Archive for the ‘Kids’ Category

Better part of valor

IMG_0053.jpgThe plan, for this overnight backpacking trip, was to hike in to a backcountry camp site in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, camp out, get up in the morning and hike to the summit, and return out the way we came. Malcolm, my elder son, was my companion, his younger brother having opted to stay home with his father. Malcolm, for some reason, has taken to backpacking the way I did, when, out of the blue at the age of 16, I announced my wish to begin sleeping in the woods from time to time. No one in my family had ever done, nor desired to do, such a thing. We did not even camp at campgrounds. Every summer, we rented a cabin on Lake Ossipee and that was the extent of things. But I had some splinter in my soul that would not work out until I’d ventured into the woods.

My parents bought me a pack and a few other items that year for Christmas, and away I went from there, doing occasional trips into the White Mountains, with no particular goal in mind but to walk in, sleep, walk out.

Since then, I have found out about peakbaggers, and redliners, and sectionhikers–all outdoors people working on particular lists of achievements: all the summits in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet, or every trail in the White Mountains, or the whole Appalachian Trail in fits and starts. It’s hard not to get swept up by goals like that, and I do keep a list of which 4000 footers I have climbed, though I am not in any rush. Still, it’s hard not to feel an urge to climb all the way up a mountain when you’re halfway up anyway, and that’s where Malcolm and I found ourselves when we camped five miles in on the Great Gulf Trail, at 3,000 or so feet of elevation.

We set up camp there Sunday evening, with no one else anywhere around. We ate, and as the temperature declined into the 40s, retreated to the tent to read. He ran out of books and asked me to read to him from what I had, so he listened to a magazine article about the sodium levels in frozen pizza, and one about the search for a natural-origin  blue dye for candy. Eventually, he fell asleep.

img_0059In the night, the forecast winds picked up. Tucked up by the headwall in the ravine below Jefferson, we could hear the wind tearing down the Presidential ridge from the north over and over. The force of it bore down across the exposed reaches a thousand feet and more above our heads. Hardly any wind reached us down where we were, but my stomach tensed all the same for the biggest gusts. We were like mice crouched under the floorboards as a great cat swept its frustrated paw across the knothole where we hid.

I slept fitfully as I always do the first night out, and in the morning, Jefferson was rimed in ice and the winds had not diminished. It took me a few moments to understand that snow was falling already at our elevation. It was not a day to venture above treeline with what gear we had. I told Malcolm, telling him why it was unwise to go up, though I was trying to convince myself as much as him.

We headed back down Great Gulf Trail; the temperatures moderated with the elevation loss and the sun’s progress. I had to look back at Jefferson again and again to see its ashy gray and white complexion, and be reminded of the wisdom of my choice.

img_0078We drove home, with no additional peak to record on the form that shows my slow progress on the list since I first climbed Mt. Washington in 1997. Malcolm is closer to the age I was then than I am now. I have a picture of me sitting in a log shelter in the wilderness that since fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Malcolm is fascinated by how long ago that was. He’s fascinated by how long it is taking me to get around to all 48 4000 foot peaks. He’s fascinated by how very, very old I am.

In my turn, I am fascinated by him too. He is like me in certain ways, small, and so bony we can’t ever seem to get our packs cinched tight enough around our hips. Diffident. He talked at length as we walked about BMX bike tricks, a subject about which I know nothing. He’s on the brink of not being a little kid anymore. He can hike about as fast as I want to go. There are few things on Earth I love to watch more than his beautiful stride at a full sprint.

I was disappointed at having failed to reach Jefferson’s summit. I can console myself with the usual saw about the journey being what matters, but I do crave those mountaintops, and it’s clear that he does too. But I had one more day of the numbered days when he will still curl up with me in the tent, and ask me to read to him. He will no longer hold my hand, but he will be my ballast when the morning comes and the wind finds us there finally, hiding in our hole, thinking better of it, scurrying down in the spindrift.

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My five year old came to me crying two weeks ago, telling me everyone in his class has an elf on the shelf. “Simon,” I told him, “that’s just a thing people buy and then move around the house.” That’s as far as my understanding of this phenomenon really goes. There is also the war of the Facebook photos of elves on shelves doing ever cleverer or more lecherous things, and I’m not sure what that is about. But, to keep alive the wonder and magic of Christmas, we called upon a lesser known figure: that of Buddy Bison.

Buddy Bison is a small stuffed toy we got at the National Parks Service gift shop in Faneuil Hall. I told Simon that we could try believing very hard in Buddy Bison, and if he deigned to oblige us, he might come alive. Since that evening, my husband and I have been moving Buddy around the house when the kids aren’t looking. That’s the sum of what Buddy does for us. We don’t take his picture, he doesn’t do anything interesting, he just stares out at us with his placid, bovine eyes from inside a rain boot, or under a chair, or on top of a ceramic horse.

IMG_6231I didn’t know there was some weird panopticon, “someone’s always watching” element to the Elf until a day or two ago, but that does not apply to Buddy. Buddy doesn’t care whether the kids are good or bad, and we don’t actually talk about Santa in this house. Simon asked why poor kids don’t get just as much as rich kids from Santa. What could I possibly say to that? “Santa prefers the middle class,” or “Santa does not wish to visit trailers and derelict apartments.” So instead I say, “Yeah, that’s not very fair, is it? What do you think about that?” And he pretends he doesn’t hear me.

The kids get a couple presents at Christmas, and they’re generally from thrift stores. This year, I went to a used sporting goods store and the owner showed me the kids’ cross country skis. I chose the cheapest ones, a thirty dollar pair with rust on the bindings and scuffs all over. When I took them to the counter, the owner sniffed and said, “Well those aren’t much.”

Buddy’s not much either, I suppose, except that when the kids see him someplace new, they’re giddy with surprise and delight. When they get their used, not-much presents, they will be thrilled. The key is to deny them any gifts all the rest of the year, or any toys, or really much besides food and clothes, and those we get hand-me-down. The other key is not to care what other people think. Sniffy shop owners, other parents, whomever. Just keep on going. High self esteem and low expectations. That’s the real magic of Christmas.

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Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

The day after my elder son finished school for the year, we set out for a three day backpacking adventure in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. This is backcountry camping–no shelters, no designated campsites–just find a likely spot and hang the hammocks and make some supper. So we did, following the easy grade of the Dicey’s Mill trail up to the Wonalancet River for our first night. We found a length of rope tied to a tree by some previous unruly campers who had also left scorch marks on the boulders and a wide swath of burnt away vegetation. We tried to tread bit more lightly, and the boys spent a few hours messing about in the river with the rope. We kept the rope, but somehow, Malcolm misplaced his beloved fishing hat, the one that makes him look like a very prematurely retired person. Should you be hiking along Dicey’s Mill Trail and come upon such a hat, with a navy and red band, perhaps you might help it find its way home.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Next day, we headed up the trail for Mount Passaconaway’s summit, but our pace was so slow (the youngest of our party being only five) that I elected to skirt the summit and take the east loop to the Walden Trail instead. We intended to camp wherever we came upon water, and the afternoon wore away as we crossed the waterless, windy ridge and then a sheltered col with a boggy stream where we stopped to snack and for me to read a few chapters of the BFG aloud. We couldn’t camp there, as it would have left us too many miles to cover the next morning when we had an appointment to keep. So we pressed on, and the trail turned into the steep, scrabbling sort of dropping down that make these mountains notorious. Staring down the umpteenth of such stretches, Simon moaned, “Mom, please can you call Mountain Rescue and they can carry me out?” “I can’t,” I told him, “even if we wanted to, my phone can’t communicate with the outside world.” “Mom,” said Malcolm, “We’re in the outside world right now. We’ve been in it since yesterday.” “Oh, yes,” I said, “The inside world then. Civilization. That’s what we can’t reach.” We saw only two other people the whole day: two young Quebecois men, speaking heavily accented English and warning us that the trail was about to get worse. That is when I admit to the feelings of dread that inevitably strike me at some point on a backcountry venture. What if I can’t get them out of here? What if we can’t walk to water before dark? What if, one of these times I am sliding down a rock face or teetering on a ledge, I fall, and crack my skull, and my children circle my insensible body for hours, howling in a literal wilderness? What if I can’t get Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” out of my head this entire trip?

The indignity of sharing a water source with one's little brother.

The indignity of sharing a water source with one’s little brother.

There was howling. There was crying. There was carrying of the younger son. And I could not shake Dreamlover. As we traversed that ridge and descended though, the dynamic between the two brothers and me came clear. When one boy was in a trough of despair, and my spirits tugging down with him, the other would announce, “But I suddenly feel a turbo boost of energy, Mom!” and indeed, Malcolm hauled himself uncomplainingly down some frightening terrain. Then, when he began complaining of blisters, Simon offered to carry his water for him. We made it to the end of the Walden Trail and turned down Old Mast Road, and I dropped my pack and applauded them and nearly cried into their hair with relief. Old Mast Road is an easy stroll, though we did not find the stream indicated on our maps and by the reports of hikers earlier in the season.

The view over to Chocorua.

The view over to Chocorua.

As evening approached, I realized we’d probably be all the way back to our car before we found water, and it was so. A clear, sand bottomed stream came into view two tenths of a mile from the trailhead. Though Malcolm wanted to camp again, I offered a consolation prize of candy and Gatorade at a gas station on the way home. And so it was decided. As we finished the last bit of the walk, Simon, in his piercing, piping voice, yelled, “Another toad!” and something big went crashing off into the underbrush. Then, a few moments later, a young, rangy black bear loped across the trail a hundred yards ahead. We stood there, watching it go, and Malcolm whispered, “In my whole life, that’s the first time I ever saw a bear.”

Would it were so for us all, that we need wait only seven years of a lifetime to see a bear, to cross a ridge with a view to Mount Washington and be alone and away from the “inside world.” I don’t know what possessed me to start coming to the Whites like this; my family never even went camping, let alone backpacking. I suppose it came upon me like the urge to travel the world comes to other people. Whatever it was, it gets more deeply rooted all the time. I still get nervous, and sometimes genuinely scared, but it’s my hope that these trips will seem so normal and routine to my sons that they will feel even more at home out there than I probably ever will, not having been reared in that sort of wildness. So we take these trips, covering six miles in almost ten hours, our progress so slow as to seem imperceptible. I shoulder loads approaching my own body weight to keep their burdens light enough. Sometimes, I long to be able to stride at my own pace, though it’s been so long since I was able to, I’m not sure what it would be. But I remember that these trips are an investment. That one day, they will be bigger than I am, and able to hike fast and carry their own provisions, and I will sometimes long for the feel of my little boy’s weight in my arms, and the stink of him in my nose, and his arms around my neck and his face buried happily against my shoulder as I stagger down the trail. Even the little miseries are fractured with joy.

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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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When I was pregnant with my second son, I spent many hours alone with my first son, reading boring baby books and playing repetitive baby games, and feeling deep ambivalence about doing it all over again. I wanted two kids, but in an abstract sense; I envisioned a future with two kids in it. But the thought of raising a second baby, that often led me into deep despondency. Now, I live in the early years of that shining future I had envisioned. My two boys play together for hours at a stretch, with no intervention from me. I read to them, usually at least an hour each day, but beyond that, they play with each other and away from me, and that is a very great wonder indeed.

This semester, my teaching schedule worked out that I have no classes on Fridays. To save money, we pulled my younger son, Simon, out of preschool that day as well, so he and I are on our own a full day each week. Sometimes, I take him on little enriching experiences to the library or the art museum. Other times, he watches two and a half movies back to back while I do other things. Sometimes he plays on his own, punctuated by occasional games of Guess Who? or Candyland with me, under duress.

Caring for young children is about the most boring job I can imagine, so when I’m playing Candyland, I am often thinking of how lovely it would be to be vacuuming or folding laundry, able to think my thoughts without being interrupted by indignant shouts of, “Mom! Did you hear me? I said, ‘I got Princess Frostine!” The other day, I mentioned to someone that I often fantasize about just disappearing. Driving off without a word to anyone. “Oh,” she said, “Me too. Like to the Caribbean? Or Costa Rica? And lie on the beach and get away from the cold…” I looked at her in a mild state of confusion. The cold? The cold isn’t even on my radar of things to flee. My escape fantasies rarely take me farther than a meagerly furnished room on the outer reaches of the Cape, or a cabin in the wooded border between Maine and Canada. It’s not the cold, it’s the need I dream of leaving sometimes.

_MG_8257Coming home after work, or being home on the weekends is not unpleasant, and I have no babies anymore, so the intensity of my children’s needs is thankfully more bearable now. But there is still never a day where I am responsible only for brushing my own teeth, or finding my own socks or feeding my own self. I don’t need a warm beach, and I’m not looking to do nothing. I’m just looking to be able to choose vacuuming, or tooth-brushing, or laundry folding on my own time, and without interruption.

On our most recent Friday together, Simon was playing by himself while I stitched a hem onto some curtains I was making as a wedding present for my sister. It was, for a short span, quiet, aside from intermittent sounds he was making as his action figures crashed into things or were dissolved in a river of lava. For a moment, I was choosing to sew. Then Simon came in and asked me to play something with him. Feeling put upon, I sighed and told him to wait. “Just let me do this line.” I said to him. “Of stitches,” I said in my head. I’m doing a line of stitches. And suddenly I was feeling much better. Some days he may watch too much tv or play computer games too long before I remember to stop him. But sometimes I take him to the museum, and we read a long time everyday, and I feed him good food. And above all, I’m not snorting coke.

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Four year old children are predictably irrational. Their fixations, meltdowns, and obsessions frequently border on the bizarre. This is normal for them.

I consider myself to be in remission from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, but I find myself keenly attuned to symptoms in both myself and my kids. Part of being in remission, of course, involves periodic check-ups, and I do these almost sub-consciously now, evaluating myself for signs many times a day, and making small adjustments. There is the potential that my kids might one day exhibit signs of such disorders too, but since I’ve been in remission, I genuinely don’t worry about it. And though nature may dictate that they have a predisposition to it, nurture will argue against it since I no longer model anxious behaviors to them.

IMG_5149When a person doesn’t suffer from anxiety and obsessions, it can be hard to understand them in others. The anxieties are irrational, often seeming silly or ridiculous. From the outside, it seems absurd that a person would worry about such things at all, much less be reduced to a sniveling wretch rocking on the bathroom floor over them. Such is the nature of anxiety. Simon, my four year old, has been talking about his own worries lately, and they mirror the workings of the anxious person’s mind. “Mom?” he’ll say from the back seat of the car, “How does a package delivery guy deliver really big things?” “With a little cart called a dolly,” I tell him. “What if the dolly breaks?” he asks. “He’ll get another,” I tell him. “But Mom, what if all the dollies are broken and the man who fixes the dollies is dead?”

This is almost comical in its resemblance to the thinking of an anxious person. The what-ifs accumulate and snowball until a series of improbable possibilities have accumulated into an inevitable catastrophe. I’ve been there, and I can envision this world he’s describing, where everything that can go wrong, does.

The other day, as he was getting ready for bed, he turned to me and said, “Mom? What if my lunchbox falls down a deep cavern and you can’t reach it and Malcolm can’t reach it and Dad can’t reach it?” “Then we’ll get a new one,” I said. “What if I loved it?” he asked, his voice breaking, and I know the cavern he’s thinking of; I’ve spent years fretting over what I might lose irretrievably too.

What I can teach Simon is the practiced skill of managing these fears. I will probably be fine-tuning these skills for the rest of my life. After all, it’s a remission, not a cure. But what I love about Simon’s worldview is that while the fear of losing his lunchbox can send him into a tailspin of dread, the big questions, he’s got settled. Yesterday, I was eating lunch with him and he said, “Mom, if there are too many Asian Long-horned Beetles wrecking the trees, we’ll just call some woodpeckers to eat them until no beetles remain.” Seemingly insoluble ecological disasters like invasive species threatening entire ecosystems? Fret not, citizens, for Simon shall call down an army of woodpeckers.

On the way to school the other day, though, came the ultimate. Simon, who worries about the UPS man’s dolly, told me, “Mom, my friend at school doesn’t know where God lives.” “Well,” I said, “I don’t think anyone really knows where God lives, Simon,” (and certainly not this atheist). “Mom,” he answered sternly, “God lives in your heart.”

Of course. How could I be so stupid. I must not have been thinking. Or maybe I was too busy checking the ropes that lead down into that cavern where I can just make out the glint of a lunchbox in the deep gloom.

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In praise of the presents

Yesterday I asked Malcolm what his favorite part of Christmas is, and he told me, “The presents.” I paused, thinking to bring up family, and meals, and all those other, often intangible things about the holiday. Then I said, “Me too, bud.” For him, it’s the getting of presents, while for me, it’s the giving of them, but it’s about the same in the end. It’s about the boxes and bags and the sheer stuff.

I felt a moment’s pang over this; how could we be so materialistic? In truth, we love other things too–the tree, the lights, the daily countdown on our homemade advent calendar that contains healthy vegan treats for each day of December (yes, they actually enjoy these), but the presents are the main event. When I think about how it’s come to this, I discover our good fortune.
We live five miles from my childhood home where my parents still live. Two of my younger sisters live in apartments in the same building; another sister lives a few blocks away. My little brother is in college, but in state, so he’s back regularly, and I never have to go too long between sightings of him, lounging on my parents’ couch watching SportsCenter. Every Sunday, just about, my mother puts on an elaborate multi-course supper to rival or exceed the average person’s Thanksgiving Day. When there’s light enough in the day, I lace up and run there, take a shower, and come out to join my siblings for whatever my mother has chosen for the night’s “signature cocktail.” My two kids and their two cousins pile up to watch tv before the meal, and after, they dance while my brother-in-law plays the guitar for them. It sounds entirely ridiculous when I lay it all out like that, but when people ask, “Will you be seeing your family for the holidays?” this is the vision that leaps to my head. “Oh, yes,” I tell them.

My husband’s family is a bit farther afield, but no one lives more than an hour and a half away, and we see them fairly often–often enough that a Christmas visit is no novelty either. We vacation on the Cape in summer with them for a week, and drive down to see them for birthdays. As we continue to consolidate, his parents are contemplating a move to our neighborhood too.
IMG_5155This idyll turns out to be strangely isolating at Christmas. Watching sentimental commercials about homecomings, and time-lapse visits with grandkids only seen in person this one time a year, it’s not that I wish for long car trips or, God forbid, plane rides, but sometimes, I suppose, it might be nice to miss someone.

The trade-off has been a downgrade in professional ambition; the highly driven, accomplished set I took up with at prep school used to look at me with wonder and puzzlement when I announced I’d be attending my state university. After vet school, I was asked constantly why I didn’t apply to a residency in New York. Because it’s in New York, I’d answer. The things I love to do–write and teach–I am fortunate to be able to do anywhere, so I may as well stay where my whole family is. I still get vaguely pitying looks from people who ask me, “Why don’t you travel?” or, if I have traveled somewhere, “Yeah, but you can’t really know a place unless you’ve lived there a while.” True, I can’t argue with that. But what my nomadic peers might not realize is that there’s knowledge that only comes from staying put too. I’ve spent all but a month or two of my life in New England. I have no opposition to travel, and maybe someday we’ll have the money to do it, but I don’t long to leave this place either.

I remember one Sunday at Mass when I was a kid, no different than any other Sunday, as the priest gave the usual parting blessing. “Thank you for your presence and participation,” he said, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.” One of my little sisters, suddenly jolted from her reverie, looked up and said, “But we didn’t bring any presents!” It took some explaining to get her to grasp the concept of homophones, and, more importantly, that we were not, in fact, slinging gifts at Father George for no apparent reason.

Every Sunday, we were at Mass. Every Christmas, we’re at home. Every summer, we prowl around the shores and mountains of our homeland. We’ve got presence and participation in spades. Now, bring on the presents.

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Secret spaces

I love the website apartment therapy. On days when my own house is not just cozily cluttered and lived in, but is covered in oily fingerprints, and there’s urine sprayed on the bathroom floor and there’s a smell that comes and goes but whose source cannot be determined, I sometimes sit down at my computer and scroll through images on this virtual confection of a design website. Every room they feature is well lit, perfectly accessorized, and utterly escapist. I know the rooms are real, in that they physically exist, but the world they conjure is delightfully fantastical.

A recent post’s theme was “Kids’ closets used as reading nooks” and it was predictably appealing. The closet nooks were full of squashy pillows, and gallery walls of artworks in a restrained color scheme, and a pristine pallet on the floor. As with many images on apartment therapy, many of the examples of closet reading nooks allowed me to revel in the beauty while feeling pleasantly smug and derisive. The images hint at, or outright blurt out, all the worst things about a precious, upper middle-class American childhood these days. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these images, trying to figure out what exactly was bothering me.

The first thing was a photo of a little girl reading on her pristine pallet under a framed picture reading “Mama Loves You.” Granted, this child is quite young, and at that age would not have an expansive life outside her small, home-playground-library story hour, sphere. But the placement of that picture, beaming sunshiny supervision down on the child’s head even whilst in her private nook seemed to emphasize surveillance. Mother as Big Brother, choosing the books, the paint, the pillows in fabrics that are just the perfect subtly zany mix match.

Photo: apartmenttherapy.com

 A reading nook via apartmenttherapy.com

In the written copy for this post, I came across this: “You can keep the door to make a secret reading hideaway.” You cannot. When you build and decorate your child a designated reading nook, you may be providing them with a cozy space, a beautiful setting, and the much needed message that reading matters in this house. But you cannot make it a secret. My kids are not babies anymore, and we’ve been through the earliest phases of childhood where the sequential separations between mother and child begin. The cords were cut. They moved from sleeping in my bed, where I contorted protectively around them, into cribs in a separate room. They weaned, they learned to walk, they learned defiance and strong opinions. They went to school. As they get older, the physical separations shift to internal ones. The school age child begins answering, “What did you do today?” with, “nothing.” You find out from some other mother that your kid had some playground altercation and didn’t tell you.

The fantasy that a designated closet nook could ever be “secret” may be part of the desire to keep kids safe, to control their environments. And kids do love secret spaces. They like claustrophobic, dark little cubby holes. These closet reading nooks are cute, but they’re not secret, and to a kid, they’re not even all that nook-like.

I had a secret reading nook when I was young, and it was a corner of the closet I shared with two of my sisters, so it was jammed with stuff. I had to shimmy under the lowest row of clothes, wedge myself behind the hangers and shove aside a pile of shoes. It was almost too dark to read there, and it smelled like winter boots stowed away for the season while still snow and sweat soaked. I only went in there if I knew no one could see me climb in, and if someone called for me while I was in there, I wouldn’t answer for fear of giving away the spot. It was dingy and dim and secret.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn't photograph well? Now that's a nook.

Poorly lit? Smells like feet? Doesn’t photograph well? Now that’s a nook.

Being one of five children, I often sought my escape outside the house. We didn’t have a treehouse or playhouse, or any adult-built, adult-approved play place. My favorite place to go was a medium sized pine tree where I had laid a plank across two branches to make a sap-covered, grubby seat. I would sit there after school and read or look out over the lake down the hill. It was nothing much, and would make a very poor feature photo for apartment therapy. But apartment therapy is for grown-ups. The things kids like are gross.

For now, I know where my kids’ “secret” places are. At ages six and four, they play out in the woods by themselves a lot but they still excitedly volunteer instructions on how to cross the fallen hemlock tree to get to a tussock in the middle of the swamp. I know they climb around in the unfinished, unheated crawl space under the eaves in our house. It’s dark in there, and it’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. There’s certainly no pallet in there, but there is some exposed insulation and nails sticking out in unpredictable places. It’s unattractive and fairly uncomfortable, and it’s what kids like. These places are still not really a secret, but they’re outside the realm of adult decor and aesthetics. They’re a little bit risky, and if kids aren’t allowed to go there, to push out from their safe orbits, to do stupid things by themselves, then I fear they’ll grow up to be the sorts of people who are too nervous to crawl through a tight spot, or to quell their panic and push on through a dark place and see what’s on the other side. Because much as I love a well designed room, the world is not a lovely, purpose built nook.  It’s less brightly lit, but much more beautiful.


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By now, you may well have seen this Toys ‘R’ Us commercial:

and you may also have seen much of the blowback Toys ‘R’ Us has gotten for suggesting that kids prefer toys to “nature.” When I first saw this commercial, I felt a bit confused. Even if you’re not some tree hugging nature geek, why actively deride the whole concept of kids going outside? But something else was bothering me, and it didn’t occur to me what it was until I was outside myself watching my kids wedge themselves into a crack in a boulder and scream that they were being eaten by a giant whale.

What I dislike most about this commercial is not that it set up nature vs. toys and toys won, but that it set up a false equivalency, a dishonest thumb on the scale to send the message that nature is something boring adults inflict on kids because it’s good for them, and that the purest joy children can experience is actually through getting toys.

I’m a parent, and my children’s toy strewn bedroom floor is a testament to kids’ universal love of cheap, low-quality plastic toys. My kids salivate over catalogs and curate their Amazon wish lists with a disconcerting fervor. I get that. They love toys. They’d be screaming like idiots if you drove them to Toys ‘R’ Us and let them pick out anything they wanted too. But I am a parent, so I also know that no matter how amazing the toy, they’ve had surfeit of it within a few days. A couple weeks at the outside, for a truly spectacular item. They’re like junkies, and the warmth of that last hit is forgotten as the search begins for the next one.

IMG_4624My kids get to spend a lot of time in the woods too. They move from made up game to made up game, tiring of one thing quickly, yes, but inventing new ones continuously. Boulders, easy-to-climb trees, suspension bridges, old cabins, fallen logs bridging a mucky bog, all are drawn into the service of the game. It’s not one item, one toy they want, it’s to play.

What’s really wrong with the Toys ‘R’ Us ad is this: it sets up “nature” not as an actual forest where the kids are let loose to play, but as a bus ride and a dud of a park ranger quizzing them on leaf flashcards. If we were to offer the true equivalent of that, he should then offer not an actual trip to a toy store, not actual toys, but should instead read aloud from their instruction manuals. “What leaf is this on this flashcard?” is not equivalent to a forest field trip, it’s equivalent to reading “Snap the character selectors onto the top and bottom tracks of the large spacers.” Wow. What gets a kid’s blood pumping more than that? Huh?

You don’t teach your kids to play by reading them assembly manuals, and you don’t teach them to understand and love their environment by quizzing them on leaf shapes. The way you teach a kid to love something is to let them play with it, to play in it.

I realized why the commercial didn’t make me sad, or angry, or defensive.  It’s not really a battle between nature and toys, after all. Kids want to play. But if it must be a battle, as long as kids are allowed to go outside and play, I’m not worried about the outcome either–take that busload of kids to a tide pool, or a tent in the mountains, or let them paddle a kayak under a full moon, and nature’s gonna win, every time. Because a toy gets old, no matter how cool. But a tide pool, or the woods, or the mountains are different every time, and play itself is inexhaustible.

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