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March 2008
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Grubby Love

Tonight the boys played outside until late. The sun was down and it was getting chilly before I called them in.

I watched them out there, doing tricks on their scooters, bouncing basketballs, talking and laughing and hanging out with the neighborhood kids, and I knew they needed to come in and take showers. Disgusting, filthy creatures, every last one of 'em.

But instead of cutting their evening short and dragging them in out of the cold fun, Clay and I let them run. And they ran and leapt and hooted and crashed.

When they finally were dragged inside and shooed downstairs for toothbrushing, I couldn't help but grin at the badges they wore in honor of our wise choice.


Tre (who had been doing tricks on the scooter) said, "It was awesome. I would go as fast as I could, and jump, and then TIME STOOD STILL and then I crashed and it hurt. So cool."


Knees should not be this battered and dirty.


Nor should toes.

But three disgusting, filthy boys went to bed very happy tonight, and there's something right about that.

Happy Love Thursday!

A note for Tre

I told him to put on shoes before he rode his bike. "And not your Crocs, either." He turned and gave me a bitter glare.

"I KNOW, Mom. I'm not a BABY," he said, and thumped his way down the stairs, disdain echoing behind him. I watched him go, and I thought, oh, I know.

I know you're not a baby, because when you were, your legs were fat and dimpled and they churned with delight when your eyes found me. Now your legs are long and lean and those soft knees are armored with roughness. And they are forever in motion, moving away.

I know you're not a baby, because when you were I could always make it better, whatever "it" was at the moment. I knew by the pitch of your voice, by the tension in your face, by rhythm between you and me just what you needed to be calmed. And now I see it, I see the tension and hear your voice slide upward in anger and frustration, but all I know is that you need, you NEED to pull away from me and our rhythm seems to be a battle pitch instead of a song.

I know you're not a baby, because when you were I knew what your days would hold, and I looked forward to the milestones that looked like building blocks, sturdy and solid, that would only take you higher. Now you dive and leap and soar to new abilities, knowledge that you seem to suck out of thin air. You stand behind me when I fuss with the stupid computer, and you sigh and point to things and say with great patience, "Ok, try this for me. Go to the start menu..." I don't know everything you know anymore, much less where it will take you.

I know you're not a baby because when you were my job was long and exhausting and endless and you fit inside my arms and made my life real. Now the job of being your mother is bewildering and endless and my arms are empty, but my hands are free, and my life is so real that it seems I must be a grown up.

I know you're not a baby because when you were I was barely older than a baby myself and now I've been through so much, weathered so many of my mistakes, and learned enough that I think I'm almost ready for you to be born. Almost. 

I know you're not a baby because when you were we fed each other peace. You relaxed best against my chest, and the weight of you settled my heart as nothing ever had. Now you walk into the room and within a breath we are grating on each other. I say the wrong things, you give me those looks. A good day goes quickly bad, and I don't know how to stop it.

I know you're not a baby because when you were I thought you were perfect. People describe it as "pride," the madness of a new mother, but I didn't see how I could be proud of you any more than I could have been proud of a dazzling sunrise. You were a wonder of God's creation, and I couldn't believe you were mine to love.

Now I know you're not perfect, any more than I am, but you dazzle me still. You will be taller than me by the end of the year, and I see almost as much of the good-natured, kind hearted man you will be as I do of the surly adolescent you've become. I cannot believe you are mine to love. I just want you to be ok. I want you to know how much I admire you. I want you to change your shoes before you ride your bike. As you shoulder your way out of my grasp, into the world, I want the world to accept you gently.

Believe me, son. I know.

Clay's inimitable parenting style

"Go to bed. Time to go," Clay intoned at Max. Max wandered in the general direction of his room, and Clay burst into song. "Good night, sweet heart, well it's time to go-oh," and lower voiced, "to-o your bed." Back to regular voice, "before you get punched i-in the nose," and down, "by-y your dad."

"Dad, you are awesome," Max called, on his way down the stairs. "When you sing, you are AWESOME."


"Yup, because you make up all these words, and I never know what you're going to say. Awesome."

"Thanks, buddy. Go to bed. Seriously."

Love grows, despite me

A week ago my friend Amy asked me how my spring plants were doing in the garden.

"They're not," I said, shaking my head. "Three weeks ago I planted spinach and lettuce and sugar snap peas, and NOTHING."

She shook her head with me. So sad.

It's my fear, every year. I drop those seeds into the dirt, water, and watch. Can it happen? Just like that? And until they sprout, I battle a mounting certainty that this JUST WILL NOT WORK. How could it? Surely the birds have eaten the seeds, which were clearly old, bad seeds anyhow, and that one day when it got pretty hot and the ground dried up killed what feeble life there was in them. Yes, somehow it is my fault, and I have crushed the beauty that is the life cycle of spinach. So sad.

But then - did you know this was coming? - then something happened. I wandered out to the garden, to slice down a few more asparagus stalks. I glanced at my barren Spring patch, and my vision was snagged by a tiny spot of green.

Real green. New, fresh, just-sprouted green.


These are lettuce.


This is out of focus spinach. Actually, the picture is out of focus. The spinach is lovely.


This is flat-leaf parsley, which I didn't so much "plant" as "allow to happen." There were seed heads, see. And I LET THEM GO. Rrrowl. I love flat leaf parsley. I love the way it sprawls all over the landscape, wedging itself in inhospitable places, and thrives. I love to rip off a fistful of leaves and eat them, staining my tongue neon green. Clay says that's actually not sexy, but I'm pretty sure he's wrong.

And now I am as happy as can be. Suddenly it's Spring, really and truly. Last evening kids played basketball on blacktop still warm from the sun, and I sat by the window, feeling the breeze pushing in against me. Outside there were at least six basketballs in play, and the sound of them striking the blacktop reminded me of the sound of popcorn popping in a pan, just as the tempo picks up. In the garden, new plants are growing, and I am entirely blissed out on it all.


New life. It's entirely outside my control, and I am so, so grateful for that.

Happy Love Thursday! Go plant something.

Poop talking boys

Raphael's best friend is William (aka Buddy Boy). The two of them have known each other their WHOLE LIVES, Raphael explains with characteristic intensity. To be precise, they have actually known each other for Raphael's whole life, which started when William was a little over a year old. Still.

The other day William was over to play.They were eying the Wii, but I heartlessly kicked them out so I could mop the floor. They bounced out to the back yard, amiable souls that they are, and climbed the fence. A few minutes later I sent Tre out to inform them that throwing things in the neighbor's yard was not on the list of approved activities for the afternoon, m'kthankx.

A few minutes later, Tre came back inside, shaking with laughter.

"Do you know what they're talking about out there? POOP."

"Do you mean they're being rude and gross?"

"No! They're just discussing poop. Like, William said, 'If you poop once a day, you're a daily pooper.' And then Raphael said, 'Well, I went almost a week without pooping, but I broke my streak this morning.'"

As I stood there, laughing with my son, spring sunshine streaming in through the window, several thoughts occurred to me.

Raphael clearly needs to eat more fiber.

It's good, that they can share so openly about the important things in their lives.

Raphael should probably be told that when describing pooping, "streak" is an unfortunate word choice.

How weird is it that I'm sharing a indulgent chuckle with my firstborn, the original poop talker in this house?

And most of all,

What a life this is.

Up until this weekend there were these kids living in our neighborhood. A boy about Tre's age who has a brother and sister who are twins and are six. These kids wander the streets a lot, often hungry, always searching for a place to belong. The older boy keeps an eye on the younger ones and carries his mom's cell phone to wait for word that they're allowed to come home. On weekends they will sometimes stay out all day, and hang around in front of the house with the gaggle of kids that congregates out there. Occasionally, they'll sigh as a grownup walks by, "I'm hungry..." Sometimes they disappear for a few weeks, sent to live with relatives. There is an angry stepfather in the house and a "real dad" whom they're not allowed to see, because he doesn't pay child support.

Those kids kill me. Their lives are so hard, so unreasonable and unyielding. I can pass out graham crackers and cheese sticks, yes you can use our bathroom, yes come on in, sure, join us in the back yard, but I can't change their lives. I can't feed them enough to make them not be hungry tomorrow. I can't break the terrified yearning they have for their parents' love, the dread that they never really will care.

The older boy announced this weekend that they're moving. We won't see them anymore, and they wanted to say good bye. I hugged them all and wished them well and watched them make their way down the street, too young, too old, too much to bear. I hope someone in their new neighborhood keeps an eye on them.

I remember the first time I wanted to save a kid. I was in third grade, and there was a student in our class who everyone hated. I can't remember her name, let's call her Anna. Anna was weird. She dressed wrong, and she was tone-deaf to the complex relationships of the school yard. Worst of all, she didn't even have the sense to seem embarrassed about being wrong and irritating and...WRONG. Everyone hated her. I felt bad for her, but couldn't figure out how to change things.

One day I was standing in a huddle of girls, trying to fix my necklace. It was some trinket, strung on a cord around my neck, and on that day it was the treasure of my life. The cord had come unknotted, and we were all jostling each other to be the next to try to re-tie it. Anna wandered up to us in the vague, unconcerned way she had, and when I saw her it struck me that this could be Anna's chance. I would give HER my necklace, and she would fix it, and everyone would stop hating her. In my mind I could see the scene, Anna, surrounded by friends, generously stopping to help anyone who needed something tied.

I handed over the necklace, ignoring the shocked glares of my friends. "Here, Anna, could you fix this?"

Well, no. She couldn't either.

And if anything, I was meaner to her than ever, I was so irritated by her failure.

My failure.

And there's where I balance, right between the desire to sweep in and be the savior, and hot-faced indignation that people just can't be saved. Not by me. Not today.

Tonight I sat in church, family all around. Raphael leaned hard against me, deep in grief at the fact that he had to sit through a SECOND church service in one day. On the other side of him sat Max, staring at the watch he had borrowed from Amma, sitting next to him. On my other side sat Clay, his hand warm around mine. Tre was stoic beside him.

It was an evening mass at a church that isn't ours, and we were there to see Kate be confirmed. Kate is Clay's brother's daughter, 15 years old. As the processional music swelled, people who were to be confirmed walked down the middle aisle. In the midst of that crowd strode Kate. Her chin was level, proud of every inch of her 6'1" (plus heels), and she carried a bright red banner that read, "Courage." She was so beautiful and brilliant that she brought tears to my eyes.

Kate spends quite a bit of time with us. There has been enough loss in her life that sometimes I look at her and want to pull every inch of her long-limbed frame into my lap and rock her like a two year old. I also find myself spewing out wise advice long winded lectures with alarming regularity. I just want so much for her to be ok. When she goes home at night sometimes I have to stand behind the door as it closes behind her and willfully disengage from my concern for her. I cannot save her.

But I watched her tonight, standing in the front of the church with such grace and joy. I am a fool to think that the biggest thing in Kate's life is the loss, and a bigger fool still if I think I am somehow her salvation.

"Stephen, be sealed with the Holy Spirit," said the bishop, pressing a cross of oil into her forehead. She chose Stephen as her saint name last week, and her face glowed as she described his devotion, his Christ-like-ness.

There was a sensation of lightness, like flying, sitting there with my family tangled around me. We are called to love, and to leave the salvation to Another.

The stupid thing I did the other day

To set the scene, I was standing in the bathroom, applying makeup. I do that. You might as well know. So anyhow, I was dotting concealer under my eyes (because if I don't people have a tendency to lay a gentle hand on my shoulder and say, "how are you...REALLY?"), when I noticed that the toilet had not been flushed.

Stinkin' boys.

I reached over and flushed it, but instead of a satisfying slurpy swoosh, there was a sick gurgle and the water level started rising. *sigh* I hate this toilet. It gets clogged at least fourteen hundred times a day. Or once a week. Too often, is what I'm saying. While I was standing there, glowering at the stupid bad dumb stupid toilet, I heard a voice from the boys' bathroom downstairs. "ABANDON SHIP!" someone bellowed gleefully.

This is code for "THE TOILET'S PLUGGED!" No, really.

*really heavy sigh*

Needless to say, I swung into toilet-plunging action, this despite the fact that plunging toilets clearly falls under the category of "man jobs" shut up, Gloria Steinem, you know it does. But Clay was at work, and I was left to deal with the tragedy of dual-plugged-ness on my own, much as a pioneer woman might, except yes I know they didn't have flushing toilets, you shut up too, please.

My point is that I DID it, I dealt with BOTH toilets, which were clearly in revolt, having plotted this vile uprising, probably communicated by a complex code of bubbles through their shared water supplies. But I - the mighty pioneer woman with indoor plumbing that I be - *I* QUELLED THEM. And lo, we were all very relieved.

A few hours later a friend stopped by, to drop off two of her boys to play. I answered the door and stood there, chatting with her whilst our children hopped and yelped and plotted around us. I thought everything seemed pretty normal, but she tilted her head at me and gave me quizzical face.

"You have...some sort of...dots..." she pointed under her eyes, "right there." I gave her quizzical face right back, and swiped at my face. Like I have time to keep track of everything on my face. As if.

"Is that better?"

She shook her head, then her face lit up. "OH, it's makeup! You didn't blend..." and she trailed off and looked away, not sure if it was safe to laugh right at me.

For some reason I decided at that point to take the dignified route. I suppose that's how a pioneer woman would have handled it. I raised my chin, gazed at her placidly from above dots of concealer, and persisted in making small talk. It was a little mean, I suppose. She stood there, chatting back, trying to figure out where to look, while I surreptitiously made little passes at my undereye with quick fingertips.

Because if she saw me blending my hours-old dots of concealer, THAT would have somehow made me look SILLY.

Not my most shining moment, but I suppose I can comfort myself in knowing that I made another mom feel really super on top of things, as compared to me (which is not a sensation that should be unfamiliar to her, because she IS super on top of things, even NOT as compared to me, which, let's face it, not that high of a bar, huh?). You're welcome, Alissa! And now I can share that joy with all of you.

OR! (and I'm liking this idea EVEN MORE) you could share your tales of humiliation, and we can all have a good laugh! Aaaaaaaannd....GO!

Oh Martha. I wish I could quit you.

Remember this? Where I said I was SO not renewing my subscription to Martha Stewart Living? I did NOT renew it, in fact.

All of March I went without the abuse of the MSL.

Yeah, that lasted one month. As I sit here, next to me is my April edition. In my defense, I did NOT pay for this subscription. Sort of.

See, somehow I seem to have fallen in with people who will "pay" me for taking their surveys online about various consumer matters. Answer a few questions about car insurance, breakfast foods, digital cameras, that sort of thing. It's time consuming and irritating, and at the end of the survey they say something like, "Thank you for your input. $1.75 has been credited to your account." Clay cannot believe I waste my time on such a thing, because I'll spend twenty minutes whining about how much I hate the questions and how boring they are, and then at the end of it all I get is this paltry sum. A pittance. But it's better than that, I tell him, because they don't actually give me money, oh no. They "pay" me "money" that I can redeem for "rewards," which are mostly really really lame - things like $5 off a $50 purchase at Ebags. Which, as Clay points out, is not so much a reward as an opportunity to spend more money, not something we were actively searching for.

BUT! You can also redeem your "money" for magazine subscriptions, which is how I ended up the proud owner of a year's subscription to LUCKY magazine, hide my head in shame. (Question? Do people actually dress like that? With ratted out hair and belts randomly knotted around sweaters even though there are perfectly serviceable buckles on them and scarves dangling off their shoulders like THAT wouldn't make you insane with the tickle tickle all day? Do people ACTUALLY pay thousands of dollars on a cotton dress? Who ARE you people?) 

And then I also got a year's subscription to Martha Stewart Living.

Why do I do this to myself? It starts the minute I open the magazine. At the very front, there is a checklist of tasks for the month - "Gentle Reminders" - and right away I'm reading it like it's the opening statement for the prosecution. Hah, I think, dust your lightbulbs. As if. I have a perfectly useful method of getting rid of lightbulb dust. It's called "changing the burnt out bulb." Besides, we use those swirly bulbs that sort of look like DNA and are going to save the planet and those suckers have MERCURY in them, so why would I take the chance on breaking one? Don't we have enough to worry about with the mercury in sushi? Not that I eat sushi all that often, but if I WANT to, I WON'T be deterred by the fact that I've already had my mercury dose from the LIGHTBULB DUSTING, as if.

This is not a good or healthy start to a relationship. And it doesn't get better. I read Martha's letter closely - not so much for the information as to chortle over the AMAZING regard she has for herself. Does she not have an editor on staff that could gently point out to her that she sort of sounds like the girl in the Peanuts strip who is always mentioning that she has "naturally curly hair"? Martha, Martha. We know you win at domestic chores. WE KNOW.

As I move through the magazine, my emotions are all over the map. There's derision - As though I have time to comb the wilderness for edible weeds - and elation - I am SO making that flourless chocolate cake - and shame - this recipe calls for espresso powder. I wonder what Martha would think if she knew I would use instant coffee. The store brand. - and moments of hysterical grandiosity worthy of Martha herself - I want to make crepe paper birds! I would make the BEST crepe paper birds EVER! I am untethered, swept up in the wake of Martha's creative force.

One of the seventeen trillion cards that sifted out of the magazine was one that was especially for giving your mother a gift subscription to MSL for Mother's Day. I tried to imagine what my mom would do if I gave her such a gift. I can picture her face, studying the lovely card I would be sent to give to her to announce my gift. She would just look at it for a few minutes, speechless. Her face would betray a struggle not to laugh. And then she would look at me and ask the only question that could really be appropriate at such a moment. "WHY?"

No, Mom knows better. She is far to wise to fall under the spell of Martha's siren song.

I'm afraid this is between Martha and me - and only one of us is coming out alive.

My money's on Martha.

Suddenly, it all comes together, like a puzzle.

Look, I'm trying to be a better blogger, I REALLY REALLY am. I swear. It's just you have any IDEA what sort of persecution I've been experiencing over the last few days? Dude. Something should be done, because it's out of control around here.

First, one morning I grabbed the tea kettle, to fill it up with water for my life-giving morning tea. (Tea. How I love thee.) And when I flipped the little top up, a spider came scuttling out, right across my hand, and then SLING it went across the room as the tea kettle clattered to the floor and I swore in front of my children. I'm not scared of spiders, you understand, but I was AFFRONTED. In my TEA KETTLE! I MEAN! That was NOT ACCEPTABLE.

And then there was the wicked headache that parked behind my eyes and squiggled my thoughts so that every time I headed for the kitchen to grab myself a fistful of the pharmacy's finest, I would get distracted and wander away and find myself pondering the toxic situation that is the floor around the toilet in the boys' bathroom. And let me assure you, that is not a situation that one wants to ponder even in the best of times.

And then there were the boys themselves, who have been just RELENTLESS lately with the needs. Breakfast! Lunch! Dinner! Every single day, if you can imagine! And then conversation and that whole...PARENTING deal they've come to expect from me. Honestly. How did we end up here, where an acceptable morning greeting is, "Hey, Mom, did you know I'm out of socks?" Crazy, man.

And Spring is being recalcitrant and moody. Rain, no wait snow. No wait, SUN! No, rain! PSYCH! SNOW! Look, Spring, I know you're calling the shots, but there's no need to be a jerk about it.

Clay insists on going to work. Monday through Friday. I keep telling him life would be a lot more fun if he'd just stay home and play, but he says things like "mortgage" and "bills" like anyone cares about THAT. It's like he doesn't WANT to understand.

And then on top of it all, I have to get my period, and that's just....hmmm.

Wait a minute. (re-reads the preceding complaints.)

Never mind. As you were.

I have to admit it's getting better all the time

Years ago, when my first marriage was disintegrating, I went to a counselor, Kevin. Actually, we were originally going together, for couples counseling, but one day we had a huge blowup in the waiting room. Kevin saw us separately, and when it was my turn he told me that I needed to make some decisions, but his opinion was that the boys and I were not safe, living with my husband.

Thank God for Kevin.

Sometimes you just need to hear the right words from the right person at the right time. I drove straight home, packed up his things, and put them out in the car port while my friend Amy held Raphael and listened to me rant (and hyperventilate).

I was so stunned by the turn my life had taken that I moved through my days on autopilot. I kept going to see Kevin because every time I was there I made another appointment. As it turns out, this was a very good thing. At the time it wasn't really a choice I made, but just what happened. Those days I was just putting one foot in front of the other.

One day, during a session with Kevin, he told me, "You know, things WILL get better."

"Right. Ok."

"I promise."

I shrugged. It wasn't that I disbelieved him, it's just that it was too much work to try and imagine.

"Ok, fine."

When I left that day, Kevin handed me one of his business cards. On the back he had written in his messy scrawl, "Things will get better." I took it with me, shoved it in a compartment in the van, and forgot about it.

Years later I found it there, between two sticky cassettes of kid's songs. When I read those words, I shook my head in wonder. After all this time, it turns out that Kevin was right. Things got so, so much better.

I hadn't even met Clay yet.

When I cleaned out the van last September, after the accident, I found the card. I shoved it in a bag with the rest of the detritus and brought it home. Somehow the bag ended up in the laundry room, and has been slowly disgorging its contents ever since.

Recently Clay was doing a project in the laundry room, and he must have come across the card. Today I went down there and I saw, propped on top of the hot water heater,  this:


I stood there a long time, thinking back, comparing then to now.

Maybe it's the season, growing things all around me, new-bought seeds on the counter, compost under my fingernails. Everything seems so hopeful in the spring. But I couldn't help but think that it was true. For so long, things kept getting better.

And even though I can't imagine better than today...


...there is always something to hope for on the way.

Happy Love Thursday, everybody.