hello muddah

My current failings as a mother include the following:

the bottle.  The bottle, off-and-on. When I took my son for his eighteen-month visit, I thought about lying on the questionnaire:  Yes!  Of course he’s completely off the bottle!  But I didn’t.  And I thought that the doctor would see my other two children and think that since they weren’t sitting in the exam room with latex nipples stuck in their mouths, I was relatively responsible.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she reminded me that bottles are bad, and nighttime bottles are the worst.  I imagined those two front teeth rotting to pieces and ran to the store for yet another cup, the magic cup that he would take at night.  And I watched the insult move across his face when I handed it to him at bedtime.  He fussed for a bit and then went to sleep.

The screaming started at 3am.  I tried the cup again.  But this was a full-fledged, body-flinging tantrum.  Pardon my language, but he was pissed off. I let him go for an hour (and since I was up, I decided to grade some papers).  Screaming-it-out is a bit like playing with fire when the house is small there are two other children sleeping across a tiny hallway.  I gave in.giving in.

The forever imbalance.  I work too much.  On a recent Sunday, I decided to design my midterm exams.  We changed the curriculum this year, and I wanted my exams to reflect that — more application, less regurgiation.  It took ten and a half hours. Teddy kept wandering over in his I’m-still-a-baby way and resting his head in my lap, attempting to tell me, without any words, that I probably should move from that chair.

And on a recent car ride when I was talking to my kids about my love for them, Georgia said, “Do you love us as much as you love your students?”  Ugh.

The A Team.  It’s currently my six-year-old’s favorite song.  She knows all of the words and even sings them in a lovely British accent.  I think she really believes it’s about angels who need coats because it’s just too darn cold outside, and I’m probably a bad mom for letting her pirouette across the floor, singing, And in a pipe, she flies to the Motherland, or sells love to another man. (At least it’s Ed Sheeran and not Bieber, right?)

The Three-Year-Old.  I really do forget, sometimes, that she’s three.  And that her very existence seems to be an attempt to mirror me, in appearance, word, and deed. So I shouldn’t be surprised at the following stories:

  • Ms. Kerrie at daycare starts singing, “Put your finger on your lips, on your lips” to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It” to get the little ones quiet.  Jane mini me.  mini me.  stands back with her arms crossed.  When asked what’s wrong, she replies “That song is frustrating.  And it freaks me out.”
  • At the gingerbread-house-making party, the houses are made and the kids are playing.  Jane appears in the doorway and says, “This is disappointing. There’s a monster chasing us.”
  • I disrupt her playtime by asking her to clean up her bedroom.  She storms off.  “I’m OVER this!”

Sigh.  So, yes.  I fail sometimes.  (Okay, a lot of times.)  Recently, I was feeling guilty for celebrating the idea that I can now say my son “will be two in May” instead of referring to his age in months.  I confess that I’ve fantasized about not lifting anyone in and out of a car seat.  I dream of the day the house is free of diapers, wipes, and sippy cups.  (I may even burn the baby bottles in a backyard ceremony when I feel confident enough.)  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not rushing anyone into growing up.  I kind of even like where we are right now.  I’m just excited for what’s next.

Maybe, sometimes, I get it right.  Maybe.

My mother often reminds me that my grandmother (who had seven children of her own) used to say that a good mother grows with her children.  No pining for the tiny onesies. No tears at the kindergarten bus stop.  You have to be ready for what’s ahead.  You have to meet them when they get there.

So even though it’s easy to look at Georgia’s sleeping face and see how much it really hasn’t changed since she was an infant (and every time I do it, I wince a little bit at the sudden splinter in my heart), I urge myself to gaze instead at all the life that is to come, and to consider how grateful I am that I have them to help me grow.

:)baby g.

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i will shelter you

My girls and I were on our way to the south side of town for a gingerbread-house-making party.

We had fifteen minutes before the party and Oak Hill cemetery was coming up on the headstone. left.  A few months prior, we had lost a good friend.  One of the best.  It was the girls’ first real experience with death, and I knew that they were still working hard to understand (as I was).  I glanced in the rearview mirror.  The little one was asleep, her head sideways.  The older one watched as the world went by her window.  As always, she was deep in thought.

“You want to visit the cemetery?”  I asked her.

“Yes!” She said, as though she had been waiting for months.  And maybe she had.

We pulled in and followed the narrow road to the right.  I recalled the first day I had come back, the day I couldn’t find the place and panicked, pacing among the plots.

spanish moss.  My older daughter barely waited for me to stop the car before bursting through the door and into the autumn air, shouting,  “This cemetery is beautiful!”  She was right.  The late afternoon sun shone through the branches of the oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, and the headstones glittered with light.  Flowerpots wrapped in colored foil and fresh Christmas wreaths tied together with red velvet bows decorated the granite monuments.

The girls followed me to his spot.  Georgia brushed a dried leaf away from his nameplate and read it aloud, stumbling on the pronounciation of his middle name. She was hesitant; she wouldn’t stand near the rectangle of grass whose color didn’t quite match the rest.  Jane, on the other hand, stepped right on top of it.  She squatted down and began to pull up the sod. Georgia’s eyebrows arched with panic.  “Mommy!” 

“Jane, honey, you can’t do that.  You have to leave the grass where it is.”

“Well, I want to see his face.”  She marched off his grave and crossed her arms.  “I miss him,” she said.  Me too.

I tried explaining to her, again, what happens when we die, how our bodies are put cemetery.  into a box and buried in the ground, and how our souls go up to heaven.  And then I realized how horrifying it must have been — the very idea of separating soul from flesh, of being trapped underground — to a not-yet-four-year-old, a child who didn’t really know what “die” meant.  What she knew was that she wouldn’t see her friend again.  Not here, anyway.  And maybe that was enough.

Back inside the car and on the way to the party, she talked again about his face.  I told her that we could go home and look at pictures, that she could see his face.  She said, “But I can’t hear him talk.”  And I cried. Maybe she understood better than I had thought.

little lamb.On Thursday night, we drove home from my dad’s, and for whatever reason, I asked my children if they knew how much I loved them.  It had been an especially sad day at school for one of my students, and that made it a sad day for me;  maybe that’s what prompted it.  Jane said, “But someday you will die and I will miss you.”  I reminded her that even if I died, we would see each other again eventually.  And Georgia said, “But how would we see each other?  We won’t have eyes in heaven.  You said we don’t have bodies in heaven.”  And I decided that death is entirely too complicated, and that we’ve had too much of it this year.

So on Friday morning, when someone decided to make so much death happen all at once, I decided that I wouldn’t tell my children.  That death was too much on their minds already.  In their world, people are good, classrooms are safe, and our loved ones die because they are sick.  This is their understanding.  And I’m not ready to take that away from them.

Maybe, ultimately, I will regret this decision.  But I know my children.  And I know what they do with sadness.  So right now, as I watch them chase each other through the house and its piles of Christmas decorations, I’m relieved that their faces are not lined with worry.family.

every day i write the book

This is why it takes years, I think.chapter one.

I tell myself that one good paragraph is worth 4 am. But maybe, not even a paragraph.  Maybe just a sentence. After all, it was Papa Hemingway himself who said: All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know. 

As a young writer in college, I had the “observer-narrator” problem.  My characters enjoyed watching life happen to others, but life never happened to them.  In graduate school, it was the “you-have-no-plot” problem.  So I took a screenwriting class and learned to get (and keep) my fighters fighting.

Now I have a new problem.

fiction's loss.  My brain is trained as a poet; I think in iambic pentameter. And so fiction writing can sometimes seem superfluous. And tedious. When I attempted to “quit” fiction writing to focus on poetry some years ago, a teacher remarked, “Poetry’s gain is fiction’s loss.”  What I’m finding is that poetry is crippling my triumphant return to fiction.

I am by no means prolific; I can barely get out words enough for one novel, let alone many.  But what I’ve noticed, especially after this last month and my NaNoWriMo attempt, is that what paralyzes me the most as a writer is the poetry.  I write a single sentence and revise it like a line of poetry, because I agree with Richard Hugo: “I would far rather mean what I say than say what I mean.”  Does every connotation suggested by that word make sense in this context?  Why does the rhythm stumble on the verb? I unintentionally rhyme internally several times in one paragraph, and even though my ear likes it, my reader may not.  Stephen Dobyns, a teacher of mine at Emerson, defined poetry as “best words, best order.” But with fiction, there are just so many words.best words.

So I didn’t achieve the 50,000 word requirement for NaNoWriMo this November.  But I made it to 19, 776.  And I gave myself direction.

More importantly, though, I showed myself that it can be done.  That I can parent three small children, teach high school English, and write.  Even if it means that I wake up at 4 am on weekdays and attempt to work during the youngest’s weekend naps.  And that can go something like this: as soon as he goes down to bed, I open the computer.  A cry.  I stop.  I wait to see if he’s really awake or just making a last desperate attempt to dodge a nap.

Then I start again.

line up!  But my daughters are playing on the floor in front of me, lining up every Fisher Price person in existence to visit the circus and ride an elephant or a giraffe.  Even Baby Jesus (who’s forever in his manger).  Their little girl voices are powering over the rest, and I can’t hear my characters.

Still, there are moments that keep me going.  Like that one morning, in the still-dark before sunrise, when I write a scene about a missing teenage girl.  And it spooks me out.  The cat jumps on the table and I jump, too. Or when I re-read a scene and decide it belongs in another novel, and start outlining that story before I pull myself back to this one. Or when my protagonist suddenly turns herself into a cross-country runner. And, hey, where did that sinkhole come from?

This must be part of that vivid and continous dream John Gardner told me about all those years ago.

What I have learned in this month (aside from the fact that I seem to have a deep-rooted intolerance for tired people.  Really.  Tired people are boring.  Wake up people. marrow-sucking.  It’s time to “live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life”. Sheesh.)  is that I won’t ever ever accomplish as much during a “school vacation” as I think, but it’s nice to think it. It’s nice to imagine, ahead of time, all of the available writing hours. And that there are going to be days when I don’t increase the word count, when I actually decrease it through editing and revising. There are going to be days when I just stare at the screen. There are going to be days when my children don’t cooperate (at all).  Or days when they are sick and needy.  Or days I have to cook a Thanksgiving turkey.  And then, the writing has to wait.

But what’s important is getting the words out.  Even if it takes years.