I don’t t understand this place. The beach has sunrise, not sunset.
Photos from my pre-dawn run…
I don’t t understand this place. The beach has sunrise, not sunset.
Photos from my pre-dawn run…
I’ve been missing my grandmas this month, having lost one twenty years ago and another a month ago.
So I’ve been baking all their favorite recipes.
On St. Patrick’s Day I made my sweet Rose’s soda bread. I first made it right after college, living in Boston, when a St. Patrick’s Day card from my mom made me call her in a panic because it would be my first year since age four without her famous Irish soda bread.
The recipe is still on the back of that Snoopy card from my mom, though the See’s cocoa-and-nougat Irish potatoes that accompanied it are long gone.
My kids love the family’s soda bread. I love the bread. It’s one of our Springtime rituals. And for the first time in twenty years, my soda bread tasted terrible. It was dry and crumbly.
I felt I’d failed grandma.
She will likely forgive me, since she’s a swell old gal, and was known to muddle perhaps one recipe a year herself. And because I never question her patience with and love for me. Ever.
But that recipe got me thinking about all my heirloom recipes. My great grandmother’s honey cakes, the recipe for which my aunt gave me on my wedding day, nestled in the sterling silver tiers on which she used to serve them. My uncle’s crepes, a special treat for the kids the morning after thanksgiving, which we wolfed down as the grownups lolled about in sleeping bags and we giggled at how much powdered sugar we could keep off the table by just licking it off the thin pancakes.
During this nostalgic romp through my food memories, I found my beloved grandmother’s Crested Butte Chocolate Cake recipe. I love this recipe. I used to swear by this recipe to impress and nourish the friends who made me feel adored. But since a treasured aunt, my godmother, gave me the phenomenal Moosewood Cooks at Home, I’ve been making their 6-Minute Chocolate Cake. To the exclusion of my grandmother’s old standby, and my favorite.
Finding the cocoa-dusted recipe cards for this cake made my week.
I made my nieces this wonderful cake for a family celebration of birthdays and loss. To celebrate the end of a very stressful month. To celebrate my son turning five. To celebrate love and life. And grandmas.
As Peanut developed his birthday present wish list this year, he got engaged in a writing project in class. They’re working on nonfiction writing, and are researching to become experts, then writing a book with catchy chapter titles. It’s incredible to watch.
Peanut chose to cultivate expertise in carnivorous plants. We worked together on how to group the information. Should Venus flytraps be their own chapter? Should all pitcher plants be their own chapter? Should the plant types come up only incidentally as he writes about the ways in which carnivorous plants lure, catch, and digest their prey?
One morning, on a hike, a lovely friend asked Peanut what he was working on in school. And as he explained it, another friend turned to me and asked if we knew about the local carnivorous plant nursery. What in the holy awesome?!…No, we didn’t.
Then that night, a brainy science-y toy catalog came in the mail. Peanut leafed through and found a carnivorous plant terrarium. What in the amazing coincidence?!….Cool!
I didn’t know you can just go to Sonoma County and buy a Venus flytrap and a sundew. I didn’t know you could have them in and around your home. Neither, it turns out, did my expert. He thought they were magical tropical rarities, not local realities.
So I offered to take him and to buy some plants for his birthday. He lit up like a dancer allowed backstage at the Nutcracker.
The guy who toured us around the nursery got his first bug-devouring plant when he was 11. And he still has it.
Peanut is 9. And now is the proud owner of a pitcher plant, sundew, and Venus flytrap. Not the WKRP kind. The real kind.
He even talked me into getting his brother a carnivorous plant. Because he’s awesome that way.
Writing on the circle of life is trite and cliche, but here I am again, a year later, with another birthday/deathday post.
Last year my friend died on my youngest son’s birthday. The end of one life at 44 and celebration of 4 years for another offered a roller coaster of emotion that forced me into hyperawareness. I took 450 photos at the beach that day, and kept 85. I can recall the physical position of my body for each of those 85, and how many tears or deep breaths followed each.
This year my eldest is having a birthday on the same day we bury my grandmother. The morning included giggles and chess and special treats. The midday involved tears and reciting prayers, hugging and trying to tolerate loved ones. And traffic. Jesus Farnsworth Christ, the traffic. Then laughter and french toast dinner and gifts and a long chapter book.
My brain almost shut down with exhaustion that night, having stimulated every single part of my neuro-cognitive-emotive mind, from memory to emotion to quantum physics and stifled Church giggles. (Seriously, if you tell a group of Irish Catholics that the response to the interstitial prayers is ‘Lord, have mercy,’ you can’t help but laugh when, by the fourth round, they’re all saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Such is religious Pavlovian response, and I reserve the right to laugh out loud, even at a solemn event, when my brother shrugs and says, ‘Lord, hear our prayer and also have mercy.’)
The nature of life is death. We know this. But there are quite a few days of full-blown glorious life before we reach our eventual death, even if we die, as my friend did, painfully young. The counterbalance to joy is sorrow. And exhaustion. My sorrow on this birthday-deathday was keenest at the point in my reading where I said, “look at all she has left.” Because I was lucky enough to have a grandma whom I adored, meet and love my children. I don’t know that life gets better than that. I really don’t. Accomplishments and glorious food and wondrous sunrises and breathtaking hikes…these pale beside the knowledge that my beloved lived long enough to love what I made. To forgive me my tresspasses as I forgave those who trespassed against me. To offer a sign of peace.
Peace be with you. And also with every single person on this planet, amen. Please. Every single person, forgetting none. Genuine peace. Thank you. Amen.
Of course it’s hard to have a memorial, regardless of circumstance; and it was particularly hard to have a memorial on the day my amazing baby turns Nine. I felt I couldn’t fully mourn because I had a cake to make, a boy to cherish, a life to live. Nobody is fond of death. We rarely talk about it, except when we need a cathartic release of all the stress and pain woven into our daily lives. You can’t cry about a tough meeting, but you can cry about your grandma’s stroke. You can’t cry about the pressures of co-parenting with a person with priorities so completely different you wonder why you ever made it past the first date, but you can cry that your friend died too young, leaving his children irreparably altered. This sorrow, though, is always tempered by the joys of life. Nobody’s death is all of another person’s life. We all have parts of ourselves untouched by even the closest loves. I feel guilty that part of my life are seemingly undisturbed by grandma’s death, just as I feel guilty that parts of my life don’t change just because my children live, thrive, grow, and blossom.
As hard as it is to say goodbye, I loved my grandmother. That’s richer than chocolate mousse. She loved me. That’s sweeter than clean, clear water on a hot day. We told each other we loved and appreciated one another. That’s better than gold. Heck, that’s better than applause. I saw her a few days before her stroke, and brought her a favorite treat that she enjoyed with marked pleasure, despite all her frustrations about not being able to read, walk, or hear as she wanted to. She high-fived my son and told me stories from her time as a young mother, a time when women had to quit their jobs once they married because employers assumed marriage was for childbearing, women were exclusive childrearers, and work was for men. It was a good visit. And it was one of hundreds.
I’d still really like one more talk with her. Or ten. Or maybe one thousand. Yes. One thousand more talk, please.
We are a miracle, my family. Your family is one, too, with all its blemishes and warts and struggles and eases. We are miraculous because of those who came first, who built, and who endured.
My grandmother did these with style and grace.
And so in honor of my dear, sweet grandma, I offer a birthday card. Because life doesn’t stop, even when there is pain, even when there is sorrow. In fact, life becomes more sweet, and I pay even closer attention.
Happy next phase, grandma. May your next eternity be peaceful, restful, exciting, and funny. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, forever.
Happy, happy birthday to my incredible, hilarious, impressive Nine Year Old. May your next 90 years be full of people like your Great Grandma: kind, understanding, resilient, and welcoming. And may you bring some piece of that to the people you meet, as well. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, too, forever.
Peanut, 2006-infinity and beyond.
One of the unexpected journeys in the process of separation is reorganization. Not just reconfiguration of stuff, but of ideas and intention and meaning.
A third of the furniture goes, a quarter of the closets empty, much of the cupboards’ contents thin…there’s more space. And in those spaces there’s a lot of unearthed treasure. It’s as though the furniture has been emptied, unbolted from the wall, and moved to the center of the room. Now I get to put everything back together a different way and collect the little treasures that fell into the gaps years ago. Pennies, dust, LEGO wheels, and a long-lost photograph all reward my efforts at fixing what doesn’t feel right.
Since the house has less in it, I’ve realized what I do and don’t use, what is and isn’t important, where I do and don’t feel comfortable. Connection to what feels right waxes and wanes; excitement over exploring the spaces I find and sense of home I create is ephemeral. While the boys are awake, the house is full of life and noise and life. And it’s just right and too much all at the same time. While I work the house fades away and I’m in a known, safe place playing to my skills. When there’s no work and no children, I’m puzzled by the lack of flow around me. The books are in the wrong places and I need to reorganize. The bed drawers stick and I’m suddenly just enraged that I don’t have a dresser. I buy one and build it and feel triumphant, trying to create a new space that is all mine and fits just right. Then, in settling into the newness, I notice something else that is all wrong and needs a good reconfiguring.
The roller coaster in and out of discomfort isn’t about stuff, of course. It’s not a function of dresser or lack of dresser. The issue is not that few of the projects boxed in the garage are ever going to see the light of day, nor is the real problem that I don’t even know how to begin purging those old projects.
The sense of unease comes from not knowing which parts of my life to keep. Do I want to be more of the old me, the person from before the marriage? Am I some of those parts plus other facets I shaped with my husband and with my kids? Have I completely shed the pre-Spouse self and now need to crawl out of the marital shell as a completely new person? That’s a lot of pressure to metamorphose. Am I what I choose now to keep and what I ditch? Do I have to define myself right now, today, or can I actually give myself some time, try things out, explore and evaluate? Is unknowing exploration a quality only of youth, or am I allowed some leeway? If I buy a new dresser because the organization in my room is genuinely dreadful and not working for me, and I get gorgeous unfinished pine and paint it in glorious ways as a way to feel I own all my life changes, then I decide I hate it, can I just Craigslist my transition self and get a new one?
At least three friends are in the midst of the seeking, the sorting, the excavation; one is upset about the physical mess of splitting two merged lives into two separate lives.
The good and bad news is you can’t sort out who you are in an afternoon. Or a weekend. Or a month. You have to sit in the mess for a while. Parts of your house’s going to be a disaster as long as your heart, your head, and your life is a disaster. But in that disorganized clutter is a whole mess of opportunity.
This process isn’t like splitting a pizza dough recipe. There is no simple, William Sonoma tool for cleaving a family into two tidy sections. Not even in the annual parody.
But the messiness is an unexpected benefit of this process. Space to make changes, space to reevaluate, belongings dumped in a heap and begging to be evaluated. What’s working? What’s not? What do I need? Who I am?
In the empty and messy spaces, there is opportunity for new and opportunity for do-over. I don’t have to fill all the spaces right now. Or ever. I could leave them alone for a while. Wipe them clean and fill them with different ideas. Or shift endlessly. Consolidate and decorate and ponder. Try something and see how it goes. Put everything in boxes in the garage and donate them next year if I still don’t need them.
I’m excited to see what I find during the excavation, and how I fill or retain the spaces as I come across them. I can’t wait to sweep out the corners of my life I haven’t seen in years but that I’m slowing down to examine lately.
I don’t want to dissect this statement too carefully, because life is never as hyperbolic as I make it sound, but this might have been the best weekend ever.
Friday I met a dear friend for coffee. We unburdened and relaxed a bit. Then I packed my bags and went to another treasured friend’s house. She had planned a ladies’ weekend for us in honor of our birthdays. When I came back my extended family threw me a grand party.
Those bare details would be enough for me. From coffee with a friend through dinner with beloved family, I would have gloated that this weekend was wonderful. But the details were stunning.
The weekend included:
sleeping late two days in a row (something I haven’t done in 9 years)
a scenic run in good company
several walks along the beach
being caught off guard by a wave
copious food that I didn’t have to prepare
my first massage in almost six years
genuine and complete quiet
75 pages a book I’ve been dying to start for several years
several trips into a sauna, which resonates physically for me with nostalgia and safety
a hilarious moment when I came out of my hotel bathroom to find a small bird eating my dessert
a pink-fluffy-cloud sunrise in a pale blue sky over the ocean
two hours of quiet driving with a great audiobook
a happy house that my children and their dad had cleaned
the smells of a dinner my sons made for our party
fourteen people I love celebrating our mutual adoration with good food and wine
a gorgeous birthday cake
thoughtful homemade gifts
and a night where my children played kindly with cousins without incident.
There wasn’t any of it that could have been better. None.
I can’t remember saying that about a full two day stretch before.
Blessed, charmed, lucky, and grateful don’t even begin to articulate my current existence.
Today was the Berkeley Half Marathon, but this is not a running post, I swear. This is a post about what happens when love and elation and pure physical joy combine on a bright and clear Fall day in the Bay Area.
I’ve thought often about leaving Berkeley. I did leave, actually, after college. For Boston. And after passing through four Boston suburbs in three years, I came back. I left again a few years later. For Southern California. Good gawd, don’t ever do that. I came back.
And lately I’ve been talking about leaving again. Cost of living here is astronomical. Self righteousness is, too. I’m used to being the weirdest in a place, not one of the most conservative. And I’d like to raise my boys without working 80 hours a week, which is what it would take at these prices. Note that housing costs five times the national average here. It’s crowded and expensive and the pace is relentless. That leaves me feeling agitated quite often.
But it’s sunny and warm almost all year. The population is highly educated, the air and water are clean, the food is phenomenal, we’ve built a large and wonderful community of friends here, and the number of museums within a 20 mile radius is staggering.
So we live here and raise our boys here. And I run here.
The half marathon today covered all my regular runs, offering magical moments of “hey, I haven’t been here since I was pregnant with Butterbean” and “this is where our soccer team plays” and “I lived there in college” and “there’s my favorite fire fighter!” The course was peopled, end to end, with wonderful neighbors and friends, all cheering for the 9,000+ runners who busted their butts today.
I don’t know that many people who watch races have any earthly idea how important each cheer, each clap, each cowbell is for runners. I felt like I was flying today because of all the community love. The best homemade signs: “This seems like a lot of work for a free banana!” and “Puppies at the finish line!”
You want to make someone’s day? Say “woo!” every once in a while as a race goes by your house. You want to feel adored? Run the Boston marathon. The whole town comes out to yell for strangers making one of the toughest 4-hour efforts of their lives. It’s beautiful thing to witness.
Even better? Today a dream came true for me. I’ve always wanted to be doing something challenging and to have my boys holler “way to go, Mommy!”
For the first time in nine years, I heard “Yay, Mommy!” And I heard some version of it four times. Their dad came over early in the morning so the whole family could drive me to the start line. And then he drove our sons to four different places on the course so they could holler for me. And high-five me. And let me choke back sobs of joy while I silently insisted to myself that I channel that energy rather than wasting it on electrolyte-depleting tears.
Oooh, how I wanted to sob. I was doing my best and my kids got to see it and congratulate me loudly? Shut the front door. That’s heaven right there.
Today I ran along the water, basking in the stately presence of the Golden Gate Bridge, who was peeking out above Karl the Fog to wink at us. “It’s always warmer over there, amirite?” the bridge crowed. Today I beamed as members of Peanut’s soccer team and Butter’s preschool yelled for me and chased me as far as they could. Today I offered to help runners who had obviously been held back by injuries on the course. because love trumps all else in a community race. Today I ran without music or mental chatter because I was surrounded by a thick stream of runners and supporters, all of whom made me see the streets in a new way: communal, engaged, human.
Today felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket of sunshine with a fresh bowl of freshly picked strawberries and blueberries that I got to share with family and friends. It was a brilliant party. And I loved every minute of it. Many of my moments of joy are cut short: by reality, by the pain of others, by life. Today I had two full hours of uninterrupted joy. and the kids didn’t start fighting for at least 10 minutes after I finished, so let’s call it 130 minutes.
Thank you Berkeley, co-parent, and friends. You’re the best.
[This isn’t a post about running, but I must say for my running peeps that I finished between my goal time and my secret no-way goal time. Icing!]
I’d gotten to the point in my midlife when I thought I wouldn’t fall in love again. I’ve had my turns with relationships, and learned something glorious from each. My love for my children teaches me about infinity and about dark human frailties. My love for my friends dances about like dandelion seeds, unpredictable and lovely.
And until I found you I thought nothing could surprise me.
Friends told me about you. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t really hear them. Blah blah podcasts, blah blah library downloads. “No, thanks,” I thought. Audiobooks are what my parents listen to when they drive cross country. Books on tape we call them. You can’t hope to get a good story going in the 20 minutes on the way to the increasingly-too-freaking-far-away preschool. I can’t hear a story…really hear…on the way to the grocery store or a meeting.
The kids and I checked out audio CDs for long day trips. King Arthur legend stuff and The Hobbit. Things I didn’t want to read aloud at night. Because that reading is precious. First the back and forth of “little guy chooses a book, then big guy reads from his Just-Right chapter book, then little guy gets another, then big guy reads again…” until we brush teeth. Then the big story after lights out. Well, lights out except for the sea turtle who throws stars on the ceiling, a gift from their uncle that keeps us company all Fall and Winter. Turtle time is big story time…Peanut and I deliberate in the library and in front of our bookcases full of kids’ books. Charlotte’s Web, Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter. I save those marvelous books for “real” reading: my voice, our mismatched-but-once-inextricably-linked bodies cuddled in the big chair, focused on the spotlighted page that becomes, in the book light’s insistence, a stage on which our nightly story plays out.
Audiobooks were for the stuff I didn’t want to read. That we could finish on a trip to the beach and back, or that took too much work.
But then I got an email. Two free books to try it out. Any titles you want.
Um…can’t hurt to try? Blind date with an audiobook. I’m not ready for something new, and I don’t foresee love in my future, but I can try. Whatever. Free is good. Novelty is sometimes okay, even for the change-averse.
Oh, good heaven how you bowled me over.
Our first date was in the car, after a client kick-off meeting when I needed to relax a bit. We connected. I laughed. At once I knew we were going to be friends. And when I got home, you came in with me. You followed me around as I set up my desk for the new project, as I planned dinner. You walked with me when it was time to pick up my son at school, and it just felt right. I wasn’t ashamed. I was having a good time.
I knew our relationship would be challenging for my children, and I knew they had to come first, no matter how I was falling for you. I believe very firmly that they shouldn’t meet anyone new in my life right now. They need to know they’re the most important voices in my life. So I hit pause on our new…whatever this is, I don’t dare label it yet because you’re too new and I’m too caught up to be objective…and walked home with my son. And we played and talked and did our family things. Without you. We picked up my younger son and we all went to soccer. Without you. On the pitch we had dinner, the one I had prepared while you were reading to me. And I smiled a silly schoolgirl grin. Because eating now reminded me of great books. And walking reminded me of great books. And the car, that dreaded convenience that gets me to and from the 10,000 places a day we should be? It reminds me of you and how happy you make me.
Predictably, I’ve gotten a bit lax about keeping you and my family separate. Now when I make breakfast you’re with me, reading to me and filling our hectic morning with measured, adult speech where was there was only shrieking and teasing and laughter and whining. And when the kids want something or I have to help them, you steel me for the less-savory of my tasks with your gentle 30-second rewind and your reassuring pause button. “I’ll wait for you,” you seem to say. “Go ahead. Take care of your family. You love them and they love you and I’ll just wait.”
And you do. And when I return, hours or days later, you know just where we left off. You’ve wooed me with humor and impressed me with heart-wrenching moments. You keep me company while I clean, cook, and write invoices. You make carpooling and grocery shopping engaging.
You make me love mindless tasks, something I haven’t felt since I was young and child-free and trying to discern the origins of the Universe while I vacuumed. Though I value what I do for my family as much as I do the tasks I complete for clients, somehow I don’t feel the family-work is enough. Before you, dishes were a necessary waste of time, and they kept me from what I love. Grocery runs were just stupid burdens. Making lunch? A chore.
And now, with you, I love the grocery store. And dishes. Lunches have become intricate and engaging because I can justify seeding a pomegranate and shaping sandwiches. I have to do these tasks with or without you. But you make them interesting. And productive. I know I could try the rest of my life to fight the need to make every waking moment productive, but why? It’s who I am.
And you get that. You love that. You understand me, and, I am here to say loudly and in front of the whole Internet, I love that about you. What I’ve missed most about my old life, my life before kids, is reading. Frequent, barely-pausing-to-blink, all-engrossing engagement in books.
I’m not going to get into semantics. I don’t know if our relationship is reading or if it’s listening or if it’s entertainment. I won’t slow down long enough to care. I don’t do the high-brow/low-brow arguments that graduate school pretty well beats out of readers. And I don’t want to examine yet…oh, heavens, not while our love is still new…what you’re doing to my relationship with music.
Thank you for the three wonderful books you’ve read me over the past two weeks. I hope my intense love continues to grow. I adore you so much I’m willing to share you with others, which is something I could only ever say about my children. You’re welcome to be as compelling as you want and to draw as many people to yourself as you want.
The more the merrier, dear love. Bring ’em on.
As our family dissolves its current form and grows again to a new structure, we’re developing dozens of lovely traditions.
And my absolute favorite is the family story.
We talk each day about our favorite parts of the day, and our biggest challenges; we talk about gratitude and feelings.
And now, when the kids seem bored, when we share time together, when we travel in the car, and especially when dim lighting and clean teeth spell the end of the day, we invent a story. Together. Sometimes as three people, and sometimes as four. Each person tells one sentence of a new story. Each subsequent person builds upon it. Until it’s done. And then we do it again.
There once was a tree with several leaves.
And nearby there was a tree with lots of leaves.
And those two trees began growing toward each other.
One day they touched together.
And they began dripping honey.
And they grew together some more.
And they spilled all the honey on the ground.
This made them fight.
A bear stopped by to say, “Don’t worry, there’s enough honey for everyone.”
So every animal in the forest came and took what they needed.
And the trees were happy.
And the animals were happy.
And full of honey.
I texted friends yesterday that I might need them to come help me move furniture. By the time they replied their faux excitement about the prospect of carrying my stuff around the house, I told them it might not be necessary.
When I’m stressed, I rearrange furniture. As a child whose family relocated a lot, and as an adult who has moved 17 times since freshman year of college, I learned that change comes in big, obvious, irreversible phases that look like new opportunities amongst the rearranged furniture. Moving to a new place was always about hope and new starts and gentle change. Because everything’s still there, just the space is different.
When my adrenals rattle my teeth with doses of neurochemicals that say I should panic, I connect the sensation with living somewhere new. So I either move or I change the whole layout of the house. I don’t actually plan to move right now, so I need to make my house look as though I’ve moved.
(Totally not my house. I love how that weird suburban McMansion photo shoot used light and a throw rug to make me think they really rearranged. False. My kind of rearranging means this room would have the furniture from another room and all this fly-fishing-cabin stuff would be in the kids’ room. Or garage. Rearranging isn’t moving something two feet. It’s relocating and purging until you don’t recognize the room at all.)
But didn’t I just rearrange a few months ago? Some of the furniture left to go to Spouse’s new apartment. Some got sold. And some went downstairs this week because I’m getting a new roommate.
Yep. I’m 41 years old, newly single parent, and I’m taking on a boarder to help cover the rent. All I have to do is start cooking cabbage and washing neighbor’s laundry and I’ll be a set-piece in a late-Nineteenth-Century American novel.
School started last week, which has unnerved me, too. So the need to rearrange is likely stemming from big changes. But still everyone is healthy and reasonably happy. Despite the separation, the boys’ dad spends a lot of time at our house being a parent and showing the kids that he’s not leaving.
That means, though, his admirable efforts at making the boys feel loved and safe are all. up. in. my. face.
Poor guy. He came over last weekend so I could work. And after a long day of chasing after kids and bikes and scooters, he took a shower.
But he put a new soap in the shower. After I opened the shower door and saw it, I called him to the bathroom and extensively explained the concept of leaving things as you find them. He has thoughtfully moved tons of my stuff in the past few months, and it’s driving me crazy. I put my running shoes by the door so I don’t forget them, he puts them in the closet where they belong. I put the kids’ lunch boxes on the counter because they need to be washed, he puts them in the cupboard where they should be. I hang a jacket on a doorknob because it needs to go into storage, he puts it back in the closet where it used to live. I might have used the phase “You’re welcome here, but you don’t live here, so stop deciding where stuff goes,” instead of biting my tongue, as I should.
For years we’ve been using the nicer downstairs shower. But that is now part of the in-law rental unit, and I’ve consolidated everything from both bathrooms into the smaller one upstairs. And it felt nice and grownup and efficient to finally have a space that nobody in the whole family uses but me.
My shower. MY shower.
And then I come home after banging my brains against a federal grant proposal, and there’s a soap MY SHOWER.
I am fully aware that he didn’t do anything wrong. The guy wanted soap. It doesn’t matter whether he thought I forgot or couldn’t find the soap, or whether he didn’t think anything at all except “I need soap.” It’s a fair desire, that of having soap in a drenching cubicle whose primary purpose is cleaning. I can’t fault him for wanting, finding, and getting soap.
Except it was my shower. MY shower. Was. Now it has ex-partner-who-wanted-soap-and-found-soap-and-added-soap tainted idea-germs all over it. I don’t want his ideas in my shower.
That’s so stupid I can barely type it. But this is my blog and my truth, so I’m willing to be crazy here, even if only for a little…well, okay, most of the time.
But it comes down to this simple and difficult reality: separating from a partner with whom I will coparent for a long, long time is genuinely challenging. I like the world black and white, not grey. I want extremes. And when I am part of a relationship that ends, I want it to actually end.
Surprise that’s not a surprise: there’s no ending a relationship with a co-parent. We’re not teenagers anymore and we can’t just stop calling each other and avoid each other at the mall. This is joint-back-to-school-night territory, y’all.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been prepared for the apocalypse, as long as that catastrophic upheaval involves the complete inability to buy soap. I once had a roommate laugh, “Well, at least we’re prepared for the next Great Soap Famine,” unwittingly insensitive to the hoarding tendencies that make me collect soap in neat rows at the back of bathroom cupboards. I had rows and rows of soap in the hall cupboard of many of those 17 apartments, but I’ve been working to whittle down the stock since moving back to the Bay Area several years ago. I don’t need to prepare for the emergency poverty that might strike and leave me without soap (or any means of buying soap). I don’t need to imagine a time when there’s no soap at the store or no open stores when I need soap or no…I don’t know what. I don’t know why I hoard soap. It’s not as though I shower that much. I just know I need to stop hoarding soap. I have enough, I tell myself as I pass the soap aisle. I have enough, I am enough, I will always have enough, I will always be enough.
But since Butter was conceived five years ago, I’ve been hoarding shower gel. Not using it, because I do prefer soap. But paring down the soap collection has me compelled to build a shower gel stash. I shouldn’t call it a hoard. That diminishes the mental illness that genuine hoarders have. I only have six or seven half-gallon bottles of shower gel. Whenever Grocery Outlet has the big 32-ounce size of my favorite brand of natural, toxin-free beauty products, I buy the shower gel. And shampoo. And conditioner. But not compulsively. That would be crazy. I only buy another jug of organic cleansing products if the scent is right. There’s no use hoarding gardenia shampoo or rose conditioner. I don’t want my apocalypse miserable, people. I just want to be prepared. And really, really, really clean for the zombies. Or maybe prepared in the event that bake sales in the zombie age become soap sales.
I only have three half gallons of shampoo, four of conditioner, and six of shower gel. And that’s totally normal and not at all weird.
So my new shower, my space that meant embracing change and taking a deep breath and accepting hard choices…that shower had shower gel but no soap. That shower, the one we haven’t used in the three years since we moved in, was old and small, but refreshing and cozy and mine. And grownup. So I pulled out of the cupboard matching half-gallon pump bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. No soap so that the tiny soap dish could be for a razor. So that I wouldn’t have to clean soap-drip off the cramped walls. So that I could freaking have something in this world the way I want it without worrying about sinking into soapless poverty.
And now the man who is permanently part of my life but not of my future, who is a committed co-parent but a distant memory, who is familiar but now a stranger—that man put soap in my shower.
So I told him not to put soap in the shower. I explained my plan and my shower gel and my need to feel like I own something. And to fight the panic of that by embracing a decrease in the shower gel stock.
He understood. And he was gracious about it. He is back to being gracious about my brands of crazy, now that he gets to live somewhere else. Or stay somewhere else most of the time and come over to be with his kids and hear theories on soap use now and then.
I was glad he understood.
But then the next day he rearranged the shower gel and the shampoo and put them in the wrong places and now the shower is ruined.
I just can’t even.
Poor guy. He’ll never understand. He just doesn’t get it.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. He doesn’t have to understand my kind of crazy.
I just always hoped he would.
And last night, when I mentioned the text to my friends asking for furniture help, my co-parent offered to help me rearrange the garage. Full on “pull everything out, purge some stuff, reorganize the rest, and put it all back” hour-long garage shuffle. The type he’s fought for years.
I told him that he’s a very kind person to help me engage in my favorite form of free therapy: work out panic with heavy physical labor.
Maybe he does actually understand my crazy.
Or maybe he feels guilty about the soap.
Peanut has been fascinated by caves for a long time. His only visit to a cave was in utero, when Spouse and I went to Karchner Caverns in Arizona. I was seven months pregnant and had several almost-panic-attacks while underground. Humidity, claustrophobia, and pregnancy-induced inability to breathe made the cave terrifying. But gorgeous. And somehow that must have stuck with him.
We’ve watched the cave episode of Planet Earth maybe five times in a year. He can’t stop talking about a cave movie they watched at school last year.
He’s been asking to go to a cave for months. And I mostly assumed that outside Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad, there aren’t many around us.
When I finally looked on the googles, I found caves that are literally on the way to our big Tahoe camping trip every year.
So we crammed the kids in the car and tolerated their incessant bickering to see this (all photos below are mine):
I had forgotten how miraculous it feels to crawl through a small hole in the heat-cracked earth and arrive in a cool, wide, dark tomb carved over tens of thousands of years by slightly acidic water.
We have a friend who caves, but Peanut has only met her once and thus can’t be duly impressed by her hobby/avocation. I want to send her the following photos, though, because we can lure her out to California.
It’s intensely beautiful to watch kids stare way up and then waaaaaay down to learn the difference between stalactites and stalagtites.
The best part wasn’t even the cave, which is saying a lot. The best part was the rock shop on the way out.
A bit of background: I love rock shops more than any single thing in my life, kids notwithstanding. Maybe. Depends on the day. I have dozens, really and truly dozens, of childhood memories of rock shops. I can tell you exactly which rock I bought or found and at which rockshop of patch of earth for every rock ever obtained from the time I was 7. Seriously. I distinctly remember why each of those rocks called to me. Because they call loudly.
And I cannot be dragged from a rock shop until I’m done. Forget can’t…I will not. Not that I’d know. Nobody has ever tried. I have lovely memories of my parents waiting for me at rock shops. Of being left alone to wander, gently touch, careful consider while they were…ah, hell, I don’t know where they were. I can’t imagine they were looking, too. Bored at the door? Consuming secret cookie stashes while I wasn’t looking? I never considered them, selfish rockhound that I am. I’m guessing they were patient at first. And I’m guessing that they got bored, or that my brother got bored, or that I somehow tried everyone’s patience. But know what? I don’t remember caring one whit whether everyone was exasperated with the rock shop or not. I was prepared to spend all day filling my one-ounce cup with perfect rock chip specimens, even if it killed my whole family.
So when my boys entered the rock shop after an hour below ground in a majestic cave, I rather expected them to shrug and ask for candy. My poor sugar-denied kids always ask for candy. And I always say no.
Anticipating their request and their disinterest in the rock shop, I made a beeline to the rock candy I saw as soon as we entered, and waited for them to follow. I was going to make this cave, this rock shop, memorable for my kids, who likely cared more for sugar than for rocks.
But the little guy ignored me and stood, eyes wide, in front of the pick-your-own-rocks barrel. Fill a bag with any rocks you choose? Any at all? My idea of heaven and his idea of…a whole afternoon of joy. He’s four, y’all. And he spent 20 minutes choosing the best rocks. Never once did he see me at the candy display. He was so engrossed in rock selection that he didn’t look up even when his dad offered tiger’s eye rocks for the bag. “Dad,” he said without looking at either the man or the stone, “this is my choice. Stop it.”
No DNA test needed.
The eldest wandered aimlessly. It was as though he couldn’t find the right rock. I let him be, scouring the shelves for rocks that were one part neglected, one part magic, one part architectural marvel, and one part undervalued.
Butter finished his rock bag. He appreciated the rock candy. We went outside with his dad to slurp and ponder his treasure.
And still Peanut wandered. I chose my rock carefully. I triple checked to be sure I wasn’t missing anything on the shelves.
And still he wandered.
I stayed back and watched for a while. I showed him my finds and he seemed duly unimpressed. I offered suggestions for areas in which to look for something that might speak to him.
And he seemed stymied. No break-your-own-geodes because his aunt and uncle gave him the best geodes ever two years ago, and he doesn’t want more. No dogtooth calcite, for reasons only a psychologist will be able to discern. No broken shark teeth because he found real, intact, beautiful fossilized shark teeth with his dad at the beach. No arrowheads because, “Mom, who would want that? They’re replicas!”
And then he found the select-a-pendant-and-cord display.
He chose his treasure quickly. Clearly not a natural specimen, and he doesn’t care. Clearly on a weak bale, and he doesn’t care. Clearly exactly and precisely the man-shaped rock he needs right this very minute oh my gawd I can’t wait. He appreciated his rock candy, but not as much as his necklace.
He made it to the car before he realized his necklace had already fallen off.
Parking lot of gravel. Grey rock on grey cord.
A lot of looking.
Butter found it for him, how I’ll never know. In the middle of the parking lot.
So we have our cave experience. And our rocks. We don’t have any more rock candy. But it was as delicious as any Doozer sugar sculpture*.
* I read that Doozers’ buildings are allegedly radish dust, but those are clearly made of sugar. My entire childhood will be a lie if Doozer buildings aren’t basically rock candy.
So we’ve visited our first cave. And our first rock shop. And our first rock tragedy was narrowly averted by a hero within our own family.
All, my friends, ALL was right with the world in that moment.**
**Except that almost nothing is right with the larger world right now, and that rock candy might not be a Doozer creation. But I’m trying to not have a sad on my cave and rock post. Because perfection.
A few months ago, J.C. Little, The Animated Woman, wrote a post about how much her family has bonded over washing dishes together.
And I thought briefly about washing the dishes with my kids. J.C. made it sound so tactile and engaging, so warm and sudsy. And I recalled doing dishes with my stepmom, talking.
But I also remembered reaching into the cool-ish, dirty water to fish out whatever was on the bottom: slime, forks, or a sharp knife.
No thank you, J.C.
But her post gave me an idea. Six days before I read that lovely post about family bonding over dishes, my sometimes-washer-of-dishes moved to another house. So I’d been doing 100% more dishes by myself for a few days. And I didn’t like it. Not that washing dishes is a big deal. But when you have extremely limited time, most of which is crammed with paid and unpaid activities promised to someone else, washing dishes is a big ol’ “seriously, would paper plates really ruin the world if I used them just until I submit the next big project?” tirade of justifications and pouts while scraping preschooler rejects into the compost.
So the next morning I asked my eight-year-old Peanut to empty the dishwasher, please. He shrugged and emptied the whole thing. It was the first time I’d asked him to this, but he’s an enormously bright boy and member of the family and has thus experienced the acquisition of clean dishes from cupboards. He could therefore extrapolate the placement of clean dishes in the same cupboards. [May that be proof, some day, when his partner claims he ‘doesn’t know where anything goes.’] The next time I asked, four-year-old Butter clamored to help. He’s big on helping. And they got along, doing the job I rather hate, while I made dinner near them.
We were all in the kitchen, excited, mobile, talking, and thanking each other for various tasks that helped the family. Peanut even devised the most brilliant plan, ever: put all the forks in one compartment of the silverware basket, spoons in another, and so on. That way, he pointed out, when we empty we can grab a whole section and just dump it into the right section of the drawer. I marveled at his genius. And I refrained from telling him I’d heard of this maniacally organized plan for dishwasher loading but could never bring myself to spend that much energy on organization of dirty silverware. So we ooh and aah over the boy’s idea, we listen to his argument about the finer points of his plan, and we do it his way. And now he thinks he’s the King of the family.
Wait a minute, here, J.C.! Turns out this trick works even if you *have* a dishwasher!
I’d always said before I had kids that I’d have them do their share of chores. But as their dad and I bickered about who did the dishes, it never occurred to us to farm out that job. We bickered about how and when to put the laundry away, too. So I decided to J.C. this activity, too. After the dishes and breakfast, entering the second week of our new family arrangement, I plopped a basket of laundry on the boys’ floor and asked them to find their stuff and put it away.
Again with the together and the talking and the many hands making light work.
It’s been almost three months. And my kids are emptying and filling the dishwasher every day. And putting away every load of laundry.
And they’re doing it together, while I do something else domestic in the same room. Usually cooking or sweeping. Man, I love me some sweeping. Watch everything that’s wrong with your life gather in a pile, nudge it onto a dustpan, and throw it away forever. Then do it again in three hours because, geez, do these kids grow sand and dirt and…what is that, a twig?…out of their socks?
Forcing my kids Working together to do chores feels good. It feels even better to get the work done more quickly and with less fighting.
I owe you one!
Summer crashes in waves around us, cool mornings rising into bone-baking heat, quiet nights shaking into riotous days, weeks of unstructured play and family camping shifting into time-demarked camps and faux school.
And I am in love with the season.
The amazing benefit to having Seasonal Affective Disorder is that summers are downright manic. So while I spend winters in front of a lightbox, forcing exercise, and wearing bright colors to make it through, from May to August I stockpile joy. I’m cramming all the sunshine I can into my cells. So I don’t forget what good feels like.
I watch my children slurp and mangle the melon my grandmother taught us was the single best treat ever grown. Canary yellow rind, orange and green flesh, and fragrant, nectar-flavored flesh not too firm and not too soft. She insisted on calling it Juan Canary long after marketers decided it would sell better with just the word Canary. And from the May-or-June moment I spy it in stores until the moment my children toss the rind gleefully into the compost bucket and grab more, running past me and out the backdoor in our pretend game of “don’t you dare eat another slice of melon, young man, that melon is the legacy of my grandmother and you may not have anymore, dagnabbit,” I am in love with the taste of nostalgia and happiness.
I wake each morning in the cool, already-loud house, stretching my gloriously midlife body and aching back into the eleven-year-old bed and listen to my children navigate what will be the most important relationship of their lives. And I know soon they’ll spend more time with peers than with a mother and brother. And I know my days of influence are waning even now, even while they’re as young as eight and four. I luxuriate in their giggles and teasing because it’s my morning. This time is mine. This place, this body, this family is mine. And none of it will last. Cool will become hot, slow will become quick, giggling will become screaming, achy will become strong and active. And I am in love with the day.
Visitors from far and near have peopled our days with fun and love. My new camera has captured more than 2,000 images seemingly on its own, for I have been present, breathing in the wonder and the joy and the fights and the mess. Focus pulls fore and back, swallowing mountains and lakes and trees and flowers, always somehow capturing two wild little boys exploring, yelling, learning, laughing. And reading. I photograph them reading because whether they read together or apart, their bodies are still for a moment while their minds race. I am in love with the flux, and I get weak-kneed at the joy of photographing our oscillations.
We went camping as a family and learned that our new, separation-borne calm kindness extends to family gatherings. So we’re doing well as a family that lives in different houses and as a family that takes trips together. And they’re doing well as three guys who develop their own rules and boundaries and rhythms. Once we returned to the house we still share but don’t really, I spent time with a friend, relaxed into myself in the way that work, run, eat, work, sleep, and more work makes parents feel like regular people who can turn off their ears and attention and fetching arms for a while. I am in love with having a self.
It has been three months since the boys’ father and I decided we have to change a situation that brought out our worst. It’s been two months since he moved into an apartment and we thoughtfully began working out the logistics of getting us both as much time as possible with the kids. I’m up late every night researching and drafting and emailing to hammer out logistics. And I’ll be honest: I don’t like this part at all. Disentangling is a pain in the heart and in the neck. But then I make lunches and bake muffins and work on deadline and wash off my new fancy-pants blush. It’s all going to be okay. Because the days are full of play and photography and mountains and lakes and family and friends and beach and music.
Oh, the music.
Since the house lost one resident, I have been playing music almost non-stop. Old favorites and new discoveries, I have a need for the creative spark and emotional salve that music offers. Two weeks before we decided to change our marriage, I asked the googles for help finding some new music based on my preferences. I blindly bought two CDs, which is something that old people do, usually with a pang of nostalgia that they can’t go to a record store and debate between a tape and vinyl. The CDs languished, unheard, on my desk until I had to send that desk, empty, to its new home. I shifted all my work paraphernalia and personal treasures onto an underused table and nestled it into a corner recently made empty in the bedroom. And I played the first CD.
I haven’t stopped playing it for two months. Both my computer and car play the same CD on a loop. I don’t know why this acoustic-guitar songwriting duo has so captivated me. But only one CD into this new relationship with two younger men, I am in love.
Enjoy your summer. Eat many strawberries and nectarines, splash in some sort of water, photograph those you love, and perhaps invest in a new blush. Just see what happens.
And try some Juan Canary melon.
It tastes like love.
Spouse and I have tried to teach our children how to face conflict: assess the situation, design a solution, work hard to do your best, notice what’s working and what isn’t, try even harder, and be flexible and open to new decisions when new information arises. I don’t know if these words have sunk in yet. We explain that doing the hard, sometimes boring work of practicing a skill, whether reading or soccer or math, is really important for later, when you have to build on that foundation. We’ve explained that mastering any skill takes incessant, regular, repetitive brain exercise. Struggle is important. But too much struggle is sometimes a signal to stop, take a breath, and change course. “We’re a family of problem-solvers,” we always say. Because you can’t bang your head against a brick wall and hope it’ll move. You have to be tricksty.
And now they’re going to see what we really mean about working hard, trying again and again, and, sometimes, giving up because you just can’t make something work. Spouse and I have arrived at a new realization and we’re figuring out how to implement our plan. We’re pretty sure that we’re going to focus on what we do well: love our kids. And we’re going to ditch what we don’t do well: being married.
Marriage is hard work. And we expected that because anything worth having involves active, thoughtful work. But marriage shouldn’t be miserable without cease. And the work should show some reward. Banging our heads against a brick wall trying to force our marriage back where it was ten years ago hasn’t worked. Neither has therapy or empathy or practicing communication skills or willing ourselves to compatibility.
We’re a family of problem solvers, dagnabbit, so we’re going to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. The life hack here is elegant, simple, and scary: be the best parents possible to our children without being married.
The effects of agreeing to work smarter not harder have been immediate and palpable. After years of being our worst selves with each other, struggling yet finding ourselves sad, lonely, and angry, we’re going to stop forcing it. And saying that out loud has made us more patient with each other and with the boys. We obviously have years of work to do to repair the damage we’ve done to each other in this marriage, but we’ve gone a long way toward some kind of healing this week.
I have always feared divorce. So has Spouse. We both had parents who divorced, and neither of us weathered that process well. In fact, we’ve resisted even talking about a separation for years because we don’t want to hurt the boys. But here’s the truth: we can’t control everything that happens to them, and we certainly can’t continue the way we are, pretending that married parents are better for children than any other situation. We’d rather address any feelings our children have by actively and lovingly engaging with them. Both of us. We can’t control their feelings but we can control giving them the best home environment we can. Two happy parents listening to them and being with them regularly from different houses is much better than two exhausted and raw parents snapping at each other and at them.
The societal obligation to stay married t one person for 80+ years leaves me tense, waiting to shiver in the shadow of failure-guilt. But since we talked about letting go, we’ve been kind and understanding, gentle with each other and with ourselves. I can’t tell you the relief of getting along, after years of just feeling wrong. I can’t speak for him, but I’m incredibly proud of how mature we’re being. Come back and read in a week and see if that’s still true. For now, this doesn’t feel like failure.
I’ve read and heard many people mocking Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement that they’re consciously uncoupling, forming a partnership that involves co-parenting but not marriage. I don’t understand the vitriol or mocking. I know they have enough money that they don’t share our worries about whose couch to sleep on, whether self-help books from the library are enough to count as therapy, or whether we’ll have to uproot Peanut to a different school system because we can’t afford two rents in our district. But it seems to me that the conscious uncoupling being so roundly mocked on social media is pretty damned mature. Understanding that disentangling adult lives requires leaving intact the framework we’ve built around the children’s growth seems like a baseline for all couples separating. If Gwyneth and Chris are unraveling the parts that aren’t working but redoubling their efforts where their love does the most good, then I say mazel tov.
Spouse and I are making preparations for how things will look in the short- and long-term. And though I got confused initially, the ease with which we can cultivate a warm kindness for each other does not mean we have a marriage. It means that we are partners. And that is the point, because we are going to be partners forever. We have children whose well-being demands our most engaged effort.
I believe separating, consciously uncoupling, and perhaps divorcing are all going to be challenging. But I believe our children are emotionally strong, and that as reasonable human beings and respectful partners, we can engage in this process together and make it right for us.
If someone offered to partner kindly and thoughtfully with you to raise your children, but didn’t want to be married to you, would you take that compromise? Or would you fight to force the union, and let strife affect every moment of your emotional life?
I’m taking what’s behind Door Number Three. Because I’m tired of forcing our family into emotional turmoil. And know a good deal when I see it.