Tag Archives: journey

The Transplant

When I see my new house in Portland for the first time, it’s something I’ve only heard about, and viewed through pictures. It’s a familiar stranger, a storybook character come to life. My eye looks for and finds little things that are amiss, not how I imagined. For one thing, the temperature is chilly, until the heat kicks in and blows hot dry wind into my face, drying my skin and leaving my throat parched. The paint on the walls is erratic, with scuffs and mismatched colors. The electrical system is nothing short of bizarre. Lights that should all be controlled by the same switch, or, at least, by switches on the same plate, are instead controlled by switches located on opposite sides of a room. Half of the switches in the house are an old-fashioned push button style that I’ve never seen before, and the fact that each room has at least twenty outlets raises my suspicions about previous activities on these premises.

If it was just me here, I’d spend as little time as possible in this empty, depressing house, where there is not so much as a single comfortable seat in which to rest. I’d figure out the bus system, not caring how long it took, as long as I could read a book or look out the window to get familiar with the neighborhoods in my new city. But it’s not just me. There are two little ones, and the baby is waking me up at four a.m. because his strict bio-rhythm (a drill sergeant!) dictates that, despite the pitch black, this is definitely the time to rise. The rest of the day, we are all wrecked, but at least the baby goes down for naps. During these naps, Thing One and I knock around the bare, echo-y walls looking for something to do. We try to make the place a little homier. We hang Christmas lights from the porch, but I’ve never done this before and so I don’t quite have the knack. What looks inviting and warm on our neighbors’ porches looks bedraggled on ours. We make paper snowflakes and a gingerbread house. All of this is more exhausting than satisfying, but, still. It’s done.

Having heard the tales, I ready myself for the onslaught of neighbors. They will come, I’m sure, bearing casseroles and cookies. Their children will clamor for play dates with mine, and we’ll be forced to initiate the rite of suburban basement play dates. Though the intrusions will border on annoying, we’ll be glad to connect with the people around us. We will be rescued from our solitude.

As hours and then days pass, we wonder, where is everyone? Winnie wonders the same thing, aloud, and repeatedly. In Brooklyn, we had a dozen casual encounters each day, with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances whom we just happened to meet on the stoop or on the street. Here the homes look vacant, except for those movie-set-perfect lights on the porches. Days go by in which we see not a soul.

I feel like a heart that’s been transplanted to a new, foreign body. Everything about the place is strange, from the smell of the air to the cadence of the speech. At first, I feel like this new place is rejecting me. Then, little by little, glimmers of welcome shine. Strangers surprise me with their helpfulness. One, then two, neighbors knock on the door. There aren’t casseroles, but there are donuts and chocolate wine. An acquaintance makes wonderful efforts to connect, and quickly starts to becomes a friend. It’s the few people who make the most difference.

This body is not as inhospitable as I once thought, but if this transplant is to be successful, I will have to make my own adaptations. I’ll have to forge my own connections, and adjust my own rhythm. I’ll have to come out of my new, imperfect home rather than sitting inside and waiting for the knocks on my door.

I plan to make my own cookies and casseroles, and invite my neighbors to share them with me. I’ll do it, I swear. Just as soon as it stops raining.

This Little Life

A news story caught my attention yesterday, a startling story about a group of Taliban soldiers who dressed as Americans in order to penetrate a U.S. military base. As I stood at the stove cooking dinner for my kids, I couldn’t fathom that something like this had really happened. The event sounds more like a movie, or a dream, than real life. Real life – my own life – is the furthest thing from a violent, dangerous event like that.

I struggle, sometimes, to envision a world in which the whole spectrum of experience coexists. How can it be that I am making a vegetable saute while another mother is watching her son leave the house for the last time? We’re all the same, tiny vessels of emotion and intellect, roughly four and a half cubic feet of hormones and synapses, bones and sinew. Each of us is consumed by our own worries and desires, so consumed that it’s hard to have perspective about whether our pursuits are important or meaningful. If I had such perspective, would I still feel anxious that dinner was late to the table? Or that the countertop in our new house might need replacing?

Our lives are all, by definition, small. Our days are tragically short. Our hands only reach so far. Yet, some lives seem smaller than others. As I listened to the world news on the radio, usually not much more than a bit of background noise, I realized that my mind has lately been occupied with issues that are unique to myself and my family: our son’s birth and infancy, our daughter’s needs and schooling, sick relatives, my friends, moving to a new city, finding a house. Big things to me, yet irrefutably small, in the scheme of the world.

I can’t live the life of an Afghan or anyone else. I can only live the life I’ve got, and I am grateful for and baffled by the blessings I have. That can’t be the end, though, to just feel grateful and go on with the vegetables and the countertops. I can only live my life, yes… can only reach my arms so far, yes. But, perhaps they could reach just a little farther? Perhaps my life, while it will always be small, could be just a little bit bigger?

It seems to me that we who are born into a family – or a country, or a time – with so many advantages and opportunities, have more of a responsibility than others do. A responsibility to use whatever meager time and talents we have for something bigger. Sadly, it sometimes feels as though the opposite happens. We who are born into lives of ease, we take it easy. Let others stretch and struggle.

I am grappling with this. It’s easy enough to say, reach. But how?

My Girl

I am looking at a picture of my daughter. In this picture, we are on vacation in Mexico, and she is playing on the beach. The game she is playing is one that she made up, and she calls it “Beach Kung Fu.”

She is lying down in the sand. Her eyes are closed. Her arms are flung in opposite directions. Her legs are splayed. She looks as though she might be dancing, or practicing a swim stroke. Or simply making sure that there is sand stuck to every inch of her skin. Only she knows that what she is doing is practicing her “Kung Fu.” Though now that you know, I think you’ll agree that it’s really quite obvious.

My girl is content, and contentedly oblivious. She looks ridiculous, but she doesn’t care. She will certainly have sand lodged into the most uncomfortable places, but she doesn’t care. She will need to take a shower and people are probably looking at her. I’m not sure whether or not they were, because I didn’t care about them any more than she did.

When I read Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother, I noticed the many times that she talk about her children’s bodies. In particular, she talks about the “buttery” feel of her babies’ thighs. I thought that I probably should be annoyed, but I get it. Our children’s bodies are wonderful, wonderful things to touch and hold. I remember how Win’s body felt in my arms at every stage. The babies are buttery, all right, but I look at this picture and I know that my daughter is well past butter here. She’s steaky. Her legs are solid. Everything about the way the way her limbs look, feel, and move is confident and strong. Whether she is dancing or scooting or doing beach Kung Fu, she moves for the pleasure of the moment.

I hope she grows up with this certainty about her physical self intact, but I know that she probably will not. At some point, we all become aware of and concerned with how others perceive us. We think about the consequences of our actions, including whether or not the sand will be itchy and whether or not we’ll find it in our hair for days afterward.

But, this picture represents one of the many ways that I will remember my girl. I add it to the other memories like charms on a bracelet: the infant sleeping on her father’s chest, the toddler blowing out birthday candles, the kid going off to school for the first time, meeting her baby brother, drawing in her sketchbook, making friends. And beach Kung Fu.

Beach Kung Fu

Making Do

I take pride in making do. As if it is a testament to my inner iron, or to my frontierswoman spirit, I proudly go without. Who needs a dishwasher? I’ve got hands, haven’t I? A car? An elevator? See, I’m just fine without all that stuff that other people think they need.

Ah, but I’m not bragging. There’s danger in all that pride I take in my own (perceived) virtue. See, sometimes I go without things like sleep. Or time to myself. Or the help that I can’t bring myself to request. And who does that serve? No one. Sometimes I’m so busy being fine that I forget that being fine is not the point. The point is to flourish.

And, in order to flourish, I need to give myself permission to want and need and dream and demand. To be the happy and creative and balanced person that I am at my best, making do won’t do at all. The list of things that I need is not long, but it’s also not negotiable: Time. Space. Sun. Rest. People (the right ones, of course).

Starting this month, I have been attempting the radical. Instead of being so busy and put-upon that I can’t engage in anything exceptional or creative, I’m going to prioritize my creativity and let the rest slide.  I’m making fast, simple food. I’m dropping off the laundry. I’m turning off my internet connection more often. Rather than making do, I’m making myself do.

The other day, I walked in the park and couldn’t stop noticing the trees. They are a gorgeous sight this time of year, with bright green leaves unfurling and buds of every hue opening like eyes waking to the new morning. The branches reminded me of a particular hand position that a yoga teacher taught me a long while ago. The palms face up and fingers extend, signaling openness and readiness for giving and receiving. As I walked I felt my fingers mimicking the trees’ gestures, turning toward the sky, opening to possibility.

So far, I’ve been surprised how even the slightest shift in attention and effort reaps rewards. I’ve arranged for some additional child-free hours, which frees my schedule to focus on my creative projects. I’ve joined with an excellent writer and awesome person in a writing critique partnership, which gives me the motivation to work on my book every day. Time, space, sun, rest, and people. Opportunities abound, and my palms face the sky.

How I Hold Them

When she was first born, she was my fragile thing, my carton of eggs, my soap bubble.

As she got older, she was no less precious, but not quite as delicate, so I jostled and shimmied and jumped and danced with her. Anything to make her sleep. Make her laugh. Make her happy.

After that, I held her on my hip, casually, like a load of laundry or a sack of groceries. She put her head on my shoulder, looked over my shoulder, looked all around. She pulled away, she pleaded to get down, to run. After such intense dependence, she shocked me with her yearning to be apart.

More and more, it was I who yearned for separation. I put her down. I made bargains and contracts and rules. I carried her only on the way there, only until that tree, only if she stopped crying, only if…

When she was hurt, or sad, or tired, I held her like a baby again, pressed her chest against mine. She wrapped her arms tightly around my neck like a dance partner.

It gets harder each day to pretend she is still a baby. I can only hold her on my lap if I fold her over onto herself. She lays her head against my chest and I wrap my arms around the whole of her, stretching to contain her limbs. We both stay longer than is comfortable, knowing well that the moment is gone already.

Still, I can hold her hand, which she doesn’t seem to mind as much as she used to. I hold her face between my  hands. I hold her close to me when she climbs into our bed in the mornings.

With the boy, I’m back at the beginning. He looks up at me, his face round and full of easy delight, a wide grin to greet the world. He looks my way and, impossibly, he opens his mouth even wider, showing me his gummy smile. And I smile back, both of us content to be safe and happy and together in a world no wider than the circle of my arms.

And, at night, I press him against my chest, and tuck my chin over his velvet head. My arms wrap all around him, my back curves forward to shelter him. He is my stolen loot, my thieve’s ransom. I say sometimes that I wish I could steal him away from time, from the changes the future will bring. And the words are true when I say them.

Really, though, I marvel at the different shapes our embrace will take. I can be their cocoon, their clown, their toy, their bed, their haven… And then what? And then what?

New Baby Boy

How very small my world is just now. A rocking chair, a bassinet, a bed. I mark time by listening to the world outside. Through my window, I hear the store gates open, the car radios blaring, the children laughing and racing ahead of their parents on the way to school.

But, here, just above the raucous world that exists on the sidewalks below, my only wish is to make you happy, my new baby boy, largely because it is so easy. Nuzzle you, rock you, feed you well, sing you to sleep, and you reward me with a contented burp or a sigh, the sweet heaviness of your body melting against my chest.

The mornings are my favorite, when you are finally sound asleep. Your sister comes in like a hurricane, then settles on the bed between your dad and me. She snuggles her body into mine, into the spot that, to be fair, was hers first. I feel so exhausted that I can’t raise my head. For a few moments, no one has to move.

I can smell my children, hear them breathing. I can touch my husband’s face. Those dearest to me in the world are within these four walls, and it feels like being inside a present.

One More Makes Four

When I was pregnant with my daughter, people often told me, “It goes by so quickly!” Several times a day I heard this, so frequently that I got a little tired of it. I know now how true the sentiment is, and also how many different things that simple phrase can mean.

It can mean how hard it is to see your sweet baby pass through phases that she will never visit again. These days, I linger over photos of my girl when she was just a baby, and my heart swells with love, along with a bevy of other emotions – nostalgia, sadness, joy, pride. I can not believe that she will never be that size again. Each day that passes is too short, and she changes so quickly in each. Each day she grows up more and more, and she needs me less and less. It makes me want to weep, freeze time, push on her head… anything to slow it all down.

Meanwhile, another voice in my head shouts, “Thank heaven that the time passes so quickly!” Because the truth about parenting is that, while those early days are precious, they certainly don’t leave much time for one’s own pursuits. That the neediness of her infancy is finite means that I get to enjoy parts of me that I’ve sorely missed over the last couple of years. I get to go back to being a creative, social, working, WHOLE person again. And it feels really, really good.

Our little family is pretty sweet right now. The fact that we big people have little people outnumbered means that the dude and I can easily tag team parenting duties, and help each other make time for the things we love and need to do. Living with one child, which used to feel so overwhelming, now feels quite manageable. In fact, living with Winnie has become a little like living with a foreign exchange student. (Not a hot French one, but more like a slightly geeky one from Poland.) We have to explain absolutely everything to her and put up with her hanging around us all the time, but she also says hilarious things because of her limited English skills, and she helps me to see the world in a new and more expansive way.

There are a million reasons to be glad for what we’ve got, and not mess with a good thing. And, yet, messing with it is exactly what we’re doing. We’re having number two.

Deciding to have a second child means signing up for exhaustion, physical and emotional upheaval, dirty diapers, and mountains of laundry, not to mention the strain on our relationships and the cost to our professional lives. But we’re doing it anyway. Why? Are we gluttons for punishment?

Perhaps. But we also know now, better than we did before, how fast these days, weeks, months, and years will fly. How the drudgery will be sprinkled with delicious moments of laughter and delight. How those moments will rush around us like water, buoying us up (and sometimes threatening to pull us under).

I need the miracle and mystery of parenthood in our lives. When our second is born this summer, I know that our hearts will crack open in a million painful and beautiful ways, just as they did when Winnie was born. Only now Winnie will be here, with us. It will also be her world that is shaken and rattled. We will each – all three of us – miraculously become more than we were before. The dude and I will grow to adjust to the new challenges of parenting two children, and our little girl will become a big sister. She’ll face her challenges, too, I’m certain. She’ll be forced to practice patience and compassion, and sometimes she will fail. She will love and protect her sibling, even while she resents and even dislikes him or her at times.

As she accommodates – or not – the newest member of our family, she’ll learn her first lessons about love and all its mysteries. Loving someone when you hate him. Loving someone when you’d rather not. Loving someone, and being in awe of the hugeness and complexity of your feelings. We’ll try to explain it to her, and I’m sure she’ll have plenty to teach us, too. I hear it’s different in Poland.

Olé to You Nonetheless

I’ve already written (here and here) on this blog that I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I resisted reading it for so long – it just seemed so everywhere, so trendy, so Oprah – but, when I finally did, I found out why readers of all types (yes, though, mostly women) love it. My life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s… yet, it is. Reading her story made me think deeply about my own life, about love, about our expectations for ourselves and each other.

And, here she is again, making me think (darn her!). Oh, yes, and inspiring me, too. On her website, Gilbert posted this Ted talk she gave last year about creative genius and where she thinks it comes from. And, you know, my life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, with its awards and accolades. Yet, it is. There is much overlap in any creative life – much to hope for, much to fear.

The speech is funny and inspiring, a morsel of encouragement for a fledgeling, just-trying-to-make-a-go creative type like me to tuck away for a day when the harvest is low. She really gets going toward the end. Here’s my favorite bit:

“If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow. And olé to you nonetheless. I believe this and I feel like we must teach it. Olé to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

And, if you’re interested in watching the whole thing:

Dust Off Your Intuition

Some people know what needs to be done. They go forward confidently, not second-guessing their choices, actions, behaviors, or motives. They don’t vacillate wildly between items on the menu, outfits to wear, or names for their children. They might not claim to know the best way, but they know their way, and they proceed decisively and competently.

I am not one of those people.

For example, when I married the dude, I couldn’t decide whether or not to change my last name. My mother acted like it was a no brainer. Why wouldn’t I? My friends looked at my a little funny. Why would I? I read articles and essays about the history of women taking men’s names. I noticed everywhere which women had and which women hadn’t, trying to discern which club I most wanted to join. In the end, I made no decision at all. I did not change my name, but I do – sometimes – use my married name. I do this more or less willy-nilly, as I do many things.

Becoming a parent exacerbated the problem many times over. Before giving my kid Tylenol, I had to read three different books so I could get a handle on what the experts advise. When it came time for solid food, I spent countless hours trolling sites about baby food. Should I follow a prescribed method of slowly introducing mild foods? Or, should I follow a more organic, child-led philosophy? Should we wear sunscreen? Should I go back to work? Should we leave Brooklyn? Should I let Winnie wear pink? How will we stay connected as a couple? Does this bathing suit look awful on me?

For decisions great and small, I found myself turning to “experts” – writers of blogs and books who are peddling their philosophies on every topic under the sun to wishy-washy types like myself. There are so many resources out there – a great, wide, Internet-sized sea of resources! – that it’s hard not to defer to expert opinions. Parents, in particular, are under so much pressure to do things right that we often seek advice from those who claim to have the answers. This kind of dependence on expert advice, I’ve found, is habit-forming. When I did my week of reading deprivation, there were many times when I caught myself reaching for a parenting book or turning on my computer to consult WebMD. Surely it didn’t count as reading if I just needed a little guidance. Right?

I decided that even my well-intentioned (and, I thought, much-needed) searches for advice were off-limits during the reading deprivation. I would have to seek guidance elsewhere. Surprisingly, I found this guidance in a little-known but intelligent person named me. Turns out, I have these qualities called intellect, intuition, and reason. Imagine! Plus, I actually know myself, my family, and our circumstances better than anyone else. So, as it turns out, I usually land on decisions that suit us and don’t feel so much like we’re following someone else’s recipe for life.

So even now that the reading deprivation is over, I’m trying to break my dependence on consulting the experts. One bonus of thinking for myself is that it’s a lot quicker than trolling Google, so I have more time on my hands (time to change my mind later if I want). Plus, if I really, really, really can’t figure something out I have this other awesome thing I can use: Moms (between the kind I got the old-fashioned way, and the two I acquired later on, I’ve got plenty). They were doling out advice centuries before anyone knew of WebMD. They know some good stuff, and they feel real happy when I ask them to share.

Surprise Me

Of all the married and romantically committed couples I know, not one has had an arranged partnership. Every single one of us, myself included, fell in love and embarked on the whole I’m-with-you-for-good thing as a matter of free will.  I’ll never understand why some relationships work so well, while some falter or fail. How can some relationships work so well in one particular way, while other happy relationships function in a different way completely? Thinking about the couples I know makes me think that commitment is one of the more mystical and inexplicable phenomena, something akin to the moon’s pull on the oceans or the migration patterns of monarch butterflies.

Most of all, I wonder why any of us married or devoted couples have any problems at all when we, after all, chose each other.

People value choice almost to the point of worship. We want to choose our clothes, our friends, our professions, and, without a doubt, our romantic partners. We want choice, it seems, because we are convinced that we know better than anyone else what we want (even better than our mothers, though I’ve met with some resistance to that idea from certain people). When single, we have lists of what our future partners will look and act like, and we rule out possible mates based on their dissimilarity to our criteria.So, if are going to so much trouble to weed out the unfit and unearth the gems, why do so many couples face romantic challenges down the line? You’d think it would be smooth sailing from “I do” onward, right?

We all know that’s not the case. So, what gives? For one, it’s possible that we don’t know what we need as well as we’d like to think. Some of us meet our life partners when we’re very young. For example, I met the dude when I was just 23 – a mere babe. For goodness sake, I’ve changed careers twice since then. At such a young age, do we know enough about life and love to make such a weighty decision? If you follow that logic, we might as well cede all future match-making to our elders. (I think I just heard the sound of millions of mothers rejoicing.)

Speaking of not knowing enough about love, who among those of us who haven’t been married knows anything to speak of about marriage? This is one of the points that journalist Elizabeth Weil makes in her New York Times Magazine article “Married (Happily) with Issues,” published in December of last year. It’s difficult to know how to craft and maintain a satisfying long-term relationship, most obviously because “satisfying” has a different meaning for each person you ask. How do you build something that has no proven method of success and no blue print? And, yet, many people do just that, which brings me back to the idea of marriage as mystery.

I don’t have anywhere near enough information to speak as an authority on marriage. I’ve done it myself, messily and with the frequent feeling of toiling uphill interspersed with joyful, whirring downhills, for almost six years. So, I have that. And, I have a theory, which is this: That we don’t, in fact, know what we want or need in a partner – either because we know too little about ourselves or about marriage, or because what we want at 23 is not the same as what we want at 33 or 43 – but some lucky few end up with it anyway.

If I could approach selecting a mate as an a la carte activity, I’d conjure up a fella with some culinary skill, who woke up bright and early, and who spoke a few languages, none of which are qualities that the dude possesses. But, the dude has other qualities. For instance, he has the confidence to don admirably unusual facial hair with a swagger. He dreams big. He listens, even when he seems like he’s not, which makes him a good gift giver (something that I never would have thought or admitted was important to me, but it is). He is eager to learn about a variety of topics, from nutrition to experimental music. He has also made it his personal mission to find me the perfect notebook that I can carry around for my writing. None of these attributes would have made it to my top ten list, and they’re certainly not the reasons that I married him. And yet, they – and many other qualities – make this particular dude a good compliment to particular me. When we got married, it was our choice. But some days it seems that the choice was practically an illusion, knowing as little as we did about ourselves, each other, and marriage. Over time, the curtain draws up and I see the parts of our relationship that cause a frightening amount of friction and the parts that are undeniably sweet. And, really, they are never the parts I would have expected.

Love and marriage are indeed mystical, and I won’t be – or don’t care to be – convinced otherwise. It’s like a game of roulette. We have our strategies for playing the game. We identify patterns, prefer one color over another, or favor a number. But once the wheel is spinning, we keep our fingers crossed and hope to get lucky.

do you derive joy from diving in and seeing that

loving someone can actually feel like

freedom? are you funny? self-depracating? like

adventure and having many formed

opinions?

these are twenty-one things that I want in a lover…

– Alanis Morissette, “21 Things That I Want in a Lover”