Every “no” has been met with a “but.” Every request has come out as a demand. “Please” and “thank you” have all been but forgotten. One day she was whining so much I truly wondered if her whine voice was her new normal voice. I posted on Facebook, “Sophie had her moments when she was 2 and 3. But 4. Ohmygoodness 4. No one warned me about 4.”

Many people responded to my post. Some were dismayed to learn that it doesn’t, necessarily, get easier. Others warned me that, for them, the so-called difficult years were still to come. And then there’s my friend Aaron. He said, “Someday, we’ll get to an age when we look back on when our kids were young and we won’t be able to remember the stuff they did that made us age early. Until then, keep on keeping on! This is life.”

He’s right. Already, in my four short years of parenting, I can tell that it’s not years that are difficult. But phases.

Like the I-want-to-nurse-every-hour-and-I-will-scream-bloody-murder-if-I’m-not-attached-to-your-boob phase.

Or the I’m-going-to-pee-on-you-every-time-you-change-me phase.

Or the I’m-going-to-poop-12-times-a-day-in-a-rainbow-of-colors-to-totally-freak-you-out phase.

Or the I’m-not-going-to-poop-for-a-week-to-totally-freak-you-out phase.

Or the I-want-to-be-bounced-until-your-arms-are-burning-with-pain phase.

Or the I-want-to-be-wide-awake-between-2am-and-4am phase.

Or the I’m-going-to-put-everything-in-my-mouth-including-dead-bugs-and-stale-Cheerios-buried-in-my-car seat phase.

Or the I’m-going-to-pull-at-your-shirt-in-public-exposing-your-bra-to-everyone phase.

Or the I’m-going-to-take-away-all-your-“me”-time-by-requiring-your-assistance-forthreehours-to-go-to-sleep-every-night-for-a-month phase.

Or the I’m-only-going-to-eat-cheese phase.

Or the I-will-totally-and-completely-freak-out-when-you-leave-my-sight phase.

Or the I’m-going-to-insist-on-doing-everything-myself-even-though-I-can’t-quite-do-everything-myself-and-I’m-going-to-get-unreasonably-frustrated-when-you-try-to-help-me-or-you-don’t-try-to-help-me-and-I-fail phase.

Or the I-will-beg-you-to-read-the-same-book-to-me-12-times-a-day phase.

Or the I-will-beg-you-to-sing-“Old-MacDonald-Had-a-Farm”-to-me-12-times-a-day phase.

Or the I-will-run-into-everything-covering-myself-with-bruises-making-you-worry-that-someone-is-going-to-call-Child-Services-on-you phase.

Or the I-will-climb-everything phase.

Or the I-will-refuse-to-hold-your-hand-in-parking-lots phase.

Or the I-will-laugh-and-enjoy-it-when-you-put-me-in-time-out phase.

Or the I-will-draw-on-walls-and-not-paper-but-only-when-you’re-not-looking phase.

Or the I-will-draw-all-over-myself-with-non-washable-markers-that-you-can-only-blame-yourself-for-buying phase.

Or the I-will-take-off-my-socks-and-shoes-the-second-you-put-me-in-the-car-seat phase.

Or the I-will-suddenly-for-no-reasonable-explanation-become-terrified-of-the-dark phase.

Or the I-will-insist-on-picking-out-every-item-of-clothing-I-wear-every-day-and-I-will-make-sure-your-eyes-will-hurt-when-you-look-at-me phase.

Or the I-will-ask-“why”-over-and-over-and-over-and-over-and-over phase.

Or the  I-will-stand-against-the-wall-screaming-refusing-to-get-in-the-pool-for-any-of-the-expensive-swim-lessons-you-bought phase.

Or the I-will-stick-my-hand-down-my-diaper-even-when-it’s-dirty phase.

Or the my-nose-will-run-all-day-for-a-week-straight-requiring-you-to-chase-me-down-and-wipe-it-clean-while-I-scream-72-times-a-day phase.

Or the I-will-open-doors-I’m-not-supposed-to phase.

Or the I-will-push-things-into-the-pantry-so-I-can-climb-on-top-of-them-to-get-treats-I’m-not-supposed-to-have-at-9:30-in-the-morning phase.

Or the-I-will-yell-for-you-to-come-upstairs-threatening-to-wake-up-my-brothers-with-my-screams-22-times-over-two-hours-until-I-finally-fall-asleep phase.

Or the I-will-wake-up-at-6am-demanding-oatmeal-even-though-I-didn’t-fall-asleep-until-11pm phase.

Or the I-will-argue-every-time-you-say-no phase, which we are in, now.

And here’s the thing. They’re just phases. They end. They always end. Even when they feel like they will never end, they always end. And … a new one comes along.

But if that sounds depressing, here’s another thing. Interspersed between all the phases are moments. These incredible make-you-want-to-cry-with-joy-beam-with-pride-thank-God-or-the-universe-or-whatever-that-you-do-or-don’t-believe-in-that-you’re-alive moments.

Kicks from within.

Birth.

Falling asleep on my chest.

Unprompted smiles.

Unprompted kisses.

Unprompted hugs.

Unprompted I love yous.

A hand-drawn “family portrait.”

The first lone trip down the slide.

The first lone scooter ride.

The first walk into preschool.

Concern, for me.

Concern, for others.

Concern, for plants and animals.

A song sung quietly, completely, simply for the joy of it.

Holding hands without a fight.

Snuggles.

Conversations, real conversations.

Firsts. All the firsts.

Lasts. All the lasts.

Seemingly-insignificant-but actually-quite-significant betweens. All those catch-you-off-guard betweens.

And the many, many, many, oh-so many more.

The moments make it all worth it. And  in a way, the phases do, too. Because it all intertwines, wraps itself around each other and weaves in and out creating the tapestry we call life. Some of it’s good. Really good. Some of it’s bad. Really bad. But it is what it is and even though I had a column in my college newspaper called “Beautiful, Isn’t It?” I’m not going to lie here and say that it’s all beautiful. Because it’s not. In fact, some of it is downright ugly. But then, there are these beautiful, incredible, make-it-totally-worth-it moments. Moments that make us have more children. Moments that make us love when other people have children. Moments that make the human race continue on.

So Sophie and I are in a phase. The two of us sat down and talked about it. I had a glass of wine after she went to bed. We had a better day today. Tonight I got an unprompted I love you.

I hate the phases, while in them. I think, when I’m in a phase, I have to be the only person going through such a phase and I ask, over and over, Why is this so hard? And then I look back at the phases and think, That wasn’t so hard. I forget phases. I live for moments. I love moments. I remember moments. I look forward to moments, engrave moments in my brain, wish moments didn’t pass by so quickly.

Phases.

Moments.

Moments.

Phases.

It’s all just life. All my children will have phases this year, next year, 10 years from now, into adulthood. And yet, they will all have moments. These incredible, life-changing moments this year, next year, 10 years from now, into adulthood.

And I want them. I want the phases. I want the moments. I want them all. Because it’s a package deal with kids. You can’t pick and choose. The bad makes the good seem better. They’re human. I’m human. It’s life.

This is life.

And although I may not always be happy in it, I’m happy for it. So happy for it.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” —Frederick Buechner

 

In the Time it Took the Water to Boil

Andy came home. Both front doors were locked and I had no idea he was standing on the porch, on this blustery February day, peering through the window, trying to convince the children which way to turn the dead bolt. All three kids finally came running and screaming into the kitchen, where I was making simple spaghetti.

“Daddy’s home!”

I unlocked the door. Sophie insisted on doing the rest. What followed was the every-night pushing forward, jumping up, stepping in, arms reaching, tail viciously wagging chaos as James, Sophie, Owen and Tucker all competed to be hugged first.

Andy complimented my hair, even though it was a simple mess of curls piled on top of my head.

I checked the water.

Sophie begged Andy to play monster.

More chaos. Andy on all fours, roaring, roaming about the living room, taking children one by one and tossing them onto the window seat cushions (which had long been pushed onto the dining room floor) and tickling them until they begged him to stop. And then begged him to start again. Screams, laughter, roaring, barking for a good five minutes.

The water began to boil. The monster was tired. I listened to the house slowly quiet as I watched steam rise and disappear—much like the moment.

I held out my hand in front of me, watching as the steam floated upward through my fingers, wishing I could grasp the moment, catch it and put it in the handmade wooden puzzle box Andy gave to me years ago. The box that holds simple memories I’m able to keep outside of me—a dried wildflower picked from a patch of grass along a sidewalk we used to walk on often; a small origami bird made from a bright orange Post-it note; a tiny diamond earring, its match long gone.

I love big. I do. Often, while folding laundry, especially, I wish for more big. But would more big mean less small? If so, I take back my wish. I do.

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.” —Ashley Montagu

The Woman Staring Back At Me

I’m writing this having just washed my face with the Olay Professional Pro-X Advanced Cleaning System, which I’m sure required a lot of people and a lot of money to name but basically it’s a brush for your face that spins thanks to batteries (and it’s wonderful). And then, I liberally applied Olay’s Wrinkle Smoothing Cream.

I’m not old. I get irritated when people in their 30s and 40s and 50s say they’re old. And, considering I like to think we’re all going to live to 100, even though I know that’s not true, people in their 60s and 70s also aren’t old—not when they have 30 to 40 more years to live.

And while I’m sensitive about some parts of my physical self, wrinkles are not one of them. Laugh lines show a life well lived. I’m much more interested in doing whatever it takes to be a part of this world as long as possible (I’m ashamed to say how enamored I was with Tuck’s life in the well-loved childhood novel). I, honestly, don’t care how many wrinkles I have near the end of it. That said, the cream came with the whole brush kit, which is part of my I-should-really-wash-my-face-and-take-out-my-contacts-every-night resolution this year. And, why not? It feels good on my face and if it delays the inevitable a little longer, so be it.

Still, something happened tonight, on the eve of my turning 33. I looked at that tiny glass container of wrinkle cream sitting on the shelf and then I closed the medicine cabinet door. There was a woman staring back at me. Not a baby or a little girl or a teenager or a young adult. But a woman. Someone who is no longer ID’d at bars. Someone who is called “ma’am” on a regular basis. Someone who feels awkward shopping at Forever 21. And the woman startled me.

She shouldn’t have. I’ve lived with her my entire life. It’s not as if I changed overnight. Yet tonight, staring at myself, if felt that way. So often I think of myself as 17. Or 22. Or 28. I’m baffled by the fact that classmates are planning our 15-year high school reunion. I forget that I didn’t graduate from college last year. Or the year before. But that it was years, many years, ago. Sometimes, when I dream, I’m still a child, living with my parents and siblings at home. And I wake up, shocked, a little, at the fact that I own my own home. That I’m married. That I have children, these little people who sort of look like me and depend so dearly on me. And still, in my mind, my face is 10, 15 years younger. Growing up, as a little girl, my parents were in their 30s. That doesn’t seem so long ago. And if it wasn’t so long ago, how can I now be in my 30s? How does that happen?

I know 30 years from now I’ll look in the mirror and have similar thoughts, thinking of myself in my 30s, wondering where the time has gone. And I hope, 30 years from then, I’ll be doing the same.

But some nights, the realization is just so startling. And bittersweet. And like most moments in life, nothing big happened tonight. Rather Andy and I watched two episodes of “Downton Abbey.” I drank a glass of wine. I watched, as a white wooden door, smudged with fingerprints, closed on a small glass jar of wrinkle cream only to reveal someone I think, deep down, I considered as my future self. And yet she’s here, now. Shocking, yes. But also comfortable, too. For I know her well. Sometimes too well, for I think we all tire of ourselves at one point or another.

But this wasn’t a realization of sadness or regret or depression. Rather, acceptance. I’m a “ma’am” now. I may very well be construed as someone’s mother in Forever 21. I’m a mom now, and not even a new mom now, but a mom now. My wedding ring has made what seems to be a permanent dent in my finger. I’m a woman who smears wrinkle cream on her face at night, prepping for the what-ifs, the tomorrows. Of which I’m thankful to have had so many of, and of which I’m anxious to have so many more. And I can—and can’t—wait for my next moment of realization, of a changed me, staring back at me. Who am I to become? Who are any of us to become? That’s one of the many delights of this world, and it’s a delight I cherish greatly.

Still, I imagine I’ll buy more wrinkle cream, even when the jar that came with my brush kit runs out. For as startling as it is for me to see it in my cabinet, I find it comforting to cling to something that feels like it has the ability to slow down time, even if it doesn’t.

“Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”  —Samuel Ullman