Before we had the house upstate I often felt annoyed by the way any life out of doors in the city had to be shared. One could never be alone outside. A walk, a run, a bike ride, a picnic--all had to be done in the mix of sharing space with over 10 million people. I felt all squirmy and irritated and invaded. I wanted that still, quiet feeling of being alone with trees and wind and empty space. I wanted to be able to walk alone with my thoughts without bumping into three people I know per block. We've never had our own yard in Brooklyn as some people do, but even if we did have one I think I'd always be aware of the five other yards abutting it and the windows facing down on me, of being enclosed rather than free.
Now that we have the green and purple house we hate to miss any chance to be there and feel that great space all around us. Declan and I took our longest walk in the woods to date, after 3 years of having the house, meandering through all the different terrains and finding all sorts of treasures like a Bridge to Terabithia-like mammoth tree bridge, a tree with crazy roots like curled sinister witches fingers, the skull of a deer we found dead last year (hunters, we think), and a mysterious road that led into a giant field filled with exploding milkweed pods. We stayed a long time, blowing the silk and seeds into the wind, watching the turkeys cluck away through the tall grasses and the lone hawk circling above, and then found our way back home by the landmarks we'd selected. Nary an "I'm tired, I'm scared, I'm bored, can we go home now?" was uttered. Instead, "that was a really fun walk."
But I also notice the total absence of communal living that comes with the city. The self-reliant, secret-driveway, life-in-the-woods-away-from-civilization experience gets a little lonely for a city girl. I miss the sharing of space, the ways our lives come together with others constantly--at the schoolyard, the market, the coffee store with the tables in back that's our home away from home, in the parks we've going to since infancy, on our stoop and along our block where we have lemonade stands and ride our bikes and scooters, and so on. As life overflows out into the public spaces we all feel richer. It's all ours. It's a curious thing to go from feeling deprived because of the sharedness to now feeling a surplus of ownership. And this even when we still live all crammed into our tiny third-floor walk-up with three kids!
One of my favorite city times is going to the green market in Grand Army Plaza on Saturday, filling bags with fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese and bread and apple cider, and then walking into Prospect Park, putting down a blanket, and hanging out, eating the goodies, with everyone else on the great lawn, looking up at the tall buildings ringing the brilliant, sumptuous green space around us.
This is what we did a couple weekends ago. Down together on the grass, eating apples and playing baseball and horsing around, feeling that special thrill of being able to go minutes from our apartment to the great outdoors that belongs to all of us. Here, there was nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, and so we were just in this one time and place, filling it out. Eva ate a peach, Declan practiced his fly ball catching, Mairead took apart my wallet, Tim got mauled, and we all watched the enormous family congregating under the next tree unpack and create a first-birthday party for the screaming baby girl, watched a couple play an aggressive game of volleyball, the guys on the hill fly their kites, and two girls laughingly bringing their cat out for a stroll on a leash. It was good to be around all of them, together but separate. It's funny how it not only makes you more aware of your own unit-ness as a family, and also reminds you of how much a citizen of a larger collective you are. I miss that in the country.
These days are over.
It started about a week ago, the change of policy regarding the spoon. But I didn't get the memo. I was too busy concocting a whole assortment of homemade baby foods--pureed sweet potatoes, zucchini, red lentil soup, and chili (all of which we were eating unpureed)--and things to mix with it--fresh ricotta, yogurt, tofu. Meanwhile, however, M. was quietly moving her game piece along the board of independence.
By this past weekend she would only eat what she could pick up and gum herself. Any sighting of the spoon would prompt an immediate clamping shut of the lips and the hand sign for "all done," which is a quick moving the hand from side to side as if polishing a table. She also does this sign, with two hands, when you try to change her diaper or put her in the stroller. The other children could be jollied into thinking they had scored a point for independence by giving them a spoon of their own to hold while I shoveled the usual food--chosen by me--into their mouths. But Miss M., without any noise or fuss, has made it clear that any outside involvement with her eating will be met with zero tolerance. Somehow you just know it's best to give up.
It's not dissimilar to the way in which she has calmly but unequivocally refused to have anything to do with crawling. She just never made a move when put on her belly, and then started trying to pull herself up and walk. Now when she is awake she will barely submit to sitting--her legs will not bend--and instead demands to be walked everywhere while holding on to someone's two hands, leaving a ruin of broken backs in her wake.
So, we started fishing the beans and pieces of diced sweet potato out of our chili and putting them on her tray along with anything else we could find that was soft. And today I made rice and roasted sweet potatoes and some overly steamed carrots and zucchini and bought tofu and wheatgerm, which I will use to make her some jumjills, which are little balls of soft, combined foods fed to a bad, vain, doll-eating monster by a kind old man hoping to stop the doll-eating, in the book The Funny Thing.
So, I have an eight-year-old who still likes me to dress him, a four-year-old who still nurses, and a nine-month-old who wants to walk and feed herself and barely cares about nursing but instead wants to race out of her babyhood and into her future.
Another round to Mairead!
The uncanny and unthinkable and un-metabolizable intruded on the usual hummings of life this week: the news that a child in D's 3rd grade, a child we've known for years and who's mother I had just passed the day before on the street, receiving one of her boisterously cheery smiles as she bobbed by, had been killed when struck by a truck while riding his bike with his father.
Since first hearing the news on Sunday morning while the kids played furiously in the fiercely bright sunshine at the edge of land where Brooklyn meets New York harbor, the statue of liberty in the distance, I have felt a long, slow, weight, like the descent of a heavy stone in the deepest of water, sink down through my gut. It feels like the week has gone on for a month.
Everywhere I've turned I've seen tears and sad faces. The schoolyard, the halls of the school, the streets where I endlessly bump into my friends who are their friends, the coffee store where they knew them, the bakery, my son's drum teacher who is roommates with the boys piano teacher, my friend at the knitting store who taught his mother pilates, my littlest daughter's music class teacher who taught all my children, and her son, and it just goes on and on and on. None of us can fathom how they can survive the loss of their only child. Everyone is just mute and dumbfounded by the mass sadness. And wondering what to do, what can be done, for us and for them. And wondering how to help our own children deal with it.
Unfortunately, mourning has been the theme of the summer for me, and this only intensifies it, especially with the memorial service for my stepfather coming up in a little over a week. I never really knew before how grief and mourning feel--it had been so long since I was a child and my grandparents died--and how mysteriously they can work, and keep working at the edges of one's life, and then stealthily back into the center and then back out again, like a vapor. I know this community will be working on this for a long time.
It's interesting to experience what it's like for a small town, as this big-city neighborhood really is, to have this kind of tragedy hit. So many people who live so closely together are affected. You can't get away from it. And neither can the parents get away from all the people and places that remind them of their son. I grew up in a giant city, Manhattan, and moved about 10 times before I left for college, so many neighborhoods hold memories for me, but anonymity felt like the norm. You were alone with your pain. But here, you are less alone. A father I know a little said to me today that the whole school community he's a part of is mourning, too, though few knew this child there. He asked that we let him know if the community is going to do anything to remember the boy, because they all want to give their support, too.
I think we are all trying to find a way to grieve that isn't alone and private. We all want some kind of communal experience. Some way, I think, to transced all the boundaries that keep us in our separate spaces. We all come together to pick up our children and press together in the school yard and then we all fan out and go back into our separate apartments and lives. We love parks and festivals and outdoor concerts and places and times when we can sort of blend in with each other and lose the feeling of the boundaries and separations, and then at times like this we remember them again, that this happened to them and not us, or to us, generally, but not to them, all the other people walking around who have no idea. Life stops and life goes on. We're inside and outside.
I've always been fascinated and kind of horrified, I think, by all the separations between people, all the boundaries. We may be friends and feel warmth for each other and want to be close and enjoy sharing time and friendship, but then the membranes of family boundaries and even, in the city, the flimsy yet final walls between us--the very walls of our houses--take us back inside, away from each other. We have our different families, places we belong or are condemned to, places we are excluded from. My family is mine, yours is yours. My house is mine, yours is yours. My life is mine, I can't have yours and you can't have mine. I think my constant interest in these kinds of separations has to do with feeling so exiled from the world as a child. I felt I was somehow imprisoned in the sadness and lonliness and foresakenness of my life even though right there, right there, were others living such different lives. And, of course I could never really be a part of my father's life, even though I went there every other weekend and half of vacations.
I remember practically vibrating with excitement when I read the phrase "a different species of time" that William Shawcross used to describe how he felt about looking across the Thai border into Cambodia as the nightmare genocide of Pol Pot raged in Cambodia and life went on as normal in Thailand, the two experiences separated by an arbitrary yet deathly final line in the dust. It resonated because my sister came from there, the other side, and even though the international community knew what was happening, all the people within that space were left on their own because of that line, that membrane made of ephemera like politics and national sovereignty.
Now we get to go on with our lives as they were and these parents don't. Finally, we can't really share with them what we have.
At the end of the last day upstate there was a moment of serene quiet. Tim took the brood out for a bicycle ride and I tried to take this last afternoon, and the still beauty of this place, into the camera to keep for the crazy days of school and work and rushing around in the city and the cold, white days of winter, like Frederick in the Leo Leonni book. As all the other mice run around furiously gathering food and bedding, Frederick seems to sit and do nothing, with lazy half-closed eyes in the late autumn sun. But he's storing up the sunshine and the colors, the tastes, and the smells, to keep them warm and cheered when the bounty is all gone.
Yes, that's a new day dawning. Things are better, and the questions posed have been answered.
We are now, officially, believers. This recipe produced this lovely loaf, seen here enjoying a little late afternoon sojourn on the deck. And even though I didn't follow the persnickety instructions to the letter, and even though I didn't have the ingredients quite right and had to substitute half wheat flour for white, and had to add a little water after the fact because the dough seemed a little dry, and had to use expired yeast, it turned out just right: crusty outside, soft and tasty inside. Good to know this recipe can deal with a little winging it, because that's how I roll.
And, yes, I survived to live another day. Mairead has reverted to sleeping all night without nursing, and all it took was picking her up the first time she woke and holding and kissing and humming to her as she fussed and fought with me a little, and then putting her back down for only a minute or two of fussing before she went right to sleep. Each time she woke after that she went right back to sleep herself a minute or less later. I think it must be easier for her not to have to be getting up and down and digesting all night, too. I've never had as easy a time as that, but then again we're talking about a girl who just might be the world's easiest, happiest baby.
But don't let this gentle turn of events lead you to imagine a long night of restorative slumber. E. was up several times to pee, to ask for covers to be put on again, and I think there was something about a bad dream. But we were going in the right direction, so our spirits were lifted. Anyone but a parent would be depressed and bitter after a night like that, but not us. We were cautiously gleeful.
The next night was even better: M. slept from 7 until 4am, when I nursed her and covered her head in grateful kisses. Sure, E. woke me up 3 times, once because her mosquito bite itched but she couldn't scratch it because it hurt, so I had to scratch on either side of it, another time because she couldn't find the glass of water on her dresser, and the third time because she was tired of waiting for us to wake up. That, however, in the twisted universe that is our life, was a "good" sleep night. And "good" is, as they say, pretty much as good as it gets.
But last night was the best of all. We slept from 10:30pm to 6:45am with only one waking, to put the pacifier in M.'s mouth at 5:30 and pray she'd give us a little more sugar, which she did. Angel.
So today we're exhausted. Because when you actually get a little sleep is when you're really screwed. Your body suddenly realizes how tired it really is.
But what could be more boring than a long parental detailing of crappy sleep? And yet, for the parent, what could be more compelling?
Or these birds
made from this pattern in order to make the incredible bird mobile found at the Spoolsewing blog (previous link). Here's the mobile finally made and presented to my bird-loving stepmother on her 70th.
This was really the result of a crafty weekend away from kids (or from the big kids) when my friend the sassy stitchess and I came up to the country house alone back in July, with just the babies, for a weekend. She walked me through how to make them and soon I was a bird-making machine, knocking 'em out in 15 minutes each. It's the stuffing that takes time. But I got so I'd sew up a bunch and leave the stuffing for one of the endless car rides necessary to go just about anywhere around here.
So the complaining is over, for now, because the fact is life is good. Very, very good.
Questions of the day:
Will the no-knead dough from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day rise in two hours, as promised, and allow us to bake a crusty loaf any time just by tearing off a hunk from the giant lump in the fridge? To say that Grandma (visiting from Florida for the week) is skeptical, is to downplay matters considerably.
We put on music to accompany our project, but it took only a few minutes to mix the four ingredients (water, salt, yeast, dough) and put it in the container you see below. So now it sits, and we wait to be converted into believers, our kneading and double-rising days behind us forever.
Meanwhile, after various search parties went off into the woods to collect this bounty of raw materials, the menfolk (and, for a moment, one of the wee womenfolk) got busy with their wits and a glue gun, at a dollhouse raising, right here on our deck, while M. splashed about in her little pool and E. took a bath in some blue paint.
Will I survive my life to live until tomorrow.
I'm kind of fried. Exhausted, baby waking multiple times at night to nurse though she doesn't need it but just somehow recently got used to it, plus other random wakings by other children, and then the day starting again at 6am and going at a breakneck pace of just about nothing but tending, feeding, cleaning, caring, nursing, answering, dressing, undressing, holding, cleaning, cooking, feeding, cleaning, cooking, feeding, nursing, putting down for nap, holding, and so on until I feel flayed and cooked and served up.
Of course I know vacations now that we have three children are a whole different species than the strange breed of work-in-a-different-setting they had become with two children, but the utter impossibility of ever doing ANYTHING for myself EVER really leaves me feeling a little unmoored at times. Who am I again? Where did I go? Am I disappearing? I see my interesting books and notebooks and my knitting and sewing and cooking over there and there and there and I think I'll get a moment some time, but then five days go by without being able to do more than a minute or two of anything of my own, honestly, really, no joke, before someone needs me and I have to stop. And this is with a great husband and my amazing mother-in-law around, fully pulling their weight. It just doesn't let up.
And I think that I've become even more invested than ever in preserving and enjoying having my own separate self now that I have three children. I write more, I think more, I make more. And I love that. It's when all the parts of me--mother, writer, therapist, maker, whatever--are sort of integrated (since sort of is about as good as it gets) that I feel best and, I like to think, I'm the best I can be at all the parts. In the normal work-week, I get to work about half the time (a little less) and be home half the time, and some days I'm in and out, so it's neither there all day nor away all day. It's a little frenetic, of course, but kind of richly full in a way that makes me feel tired, but lucky. I just need to be able to get some of that on vacation, too, as does T.. But right now, with these three these ages and no babysitter on the horizon (and 3 too much for Grandma to handle alone) it's just brutal.
Luckily, they're cute. I also threw a fit and that felt better. Sometimes you've just got to let it out. And today I got to work on this for a few minutes and that felt good, too. And we've resolved to help Mairead get back to sleeping all night and begging (I got down on my knees) E. not to wake us unless something is terribly wrong. "Or, if we have a bad dream," she said. "Right, if it's a really bad one," I said. "Yeah, and if not we can just roll over and go back to sleep," she said. Yes, yes, yes.
My crazy ambitious who-do-you-think-you're-kidding fantasy for the last three days of this weekend, and summer, is that I'll get over to FABRICations, a great you-know-what store in Hudson, NY, for an hour to get some help learning how to quilt and bind this quilt top I made a few months back. I've been trying for the whole summer, but with one car, three kids, and being in the boondocks it's been impossible. It's my first quilt ever, a doll quilt.
So, the summer's almost over and it's been, in a word, complex. It has resisted every effort at being made into some perfect little gem of a story, or demonstration of something ideal, my ideal self, ideal mother self, gardener self, cooking, crafting, writing, creative self--at least that's what this moment's assessment is. But now I've taken a few more minutes and have decided that feeling disappointed or self-flagellating about it is something I'm just not gonna do. Instead, I'll say it's been good, in all its messy, unpackaged-into-one-headline kind of way, and also boring and fun and creative and just life (and death).
Oh, sure, I had a list. Called "Summer '08" and it had lots of fun things to do on it. But it might have been a little ambitious, considering we've got three kids under the age of 8, one of whom is only 9 months old. Sometimes it's hard not to get ahead of what we can actually do at this point. I remind myself all the time that there's next year, and the one after, and the one after that, when everyone will be just a little older and we'll have lots of chances to do things we can't do now. And that sometimes the best things we end up doing aren't the ones on the list, but the things that just happen.
I'd wanted to do some fun, wholesome projects, as part of wanting to foster a love of what you can do with your hands and your ideas, and so they'd know how much fun there can be in making things together rather than buying or watching things. Both D. and E. seem to be pretty interested in art and in making things so we thought that we'd like provide some projects that would introduce them to some new materials and processes this summer. So we thought of woodcuts and creating journals, and we thought of making a little bit of a schedule to some of the days so that there might be "journal time" or "art time" sprinkled in amidst the usual everything else, like swimming at the lake and messing around with the hose and digging up worms in the woods and going fishing down the road or catching frogs in the pond or "playing dollhouse."
Last week, we did get journals. D. and E. and I went down the block to the art store last week and they picked out their own. They've been keeping them since, sometimes staying up in their beds to write after we've said goodnight but have agreed they can have a little extra time, and carrying them around wherever we go. And then also forgetting about them, of course.
I like to read blogs. Craft, cooking, mothering, creative blogs. You know, like angry chicken and soule mama and six and a half stitches and fricknits and sugar city journal and many, many others, and I get great ideas and inspiration and instruction from them. But sometimes all the reading about what everyone else is doing can inspiring, and sometimes it can just take me away from myself. Sometimes all the shots of people's great apartments and all the art and objects to buy, and the fabulous projects done with their kids, and the vacations and jam-making that just went so swimmingly, can start to feel either competitive, or like if my nursery doesn't look just so then it isn't so great after all. Don't get me wrong, I'm at once delighted with the finds and the beautiful shots and the great links, and I buy things from the links, and I bookmark the links, and I make the great stuff. But sometimes I also get that hangover-y feeling where I start to forget anything but buying and comparing and wanting and then I get a little grossed out by the seemingly ubiquitous impulse to be so perfectly bohemianly modernly creatively DIY-ily cool. There are suddenly too many perfect looking kids and families, too many ideals, to many ideas.
And then I hear myself and my friends castigating themselves because they aren't doing more "creative" projects with their kids, or staying up all night to make things for a child's birthday party--but not just because of the pleasure of it. In fact, sometimes the pleasure of it becomes the pressure of it, or I find myself about to form a negative thought about a whole summer when I could just as easily give it a different slant. The whole thing starts to become a bit of a performance--of motherhood, of craftiness, of homeschooliness, of being a creative family-ness--and then it becomes hard to tell (to me, anyway, sometimes) what's authentic and coming out of actual desire, and what's the performance for an audience, either real or imagined.
Sunday we went to the Dutchess County Fair and rode rides and ate ice cream and watched the funniest, wickedest, clown you can imagine, smoking a butt and viciously heckling sweet young men trying to impress their girlfriends by hitting a red button with a baseball to knock that evil clown in the water. We went for a walk down the road while the kids bicycled into the distance, even little E. furiously peddling way ahead on her training wheels, suddenly seeming such a big girl cycling off into her future rather than the little slip who would hang onto any scrap of her baby-ness she could, melting into you and her "fumb" going into her mouth and her other hand to twiddle her earlobe, or yours, the minute you gave her the tiniest snuggle. I think she's actually getting ready to wean, at almost 4, but that's another story. On that walk we left a bag with jars of strawberry and blueberry jam we made from berries we picked, and two pumpkin/chocolate chip muffins the kids made yesterday with Grandma. Tomorrow we have said we might do some tie-dying and maybe gather things from the woods to make a little house and furniture from sticks and a glue gun and little wooden people out of roving and wooden dowls and bits of fabric and felt. It sounds sickeningly cute, and it might be. Or maybe we'll just play a lot of badmitten and old maid.
I think this post by six and a half stitches captures some of the impulse here. She asks "What little things in our childhood do we remember? What is it that makes some things special to us, while others get left behind deep in our memories." She writes of wanting to create idyllic memories for her children like the ones she has of moments, people, places, from her childhood, and that all the knitting and sewing is part of her " desire to have played a part in the creation of their memories." "I selfishly look to the things I make as holding the promise of memory," she writes. "I don't make for the sake of making - I do so because it invokes something terribly maternal, or terribly personal which may find resonance with others through stitches."
I also make to make memories, but there's more to it, too. I also make things--including this blog--to make myself as the mother I want to be, wish I were, wish I had had, perhaps, and the mother that I sometimes actually am: some ideal of myself. And to make a mother for my children, and in the hopes that the mother I try to be is also the mother they remember me to be. And that the childhood I want for them, and for me, is the one they have, some of the time. Because I think another part of the wholesome quest is trying to keep them inside the childhood fold for as long as possible. So if I'm sewing them pillows and bags and knitting them robots and sweaters then I can keep them knitted in a little longer. I do have a fantasy of us all, as teenagers and adults and later as adults and adults, happily scattered around a table or room or yard or house, all doing projects, some together or all separate: painting, building, planting, reading, digging, sewing, knitting, cooking, and all enjoying each other in the process, even if just each other's presence while we're in our own space. It's that feeling I'm really after, some kind of enduring connection and connectedness, that's neither coercive nor smothering--or at least not too, because some is perhaps inevitable, right?
By running off for a week to Grandma and Be-Bop's in Florida. Pretty much just an all-out for-the-kids type of deal that turned out to be pretty darn relaxing for all. Last time we went it was February and little baby M. was only 3 months old. What a difference 5 months makes! Since then we've recovered from the newborn phase, the kids have adjusted, we've all started to get SOME sleep, M. can sit up alone, play, eat cheerios off her tray, and generally is starting to be a player in the whole scene, the photo below notwithstanding.
Here's the action list:
There was beach time, and lots of it.
Even Grandma the '40s screen goddess took a dip.
There was butterfly world,
The Palm Beach Zoo Carousel,
and a trip to Joann's for this giant-suburban-craft-store-deprived girl, ostensibly to buy eyes for this guy, made for E. from a Jess Hutchison pattern.
I could've spent hours there, of course, gathering up nicely-priced fabrics of all kinds to make more birds n'stuff, but for that I'd have needed to be alone instead of accompanied by a bunch of crazy kids, a patient but exasperated father, and a grandma. After half an hour it felt like half our life had drained away, and all I managed to grab was this: some fat quarters, a little felt, some pipe cleaners, buttons, a walking foot for my sewing machine (left at home, alas), a little embroidery floss, etcetera.
But some crafting was done, and some fun was had.
And a certain boy's 8th birthday was celebrated with a yummy key lime pie from the french bakery,
a giant race track, a new graphic novel called Bone, and a pack of Pokemon cards.
We also hit the Coconut Cove Waterpark, Mini Golf, The Movies (T. and I saw The Dark Knight, and kids saw Space Chimps with Grandma), we had the usual scrumptious lunch at our favorite Cuban restaurant, Havana. T. borrowed the ladder from Grandma's neighbor at least five times to rescue remote-controlled craft from roofs, hedges, trees, and other high places. And then we went to see Be-Bop play at his regular Friday night gig, which might have benn the best night of the whole trip.
D. shyly asked Be-Bop if he could play on his drums a little during a break and then the base and guitar players ended up picking up their instruments and jamming with him--turning into an impromptu trio with D. on the drums--for about 15 minutes. So there he was, his first gig, first time playing with real musicians, and he more than held his own, pretty much stunning everyone with his 8-year-old drumming chops. Naturally, I didn't have my camera.
Then, back to the regularly scheduled programming: a little Tom and Jerry on the big bed.
There were some contemplative moments,
and a little reckless crazy abandon,
but the overall storyline is that a blast was had by all, as expressed by the raucous play-arm movements of Miss Mo Mo Maiready Marou, also known as Maiready Marouple, Maireadle Maroupee, and Mo Mo Marouple Marie....
Thanks Grandma and Be-Bop!