Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Letting it be.

I think, perhaps, it is one of our most human tendencies to not allow other people to be human.

Does that make sense?

Over the past year, I’ve been devastated, depressed, frightened, frustrated, overwhelmed, lost and lonely, but much of the time, all of these feelings are funneled through one pervasive emotion: anger.

Beginning almost immediately after Paul’s death, I lost all tolerance for human faults and foibles.

I was angry at people who said nothing.

Angry at people who said the wrong thing.

Angry because I didn’t know what the right thing would sound like if I heard it.

Angry at friends who didn’t come to his funeral.

Angry at myself for not understanding my own reaction to this loss.

Angry at strangers for not somehow telepathically comprehending the heaviness of it all.

Angry at strangers for doing totally normal, human things like forgetting to put mustard on my sandwich. 

Angry at those who asked more of me than I felt capable of giving.

Angry at anyone who seemed capable of being carefree. 

Angry at life for moving forward. 

It feels good to be angry. It's a distraction. A way to communicate with loved ones when every other thought feels too hot to the touch. “Who are you mad at today? Let’s complain to each other, let’s seethe together.” It feels substantive. It feels like release.

But that lightness doesn’t last.

As I approach the close of one year and the start of another, my hope is that I can redirect my pain toward something more productive. I don’t think it’s possible to heal, but you can soothe and treat your wound if you give it enough attention. My attention has been misdirected. And my wound is open.

I’ve been angry at everything and everyone because there is almost nowhere to put this ache. It can’t easily be buried or carried or transferred. 

It can only be sent upward.

To allow other people to be human, you have to channel the most superhuman version of yourself. And trust that others are doing the same for you... especially when you're wearing your anger on your sleeve and possibly being an irritable asshat.

You have to believe in good intentions.

You have to respect the line that now exists between you and the rest of the world and learn to walk back and forth across it with as much ease and grace as you can gather. 

You have to allow the world around you to move forward.

You have to forgive.

You have to send it up. Recognize and embrace human compassion in all forms. Go easy on yourself and others. Turn inward. Tend to this wound.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

I am hopeful, should I be hopeful?

A month or so ago, I took the girls out to Ashland, Nebraska to visit an elderly friend. It was a dry, sunny Sunday afternoon. When we got back in the car to return home, Grace promptly fell asleep. Emilia requested that I roll down her window. I obliged.

As we drove down the two-lane highway that led back to the interstate, I was immersed in the gorgeous Nebraska-ness of this particular part of the state, fields stretching out for miles to our right and left. Hot wind blew through the car, Emilia held her hand out the window and River City Folk played on the radio, tinkling and humming around our red ears. I was so keenly aware that we were in the midst of a perfect frame. I needed someone else to understand how great it was. I called Paul and described it to him. He got that kind of stuff. He understood the beauty of a moment.

Humans, I feel, have a tendency to dampen their own joy. Especially the humans I hang around, myself included. We gravitate toward the sardonic, the self-deprecating, the defensive response. To be unabashedly joyful is to be vulnerable, a sacrifice most of us aren’t willing to make. But Paul was different. He was quietly eager. Innately positive. Unafraid to be excited.

And he was excited about all of us. About small details of our lives that no one else could or should care about. His anticipation of my little family’s trips to St. Louis made me feel special, loved, valued. He would call me weeks before driving to Omaha so we could talk about the details of his visit. When he was here, he wholly embraced my adopted city, exploring Benson, running through Memorial Park, walking to the French Bulldog to eat lunch and chat with the bartender. He felt comfortable doing things alone. He embraced uncertainty. He loved his family. He carried his nieces on his shoulders from hundreds of miles away. He received their eternal admiration in return.

Paul had this magnetic smile that he could subtly adjust to fit any situation. It was a knowing smile, a teasing smile, an understanding smile, a laughing smile, a satisfied smile, confident, reassuring, comforting. It was always handsome, and it was always genuine. 

I cannot get that smile out of my mind. I don’t want to, but it hurts all the same.

Everything since two weeks ago has been waiting. Waiting. Waiting to find our brother. Waiting to get home. Waiting to believe it. Waiting to cry. Waiting to stop. Waiting to be comforted. Waiting to be alone. Waiting for sleep. Waiting for it all to be over. Waiting to accept that it will never end. Waiting to feel hungry. Waiting to catch our breath with each new realization of what we’ve lost. Waiting for meaning. Waiting for signs. Waiting for normalcy. Waiting for clarity.

The only thing I’ve come to accept is that my stomach will hold on to this knot for a long time; I’m hoping that it will begin to unravel eventually. But if not, I will keep it and care for it. 

On one of my recent trips to St. Louis, Mary Clare, Joe, Paul and I went to the Decemberists concert at the Peabody. Paul and I had agreed to each get two tickets, texting from our desk chairs, signing in at the same time the moment they went on sale. It rained that night. We walked to our car with hoods up, heads down, content in each other’s company. Afterward, we went to Three Kings and talked about the Mad Men finale. It was a good night with three people who each hold a massively important piece of my heart. I’m so grateful for that memory.

So now, I am waiting to understand. Wanting meaning. Hoping to find that joy that came so easily to you, Paulie. I love you. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Fitbit. A marriage.

A few weeks ago, after the mad morning rush to shower/dress/Curious George/nurse/boots/coats/don’t forget the bottles/get Matt and the girls out the door and on their way, I breathed my ritual sigh of halfhearted relief and ran upstairs to dab some concealer over… this. Whatever this is now.

And, on the back of the toilet, in the little dish where we keep small, transient objects -- eyeglasses worn between 6:10 and 6:15 a.m., earrings, etc., there lay Matt’s wedding band, twinkling beneath harsh bathroom lights. He takes his ring and his Fitbit off to shower. And, apparently, in the race to get out the door, he had time to put one back on. A Sophie’s Choice within his morning routine. He chose poorly.

FullSizeRender (1).jpg

Matt loves his Fitbit more than air and water and now, as evidenced by this recent decision, he could possibly love it more than me. 

My husband’s passionate affair with his step-counting man bracelet began about 6 months ago, when the dust churned up by Grace’s arrival had finally begun to settle. I was returning to work, and we were both returning to reality, sort of. It was at this time that we made a series of realizations -- having two kids is hard. Sleep is… what? And both of us had gained some baby weight. 

And while I decided to put any major self-improvement projects on hold (see: resolutions), Matt dove in, in True Matt Fashion™, head first. He ordered his Fitbit, slapped it on his wrist, and began to walk. And walk. And walk. And walk. He walked over his lunch hour, he got out his brightest headlamp and walked at night. When the weather began to turn cold, he ordered a not-at-all-creepy face mask and walked straight into the biting wind. 

I didn’t get it.
I studied his dedication with befuddled awe. I read David Sedaris’s New Yorker piece about his Fitbit obsession. In both cases, I was entertained but not necessarily enlightened. 

But I wanted to get it.
What is this “self-discipline” you speak of? I’m a creature motivated by snacks and impulse. In many ways, I am my three-year-old daughter… when she was two years old. 

So I got one.
The chaotic tapestry of kids and everyday life can become so thickly woven and crumb-caked that it’s easy to lose site of the threads that held you together in the first place. Lately, Matt and I have struggled to find commonalities outside of the living-life ones. The kid ones. The you-do-the-dishes-and-I’ll-run-the-bathwater ones. It’s hard to talk about the books you’re reading when one of you… ahem… never reads anymore. So when I expressed interest in getting my own Fitbit, it was game on. I mentioned it in passing, and two days later, it was on my wrist. 

Just kidding. It was in a box on the kitchen counter. 

And then two days after that, it was on my wrist. The ensuing weeks involved a lot of trial and error and Fitbit education. Apparently, it doesn’t count my steps if I’m holding the baby in my right arm. Or if I’m pushing a stroller or grocery cart. Or if I’m not walking. What a load of garbage. 

Despite my best efforts to take the stairs at work, to swing my arm like an angry chimp while I push the stroller with the other, to take the long way whenever possible, the truth is, most days end with only a few blinking dots -- little white harbingers of guilt. I’ve only reached 10,000 steps once, which is apparently the bare minimum you’re supposed to reach each day in order to qualify as a Living, Breathing Human Being. 

I obviously have a ways to go. But I will say, I’m motivated. And finally, I get it. I get the appeal of having a carrot dangled in front of you each morning, encouraging you to walk a little further, to move a little faster, to try harder than you did the day before. I’m genuinely grateful for the chance to understand Matt in a new way. Because we should never be done trying to figure out what makes the people we love tick. Or walk, as the case may be. 

Finally, I’m looking forward to tomorrow and all of the steps that it holds. 

But it’s late. So for tonight, my Fitbit will retire to its vacation home among the bobbypins -- the little dish on the back of the toilet.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Owning your reality. Losing the swim diaper.

We keep a basket of diapers in our dining room because it’s convenient, and because we’ve reached the point where we’re done pretending like we change the baby on a changing table. We’re not that fancy. We’ll change her on your plate of half-eaten pasta if you close your eyes to sneeze.

In that basket are a bunch of size 3 Huggies and one rogue swim diaper. It just worked its way in there, all tiny and useless. A remnant of a summer peppered with good intentions but not one trip to the pool. And at least twice a week, I will rush over to the basket as Grace squirms bare-bottomed on the rug and blindly grab a diaper. I’ll run back over to my spot just in time to… no. No. Not the swim diaper again. I’ll sigh loudly and exasperatedly, wave it in the air like a little waterproof surrender flag and vow that this time, the swim diaper is going in the trash. Because I’m so tired of accidentally grabbing it. Because it’s ruining my life.

And then I’ll put it back in the basket.

And the whole thing will happen again next Tuesday.

If we’re on the same wavelength, by now you understand that the basket symbolizes a brand new year. A vessel for unsoiled opportunity. And that nefarious swim diaper is a figurative representation of the bad habits, self-doubt and unnecessary obstacles keeping me from accomplishing my goals. The trash in my path I trip over every day.

I don’t usually make resolutions beyond a quiet promise to eat less sugar, a declaration weakened by peanut butter and negated by late nights spent alone in the kitchen, washing pump parts and romancing a giant of bag of potty training M&Ms.

But maybe. Hopefully. This year will be the year I stop getting bogged down by imaginary hurdles and start doing what I say I’m going to do. All of the things I know I’ll be glad I did, but I just can’t get the courage or the motivation or the presence of mind to get the ball rolling. I need to blog. I want to write something more substantial. I should be more present for my children. I must start living healthfully, like my body is a temple and not some abandoned porta potty full of raccoons. I want… a lot of things that are important to me but boring to you, so enough of that.

While possibility is comforting, reality – a reality that you actively mold and shape and own – is empowering. It’s thrilling. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that, and I miss it. So, tomorrow, the blog. Or my health. But today, the swim diaper. For real this time. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It smells stinky in my whole life.

One day, a month or so ago, Emilia skulked across the living room, flopped onto the sofa, stared at the ceiling and exclaimed with a sigh, "It smells stinky in my whole life."

And right she is. On multiple levels.

In a literal sense, Emilia's life is stinky because she is insanely sensitive to the aromas around her. Grace's drool is stinky. The mulch in our neighbor's yard is stinky. Dinner is stinky. The nighttime is stinky. Basically, everything has an off-putting odor. There isn't much that can be done except to empty the Diaper Genie and hope that this too shall pass.

In a figurative sense, Emilia's life is stinky because she is a toddler. And lately I've been reflecting on the fact that, no matter how much wonder and awe and magic exists in early childhood, in a lot of ways, being a little kid must be really, really hard.

My brother Paul made this. 

Being a parent is hard too, but we get all of the empathy. We get the tongue-in-cheek lists from Babble and Buzzfeed, allowing us to commiserate with one another about bedtime, withering social lives and the fallacy of work-life balance. We blame our toddlers for making us crazy, imagining them blithely skipping through life, temporarily ruining ours in the process.

But sometimes Emilia's life is stinky too. In between trips to the zoo, Curious George marathons and toast with peanut butter, jelly, honey and sprinkles*, there's a lot of uncertainty. And turmoil.

There is a baby who has suddenly taken over the house and stolen a large portion of our attention. Plus, said baby pulls hair like a champ.

There are monsters.

There is a basement.

There are public restrooms with automatically flushing toilets.

There are parents who trick you into thinking they're awesome and then suddenly get mean.

There is timeout.

There are threats of being sent to timeout that only come to pass roughly 9% of the time.

On that note, there are mixed messages and inconsistencies.

There are so many emotions.

There is logic. Or a lack of logic, depending on who you ask.

There are disrupted schedules and promises broken.

There are frustrating toys, torn pages and shoes that no longer fit.

There are days when nothing makes sense.

So, even though there are still times when I'd love to trade places with my sweet, stubborn girl (olfactory sensitivity and all) -- because a life unburdened by the stresses of being an adult would be pretty great -- I'm trying to look at life from her perspective. I'm trying to practice patience and react to the tantrums, trauma and frustration with a little more empathy.

And, in the process, I hope I can help her see that someday soon, life will smell so much better.

*This is something I was goaded into making once, and now it's somehow become a house specialty (and, I would imagine, our pediatrician's nightmare).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Life flies by in seconds.

Yikes. I’m pretty sure I no longer have a blog. Instead I have a few dusty relics of carefree days gone by. Days when I read books not made out of boards, when I could sleep until I was awakened by the distant shouts of someone else’s kids. Now I’m rattled by the early-morning whines of a two-year-old, fresh lungs full of antsy anticipation. 


Life with one child was different. Life with two kids represents the molting of a past self. I am still getting my footing.

Grace Violet
Emilia, first baby, was early. Just early enough to be a pleasant surprise. A 2 a.m. contraction followed by a realization, a repacking of the hospital bag, a baby.

Now that I’ve met Gracie and have gotten to know her, it makes sense that she, on the other hand, was late. Just late enough to make me weep openly at the doctor’s office, a pile of hormones and Runza milkshakes. The Grace that we know now is slow and deliberate and easy, the personification of a lazy smile.

Four days after my due date, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling nauseous. I watched the sunrise with the Kardashians and a family of popsicle wrappers. I took a bath at 5 a.m. and texted our doula, Diana. (If you had told me two years ago that someday I’d have a doula to text, I would’ve laughed at you, you crazy hippie. But now, I will forever consider Diana one of the best people I’ve met, one of the smartest decisions I’ve made, a Contraction Whisperer, an honest-to-goodness angel.)

At 8 a.m., I told Matt to go to work. At 9 a.m., I told him to come home. And at 10:30, we were admitted to the hospital, where I spent the next three hours in some other world (the place where a Canadian hypnobabies podcast meets a Lisa Frank folder), opening one eye every so often to ask for more water in my wilting paper cup. Then, at 1:30 p.m., Grace arrived, quickly and efficiently, all matted black hair and origami cheeks that are still unfolding three months later. Beautiful.

And for the rest of the day, everything was beautiful. Look at Emilia meeting Grace – beautiful. The grin on Matt’s face – beautiful. Our parents are so happy – beautiful. This hospital-grade chicken salad sandwich – beautiful. 

But reality never stays at bay for long.
Life since Grace’s arrival has involved a lot of strategizing, a lot of scolding Emilia for being too rough, too loud, too toddlerish. I’m trying my hardest to remember that she is, in many ways, still so little herself. I try to go easy on her and appreciate her curiosity, the way she imitates us by talking to Grace in a creepy, high-pitched baby voice. This has been one big character study for all of us.

She is doing a really great job as a big sister. She is going easy on me, too.

And Grace is pretty wonderful. I would even venture to say that my dreams of a mellow second child have come true. Our first-born was always a little agitated with us, always a little ready to move on to the next phase of life – and that gumption is what makes her so amazing. But Grace, on the other hand, is such a stereotypical baby. She’s fat and soft, with a constant stream of drool that runs in rivulets through her neck folds, soaking our shirtsleeves. She purrs when she’s happy, grunts when she’s mad, and smiles like an old lunch lady in cat-eye glasses.

She is a warm retreat from the chaos of everything else.
They say not to worry about where the love for your second child will come from – that it will appear just when it's needed, sneaking in to fluff the pillows, dust the entryway, hide the unfolded laundry and ready your cramped two-bedroom heart for one more guest.  

And they were right.

However, I’d venture to say it’s been more of an incremental process. When Grace was born, the love was there. But when I see Emilia affectionately poke her eyes or lick her arm, the love grows. When she smiles at Matt, it grows. And when Grace and I get a rare minute alone to just stare at each other like two smitten dopes, it grows again.

But I guess that’s how parenting is in general. Nothing is totally automatic. It’s all a process. Sometimes you halfheartedly potty train your toddler over the course of a year. And sometimes you fall in love with a baby a little more each time you’re reminded of how fortunate you are.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Smoking age

My dad passed away five years and three months ago. I see him in random dreams, hear him in the crackling wit of my siblings, and remember him through a well-worn, highly curated collection of memories. I’ve never been good at remembering, but the few I have are important. They buoy me up when the dreams are few and far between.

I came into my dad’s life when he was already an active St. Vincent de Paul member, and he left mine no less passionate about the welfare of the people most of us don’t see. Or we see and ignore, content with our comfort. One of his regular contributions to the Society was a monthly trip to a local nursing home, where he’d visit with the residents and hand out... gifts. The gifts are key. They're why I laugh whenever I think about it.

I found this and a lot of weird stuff
when I Googled "1980s M&Ms"
As soon as I was old enough to charm the old men with my bowl cut and overbite, as soon as I was mature enough to appreciate the doll collections and family photos of the women there, my dad began to bring me along on those trips. We’d wander around florescent hallways, greeting the orderlies and the disoriented. And we’d go from room to room, handing out M&Ms and cigarettes.

Shortly before each trip, my dad would load up the trunk of our Chevy Celebrity station wagon with economy-sized boxes of M&Ms and a few cartons of Pall Malls. I always got my own bag, and I always accepted the fact that, like the candy, the cigarettes were more a necessity than an indulgence. This was the mid-80s, and I was still bringing a Kool-branded water bottle to tee-ball practice. Smoking was as commonplace as hydration.

After a few months of regular trips with my dad, I grew attached to certain residents who I was especially fond of, or who were especially enamored of me. I reviewed yellowing artwork by prized grandchildren, listened confusedly to bitter rants about deadbeat kids. I saw the chicken coop out back and the stump where the cooks chopped their heads off. I smelled the smells and saw the fits, the age-addled and the catatonic. And I wasn’t scared.

I learned about the sudden disconnect of death when my dad gently explained why a woman we’d been visiting for a while, a great grandma with an impressive collection of Madame Alexander dolls, wasn’t in her room anymore. And I was sad, but not scared.

I can’t rightfully overanalyze how these trips influenced me in the bigger picture. I really enjoy the company of the elderly, and I’d like to think that interest was born in those bright and blinking hallways. But really, I find meaning in the chance I had to experience my dad’s unparalleled compassion firsthand. The rawness of those surroundings. His hovering protection.

When Emilia is finally old enough to understand that life is cyclical and that there is wisdom to be gained from the people who lived entire lifetimes before she ever came screaming into this world. Or, at the very least, when she's old enough to see a stooped, wrinkled person without yelling, "What's that!" I'd like to revive this tradition. It would be good for her. It would be good for me. We'll bring M&Ms. And, depending on nursing home policy, maybe a pack or two of Pall Malls.