Saturday, February 21, 2009

At Sea

week of February 15 to 21

My young son says he can’t go to sleep, can’t lie down in his bed.

“Why can’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you feeling sick?”

“I don’t know.” When I insist, he trudges off grimly, teeth brushed and prayers said. But then just as I’m falling to sleep I hear him running from his room to the kitchen, back down the hall, back out toward the front door, frantically mumbling, “I can’t. I can’t.” His eyes don’t see me when I catch hold of him and his voice rises, “I can’t. I can’t.”

“Can’t what? Wake up. What can’t you do?”

“I can’t.”

So I carry him back to his bed and rub his back, until he shudders and begins to relax, his shoulders softening and his breathing slowing back down. And I worry.

The next morning he doesn’t remember sleepwalking. After school, though he comes in and sits down beside me. He says,“I know what I’m feeling. Despair.”

Wonderful. I almost want to laugh – such a Victorian word.  This is the thing about wordy children - they can name their monsters. "Why do you think you are feeling despair?"

“I don’t know.”

“What’s going on at school? Are you worried about anything?”

“Nothing. Nope. I don’t know.”

I don’t know either. From the outside he looks like a fine and normal little nine-year-old.  I poke a bit more, but can’t find anything really. I just talked with his teacher, who is happy with his work. He’s played with friends in the afternoons. He's suddenly decided this week - in a fit of ambition after hearing a song he liked at the recital last weekend - to commit himself to his piano practicing – and now has me sit down with him each day and teach him out of his sight-reading book.

Is the extra effort fevering his brain? Or is it because he overheard me last week talking about how I get so weary sometimes I just want to go home?

“You are home,” he piped up.

“I know,” I’d said, cupping my hand under his jaw and hugging his head to my side.

Having a mother who is a psychoanalyst means I don’t want to ask her – Is this normal? Is it my fault? Will he get over it on his own?  I'm not sure I want to know what she would say.

The next night, the same thing.  The running, the blind eyes, the shuddering into deeper sleep only when I hold him.  Despair.

I am at a loss how to fix this.  Did I mention some weeks back that this was the month of the plagues – cold sores, warts, infestations? My son’s share is ringworm which the advice nurse tells me is infectious enough that I won’t let him curl up in my bed. His dad is still away, working out of state this week. Life is not good for my son.

So I sing to him – Lead Kindly Light, How Firm a Foundation, Speed Bonnie Boat – only the solid songs and safe songs. I don’t sing the Great Selkie or other sea songs of abandonment, unfaithfulness, death and fate:

What hills, what hills are those, my love,
Those hills so dark and low?
Those are the hills of hell, my love,
Where you and I must go.

Well, not until the middle of the week when I’ve sung through all the safe songs and slowly all the other songs start seeping back in. Every night now, he wants to start out with How Firm a Foundation:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go
The river of sorrow shall not thee o'erflow.
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless
And sanctify to thee, and sanctify to thee, and sanctify to thee,
Thy deepest distress.

But then he says, “You choose.” I sing,

I have a family here on earth.
They are so good to me . . . .

I sing,
Twinkle, twinkle, Little Star,
How I wonder what you are? . . .
I sing,
I am a child of God
- and He has sent me here.
Has given me an earthly home
with parents kind and dear . . .
(Except, aren’t my brothers and I almost audible, singing in the background, “Has given me Unearthly Home with parents kind of weird”?)

I sing,

An earthly nurse sits and sings
And aye she sings by lily-wean:
“It’s little ken I my bairn’s father.
Far less the land that he dwells in . . .

And my son falls peacefully to sleep at last to the ballad of the dread pirate Henry Martin:

Sad news, sad news to old England came,
Sad news to fair London town,
There’s been a rich vessel –
Now she’s castaway, castaway, castaway
A-a-and all of her merry men . . . Drowned.


I should be singing about bunny rabbits. Except that the most frightening children’s book I ever read to my children was The Runaway Bunny. None of us liked it that no matter how hard the bunny tried, he never could get away from his Mega-Mum. Never could go away to come back on his own terms.

By the end of the week, I’m hoarse and then voiceless – though not from the singing - I'm just coming down with whatever's going around.

“I can’t,” I sorrowfully whisper when my son asks to be sung to.

But his sisters know all my songs. And Friday night, from down the hallway, I hear my elder daughter singing softly,

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward, the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that born to be king
Over the sea to Skye . . .

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Golden Apple

So on Tuesday my husband --


in the past few months writing here I’ve called this man “my husband” more than ever before in our 19, almost 20 years together. We are married, so yes, he is my husband. But in real real life, I always – always – call him by his name . . . when I talk to him, when I talk about him. I don’t even really ever refer to him as Mr. or by any other title – except maybe “your Dad” – but almost always by his own personal name. Which is who he is to me.

We are, after all, individuals – that is the contract we operate under and the reason I married him: he gives me space and lets me be who I am and never asks what I’ve done all day. And this is the first thing I always list when remembering why I love him (because in 19, almost 20 years you can sometimes momentarily forget).
And I list it first, because before him, I suffered from Galatea-ism (Galatea – Greek statue whose sculptor prays her to come to life and be his very own Stepford wife).

I’ve been told I exude stillness. Little children and babies quiet down when I hold them. People tell me things – I think because I keep their secrets – plus a friend said it’s because my eyebrows are so straight "and also that place of quietness in you.” The first time (in junior high) I was told, “You are always so ... serene,” I remember staring out in disbelief from the barely reined-in roiling boil of emotion and intensity that was my junior high Self. But  this outward stillness can look to some people like a blank page they can decorate with their own fancies, leaving me feeling too often not-known.

In high school, one of my group made me the sudden and uncomfortable center of attention one day after lunch – “You always remind me of a statue. Graceful, you know, and kind of formal.  Look, doesn’t she?” Sitting there on a desk at the front of the room facing them, I tried to deflect the comment and their appraising eyes, with a joke about hanging out in museums and my future job on someone’s funerary pediment. But they all nodded and concurred – I remember their faces, the liveliness and flirtatious jokes held in abeyance as they all passed sentence. Yes, I was just like a statue.

In college, too many of the boys I dated projected their own ideas/ideals on that serene and involuntary screen of stillness and assumed they knew all about who I was and what I wanted (“Of course you would never . . . ,” or “I bet you love . . . ” )

But the man who has become “my husband” called me “Wild Thing” (bless his heart! that's another reason I married him). And then he disagreed with me and called me hard-nosed and hard-headed (more accurate, darn him!) and he asked my opinion, bragged about my accomplishments, listened to my arguments, argued back, came around the next day sometimes more persuaded, sometimes less convinced, sometimes still adamantly opposed - but ready to talk again. (Which is another reason I married him.) I was and am, with him, more real than with other boys I’d known. With him, for the first time, I felt well and deeply known.

Let me be clear, I also married him because he really is as steady as I guess I seem (to some people. Those who come to know me better have other adjectives for me . . . ).  It's he who is the still point of reliability in our family’s life. He jokes with the children, jollying them out of their pouts. He never shouts. He doesn’t even speak without thinking it through (and through!). He is sometimes wrong (of course) but always prudently, conservatively wrong. Sensible, generally fair, pre-eminently sane. 

He is safe. Which I find entirely alluring.

I never understood the dubious appeal of “being needed.” Ack!  Me, I ran away from neediness.

So much so – even with him -- I remember once when we were engaged, this man and I, holding his head in my lap, talking about our plans to build a life together, and his face looking up at me like a baby’s. Happy like that and . . . well, what mothers like to call adoring, though it has more to do with the sweetness of mother’s milk and the baby's utter and absolute dependency upon that milk.

That look shook me. I felt like a friend of mine who, on a whim, sprung a cartwheel on the parapet of the Glen Canyon Dam. Successfully. But she was ashen and trembling as soon as she landed back on earth, realizing how close she’d come to falling forever down.

I was scared of falling so permanently far. Seeing that look, I laughed too loud and sudden and scrambled to my feet, holding my hand out as I made for the door, “Let’s go!” And we have been going ever since. And this man has been running along beside me,  holding my hand.  Sensibly, prudently, intensely wrong-headed at times, but always providing a deep and abidingly companionable reliability.

And we respect each other’s individuality. I mentioned that, right?  Calling him over and over “my husband” – with that unavoidable little half-lilt of carressing ownership is embarrassing.

But what to call him instead? He is the steady and reliable hub of our family – but “Hub” sounds too much like an even shorter form of hubby which brings us back to husband – again. There’s no escaping it – hub and harbor and the art of husbandry. He is my husband and if I call him henceforth Hub, try to remember that it also could be short for Hubba-Hubba and Hubcap and Old Mother Hubbard – not all of which have anything to do with him, but which does serve to show that there is more there than meets the eye.


So Tuesday Hub and our young son were home all day again. Because it snowed. Again!??(What state is this - Wisconsin? Surely not Oregon. Someone is confused. We get – some years – a week of snow – usually right around Christmas. But February is supposed to be the month of perpetual (and liquid and often almost warmish) rain. Remember?)

However, Tuesday morning the roads were too icy for my husband (you know who I mean) to get back up the hill and so he left the car down at the bottom in a neighbors’ field after taking the girls (our daughters – who object to being called HappyKoala and Erminella – I'll have to work on that later) to early morning seminary and he trudged back up the hill on his own. He decided he'd work from home.

I had other things to do that day.

At one point, Hub calls me over to look at another e-bulletin he’s received about Avian Flu – which if I call his pet dread does not mean I don’t appreciate its potential pandemic seriousness and our vulnerability here in a major migratory flyway.

(And “Hub” is just not going to work. I’d try “Fred” as in “Fred Fairly” for the gallant and sensitive though somewhat tongue-tied bicycling Oxford scientist in
probably my favorite novel, except I can’t write “Fred” without thinking “Fred Flintstone” who is more the complete loudmouth antithesis of this man. How about Fritz? for Fred Fairly in Fitzgerald – oh! and for Jo’s Professor Baer in Little Women – Ah?!)

So, when my dear Fritz pointed out that there was a
website with advice and a list of supplies for “sheltering in place” in case of Avian Flu I told him to print it up and I’d get supplies when I next go into town – mainly, I admit, to hush his concern and get back to my own work. So he printed the list, but when I began to ask a question about one of the items, he turned icily irritated, “Forget it. I’ll do it myself,” as if I were questioning the whole enterprise. Which I wasn’t, honest.

But this time I didn’t say, “I’m just asking. Why are you so angry all at once? You’re not being reasonable” – which swoops us around and around in the downward spiral – trying to prove who is being more unreasonable than whom.

This time I didn’t offer my free psycholanalysis and try to explain what he was feeling to him, “I think you’re just very uptight about this and it’s making your response too intense.” I felt the memory rise up strongly inside me of learning to talk to the worries of the people who come into the Food Bank, over the buzzing of fear that sounds so loud in their ears.

This time I walked over, sat down at the table next to him, took both his hands in mine, looked deep into his face, “Listen. This flu lasts two weeks. If you get it, or I get it, we’ll just take care of each other – okay? – until we die. That’s the worst it can do. And we can handle that.” And his face softened and relaxed – some tightness back behind his eyes let go.

Later in the afternoon when we went out to unbury the car, Fritz flipped snow toward me – a little, almost accidentally. He wasn’t looking when I let loose the first volley in return, though I missed him entirely. He looked up surprised. Then I nailed him. Straight in the chest. Soon snowballs were flying over the hood of the car from one side to the other – mostly missing, but I got snow on his glasses and we are both laughing breathlessly when we get into the car. Our young son who has watched this all from the backseat says, “You should always do that” – a small secret smile of delight on his face. (This is what it means, that poem by Amy Clampitt –

Love is a climate
small things find safe
to grow in . . .

And then - is it that evening? or the evening after? - I’m slicing a fresh orange – indescribably lucious its scent before even the first taste. “Oh, here. You have to taste this. This is so good.”

But Fritz is working at the computer, “It’ll get my hands sticky.”

“Here I’ll feed it to you.”

We are old, really, my husband and I. And sensible. So where does this weakness in my knees come from as he eats from my hand? Indescribable tenderness fills me, “Isn’t it good?”

“Oh, yes.” He eats the fruit I give him from my fingers. "It is good."

There was once a garden where a tree grew whose fruit was forbidden and guarded by a dragon – fruit so desirable it could stop you in your tracks, entice you from the race you thought you were running.

Am I Eve or Atalanta? Is this Eden? Or the garden of the Hesperides?

Or a garden that grows again and again, everywhere, surprising you always? Is this what love is?


Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Valentine's Ring

February 14, 2009

"Are you going to put up the Valentine Ring?" my young son asks me over and over.

His sisters are always surprised all over again the morning that it appears. They can remember back to the time before that sudden Valentine's morning whim a few years back, when I tied red ribbons to a looped piece of hanger-wire wrapped with strips of red calico and hung it from the light over the breakfast table, then dangled little boxes of conversation hearts and ponytail holders for both of them and a big red plastic horse for their baby brother.

"I never know for sure if you really will or not this year," the girls tell me. But their brother sets the stage for weeks ahead of time.

"Are you going to hang the ring?"

"You'll have to wait and see."

"But are you going to?"

"Maybe. If it happens, it has to be a surprise."

When I get up that morning to work the magic, I find he's snuck in during the night and decorated the table - in hopes, in hopes (or if not that in consolation?) - with white-and-lilac personally handmade confetti. There's a strip of paper torn from the message board weighted down with chocolate gold coins (from his Christmas stocking?) that says on one end, "Mom," on the other end, "Dad," and in the center, "I love you!!!!!!"

I beg pardon already of his future wife. This is not necessary, you know - not like the regular nutritious meals served promptly that are such a challenge for me. Though if we're lucky he will have learned some of the right things and he will be the one to wake up early Valentine's morning for you and for the children you will have together just so he can say:

I love you!

You are my sunshine!

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 8, 2009


week of February 1 to 7

I once had a friend who now won’t answer when I write.

This is a long story and because I still think that someday (like Jefferson and Adams) we will be friends again I won’t try to postulate in public the whys (except that I am superficial and conventional and she is running so hard - like the man in Merwin’s poem:
he is making good time
his breath comes more easily
he is still troubled at moments
by the feeling
that he has forgotten something
but he thinks he is escaping a terrible

“A Blessing”)
This month is the month of her birthday and so I remember her even with the forefront of my brain and even the surface of my heart. It has been six (seven?) years since we were friends and it is no longer true – that other poem of Merwin’s:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Or maybe it is so true that I’m not aware any more of the thread that is her absence running through my days.

What is true is that she is irreplaceable for me.

Which is amazing.

I have been unreasonably blessed with the friendship of remarkable people – friends who have come from faraway to this tucked-away corner of the world, friends who have lived beside me for years before unpacking the treasure that is themselves. New friends and old friends, friends who are related to me by blood and marriage, friends who were strangers when we first meet, friends whom I feel I've known forever. But none of them are her. None of you are.  Irreplaceable all of you, I’m afraid, though (please) let’s not separate and see.

I was going to write this week about Eldest Child pointing out that I am unreliable about meals – sometimes I say I am making something for dinner and then get sidetracked and never start or get involved in an hours-long cooking project. This is true. And at the time, her pointing it out was . . . painful seems too strong a word. But the clear-eyed look she bent on me while explaining why she would make her own dinner before finishing something I wanted her to do was diminishing. However, now weeks later, that is all old news – only this sad old sorrow, this friend gone away from me, still feels fresh.

"Dogsbody" is the title of what I thought I was going to write – about the time my friend and I, when we were still friends, confused the word
dogsbody with godsbody and insights resulting therefrom that seemed to apply to my daughter and the diminished I. But instead all I can think of is what a stupid hound the heart is – you try to yell at it and order it back home and it whines and cowers back, until you aren’t looking, then bounds up around your heels again, ears flapping, tongue flapping, so glad to be out on the road with a friend.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Looking over my notes for this week, I see it’s just rant after rant:

I’m getting claustrophobic in this twilight we’re living in, teetering from the 1900’s to the 2000’s - It seems sometimes the whole sphere is too full of people shouting – even if pleasantly – like trying to talk in a too-crowded restaurant. You overhear too much of other people’s lives, most of it heartrendingly boring in the intimate details you eavesdrop on – potentially as embarrassing as if watching someone perform in a public place those universal and ordinary acts of grooming that usually mark an intimate space.


And how many times can I say that I already miss my daughters, that I’m worried about the future. And why would I want to catalog over and over the pacing of the shackled beast . . .

I rant over the Unreliable Nanny story I heard on NPR last week.

If you can’t trust someone with your kids, what are you supposed to do?” Joe asks. Uh, is this really that tricky a question? Let’s see – according to this radio story the range of possible solutions to this pressing dilemma include – pressing charges, not letting your kids watch Sponge Bob, and/or writing a song about it all. Are we not forgetting something here? Some other possible way parents could respond to the need their children have for reliable care?

And then I rant the next day:

I hate being a MOMMY – that should be a private term of endearment and only coming from three young people in this world. I don’t want anyone else dirtying that term. Just like when some sweet and private actions are presented snidely and in public are porn – some innocent terms are offensive when used by strangers.

I hate that quote from Mem Fox (one of my favorite picture book authors) about how she was raised to be an “active participating member” of her community and how she looks askance at “wealthy(?!) men’s wives who don’t have jobs outside their homes.” Do I have to look askance at myself? (well, I do . . . and admire women like my sister-in-law, for one, who is super-competent and active and involved on every front - including a full-time job and raising exceptional children and an overwhelming multitude of other impressive activities.) 
But many, many of working mothers are already consumed (as I would be) with traveling to and from and keeping their home life and personal sanity somewhat together after a full day somewhere else. What have they got left to give to their real, i.e. residential, community? The volunteers at the school are largely "unworking" mothers. 
And I hate this woman against woman ragging. Why can’t we just let women be? And acknowledge that there are valuable and wholesome effects brought about by paycheck and non-paycheck people in our communities – instead of throwing guilt at each other? 
It’s like the forward in that Permaculture book (David Holmgren?) where he’s obviously been taken to task once too many by self-righteous feminists writing in and he rather testily points out that NO, his wife is not a downtrodden woman that he keeps locked up in the kitchen, but that she has chosen the hands-on work rather than writing the books and wake up, people, that a new environmental model – where we stop being so addicted to accumulating STUFF and start LIVING on the land we have - requires that there be hands who actually dig and plant and grind and cook – and that that work is what makes ideas reality. ARRR!!

Not all my rants this week have been on paper only. One day my daughters are late for school and I choose to take their younger brother to his school first (because he’s not late yet and with this route I can still get to my swim group on time). “Well,” says a daughter,

“when I’m a mom I’m going to put my children’s education FIRST!” and I erupt in rage (YOu do that, sweetie!) and am still – oh, very angry – because when I come back later that afternoon they still don’t get it. They’re still suffering from the unfairness of it all! (the unfairness! Tell me, please, what it was I have been putting first? My backstroke?) Do I really have to become nothing in their eyes so that they can break away and become something on their own?
It’s time for a change. (In society as a whole, but I think I'm going to have to make the first move.) But how do I make this transition? 
I think the older ones don’t really need anymore the things I do. I think, to them if I brought more money in, if I were doing something dignified by a paycheck – that they would value. Though they’d be surprised at the time it takes to do the invisible things I do – groceries, laundry, most meals, invisible tidying & disinfecting, outside, long-term food preparation (bread, canning, drying, etc.). They already think they’re doing it all – they tell me this - that they clean the house in their chores, pack their own lunches, cook dinner sometimes. 
But [8-year-old] still needs someone home when he gets home (by law and honestly I can see that he does). He gets anxious even when I talk about being gone during the day. Do I make him pay for them? for me? I don’t want to have to do everything I do at home PLUS a job – or live in disorder and chaos because it just doesn’t get done. But I feel guilty staying at home now but also angry I can’t just have peace and time to do writing and home-things without at my back always hearing Opinion’s wingéd chariot ready to trample me down.

If there is a unifying web amidst this week of rants, it is that I am dissatisfied with my present form of life, but (and in the very same breath) irritated that this hard-won (if not wholly achieved) competence over the years all counts for less than nothing. 

I’m no Martha Stewart – that’s not the kind of housewifery I’ve been aiming for. But I wonder sometimes if I don’t save more money than most part-time jobs would earn me. I can make bread and feed my family on beans and . . . whoa, I feel another rant coming on.

Looking for some concrete point to web my silks onto, I find a single word
– which being interpreted means that our CSA share provided us with more beets than I ever thought possible to need and I have been making borscht over and over - to the near universal dismay of the hungry hordes. The recipe I found that finally passed muster was for Ukrainian Borshch and I think the secret was the rich meaty homemade beef broth at its base – truly delicious, nigh unto addicting with a little yogurt stirred in.

Ugh! And still everything I write down convicts me of the charge of Mommy-ness. This domestic round is my life. Me - mouthy and ambitious! Who would have believed? Maybe everyone always knew, could see this fatal and incipient domesticity, except for me.

And yet if I were a zookeeper what I do every day would be valuable and worth at least an article in a young readers’ magazine - if not a mini-documentary.

(Sorry, rant again.)

When I haven’t been ranting, I have been reading like a madma’am, because this is the final week before I enter the realm of no non-essential reading. This week: The Tiger Ladies (memoir of a girl growing up in Kashmir), Twelve Little Cakes (memoir of a girl growing up in Czechoslovakia with parents who were anti-Communist), and Sky Burial (memoir of a Chinese woman who as a young wife searches Tibet for her medical officer husband – 20 years later finding out and then wandering home, lost)

For each of which I also have rants.

There are just weeks that living through I’ve begged the future redactor of my journals to skip over and flip to the meaty part (surely, surely) just up ahead, the part where the story gets good. It’s an unexpected pleasure to be that redactor myself and to close the door, softly, on this ranting woman, and move on to the future . . .

Love is a climate small things find safe to grow in . . .

"Winter Dancing" by Brian Kershisnik

The Smaller Orchid
by Amy Clampitt

Love is a climate
small things find safe
to grow in—not
(though I once supposed so)
the demanding cattleya
du côté de chez Swann,
glamour among the fauborgs,
hothouse overpowerings, blisses
and cruelties at teatime, but this
next-to-unindentifiable wildling,
hardly more than a
sprout, I’ve found
flourishing in the hollows
of a granite seashore—
a cheerful tousle, little,
white, down-to-earth orchid
declaring its authenticity,
if you hug the ground
close enough, in a powerful
whiff of vanilla.
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