Good to You

“We were together. I forget the rest.” -Walt Whitman 

kelly

We have been in school for two months now and it feels like a year already. Two months without drawing or writing or baking. Two months of chasing in a city that has decided that the best way to do construction is all at once, making every path I take a two hour venture. Two months of watching two kids play volleyball, rehearse for a musical, study for algebra, and avoid my attempts to Snapchat (officially the first app that makes me feel like an old person).

Two months outside of myself. Two days in a row I found myself at the grocery store listening to other moms lose their cool. One woman was shopping with a newborn and two older children. The boy wandered away a few steps and his mom snapped about how she should be able to look away for “two seconds” to “take care of business” without having to worry about his “antics.” At the second store, a mom, after being asked about fifty times, “Can we get this? Can we have this?” finally screamed, “NO ONE ASK ME FOR ONE MORE THING. JUST STOOO-OP,” and I wondered if that is how I sound most of the time, during these months when we are racing out the door so early in the morning and then spending our evenings skipping meals to jump from one thing to the next.

Finally, last night I cleaned up the house and cooked a real dinner. Lizzie asked if we were having company. Sigh.

I need to know how to be more patient and also more selfish all at once. At school, my students have started to write their artist statements and the one I read today said that the only reason he makes art at all is to pass the class. I wonder if the only reason I do anything is do pass the day. Yesterday I made two samples for my drawing class so that I could demo stuff about composition and design and as I lost myself in lemon drawings, I wondered if I am wasting my talent or missing opportunities or if I should be waking up at four to meditate.

I resort to drinking brandy old fashioneds and going to bed at nine. Yesterday, my son woke me out of a dead sleep to tell me that he was hungry. The jolt of “I am awake” kept me wake until wee hours until I drifted off again, only to be woken my the geriatric dog, who peed on me.

Fall, usually my favorite season, has found me falling apart. The house, my friendships … my willingness to stay outside of myself and watch bad television or hours of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Quinn, all because anything that demands more of the inner me feels too overwhelming.

I distract myself by ordering things on Zulily and scrolling through Pinterest, pinning dream studios and houses that are wide open and not crumbling, scrolling through Instagram and Facebook like perhaps there is a hidden secret there, an app that will tell me how to be me again. In a brief moment of belief, I considered finding a trainer that would maybe work out with me at four AM and then I brushed the thought off and went back to my numerology app. I am failing in just about every way possible.

On November 2nd the clock changes and we fall back and I am wondering if in that fake gift of an hour that I can fall back into myself … that for one hour I can be me again and that I will be allowed to be silly or loved or lost in a drawing that only matters to me. Often, I find myself humming the Avett Brothers lyric, “I want to be good to you.” I have always thought that I was singing that to my family, to my kids, to Sean, but I think the reason it keeps bubbling up as a mantra is because I am meant to sing it to myself.

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Eddie, Me, and the One Time I Never Spoke Up

I was seven when my parents transferred me to a private, mixed age level school. Before that, I went to a neighborhood school. The first time I remember actually feeling empathy mixed with fear was in kindergarten, when our fat, bully of a principal, wearing his too-tight, grey polyester suit and black horn rimmed glasses, strode into our classroom, scowling, and picked up a boy named Eddie by the armpit. The principal started to scream and curse at this skinny five year old boy and then in front of my entire class, beat the shit out of that kid. I made eye contact with Eddie and could see a single tear escape the corner of his eye. He remained completely silent otherwise. I was wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh dress with a red bow tie and (my mother didn’t notice) I never wore it again.

That story still stirs up hate in my heart. It sat with me the rest of my time at that school and I still think of it sometimes, when I am painting. Sometimes my need to paint comes from that place of injustice. Still, I have never directly painted about Eddie. Awhile back, I Googled the principal’s name and learned that he had passed away quite some time ago and when I read that I felt like spitting on something.

I never, coming home from school, told my parents about the incident. I never talked about how scary a lot of things that happened to me in that classroom were … how a boy named Erik tied me up at recess and stole my shoes, how I was the only kid who knew how to read already and my teachers would make me read aloud in front of everyone else, who in turn, teased me relentlessly, how a girl named Meg continually stuck out her bratty tongue at me and spread hateful rumors.

Years later, even at the private school, I never told them about how a boy named Damian made fun of my lunch box and how all the kids teased me because my mom made my clothes instead of buying them. I would get on the bus and kids would say, “Oh that’s such a nice dress,” and when I would thank them they would role their eyes and say, “I guess your mother made that. She must not know how to shop.” I also never told them about the horrible abuse my brother suffered on that same bus, not just from kids, but from the bus driver too. I can still hear that bus driver threaten my brother and it feels like drums at a parade.

None of those things really lingered with me for too long … only Eddie’s story did and so this past Saturday when I read the Adrian Peterson story and then foolishly chose to look at the photos of his torturous act, I became deeply depressed and angry. It doesn’t help that I also have a four year old son, so that imagining the abuse is that much clearer for me. I have been incredibly sad about the fact that people are debating this issue as if there is an issue up for debate and also troubled that it has also become somewhat of a talking point that revolves around southerners and race.

Every single person I know personally, that has been abused, is white, and they are from right here, not the south. Since I have been ranting about the NFL on Facebook, I have had countless conversations with friends, co-workers, and even childhood friends, many of them sharing their own stories of abuse. One guy told me that he used to have to go into a closet with his teacher and pull his pants down, lie across her lap, and she would beat him with a heavy gold ruler. Another friend told me about how her siblings would have to choose, each morning, if they wanted to be hit with a belt or a hairbrush. When I asked her what she chose, she said, “the belt.” I just worry that if everyone out there thinks that “whipping kids” is primarily a southern, christian, or black thing, then the kids who aren’t those things, will be even more scared to speak out.

If I didn’t tell my parents about something that happened to a boy I hardly knew, I can imagine that there are countless adults out there who have never, ever been brave enough to face their past, their accusers, or to even tell their best friend or their children,  about what they went through. Though I vehemently oppose any kind of corporal punishment (I almost had a lady at Target locked up for swatting her three year old) I am, at this point, not even addressing discipline. I am addressing mental and physical abuse, which oftentimes does not end for children once they are adults. I have a friend whose mother still hits her, and she is forty.

I don’t know how to fix this for anyone. It bothers me that I can’t fix it.

I think it is because of Eddie that I have always had a distaste for rules and authority. It is because of Eddie that when I took religion classes at a Catholic high school, I argued relentlessly with my teachers about their lessons. It is because of Eddie that I have extreme impatience with any type of violent behavior. Eddie has probably changed the way I parent. A five year old boy, the color of caramels, with big brown eyes, and a striped velour shirt, changed me forever.

Once, in high school, I went with my teacher to a Zen temple to mediate and the zen master straightened my spine, gently, with a ruler, and I never went back. I have never, ever liked being told what to do. As a teacher now, I avoid as many should’s as possible and have to go into most meetings with the silent mantra “don’t say anything, don’t say anything.” This hardly works. I can’t help myself.

Eddie is likely still alive and I am positive he doesn’t know I exist … that all these years I have kept his shame in my heart. My hope is that Adrian Peterson’s story will change the way some people parent. Maybe the best case scenario is that he changes his ways and then leads by his miraculous example. Maybe he can, in fact, “fix it.” I am doubtful that is going to happen because just a few months ago I stood behind a woman in a coffee shop who talked to her two year old like he was a beastly enemy and took his cookie away for because she didn’t like that he was walking in a circle.

Sometimes, I think about just packing up the kids and moving to some remote location in Alaska. We would have sled dogs and an igloo and I’d make enough money to get by … we’d leave everything behind and just be surrounded by sky and rabbits and the occasional friendly guest. Sometimes, the human race is just too much for me.

I will tell you a secret. Each year our school makes t-shirts and the faculty members are supposed to wear them on the first day. I never wear mine. This is for a variety of reasons  (the font is always bad, I don’t look good in red, boobs and a crew neck equal vomit), but the biggest reason is so that I stand out to the kids who notice that I don’t play by the rules either. Each year, after the opening day assembly, at least one kid comes into my room and starts to cry about the stress of the assembly, the noise, the pressure. They find me.

Maybe I can’t fix it all. Maybe I can’t fix the Adrian Peterson mentality or the asshole on Twitter who thinks all kids deserve “the ROD.” I feel like I can, however, be a safe place for some kids to land and that I can continue, each day, to make every kid I work with, feel valuable. Maybe that is enough. Especially if the alternative is Alaska. My parents would miss me and I don’t know how to knit.

It’s okay to love people, you know? Really love them. It takes the sting out.

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Fab Four (a birthday letter)

qcard bday

I have been carrying around the same school ID card since the day I was hospitalized in 2010. I went to school, got my picture taken. I was wearing lavender. Then, over lunch, I went for an ultrasound and did not return to school for a month. Ask any teacher what the worst months are for having kids and they will answer “the first week of September and the middle of May.” Somehow, I managed to do both. 

When I think about your birth I see myself, sitting alone on a hospital bed, late at night, after all my visitors had gone home and I was left with just the buzz of the antepartum unit, watching Weeds on Netflix, and singing to my premature belly, quietly. I sang Leona Naess’s Ballerina over and over and over again:

I didn’t think I wanted you
But I want you now
Was so empty in me
Feel you crashing down
Into the empty world
The music stops
I want to rescue want to scream out loud
You will always be mine

So so sorry
Just come back for me now
So so sorry
Just come back to me now

I am really so glad, Quinn, that you decided to stay. Our lives are so much richer and funnier and smarter because of you. At four, you are chatty and quiet all at once. You are madly in love with your stuffed friends, Teddy and Bunny and Pupford and today, you fell for a robotic goldfish from your uncle Chris. You named it Globefish and you grabbed him from his bowl and carried him in your lap the entire way to drop Lizzie off at volleyball practice and pick up William from volleyball practice(you have seen more volleyball in your four short years than most adults ever have). You wanted to remember to take a bath with Globefish when we came back from all of our chasing, but you fell asleep in the car, Starbucks chocolate chip cookie remnants plastered to your lips, and the last thing you said as you drifted off was, “I want a taco.” 

You scared us quite a bit last week, when you were rushed to Children’s Hospital and admitted for a severe asthma attack that came out of nowhere. Once stabilized, you fully enjoyed being in the hospital, peeing in a bottle, “room service,”and waking around with your IV pole. To watch you go from barely breathing and the threat of the ICU,to a few days later, having the energy and breath to blow out all four of your candles, is yet another reminder that all things are possible. No one knows that lesson better than you do and you seem to keep showing me again and again and again:

hospitalqday

 In the morning, Dad will take you to school to share four photos exactly and celebrate your big day. I told Sean that he would have to sing the Montessori birthday song, and after all this time, he did not know what that was (I always did the birthday celebrations at school, but you, kiddo, September 3rd? First day of class? Not gonna happen). I sang, LOUDLY, to Sean, “The earth goes around the sun, tra-la-la, the earth goes around the sun,” but he did not let me get to four verses. He stopped me midway through tra-la-la, with the words, “Please stop.” If ever I were to be a fly on the wall, it would be to witness your dad singing tra-la-la. 

So happy birthday, sweet boy. I wish you could remain four for more than a year. From past experience, I will tell you that it is an especially great year, one in which you drift between toddlerhood and childhood, hanging on to the wonder of one and reaching for the magic of the next. You getting more curious with each passing day. This week you asked me to name body parts that you did not know the words for (collarbone, vertebrae, and testicle … thanks for that, by the way) and then replied, “I just have so many round things,” which made me laugh and also recall one of my favorite quotes from “A Sketchbook with Voices,” that reads, “Our heads are round so that our thinking can change direction.” I hope that as you grow, you continue to wonder, to explore, to change your mind about things, to see things in a new light. 

As for me, you are my light, and through you, I see things anew every single day and I am grateful for that beyond measure. It’s why every mom cries when they sing, “You are my sunshine.” Just the mere thought of you ever going away, just the suggestion of it through the whisper of a lyric, is enough to bring us to our knees. You, my dear, are powerful and amazing, and I love you. You are, as Leona Naess sings, “my cupcake and my earthquake.” 

 

 

 

 

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Momma Birds, Bandaids, and Day One

“As you wander through this troubled world
In search of all things beautiful
You can close your eyes when you’re miles away
And hear my voice like a serenade”

                                         -Dixie Chicks, Lullaby

Quinn started school. School! That wee little 480 gram baby is grown. Last night, we cuddled up in bed and he told me that he was feeling “nervous.” I told him that nervous was an okay feeling, that it meant something exciting was going to happen. His three-year-old little self replied, “I am still nervous.” I reminded him of the blocks we saw on the day we visited his classroom. He spied the tiniest little block on top of a tall tower of Montessori blocks and his teacher promised that one day she would give him a lesson on those blocks. He has been talking about the tiny one ever since. “I really like that tiny block,” he reminds me, constantly. He listened to me talk about the blocks with great admiration and then he sighed, “Okay, I will go to school, but I am still never going on an airplane.” I assured him that we would tackle one fear at a time. 

quinn day 2 quinn K3 William G8

I did not really anticipate tearing up. After all, I have been through this three times before and I know that he will love school and that everything will be okay. Plus, I was a little distracted that William also started eighth grade this morning and that Lizzie had volleyball tryouts at her new high school. Still, when I pulled into the drop-off line and saw Roger’s face (Roger who has coached as taught and encouraged all of my kids) I inhaled a big, scary breath that stuck in my throat and did not escape until Quinn hopped out of the van (with a little assistance from his big brother). The teacher in line shut the door and very said in a very Montessori, matter of fact, tear the bandaid off way, “Bye, Mom.” 

I had a first grade teacher once who ripped a bandaid off my arm without warning me. We were at a reading table, shaped like a semicircle and she was trying to give some type of lesson or another and I sat there, picking slowly at the sticky plastic strip stuck to my forearm. I probably wasn’t really listening. I just remember zoning into distinct focus when she reaching across the table and screamed, “For crying out loud, just pull it off,” and tore it from my skin. It hurt so, so much, but I did not cry. I just secretly hated her from then on. She could have taught me a lesson on how humans can fly and I would have tuned her out. I was done with her. 

Today I cried, though. I cried only until the stoplight and then I just hyperventilated briefly and checked my makeup in the rearview mirror because I was late for a meeting at my own school and then I looked away because, as Sean says, “nobody is looking at me anyway.”

Last week I drove the four kids and Haley girl to Lake George, NY, to visit my in-laws at their postcard of a home. We drove through the night and the older kids stayed awake with me so that I did not crash. At four in the morning, we took a detour through pitch black, winding Adirondack mountain roads. We all got nauseous and kind of punchy, and then, out of our drunken tiredness, began to sing aloud every single lyric to every “High School Musical” song we could remember. When we finally arrived at the lake, we all crashed for hours and all later testified that those hours were the deepest, best hours of sleep we ever had. 

On the second day of our trip, it rained and rained. We decided to swim, despite the weather and we floated out there on styrofoam noodles, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and clear water and no one else in the world, for hours.

I don’t know why, but jumping off the dock scares me to pieces. I am fine once I am in, but the jump … gosh, I guess I am just not a “rip the bandaid off” kind of girl. The kids drifted in the water, egging me on, wanting so badly just to get out and push me in. At one point in my procrastination, I looked up at the mountains, my cheeks dripping with rain water,  and I thought about the jump as a baptism of sorts. As I paced the last few steps before the ultimate jump, I said goodbye to summer. I let the water catch and hold me, a temporary womb, and I prayed to just remember that moment, the sound of it, kids laughing mixed with rain falling. I prayed to remember it months from now when we are knee deep in snow and dark mornings and piles of school work. I prayed to remember it when it’s not Quinn’s first day of Children’s House, but his first day of college. 

I purposely don’t watch the news because once Martina told me to stop, after a story about child abuse lingered with me for too long. She looked at me and said, “If you hated peas, would you eat peas?” I shook my head. She concurred, and maybe this makes no sense at all, that if watching the news made me so sad, then it was not good for me. It was peas. Still, I follow former student’s blogs … students who are photographing war zones and poverty and racial injustice. I am aware of the complexities and hypocrisies and unfairness in the world and some days I think that maybe I should be writing or making art about “important, worldly things,” or that I should learn to be a quick, articulate, Russell Brand, fighting the good fight. I should be making a difference other than writing about mountain rain and bandaids (a word, by the way, that eliminated me from a fourth grade spelling bee). 

I don’t know how to do that, though. I don’t know how to save the world or even be worldly. What I know for sure is that there is a sadness about motherhood that does not have voice. That momma bird pushes those tiny birds out of the nest and then nobody ever really asks what happens to the mom next.

When Quinn fell asleep tonight, he asked me if I was proud and I said I was. He said he was proud too and then he asked me if everybody was proud and I assured him they were. If I have a voice or a prayer it is the one that wants to be the serenade in the lullaby song. I want to be a homecoming. I want for that little boy who walked up those big school steps, solo, to dream big dreams and to live his life, but I want a piece of him to feel that I am the waiting lake. 

It’s the only way I know to make my dent in the world. There is a tiny bruise on my heart from letting Quinn go today. I think that magic of motherhood is learning how to turn that bruise into love. 

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Lolo

Today is the third anniversary of my Grandmother’s death. July 25th, surrounded by her family, Quinn in her arms, she died. Below are the excerpts from my earlier blog and the words I spoke at her funeral. I miss her a lot, especially now, with Quinn. She would really like him. Today, William and I are walking to La Tarte to buy cream puffs because I would bring these to her each summer, once she got too old for the State Fair. The baker at La Tarte makes the best cream puffs in the universe, better than the fair anyway. We are toasting to you, Lolo, with whipped cream and powdered sugar mustaches and are hoping that somewhere you can see us and know that we haven’t forgotten this day: 

Goodbye at 2:12

My grandma died yesterday.

The loloINK grandma.

No one called her Lolo until Luke was born and he couldn’t say Grandma Lois. It’s weird how that caught on. I can’t imagine calling her anything else now, but most of my life she was Grandma Lois.

She died at 2:12pm, which is the exact same time that I was born. That was a full circle moment for me and having her close our intimate connection in such a symbolic way was a very fine and sneaky and fun gesture. Three of my four children were holding her as she died. Luke, though, the one who named her Lolo, was camping ten hours north of her nursing home bed, in Ashland, which is where my Grandma grew up. Fitting, I suppose, that he, the child of mine with the longest link to her, the most time spent with her, would be honoring her on her old stomping grounds.

In fact, one of my favorite stories about Lolo is from her time in Ashland. She gave birth to my aunt Janice there, at home, on the floor. Worried about the mess she was creating, she asked her older sister to please hand her some newspapers. Her sister, mistaking the request for another kind, said, “You want to read? Now?!”

I have had the honor of being with both of my grandmothers when they passed away. Yesterday, I was struck by how similar their deaths were. My reaction to their dying though, has not been the same. When my grandma Jean died, I immediately wanted to celebrate her life, to tell stories, to talk at her funeral, but when Lolo died, well, I guess I just felt sad.

I did not expect to feel sad because she has been slowly dying for almost a year now. It was a beautiful death, a death I have been praying for. So I am surprised that I am sad and even more surprised that I don’t really want to talk about it. 

Lolo is the entire reason why I wanted a big family. Her Christmas Eve is the reason I’ve worked so hard on my marriage and with my children. I want to grow up to be an old woman, with piles of presents on my lap. I want to grow up and cook a giant meal in anticipation of all of my children and grandchildren coming home.

Her influence on me has been enormous and subtle. My love of glasses, dishes, bathrooms lined with cute soaps…towels, nighties, coats, and beer, all link to her. She told me never to use the word hate or the phrase “pissed off.” She taught me how to love.

Last night I could not sleep. That is not unusual in the summer, because Sean turns our air conditioner off (because it is noisy) and then tosses and turns until the down comforter is twisted around me like rope. Last night though, I really, really couldn’t sleep. At four AM I walked downstairs in my underwear and spent the next three hours scrubbing the kitchen clean.  I despise cleaning and never use it as a means to alleviate stress. I needed to not think, though, needed for my head to stop hurting, needed to sweat, needed not to wonder… and in some very weird and unexplainable way, needed my grandma to feel proud of me.

It felt like I was preparing the kitchen for a homecoming. 

Lois’s Mass, Saturday, July 30, 2011.

My grandmother never went to high school, though she would have liked to, it was not an option. In fact, when it came time for her middle school graduation, no one even showed up. When I asked her why she eloped instead of having a wedding, she answered, “Well, you know, there wasn’t money, but anyway, who would have come? No one would have come.” So I hope she is watching over this church right now and she sees how many, many people are gathered together. Several of you have traveled from long distances to be here. You negotiated with co-workers to cover your shifts so that you could be here today. You gave up other plans. You showed up, honoring her in a way that she would never have expected or demanded, but in a way that would just delight her.

Windmill cookies, fig newtons, liver dumplings, pickled herring, martinis, sauerkraut and pork, beef with gravy, corn candy, circus peanuts, concord grapes, waffles with strawberries and extra whipped cream.

There are so many foods that always make me think about my Grandma. When we were going through photos for today’s service, I came across one of her grinning, wearing a red and white polka dot dress, in front of the oven, her immaculate kitchen behind her. It is the only photo that I have asked my family to let me keep.

There are certainly more lovely pictures of her . . . photos from way back where she is simply gorgeous, but to me the heart of my grandmother lies in that kitchen photo. She loved cooking for all of you. The finest days of her life, she would tell me, are when her kids were little and the neighborhood ladies all wore housedresses and would pop in for afternoon visits to swap recipes or stories or coupons.

I still dream of that house on 72nd street and in my dream I am almost always in the kitchen. Even now, I can smell that dish soap and feel the clatter of the pile mismatched old utensils in the spoon drawer. I can smell the cabinets that held all of her fancy glasses, and the cabinet below that one, which had candy in it . . . peppermint leaves, usually.

Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was pure magic to me . . . not because of the prepared meal or the tree, but because of the energy in that kitchen, where many of you would be . . . making drinks or egging one another on to try the herring. And always a kid or two, in the kitchen hallway, playing with the clothes chute.

The thing about dying slowly though, is that many of us said goodbye to that house years ago. We watched my grandma transition to Deer Creek village where she made a whole new host of friends. She always made friends easily and quickly and though she was never the leader of the pack, she was always sitting quietly among the group, always gently present, always open to all points of view. Even there, at Deer Creek, well into her nineties, my grandma made dinners for my entire family. She always burnt the rolls and there was a lot more salt than there was from the 72nd street kitchen, but still, it was lovely.

Lois spent the last several months of her life at St. Anne’s. She watched a lot of Martha Stewart. One of her hospice nurses told me that she’d always look at whatever Martha was cooking and say, “I used to make that, but I did it this way . . . I’m sure Martha’s is good though.” When the reality of being in a nursing home would set in, she’d beg my mother or me to take her home. Once I asked her what she wanted to do at home and she looked at me, a sad stare, and said, “I miss cooking.”

I don’t think it’s the cooking she missed so much, as it was the idea of being surrounded by all of you, sharing a meal, breaking bread, laughing. My grandma was not a woman of many words. She was occasionally shy. She was quiet, but she was also strong and brave. For a woman who was raised without a mother, she ended up setting the bar pretty high for the rest of us.

And though she had strong opinions, they were about simple things, like her insisting my mother make my brother and I wear undershirts. “It’s winter, Pat. They will catch cold. Where is her undershirt?” Or her insisting that I take Capitol Drive for my route home. I could have been in Racine and she’d tell me to take Capitol. She definitely had a stubborn streak and as far as the little things went, she liked it her way.

About the big things, well, I’m sure she had opinions, but those she kept to herself and in doing that she gave her children the greatest gift. She let you be who you are. She may have disagreed with you, but she let love win, every time. I have never met anyone with children so diverse. She let you find yourself in your own skin and then she loved you some more. And if you complained, she’d tell you it could be worse. And if you were really complaining, she’d tell you to “think positive.”

I think in the end, one of the saddest things to witness was her letting go of those two catch phrases. It was hard to watch her live in a situation where even she had a difficult time finding the positive. Even she didn’t imagine it could get much worse. It’s why in many ways, letting go of her now is easier than it might have been. She is free of that body and free of pain and we are free of witnessing it, which allows us to then really reflect on and celebrate the life she lead. I know she would want you to think positively about her.

She would want us to play cards or Yahtzee or bingo. She’d want us to gather. Months from now, she’d hope that you’d see a peony bush bloom and that the site of those big, pink blossoms, would fill your heart with happy memories of her. She wouldn’t want us to dwell on the little details of her life, but to celebrate her spirit, which, lucky for us, runs through each of our veins, gracefully, delicately, without a trace of bitterness.

 

 

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Grey is My Favorite Color

Mrs.Fleege IMG_1023-Recovered Slide186

I got totally distracted sitting here at this old computer, searching for the perfect photo to include with your birthday letter. Originally, I was searching for this one of me, holding your new five pound self with your one year old sister on my lap. I love this photo. I remember Grandma bringing Elizabeth in for a hospital visit and thinking that Lizzie looked huge, bloated, as if she had had some sort of allergic reaction in her twenty four hour absence from me. Lolo is holding you in this picture and,man, did she love you. You had her heart in the palm of your preemie hand from the get go.

When I looked for the photograph though, this drawing popped up. It’s one that I created of you and Mrs. Fleege, when you were Quinn’s age, and in her classroom. I owe everything to Mrs. Fleege because you were a really hard toddler … or at least that is what I thought. Looking back, I think I was just a really hard mother. Still, Mrs. Fleege saved both our spirits during those years. You must have drawn a million pictures in her room and I saved them all. I really did. They were amazing.

It’s funny that this particular drawing showed up on my screen because today Quinn and I went to meet his new teacher, as we will be out of town on the official meet and greet day. New teacher, same room. To be honest, when I walked into the room, I did not feel excited or nostalgic. I kind of felt like “oh holy shit, this again.” She said the words, “snack calendar” and a piece of me died inside.  I don’t know … maybe the drawing confirms that once Quinn walks through those doors, lightning speed takes over.

As I continued to hunt for photos of your birthday, I saw head shots (the one seen here was shot by Kris Lou and Erik Robert), taken just under a year ago. Yesterday, when you ran into the house, handsome, tan, smiling and soaking wet from a hose that the neighbor boy attacked you with, I just could not stop staring at you. I remember reading a magazine interview with Brad Pitt’s mom about ten years ago and the interviewer asked his mom if she could understand why he was the sexiest man alive and she said it was hard to see it. Bullshit. If you are ever on the cover of People magazine, I will not deny your magnetism.

Boy, it took a long time to get to this, but happy thirteenth birthday, sweet William. One day you will meet  a girl and she will have a crush on you and she will insist that you are a Cancer. She will flip to the horoscope section of a magazine or find an app for that and say, “SEE! I told you that you are a Cancer.” I am telling you right now though that this is not true. I have had your chart done a million times. You are a Leo, by three minutes. A DOUBLE Leo, with both your moon and your sun lighting your fire. You were five weeks early and your labor was long and well, laborious, but you waited until it was time to be a Leo.

Born on the cusp, right in-between things, it seems fitting that your middle name is Grey. You are the best of both signs, and probably the best of both dad and myself. Grey always was my favorite color.

When I took you for a casting call last week for a national skateboard ad, you told me you really wanted it, enough so that you were nervous. When the creative team called your name, you walked in, three skateboards piled in your arms like a tiered cake. You told me later that you were shaking, but were happy that no one could tell. They shut the door behind you and within sixty seconds, I heard them all laughing deep belly laughs. When we got in the car, I asked you what you said to make them laugh and you replied,”I don’t know, Mom. I am fucking hilarious.”

You are, indeed. Your voice is changing and your are eating so much that I feel like I am living with a human tapeworm. By your next birthday, you will be taller than me. No matter what changes or what thirteen brings, I just want you to know that when I look at you, I can feel the enormity of what life has to offer. I can feel that the life you carve out for yourself with be rich and deep, complex and beautiful (and fucking hilarious, of course). Now that I am a mom to a toddler again, I know that I made a million mistakes as your mom and I wish that I understood how to be a better mom when you were little. I hope that you will forgive me those mistakes and know that despite them, I am madly in love with you.

There is a joy in being the third kid, you know, because the Xbox game that I bought you for your present, is one that I never would have allowed Luke to even look at when he was your age. The man at the checkout counter asked if I was aware of the violence and nudity in the game and I shrugged and nodded. You’re welcome.

One of my favorite William stories is from the time I was packing up clothing for Goodwill, getting rid of all of the things you had outgrown. You sat on the floor, crying, insisting, “But I AM A GOOD WILL.” You are such a good one. May this year continue to bring you the light you deserve. I love you.

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A Rock, a Shovel, or a Box

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I was drawing at the dining room table and Quinn was in the backyard playing in his sandbox. He pushed the backdoor open and said, “Um, Mommy? Greta is biting a bird.”

I went out to see the destruction Greta-the-dog created and thought about how ironic it was that Quinn and I had just been watching a show about predators (cheetahs vs gazelles). I could see from the deck that if G had caught a bird, it was a big one, but when I got closer I could see that it was this very sweet, dear baby bunny, old enough to leave the nest, but not old enough to escape the jaws of a German Shorthaired Pointer.  

He was breathing and I could not see an injury. I knew that he probably wouldn’t make it and I knew that he was scared and struggling and that the humane thing to do would probably just be to put him out of his misery. I went to the garage to get a shovel and on my way I grabbed a giant patio rock. I stood above the dying bunny and he stared back at giant me. His eyes were gentle and teary and Quinn asked what we should do. Birds were chirping loudly above me, circling, as if they were scolding me for losing control of my dog. 

The bunny was larger than Quinn was when he was born. Something about the way he just laid there, staring up at me, reminded me of micro preemie Quinn in the incubator.l.zNZcSvHppbJpzqKi 

The eyes were exactly the same. Maybe that rabbit’s brain was the size of a pebble, but his soul was bigger than the Pacific. I just could not bonk him. I could not take that rock and smash his skull or chop it off with the shovel. It just was not the same thing as squashing a spider that lurks in the basement. 

I put the weapons of mass destruction down and went up to my closet, Quinn at my heels, full of a million questions (“Why did Greta DO THAT? What will happen NOW? Where is that bunny’s momma?”) and grabbed a heavy box with a lid, a good one that I had been saving to wrap a future gift. I jabbed holes in the top with a pencil and lined it with paper towels. The bunny continued to breathe, to suffer, to shake. 

I used the shovel to lift the baby into the box and I kept apologizing to him and wishing that Greta had just finished him off. I noticed blood on the paper towel, evidence that he was not just in shock, but definitely hurt. Quinn commented that it was nice, how gently I set him down and he told me, “Good job, Momma. That was so nice of you.”

We drove, not in silence, but to the sound of Quinn’s non-stop line of questioning, five minutes to the humane society, which must have been having some sort of pitbull party  because the parking lot was littered with them. Quinn and I wove our way through the terriers, though the glass doors to the wildlife rescue section and Quinn told the woman behind the counter the entire story. He was breathless when he finished with a loud, “AND THAT IS THE STORY OF THE BUNNY.” The worker thanked us for bringing him in and asked us if we wanted the box back (Really? Whose Christmas gift goes in there now?).

I imagine some nice doctor with a silky voice, scooping the bunny up and giving it an iv full of sweet poison and that it was all painless. Quinn just said, “Those doctors are going to take care of him and I think he will be just fine. Just fine,” he kept repeating. In reality, they probably just chucked him in the trash or something … I am glad I don’t know. It’s kind of like pretending beef at the supermarket just “comes like that.” 

When we got home, Quinn looked at me and then looked away. He sighed and said, “I can’t even THINK OF PLAYING NOW. I can only think about the bunny Greta bited.” I know bud, I know. 

When Quinn stayed behind in the hospital, all 104 days of it, he looked at me with those bunny eyes, and he was all I could think about … that fragile beauty when life walks the line between survival and death. It’s haunting, magical, and infinitely beautiful. Maybe that bunny showed up to remind me that we are always, always choosing, and maybe it always does boil down to choosing between a rock, a shovel, or a box. 

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43 Forever

Note to self:

Remember that when buying underwear, Victoria’s Secret runs large and Gap Body runs small. Mixed those up this week and when I gambled at Potowatomi, my underwear fell to my knees. I won $400 and now those panties are officially “lucky” so I am kind of screwed.
I love that it is summer and that my level of anxiety rarely rises above “panty dilemma.”
This is the first summer since I started teaching that I have a summer job too. I am realizing how much less stress is involved in illustration vs. teaching and it makes leaving teaching seem pretty inviting, except that last week I received two of the most beautiful, hand-bound books in the mail from a student I taught in 2004, with a handwritten note about the impact our years together had on her and I was reminded, yet again, of what important work good teaching is.
It has been a really beautiful summer so far, with pretty weather, but it is all going too fast. Quinn has fallen in love with the local swimming pool, which I go to, reluctantly, as it is filled with current and former students who are lifeguarding or nannying and who I officially apologize to for having to see me in a swimsuit.
My cousin joined me there yesterday and we sat in chairs while Quinn splashed around and Noel and I played “nanny or the mom,” by guessing which ladies were which. Anyone who rocked a bikini and was also clearly the mom made me sigh with envy and hatred. Still, pretty sure, no one passed the “not the nanny test,” who was evenly tan all over.
In a few weeks, I will be the mother of three teenagers, and something about that chokes me all up and makes me keenly aware that in five years they will all be off living their lives and I will just be here. Me and Quinn and Sean. Five years is not long at all and it makes me think about how my grandma used to say the best years of her life were when her kids were growing up.
Today, Elizabeth told me that she wishes she could be fourteen forever. “Maybe up to 21, but that is even too old.” I told her that I hated being fourteen and that I would not return to my twenties for a million dollars, but if I were to freeze time, it would be now (now with way more cash) because I love my life right now.
I love the chaos and the loudness. I love the age gap of the kids and that they are all still home. Luke was gone for the last two weeks and he only texted twice, once to tell me to log off Netflix, and the other to ask for cash.
I wonder what that will be like, when they all live in different places from me and if they will call me ever, just to hear my voice, or of they will think about me during their day.
The older my kids get, the more that I understand motherhood, not as the ultimate job or service or sacrifice, but as the ultimate act of falling in love.

I did rock a bikini when I was twenty three. I was evenly tan all over. I had great hair and eyebrows, to boot.
Still, I did not know how deeply I could love and be loved back, and somehow that has made all of the difference. I guess a full heart trumps a flat belly and at least I know that someone out there makes underwear for folks with bigger hips than mine. Pretty sure that is not how Victoria’s Secret hopes to make women feel sexy, but whatever, it works. Anyway, I got carded today at Trader Joe’s, so there.
When I told Lizzie that I would freeze forty three, she replied, “Yeah? This is the peak?” I told her that I hoped that lots and lots of great things happened from here on out and that I don’t like to think of it as the peak, just as a really exciting chapter, a page turner that I just cannot put down.
She gazed at me as I drove and said, “You look cute, Mom. You got some sun.”
It’s an inside light.

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Nominated is a Heavy Word

I guess it dates me, but I just cannot hear the words nomination and award without thinking of Sally Field. “You like me. You really, really like me.” When I was little people always told me that I looked like her and then I put on about five hundred pounds and folks would say I looked like Kathleen Turner. Tonight, though, a mom I met while watching Elizabeth play her first pick up game with girls at her new high school, told me that I looked like Luke, so perhaps I am on an up-swing. Regardless, THANK YOU, Valarie Kinney (check out her cool self at http://organizingchaosandothermisadventures.wordpress.com), for nominating me for the LIEBSTER AWARD. Yay, ME. Let’s get started!

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The rules (eh, I am so not a rules person, but I am gonna try):

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Eleven random facts. Eleven? I think I might be more about even numbers. Okay, wait, rules. I think I can, I think I can:

1. My secret bad for you food is a filet o’ fish sandwich from McDonalds. I swear I ate those everyday when I was pregnant… that and grape juice over crushed ice in a tall, thin glass, with a straw. I could eat a filet o’ fish every day of my life and be content to never eat anything else.

2. I had Luke at 25 and Quinn at 39. If you are wondering if there is a difference, there is. For example, no one laughed out loud when I told them I was pregnant with Luke.

3. When I was in Florida last week, my husband custom built and installed three new doors upstairs and painted our bedroom a deep, deep plum so that when I walk into it I am reminded of summer and nighttime all at once (until I step on any myriad of toys that are on the ground and then I remember that we are living in a shit hole).

4. The worst thing that has happened to me in a very long while is that we left Quinn’s teddybear at the Tuscana Resort in Florida. I could not sleep last night, sick about it, so sick that this morning when I took Elizabeth to work, I pulled over the car and puked all over the parkway. It might have just been the vodka from the night before, but I told the two men who watched me from their porch that I was pregnant. Pregnant sounds better than hungover.

5. The best thing that has happened in quite sometime is that an anonymous Facebook friend read about poor Teddy and when we walked out onto our porch this afternoon, there was a red cardboard box there, addressed to Quinn and inside of it was a note from a new bear, a lost Wisconsin bear, needing a new boy to love him.

6. I do not paint my fingernails. My nail beds are too short and nail polish just makes my hands look like I am ninety. Plus, in high school, a hot German exchange student told me that German girls never do such an ugly thing. Pretty sure that might have been false.

7. My dream “it’s never gonna happen career” would be to sing the hell out of things. For this lifetime, I am content to just sing out loud in my car.

8. I love pie. Homemade by my mom or brother or aunt Shirley pie. Fake pie is a crime. Store bought pie, ick. Real pie? Heaven. I learned this week that Haley’s favorite pie is her grandmother’s butterscotch pie, which I will now have to try.

9. I stopped eating sugar and yeast for a year and when we drove to Florida I ate sugar again. It started with a diet coke cave in about a month ago, so now that I am home I will have to start all over again. I have mixed emotions about this, mostly because of pie and rhubarb is in season and well, I really love toast.

10. I started to write a novel, but then I stopped. I wonder if it is still in me, hiding under some crevice, scared and waiting.

11. It has taken me a long time to not feel guilty about creating art and stories about such things as lost teddybears, when there are much more serious “save the world” kinds of things to be doing.

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Rule #2, my turn. Okay, peeps, I am nominating you. Less than 200 followers? You too? Aw, we gotta spread the word, people:

Um, wait. What? All of you have over 500 followers? I am shit. I am going to be disqualified because I follow only the popular people. Damn. I am sorry. #fail. Moving on.

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Questions asked to me by Valarie. Valarie with an A:

1. What is your favorite genre to read?

I am kind of in love with Gary Soto’s poetry and I reading Richard Brautigan makes me really happy. Poetry it is!

2. Have you ever gotten so angry with a book you’ve read, you quit reading that author entirely? (I have.)
I have only done this with movies, not books. My dad always insisted that I give any book at least 100 pages of my attention. I have left, bored, after that, but never angry. Though I will say that I just purchased an audio version of The Poisonwood Bible because Luke has to read that this summer for AP Lit and I thought it would be good to listen to on the road trip. I learned that I hate books on audio because I cannot visualize characters and drive simultaneously, and what fun is that?

3. When is your favorite time to write?

It doesn’t matter. I write when I need to find stillness and I guess that usually happens late at night. I am not a good “day” person and would be perfectly content to lose the hours between 2 and 6pm. I have never written anything then.

4. Have you always wanted to write, or did you happen upon it accidentally?

I have always, always, always, wanted to write. I kept my first illustrated journal when I was five and I always kept a diary of our family road trips, right down to the details of what everyone ordered for lunch. I am a born story teller, even if under 200 of you know that, it’s the God’s honest truth. Writing is no accident.

5. Do you write more often when you are angry, or happy?

Neither. Both. I write when what I have to say cannot be said with art. I write when I feel like I need a giant hug or a release on another level.

6. Give yourself a pirate name. What is it?

Jack.

7. Does your family know about your blog? Why or why not?

I am deeply connected to family. They pretty much all know how many times I sneezed today, so yes, YES, they know. In fact, it’s a big family. Aside from Valarie, they probably make up the majority of my followers. I am not sure if that is sad or fantastic.

8. Do you have a favorite author? Who is it?

I really do love Anne Lamott, but my all time favorite novel is Ordinary People.

9. Is there anything particular you consistently eat while reading or writing?

No, no … can’t mix two loves. Though, vodka does make an occasional showing.

10. Have you ever dressed up as your favorite book character? Who was it?

I hadn’t recalled this until you asked, but yes. In fourth grade, I dressed up as Willy Wonka for our school book fair. That is super embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as the time I sent Luke to school dressed as a giant black spider (a costume that took my husband all night long to fabricate) on the WRONG DAY. I did redeem myself four years later by creating Mary’s little lamb cupcakes for Elizabeth. I stayed up until four in the morning, rolling up miniature marshmallows to look like sheep fur.

11. Have you a horn to toot? Let us hear your song! Leave us your links!

Aw, you know ‘em all. I am everywhere from Behance to Instagram to Etsy.

Tag, YOU ARE IT. If you are a small time blogger, send me your link and I will become your biggest fan.

XOXOXO K

liebster2

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Both Sides of Perfection

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I’m not so sure the universe is as mysterious as it is playful.

It is Sunday night and finally, after hitting the ground running with Lizzie’s eighth grade graduation and then mazing through two days of tournaments and two graduation parties, I can pause and be here with you … which really just feels like being here with me, and that is long overdue.

Sean and I both took Elizabeth to her tournament in Crystal Lake yesterday. We never do that and it struck me that it was the first time since Christmas that I spent the entire day with my husband. The weather was beautiful and in-between matches, we sat on the grass and stared at the blue sky and that felt like a luxury. It felt luxurious just to be with two people I love at the same time without an agenda, with nothing but time to kill. The girls ended the day undefeated and each time Lizzie made a kill, she glanced over at us to see if we saw it, which was kind of darling.

Today, just Lizzie and I made the drive. The girls played three matches, eight games, and won seven of them. The gold bracket, championship round was so intense that I had to walk away and just pace the floor. 9-9. 10-10, 11-11, and so on. We lost by two, and just like the last game of her eighth grade school season, the final mistake that ended the game was Lizzie’s, and once again, she fell flat on the floor in heartbreak.

So it goes, I suppose. We left to eat and to let her sob and swear for a bit, until the hurt was out of her and I got her to laugh. Like my friend Julie said, “Give her ten minutes, feed her, and she’ll be fine.” Lizzie plays for a pretty la-dee-dah club … pretty sure that is not how they refer to themselves, but I just call it la-dee-dah. They will tell you they are the best in the state. I have always hated their motto, “Strive for perfection. Attain excellence.” These words have made me cringe for years, but today, on our ride home, it clicked and I got it, and now I feel stupid for not getting it earlier.

I am someone who is constantly getting my students to understand the dangers of perfectionism. As someone who literally, daily quotes Anne Lamott on the pitfalls of perfectionism (“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”), the club motto has always put a bug up my ass.

After stuffing ourselves with pasta, the two of us started the long drive home, but between the heat and the long day inside of a gym that smelled like dirty knee pads and nachos, I could hardly keep my eyes open. I used an app to locate a Starbucks before we left the parking lot, but it kept glitching out on me, so I just kept driving. As luck or fate would have it, a Starbucks showed up anyway, but they did not have a drive thru. Too tired to care, I  parked, left the air-conditioned van running with Lizzie in it and went to wait in a forever long line of other folks in need of a caffeine fix. As I waited for our drinks, I noticed that these green coffee sleeves were piled in a giant basket and they all had Oprah quotes on them, advertising her new chai tea latte. I reached into the stack and randomly pulled out one for my coffee. It read, “Know what sparks the light in you and then use that light to illuminate the world.” I will have to save how random and amazing that was for another blog post, because right now this is about Lizzie and perfectionism. I pulled out a sleeve for her chai. It read, “Live from the heart of yourself. Strive to be whole, not perfect.”

For a second, I felt like God was producing an episode of Candid Camera. I looked to see if anyone else was looking at me. When I got back to the car, I showed it to Elizabeth and she smiled and sighed and said it was perfect (ha). She put the seat back and soon slept and I drove through green hilly landscape, dotted with farms and antique garden shops.

When I was very young my parents had a general motors blue Hornet with a front seat that went all the way across. I would put my head in my mom’s lap and my feet in my dad’s and I would fall asleep, listening to music and the sound of the wheels wiping pavement. I felt nostalgic, taking that sunny drive today, watching my girl sleep, and I played music loudly, hoping that it might filter into her consciousness and one day be the kind of music that makes her think about me. I played Bridge Over Troubled Water, cause I want to be her bridge for sure, and I played Judy Collins and Joan Baez and anything else I could think of that reminded me of sleeping in that blue Hornet.

Right in the middle of Both Sides Now, I was reflecting on match two and about how brilliantly the girls were playing. It was, as they say, like clock work. They were practically dancing, the rhythm was so beautiful. It was, surely, a glimmer of perfection. Right when Judy Collins sang, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now,from win and lose, and still somehow it’s life’s illusions I recall” it hit me. The volleyball motto does not mean one needs to be perfect to attain excellence. THE MOTTO IS NOT SEQUENTIAL. Experience perfection. Float like that butterfly and sting like that bee, but to attain excellence means to live from the heart of oneself and that if you can experience that, you will begin to know what it means to be whole.

As a non-athlete, I am always surprised when I learn lessons about life from my volleyball loving daughter, even if this time, Oprah had to give me a nudge. Here we come, Orlando. I am officially ready for nationals.

 

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