Saturday, July 27, 2013

Onward and Upwards

Fear crouches in my chest. The voices start up: who do you think you are? Why don’t you get a real job? You are going to embarrass yourself. You should be spending more time with your kids instead of writing.

Really? You guys again? I think.

With my recent recommitment to writing, I feel more like me. More alive. I’m finally, finally doing that one thing that I’ve always wanted to do but been too stuck or afraid or busy to really dive into consistently.

I’m not sure why writing feels easy and fun right now. Maybe it’s because I’m on the fast track to 40’sville and I’m realizing this is it, this is my life. Maybe all those years of therapy are finding kicking in. But wherever this tailwind is from, I’m grateful.
But I’m also scared.

I used to get frustrated when I’d work and work and work on an issue, seemingly moving forward, and then without warning, I’d backtrack. Fear and external challenges would pop up and sometimes I’d sabotage myself. The sabotage usually showed up as overeating, too much television, or isolation.

Then I heard of the concept of the ‘upward spiral.’ The theory is that as we move through life, working on our issues, we move forwards and up, around and around. On the Slinky of life, if you will. We don’t backtrack. But as we circle around, propelling upwards, we revisit old places. Hard places.

As a slowly recovering perfectionist, the idea of backsliding is blasphemy to me. But the idea of spiraling up makes sense. I’m writing and I’m running. Most importantly, I’m cozying up to myself. I’m showing up and showing myself: the awkward parts, the scary parts, the funny parts. All the parts.

I’m cycling up and around.

Last week, someone I care about criticized my writing, and worse, me. Because I believe in kindness, I’m not going to say more about that. But because I also believe in truth telling, I’m going to say that it sucked and my heart hurt. And for about 24 hours, that external, critical voice melded with my internal, critical voice and those voices were freakin’ loud. I doubted myself and the choices I was making in writing and sharing this all with you.

And then I talked to some friends and to my husband. I realized, oh, I bet this is that upward spiral thing again. And I breathed and I slept and when I woke up the next day, I felt a lot better.  

So see, you silly voices? I’m on to you. You saw me circling around and came out to meet me. You even brought friends. If you’re right? If this writing thing doesn’t work out? I can get a job. I can regroup and try something else. But before that, I’m going to give this thing a chance. This one thing that brings me alive, that brings me up and up and up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


image by Bas van de Wiel

For John Witham
I first set eyes on Portland on Valentine’s Day of 1998. I was 23. A friend and I were road tripping across America, and I wanted to see the city I’d read about in Stephen King novels.

We arrived in the evening, taking Congress Street to the east end and then looping back into downtown. The sidewalks were piled with snow, and the lights of restaurants and shops along the street glowed. Just a month earlier had been the famous ice storm, leaving power lines and branches laden with glistening ice. I don't remember noticing the paper hearts that peppered the city, the work of the famous Valentine's Day bandit. But as we walked the city that night, passing I felt like some warm, braided force was tugging at my feet through the packed snow, through the brick and cobblestone sidewalks and the earth buried below. I had left Alaska with a broken heart, and there was something about Portland that seeped into that empty part of me.

I met John when we parked my car in the lot he attended. He was warm and friendly, and he waved each time we retrieved my little red Subaru. When I told him the next day that Portland felt right to me and I might come back, he grinned.


My friend and I drove down to Florida, then to Mardi Gras, and then to Memphis, where we had tickets for a G Love concert. Lovesick, I thought of Portland the whole way. My friend caught an airplane back to Alaska. I headed north, then east.


John’s faced curved into a big smile when he saw me return to his parking lot. Over the weeks and months to come, he was a grounding force. I was 4000 miles away from Alaska and everyone I had ever loved.

John took me out to watch bluegrass at a pub between his parking lot and the Everett Hotel, where I was staying. Over cigarettes and drinks, we talked about his love of music and how I wanted to be a writer. The warm twang of the banjos and fiddles swirled around us. 
Another time at another bar, I watched him play. His stage name was the Hollerin’ Man, and I enjoyed his wholehearted bellow as he strummed his guitar. He played North to Alaska, dedicating it to me.
I sensed that John had a little crush on me, but he was twice my age and he never tried to cross the line of our friendship. He was kind and affable, but there was a sadness to him, too. A loneliness that didn’t seem to bother trying to hide. It spilled out into his voice when he sang. It scared me a little, because I recognized it as something I felt all too often. Something I see in so many creative, sensitive people, who often turn to addictions to try and dull that ache, that seeking. I could tell that John drank too much. He had a son who I don’t think he saw often, but when he talked about him, I could see the pride rise off of him like steam.

John helped me find a small apartment just steps away from my new job at Coffee By Design. The apartment was tiny, and I would crouch in the bath after work to scrub the coffee smell off of my skin. At night, through the wall by my bed, I often heard my neighbor having sex. Somehow that sound of connection through the paper-thin walls made me feel lonelier than ever. But I had a place to stay, and I was grateful to John for helping me.

As time passed, I made friends with co-workers who were closer to me in age, and I saw John less. When we did run into each other, he always had that big smile, and that sadness pooling just beneath.

I had been living in Portland for just under a year when my brother died. I went home to Alaska. I had a return airplane ticket, but I kept pushing the date further and further back.

For the next year, I lived with my parents again. I went to grief groups and wrote letters to my dead brother. I sat on the porch behind my brother’s rusting basketball hoop and smoked. I stared into the sky, looking for signs that he was still out there somewhere.

Sometimes I wondered about the life I’d left in Maine, and whether I’d find the strength to leave my parents again and return to what I’d started to build there.


In 2002, I returned to Portland.

Within the first weeks of being back, I was introduced to Scott. I got a job. I started recovery for my food issues. I bought a house. With surprisingly little effort, my life was being woven.

A few years later, I saw John. I had heard that he’d stopped drinking. We smiled at each other and he waved. He looked thin. I ducked away before we could catch up with each other. Maybe I was afraid of that sadness in him, and that it might still be lurking in me, too. Maybe I was tired or hungry. I regret that I didn’t go up to him and thank him. For his kindness, for helping me grow roots in Portland.


Recently, I found John occupying my thoughts. I hadn’t seen him in years, so I searched the internet to see if he was still local.

I found out John had died a few weeks before my son was born. While I was waiting, belly bursting, he was dying of liver disease. My son was born eleven years and one day after I’d met John.

I read about John’s life. I learned that after being diagnosed with liver disease, he’d received a transplant. The experience bled into his music. He’d gotten sober, written and sang about his second chance. Then his illness worsened.

I thought about how thin and tenuous the strands of our lives can feel, the way one person can appear and our entire course changes. I don’t know if I would’ve stayed in Portland without John’s friendliness and help. If I hadn’t stayed in Portland, my whole life would be different. My children, if I had them, would have different faces. Maybe I would be in Seattle or Alaska or Spain. Sometimes it feels like our lives are like bumper cars, colliding and shifting course, a fragile fate.

I wish I could sit with John over a warm cup of coffee. We would catch up and talk about music and writing. We would talk about our sons. I would say: Thank you for your kindness. For your smile. You changed my life. My good, good life. Thank you.


“I’m taller than J.D., right Mom?” Max asked me this morning. Everything for him is a competition right now. I find it unnerving.

“Yes, you are. Some people are taller than others, some are smaller. People come in all different sizes and shapes,” I told him.

“But not shapes, Mom!” I paused and tried to squint through his four-year-old perspective. ‘Shapes’ to him means triangles and hexagons, not pear-shaped or muscular, top heavy or petite.

“Okay. But people are all different. But we’re also the same.” He looked at me. “I’m going to go play some music now.”

I said, “Okay.”

I want to tell him that we, like most everything, are made of the ancient dust of exploded stars. That our DNA is 99.9% the same. That the electric energy of the human heart extends several feet past where our skin stops. That we are all born lonely, and too many of us do crazy things to try and fight it. That the people running our country and the person in the little yellow car who just cut me off are different but the same. That the music he just ran off to play might be inherited from his uncle or his grandfather, who both died years before Max was born. That I had a friend named John who loved music, too. That our connections are like spider webs, sometimes invisible, sometimes glimmering. That sometimes we meet people who pivot us in different directions, for better or for worse, and we are forever changed. 

Is there someone who appeared like an angel at a turning point in your life?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hey, Jealousy

Image by Hazel Bregazzi

If my four-year-old son, Max, had his way, I would never:

Hug anybody besides him and Violet
Talk to anybody besides immediately family, but mostly him
Finish telling Scott a story or listening to Scott tell me a story
Laugh about anything funny unless he is trying to make me laugh
Do anything fun with anybody besides him

In a way, I get it. I am a jealous person; ask my husband. Except don’t ask my husband, or I will gypsy curse your ass. Seriously, step away from my husband.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend who I hadn’t seen in a year came over with her son. Without thinking about it, we embraced. My son instantly heaped himself onto the floor and began screeching. Eventually, I could make out the words.

“NOT A GOOD IDEA TO HUG!” he bellowed.

From then on, he was wary. “Not a good idea to talk,” he said when my friend and I were chatting in the kitchen. “Not a good idea to laugh,” he hollered from upstairs as we swapped parenting war stories and giggled.

At a birthday party a month ago, anytime I dared to talk with the birthday girl’s mother, another good friend, Max didn’t say anything. He just stomped up to us and performed a karate chop between us with his hand. It reminded me of those old Ginsu knife commercials.

“It’s hard to share Mama, isn’t it,” I say to him, nodding. He narrows his eyes at me. “Mama has enough love to share, Maxie.” I say these words over and over, with slight variations, whenever these jealousy flares occur. Sometimes the jealousy makes me feel bad, because it’s clear that his hurt is real to him. Sometimes I have to hide my mild amusement, such as when he debuted his karate chop technique. Other times, his reactions are just plain annoying.

A few Saturdays ago, we went to Sebago Lake with Max’s godparents. Max happily splashed around and flirted with his godmother. Then, his godmother invited me to paddle around on floats with her. We headed to the dock, where I slowly lowered myself into the water, allowing it to swirl above my bellybutton. Finally, proud of myself for venturing outside of my comfort zone, my friend and I kicked and floated in the lake, giggling. The water was a welcome respite from the 90 degree weather and I felt like a little kid.

Until I heard my little kid screaming from the shore. He had spotted us. My sins were numerous: having fun. Laughing. Talking to someone else. Being beyond Max’s reach.

There was nothing to do but continue floating and paddling and let Max be pissed.

And pissed he was. When we reached the shore again several minutes later, he met me in the water and proceeded to slap and splash me. At one point, he even lunged towards me with his lips peeled back like a Doberman pincher, and I had to dodge his rabid bite. “Maxie, I know you’re mad. I can see you’re really, really mad,” I said. “Arrgghgharrr!” he responded, continuing to flail his arms in my direction.

After a lot of splashing and hollering (mostly Max) and coaxing and a popsicle, Max finally calmed down. There was another brief incident where he popped his penis out of the top of his swim shorts and announced, “Can’t make it!” (to the bathroom) and the hollering began again, but with nudity incorporated.

Eventually, we coerced him into his clothes and got in the car, where he slumped into naptown.

When I’m not annoyed or humored or empathizing with Max’s jealousy, I’m wondering if there’s something it can teach me.

How do I react when I don’t think there’s enough of something or someone to go around? Enough love or money or time? Enough attention?

Does my rational brain shut down, leaving me anxious and internally collapsing in protest?

Maybe Max is acting as a mirror for my own jealousy. Maybe he’s offering a chance for me to see how ridiculous envy is. How jagged and narrow, a shard of mirror casting a warped image. Maybe it’s a chance to remember how expansive life is. How much of each of us there is to go around. To hear my own words to him: Don’t worry, sweetie. There is enough.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Truth about Vacationing with Young Children

Yesterday, I stood outside and chatted with a friend whose children are the same age as mine. She was getting ready to leave for a family trip. As she talked about staying in a hotel room with the kids and how she and her husband would probably have to go to bed at the same time as their children, I thought she sounded a little stressed out.

“It sounds a little stressful,” I reflected.

She agreed. She mentioned a few other aspects of the trip, which involved both a family reunion and a memorial service.

I leaned in and said, “It sounds really stressful.” I paused for a second. Our oldest sons were tackling my daughter, Violet, on the driveway. I stepped forward, ready to rescue her. “Gentle, you guys!” Violet, though, was smiling as she rolled around in the dirty asphalt, the two boys embracing her.

I turned back to my friend. “It sounds super stressful,” I said again. “Honestly? I think travelling with small children is hell on earth.”

She glanced at me, then nodded.

As soon as I had uttered the words, I felt a little burst of energy. The kind that comes when you’ve been holding a quiet truth inside you and you finally let it out into the sunlight.

My husband and I held off on travelling with our children until last summer, when our son Max was three-and-a-half and Violet was six months old. Besides a quick 16-hour getaway during my pregnancy with my daughter, we hadn’t vacationed since our son was born.

Some of it was because of finances; my husband changed careers right after our son was born, and I became a stay-at-home mom. We didn’t have a lot of disposable income. But mostly, we were overwhelmed enough with life with tiny kids at home. The effort required for travelling just seemed like too much work. Thinking of security checks and suitcases and time zone changes while dealing with little children made me sleepy; I get overwhelmed enough just packing up for a day at the beach.

I had watched with awe as friends whisked their newborns and toddlers away on airplanes to the Caribbean and Florida and the Midwest, and as others embarked on long road trips with their little ones. I thought of all the family vacations we took when I was a child growing up in Alaska. A collage of hazy, bright memories from those vacations lives in my memory: feeding frozen peas to tropical fish at Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, paddling around in a skiff on an Alaskan lake, the flashing lights of arcade in Oregon.   
Last summer, we decided to finally give travel a whirl. I made compulsive lists of all the things we would need, and I frantically checked them off in between little anxiety meltdowns: ohmygod we’re not going to have enough fruit! I almost forgot the wipes! My husband gently reminded me that we would have access to supplies on the small island we were headed to. We jammed up our car with groceries and sunscreen and diapers and headed to the ferry terminal.

We were doing it.

Taking a leap. Vacationing, like real grown-ups do with their small children! A chance to escape the mundane chaos of home. We headed all the way to Peaks Island, a twenty minute boat ride from our home in Portland.

We rented a house on the beach on the island where my husband grew up. His parents still live there, and his brother and sister and their families were spending the Fourth of July week there as well.

As we unpacked, the first thing I noticed was that I had to carry my daughter. All. The. Time. At home, I had little stations set up to contain Violet. There was the exersaucer in the kitchen where I put her so I could “cook.” The swing in the living room where she napped. The bouncy seat in the bathroom that allowed me to shower while she happily jiggled up and down. I had brought none of these tools with us. She had not quite learned to sit on her own, and if I put her down she would usually topple right over.

Then there was our son, Max. Our strong-willed preschooler who likes things to be predictable. Bereft of the routines and boundaries of home, he took to darting out the screen door of the beach house. Once, while I lugged our daughter around, my husband became frantic to stop Max. He blurted, “There’re monsters outside! Come back in right now!” Max’s eyes widened, and for once, he listened.

Max also got so relaxed on vacation that he took to naked snacking. We have a picture of him perched on a bar stool in the kitchen, eating a cereal bar in the nude. While charming, he was not yet potty trained at the time, and I wondered what toddler scat might mean for our security deposit.

Also, there was sleep. The lack thereof. Neither of our kids were good sleepers to begin with. Whisking them away from their normal bed and crib did not help. Our daughter began teething the moment the boat docked.

There were also environmental issues. The ad for the vacation house had not shown the narrow spiral staircase right in the middle of the vacation house. Trying to keep Max away from it was tiresome. And every time I carried him up the stairs to where our bedrooms were, I envisioned both of us crumpled and lifeless at the bottom of the stairwell, a vacation gone terribly awry. To top it off, the owner of the house popped up around the property throughout the week of our stay. Perhaps he needed to monitor the rusting graveyard of dead cars and boats that lined the property.

I knew that our first vacation with children wouldn’t be like vacations of the past. I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to read a stack of books or take naps or have some afternoon sex. But I still hoped we would have a chance to rejuvenate.

Being kangarooed to my daughter while my son attempted to escape into the Atlantic Ocean and the homeowner crept around the property did not feel rejuvenating.

Vacation was just like being at home. We changed diapers and fed the kids every few hours and tried to get them to sleep. It was just like home but we had to pay hundreds of dollars for the rental house. It was just like home but without the exersaucers and routines and toys. It was just like home but with a spiral staircase of doom and a looming landlord.

To be fair, we had some lovely moments. We had lots of cookouts with Scott’s family. We watched Max and his cousins prance around the beach most mornings, and everyone was happy and playful in the sea air. Max drumming on the big rocks by his cousins' cottage on the back shore. Max still talks about our vacation. He remembers the ocean and how he used the butterfly net we found in the vacation house to catch candy at the Fourth of July parade.

Maybe other families have more docile children or are better at managing their own expectations of vacationing. Maybe my own parents were able to hide the frustrations of travelling as a family so I could capture the positive memories I have. Or maybe the hardest parts of travels fade like the body memory of labor pains, leaving you thinking that wasn’t really so bad. I could do that again…

But this summer, we’re staying put. We’re going to the beach and the aquarium, to splash parks and lakes. But no overnights. Perhaps in a few more years we will venture out again. When both kids are more likely to sleep and can help haul their own luggage. When they don’t need constant supervision from the crack of dawn until sunset. And several times in between. Or we could wait until we can go to one of those fancy family resorts that offers child care—and figure out a way to not feel guilty when we pawn our kids off on strangers so we can have grown up fun.

Or maybe we just need to learn to roll with the punches a little better. To be more like my daughter, who can be sandwiched between two rambunctious four-year-olds, covered in driveway detritus, and still smile.

 Tell me the truth... do/did you really enjoy travelling with young children?


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hot Yoga

image by Martin Peters
Last weekend, I went to the first Maine Yoga Fest. My husband’s work was a sponsor of the new event, and we were fortunate to receive some free passes for the weekend. My husband and I were supposed to go to Goddess Yoga together on Saturday. But right as we were getting ready to drop the kids off with my parents, Max throws an enormous tantrum and refuses to get dressed. “I DON’T KNOW HOW!” he hollers, flailing around on the couch in his undies.

After about 20 minutes of trying to cajole our four-year-old into putting his clothes on, we realize there is no way we can inflict his vile mood on my parents. “Go ahead,” Scott says. “I’ll stay here with the kids.”

I suspect he is nervous that we would be harnessing our womb power in the class, creating a fierce and overpowering vortex of estrogen. But I am grateful for his offer to wrangle the wildebeests, so I head off to the yoga festival.

Walking the hallways of the East End Community School, I pass by beautiful yogi after beautiful yogi, most clad in skin-sucking leggings and tops. Is this supermodel yoga, or can I be here, too? I wonder.

Shuffling amongst the slender yet muscular yet bosomy crowd, I look down at my once-black yoga pants. They are more of a dark grey now, with mysterious swirls of kid food debris and drool (theirs, not mine). I feel something happening that used to occur all the time, a fast moving body dysmorphia. My hips expand, my small breasts flatten. Crows feet deepen. I feel lumpy and frumpy among the crowd of gorgeous women. Is this what they mean by ‘hot yoga’? I wonder, eyeing yet another adorable young yogi. Thank goodness my husband didn't come. There are way too many goddesses here!

Stop comparing, my saner voice says. You are here to do something good for yourself.

Before my kids were born, I did a fair amount of yoga. Now the only downward facing dog in my life appears when my son is done pooping. “Mom! I’m done!” he bellows, and I walk towards the bathroom, where I find him on his hands and feet, naked bottom pointing to the ceiling. I mentally call this position ‘brown dog.’

I make my way to a large, white tent outside and plop my yoga mat down. The day is hot and sticky, and the tent provides a welcome shade. I close my eyes for a few moments before the class starts, attempting to shake off the aftershocks of my son’s tantrum and my jealousy of the other festival attendees.

The mats around me fill up with bodies, which I try to not compare mine to. The teacher appears. She is radiant and several months pregnant. As she begins the class, she tells us about three Hindi goddesses. Behind her, a woman plays the guitar and sings in a sweet, pastel voice. I close my eyes and listen.

I hear about Parvati, goddess of love and devotion. Kali, who is fierce and many-armed. Lakshmi, who represents beauty and abundance. As I start to root into my body and move, the teacher weaves stories of the goddesses into our practice.

I stretch. My muscles reach, hitting that sweet space between burn and pleasure. We flow through a series of poses, always coming back to downward facing dog, our bodies making lines of v’s. I try to ignore the girl in the front row, the one who can move her body further and deeper than anyone else. Fortunately, the effort of the poses requires most of my focus.

I hear the whoosh of my own breath. The guitar strings and the singer’s wispy voice and the stories. Parvati, so devoted. The tempest energy of Kali. Flowering Lakshmi. I take it all in and my body loosens. My mind slows.

We move and move and move. Up and down, our bodies rise to make crescent moons, then fold to the warm earth. I feel the tangle of grass on my forehead as I rest in child’s pose. I feel new space in my shoulders as we ‘thread the needle,’ and I hear myself exhale a small noise of pleasure. I try to ignore the girl in the front row who can somehow sit on her own neck.

When I close my eyes, I see bright smears of color: hot orange, whispers of purple, clouds of pink.

I remember why I both love and avoid yoga: it requires attention to myself, when so often my attention is divided among my family, my work, and trying to keep our house from devolving into an utter biohazard.

But like a mother, like Parvati, yoga gives more than it asks. As we finally rest in shivasana, I hold my palms to my heart. We all hold so much: devotion, fierceness, beauty. I let small images flicker through my mind: My children crawling on me in the morning. Max’s tantrum. Our lovely, toy-strewn home.

We open our eyes.

I am back in my body, the only one I get in this lifetime. It is enough.

I head out into the sunlight.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


image by Fran Linden

...on over to Love for Lemons. I'm talking about why middle age is a good time to take up running... or something new.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Elephant in the Room

Shake your trunk-- I'm over at the elephant journal today. Come see! Leave a comment, if you dare!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Dress

“Do you want that little sundress for Vi? The one you wore in Spain when you were little?” my mom asked yesterday morning.

My mom disappeared into the basement for several minutes, then came back holding it. The small white dress boasted Spanish looking red and green embroidery and was sprinkled with pink and yellow flowers. Knowing how toddlers roll and knowing how messy I am, I found it hard to believe that I ever actually worn it, and that it survived for nearly four decades, pristine. It didn’t feel like it had been mine.

We wrangled Violet into the dress, and she prettily strutted around my parents’ condo. I looked at my mom, who has olive skin and dark hair and eyes like I do. We watched Violet and I pondered, as I often do, how this little sparkly little blue-eyed, paper-white skinned, reddish-haired girl could have sprouted from my body.

Last week, when my son was sick, I laid next to him on the couch. He was a bit sour smelling from throwing up, and he was sweaty and vacant-eyed. But when I snuggled in with him, my arms sticky from his feverish skin, I thought we belong to each other.

I don’t feel always feel the same way with my daughter. Maybe it is because she’s younger and we haven’t had the time together that Max and I have. Maybe it is because Max and I braided tightly together through the hell of his infancy. Or because Max and I are both stubborn, intense and sensitive. Or because he looks so much like my brother.

Maybe it was because Violet was a surprise. I found out I was pregnant on April Fool’s Day. At first, it did not feel like a happy surprise or a zany turn of events. The timing felt bad, and the hormone surge of the new pregnancy sucked me into a depression. Combined with the constant nausea and exhaustion while trying to take care of a spirited two-year-old, the pregnancy felt like something I couldn’t survive.

I considered ending the pregnancy. Every morning when I woke up and the nausea and thick wall of depression met me, I said to my husband, “I can’t do this.”

He said, “You can.”

I said, “I feel like I can’t and I need you to be okay with that.” He would hug me and try to meet me where I was, but if you have ever experienced depression, you know that people can’t really meet you where you are. It is a foggy, shrouded place that spouts a constant stream of distorted thoughts. You look like yourself, but inside is the worst version of you, lost and dark.

Whenever I drove by Planned Parenthood, I would stare at the building and wonder if I would be walking through those doors the next week.

I told my therapist about my doubts. “Thirty-seven-year old married people don’t get abortions,” I said.

“They do. They absolutely do. Far more often than you would think,” she said. She had sat in her chair talking with clients for many, many years, and when she said that, I believed her.

One day when I drove by Planned Parenthood and stared, I thought but what if this is my little girl? I let my fingertips touch my belly, imagining the small seed of a baby instead of a detonating hormone bomb. I made some phone calls and got medication for the nausea and depression.

I survived.

We survived.

When she was born, the midwife placed her on my chest. “Is she still a girl?” I asked.

I had always imagined a daughter. She would have my dark features and be sensitive and creative. She was tiny and light in my arms. She had pale skin and blue eyes. We took each other in.

In the first weeks of her life, we had a terrible health scare with Violet. I will write about it someday. The scare made me feel she was even more slippery, less mine. I thought that perhaps I just didn’t deserve her, since I once contemplated not bringing her into being.

On the Fourth of July, Violet woke up in full diva mode. She is usually independent with an easy laugh. Her eyes hold a hint of mischief. She is one of those bright spirits who it just feels good to be around. But yesterday, she started squawking demands and displeasure from the moment I pulled her from her crib.

We headed to Peaks Island to be with Scott’s family for the day. Max pranced around outside with his cousins all day long. Violet clung to me. She took quick breaks to demand cantaloupe and snap peas and cookies. I sat with her, feeling both delighted and agitated to be so tethered.

The kids’ uncle James gave us a ride back to Portland on his lobster boat. Max got to steer the boat for a few minutes, and he looked proud and wide-eyed. Violet was terrified. I held onto her tight. I had a quick dark thought of her slipping into the water. I locked my arms around her. She was still wearing my dress which was now her dress, and I felt the soft fabric and her softer skin and I thought I will never let you go. And as soon as I thought it, I knew it was a lie. I will let her go a thousand times throughout her life.

As we rushed through the glittering sea, I tried to swallow the moment. Surrounded by family, still young and lovely. My boy, proud and awed. My husband, strong and handsome, glued to Max to keep him safe. Such a good father. My girl in my arms, the surest place she knows. Just for the moment, they were all mine.



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Circles: What I want my son to know about death


Last winter when a friend was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, friends were asked to send mail. I sat down with Max at the dining room table with a few blank sheets of paper and a pile of crayons.
“Do you want to make a drawing for our friend? He’s not feeling well,” I asked Max.

“Sure!” he said. He grabbed a crayon and made a few wide circles on the paper. “Circles help you feel better,” he said.

“I don’t want to die,” Max said to me yesterday as I buckled the straps on his car seat. He wore his camouflage costume from last Halloween, his face serious under the floppy green and brown hat.

“I know, Maxie. Nobody wants to die,” I said in a soft voice.

“I’m never, ever going to die,” he said.

  I could think of nothing to say, so I kissed his nose and closed the door as gently as I could.

At our friend’s ceremony on Sunday, people told stories about him. I hadn’t known him very well, and I soaked in the stories. I heard of his generosity, how much he adored his wife, and his lifelong fascination with turtles.

After the stories, the few hundred of us, dressed in bright colors per his wife’s request, stood in a field of grass in a huge circle. We rubbed our hands together while thinking of our friend’s energy. The friction of our palms created heat, and we raised our hands towards the empty sky to send him on his way.

 “I’m never ever going to die, right?” Max asked the other day. I was parking the car so we could go to the playground.
“Let’s just go have fun,” Scott said. I looked at Scott. “He’s four years old. He doesn’t need to know that we all die,” he said. I nodded my head. We headed towards the brightly colored playground.

When my brother died when I was 24, I spent a lot of time sitting in rooms with other grieving people. I heard about their husbands, mothers and children who had died. We sat in circles and told each other’s stories. The details and relationships were different, but the emotions were the same. “I feel like I’m going crazy,” someone would say. I stared at the candle in the middle of the room and I listened and nodded.

Sometimes I shared. I talked about how scared I was that more people I loved would die. I talked about how much I worried about my parents. How I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore because they were worrying about things young people worried about, like dating and college and cool shoes. Meanwhile I just sat on my parents’ porch in the dark. I blew smoke towards the stars and looked into all that air, hoping for a sign.

An early memory. I am four or five. I am standing in my backyard blowing bubbles. I lift my face up to watch them float, round and iridescent. The edges of the bubbles shimmer pink and blue as they rise and pop. And there is something about the colors and the empty sky that makes me think of my mom’s friend Gail who died. Something about all that shimmer and sky. And I thought that Gail was there somehow in those bubbles, in the slippery colors, lifting and disappearing. I was grateful for the crunch of the small pebbles beneath my feet to steady me.

“Is he dead now?” Max asked the other night when I came home from the ceremony for our friend. We laid in Max’s bed, the jewel-toned glow of Christmas lights on his wall illuminating his skin.

“Yes, he is,” I said.

“So, he’s down?” he said.

I paused. “I guess so, Maxie.”

“So, his bones are out?”

Another pause. “Well, when people die, they don’t need their bones anymore.”

“Oh,” he said. He smiled at me. “Mama, can you please tell me about when me and Daddy and Papa went to the Red Claws game?”

“Sure,” I said.

I huddled close and told him what I knew.


Maxie, I believe in telling the truth about death. I know that with these big questions, I am supposed to let you take the lead. I am supposed to give simple answers, and not tell more than you ask for. But when you say, “I’m never, ever going to die, right?” I am stumped. I know all too well that there are no guarantees, that parents lose their children without notice, that the universe doesn’t play fair.

I could say, “I think you are going to live for a very, very long time.”

I won’t tell you that even the thought of you and Violet dying as very, very old people with gnarled limbs and misty eyes and terrible, loose skin makes me hold my breath. That every night, I ask that you two outlive Daddy and I. I ask for you to be safe and healthy and happy, and I picture you both encircled in warm, amber-toned protective light.

That whenever I spot a penny on a sidewalk, I pick it up and think of my brother. I smile and put the cool, round coin in my pocket. That I always find pennies at just the right time.

That for the decade before you were born, I wrote about and talked about and worked around death. I believed that most of what we need to know about life can be found when we sidle up to death. But when I had you and Violet, I got scared and superstitious and quiet about death. That I am still scared and superstitious, but the other day when all those people lifted their hands to the sky, I started to remember what I've been trying to forget.

That someone at the ceremony for our friend talked about telling her children about death and what happens. She said that she believes when we die, we burst off and merge with the hearts and minds of the people who love us. Whatever else happens, I know that much is true. When I heard that, it reminded me of those bubbles popping, and how somehow, those glittering colors and light must go somewhere.

But Maxie, maybe you already know all of this. After all, you told me, “Circles help you feel better.” You were right. 

 How do you talk about death with your children?

Photo Credits: Mosaic: Michael & Christa Richert

Bubbles: Przemyslaw 'env1ro' Szczepanski

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Best of Attentions

“They each come with their own sack of love,” my mom always said. “Having Violet won’t take away love from Max or Scott,” she promised, knowing I was nervous about the transition of becoming a mother of two. 

Loving another child was one of the few things I wasn’t terribly worried about. I knew that love multiplies, that it is infinite and abundant. I knew my love for my new daughter would grow at a pace similar to her physical growth—quickly at first, like how a newborn doubles in weight within months, then pooling and deepening with time.

Unfortunately, attention is not so expansive.

One of the hardest parts of going from being a mother of one to a mother of two has been having my attention constantly divided. Sometimes I get halfway through the day and realize I haven’t stopped and really seen my children as individuals. Instead, they morph into a two-headed creature that shouts demands and fights and poops and whose driving motive is to keep me from being able to finish reading a two paragraph email.

Once, not long after Violet was born, I was at a play area with both kids. My brain was trying so hard to adjust to suddenly having two small people to guard. I looked around, spotted Max playing nearby, and then thought frantically, Where is the other one? The “other one” was sleeping in my arms.  

For almost three years, it was just my son and I. He got the best and worst of me, but he got all of me. I remember lying next to him one morning when I was swollen with my daughter. Tears slid down my cheeks as I thought about how different Max’s life was about to become. Would becoming a big brother break our sensitive, strong-willed boy? At the time, Max had a habit of rubbing my forehead with his thumb when he was nervous or tired. It was sweet, (and also slightly painful since we failed to clip his nails on a regular basis), and as I felt the pad of his thumb pressing between my eyebrows, I looked at him and tried to imagine how he had travelled from the shriveled infant he once was to this toddler-boy.  

Fast forward 18 months. This week, Max’s preschool was closed for two days, while Violet’s daycare was open. For the last few weeks, four-year-old Max asked repeatedly, “Is it Mommy and Max day yet?” “Soon, sweetie,” I promised. In the scramble of caring for the children, making sure my husband and I each get a sliver of time for ourselves individually and time as a couple, we rarely remember to take one-on-one time with the kids.

As it turns out, we got an extra Mommy and Max day this week. On Wednesday, Max came home sick from school in the late morning. He laid on the couch, feverish and vacant-eyed. I laid next to him reading while Thomas and His Friends streamed on the computer. He woke up every so often to vomit hot fruit chunks all over the couch. It was a long, quiet, stinky day.

The next morning, on our first official Mommy and Max day, he hurled a little bit of fluid into the bathtub and then asked for toast and milk, which I reluctantly gave him. As he pranced around the living room, it become clear that he was better, and I was not. Blurry headed and nauseous, I somehow managed to drive him to the BounceZone, where he played for five minutes and then announced, “I don’t like this.” Fortunately, I was able to drop him off with my parents for the afternoon so I could get a little sleep.

“That was only part of a Mommy and Max day,” he told me later that night. He said it straight-faced, and intense guilt hurtled at my foggy head.

By Friday, though I still wasn’t feeling like myself, I rallied. We went to an indoor play place. We came home and had some friends over for a play date. We went bowling. As I watched Max hurl the small ball down the wood lanes, my heart felt heavy and sentimental. I felt like I was just seeing my boy for the first time in 18 months, since my daughter was born. He was inches taller, his once round face thinned out. He could talk and climb and bowl. How is my baby old enough to bowl?

It would be a big, fat lie to say that parenting has come easily to me. I need a lot of time to myself, and I get short-tempered and impatient and cray cray when I don’t get it. I have been through post-partum depression twice. I frequently find myself bored and agitated. When I hear those older ladies, the ones who are always in the grocery store, telling me, “Enjoy it! It goes by so fast,” I tense up. Are you freaking kidding me? I think. This day has already been three years long. I know rationally that the older women are right. I also know they suffer mild amnesia about the reality of raising small children. Just like the terrible clench of labor contractions, the memory of the raging tantrums and constant demands of these years with young children will soften in my mind. They will sweeten.

Yesterday, I didn’t just know this, I felt it. All day long, I watched my boy’s sweet, thinned out face. I hugged him until he pushed me away like an embarrassed teenager. I rubbed his forehead with my thumb. At bedtime, when he asked me to snuggle with him, even though I was exhausted and a little bit sick and we’d spent the entire day together with no nap, I gladly crawled into bed with him, inhaling the dry bark smell of his hair. We pressed our faces so close together that we blurred.

After the kids were finally both asleep, I looked at pictures of Max. I went from new pictures to the oldest ones, a reverse time lapse. There he was last week, going down the slide with his sister on his lap. Last fall, at the Cumberland Fair on his first ride, holding on tight and grinning. Last summer, about to demolish a plate of mango at his cousin’s house, the roundness of babyhood still clinging to his arms and face. In his old car seat, pudgy-cheeked with long bangs. In his high chair with clots of sweet potatoes smeared across his face. In the Ergo. In his lamb swing. In a swaddle. In my arms at the hospital, swollen-faced and impossibly small.  

It took slowing down and some extra attention for me to really absorb the velocity of time. I know that tomorrow I will be impatient again. I will hear myself sigh and mutter curse words under my breath in the kitchen. But I will also try and remember how quickly it all goes, the hard times and the sweet ones. I will try and pay more attention.

If you have more than one child, how do you give attention to each?