Interruptions

Interruptions

By Rebecca D. Martin

You arrive on a Sunday. The house is white with a purple porch swing; the lane is unpaved, historic, and one-way. Once the ferry docks, you debark the boat and follow the road to the right. Soon, you turn left onto the small, sandy lane. When you get to the purple porch swing, you have arrived at your vacation. You are on Okracoke Island, in North Carolina. It is a vacation spot so remote that only a ferry will deliver you, and that is what you came for. You did not come for construction noise.

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My Mom and My Son, the Style Icons

me without you

When the much beloved and mourned magazine Domino folded, its publisher tried to make up for my unfulfilled subscription by sending me Lucky magazine. I hate this magazine. Besides being a poor Domino replacement, it's basically a SkyMall for beauty products masquerading as a fashion glossy. Of course, there are pretty people in it and products! clothes! and stickers! But beyond its unmitigated advertising blitz, there wasn’t much for me to latch onto, except for one feature: the last page of the magazine was dedicated to the column "My Mom, the Style Icon" (based on a blog, which became a book for Chronicle). The one-page feature included an old photograph of a mom, dressed fabulously ahead of or very much of her time, plus a brief write-up from her admiring daughter.

I also grew up admiring my mom’s sense of style. Whether rock-show casual, girls’-night glitzed, or gussied up in her Sunday best, Mom could put an outfit together with flair. When it came to clothes, Mom operated with an instinct that I did not inherit. I loved clothes as much as she did, but my fashion sensibility was (is) more sweaterista than fashionista. Mom loved big costume jewelry, brooches, even (gasp) shoulder pads, but managed to craft those otherwise gaudy elements into something sophisticated and luxe.

Mom tried to impart her style on me to disastrous effect. I recall the epic fights we would have getting me dressed before school. She always wanted me in skirts and shirts with ruffles or — horror of horrors — to pop my collar. (Clearly, she always envisioned me this way.) I wanted to blend into the scenery, and she wanted me to burst out of it like the Kool-Aid Man. This struggle continued throughout my adolescence. In high school, after lamenting that none of the boys noticed me, she declared, “Sweetie, we just need to sex you up a bit, is all.”

She was basically the fabulous queer eye to my conformist straight guy.

While I never had the gumption to wear my fashion fantasies on my sleeve, it appears Mom’s sense of style has skipped a generation. My four-year-old Henry loves dressing himself. He regularly incorporates pieces of flair and elements of drama into his preschool outfits. Sometimes it’s a turban; often it’s a cape. He tucks muscle shirts into pink and purple tights, requests pigtails (like the girls at school) and buns (like Mulan) atop his head, and morphs his sleeveless shirts into tube tops. At the heart of this sartorial inventiveness is a pair of Hello Kitty rain boots worn so thin that they may disintegrate off his feet before he grows out of them. And lest you pigeonhole him as a rigid aesthete who is all form and no function, these outfits always leave room for a weapon. The tube top doubles as a holster for a foam sword, and the elastic waistband of his hot pink tights provides a secure spot for a plush baseball bat, should a villain present him/herself.

My son: the fashion warrior.

And the best part? The kid pops his own collar. I never taught him this or did it for him. Though he won’t know the stylish and fabulous woman she once was, Henry is definitely taking after his grandmother. (Though Mom always said she would never be called “Grandma”; it made her feel too old, and she was too vain. “What are you going to have my kids call you, then?” I asked long ago. “Can't they just call me Lee?”)

Whether this love of dress up is a phase or some strain of inherited fabulousness, Henry and my mom would have had a blast together. I imagine Henry picking through Lee's stash of costume jewelry and her dutifully rummaging through old clothes and fabrics to help him realize his Little Edie-cum-superhero visions. They'd have made a great (and well-dressed) team.

Swimming Lessons

me without you

We are Starfish, Henry and I. I pick him up early from daycare, and we worry through the traffic until we make it to his 4:15 class at the community pool. We are one of seven, maybe ten, parent-and-child pairs in the class. A teenage swim instructor has us circle up, parents holding toddlers. We sing "Motorboat" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" and "Ring around the Lily Pad," substituting swimming terms for the original nouns ("pocketful of posies" becomes "pocketful of frogies;" "ashes" become "splashes"). The kids instinctually do a sort of standing run in the water, legs kicking frantically and arms pushing the water down, as if to gain an imagined traction. Their little bodies are revved up on the new sensory experience, desperate to set out, not understanding that the pool isn't filled with invisible hands to support them. We parents hold them with one hand under their armpit, using our other arm to help us tread water in the deeper parts of the pool. We are treading for two. Our songs and supporting holds are an elaborate show, disguising the water's indifference to the kids' effort. I was holding Henry in this way, one hand palming the curve of his ribs where they wrap under the crook of his arm, as I made my way to the wall for a Humpty Dumpty (kids sit on the wall, parents sing "Humpty Dumpty," and kids jump into parents' arms). Most of the parents had already staked out spots on the wall, so I ventured into deeper water. I was on tiptoe — literally balanced on the tip of my big toe as I hopped my way toward the wall, my leg like a pogo stick. The arm holding Henry moved down through the water, involuntarily. I looked right and noticed that I had dunked him, pulled him right down, head under water. I jerked my arm up, and his head surfaced, wriggling and spastic, his suspended running legs supercharged and sprinting with fear. He let out a cry, then a high-pitched shriek signaling the turn from fear to anger. The other parents turned away from their kids to see. Henry's "Mom-eeee!" was outraged, accusatory, the kind I hear a lot lately.

"I'm so sorry, buddy, oh no. You're okay, you're okay . . ."

In these moments of injury and near misses and almost unlucky breaks, something in me shuts off, not down. It's not operated by a dimmer but a switch. My typically nervous, easy-to-panic nature flatlines. I am nonreactive, a passive cipher through which experience is happening, a situation unfolding where the only actor is inertia. I get self-conscious that other parents see this in me, that children stop to notice the adult whose instinct cannot be trusted. I am a milky-eyed inert mother who merely watches as her child acts out, behaves badly, drowns.

Is there anything more dismissive, more enraging, than being told you are okay when you're not?

I was four, Henry's age, when I learned how to swim. Before that, when I was a baby, Mom regularly took me to the pool in our apartment complex. She would get me comfortable in the water, swish me around with her hands cupping my armpits. There is a picture of us in the pool, Mom walking through the shallow end toward the steps, brow furrowed. She's carrying me under her arm like a football. I'm horizontal, head arched up and crying. The swimming lesson is over.

By the time I was four, I was playing in my godmother's pool. I was afraid to put my head under the water, so Mom urged me to practice by putting my face in little by little, starting with my mouth, then my nose, then my eyes. I was reluctant, terrified of the world under the surface, blurred and fuzzy with eerie, alien sounds. Mom suggested I jump in and that she would catch me. She stood a few feet from the wall, arms outstretched to receive me. I jumped, and she wasn't there. Water plumed up my nose, and in that first experience of flooded nostrils and burning sinuses, I was certain that something had gone horribly wrong and I was drowning. My hands paddled furiously in front of me to get my head out of the water. I coughed and sputtered. Mom held me and hoorayed, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the big achievement of getting my head underwater for the first time.

"Sometimes you can't think about things; you just have to jump in, feet first."

I was mad in that way that devolves into tears, which only makes you angrier because the tears betray the fury you want to communicate, and this frustration mixed with the inciting anger makes you cry more. I sulked, and my mom and godmother chastised me for not appreciating the lesson imparted. When they became lost in conversation, I sat quietly on the pool steps and practiced putting my face under the surface. Lips first, then nose, then eyes. I've been swimming underwater ever since.

Homemakers

By Nora Hill

When I was eight years old, my mama went to Atlanta for four days. I gave her my journal to take with her and write in every night, so that when she got back I'd know what she'd been doing and thinking. That's the first time I remember being at home when she wasn't. When we were little, she was the one who took my brother and I camping in Maine, brought us to visit relatives in Pennsylvania, drove us twelve hours to Toronto to see our cousins. Dad got two weeks of vacation a year; as a teacher, she got the whole summer. And so when Mom went away, we were with her.

When my mother goes away for the weekend, the rhythms change. There's coffee left in the press at the end of the day, since I'm the only one drinking it. At dinner, there's a hesitation before I remember that it's up to me to say grace. Small things, to be sure - but they cause a slight disturbance in the force, a difference in the way home feels.

With a weekend trip, the difference is negligible; my mom comes back after three days, and we slide back into the rhythms of home. But my family has reached an age of change, when 'home' is being redefined for all of us. Three years ago, my brother went off to college. For the first weeks after he moved out, the house felt empty - until my parents and I adjusted our habits around his absence. When he comes home each summer, we must adjust again, imperceptibly shifting to make room for him in our daily lives.

A year from now, I'll be preparing to head off to college myself. Chief among the myriad worries about that huge step is the fear of leaving home. I have lived in this house since I was four; I know the precise creak made by every step of the staircase and the every crack in my bedroom ceiling. But I'm realising it's not the house I'll miss, it's the way I live in it. What makes it home isn't the kitchen table — it's knowing where to sit. It's not the food — it's making and eating meals with my family. Home is as much about the people I share it with as it is about the place. The habits we share, our rhythms of interaction, are what makes the place we live become our home.

Always Move Forward

I learned a valuable adult lesson last week: you can’t go back. When I left Chicago for good, I didn’t have any kids, just a dog. And now, four years later, I’m married with two boys (and the dog still too). I used to play the ‘What If?’ game. Basically, ‘What If’ I had never left Chicago, would I be better off? Who would I be? What if I hadn't gotten pregnant, or married?  I have realized that this is a pointless game. You can never go back, and furthermore, you wouldn’t want to. I see that the person I was then and the person I am now are completely different. I can see this even more while staying in my hometown. The last time I was here, ten years ago, I was just a reckless teenager desperate to leave my small town. Now, I’m a mom and that small town doesn’t look so bad, in fact parts of it are downright charming. It sure doesn't feel boring anymore. I read this fascinating article the other week about identity and sense of self. It describes this phenomenon that people can see how much they have changed; we no longer listen to the same music, we changed our major or job, etc, but they just cannot envision how they will change in the future. We still think we will be the same. Even though we can see past change, we are incapable of picturing future change.

When we got our tattoos a year ago (they look like this <<<) they were meant to mean, Matt, Charley and I, the three of us. And then I got pregnant again, unexpectedly. People ask if we will add another symbol. We say no, we will just change the meaning. Now I tell people it means, always move forward. I should add, and don't look back to that, but I think it's implied.

This is all to say that I am no longer desperate to live back in Chicago. I still love it there, but a part of me can see that you can only go forward. And from now on I am going forward as part of a family of four. And that is tied into every decision we make, making it even more difficult to pick a place.

Waiting

diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to https://www.facebook.com/ThePritchettFamilyAdopts) or share their adoption website (www.thepritchettfamily.com) with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

Marriage Rules for Little Girls

peanut m&ms

By EBK Riley The other night, as my daughter Delia rearranged the peas and chicken on her dinner plate to make it appear that she was actually eating, she announced that she "wanted to marry a rich husband." Swallowing my chicken and the jolt of fear that arose because she is already contemplating marriage at six, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. She was very matter of fact, noting that if she married someone rich, she could have a big house, go on vacations, and get lots of clothes and her own car and anything else she might need. This is the first year she has seemed concerned about our family's comparative lack of stuff, and apparently it is shaping her ideas about a lot of things. Because she has visited the houses of school friends, she is less satisfied with our apartment, and as every girl who has had to share a room with her sister is bound to do, she is lobbying for her own room. "We could all have our own rooms if we had a house," she says, though she graciously allows, "you and Daddy could still share, if you wanted to..." We do. Thanks. But before we could turn the discussion away from lifetime commitments to talk about how having a lot of stuff isn't always so important, Fiona chimed in, "M used to have a lot of money, but he doesn't anymore and I love him anyway."

Fiona is in an imaginary committed relationship with a three foot tall plastic display version of a yellow peanut M&M. He was gifted to her before we left Boston by my CVS manager, who not only wanted to get it off his sales floor, but who was also touched by the true love of a girl and her candy pal. She can call him just "M" as a nickname, because he's her boyfriend. All of her dolls and stuffed animals are their children and she tells us often what he thinks about situations that arise with 'their kids' at school and about stuff happening on television. M has a lot of strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of them, but at least I know he's from a good home and he doesn't have a motorcycle that I have to worry about Fiona riding on the back of. We hope they're very happy together until she's about thirty, which is the age my husband Mike has decided the girls will be allowed to date.

The discussion of marriage continued when I asked Delia, "Don't you think love is more important than money when you decide who to marry?" Mike was also interested in the answer to that one. Again, she was matter of fact, "Well, if he was rich, he could buy me lots of presents and then I would love him." She paused for a minute, pretending to chew some peas, and possibly because she realized that this might be kind of shallow, she added, "I'm sure I could find someone who is nice and rich, and I would love him because he was nice, and he would still be rich. Then I would have the best of both." There it was, the admonishment of parents through the centuries: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

We were at the table for a while, because Delia never did really did make any progress on her dinner, so we discussed the possibility of her becoming rich herself. She had taken this for granted, assuming she would have a career (as a rock star or an astronaut or a professor) and her own money, but she was clear that her future partner should have his own too, because then they would not have to worry about money for sure. "And I might want to take time off to stay home with babies, or he might, so we both need to have money."

It all seems so simple when a six year old explains it to you.

Still, as we finally cleared the plates, after Mike and Fiona had gone in to muck out the girls' room in preparation for bedtime, I told Delia that even though it does really kinda suck to be poor, the real trick to marriage is finding the person you want to be with, no matter what else happens. "Yeah," she said, "like they say on a wedding, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, and then they both say I do and they kiss."

"Yeah, just like that," I said. And she giggled, because she's six.

Two Paths

Something happens when you become a mother; it’s easy to lose sight of who you were before. For some women this happens all at once, when they become pregnant or right after they have the baby. For others, myself included, it is more like a trickle. Everyday when I look in the mirror, my previous self seems farther and farther away. Right after Charley, this made me depressed. I would stare into my enormous closet full of size four silk dresses that weren’t even close to fitting. With tears in my eyes, I wondered when I would ever wear them again. I must have had forty pairs of heels, that sometimes for fun I would shove my foot into and walk around in our apartment. Slowly, throughout that first year of being a mom, I let go of all of that. I sold my dresses, one by one, on Ebay. Sometimes I would search for the addresses of the recipients on Google. I imagined that my prized pink wool tweed dress was going to another adventurous girl at 150 Oak Street, Chicago, Illinois. I bid it adieu and hoped she would wear it well. I pictured it going out to fancy dinners and to the opera. The shoes went next. They were narrowed down until one day I had only a few pairs, and they were all flats (or clogs). This editing infused every aspect of my life. I purged perfumes I didn’t use, jewelry I never wore, even books I would never have the time to read. I purchased ‘mom shorts’ and chopped all my hair off. I embraced motherhood. Or so I thought. Suddenly, sometime after my second son was born, I looked in the mirror and gasped. I couldn’t even recognize myself in pictures. I realized I had strayed too far down one path. In embracing motherhood, I had ignored my true self, the ‘me’ I had discovered before kids.

I set out to merge these two paths. I knew I didn’t want to be 100% ‘mom’ but I also knew I could no longer be 100% ‘me, me, me’ like I was before children. They needed me as their mom, but I also needed me as me. Part of merging these two paths was making decisions with both selves in mind. So much of parenthood is dealing with your previously suppressed notions of what it means to be a family and a mother. For some reason, I believed I had to buy those ‘mom shorts’. I felt they were my ticket to the club, to some hidden sisterhood that I desperately wanted to be a part of. Instead it just made me feel further from myself.

Part of combining my two selves is bringing my kids to experience the places I love. For the first time, we brought them both to Chicago last week. Charley was thrilled! He pointed out every tall building (there were many) and every type of truck he could see. We walked up State Street, where I had moved as a wide-eyed college student. It was a nostalgia trip, to say the least. But it felt like home for the first time in a very long time. I saw my two selves merge, I could be a mom and I could be my old self as well. It would just take time.

On Ashes: The Outtakes

memory and loss

This post is an add on to Katherine's piece, On Ashes, published on her blog Helping Friends Grieve.

After sharing the story of spreading my father’s ashes, other people’s stories have trickled into my life. Many more people than I had expected responded with their stories of the ashes they have spread and those that have yet to be spread. I should preface this piece by noting that there appear to be a variety of experiences that surround the process of spreading ashes and a multitude of ways that individuals interact with the process.

From what I have seen, we seem to strive for this seemingly magical moment where everyone finds peace with the death, the birds may sing, the sun rises above the mountains, and we know it is time. Of course, my description of the sun and birds, is a hyperbole, but it is meant to show that reality gets in the middle of our plans. The mishaps, planned and un-planned plans, and stories of carrying ashes around (for months or years) captivate me.

As always, many people have a story, and I am going to take the liberty in this piece to weave the narratives of others in with my own story of how I ended up on top of various mountains and rocks to spread my father’s ashes. Ultimately, I had my magic moments, the sun did rise above the mountains, the birds did sing, and I was overcome with a sense of peace---but not without the reality and hilarity of mishaps along the way.

Last summer, I had my first brush with what I call the re-personification of someone in the presence of their ashes. As we were walking into the small church in the center of town, a family friend asked me to grab her mom out of the back of the car and bring her in. Of course, I knew that her “mom” was the black box of ashes safely tucked in the back of her. This box, “her mom,” had accompanied her on her recent road trip, yet the banality of the request made me give her a double take. We joked that her last trip with her mom had been this road trip she had recently taken on the east coast. My family friend had visited her friends, accompanied by her mom, in the black box, in the back seat. In this moment, an uncle snapped a shot of me, in a cute blue dress, ready for the funeral, arms full of giant yellow sunflowers, with a small backpack, containing the black box, on my back. It is so mundane, yet, her mom, has such a huge presence.

I realize these stories may sound a bit crude, if you’ve never had ashes in your possession or reached in a box and physically touched someone you have missed for years. However, the thing about ashes is that they have to be transported (or at least stored somewhere) to wherever you plan to leave them, thus, you must interact with them. This moment of interacting, somehow forces the presence of the person who has died. Momentarily, the person takes a physical form or a presence in your journey, a journey they are no longer part of. Rarely, as living beings do we come so close to touching death. Rarely does it feel like something you can touch---something that can simply slip between your fingers if you open them just a crack. Yet, the presence of the ashes momentarily relieves the gaping hole experienced by someone’s absence. On the drive home from spreading part of the ashes, I was alone. I simply buckled my father, in his black box, into the passenger seat in the front seat. In a moment of unrelated frustration, I expressed to him a sentiment about wanting to be outside, running and climbing in the mountains---something only he a few others in my life understand. Perhaps I was able to have that thought pattern because my mind was attuned to his presence.

In my journey home to Colorado to spread my father’s ashes, I felt this sense of presence. I carried his ashes to Columbine Mountain outside of Winter Park, I carried them to the top of a peak at over 14,000, I climbed with them up a rock wall at my family’s cabin, and finally, I took them on a multi-pitch climb---testing my own climbing abilities. I felt invincible, as if the ashes could protect me, after all my dad had touched the ground in each of these locations, in his living life, so I imagined him guiding me there in his afterlife. I imagined, the natural world, making way for me to complete climbs, knowing that my father had to be returned to this very location. It all seemed clear as thunderstorms split, showing lightening on each side of our rock face, but leaving us safe and dry. The irony that I felt he needed to be returned to the natural world, the same world that had captivated his imagination and led to his early death, was not lost on me. But in that presence, it really felt right, and by right, I mean, that there was no other option---when someone is home it simply feels right.

 

 

As I wrote in reflection to spreading my father’s ashes, after eight years without touches or embraces, to suddenly touch his body, although reduced to ash, was astounding. Yet, I am embarrassed to say, a small part of me was disturbed at literally touching a dead body---after all, in spreading the ashes, you physically touch them. I had never really considered the consistency of ashes, but I imagined the fine ash left by a camp fire. I was surprised at the small remnants of bone that weighed down the ash when I spread it on my palm. Reaching my hand into the black box, only brought about more questions of how his body had become reduced in that manner. I teetered between loving the closeness I felt to my father and being concerned when suddenly the wind picked up and the ashes flew back at me---covering my jacket and black pants with white and grey dots. What do you do next---wash your hands? Wash your clothes? After all, those grey dots are still part of him. Or---as Coree---so appropriately notes after finding herself spooning her “dad” into an urn, what do you do with the spoon? You can’t just wash it off---after all, it has ashes on it.

Yet, you laugh with the process. After hours of climbing to recreate a picture of my dad on this specific rock in 1979 and to spread his ashes there, I reached the point---100 feet down on a free rappel. I managed to open the medicine container I had stored the ashes in with one hand (the other hand firmly on my rope---as I was still hundreds of feet in the air). As I prepared myself to spread them, the wind grabbed the ashes, whipping them up into my face. I was startled, but more than that, overcome with giggles at what a joyful hilarious moment this was. That picturesque moment became a hilarious struggle of me trying to rappel, laugh, and somehow get the ashes out of my eyes and mouth.

 

Like everything else, it wasn’t as planned. Yet it was a moment in which I felt closer to my dad and closer to his sense of home---which after all, really was the point.

Lessons from the Emirates...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Every so often, I’m able to be exposed to a part of the world I hadn’t known before, with customs and traditions and environments that are completely foreign to me.  We often seek that out in our personal travels, but my work trips tend to be confined to a set of usual locations.  That’s comforting in its own right, but sometimes, it’s exposure to a completely new place that perks me up and makes me interested in what it is that I do all over again.

I had this feeling just last weekend I traveled to the Emirates for the first time, taking in that intersection of the world as much as I could over the few days that I was there.  I couldn’t help but to see their world with new eyes and I noticed:

  • Modesty is not a bad thing: Regardless of one’s opinion as to why, women’s dress was largely more modest in the Emirates, and in the larger Middle East in general.  Like most people raised outside of that environment, part of me can’t help but be fascinated by women who cover up nearly all of themselves when in public.  But once you notice how much certain women do cover up, you can’t help but also notice how much women who are visiting do not---shirts that go lower, skirts that go higher. There was something about that juxtaposition that made me choose clothing and combinations that were more modest and more covering than I might normally, even though I don’t consider myself a revealing dresser.  And interestingly, it was in that additional coverage that I found a certain bout of comfort and confidence because I knew I was being judged by what I was saying, and not what I was showing.  You don’t have to change who you are when you go abroad, but you should absorb your surrounding environment and adjust accordingly.
  • If it doesn’t look natural, it probably isn’t: Across the city of Abu Dhabi, I saw plenty of things that were beautiful and modern but didn’t necessarily look like they were part of the natural scene.  For example, when approaching the city the road is flanked by sand dunes until skyscraper upon skyscraper rises to the sky . . . or until fountains of water appear in the desert heat.  One of the beautiful things about being human on this earth is building and improving and changing the conditions we might have been born into---we don't have to be confined solely to what "was" but we have the possibility to dream and build what "can be".  But we still need to be mindful of what belongs, and what we give up by adopting that change.
  • Invest your resources: The Emirates were fortunate with the natural resource of oil, but also with the foresight that money made from resources can always run out.  It’s amazing what the country has done by putting resources into building and tourism, and making itself a crossroads for the world.  But more importantly, they’ve also invested into education and transport, as these are the things that stay long after the money is made and pave the way for future possibilities.  When you are lucky enough to profit, make sure you set aside a portion into savings and activities that build your future.
  • Look behind the scenes: Most people who work in the Emirates aren’t actually from there.  And if you take the time to speak to waiters, drivers, hotel clerks, and just about anyone else, you’ll find that they are far from home and their families, and looking to make a living so that their children are entitled to those very basic resources that I mentioned above.  When you’re being treated to a wonderful experience, take a look behind the scenes to see what makes things work.  Chances are, you’ll be surprised at just how many people’s efforts go in to making that experience for you.  Compensate appropriately, it affects their future.

All my love,

Mom

Lessons from the workplace...(part two)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Last week, I started to think about the lessons and wisdoms that I have learned over the years from my mentors and colleagues when it comes to work and the workplace.  But soon I was also thinking of lessons I learned more broadly there as well.  These have served me well as I moved from one workplace to the next, and I have applied many of these same lessons from my work life to my non-work life:

  • People need to know what you’re about in 30 seconds or less: Be efficient.  Know yourself.  Know what you want.  Be able to communicate that to others.  I know it sounds simple, yet it is amazing how many people don’t know how to do it.  Sometimes when we spend a lot of time thinking to ourselves, we forget that others don’t necessarily know what we’re thinking unless we tell them.  And they’re likely not going to take a lot of time to hear us out---practice giving your “pitch”, that way it will be perfect when it matters.
  • The deal isn’t done unless there is ink on the paper:  This will happen to you.  At work . . . in real estate . . . with your local florist . . . doesn’t matter, it happens all the time.  When we get excited about a project or an offer or a possibility, it’s easy to assume lots of things just by talking about it.  When you’re on the receiving end of an offer, remember that the terms aren’t done and decided until the proverbial ink is dry.  Deals will fall through, offers get rescinded . . . until you are one hundred and ten percent sure and signed, always have a plan B. You’ll be less disappointed in the long run.  And if you’re the one doing the offering, try to keep your descriptions as flexible as possible for as long as possible.  That way, you’ll be disappointing others less in that same long run.
  • Some things will just "go away”: It’s not possible to get to everything that’s asked of us at work (or at home, or at school). Part of learning how to manage what’s on your plate is prioritizing what you know will be important and then taking your very best guess at what is less important.  As you get older and have more experience, that guess will become easier---but you will get it wrong sometimes.  This will result in some mistakes, and definitely in lots of effort as you make up for it, but overall, it should help keep workloads manageable.  Develop your radar for truly important and critical projects and requests that are priorities, and pay less attention to the stuff that will likely “go away”.
  • Check the headlines the morning of: It’s just good practice.  I don’t know if the news will still even be printed on paper by the time you are my age, but in school, in work, before big meetings, check the headlines.  You’ll be surprised how much you reference them because they are relevant or because they help make conversation while you wait for relevant things to start.
  • The best bosses aren’t necessarily the friendliest ones: As you start working , you’ll work for and with a variety of people, and you might not immediately like some of them.  That’s okay.  But there is a difference between liking someone and learning from someone, and in the end, I’ve learned the most from people who sometimes weren’t always the friendliest or the most approachable.  However, by doing good work and building up your credibility over time, you’ll gain access to them and lessons that they can teach from their experience that you will not easily get elsewhere.  Look for bosses and mentors that you can learn from.  Then one day, it will be your responsibility to teach it back to someone else.

All my love,

Mom

 

Playing House

We are moving soon (more on that later) and we pulled everything out of the attic the other day. We have toys stored there that my parents saved from when I was a little kid. I have boxes upon boxes of my old dolls and an unfinished dollhouse, and then we have a massive collection of Playmobil figures. That collection was probably ten years in the making and at least twenty years old. As I pulled each vehicle out of the box and the people and their accessories, these strong memories started to rise up. I can remember being a little girl and receiving the Playmobil victorian dollhouse as a gift for Christmas. I was beyond excited and bouncing up and down while my dad tried to decode the instructions to put the thing together. I remember it being as tall as me. Now, when I assembled it, it was just a dollhouse, on the smaller side, only three room and two floors. I thought it was a mansion. Even still, I began to pull all of the furniture out of storage and assemble some people. I was thinking of selling it. After all, I thought, we aren’t having any more kids and would Charley really want to play with it? He is so into trucks and boy things that I thought I should just give away all my girl toys. And I knew Dash would probably just want to play with whatever Charley was interested in, after all, that's how little brothers work. But as I played with it, I remembered how much I loved it. I thought, maybe I should just keep it. I slept on it and had dreams of selling houses and buying houses and floods. The next morning Charley woke up and saw the house and was so excited! It was me all over again on Christmas morning. We took the house downstairs and all the people and started to play. I noted his favorite things, the spinning playground and the tiniest member of the cast, the baby, and they had been my favorite things too. I surprised myself when something came apart, I knew just how to put it make together. And we played for hours, all weekend long. It was the first time that I saw so much of myself in him, despite being a boy. When he was born, I had all these things planned for how to make him more like me. How to teach him to appreciate art and music and cities. Instead, over the past few years, he has surprised me with his own interests and likes. I have learned so much about trucks and know the garbage man’s name (Julien). Now his identity and my identity are merging and I am beginning to see some of my good traits, creativity, drive, and bad ones too, stubbornness and drama. At the end of the weekend I realized I don’t need a girl to see myself in my kids, two boys fulfills all my hopes and dreams. I put the dolls in the garage sale pile, but kept all the Playmobil.

Lessons from the workplace...(part one)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Late nights at the office have had me thinking about work recently.  This year actually marks ten years that I’ve been in the work force, and in many ways I feel like almost no time has passed by at all.  I feel that there is still so much learn, and there are so many jobs I’d like to have before I would feel that I truly have the experience to be considered qualified.  But then, I look at our incoming summer interns, or the candidates that will be starting with firms here in the fall, and I know that to some degree, I’ve also come a long way.  I was that young too at one point, starting out with nerves and anticipation.

With that in mind, I’ve thought of a few things I’ve learned from some of my best mentors along the way---things I definitely didn’t know when I first started:

  • Check, check, and double check: First lesson from my first boss and I still use it today.  Of all the things that we do at work, no matter what the field, when you are new at doing them, or do them a lot, or do them tired, or have others help you do them, the bottom line is that you have to check it . . . check it again . . . and then check it once more.  Just because you “thought” something got done, or got done right, doesn’t mean that it did.  And no matter what the reason, often times you’ll find yourself being the one to explain something that didn’t.  You’ll be tempted to skip these steps, and you’ll regret.  Just check, check, and double check.
  • Don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet: Same job, different boss for this one . . . It can be easy to imagine ourselves doing lots of different things in life---and that’s a good thing.  But it’s also just as easy to picture yourself not doing a lot of things . . . you don’t want to live somewhere . . . the pay wouldn’t be right . . . your skills wouldn’t be right. But you’d be surprised at how much can change between initial conversations and then actual offers.  Don’t limit your own opportunities before someone has had a chance to offer them to you.
  • Always leave the door open: Workplaces and clients and colleagues will come and go.  Sometimes on good terms, and sometimes on ones much less so.  When you’re ending a work relationship, if you have things to get off your chest about how things weren’t how you thought they would be, be sure to think twice.  End the relationship as diplomatically as possible, since the chances that you will work with that person or organization or brand or chain are high, and only getting higher the more interconnected we become.  Don’t let things you say professionally (or personally for that matter) come back to haunt you.
  • You’re not above anything:  One of the best feelings at work is the one you get when you’re promoted.  Not only does it usually mean you a make a bit more, but it’s a huge validation of your efforts.  When that promotion comes, just remember that it doesn’t make you better than others who were passed over, or who haven’t yet had theirs.  A promotion is an earned acknowledgement of your work but it’s not a free pass for all the things you’d rather not do.  Sometimes, the best way  to lead your team is to work right in the trenches with them.  Don’t put yourself above any tasks, since you never know when you’ll have to start from the bottom up again.
  • Will you live to work or work to live? Work is a funny thing . . . you will end up in all likelihood spending more time at work than you do anywhere else, including home.  But work will likely always have trade-offs between you might be passionate about and what the job actually entails.  You’ll have to pick the right balance, but just remember than in addition to finding work a fulfilling way to spend our time, it is also what pays the rent, what puts food on the table, what buys us our leisure and hobbies, and what will do the same for your own children.  At some point, the lifestyle you want will also dictate the work you need to get.

All my love,

Mom

 

Let's Talk About Breastfeeding

I want to tell you about breastfeeding, but I don’t want you to feel judged. Just know, I’ve been there. I was so nervous before giving birth about breastfeeding. In fact, I was completely sold on formula. I used it with my first son, and he had gained weight well and I intended to do it again. I even bought fancy glass baby bottles, twelve of them, in preparation and washed and readied them. I bought no nursing shirts or bras, I had no interest in even trying really. And then something happened after the labor. He was so little and helpless, and he came out so quickly and easily. I brought him right to my chest and he started to nurse. He latched perfectly and we nursed for forty minutes until they took him away to bathe him. It was so different, so easy this time. Even with having a great latch, we still struggled that first week. I even ordered a case of formula the third night after he was born in frustration. My milk wasn’t letting down and I could tell he was getting dehydrated. He was screaming and screaming and was obviously starving so I broke down and gave him a bottle of formula. He gulped the whole thing down. That’s it, I thought, that’s the end of our breastfeeding relationship. I made it three days, longer than Charley. I felt defeated from one bottle. All the La Leche League members were screaming, ‘Poison!’ in my head and I was ready to give up.

Then something happened that night. I was a hormonal mess, and I hadn’t been to that point. I cried all night, confused about whether I wanted to keep trying to nurse or not. Matt had taken a picture of me nursing Dash at the hospital right after he was born and I woke up at 5 a.m. and just stared at that picture. I was sad that I had stopped trying. I was engorged and still had milk and could feel time running out. So even though we had decided that formula was ok this time around again, I brought him to my chest and nursed him. It felt peaceful in the blue early morning light. We were the only ones awake and he was so small, like a little bird under my wing. He latched perfectly, my milk let down and that was the end of our struggles.

It’s a learning curve, and week by week it has gotten easier. I will say it has affected our sex life. I was so nervous about nursing with Charley because I didn’t want to keep sharing my body. And now, I nurse all day long and by the end of the day I don’t want to be touched by anyway. It’s truly bliss though, oxytocin is a powerful drug and I am madly in love with my little guy. I had read before that breastfeeding helps to combat post-partum depression (with the release of oxytocin) and sometimes that’s the biggest reason I continue forward with it. I feel calmer, more relaxed and less anxious than I did with Charley.

You do bond differently as well. I felt that was an incorrect statement before, because, after all, I had bonded with Charley. I never propped him up with a bottle, I always sat with him and snuggled and fed him. And I spend the same amount of time also browsing my iphone while feeding Dash as I did with Charley. (Iphone browsing while nursing is probably a topic for another column) But there’s something about seeing Dash’s little giggly face so close to my breast that always makes me smile and my heart swell. We are connected and it’s reassuring that for the most part I have the one thing that will always calm him down. Works every time. I’ve even gotten over my ambivalence about nursing in public, or even in front of other people. Now, when he’s hungry, I just whip it out, no nursing cover, just a boob hanging out of my shirt. And it doesn’t even bother me. It’s like a switch was flipped when I started breastfeeding and I see them as nourishment and not sexual. So the next time you see a nursing mother, don’t be embarrassed, just maybe keep those eyes upward and don’t stare.

The biggest lesson I have learned from my breastfeeding my second child so far is this: there is no one right way to parent. I think that’s the most important thing to remember in today’s judgmental parenting society. I cloth-diapered Charley but am using disposables with Dash. I am breastfeeding Dash (and might extend it past a year if all is going well) and I fed Charley formula. I think both kids will be fine. At the end of the day, I think most people don’t care about what others are doing, as long as it keeps their children safe and it works for their family.

Origin Story

Last week, my son, Henry, turned four. Before he was here, before he was even conceived, he was my obsession. I hit 27 and itched all over to be pregnant. Because that was the next step. Marriage, job, cross-country move, house, baby. I would like to say that my biological clock was chiming with some evolutionary imperative to make Life, to mark up a tabula rasa with all the wisdom that was lovingly bestowed on me or wrenched from my own lived experience. All of that is more or less true, but the nut of my baby fever was boredom. I'm not a terribly ambitious person, but I'm not comfortable with stasis. I come alive when something is on the horizon that requires me to plan accordingly. The promise of a baby would scratch all those planning itches. So I became hyper-fixated, which, coupled with getting off antidepressants, set off all the attendant neuroses. My petulant pessimism convinced me that I was barren, that I would miscarry, that I would conceive a child with a severe disability. My head went round and round like this until one morning, steeling myself for another one-line strip, I got two. For a little while, I sloughed off the anxiety and allowed a tenuous happiness to wash over me. But the problem with being a chronic pessimist is that eventually, experience bears out one of your many worst fears, and then the naysayers in your head feel validated. Then came the blood.

Faint pink smears on a square of toilet paper and I was histrionic and hysterical. Sort of outside of myself, repeating, But I wanted this so badly, as if the wanting it should have proved to the universe that I deserved it. I wasn't grieving the loss of any thing. How could I? I had no frame of reference, wouldn't dare compare the feel of holding friends’ babies or caring for infant siblings with actually being a mother. At this point, I think I was mourning the delusion that I could will my desire into reality. Like all good control freaks, my unconscious mind---my lizard brain, perhaps---was sure that my vigilant and incessant worrying would somehow protect the fragile thing inside me, that sleepless nights and tense muscles would hold it fast to the wall of my uterus.

I awoke the next morning hopeful that the bleeding had subsided but was defeated at the toilet, where I slipped the saddest, most sorrowful of maxi pads into my underwear. My GYN checked me out, said it didn't look good. She instructed that when I began to pass tissue and when the discomfort progressed from mild to severe cramping, I should call her. So I drove home and soaked through a pad and onto my jeans. With my husband out of town, I asked a very good friend to keep me company, to sit with me on Tissue Watch, as I maybe waited to birth pass the promise of my first child. In retrospect, there should have been fewer tears and more cigars.

I spent the remainder of my husband’s business trip moping around the house, vacillating between self-pity and self-loathing because I had friends who had gone through this, and all had been much further along in their pregnancies. When we got the positive test result, we'd decided not tell friends or family until I'd passed the 12-week mark. This seemed prudent and reasoned, as if losing it before then would be so much worse if we'd shouted the news from the rooftops. I understand now how stupid that is, the folly of believing that staying guarded would protect me from pain when things didn't work out. I was still wrecked; the only difference was that no one knew it.

I made the long commute to work one morning and managed to mostly put it out of my mind. I let my thoughts drift with the music, daydreamed while driving on autopilot in that scary way where you awaken periodically with no memory of passing a certain exit or mile marker. The AM radio station played a Bob Dylan cover of "You Belong to Me," and I finally articulated what I'd lost: something that was mine, physically and psychically, in a way I could only previously relate to my own mom, now effectively gone. I was losing an imagined motherhood, some abstraction of maternity that, until my own child surfaced to color it with our new, shared experiences, was rooted in my own memories of childhood and the feeling of belonging to someone.

It's a weird thing to mourn a son before he's born and a mother before she's passed.

So I waited for my body to catch up with the GYN's diagnosis, working in bed while I incubated a doomed thing. But the tissue and the pain didn't come. For a week I bled, felt the telltale bloat and sore, puffy pulpiness of a bad period. I saw the GYN again, this time thankfully with my husband. She inserted the ungodly probe to take a look at my insides and directed our attention to a gray, grainy screen and the well bottom that was apparently my uterus. She indicated some dark spots at the top of the screen, which looked very much at home in the alien landscape. These spots were pockets of "old blood," and as she adjusted the probe and the angles of view, more spots were visible. Next she pointed to a marble stuck to the bottom right wall of the well. This, she explained, was the yolk sac and inside, the embryo. About six weeks along, she determined. She drew on the screen with her pinky a faint but discernible line — the fetal pole — and circled a pulsing valve that resembled the open/close/open/close of fish lips out of water. Surrounded by dark clouds of old blood, the embryo remained intact. If the blood were to dislodge the sac from the uterine wall, I would miscarry. But if not, all would be fine. She suggested we remain guarded, a caveat I could now openly scoff at, but sent us home with an 80 percent chance of a complete and successful pregnancy. I imagined the tadpole inside me looking out a bay window, lazily watching a stormy sky floating, benign, overhead.

Last week I watched what was once a continuous flow of bright red blood devour a frosting-laden piece of Dora the Explorer cake. He fidgeted unconsciously while cramming bites of yellow cake into his bow-lipped mouth, which is also my mouth. The marble that held fast to my interior wall, watching storm clouds float overhead, wears size 4 muscle shirts, homemade superhero capes, and pink tights. I'm thankful he held on, got to experience a shift in the weather so that he could shed his tiny clothes and jump into the fountain at Peninsula Park, shrieking at the cold and armed only with his favorite Spiderman underwear. I'm thankful that, for a brief time, he belongs to me, and that he will pass on that sense of belonging once given to me.

Lessons from Chicago...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when I travel for work, I have that sensation of needing to get outside right then and there.  Often when I travel, the routine involves heading from airport to hotel to office, and then back in reverse again, that it seems like I can go days without fresh air.  It happened to me again most recently in Chicago.  Outside of the huge wall to wall windows in the hotel room, I felt that I had to get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it meant working on my project until late into the evening.

I hopped out and started heading down the street, and came across the boat tours that go up and down the river and out onto the lake.  I bought myself a ticket, catching one of the last available ones for the day and had a just an hour to myself to take in the architecture and the breezes of the city and I realized:

  • Water is our most precious resource: Most of what Chicago grew to be as a city is due to the remarkable possibilities of having both a major river and a major lake.  And it’s that same lake that provides the water that comes right out of every person’s faucet, drinkable at that.  So much of our fortunes are tied to water; when a city is blessed with this kind of resource twice, it’s absolutely our job to take care of it.
  • It’s always colder on the lake: No matter how  the weather of day, you can always find a breeze on Lake Michigan.  On hot days, it’s a welcoming cool down; on cold days, it chills to the bone.  If you’ll be going on the lake, dress for it.  You won’t regret the extra sweater.
  • A good city plan both endures and adapts: As a city, Chicago is fascinating.  But what’s most fascinating is how the city’s plan has expanded and contracted while keeping its core intact as times and needs have changed.  Every city should have a plan, and every plan should do the same.
  • Public art is a public treasure: For some, art means expensive paintings that hang in dark corners of homes and museums.  But Chicago does a fantastic job of putting art “out there”.  Right in the middle of downtown. . .right in the middle of a park. . .right next to the lake.  In Chicago, where you can find people is also where you can find some of the best works of art.  They fit so seamlessly into the cityscape that sometimes we don’t necessarily notice that they were likely a huge investment on the part of the city in order to put them there.  Appreciate the efforts that cities make to keep things interesting and beautiful for the public benefit.
  • Surround yourself with smart people: While on the boat, I was thinking of how different life would have been if I had chosen to go to school there versus elsewhere.  I remember when I visited a noted university there to make my final decision, that it was the first time I realized that I was surrounded by extremely smart people everywhere I looked.   I liked that feeling, and I knew I would be smarter because of it.  I ended up choosing another place for my education, because it was a better fit for the future, but ever since then I have never stopped looking for strong qualities in others to surround myself with.  Other people’s strengths shouldn’t be intimidating, they should be something to learn from.

All my love,

Mom

Helping to See

The other day I was driving home with my son and the clouds were the most incredible shade of pink. I mentioned them to him, just as I mention interesting trucks or trees and red lights and stop signs. “Wow, “ I said, “Just look at those beautiful clouds! Do you see them Charley? They are yellow and blue and pink, what a gorgeous sunset it is tonight.” He parroted me for a bit, repeating colors and pointing and then he replied,

“Yes Mama, I help you see them!”

I laughed, I knew what he meant. It got me thinking, what else does he help me see? Before kids I spent so many days traveling quickly to and fro. Rushing from work to home to a bar to a movie, never a moment to stop or breathe. And well, to be honest, I loved it. After I had my first son I longed for those busy days, babies were boring I thought. But now, with an active toddler, I am learning so much. He points things out I would have never looked at before. And each and every time he is excited, as if seeing it for the first time. Every truck we see is a new truck. Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday when the garbage trucks come is a new and exciting day (they are his favorite). It will make me sad when the familiar noise of the truck backing down the street no longer excites him. Some days it is maddening, when I need to be doing something else and we do not have time to look at the trucks! But most of the time I slow down, way down, and we chat. We chat about the trucks and the drivers and where they might be going. Lately he has been afraid of every noise, so we talk about the noises too and what they might be. That’s a door, and that’s a car driving by and that’s the dog scratching her ears.

It reminds me of being in college for creative writing. We would have these funny exercises designed to ignite some creative thoughts. One was sitting in a circle, describing a sound 'from beginning to end', really being immersed in the moment. Then, those sounds were the whirr of the 'L' train and the tapping of another students foot. Now, they are mostly a baby crying or the dog barking. Perhaps being a mother has made me a better writer in that sense. I hear and see things better, stronger, slower; 'from beginning to end'.

The Baby of the Family

the baby

By Maggie May Ethridge The baby of the family. To this reader, such a romantic phrase, born of the hustle and bustle, tears and drama, warmth and love, laughter and insanity of book families: Amy from Little Women, Rilla from the Anne of Green Gables series, Ginny from the Weasley family in Harry Potter, Deborah Mitford from the fascinating Mitford Sisters (a real family, but stuffed into many books, just take a google).

In our family there is my husband Mr. Curry, myself, and our four children: Dakota, Ian, Lola, and the baby of the family- Ever Elizabeth. The last child with the most daring name, the only of our children whose middle name is a family name ( my beloved Grandmother Elizabeth, who passed away years ago ) the only of our children we had to fight to bring into this world. After years of secondary infertility and then a late miscarriage, we had our Ever. Dakota was 16 when she was born, old enough to have been her father himself, though thank god he was not. Thank god because he was—is, really—just a kid himself, and more so, more so, because Ever is the last turn of the machine over the diamond, giving it a radiance and depth otherwise left behind. And so it would be for whoever was the baby.

The baby of the family brings youth to wisdom, glee to happiness, ridiculousness to fun, an immediacy to a long tale. When we are weighted with our mechanisms and warbled complaints, she is the slap dash giggle, the hysterical fit of babyhood, the one who we all must take care of. While their Dad and I take care of all of them, the children all watch over her, so she becomes the one thing we can all agree on. When we are content, she is the gossamer of sunlight over the landscape---another layer of beautiful.

We waited so many years for her, and once she arrived, all her siblings moved in to cradle and coddle her, to tell Dad 'the baby is crying, pick her up!' to tell me 'the baby is too close to the stove.' A unified purpose: protect the baby from the inadequacies of our parents.

As the baby of the family, she drags with her blanket so many things into our home: cartoons long abandoned by the older kids are rediscovered, stuffed animals under the bed are yanked out and dusted off to be shared, hobbies shed are made new: remember when we used to love to sit on the skateboard?! The baby brings an instant nostalgia for children not yet grown up but not quite children anymore; they see their childhood in a new light, and faced with a complex and confusing world,  are suddenly made more deeply aware of the value of family. No longer simply there, our family is now creating the environment for The Baby—and although we are of course still doing this for them, they can now feel it, its worth, its beauty. In watching her grow up, they see how they themselves grew, and were valued, cherished, loved. A new pride begins to form.

As for the baby, she will watch as all the children grow up, she will be the one and only of the bunch to watch from a child's perspective as each sibling argues with us, the parents, as each sibling stakes claims of independence, burrows closer for reassurance, flies, fails, meets the world from the root of this family. When they are all grown and adult, she will be the keeper of all the secrets, the one who heard from the other room the sobs, the confessions, who saw the picked noses, the awkward attacks, the endless coming together, the  procession of bathroom and kitchen scenes, bedtime snuggles, smells and sounds of children and parents moving forward. Her presence, so unobtrusive and benign, will be taking in, and ultimately, she will shock us all as she recounts the stories and reveals her opinion, possibly scathing: Mom begged for X's respect instead of assuming it, Dad moved too quickly to shutting the talk down, Brother 1 was always complaining, Brother 2 was never paying attention . . . the rest of us will shuffle and raise our shoulders, looking at this girl child we see still illuminated in the late afternoon light of a child's day. Maybe one will say 'But you're just the baby of the family. You don't understand.' And surely like a million other babies of the family, she will resent the title, at the same time she secretly cherishes it, knowing that the 'just' in front of The Baby is not diminishing, but instead a title of great importance and power, like a tiny Queen.

Rocking a Baby in the Rain

I’m sitting on my parents porch listening to the drip, drip, drip from the storm that has just rolled through. I’m rocking, and the old wooden rocker is creaking, click, swoosh, click, swoosh, and I’m holding a baby. The baby looks like every other baby and yet, he's completely unique because he’s mine. And despite knowing that this is a great moment, I’m thinking about being somewhere else. We just put our house on the market again. I’m reminded how even when everything feels like it’s changing, some things are always the same. I was in that exact spot three years ago, rocking a baby, listening to the rain and thinking about moving. In some ways though, it feels like I have always been here, in this moment. Some part of me has always been a mother. Even when I told myself I would never have kids, I think this is where I was meant to end up.

Four years ago, when I left Chicago, my friends, my job, my life as I knew it---I wanted a change. I knew not what that change was, just that I yearned for something more, something different from the monotonous drone of the retail life (not that those Anthropologie discounts weren’t fun). So, in one tumultuous day, I decided, while waiting at the Midway airport cell phone parking area, with planes buzzing overhead, to leave and embrace change.

My friend asked us last night, “Where are you moving to?” We glanced nervously at each other and replied that we hadn’t a clue. Sure, we hadn't talked about a lot of places, most larger cities. And I had researched one in particular pretty thoroughly but there was still a long way to the finish line. We are jumping headlong into the unknown. And it's scary and wonderful all at the same time. Kind of like being a parent really.

It’s naïve to think everything will stay the same. I wonder if I will miss these days, this life, this me? But I know some part of me will be forever rocking a baby in the rain of the muggy deep south, and watching his rotund belly softly go in, out, in, out. This much I know is true.

All My Stories

me without you

Last year, the major networks shuttered their daytime soap operas. No more stolen babies, no more evil twins, no more iconic love stories between women and the men who once — like, a really long time ago when a whole different writing staff was in charge — raped them (yep, look it up). Despite their problematic stereotyping, absurdly contorted storylines, and frequent displays of amateur acting, I miss those daily hour-long escapes to Pine Valley and Llanview, where the drama was completely predictable and utterly engrossing. Soaps predated reality TV in their associations with cheap, empty-calorie, lowbrow entertainment. But as reality TV fans can surely attest, there’s a fabulous frivolity to the daytime story, a deliciousness in the tawdry soft-core sex scenes bathed in enough diffuse light to power a Barbara Walters clone farm, and a comfort in the constantly rehashed, recycled storytelling. I began watching soap operas with my mom when I was a little girl. I knew even then that the torrid love affairs and dynastic greed were totally inappropriate for my age, but I looked forward to our afternoons curled up on the couch together, talking over the dialogue to guess which plot twist the heavy-handed foreshadowing pointed to next or to revel in the epic on-again off-again romances of Luke and Laura, Nico and Cecily, and Tad and Dixie.

The soaps and many of their principal actors followed Mom and I from Atlanta to Tampa after my parents’ divorce. During the school year, I’d be home by 3pm so Mom and I could watch General Hospital together. I remember coming home one day and rushing to the living room to catch the unfolding saga of Bobbie and Tony Jones’s daughter, BJ, who was in a tragic school bus accident and pronounced brain dead, but whose healthy heart could now be transplanted into the ailing body of her sister, Maxie. Mom and I wept as we watched Tony hovering over Maxie’s chest, listening to the heartbeat of his dead daughter in the body of his now healing daughter (seriously). The scene plucked at some unrealized ache in both of us, a glimpse into the void of a parent without a child, a child without a parent. Of one of us without the other.

But the soaps and I go back even further. As the story goes, when my mom was eight months pregnant with me, she was watching All My Children, following the machinations of the grand dame of daytime TV, Erica Kane. My mom pondered the persona of Erica Kane and decided that she wanted her daughter to be tough, to make her own way in life, and “to be a bit of a bitch.” With this spark of (perhaps misguided) feminist empowerment, Mom made Erica Kane my namesake. Though Erica Kane’s “bitch” never really took root in me (try as I might), it did articulate Mom’s grasp of what it meant to be a successful, independent woman. As evidenced by her nine marriages, men were both necessary and ancillary to Erica Kane’s success. They were footholds in the mountains she climbed, but it was her strength and ambition (and over-the-lipline lipstick application) that got her to the top. Mom had no designs on beauty industry domination; all she wanted was a patch of happiness, a home and a life that she could be proud of. But on some fundamental level, she could not conceive of attaining that without a man as her stepping-stone. Lipsticked, bejeweled, and manipulative as they were, women like Erica Kane did offer an image of female empowerment, a glamorous diversion that surely helped many a bored housewife survive the tedium of rote domestic chores, fostering daydreams of international espionage, big hair, and a smoldering passion for . . . anything.

Luckily, there were other, more fruitful moral tales to be learned from the daytime serial:

1. When someone dies but the body is not recovered, that person will be back with a new identity and a score to settle.

2. If a murder is committed as a result of self-defense, don’t lie about it. This will only lead to an agonizingly drawn-out blackmail plotline when your nemesis learns of your crime, only to be resolved when said nemesis dies in a) a motorcycle accident, b) a natural disaster, or c) a shootout on a bridge wherein a body is never recovered (see number 1).

3. Relationships are complicated. Especially when you’re drugged and taken advantage of and then lie about it to your significant other, to whom you vowed on your wedding day, dressed in a sarong in a Hawaiian cave, to never withhold secrets from.

4. Villains can always be reformed, but the good don’t go bad — they go bat-shit crazy.

5. As a general rule, there’s a 75 percent likelihood that you have a twin but don’t know about it and that said twin will appear one day really pissed that you got everything he/she didn’t, and then he/she will dump your ass in a well and assume your identity.

6. The truth will set you free, so stop trying to cover up your black-market baby.

Sadly, number 4 proved true for my mom, too. Bad guys were always evolving into good guys on the soaps (see above re: the rapists-turned-lovers plotline). For the writers spinning yarns for the same popular characters year after year, this seemed a natural progression. By complicating the villains, trading in their black hats for gray ones, the producers got more bang for their actor bucks. Sometimes popular good guys went bad, but only by way of losing their minds. Their goodness was constantly putting them in peril, and you can only be dropped down a well, suffer amnesia, or be thought dead so many times before losing your grip. Mom was undeniably one of the good ones who suffered too much for one lifetime. Perhaps retreating inward was the only way to go.

So silly and apparently unprofitable (despite scores of awkward product placements) though they were, I miss the soaps and the life lessons they taught me. I miss characters with names that should be reserved for pets or rock formations, like Lucky and Ridge and Jagger. I miss the strange familiarity of turning on the TV years after watching these shows and seeing the same people looking slightly older, like aunts and uncles who visit every few years. I miss the writers’ random forays into paranormal plotlines and demon exorcism. Mostly, I miss the passing of another relic of my innocence and the person I shared it with, the person who knew all my misadventures, indiscretions, and affairs. The one person who knew all my stories.