Journey to the Center of the Earth

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.

Mmmmm. Cave bacon.

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.

Foolish Muggle.

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):

 

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Helictites make me think of Unicorns. And this cave had millions of them.

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See? Unicorn horns.

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.

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How about a pool 150 feet down from the cave entrance?

It’s intensely beautiful to watch kids stare way up and then waaaaaay down to learn the difference between stalactites and stalagtites.

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I see you hiding in the draperies, bacon. Sparkly calcite cannot disguise your mock deliciousness.

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Forgot to ask if this white residue on this flowstone was more of the moon milk we saw on the walls. Mmmm. Bacterial moon milk.

 

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I love this dinosaur-mouth configuration so much.

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Theatrical lighting wholeheartedly approved. Wowzers.

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.”

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Not bad for a pink-obsessed 4yo…these were his actual selections and he’s still quite proud of them.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Standing ’round the sink

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.
*Shudder*
No thank you, J.C.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen. What? You don't know.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen.
What?! You don’t know.

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?

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

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.

Thanks, J.C.
I owe you one!

I’m in love

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Parenting 2.0

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.

 

 

Dying

Death is amazing to watch.

I went last night to visit a friend who has faced, fought, accepted, and been taken over by cancer. Two weeks ago he was still saying that he was happy when he was awake, and that his social calendar was packed because “all this dying stuff is hectic.” Soon, though, his texts grew less coherent. I went to visit and he said that he wasn’t happy when awake any more. As he withdrew into his body’s processes, life was not fun or joyful or interesting anymore. It was a painful chore and he was desperately frustrated at being sick and in pain and feeling terrible for four years.

Over the weekend he started hallucinating, wandering, and terrifying his family. He didn’t make sense, he couldn’t understand, and he wasn’t safe. The hospice nurses came and monitored his meds until he settled. So what I visited two days later was the mostly-dreaming, mostly-gone version of my friend. He looked relatively healthy, and had the same adorable, shiny red cheeks and red beard he was so proud of. There wasn’t much left to his body, but his face was still his face. And as he writhed and settled and writhed again, it looked as though he had a terrible flu and was feverish but would recover.

I sat with him and tried to talk. I rubbed his wandering legs, trying at once to reassure him and to encourage his dream of walking somewhere. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m not well versed in what you say to someone who can’t reply, who doesn’t care about most of the world anymore, and who is almost across a threshold that our culture goes to excessive lengths to avoid.

I wasn’t worried about saying anything wrong. And I wasn’t worried about trying to comfort him. I just wanted to talk the way we usually talk if only so he felt normal for a moment or two.

I talked about his kids and what kind of people they might be as adults. He made faces like he was talking. I talked about how Spring has walloped us, even after a month of warm and sunny, with that flawless Berkeley wall of sunshine and wisteria and star jasmine that makes me feel like a honeybee skittering around telling colleagues about the best pollen sources. He winced. I asked about the garden: what his wife might plant and whether he was glad he’d done all that work to build their raised beds. He kicked as though he were walking.

I told him about a school project my son had done, and how adorable it was. He grew agitated. I asked if he wanted quiet. I guessed from his relaxing that he did. He rested fitfully and I watched.

His breathing is surprisingly smooth for someone with a lung tumor so large it forces his ribs aside and creates an A cup on one side of his chest. Weird. About five inches above his mastectomy scar.

His wife came in and smiled at me. I told her how agitated he seemed. “Pain meds,” she said, “are due.” She talked to him and asked about his pain. “Does it hurt?” she said in a regular voice into his ear. “Yes,” he mouthed. “Is that a yes? Yes. It hurts. Hang on, baby.” She told him about each medication before she placed the tiny veterinary syringe in his mouth. I gave my cat morphine with an identical plastic syringe last year. Now the morphine is for my friend, with whom I can no longer share anything. No calls, no texts, no visits. He is mostly gone and that is permanent and that is normal and that isn’t strange but it’s unfolding rightnowrighthere. A few other meds, including the one she warned him would taste gross. He made an angry face and kicked at that one. I rubbed his legs.

He began wiggling and wincing. She asked if he hurt. He tried to say something but made no sound and his lips seemed only to say, “vipp.” She asked if his back hurt. He looked as though he’d cry. His back has been terribly painful since the lung surgery that required removing three ribs, 5cm of chest wall, and a baseball-sized tumor. The one the first oncologist missed while treating the rectal tumor, both of which grew because two physicians in a row misdiagnosed him.

“Do you want to roll on your side?” He nodded. We took the sheet and maneuvered him onto his side. It seemed to help. I pulled him over as hard as I could while she jammed a large pillow behind him. Only nurses know how firm and decisively you have to handle an adult patient. Most of us know only nursing teenie tiny newborns with no muscle tone who are relatively easy to position, reposition, and relocate, even if they’re just as hard to understand as an adult who can no longer speak. Getting a full-grown man into position takes so much oomph it seems rough, but I worked to seem just as competent as his wife. Repositioned, he settled a bit. She asked him if that was better, rubbed his shoulder, kissed him repeatedly across the face.

We talked with him a while, and he seemed to settle.

So we went downstairs to let him sleep. Two hours later, I left with a smile, a hole in a deep part of me, and three bags full of empty food containers from mutual friends who’ve cooked for the family over the past two months.

On the midnight drive home I thought about my kids. I thought about his kids. I thought about logistics and seeing their family often. I thought about work and geography and weather and Crimea. I thought of car crashes and cancer and bombings. I thought of gummy bears and law school and literature PhDs.

I can’t tell you that watching my friend die week by week has made me more aware of how lucky we all are to be alive. I’ve had my fair share of close calls, of fire and car crashes and cancer and earthquake, and I’m not one to take the day for granted. But I think more about how a fair percentage of the world’s population wouldn’t consider themselves lucky to be alive. Starvation and illness and lack of clean water and tyranny and abuse and slavery and rape…we all live. And we all die. And none of death is fair or fun, and none of it’s predictable. The fact that my friend is dying way too young is also a part of life. And often, it feels as though none of life itself is directable. There’s a fundamental lack of control to being human that belies most of what we tell ourselves about choice and free will and possibility.

But then there’s love. And there’s a thoughtful couple facing death together. An open, honest, loving family that does their best and makes it work and grieves together and hopes together and plans together and fights together and mourns alone and together and alone again. There is grace in watching a woman love her partner fiercely and love their kids fiercely and stumble and get up and get more fierce…and do it all day every single day for YEARS.

How we die is a microcosm of how we live. And those who panic and claw the walls of their death-bed die in fear. And those who dream of all the wonderful moments of their lives, hallucinate huge family gatherings where those linked by affection for each other cuddle babies and encourage children and jovially engage  each other? They die bathed in the disintegrating brain that is full of good memories and love and joy. When all that crumbles into their body, really, it’s rather sweet to watch. Dreamy sleep eating, incoherent laughing, planning joyful events with beloved touchstones.

Which way will we go? Will our dreams at death’s threshold be painted with the vivid memories of happy, communal gatherings with good food and joyful moments? Or will our death be a nightmare of fear and regret and longing?

Death is interesting to watch. Why does our culture teach us not to dare?

Live Like Jay

We don’t get many slumber parties as adults. It’s not every day that grownups get to talk openly and honestly about life, just curled up next to a friend, shifting now and then to get a better look at each other’s eyes as we ask or answer probing questions. One reclining and responding easily and thoughtfully, one lying belly-down on a pillow and making almost constant eye contact, pausing occasionally to find the best way to say things. Pause for a sip of soda, pause for a bathroom break. Then talk some more. About dreams, kids, plans.

I did this as a teenager with one of the few people on the planet who understood me and accepted me for who I was. It’s rare that adults take that kind of time to connect, and more rare that we’re willing to.

Maybe it’s because my friend is dying that we spend our time together this way. And I don’t just mean because he doesn’t get out of bed much anymore. Perhaps because we knew it might be the last time we’d talk together that we were more open and honest.

Or, more accurately, maybe because he’s dying we fast forwarded through of every possible conversation. Talk of work covered the short-term and long-term in about two sentences. Discussion of marriages spanned breadth and depth within a minute.

“How are your kids?” moved quickly beyond this week’s antics to directly answer the implied “and how do you think they’ll handle becoming adults without you?”

“How are you?” skipped the annoying niceties of “fine” to a frank, detailed discussion of what meds are working, which aren’t, which tumor hurts, and where the bed sores will likely start when he’s no longer able to get up and down.

All of this is expected, since we’ve never been shy about the ups and downs of our lives. But some of the moments surprised me because they were so casual. No tears, no shyness. Very clear “I’m glad I know you and I’m glad I saw you today” exchanges that were everything soap-opera death-bed moments are not.

On screen, people make every talk with a dying person seem like a dramatic moment fraught with the most intense human emotions. But in real life, when a friend is almost four years past a cancer diagnosis, discussions aren’t heart-wrenching, sob-inducing epic battles for truth and meaning. There is no portentous music when a friend asks you, “Why can’t I just die? I’m ready. I haven’t felt good in years and years, I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve done them well, I’ve learned a ton and found grace and moved beyond this world already, so why can’t I just die?”

And there’s no emotional, poignant swallow or gasp or lighting change.

You just answer.

“I don’t know why you can’t just die.  I don’t know. I personally don’t believe that you only get to go if you learn enough, because plenty of people die without learning much at all. And you’ve learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re on hold for something else. I think it just means your body isn’t done yet. Your spirit might be, your mind might be. Your heart might be. But you have no control over what your body does. If you did, this cancer wouldn’t have taken hold. If we could get our bodies to do what we wanted, life would be a whole lot different. So would death. But we get no say. I’m sorry that you don’t.”

There was no fade into another scene after that. No swell of music and dramatic pause for tear-slicked eyelashes. Just mutual shrugs. We talked a bit more about what we believe. Then we talked about our kids again. From the beginning of our relationship, our talk has been about our children, with brief tangents for partners, food, work, and friends. But mostly, children.

His daughter wonders if he’ll live until her birthday. Three weeks.

He hopes not. Because he wants her to grieve and then begin the rest of her life unfettered by his passage out of this world.

I mentioned that her birthday will still be affected by his death, whether it’s recent or impending, so he should do what he needs to do.

His son wonders if he’ll live until the Muppet Movie. A week.

Maybe.

Again, do what you need to do.

I’m a big fan of drama. I want life epic and grand and meaningful. I want something big in every scene.  Especially now. My friends have to leave each other: one on this side of the Great Divide and one on the other. I can’t help them bridge that gap, and it can’t get anymore meaningful that it already is. It’s not about me and it’s not about grand gestures. Life at its most important is powerful and moving and deeply meaningful without aphorisms or orchestral music or pithy goodbyes or garments rent and torn.

All that is for the movies. My friend is not dying in the movies. He’s dying with his family, in his house, surrounded by the goodwill of 99.9% of every person he ever met. That’s the real in this. Real is lying on the bed near him tonight, answering and asking. We listened to each other. We smiled. We made plans.

It probably wasn’t our last conversation. But it was as high-school-slumber-party-with-your-dear-friend as final-days conversations go, and I think that’s about as cinematic as life—and death—gets.

Remedy for a long day

At the end of a long day, during which I went without stopping from 5am-10pm, thirteen hours of which involved preschoolers (plural) and four hours involved careful negotiations with people whom I’m convinced get twice as much sleep as me, I called Spouse.

Me: The meeting’s  finally over and I’ll be home soon so will you please fill the kettle and turn it on? Fill it just to the spout line inside, and make sure the whistle is on or it’ll boil dry. I just want some tea before bed because my throat is sore from talking all day and my body is achy from chasing 30 preschoolers and my brain is achy from budget talks and early morning writing and I just want some tea. Okay?

Spouse: Who is this?

And between the full-belly laugh and the hot cup of tea waiting for me when I got home, I made it through another day I swore might kill me.

 

New Year’s Refocusing

Never a big fan of the concept of resolutions, I nevertheless embrace the idea that a new year is a captivating opportunity to reassess, refocus on priorities, and set new goals.

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the new year is also a good time to see how high you can climb

So our family talked all this week at dinner about what we remember from 2013. Peanut learned to read…really read…and committed himself with intense commitment to being on a team. Butter learned to ride a bike, unbuckle his own seatbelt, and wipe his own bum. (Holla 2013!) I revised my novel once and am excited to find time for another this year. I also applied for an ideal full-time job and after shrugging off the rejection, booked two contract jobs I’m enjoying.

Together over dinner and dessert and bath and cuddles this week we recounted the year and recalled our camping trips, our regular hikes, and the fun we had with family and friends. We celebrated the time we helped rescue a stranded seal pup and the adorable kittens we brought home from the shelter.

And tonight I asked everyone, as we settled in the darkness just before bed, what they wanted for our family in 2014.

Spouse said he wants us all to be more gentle with each other and to use our words more.
I said I want us to teach each other and make our home a place everyone feels safe rather than attacked.

Peanut says he wants more camping.

Butter says he wants doughnuts.

Spouse said he wants more nights like the one where we tasted dragonfruit.

Peanut said he’d really like to visit a cave.

Butter said he’d really like to try a doughnut.

Peanut said he’d like to see if there are any pyramids around here.

I said I want to visit family more often, see friends more often, and hike more often.

 

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December 30, 2013.
No, seriously. December. They’re clearly as crazy as they are adorable.

 

But really, I’ve been thinking about what I don’t want to change in 2014.

We’ve made it a habit to stay in touch with the friends who need us and the friends who make us want to be our best selves.

We started this year reading poetry over breakfast. We all enjoy it. A lot. Mostly because this month featured Shel Silverstein. That dude cracks us up, and not just because we picture my dad hassling him in S.F. in the late 60s.

We also started doing Mad Libs at dinner, right before we talk about the best and the most challenging parts of our day. You can’t beat a second-grader listing nouns and adjectives while the preschooler takes all requests for silly words and numbers.

I’ve been working to teach my body that when one boy hurts the other, adrenaline isn’t necessary. A calm script is. I want to keep working that script. Because reacting as though every punch is the end of civilization as we know it and a sure sign my children will spend most of their lives in prison just isn’t working for us. So I’ll stay on 2013’s path toward serenity in the midst of testosterone. [Note I said toward. I'm really, really, really far from that goal. But trying is always good, unless you listen to Yoda.]

Exercise and way less sugar has helped my focus. So this year I’ll keep adding exercise and keep minimizing sugar. I might wait another year before I ask my kids to let me meditate for five minutes in the morning.

Client projects have been welcome distractions from my already long to-do lists. Spending time with friends at the expense of projects has made me happier and justifiably pressured to focus on what’s important.

Going to bed early and getting up early to create for myself and for clients is still a huge struggle. But a journey of a thousand minutes begins by not snoozing my “go to bed” alarm. Which means I have to leave you now and prepare for an early morning “write now” alarm.

Here’s hoping that in 2014 you keep what you want and jettison what didn’t work in 2013. What are you working toward this year?

Kittens. I lose.

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Two feline brothers sitting alap the eldest human brother. I’m soooo outnumbered.

No names yet. A whopping two pounds each, fresh from the local shelter.

The kittens adore the boys wild, loud, and subdued. The boys adore the kittens awake, asleep, and playful.

And while the kittens are in their own room, learning the house slowly, I’m very happy with this new development.

Call me next week when the tree is decorated and the kittens have run of the house and we’ll see.

Now *this* is what I signed up for

I’m pretty sure the gardeners, whom our landlord insists on paying, stole our rake today. So after I muttered to myself and raked four small lawns with my kids’ toy rake, the little guy and I lay on our backs and watched the sky. And he gently pulled something from my eyelashes, telling me, “just be still, Mommy. You have something on your eye-brown.”

The cuteness, people, erases all the rake-theft grousing.

We were running late on the way to school and there were a few tantrums about not getting dressed and not going to school and not wanting a cream-cheese-on-pumpkin-pancake sandwich and not wanting a jacket because “it’s hAWt, mom!” And all of these ruffled my feathers not a little, on a day where there wasn’t much time to breathe. But the hour I had to chill a bit involved my oldest teaching me to play chess, as Spouse taught him.

The awe and connection, dear reader, eliminates all the tantrum exhaustion.

The doorbell arrived just as my seven-year-old put my king in check. I’m not a good loser, and I seethed on the way to the door. Damned delivery ruins my damned mojo and likely loses the damned game for me and this damned whippersnapper trained by his damned father…box from Cowgirl Creamery. No, seriously, y’all. A surprise package from my favorite West Coast cheesemongers and cheesemakers and cheeseteachers. Inside the familiar white paper and balsawood box, beneath the recycled-paper faux straw is some Mt. Tam, our favorite triple creme brie, a large wedge of Wagon Wheel, the tastiest and mildest aged local and organic we can find, and some seasonal porcini-mushroom-encrusted washed rind cheese. And a phenomenal cookbook I hadn’t known even existed (because each trip to the Ferry Building or Pt. Reyes Station has me tasting all the salty, nutty sheep’s milk cheeses I can find while blindly ignoring all the environmental staged thrusts of jams and crackers and cookbooks).

The savory, creamy goodness, y’all, eases all first-time chess losses. Especially when the accompanying cookbook solves, in just the first chapter, my dilemma about wanting phenomenal coffee at home without any plastic. (Yes, Chemex is probably ideal, and my almost-all-stainless french press is okay, but cold-brewing is exactly my kind of make-ahead and use-as-you-go goodness.)

So my eye-browns were tidy, my brain full of chess (and evidence that my son is a diabolical mastermind), and my belly full of cheeses. But dinner was fraught and bath was looming and the children were wrestling. Again. There is apparently something hilarious about kicking your brother, literally, out of bed. One hundred times a day and despite repeated requests for some feet on the floor and bodies in the bath. And I’d had it. So I called my mom. Because nothing makes the kids pay attention to me like my ear near a phone.

Sure enough, they started bickering and calling me to intervene. I shut the door. They hollered louder. I walked into their room and signed, “stop; you hear him say stop, then stop,” to one; and “you bath now” to the other. And they laughed a gleeful, devilish laugh and hid under the bed. Problem solved. I continued listening to a story about a friend’s daughter who survived a fire and my mom’s subsequent story  to her friend about my PTSD after the fire. Just hearing the woman’s harrowing escape I cried, sad that anyone has to go through those moments just after a tragedy in which they call people, trying to be logical and thoughtful moments before falling into a million pieces of writhing fear.

And I hear giggles.

The dreadful little monkeys had shed their clothes, hopped in the bath, and were laughing that they intentionally disregarded the house rule about emptying bladders before getting in the bath.

Ugh. Little goofballs stopped my fear and my tears with their artisanal urine brine because they were beaming with pride that they’d joined forces and tricked me. I love being bested by my bestests.

The silly beauty, my friends, staunches fear and sadness.

Here’s hoping your eye-browns and your chess set and your coffee grounds and your cheese needs and your grin muscles are all attended to this week. Because melting into the cute and the awe-eliciting and the delicious and the comforting will cure what ails you. I hope.

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Nothing bonds like gas

Every week at our family meeting, we talk about what has worked and what has not worked for the family. (Still a pretty big fan of The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler.)

And every week we all agree that time spent together outside makes us feel good about the ways in which we interact. We’re nicer outside. Hiking, running, playing ball, and exploring make us kinder to each other. Kinder makes us all feel warm, fuzzy, and proud. And it begets more kindness. Cycle of goodness, circle of life, and all that.

But tonight trumped even the best hike.

Some second-grader at school taught Peanut and his whole class to use their armpits in the way nature intended: to fake fart.

He was so excited walking home. “Mom! Mom! Did you know this? You can make a toot with your armpit. Watch!”

I was so proud. I recalled my aunt armfarting with her sons, and relished the thrill of finally feeling my role in the tradition of the lone-woman-in-a-family-full-of-males tradition. It is my sworn duty, in this pivotal of all parenting moments, to produce better fake flatulence than my kid.

So I tried. And tried. Nothing.

Peanut didn’t notice my colossal failure. But later in the evening, he produced his new, Harvard-entry skill for the rest of the family. And I renewed my efforts to show him how it’s really done.

I tried so hard, so unsuccessfully that I made the little guy laugh. “What’s wrong with Mommy?” Spouse asked Butterbean, as I flapped my elbow furiously, trying to make my barely audible puffs of air into the best nonverbal noise available to humans.

Nothing.

Peanut rolled his eyes. “It’s so easy, Mom. I’ll bet Dad can do it.”

armpit

Oh, boy did he. We all laughed ourselves teary as Spouse put on an armpit symphony. He grinned, and bowed.

“See, Mom?”

No way. I will not be shown up. I build furniture (sure, from Ikea, but I do it myself and it doesn’t wobble, so it counts), I change lightbulbs, I replace batteries, I splice wires, I build circuit boards. I won’t be bested in the simulated arm-gas competition.

I changed my hand position. I cupped my pit more carefully.

Nothing.

I tried the other side.

Nope.

And I realized why.

There wasn’t a complete seal. Because of my undergarments.

So I shoved Spouse out of the way, for his demonstration was wearing on my patience. I casually employed the quick and easy unhook-and-yank-out-through-a-sleeve.

And I let out four of the most beautifully resonant arm farts you ever did hear.

Success.

All I’m saying, is if you’re fighting a fake-flatulence war with Y-chromosome-bearing armpits, ditch the bra. In all other cases I say unto you, “wear what you want to wear, when you want to wear it, if you want to wear it.” It’s your body. Support your Cooper’s ligaments as you see fit.

But if you need to rip a fake one? Remove the interference.

[This post will self-destruct before I apply to law school or run for public office.]

New Season

Something fantastic is happening within the walls of my everyday life. Though the weather says Summer and the calendar says Autumn, our life is accepting the contradictions and melding into a strange, wonderful trifle of peach-raspberry-pumpkin-spice pie.

Yesterday morning a small, precious creature rose from his bed, used the bathroom, changed his clothes, and tromped downstairs to find his brother, who had engaged in a similarly self-directed ritual half an hour before. There was no struggling to climb into my bed, no sweet cuddling and twirling my hair, no early-morning screaming, no nursing, no heart-piercing dread of him falling down the stairs, no mid-night panic that he might have died in his sleep.

My youngest stands at the doorway between baby and child. And it’s amazing. Incredible to watch, intense to fathom, and lovely to experience. The steady flood of adrenaline that has colored my life for almost seven years has slowed. Anxiety pumps through me infrequently now. I pause. I breathe. I blink.

I didn’t remember what blinking felt like. Doesn’t that sound twisted? I had forgotten to blink, or couldn’t blink, or wouldn’t allow myself. To blink.

It’s quite nice, I must say, to stop the visual input, lubricate my eyes, and rest my brain. For a whole second every now and again. Quite delightful.

Last week the two boys and I walked into a restaurant and I asked them to sit down. They did. And I dropped my shoulders. I ordered burritos, paid, got water and salsa. During that two full minutes, I didn’t panic that they were falling down and cracking their heads, that they would fight, that they were bugging the other customers, or that they would run out the door and I’d lose them forever. I looked over once or twice, and they were sitting. And talking.

As though they were real, live humans.

Life is more like life now and less like a muscle-clenching jolt through incessant struggle and fear and joy and crying. Mothers with tiny new babies and precocious toddlers know the unblinking cycle of love and panic and love and panic and love and panic and frustration and love and panic. But elementary school and preschool have a different rhythm. The pace still daunts, but there are breaks for air. Time to drink water, enjoy hugs, breathe through frustration, and hold conversations.

This world is foreign, but I no longer feel as though I’m a human forced to live amongst bats.

My life is increasingly mine: a three-dimensional structure to layer and paint and plan. And inhabit. Time no longer flies by with me hanging on for dear life. I am in my skin, I own my voice, and I’m creeping toward a time when I will again make powerful decisions about who I am and what I want.

I’m not saying my children stole my power, though the sensation I’m finally shaking would make more sense if I were a vampire and they had mirrors strapped to their heads. And bottoms. And feet. I’m saying that I chose to parent in a particular way, and that I won the Lottery of Intense Children, the result of which is that my ability to exist in my own life has simply been missing for seven-and-a-half years.

And now that I’m coming back from life in a distant, alien land studying in a  foreign language to be someone I’ve never actually intended to be,  I have choices about how I’ll put the pieces of my life together. This is decision time. I’m debating returning to full-time corporate work. I’m contemplating law school. I’m even thinking of going back to teaching. I’m finishing my novel (yes, still). I’m both taking and turning down freelance work.

So why continue the blog? I began this blog five years ago because I felt lonely and frustrated as an intensely driven, full-time parent of a highly sensitive toddler. In moments of solitude I used this space to process my thoughts and feelings. I wrote my frustrations and my triumphs. I found ways to make going crazy sound funny. I vented online to keep from spiraling deeper into depression.

And the blog found an audience. As my son grew and changed and turned our family upside down in all the ways a small child can, I wrote and was heard. I helped readers and they helped me. We became a community and it felt nice to talk with the kind of people I never found in person while we lived in Southern California. The blogosphere kept me sane, so I did my best to write well for them.

When we moved to Northern California and when Butter was born readers were loyal and kindly listened while I stumbled about, trying my best, failing, and trying again. I wasn’t as funny as I had been with only one child, but I tried. And it was enough. Because with two small children and a nighttime freelance career, all you can do is try.

Or drink.

But the heart of this blog—loving my children and clawing toward an unseen buoy while fighting the upheaval to my sense of self—might not be my truth any more. I’ve accepted the major sacrifices and changes that parenthood on my terms has wrought, and I’m beginning to see a richly warm light at the end of a long, dirty, dark, wonderful but claustrophobic tunnel.

So is aging out of a major phase a reason to kill the blog? Nobody here naps any more. I’m not writing at naptime. I’m writing and researching and parenting and cooking and avoiding and volunteering and striving and observing when I can, without marking time based on what tiny creatures do. That which now feels more relaxed and less frantic might be less interesting.

Is that enough reason to stop blogging?

I hope not.

Because this new feeling? This sense that I might actually make it and that my children might actually make it and together we might actually make something we’re proud of? This is an experience I’d really like to share.

I hope you’ll stick around to hear what happens.

Of nostalgia and new generations

Oh, how my heart skipped a beat when I picked up my seven-year-old Peanut from camp and he held out this and asked me to pick a number:

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Squeeee! I love these I love these I love these! I thought.

“Ten.”

With impressive dexterity he counted out ten, deftly pinching the fortune-teller out and in.

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“Okay, um…Blue.”

He grinned as he spelled it out, again moving more quickly than I thought someone new at something could.

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“Orange.”

He slowed a bit at spelling orange, but did it.

And I get…

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Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold the phone. Never in all my elementary school years did I have that for a fortune. It was usually about kissing someone or marrying someone or wearing a certain outfit.

I looked askance at the camp counselors.

“I got die. That’s not how I remember these things.”

One of them smirked. “Yeah, I got die earlier today, too.”

I frowned a bit. “It it a command? A suggestion?”

His favorite counselor shrugged. “An inevitability?”

“Yes, well…”

The proud young man had his brother choose. Number, color, color…

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“Get a cougar? He gets a cougar? I die and he gets a cougar?! Life is so unfair.”

Peanut is simply beaming. He’s thrilled that the family finally has a cougar. Butter begs him for another try.

He chose a different number. And a different color.

Same result.

Dude gets two cougars. And I’m still dying.

This is some bullsh*t, y’all.

So I ask Peanut to make me a fortune-teller when we get home. He says he doesn’t know how. Never mind. I have made hundreds in my lifetime. Give me that thing and I’ll deconstruct it.

No problem. We grab a stack of paper and go in the yard. I have three fortune-tellers done before the kids have even remembered to ask for a snack.

Peanut makes this follow-up:

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Pretty weak, if you ask me. Win a medal? Pbbbththth. Forty-four pieces of gold? Meh. Drink pee? Geez, boys are gross.

Butterbean suggested the following. All are verbatim answers to the following questions: “What numbers do you want me to write; what choices do you want me to write; and what do they get if they choose that answer?”

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Note that he always chooses B.O.G., which is frosting. B.O.C., B.O.P., and B.O.B. are less popular. With everyone.

Now I make a proper device of happiness and goodness.

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That’s right…choose between apple pie and strawberry shortcake. I dare you. (I count out only the letters for the fruit, not the whole dessert. I’m old and don’t need fortune-teller arthritis.)

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Oh, yeah. Peach cobbler or blueberry pie. Colors my butt. things are gettin’ REAL up in here.

So Peanut picks a number. And a pie. And a blueberry tart.

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You got it, reader. I populated the whole thing with delightful ways to make mom feel good.

When he heard his fortune, the seven-year-old who often rolls his eyes and runs when I ask for affection actually shrugged, walked over, and gave me one heckuva hug.

You have to make your own fortune, people. That’s all I’m saying.

 

My baby again

 

Some parenting moments are bliss. Some include intense pain. Most are drudgery and frustration tinted with laughter. There’s sometimes just the teeniest bit of yelling. Occasionally.

But some moments make you stop.

I didn’t see my son fall and break his arm. I didn’t get a terrifying phone call. I just picked him up from school and talked with him about the best and worst of the day just like we did any other day. The seventeenth or eighteenth thing he told me on the walk home was that his arm hurt.

Easy, as broken arms go. And so we didn’t handle any of it like a trauma. Time didn’t stop. The day didn’t really seem different (except the long wait for an x-ray), the school year finished without further incident, and summer began pretty much as usual.

But today the cast came off. And my eldest baby’s tiny little arm emerged from the green fiberglass weak and vulnerable. He said the air hurt and he was scared to touch anything. So I tried to hold his hand. But that hurt, he said. So I kept a respectable distance even though it killed me.

We were escorted toward the examining room, but he seemed hesitant. So I told the nurse we were going to wash his arm before we saw the doctor. We slipped into the orthopedic department’s bathroom.

I have not, since my boys were babies, been so careful with the water temperature as I was with this peeling, pasty, dirt-bracketed arm. And not since he was brand new have I so gently washed him. I wanted to scrub off three weeks’ of unshed skin cells, rub off the grime that had accumulated around his little thumb.

Instead, I carefully removed his elementary-school filth and restored, for one moment, a time in which he completely trusted me. Without making him feel scrubbed. Or small. I got to remember how much time dissolves into genuine care. And he got pure nurturing without feeling little.

Today’s arm-rebirth was sweeter than the quiet Scrabble sessions we have while his brother is at preschool. It was calmer than his lethargic fever days when he sleeps fitfully until he rests on my shoulder and is then out for hours cuddled against me.

Today time stopped so at least one limb of my seven-year-old could be a newborn again.

But this time we already knew and understood each other, so the moment seemed even more sweet and tender.

Maybe because I know now that we might not have more episodes of naked vulnerability.

With a newborn, you expect them to need you for a while.

Seven years later, I’m not sure if I’ll get any more moments like this.

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Mother’s Day: A New Perspective

I’ve written often about being torn between the Hallmark ideal of Mother’s Day and the “same day, same frustrations” reality of Mother’s Day. At length and too many times. So have friends.

But this year is different.

I have a healthy, adorable, smart, funny grandma who lives an hour away. I visited her today while the kids were in school. Being with her infused me with wise, cross-generational “aren’t we lucky, even though the first years with small children are challenging, they’re a blip in the grand stretch of your life” perspective. Being grateful to have her makes a pretty nice Mother’s Day.

I have a healthy, sassy, energetic, interesting mom who lives an hour away. I saw her last week and will see her again for Mother’s Day. That’s a pretty freaking big deal after having lived the first two years of my son’s life in an isolated pocket of Hell (Los Angeles). Being grateful to have her, too, makes an increasingly sweet Mother’s Day.

And I somehow stumbled onto the best idea ever for a Mother’s Day gift. Beginning a few years ago, I forced my husband to engage in this ritual with my kids:

Buy or find the prettiest, smoothest rocks you can get your hands on. If possible, send partner and kids to beach by themselves to collect rocks.
Take dictation from children in Sharpie on the rocks after asking them, “What do you love about Mommy?”
Keep writing their answers on rocks until they have no more interest.
Have children decorate a plain box (wood, cardboard, glass, whatever). As big or little as you want.
Put rocks in box and hand them over on Mother’s Day.

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Throughout the year and whenever I want, I can reach in and read a reason, in my sons’ own words, why I’m the best mom they’ve ever had.

And I can’t wait to see what they write this year. Really. That “thanks for cake” rock is begging for a “thanks for 1,092 healthy meals a year” companion. We’ll see.

Mother’s Day. It’s not about sleeping in (as if), or breakfast in bed (ew, the cleanup), or peace and quiet (insert uncomfortable laughter at the realization that it’s never going to happen).

It’s about asking your kids (and partner if you have one) to make the present you want. And need.

And since they can’t build a Krasinski/Rudd/Fiennes/Gosling four-sided hologram, have them build you a box of love notes.