Archive for February, 2014

While getting my hair cut today, I overheard an elderly woman talking to one of the hairdressers. Asked how she was doing, she answered, “Can’t complain. Won’t do any good. But I’m sick of winter like everyone else.” I’m hearing a lot of such griping and bitterness, and ranting and threats to move south these days, but the fact is, it’s not true that everyone hates winter around here.

Over the two weeks of the Olympics, we watched snowboard cross, and slope style, and biathlon, and anything else we could find. Some of these athletes chase winter from hemisphere to hemisphere all year round, seeking it in the high elevations when it recedes from the lowlands. They voluntarily follow it, these red-cheeked, blissed out, glowing blonde Scandinavians, or grinning, loping, scruffy snowboarders. What is the secret to feeling such joy in a monochrome world of snow pack to your eyeballs? Snow pants.
I am not some Pollyanna with an inability to look on the dark side of life, after all, my last two posts were about the quotidian tedium and unpleasantness of raising children. But with a good pair of snow pants, I find that winter loses its power to demoralize. In fact, I quite like it. Last week, Simon and I snowshoed out into our frozen swamp. We didn’t get far, but settled for a spot within view of the house under a stand of swamp alder and bare red maple. Simon was in his full snow suit with built in compass, reflector belt, and high collar. I had on my snow pants and down jacket. He said he was done walking, so we both keeled over backward and dropped into the snow on our backs, making what we refer to as snow chairs. Perfectly molded to our posteriors, these snow chairs are immensely comfortable, and we lay there in the swamp, listening and watching what there was to watch.

No sound of snow melt, seepage, or runnels carving under the snow this early, and not many birds either. It had been raining all day, and a frozen drizzle pelted lightly on our exteriors. One staccato thrum from a woodpecker, and the wind in the trees was all we heard. Simon asked me to sing to him, and I got through all the verses I could remember of “Come all ye bold sailor men” while we lay there, warm in the right gear. I finished the song, and we lay quiet, watching one slender white pine whisking the low ceiling of gray stratus.

IMG_5311A sunless day, a cold day, a day of frozen drizzle, and still, we went out. Warm, dry and snug in our suits, we followed our own postholes home, stopping to examine a nurse log, heavy laden with mosses and lichens and fungus. What would we be doing in summer but the same thing–taking hikes that don’t lead us very far, growing distracted by small living things, meandering back home. The cold and the snow are no barrier to that, so long as one has a good pair of snow pants. I have many friends who disagree, both those born in warmer climes, and those raised around here who’ve fled. I suppose winter’s not for everyone, but the light has been lengthening and changing its quality for more than two months now. The nights are not so aggressive, chewing away at both ends of the day like they do in December. It’s beautiful out there, and there are wood frogs alive and frozen solid in the leaf litter a foot and a half under the snow surface we walk on who will be quacking out their love songs come April. All the living things are gathering strength. I can feel their thrumming underneath.

I don’t enjoy discomfort any more than the average person. The little unpleasantries of winter–knuckles cracked and bleeding, days on end when I can’t seem to achieve normal body temperature, the chronic shoulder strain that comes from hunching up against the wind in a jacket too optimistic for the weather–these aggravate me too. Suited up right, with snowshoes strapped on snug though, winter is something to be strode into same as any season. And snow pants shall set us free.

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my long, solitary days with no company but that of a child. I know my sentiments are shared by many a parent who has looked down the long end of a day, and then many days, of tending children. But I also got a surprising number of troubled or worried responses, fearing for my happiness, or wondering whether I actually enjoy being a mother at all. A second class of responses included gentle encouragement to enjoy this time while I can, as their childhoods are fleeting. This is risky territory, of course, as the last thing any parent of young children wants to hear is “cherish every moment, for they grow up so fast.”

IMG_4323As I pondered these conversations, what struck me most was the consistent use of the word “enjoy.” Did I not enjoy being a mother? Shouldn’t I try to enjoy these times while I have them? The thing of it is, there is a great deal, maybe the majority of many days raising children, that are not at all enjoyable. But happiness is not the same as pleasure.

When I tried to think of a parallel experience to offer up to those who have not had children, or who have never been their primary caretaker, I thought at first that there was no apt comparison. That maybe you just have to live it. But as I examined the idea further, it became clear that just about anything we deeply value is not all that much fun most of the time. Getting my degree in veterinary medicine was a daily toil of mental drudgery, glued, eight hours a day, to a seat that was in turn bolted to the floor. Once that portion was through, on we went to clinical rotations, where 40 days might pass without one day off, and I fell into a fitful sleep many nights dreading the sound of the pager buzzing at 3am. Was I enjoying myself? Was I having fun? I didn’t quit though, because it mattered to me. And it had its moments.

Then there’s running. I run for the sanity it restores, for the feeling afterward, for the strength it gives. Many, if not most, individual runs are unpleasant in some way. My chest constricts on a plume of freezing air and wood smoke in winter; I stagger in stew thick humidity in summer; in all seasons, my legs sometimes just feel clumsy and leaden and I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not a pleasure, or enjoyable a lot of the time. There are those occasional moments when I feel like I’m floating, effortless, and the road is clear and quiet ahead of me, and the streams braid through the woods beside me. I run for the things running gives me, and because those moments do come sometimes, and I never know when. Being a runner gives me a deep happiness, but a lot of the time, I hate it as I’m doing it.
IMG_3095That’s what motherhood is like, at least for me. Only it’s compounded. In vet school, my mind’s presence was commanded in those lecture hall, but my body was not taxed. I could knit, make embroidered pillows, sketch, so long as my ears were open and I was awake. When I run, my body is taxed, but my mind is freed to travel. When I am home alone with my young son, I must devote my body to his particular needs, and my mind to his tyranny too. When I daydream during a game of Connect Four, and murmur vague assent to something he’s saying that I’m not attending to, I get his little tyrannical face in my face demanding, “Mom! Did you hear me? Wasn’t that a remarkable and good move I just made?”

To tell me to cherish every moment is stating a case that need not be made. I am conscious every day of how I love these boys in a way unlike the love I’ve borne anyone else in the world, or will ever bear. I am conscious of their growing up, and I have no desire to rush it, even were that possible. I do, in fact, cherish every moment of being their mother. That does not mean I enjoy it. It does not mean it’s fun all the time, or even most of the time. It doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable.

Walking the halls of my college the other day, I overheard a student say to another, “Yeah, but I mean the homeworks are so fucking boring.” This is the worst condemnation of anything in this college, of course. A boring class is a bad class. An entertaining teacher is a good teacher. Set up under that rubric, parenting is the worst thing one could possibly do to oneself, because it is profoundly boring, and irritating, and often rather unpleasant. Parenthood is a gross violation of the Ben and Jerry’s bumper sticker philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

IMG_1008One night this week, I was lugging laundry up the stairs, checking on the soup on the stove, and on the boys sledding in the dark outside. I called Christophe, who was on his way home, to warn him not to run them over when he pulled in. Laundry basket digging into my side, a headache of two days’ duration pounding in my brain, and looking down at ancient food particles ground into the rug, I heard myself saying, “The boys are out there,” and I was yanked up out of myself. I was tired, irritated, having no fun at all, and those words “the boys” were like a plucked string within me. “the boys. my boys. I have sons. We are we and we have sons,” ricocheted around my aching brain. It does nothing for the pain, but I have room within me for the drudgery, the toil, and the wonder, the gratitude that is its undercurrent.

So don’t worry about me; I’m utterly happy with my lot. Happy and content, with everything I could ever have dreamt of. Just not always enjoying myself. It’s not always fun, but that’s not why I signed on in the first place. One day, when this is all over and they’re grown up, I will have my freedom back, but pierced through with nostalgia. I also know, there is not treasure enough on the Earth to entice me to rewind to the beginning and do this all over again. It is the province of young parents to lament and mewl, but we know the glorious mess we’re in. It is the province of old parents to remind us that it has an end. Blessed be the mess, and blessed be the end.

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