Summer, grant me peace

It’s 3:32am and I can’t sleep. I’m worried that the boys aren’t getting enough attention. I’m worried that I haven’t been kind enough. I’m worried I forgot two pages in a report I need to submit this week. I’m worried that we’ll all forget to bring back the library books. That we paid too little in taxes. That we paid too much in taxes. That I forgot to fill out healthcare forms. That the dentist is this week not next week. That the house is just messy enough to encourage my children to grow up into slobs. That I forgot to email a friend and that we’ll miss our summer window to get together. That I haven’t planned summer vacation for my kids yet.

By 4:07am I’m worried that I’m not getting enough sleep. Or exercise. Or vegetables.

And that I’ll sleep past my alarm.

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It’s the last week of school. I am dropping off plates for the kindergarten potluck, hummus for the fourth-grade potluck, and petition for the dissolution of marriage at the county courthouse.

I haven’t read a book in four months. I haven’t fenced in five months. There’s just no time. I have crammed life so full of “should” that I can barely breathe. And I’m nauseated. Almost constantly. Wound so tight that I injured both sides and was barred from running for 6 weeks.

Not good for my mood, the lack of running and books and fencing.

I should really have a dance party with the boys before school today. Make a note. Remember that.

My life, through no one’s fault but my own, has become about list making. Planning, mandating, chastising, reporting events and discussions and thoughts. My thinking has become staccato, matter of fact. My writing feels terse. Shamed out of adjectives. I can almost hear the words I type begging for bullet points.

Please don’t waste words.

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This is not just lack of writing time, single parenthood, lack of sleep, or overly intense focus on work, though it is, for the record, all of these. But in a bigger sense, I feel that I’ve become less of a person this year. Is it simply that there’s less to me than I thought there was?

It’s been two years since Spouse and I parted ways and tried to navigate the infuriating, heartbreaking, and complicated world of joint parenting. We haven’t bothered to figure out the logistics, again, through no one’s fault but my own. I didn’t want to add more tasks to my list.

But when I took the 10 hours it required to pause, make appointments, gather documents, make decisions, and participate in the first mediation session, I realized that I put the logistics off intentionally. No, I didn’t want to spend what will likely amount to 30+ hours of the Business of Divorce. But I also didn’t want to face the crushing disappointment of voluntarily ending my marriage. Twice during the mediation session I restrained myself from bolting out of the room. The whole two hours was physically nauseating. Not because we’re fighting, because we’re not. We’re agreeing on everything.

I just don’t want to be divorcing. I don’t want to be married, I don’t want to be in between. I just don’t want any of this. But I’m missing a lot while my life is in limbo, scrambling to be a full-time parent, full-time employee. I’m not making space in those double-time parameters to be even a part-time human.

I missed fava bean season this year, because I was too busy. I missed cherry season, too. I think. My two favorite markers for the shift from winter into spring, then spring into summer. Completely forgot to notice, to taste, to revel. Having the boys’ dad pick them up two days after school means I am not in the right place to stumble across the farmers’ market anymore. And instead of walking the kids to school every day, I’m driving at least three days a week. That means I only caught a few days of vine week in Berkeley, the time where the air is almost dripping with the artificial-grape scent of wisteria during the day and heavy with the scent of star jasmine in the evening. For two weeks, Berkeley smells like living near a nectar factory.

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I missed most of that.

But school ends this week. And though I still have to work, it feels as though everything is opening, languorously, and extended without obstacles until September.

The paperwork is filed. Whatever step is next is just another step. Summer plans and work and divorce are all just steps. And I plan very much to put my head down and just step.

I’m cleared to run short distances, so this weekend the boys rode their bikes and I ran, to exactly the mid-point of what my doctor prescribed. We sat with a cold cup of tea and boba, discussing everything we could think of. And on the ride and run back, they found each others’ rhythms, for at least 20 minutes outgrowing the bickering and assumptions, falling behind each other or surging gently past, without cutting each other off, without discord. With grace and understanding.

I noticed their rhythm. I found mine. I celebrated not panicking anymore, not worrying that they’d hurt themselves or bump into someone else or ride off the sidewalk and into the street. I let myself notice the lack of worry, and to celebrate it.

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I hope with everything in me that this is a beginning. For them, a beginning of a long, hilarious, exhausting, splashy, filthy summer. For me, a transition out of marital limbo and into a realm where I find spaces in which to be. Quietly, mindfully, not shoulding myself to death. For all of us, I hope this is a beginning, a new understanding of each other, with tools to make our family everything we need it to be.

All that from a date on a school calendar and a stack of papers with a courthouse stamp.

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So how’s your divorce going?

Slowly. My divorce is going slowly, thanks for asking.

Everything is fine. We’re still being friendly and still sharing time with the kids. I’m not a big fan of shared parenting, but it’s much better than having one parent erased from the kids’ lives, and it’s infinitely better than what we were forcing to make work long after it didn’t work.

We’re nice enough that we both go to all the soccer games. We’re annoyed enough by each other that conversations go best via text. It’s not a “between a rock and a hard place” kind of situation. It’s a “rock and everything that’s not the rock seems pretty soft” kind of situation.

rock sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, from my first of two visits

rock sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, from my first of two visits

The legal stuff has barely begun, but we’re hoping it will be easy. We haven’t disagreed on any details yet, and we’ve covered a lot of territory. It never occurred to me, when we decided to end years of misery with a responsible divorce, where both of us strive toward being respectful and kind, that we’d have to put in writing who gets to decide when the kids learn to drive (both have to agree) or who has to agree to moving to a different pediatrician, dentist, or school (again, we want both of us to agree). This isn’t hard. It’s a lot of thinking ahead, though. Thinking about being linked for decades. Gah.

I’m not enjoying the added burden of finding and paying professionals to help us make sure our kids are fairly treated until they’re adults, since we both agree they should be fairly treated.

But I’m trying to be smart about this. Some day he might remarry. Some day I might remarry (hahahahaha that’s a good one). And we have to make sure that what makes sense now is written and witnessed and legal and binding. Because it would really suck to go forward on goodwill, and have someone derail that spirit of cooperation with legal shenanigans.

I don’t enjoy the limitations of single parenting, but my happiness at being done with a very challenging time in my life trumps inconvenience.

gutter, rainwater, pollen, leaves. un-still life.

gutter, rainwater, pollen, leaves. un-still life.

I read exactly one article on divorce before deciding I’m not reading any more. In a highly recommended listicle, divorced women said retail therapy is exactly the wrong choice during a separation.

And so, for a while, every purchase I made seemed like a statement on my mental health, on my divorce, and on my potential for happiness. New shampoo was a cry for help. A new coffee mug was clearly demonstration of intense loneliness. And a new mattress was a therapy cornucopia: in attempting to erase the marital bed I was hiding from reality.

What ridiculous nonsense like that ignores, is that people moving through a change in marital status are just carrying on with life the way a regular person would. If you’re engaged and buying a new bed, that’s symbolic. But my buying a new mattress wasn’t a statement on my mental health. That purchase coincided with an uptick in work that meant I finally had enough money to fix a chronic back issue that had me waking, in pain, on a 15-year-old mattress.

I’m not sure why it was so easy to jump to a place where I associated my choices with my change in marital status. Since high school, I’ve refused to use the word Mrs. because I think it’s ridiculous to categorize women into only two groups: married and unmarried. So why do it to myself?

I thought I’d be upset about my divorce. I thought I’d second-guess myself, feel uncomfortable, or feel ashamed of my choices. But I don’t feel differently. I’m not embarrassed to kiss my kids goodbye after the soccer game because they’re spending the rest of the weekend with their dad. I’m not shamed that the teacher asks gingerly if she can have a conference with me and the boys’ dad together. I think it’s a good question. I tell her we’re happy to have just one conference. And I would feel just as comfortable telling her that we needed to be apart if that were true.

To my Catholic grandmothers, divorce was a big deal. As the adult child of an 1970s divorce (none of which seemed to exist on the same nasty-to-amicable spectrum we’ve set up for ourselves this generation…they were all relatively uncivil and acrimonious, right?), I thought divorce was a big deal.

But it hasn’t turned out that way.

Maybe because I’m not done yet. Maybe because I’m at the center of it, and I enjoy being the center of an issue. Maybe because divorce doesn’t seem intense when it’s such a relief. Or maybe because trying our best to be kind, to talk nicely about each other, to support the kids with whatever they need in the transition to a two-household family, we’ve actually taken some of the biggest hurts out of divorce.

I don’t know. But I do know that, other than the logistics, my divorce is going quite well. Thanks for asking.

Big Plans

This weekend will be the first time the boys spend two days with their dad at his new apartment.

Oh, nothing. Just totally obsessed with clouds lately.

Oh, nothing. Just totally obsessed with clouds lately.

Though I’ve been slowly preparing them each day (today we talked about picking out a new, special toothbrush that will be at Daddy’s always so they never have to worry about forgetting something as important as dental hygiene), my own reality of two days alone snuck up on me, and I forgot to write out all my lists of how I’ll fill my time while the boys are away. For the first time. Two whole days. Not at a conference, not working 7am-7pm at a cafe so they can have time with their dad in my house. Alone, in my own space, full of hope and potential and projects. And guilt.

Here are my tentative plans.

Hours 1-3
Cry, eat popcorn, and watch an old John Hughes movie. I’m guessing Pretty in Pink but don’t be surprised if I report back that it was Some Kind of Wonderful.

Hours 4-12
Sleep the sleep of a mom who hasn’t slept a full night in her own house in 9 years without waking to the sound of a child crying, vomiting, seeking affection, or sleeptalking.

Hour 13
Wake in a panic that the kids aren’t home. Cry while making tea, then go for a run.

Hours 14-19
Cry. Or read a book without interruption. Or both. Resist urge to text boys’ dad, repeating mantra “He will text if something is wrong. Everything is fine.”

Hour 20
Make feeble attempt to declutter. Find something delicious that doesn’t need to be cooked. Eat it. Shake head ruefully while walking back and forth between the rooms of the house, daunted by all the cleaning and decluttering that really should happen. Debate crying again, but calculate the ratio of tears to popcorn and reconsider.

Hour 21
Do one million pushups and sit-ups to make up for ten years of forgetting. Or have more popcorn, maybe, while building a better Netflix queue.

Hours 22-27
Bounce between reading, pacing, and playing mind games to keep myself from texting.

Hours 28-36
Sleep, full of guilt that I’m enjoying uninterrupted sleep.

Hour 37
Wake, convinced there will be a reassuring text. Feel disappointed, then angry, then sad that there isn’t. Cry while making tea, then go for a run.

Hours 38-44
Plan to cook the week’s meals but forget while binge watching Orange is the New Black. Or Parks and Rec. Or Dr. Who. Definitely not season one of Glee. Again.

Hour 45-47
Freak out that I’ve wasted the weekend on trivial things, resolve to put together dozens of pinterest-inspired kids’ crafts projects to welcome the boys with full attention and adoration. Get caught up surfing and reading about Pluto and patient parenting and domestic hate-crime mass murders. Bounce predictably between buoyant and depressed.

Hour 48
Open the door to tired, happy, filthy, hungry children who don’t particularly want to hear my stories about the fall of civilization and former planets, and who wonder why the place looks exactly the same as it did when they left.

Hours 49-50
Feed, bathe, read to, and adore the children.

Hour 51
Make plans to use my time wisely in two weeks when they go again. Then cry that they’re fine, I’m a wreck, and there aren’t enough hours left to watch The Breakfast Club.

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Reset

No matter how busy the days have been over the past few weeks (I’m going to pass on the hyperbole and cliches, but it’s been pretty freaking busy), I’m able to catch my breath. To smile. To look around and really see. 

The pace of changes in our family have accelerated, but the rhythm has slowed. Because I’m building intention into our rituals, our conversations, and our home. 

I’ve boxed up all the wedding china. And I’ve replaced it with a classic family tradition: a mess or a miracle, depending on your perspective. 

A few weeks after my grandma died, my mom invited me to look around and claim my memories. I went right to the kitchen. 

If nobody has claimed them, I want two of these. 

  
She asked if I was kidding. They’re chipped and cracked, she noted. Sure. But they’re the plates we used every week for Sunday dinner after my mom moved us back to California in 1979. Every week. Grandma and Grandpa and mom and kids and aunts and uncles and cousins. 

I wasn’t kidding. I wanted two. 

She gave me four. 

The day I got them home I dig through the boxes in the garage. I didn’t know what they looked like, but knew they were there…in a dusty white file box labeled “grandma china.” Paternal grandma. Died in the early 90s. China came to me years later. And I never used it. 

I took four and put them with maternal grandma’s plates. 

   
  
Paternal grandma was one delightful half of my wholly delightful sciencey grandparents,  whom I visited several times a year in Tucson. Scrabble and tennis and gin rummy and butter rum LifeSavers. And though I miss both her and grandpa every day, I have no memory of the plates. But who cares…they’re a piece of the people I adored. They remind me of lemon meringue pie and monsoon rains and Kodak carousels of global travels and a blue checked tablecloth.

My mom figured out what I was doing, and saved me a few of these. 

 
Maternal grandma’s. I stopped caring about the stories and just basked in nostalgia and the glory of building from good memories. Starting over with just me and my boys and the legacy of love and kindness that is their birthright.  

My kitchen is dripping with metaphor. Seriously, it’s like a bad freshman essay in there. And I love every cornball connotation. 

A few days ago mom put four plates in my car. It was a frantic day of fraught decisions and parenting fails and traffic and yuck. I thanked her and heartlessly forgot them. 

And today after work I remembered mustard for my boys’ favorite veggie burger recipe (lentils, rice, cashews, and a big pinch of organic shut-up-if-you-hate-veggie-burgers). And pulling the groceries out of the car I remembered mom’s plates. 

I didn’t really look. I washed them. And I served burgers on them. 

And after the kids went to bed I payed attention. 

  

   

My mom got these as wedding presents. Her marriage ended when I was five. She didn’t want the plates. 

My grandma did. 

So now I serve my family homemade food on plates my grandma valued  even as my mom wanted to shed the memories they represented. 

Grandma gave them a second chance, and new memories. 

And now I’m doing the same. 

Starting my way, with my family, and making my choices based on love, nostalgia, and a willingness to shed formal for cobbled together and beautiful. 

   

Filling the Spaces

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.

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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.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Clearing

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The neighbors are installing solar panels. I’ve never really noticed their house before, and we’ve never spoken. But we’re as linked as ever suburban neighbors who’ve never met can be. And I’m not happy with our relationship right now.

They had their baby about a year after we moved in, when my boys were sometimes kind and sometimes dreadful to each other. I’d listen to them coo at their newborn out in their yard, which adjoins our backyard, and they’d hear me try and try and try and sometimes lose my temper with my sweet children.

They brought their infant to play in the yard every morning at 5am, and celebrated his every milestone as their dog ran ’round them yapping joyfully.

If my kids weren’t up and terrorizing the neighborhood early I would have been angry at their timing. As it was, their baby’s outdoor shrieks of joy often woke me only moments before my youngest started his morning shrieking at his brother.

My boys liked, on weekends, to climb our tree so they could watch the baby on his little slide. I always explained about privacy and spying and politeness. None of my pseudo-adult lectures ever got a laugh from the neighbors. They pretended we weren’t there.

The baby wasn’t in the yard after 6am on weekdays. I’m guessing from the gorgeous kitchen renovation, from the new solar panels, from the complete lack of baby sound from 6am to 6 pm that the baby went somewhere while Mom and Dad went to work.

I hadn’t thought about it, really. But I am now. Today I saw the panel installation by accident, while I was quickly changing clothes to take the kids to school. It was the first time anyone had ever had a sightline into my room, and I thought about roofs and gutters and home ownership and losing our shirts selling our home to move up here in 2008 and not wanting to buy in 2012 because our marriage was a mess.

And tonight as I thought these things, I saw the neighbors—actually saw their faces—for the first time. They’re adorable. Everything about them and their house is just right. So I watched, from my darkened room, as the couple made dinner. I watched because they must know something I don’t. If they look just right and decorate just right and cook just right, they must have all the answers. And that somehow makes it okay to spy? Don’t interrupt my story.

Gorgeous kitchen. Caribbean blue walls. Flawless pots and pans hanging above a butcher block table. Working together. Each of them occupied by a task: him stirring something hot on the stove. Her chopping and adding to his concoction. Smiling. Working in concert. Probably composting, donating to charities, decluttering, supporting causes, and refraining from all manner of judgment and coarse language. She likely doesn’t binge on to-do lists, and he probably asks her about her day. I’ll bet they have no problems with dandruff or weight fluctuations, and I’ll bet their kid will never get lice. Or a C.

Jealousy wrapped around me and started to feast on my insecurities.

Between us, aside from millions of miles of choices and regrets and difference was the lovely deck I’ve rarely used. Sometimes the boys and I stand out there with a sky map trying to pick out the planets from the stars. Occasionally Peanut lurks out there during a water balloon fight to pelt his foes down below, and I’d drag him back in, giggling maniacally.

But I don’t go on the deck to read in the warm fall evenings, nor to entertain in the summer, nor to contemplate the meaning of life in winter.

I use the pieces of my life in utilitarian ways. I forget about poetry even though I’m often absorbing the details round me.
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But tonight I’m hiding in the dark, assuming that other people have better lives. That money and love and a different career would solve my problems.

Wait. What problems?

I have a healthy and happy family. My kids fight. Big deal. My marriage is over. Big deal. We aren’t refugees, we made rent this month, and we see our extended family often.
I have a career. It’s shifting now, sure, and it’s not what I planned. I’m not enjoying consulting as I once did. Big deal. Plenty of opportunities to change jobs. Plenty of for-good clients who need my skills.
I live in a gorgeous, enthralling, expensive city. It’s beautiful and captivating. And I’ll find a way to afford it on my own. Or we can move. Big deal.

Jealousy is wretched. Because it’s often based in appearance not reality. I have no idea what the neighbors’ relationship is like. I have no idea whether their work-life balance is good or if they inherited their money, whether they’re cooking together because their therapist says they have to, whether the solar panels are a gift from a crime syndicate because of their drug smuggling efforts.

I have no idea whether the kitchen and solar panels make them happy. It looks as though their marriage makes them happy. So? They have that right. They’re allowed to find things that make them happy, to create traditions and habits that work for them.

I’m not always sure what makes me happy, but I know it involves going out on that deck in the sunlight, not hiding behind the blinds festering with jealousy based on comparisons I’ll never win because I’m juxtaposing apples with lemons.

So I’m off to make some lemonade.

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Both this post’s photos show the sky over the Bay last Friday. I rolled down my window and took them at stop lights several miles apoart. Because I may not be harnessing the power of the sun for my laundry, but I use sunshine for other happy-making purposes.

Failure

I’m sitting quietly tonight, coming to terms with failure.

Strangely, I’m wrapping the failure as a gift. I don’t want to give this package, but not because I’m dissatisfied with the results. Though I’m rarely happy with my creations, they’re not failures.

Here, for example, are nesting dolls I made for my sons and nieces. I’m not thrilled with the final results.

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They’re not what I envisioned, but these dolls are my first try at woodburning, and represent my best attempt at art for people I love, so I’ll accept imperfection.

This, on the other hand, is failure writ large.

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Not just the change in pattern. Nor the size. Or the ends I haven’t yet woven.

This was supposed to be a blanket for my husband. He chose the yarn just after we got married 11 years ago. I started the blanket eagerly, happy to be engaged in formal domesticity. I was in grad school and pressed for time, but I knit on trips, at conferences, and in the rare moments Spouse and I watched movies. I knit because I wanted to make him this gift to keep him warm and cozy.

I wanted him to feel loved.

But the project got heavy and I got caught up in other things. I wanted to finish. But life intervened and I slowed down. Then I stopped. Later I wanted to finish so I could free the needles to make a blanket for our baby. But finishing a huge project so I could start another didn’t motivate me enough.

After that I just forgot.

We moved the blanket, on its needles, not even halfway done, from one house to another, four times since our wedding. Each time I found the knitting bag, I wanted to finish this gift. But each time I stumbled upon the unfinished project, I was less interested in doing the work required to make it really beautiful.

Looking back, it’s a convenient metaphor.

I had excuses for dropping the blanket priority. It’s hard to remember the pattern. It’s too heavy. The cats, the baby, the other baby. Work. My book. Housework.

And so it languished.

I was hiding holiday gifts last week and found the 1/3 finished blanket. And I thought, “now that our marriage is over, why pretend? I’m not going to finish this blanket.”

I’m not. I have enough trouble trying to be consistently civil to my parenting partner. There’s no way I’m moving “make a present for my ex” up my long list. I bought him thoughtful gifts at the store this month, because I’m good at gifts and I’m good at kindness. I’ve been his partner for 15 years.

I just never made his blanket.

The trauma, though, of saying goodbye to the blanket is that I feel like a failure.

What if the blanket symbolizes the whole problem? What if decreasing effort and changed priorities are why my marriage died?

What if I had tried harder? What if I had made him feel more loved? Would I have been the wife he needed if I were the sort of Me that finished the blanket? Would that have helped him be the husband I needed?

Probably not.
Maybe not.
Maybe.

I cast off this weekend. I wove the loose ends from 12 skeins of yarn today. I trimmed off the extra.

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And I wrapped the pathetic, too small blanket and stuck it under the tree. Not to be a jerk. To cement for myself that I’ve stopped trying. That’s a hard thing to admit.

Maybe I stopped too early. Maybe too late. Either way, there’s a physical, heavy, warm reminder of The End under the tree tonight.

And it hurts more than I thought it would. Trying and failing doesn’t hurt like trying, giving up, and thinking later that I didn’t try enough hurts.

Because this lumpy package screams at me about lack of foresight and laziness and stupidity and selfishness.

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It represents the worst of what I offered my partner: a promise of love that I didn’t fulfill.

This present says I wasted time and energy by mis-allocating resources. The problem is: I don’t know if I invested too much or not enough.

And I’ll likely never know.

Reasonable Question

“Mommy, you know how you don’t love Daddy anymore…I mean, not that you don’t love him or not that you don’t like him, but you know how he makes you sad when he yells at you? Well, do we have to have two camp sites when we go camping?”

blink blink blink

blink.

“Well, honey, some day we probably will have two camp sites. And that might be fun because Daddy will cook on his campfire and I will cook on my campfire, and you can choose which campfire dinner to eat. And you can even choose to eat both!”

“Yeah!”

“For now, we still share a campsite. And we’re a family, even if we live in two houses or have two campsites.”

“And even if we have two marshmallow fires, right?”

“Yeah, Butterbean. Even then. It sounds pretty good to me to have two marshmallow fires.”

“Me, too.”

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But it doesn’t sound good to me. It sounds like what we have to do, to be civil and keep the best of what we have to offer the kids, but I’m lying to my son when I say it sounds good to have two marshmallow fires. It sounds like a waste of wood and excessive pollution and too much work. Two campfires sounds to me like the acrid smell that won’t wash out of my hair for two days isn’t even my smell; it belongs, in part, to someone else and it follows me around for the better part of the week, surprising me with an acid taste in my mouth each time I move my head quickly.

Everyone all together was my hope for their childhoods and for my marriage. I don’t want to offer them two homes instead of one, and I don’t want to pay two rents  instead of one. But that’s our reality. Together, Spouse and I fight. Apart we are much kinder. And I’m not going to rehash here the time honored “but they’re happier now and you’re happier now and sometimes marriages just don’t work but you’re doing a great job of making them feel loved even though clearly you made bad choices and probably shouldn’t even be allowed to have children because you’re so bad at decision making” cycle of self loathing some divorced parents go through. Okay, that I go through.

I will say that it’s uncomfortably hard to tell my kids they can’t have the comfort of having everyone who loves them sleep in one house. Or that we can’t split the team and play man-to-man at book-reading time. Instead, there are really only groups of three, and they have to learn to get a lot less solo attention. They’re the center of a Venn diagram, and one of the adults is generally shut out.

What killed me about the campsite question is that he knows there aren’t easy words to put to the situation: it’s not a lack of love or a lack of like…it’s a dynamic between two people who bring out each other’s worst. And they saw it. We were two people treating each other like adversaries instead of partners. And my children felt it. They treat each other like adversaries, too. I feel the guilt of that hourly.

But now they see that two adults can choose to stop being a bad pair and become better people alone. That people can choose to examine their problems and find a solution. A kind solution. A gentle solution. An unwanted but necessary solution.

Later this month I’m giving a talk on finding your blog voice. And staying true to my own writing voice has meant being honest. I don’t blog so I can put on a mask and pretend. For that I have theater. But a blog voice also means permanence and not writing something I’ll regret and want to delete years later. A blog voice means addressing the pain but knowing that just beyond the empathetic friends and sympathetic readers is a future employer who might read this as part of a decision-making process. So being honest and being forever is challenging in transitions like a divorce. I have to talk about solutions but not really explain the problem. I’m not here to air my marriage and its failings. I’m not going to degrade my co-parent in a public forum. And I can’t be here in full therapy mode. That’s not me hiding the truth. But it’s not me being completely frank, either. I’m not comfortable here, right in between a rock and a brick wall.

This blog is where I tell my stories, and aching for my kids that their family seems incomplete, no matter how we configure it, is my story right now. I want to tell that story. Carefully.

Thankfully, my sons’ version of this story is a delightful revisionist world in which they get double marshmallows.

Maybe they’ll share with you.

 

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

 

Group storytelling

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.

Tonight:

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.
The End.

 

Trying Hard Not to Rearrange Furniture

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.

Maybe.

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.

Don't worry...I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

Don’t worry…I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

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.

eo

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.

I'm starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

I’m starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

 

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!

Where do I post this?

Dear Jay,

I miss you. I pick up the phone to text you at least once a week. There are so many things I want to tell you. Of course I want to tell you that I’m sad you died. But we covered that when you were alive. We were both sorry, and we had absolutely no say in the matter. So we both moved on, toward love and life and enjoying the time you had. I’ve mentioned I feel terrifically guilty for continuing on, right? No, of course I didn’t. Because when the cancer got bad and you learned the pain of how many people avoid death by avoiding their dying friend, you told me that you wanted us all to live and tell you about it and just act as though you were still the same. Because right up to the end, you were the same.

So let’s pretend, just for a while, okay?

We’re writing new software for the office. Can you believe it? What is that dreadful program…twenty years old? I’m hoping we get it done during the summer so the transition is easy. But speaking of uneasy transitions, we were having trouble with part of the old version last week and it dawned on me I didn’t have to struggle. “I’ll just call Jay,” I said out loud. And then I cracked wide open and I just sobbed. In front of everyone, with no way to make it polite or pretty or decent. I just lost my shit. I can’t call you. That is a stupid and horrible fact. And still true, no matter how much I hate it. But I do hate it.

I saw your kids a couple of weeks ago. So sweet. You know they’re sweet, but I want to remind you. I love hanging out with them. Your oldest is retreating into herself, which we predicted. She’s so unsure of herself right now, which is about her age not about missing you, it seems; but she’s strong and fierce and she’ll start to own her power soon enough. I worked with her on math and kept pointing out how well she does when she settles down and believes in herself. And she does. That’s you, right there: she believes in herself. Your life is looking pretty successful, right? Minus the whole death thing, you win at life.

You know, I should apologize for being seethingly angry at your funeral. It wasn’t really my fault, though: not one of those people at your memorial was you. And I came to celebrate you and talk with you and be with you. But there were hundreds of people, and nobody knew what you know or talked the way you talk or thought the way you might think. Jerks. It was lovely, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ll take our backyard talks over a lovely memorial any day of the week, but I don’t get to choose.

Let’s see, what else…Spouse and I finally settled down into a quiet space where we could talk, and we both agreed we need to try being apart. It’s been much better since we agreed to separate. He’s kinder and funnier. I’m more calm and accommodating. The stuff you and I talked about with the kids has gotten better. I just wish to god I could have told you all this before you died. You knew. I knew. We both said out loud we knew. But we all thought it would be another five years, at least, so he and I could see if we could make it better.  Nope. Maybe your death got me to that calm, quiet place where I could see the forest despite the trees, but I don’t think so. Either way, we decided a couple of days after you died. Either my timing sucks or yours does. Since you’re not here to defend yourself, I’m saying it’s you.

So I’m rearranging my life now. It’s nice, and it’s scary. It’s sad. I’ll bet you know what I changed first. I’ll bet you know both of the things I changed first. Who cares about closets or couches, right? I rearranged the kitchen and the books.

I completely redesigned the fridge and cabinets, and tossed all the spices I hated. And it still doesn’t feel like enough. I might get new spatulas. Will that make things feel better? They work just fine, but they just seem sad and old and past their prime to me. Spatulas as metaphors. What a dork. You know those mugs we loved? I kept only those four, and donated all the others. More room in life when you get rid of what you don’t want, right? Right. I packed away all the wedding photos but left the family photos so the boys know that everybody in our family is welcome. He is welcome. He just doesn’t live here. Was that weird after your divorce? You aren’t  married, but you see your co-parent all the time? I am wildly uncomfortable, but I kind of like it. I like not being cut off from a part of my old life and I like seeing them happy with him. I don’t like the in between of having him over so much. I’d like a couple of weeks genuinely solo. But that’s silly because it’s not good for anybody else.

Parts of this process are nice. It’s nice to feel happy. Really. I had forgotten. And I know most people are expecting me to be troubled and sad and overwhelmed. But it feels quite good to breathe. I’m eating better, I’m sleeping better, and I’m more relaxed. Because that giant weight lifted off my family. Not just off me. Off the whole family. It feels as though a secret is out and everything is better. Did you feel that way when you came out? Or when you split up?

Even the books are now more honest. They’re not all grouped by literary period, because I’ve pulled those that I still haven’t finished (or even started) and put them on their own shelves. The unread, the Next, the “as soon as I have time” sit on their own shelves, begging to be noticed. Not posturing as part of a cluster as they would in a bookstore, hoping some day I’ll remember my intense need to read them. This is my house and these are my books, and I want the unread to remind me of what’s left to come, in a big ol’ honest FUTURE shelf. Two, really. I know you left a lot of unread books. I’m glad that was only sad to you for a little while, until you moved into that “between two worlds and unconcerned with earthly nonsense” phase.

But a few threads of silver lining the cloud don’t make the whole process of unraveling my marriage any easier. I’m overwhelmed by all the “what comes next”s and the “what have we done”s and the “what if we’re wrong”s . I wish I could ask you about how it went for you when you split up. I keep remembering what you said, though. The divorce is not even going to be a speck on the fabric of what forms your kids. Your death will be the defining event, bar none. I feel so dwarfed by the magnitude of that statement. I’m so sorry for you and A and the kids. I’m so grateful for my family. A family spread across two households doesn’t matter. Nobody’s dying. We win!

Ha.

Your manuscript is still in my desk. Your number is still on my phone. I actually closed my facebook account because they posted a message to me last week. “Jay misses you. Write on his wall!” I said a few really bad words at the computer, closed it, and went to rearrange the DVDs. There aren’t very many, but it made me smile to shift them around. They used to sit in simple his/hers piles. Now they’re John-Hughes/not-John-Hughes piles.

Jay misses me, eh algorithm? Well, he might, but I doubt it. Jay’s dead. Jay doesn’t miss me one-millionth as much as I miss him. Jay has moved on to something completely different. I’m here struggling to remember that change is good and a given in life. Most changes are good, if you find the right way to look at them. And my life now is better. And it’s going to keep heading in that direction, except when it doesn’t. Life: messy, and rarely easy.

Messy and rarely easy. Like your life, and like your death. I know those last weeks were horrible, and I’m glad you died, if only because it stopped the hurt and the sadness and the waiting. I hope your afterlife is going well. Maybe write me back, if you have a chance. It would be nice to hear from you. The past few months have been harder because I can’t talk to you. So bust out all your other-worldly tricks and give me a shout. Even if you think getting new spatulas is a bad idea.

Love,
C

Coming home

A long travel day, a long conference day, a long travel day. Moments of embarrassingly loud laughter, long stretches of insect-splatting boredom, sparks of intellectual fireworks, flawless time with friends, and a breathtaking moment of euphoria.

art institute of chicago Chagall exhibit

Back home, half of the plates are gone. The wedding china, which we’ve always used as everyday dishes. Their absence makes space for the boys’ two favorite dishes to rest together on the same shelf. Finally. I don’t like these little upsides. They feel like laughing at a funeral.

Half of the drinking cups are gone. Makes the collection a little coffee-focused. Kid glasses and coffee mugs and a set of happy-making mathematical highballs. With a lot of what I expect just…gone. Maybe I’ve expected too much. And by “maybe,” I mean “of course.”

The dresser he’s had for decades is sitting by the front door. It’s ready. I don’t know if he’s ready. I’m not ready. That’s too bad. We have to be ready. We don’t, of course, but he’s moving and “ready” isn’t the point.

We’re in for a lot of change. There is no “my side” of the bed anymore. Or the fun we had every year on New Year’s Eve of switching sides of the bed. Just for a year. Just to see if it settles anything. Or unsettles anything. Or everything.

What will I do now to shake things up? Have a conversation with myself?

I emptied the mission-style letter-writing desk I picked out, so he can take it to his new apartment that I hate and is too far and is all wrong and is none of my business. And I had him move my work desk from the dining room to the bedroom. My bedroom. Two closets just for me and more space than I’ll ever need. Maybe I’ll move the kids into the master with me, and we’ll move all the furniture in that too-big room and we’ll be happy forever without any problems or fights or unmet needs. The end.

The expectant hope of a new home, where unpacking the books and kitchen tools is so important because they set the stage for everything…I’m doing that in my own house. Not my own, really. A rental I can’t afford by myself. I’ll figure that out later. After I reorganize everything in the manic hope that rearranging until 3am will make the next day okay.

I want to move because there’s too much house for three. I don’t want to move because the last thing the kids need right now is more change. I pause for a deep breath of gratitude that we have that choice. I’m glad for that choice.

I offered some of the framed photos and he accepted. Will it upset the kids to see blank spots on the walls where their photos hung for three years? Will they be happy to know he wants their photos decorating his life or will they notice only the absence? Of photos, of couch, of father visiting four days a week but clearly just a guest.

Did I make him feel like just a guest in the marriage? An employee, an afterthought? Probably. A few plates and cups and a couch isn’t making as large a dent as I thought it would. Did he not have enough of him here, or do I just not notice how much is really leaving?

The little one, my sweet, irrational, King-Kongesque little butterbean wants to know why Daddy has to move his furniture. Why is he bringing things to his new place? They haven’t really understood yet, because it’s been just talk. I think he believed the new apartment he saw was somehow just a daytime space, like for work. Dad sleeping somewhere else because he doesn’t live here? He has literally no friends with divorced parents. Nobody else in our family is separated. I’m sure there will be a trophy or a plaque issued for that particular honor soon enough, but Butter has no frame of reference. Until now. So I’ve taught him about rainbows and mammals and glitter glue and divorce. Gee, that feels exactly the opposite of terrific. “We’re still a family, and we’re living in different houses. We still love you and we both want to be with you all the time. We just don’t do a good job of being with each other.” But that’s not true anymore. We do a very good job of being with each other. So then…why?

There will be questions. I know this will come. “But you are nice together now. Why can’t you be in the same house now that you know how to be kind together?”

I don’t know.

I really don’t know. I’ve asked that, too. For now, or for good, “he doesn’t want to” is the truth the boys won’t hear. We carefully unify in our answers in a way we never did when we were together. And I can’t tell them their dad said that he only has enough kindness for temporary, transitional interactions. I’m in the bargaining phase, though. “If we can keep being this way and we can both work hard on maintaining this civility and mutual respect and…can’t we just please…” It’s been so much work for years just to stay together, so much constant stress to keep from either sinking into depression or running screaming for a distant land that there’s an ease between us now. And I want to keep that ease. Can’t we be like this and stay a whole family? In one place? Can’t we please? I want someone to answer that for me. Because everything would be different, right? We’d be different people with different interests and different approaches and different priorities? We would heal all our issues and be to each other what we should be. To stay together we could do that, right? Maybe. Let’s just try…I know, but maybe try for four more years? It’s only been 15 years total. Why would we assume we know anything yet?

He’s happy and acts like the man I met, animated and clever and fun. The man I married. I try not to focus on the fact that he’s happy because he’s leaving. Because he doesn’t have to anymore. I was a have to.

The wine and the cookbooks are staying. We split the mixing bowls and he got new cutting boards. I want new cutting boards. The beer’s all gone. I rearranged the fridge at midnight, so the veggies are finally in the crisper and the shelves organized by meal. He doesn’t pack school lunches, so why does he get to put the peanut butter in the door? I don’t want it in the door. I don’t want tortillas in the cheese drawer. I don’t want soda crowding the shelves. One for when he visits, and one for my mom. One. They only get a tiny piece of my space because I need to control the space, hold up the house’s walls as they start pressing in. I want all the lunch options together, dammit. Can’t I have that?

Yes, now I can. Oh, and how’s that feel? Everything better now that you can control the peanut butter?

Didn’t think so.

His books are gone. My Modernism shelf has a lot of detritus cluttering it; bits and pieces he found as he packed are sitting by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t want old CDs and cat toys and a battery recharger blocking James Joyce. I reject that arrangement. I want to just sell all the books because there’s not much about language experimentation from the 1920s I want in my face right now. Thank goodness I don’t own any Hemingway or I would have burned it last night. He’s just exactly the guy on whom I’d like to take out my anger. My Faulkner shelf is too high to put things on it, thank goodness. Alphabetical, same publisher and cover system, not too carefully lined up, but solid and supportive in its panic-inducing insanity. Am I going to have to change these shelves? I grouped the books as intentionally as I could: by literary movement when possible, geography when appropriate, and read vs. unread vs. half-read status as necessary. But there are other methods that could make sense, could inspire more reading, could excite my boys into a world of incredible literature. I’ll do that tonight. Because at 4 and 8 it’s crucial that they see a wall of books arranged flawlessly? I worry myself at times, except that I’m consistent, so I know nothing’s too wrong.

What is going to become of my books? What if we move? What if I can’t bring them all? Should I sell them now and just say goodbye? What if, what if, what if? A good reason to get even less sleep. What if? Thinking myself in worried circles like a child rubbing a lovey against her almost sleeping cheek. Or a woman tracing the yellow wallpaper of her room.

My feminist theory shelf is still half-empty—listing and slumped with the freedom of not being packed like literary sardines—from my two-month effort to write the paper that begged me to write it for four years. It was well received. I need to edit it and get it to a journal soon. It’s just too awesome and I want it available to anyone who might care.

I don’t feel awesome, though. There is guilt for swelling with freedom and pride. Now that I’m supporting the kids on my income, there is a constant fear in my freelancing way of life, working this week on too many projects, that the projects will dry up next month. I’ll look for something permanent once these clients slow down.

There is frustration with the same conversations, the same petty bickering, the same nasty under-breath comments said in retreat from a dialogue. Get back here. Talk to me.

You’re not coming back, are you.

I want the ease, the kindness, the joy. I want a relationship, not a roommate. I want surety but not at the cost of how I believe a family should treat each other, at a minimum. I want to know what it will be if we fight for us, though he said he’s not going to try anymore. I want to know what it will be if we give up, so I can decide based on what it’ll be like in a year, two years, ten years. I want to know what is best for everyone, I want to know in advance, and I want to know precisely. With numbers and measurements and guarantees.

Because so much of life is measurable and knowable. Ha. If you want guarantees, get married. I’m pretty sure a promise to someone you love is good enough to carry you through 80 years or so.

I want to know what to want. And while I’m figuring that out, I’ll move the dining room table and change where we keep the art supplies just in case that helps. Anyone have a feng shui book for where to put glitter glue and markers to ensure good decision-making and emotional well-being?

Just close your eyes

There is an exercise we do in fencing warm ups: we balance on one foot. And then we switch to the other. And after we switch back, we balance on each foot with our eyes closed.

You find out two things when you close your eyes and balance on one leg. 1) A surprising amount of balance predicates itself on vision. 2) Your proprioceptors function amazingly well if you get out of their way. Because the human body should adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to stimuli. In fact, the human brain should also adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to input.

So why do I feel as though, only a few weeks into the initial process, that a divorce is knocking my body and brain so far out of whack they can’t adjust?

I know this isn’t supposed feel easy or simple. I know after 15 years the path isn’t going seem as clear as we’d hoped when we finally, finally admitted how wrong our marriage has been for so very long.  I have proof, from the Interwebs, which tell me whenever I ask, that feeling all of the feelings is normal, even during an amiable split. Read some really lovely and awful and heart-felt descriptions of the journey from the incomparable Heather of the EO and my new blog-crush Carla of All of Me Now.

By the way, any time someone says their divorce portends a good thing, and that they’re both doing a great job of addressing the issues they could never address while married, you should give them caramel, the way two of my friends did. Because I can tell you that “doing a great job” of splitting up is something like doing a great job reading Heart of Darkness. It’s ugly and awful, and nobody would ever recommend it to anyone else. Caramel I can recommend unequivocally to everyone. Divorce and/or Conrad? Not so much.

But until a couple of weeks ago I thought, because I’m quite keen on control and planning and overthinking, that I could make a nice tidy plan for how this breakup would go.  And that it would. Go. Just follow a path toward eventual harmony and paperwork and a co-parenting friendship.

Rather like the way I thought I was rather balance-y at fencing. Until I close my eyes. Turns out I balance myself by finding stable points ahead of me and staring at them. When I close my eyes, that stable fixative point ghosts into a bleeding black puddle behind my eyelid, and the swimming scarlet and yellow vitreous drowns my efforts to clench myself into balance and unnerves my thinking mind enough to make me wobble. A lot.

Navigating through the day in an almost-former-marriage feels a lot like wobbling on one foot with your eyes closed. [My eyes closed. I can’t speak for you, nor should I. If you ever try both the blind one-foot-balancing trick and the initial phases of separation in the same week, let me know how they compare.] I feel as though I have it all under control, barely, until I blink. And then logistics and hurt and choices and relief and work and timing and panic and money and regret and discussions and feelings and my poor, sweet, vulnerable little boys all swim in green and blue and purple venous blobs before me like a lake of bruises beneath which I’m drowning.

So I open my eyes. And I try to balance without focusing so hard. I try to let my body balance me rather than trying to force everything with my mind. I try to trust and I try to breathe. And I try to memorize how my body feels with this balance so that when I close my eyes I care less how it looks than how it feels.

And each day happens. And each night does, too. And the next day there’s another endless string of challenges.

And when I let my body handle those obstacles, rather than relying just on my mind, it’s like living in molasses. Because letting go and not controlling the hell out of everything taps proprioceptors I’ve never used before. I’m so slow right now. I type slowly. I think slowly and answer slowly. I’m even running so  slowly that I’m considering seeing a doctor. I’ve lost more than a minute per mile off my regular, don’t-have-to-try-for-it pace. That minute, on every mile I’ve run for the past month, is gone. Lost to the ether. I hope some young person in love and full of hope is running faster with my minutes. I miss them, but I’m willing to lose them forever if they go to a good home.

The words “a good home” make me a little maudlin. And by “a little” I mean “ask me in person because I’ll admit very little on a public blog even though I’m pretty darned honest here at good ol’ NaptimeWriting.”

All I know is that if asking my mind and body to do too much leaves me wobbling, I need to balance smarter. Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed, rolling with the wobbles. Because that’s what learning experiences are for, right? Strengthening muscles you didn’t know you had? Part of me says, “but I don’t want these muscles because I promise I’ll never need them again.” But I will. For the rest of my relationship with the boys’ father, I will need these blind-balance muscles.

And that right now is the saddest part for me, after the waves of gut-punches at what this adult tower of cards means for the boys: I’m building muscles I don’t want to need. But I do need them. And so I will build them. I have to.

Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed…let go.

 

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Coping mechanisms

Dang. I’m not going to lie. This separating thing is already hard, and we’ve barely begun.

Yes, I wrote a long post about how we’re doing everything we can to be respectful as we dissolve our marriage. I even noted that we’re glad to have the Paltrow/Martin model of conscious uncoupling to follow. And how we’re kinder now that we see a way out of an untenable situation.

But deciding to split our household is not making us magically perfect humans. Shocking, I know. “What? You mean just because you write one thousand words about being ideal partners doesn’t actually make you ideal partners? I never would have guessed.” I knew the civility phase was just a phase, because for four years we haven’t been all that civil. A whirlwind course in breaking habits is in order. And we’re both slipping back into old pattens more often than we’d like.

But we’re trying.

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself. I’m trying to be especially gentle with him. I’m naturally pretty gentle with the kids, but I’m doing an even better job by just giving myself timeouts.

But I’m also using the following techniques to keep my cool and make it through stressful days. Feel free to copy my coping mechanisms if you’re in the middle of a major upheaval. Because I’m nothing if not emotionally healthy and excellent at modeling good behavior. [Snort.]

Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. I dropped it a while ago, and felt mostly self-righteous but not all that healthy when it was gone. Now I’m quite happy to point out that it’s called self-medication for a reason. I had a few drinks this week, and I do not like at all how compelling it feels to use booze to take the edge off. So I’m going to avoid liquor for a while, and instead I’m choosing chocolate. And caramel. And gummy things and chewy things and all the sugar things. Because I have more than a little going on, and I’ll be damned if I’m going through it with just kale to keep me company.

Biting my tongue. We did not get to the point where we needed to dissolve our marriage because I’m good with calm reactions. I tend to respond before I think, usually with some version of “no.” I don’t like change, I don’t want to change, and I don’t want anyone else to change. Life is complicated enough without relearning things every five minutes. So for most of my life, I could tell you that just “no” will have to do as an answer to every question you ever ask me. Especially if you happen to be moving out of my house but staying in my life. I have a big ol’ “hell no” for all questions that begin from that corner of the Universe. But I’m trying really hard to bite down before “no” flies out of my mouth. Because you know what my future ex-husband needs? He needs someone to hear him out. To think first. And to respond only when a thoughtful, respectful answer has percolated up.

Deep breaths. It would be nice if, along with the sugar, I was exercising a lot. I’m not. I am in a teeth-chattering panic about becoming financially stable immediately, if not sooner, so I’m taking every freelance job that comes my way. And that makes for a day that involves writing every free minute (and lots of sugar; see above). I’m trying to move my body. I know exercise helps mood and thought clarity and sleep and self-confidence. I know all these things very well. But because I just don’t have the time every day, I’m substituting deep breaths. I’ve never been good at slowing down long enough to breathe. Or blink. So now, when something feels really good (like the bearded irises in bloom in the neighbor’s yard, the soul-warming sunshine, the increasing moments of sibling harmony, or a gift from a friend of handmade chocolate thingamabobs) I close my eyes and take a deep breath. And when I want to fight or cry or say something inappropriate, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I’ve probably taken more than my share of oxygen this week. I’ll be honest and tell you: I’m not sorry. I’ve lived 41 years without taking my fair share of deep breaths, and now they’re mine. All mine.

Asking for help. The reason we posted about our conscious uncoupling on the Interwebs is not just because we didn’t want to call the people we love and explain how we’ve fallen apart and can’t make our marriage work. Though, whoa Nelly, the thought of making those calls still chills my highly-sugared blood. The blog-post announcement was rooted in a desire for an army of support behind us. And we got it. We asked, and people called and texted and emailed to say they would do anything to make this easier for us. And that got me to take a big gulp of pride. “Thank you. Yes, you can help. Would you please…”  Nobody yet has said no. You know why? Friends are generally kind and want to help. And people feel uncomfortable about things like death and divorce, so they want to be assigned a project to make them feel useful. I think the next person who offers to help will hear a request to attempt the 2013 photo albums I haven’t finished yet.

Zombie prom. You may or may not have the chance. But if a school you know offers an ’80s Prom Zombie Apocalypse option for the big Spring fundraiser, you might want to roll with it. Have your kids dress up as you try to get the dark circles around your eyes from half-dead dark grey to undead green-and-purple grey.

(I love that this is how they think zombies look…)

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Ignore the mess in those photos. Because refusing to clean up anything is just another of my now famous coping mechanisms.