Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kripalu, Day 3

Today is supposed to be my day off. I'm at Kripalu on Day 3 of Powerful Women, Powerful Voices. I'm not technically on the schedule today, as I did my portion Sunday night (intro, round up, getting to know you, song circle), Monday morning (my schtick called "Creative Expression as Spiritual Practice"), Monday afternoon (one-on-ones) and Monday night (Katryna's and my concert). A few weeks ago after I was particularly burned out, Tom insisted that I send the kids home a day early and take a sanity day for myself.

This was how the day was supposed to go in my fantasies:
-wake to birdsong!
-I rise, clear-eyed and energetic!
-I meditate sweetly and peacefully, then I trot over to a yoga class!
-I eat breakfast in silence!
-I go for a run around the Stockbridge Bowl and float like a young deer over wildflowers!
-I spend the rest of the day writing and playing guitar. It's all about me and the muse, baby!
-I come up with deep insights and figure out how to fix my novel and also write a song that will finally pay for our kids' college tuitions!

This is how it went instead:
-Tom set out last night to pick up the kids, but fifteen miles down I-91 our Subaru started sputtering and coughing and shaking and gyrating and Tom got scared and pulled over and called Triple A and then me, and that would have been the end of that, except my awesome babysitter and friend who was here with me watching the kids while I taught volunteered to drive them home. This was saintly of her, and also smart, because ultimately it was probably easier for her to have them snoozing in the car for an hour than to have to grapple with them for three, which is what she had done the night before.
-In my mind, I fretted that now that the Subaru is dead (which it may or may not be), we will have to get Tom's truck.
-I cried the moment our babysitter drove away with my kids, and I didn't stop crying for fifteen minutes. Also, I worried that they would die in a car accident on the way home and that I would spend the rest of my life blaming myself for forcing them away just so that I could take a sanity day. Plus, what's wrong with me that I need a sanity day????
-I worried all night that I hadn't pumped enough breast milk for Jay and that he would wake up at 3am and be inconsolable and Tom would be forced to feed him shots of rum to get him to sleep again.
-I called Tom first thing in the morning and said, "Be sure to tell the morning babysitter that even though we don't expect her to clean our house, we would really like it if the mess didn't get any worse!" To which he replied, "I can't do that! You know how hard it is to watch two kids! We can't expect babysitters to clean up after them, too." Which led to a big discussion about what normal moms expect of babysitters, what it's ok to ask for and what it's not ok to ask for, etc. etc.
-At some point mid morning we found out that the other babysitter we have every Tuesday afternoon would not be able to come today and so Tom, who insisted on letting me have my day and not worry, had to extract from me all the numbers of all the potential other babysitters from my iPhone while I was talking on said iPhone.
-I went for a run and took pictures, see above.
-I had a Thai massage at 2pm and now I will never have any other kind of massage. OH MY GOD!
-I got to read an article in Mother Jones magazine about Michael Pollan that my best friend from 8th grade wrote.
-I love Michael Pollan and wish he were Secretary of Agriculture.
-I participated in the last hour of the afternoon session of Powerful Women, Powerful Voices.
-I knit several rows of pillow face. See picture.

-Now that I have finished this post, I am going home. I miss my kids and can't wait to kiss them goodnight. Plus, I'm sick of my breast pump.

Truck, Part One

[This is piece I wrote in December, but you need to have read it to understand what is coming next.]

Forgive me, Spirit of my spirit, for this, that I have found it easier to read the mystery told in tears and understood Thee better in sorrow than in joy.-A.E. (George William Russell, 1867-1935)

I think I know why we’re in an economic recession. It’s because of Wall-E. As I drove my kids past the local cinema, I was reminded of this film because it was the last movie I saw in a theatre, and may well be the last one I see for many many years. Wall-E tells the story of a planet so completely demolished by consumer greed that humans (or rather, what humans evolved into: huge blubbery masses unable to walk because they’re so lazy they haven’t had to in centuries) are now living in a spaceship circling the earth. I witnessed a theatre-full of people, adults and children alike, weeping at the conclusion of this film, and I know it greatly influenced me immediately to curb my spending to the bare necessities, increased my resolved to buy only local products and to give my children only the leftovers discarded by their cousins and older friends. Doing so makes me feel good these days, much more so than the way going on a shopping spree used to give me a lift. Perhaps the whole culture, or enough of it, has done the same and that’s why for the first time in a generation K-Mart has a layaway plan.

Meanwhile, Tom wants a truck. I respect this. He arrived in my life as a man with a truck, and I gladly accepted him this way, even though his truck had no airbags and got lousy gas mileage. He was Tom. He was perfect, exactly the way he was, the way lovers are in those first sweet months. (I have a friend who said of these early months—that period that lasts for at most half a year—“these are our representatives. They will be leaving soon.”)

Anyway, Tom had a truck and he sold it during the three month period between the day we got married and the day I got pregnant and bought instead our friend’s station wagon. He said he wanted a car more appropriate to a family man, and also one with airbags. I shrugged. I didn’t care. But as the years have gone by, Tom kept wistfully remarking on how great it would be if he still had his truck. He could pick up free compost from the farm across the street. He could get free kids plastic outdoor playhouse things from across town. He could plow our driveway in the winter.

Meanwhile, I have a Subaru. That was the car with which I arrived into Tom’s life, and I am unapologetically emotionally attached to it because my father gave it to me on the 11th anniversary of my last marriage (which, I would soon discover, only had two more months of mileage on it). This car sheltered and protected me during my divorce years; it was the fanciest snazziest car I’d ever driven, complete with what my father called “Woofers and tweeters” for a sound system. Single for the first time in a decade, I drove all over the country in that car, blasting the sound system, crying over my new, unexpected loneliness and marveling at my father’s love for me. So whenever Tom talks about wanting to trade the Subaru in for truck, I balk and make up reasonable excuses: the Sube gets better gas mileage (though sadly, not by much—Tom’s old truck got 20mpg and the Sub gets 25), the Sube is better for carrying kids around (true), the Sube has a better sound system, and, with 125,000 miles on it, and surely at least that from whatever truck we could trade it for, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

One Sunday in December, we were having the truck argument, only this time, using some skills I usually use on my clients, I admitted that I am emotionally attached to my car and not ready to give it up. But I also see that Tom is emotionally attached to the idea of being Truck Guy again, and I respect that, but I don’t like it. We were late for church. I was supposed to sing the prelude and Tom was on for children’s time. On my way down the stairs with Elle's clean clothes in my hands, I saw my daughter at the bottom of the stairs playing with two of her dolls.

“Time to get dressed,” I said.

“Mama,” she said. “I want you make Maya walk up the stairs to my bedwoom.”

“Well, I can’t right now. We’re going to be late for church,” I said, descending and picking her up to maneuver her clothes onto her body.

“Nooooooooooo!” she whined and lay on the floor and did her Toddler Resistance Movements: a combination of gyro-skirming and break-dancing. Her diaper was sopping wet.

“I have to change you, “I said grimly, “or you’ll have diaper rash.”

“DON'T TAKE OFF MY DIAPER!” she screamed. And I lost it.

“ELLE!” I shouted.

She jumped, shocked, and burst into tears. “Don’t yell wike that!” she wailed. And I so wished I hadn’t. She is named after my saintly grandmother, who never ever yelled at anyone, unless she was on a sailboat. My grandfather, her husband, used to shout her name in the exact tone I just used. All my life I wanted to be like her, and not like him, but living on the inside of my body, I knew how angry I could be, and I knew it was useless to pretend I wasn’t as angry as he was, at least on the inside.

Now, with the clock ticking and a 35 minutes drive ahead of us still, I used my advantage of 100 pounds and thirty inches. I grabbed her, carried her kicking and screaming upstairs and deposited her on her changing mat where I took off her wet diaper, held her kicking legs up over her head and grabbed a clean diaper with my free hand.

“I am very angry,” I said.

“I don’t want you to change my diaper!” she screamed. But change it I did, and I also dressed her in tights and a dress, silently carried her down to the kitchen and handed her to Tom.

“We’re in a fight,” I told him.

“I can tell,” he said, raising his eyebrows at me. That’s when I started to cry. I cried all the way up to church, pausing to point out to Tom that parenthood is a really hard gig.

“You’re not the only one who wants a truck," I said. “Only my ‘truck’ looks like a week off getting to write and not have to change anyone’s diapers or clean any dishes. My ‘truck’ is a week of touring and living in hotel rooms where someone else picks up my towel and makes my bed.”

Tom reached over and patted my knee, and I felt partly better. “If you are going to beat yourself up for all the bad things you do as a parent, you also have to give yourself credit for the good things you do, you know,” he said.

I ignored him. “I wish I were Catholic so I could go be absolved,” I muttered.

We arrived in church, and I slunk over to my corner to set up my guitar for the prelude. A wonderful white-haired friend followed me over and asked how I was.

“I’m ok,” I said glumly. “Except I yelled at Elle and I feel terrible about it.”

She took my by the shoulders and pierced me with her big green eyes. “So you’re human,” she barked. “Welcome to the human race! Welcome to motherhood!”

The sermon was about parenthood, and how we remember the hard times, the sad times much more vividly that the easy joyful times. “I want you all to stop for a moment," said Steve, our minister, “and think of a time when your mother laughed and laughed. Someone tell us a story.” And several people shared stories of mothers laughing hysterically. I remembered my own: it was the winter of 1982, an unusually cold winter for northern VA. The temperature hadn’t gone above freezing for several weeks. Our own minster, Dick Grear had died the year before of Hodgkins’ Lymphoma and his widow had moved away to NYC, but she took the shuttle to stay with us every weekend. We bought her Dubonet and Saga cheese and ate dinner in the dining with her, and Katryna, aged 12, crawled into her lap when she wept. This particular February weekend, the temperature soared to 48—it felt like spring. Sandy convinced us all to go sledding, which was something we never did as a family. So we dragged the sleds out of the closet and took turns soaring down our hill, the adults whooping and hollering more loudly than us kids. And I have a distinct picture of my mother, her mouth wide open, laughing with Sandy, pure unabashed joy.

My mother, as I have written, was a tomboy, and she was bemused by her daughters who much preferred to play with dolls and wear pink than to compete in a 50 yard dash or demolish a tennis opponent. And she yelled at me a lot. She yelled at me a lot when I was playing with dolls, which only reinforced my notion that playing with dolls was a sissyish, slightly shameful activity. But suddenly I realized that she might not have been yelling at me for playing with dolls: rather, she was probably yelling at me because she wanted us to go to church on time and I was dawdling, immersed in my fantasy, not wanting to be torn away in the same way Elle was busy having her dolls make their long journey up the stairs to her bedroom this morning. I internalized her rage, and confused it with disapproval.

At the end of the service, we took communion by standing in a big circle around the perimeter of the church. We held hands and blessed the quilt Annie made to be sent out to the community to comfort those who were suffering. I was still crying, but the crying was a little different now. Steve’s wife, Connie hugged me after we sang “God Be With You,” and I told her what had happened.

“What do you wish you’d done differently?” she asked.

“Honestly, I have done this differently, many many times. Most of the time when Elle has a tantrum, I keep my patience. I lost it today because I was mad at Tom. So I guess what I wish I’d done differently is I wish I could keep my issues with Tom out of my interactions with Elle.”

Connie raised one eyebrow and looked at me skeptically.

“But I guess I’ll never be able to do that, and instead I could just be glad that Elle lives in a family where people can apologize and forgive.”

Connie threw her arms around me. “That just took you two hours,” she said.

“Is that an absolution?” I asked hopefully.

We picked Elle up from Kids Church. On the way down the hill I told her the story of The Wizard of Oz again.

“Mama, I want you talk about da house dat takes that girl way far away. And then she come home.”

“”OK, That’s important,” I say craning around to look at my sweet, strong, ambitious girl. She has a pink fleece hat attached under her chin and magic marker all over her dress. “Dorothy goes away, but she always comes home again.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Kripalu, Day 2

Here is the house we are getting to stay in. I cannot believe how lucky I am.

Today Elle ran barefoot across the asphalt in the driveway of this house. She picked her feet up quickly and danced around a little and said, "It's crusty on the ground, Mama."

At the workshop, she made herself a nest out of the meditation pillows:

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Yesterday I changed the strings on my guitar for the first time in months. The strings were strange––there must have been a mistake made at the factory, for they were not the usual light bronze D'Addarrio strings. I had trouble all evening keeping the guitar in tune. This morning, Tom said, "That got me to thinking that if musical instruments are so sensitive, how much more so are human beings? And yet––and here's something to be hopeful about––if you just tweak a little, everything suddenly works. Everything suddenly sounds like singing."

We have had a really great family day. In a couple of hours, I am leaving with the kids to go to Kripalu to co-lead a retreat called Powerful Women, Powerful Voices. I should be packing. Upstairs, Elle should be napping, but I hear her feet racing back and forth across the hall. Jay is climbing up on the shelves and pulling down puzzle pieces with wooden handles. Tom is right outside washing our windows. He came in to take a break and chat with me as I worked on Pillow Face. We watched Jay scramble around, and Tom said, "I'm glad he's going to have the outdoor season to learn to walk."

I had a writing teacher once who was a big astrology buff, and she swore by the birth charts of all her friends. She confessed to me that she actually didn't know if it was astrology or simple development; after all, she argued, it must have a huge impact when one takes one;s first steps: inside on carpet or outside on young grass, or outside in tall grass, or whatever. Or maybe it's what you hear first: the sounds of young peepers or the honks of geese flying south for the winter.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

If You Don't Read This Post, You Will Be Confused

Katryna says I should not call my children by their real names on this blog. I think she's right. It's dangerous and also, even though most of you know their real names (or even know the real kids who belong to the names) it creates a little artistic distance to give them pseudonyms. So from now on, my daughter is Elle and my son is Jay. Get it?

Today is Saturday. Saturdays are notorious in this household for being reservoirs of elevated expectations for great family times, full of outdoor adventures, creative communal projects, music, get-togethers with extended family and friends. Often, instead, we have a big fight in the morning. Usually the dynamic is that Tom wants us to do something organized and timely (say, before lunch and/or whenever it is I leave for my gig) and I want to do nothing. I want to sit around and be lazy and maybe listen to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, but only with half an ear. After five days of being "on," I want to check out. Tom, after five days of being at work, wants me to be present.

But today, even though I was really in the mood for a knock-down drag-out fight, I avoided even a skirmish. When Tom said he wanted to go to Look Park, I was able to say, after sulking for 20 minutes, "OK, but I don't want to be rushed. I want to go for my run and waste a lot of time first."

My run takes 23 minutes, but the lead up to the run takes roughly forty-five. First I have to wash my face and put in my contacts and get into my running gear. Then I have to check and re-check my email, check the weather, check the blog for comments, check the phone for any messages. Then I have to tidy up the breakfast dishes and pick up the kids' toys and maybe read my mail from the day before. Then I get this tight feeling in my stomach that tells me if I don't run NOW Tom's going to leave for work and I will lose my window (or else Tom's actual voice tells me this.) So at that point, I put on my jacket, find my iPod, maybe download one more podcast onto it and go out the door. Today, Elle called out from the second floor window, "Bye, Mama! Bye! Have a good run! See you later! I wuv you! Bye! Bye!" I called out to her too, and we continued to shout, "Bye!" "Bye" until I was halfway inside the park. Ten minutes later, I was home from my run. It may not be much, but it's my time, and I guard it like a rottweiler.

Speaking of dogs, there is a kabal of bassett hounds that lives in our neighborhood. Or maybe several. Different people seem to walk them. Sometimes there are three bassett hounds; sometimes as many as five. They are walked on one leash with three (to five) branches. Today, I saw the hand-off; a couple who clearly had been walking them gave the leash to a single woman who continued.

This would be such an excellent beginning to a murder mystery.

Eventually, we loaded the kids into the car and headed for the park. Elle has gone ten days without wearing a diaper except at night, and last night she slept in undies that were dry when she woke up. Today was totally cash-in day, and we had promised her a trip to the toy store after the park. The lovely thing about an almost three year old is that she was way less focused on the eventual trip to Child's Garden and way more focused on whatever it was she was doing in the moment; climbing on the play structures, sliding down the slide, swinging on the swings, looking for her friend, Sam. And then, when we did arrive at the fabled toy store and she did claim her prize––anything in the store, which turned out to be a $6 kick-ball, pink with yellow daisies painted on it––she had the biggest, shiniest grin of sheer joy one could imagine. She clasped that ball to her belly and ran back to the car, shouting, "Look at my ball, Dada!" She is outside as I write this throwing it to George Harrison and running after it, kicking it, chasing it, loving it up. That's a kid who knows what kind of toy she wants. I had suggested the $200 Plan Doll House, but no; she wanted the ball.

We also picked out a present for Jay, since in our family, we give a small gift to the non-birthday kid on the birthday kid's birthday (which will be a week from Monday––are we prepared or what?). Elle chose a small gender-neutral cloth-and-wood doll in a red and white striped outfit, and I bought some lovely wooden numbers that can sit in a leaf for future birthday circles. I don't yet know what a birthday circle is, but I think once I do know, I'm going to want to have one at every opportunity. I'm hoping some reader out there will inform me what a birthday circle is.

We had lunch in Whole Foods, and on the way home, while Tom drove, I played with my iPhone. I was trying to match up photos I'd taken of friends to their phone numbers so that when they called me I'd see their pictures. As I was doing this, my phone rang.

Me: Hello?
Tom: Hi.
Me: Oh, hi.
Tom: Is Nerissa Nields-Duffy there?
Me: Um, maybe. I'll see.
Tom: Cause I'd really like to talk to her.
Me: Yeah, she's good to talk to when she's around.
Tom; I really like her.
Me: She's got a nice smile. And she's got a really great husband.
Tom: And her kids are great.
Me: The best.
Elle: Dada, who are you talking to?
Tom: (Hanging up the phone) I'm talking to your Mama!
Me: (Also hanging up the phone) And I was talking to Daddy! Isn't that funny?
Elle: No, not really.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Weekly Round-Up

Warning: there are several new posts tucked away below. Some are out of sequence, so hunt around (I think I'm practicing for my first attempt at hosting a pre-schooler's birthday party––thus the inclination to hide and seek.)

Speaking of which, we are having a great time playing games at the Nields-Duffys. So far, we play Simon Says, Hot/Cold, Red Light/Green Light and something Lila made up called "Freeze!" involving a stick that she waves to make us stop moving at her whim. We also play musical chairs in a very benign way: four chairs, one adult and two kids, one of whom cannot walk yet. So everyone's always a winner. Plus, the chief participant is also the one who turns off the radio (usually our local public radio playing morning classical music) so there's not that much of a surprise factor.

Lila has taken to poking Tom on the shoulder (when she can reach his shoulder; otherwise it's his knee) and saying, "Sir. Oh, sir. Excuse me, ah, sir, sir." She manages to keep a straight face for a good ten seconds before she cracks herself up.

Today William and Amelia came over to play while Katryna and I finalized the curriculum for HooteNanny 9. Lila insisted that William wanted me to read him Ozma of Oz, which he denied vociferously. He wanted me to read the entire collection of Boynton books. Lila is too young for Ozma of Oz but I think she likes the idea of it. She wants me to "read" the pages that have only an illustration, so I make up some stories about the tableau. ("That's the Hungry Tiger. And there's our friend the Cowardly Lion. That mean guy's a Wheeler. He's cranky.") (By the way: have you ever noticed, all you out there who have surely read Ozma of Oz, that the Wheelers have fabulous clothes? My question is: who dresses them? They have WHEELS FOR HANDS!)

I am frustrated with Freecycle. No one wants to take my total crap. I tried to make my boxes of dessicated pot holders and fourth-go-round bibs and non-functioning $20 boom box appealing, but so far, no takers. If things don't improve, I will be forced to bring the boxes to Good Will, and that will surely mean that I will have to go in and see things that I want, and then I will buy them and forfeit the whole point, which was to get rid of 10% of my stuff.

Lila has had way fewer tantrums recently. And she is on Day 7 of no diapers! I don't know if these factors are connected, but it has led to an overall atmosphere of peace and prosperity in the commonwealth. She gets rewarded with copious amounts of cereal bars, "twigs" (figs), fruit rolls and M&Ms, plus her sticker chart is almost full. She and I spend my comatose hour (12-1) in front of PBS where we watch SuperWhy and Sid the Science Kid. If I were General Manager at WGBY, I would program Sesame Street for that hour because I adore Sesame Street. But 12-1 is when I desperately need Lila's TV fix to happen, so those are the shows we watch. I actually enjoy both of them. SuperWhy is written in part by the son of our friends, so I was predisposed to like it. The shows contain much parental propaganda which I appreciate; recent episodes were on: why it's good to brush your teeth, why it's good not to waste water, why it's good to wash your hands, etc. Thank you, TV for doing my work for me.

Meanwhile, Johnny is pulling himself up to standing, becoming way more aware of the power of his bellow, and (most wonderfully) feeding himself (and George Harrison) health food cheerios and little slices of banana with his pincer grip. Today as Tom got him undressed for his bath, he pointed at a spot right in the middle of the center of his back, right above the diaper, and said, "What the hell is that?" It looked exactly like a tick bite: a white center with a red donut shape around it.
"Omygod, omygod, omygod!" I muttered, picturing yet another trip to our pediatrician followed this time by horrifying news that would render my poor son a neurological cripple before we could get the IV antibiotics into his tiny veins. Then I noticed a cheerio on the bathroom rug. I pointed it out to Tom and said, "Can you see if that's hard?" He picked it up and handed it to me. I fit it over the mark on Johnny's back. Perfect match.

Right now, George Harrison is asleep. Tom is at is computer and I am at mine. George, who never ever barks or growls, is making the most bizarre sounds: a sort of muffled howl. I think he's repressed. Therapy dog, get thee to a therapist! George Harrison may not have turned out to be such a bargain in terms of his fabulous alleged training (and as I think I posted previously, he eats anything that isn't either in the fridge or on top of it, including the writers' Lithuanian coffee cake and just today, half of Lila's frozen health food pizza), but Johnny frequently ascends him like a mountain with no protest on the dog's part whatsoever. Lila throws her arms around him several times a day and says, "George, you're my best friend."

That's good enough for me.

Writing Tips from Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Katryna's Cartoon for Iron Horse Show

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Nields at the Iron Horse Movie


After I posted last night, I realized I'm not done yet with Barbies and princesses, particularly one named Cinderella.

I don't know how Lila heard about Cinderella. I certainly didn't tell her that story, although it's certainly the fairy tale I know best. I remember begging my grandmother (Lila) to tell me the story of Cinderella over and over again. The dear, patient woman did so, changing up the details (like Cinderella's clothes) with each telling, but not changing the overall structure or plot, or evilness of the step-sisters (whose great crime seemed to be ugliness combined with envy). My mother, as you might have guessed, hated Disney and fairy tales in general and refused to indulge my love for Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the like. My mother was a tomboy and wanted me to love Willie Mays as much as she did. She didn't get my fascination with dolls and the color pink.

When I was seventeen or eighteen, my aunt Jenifer, a psychiatrist, gave me Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, and I felt entirely vindicated in my love of fairy tales. I was right and my mother was wrong, I concluded: my usual conclusion about everything at that time in my life. Bettelheim's thesis was that fairy tales (myths) are necessarily terrifying and disturbing. They provide an essential function for young people to work out their struggles and fears and their understanding of how society works in a symbolic, external way. Since fear is an integral part of life, we must learn to walk through it, not avoid it or be protected from it. I took this to mean that solutions can be found in all sorts of ways, from creating community ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") to finding what fits "just right" ("Goldilocks and the Three Bears").

Bettelheim writes: "Psychoanalysis was created to enable man to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it, or giving in to escapism. Freud's prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seems like unwieldy odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of existence." (P.8)

Bettelheim goes on to reject the modern equivalents of fairy tales, the Disney-isation (softening aspects) of the stories. I happily championed him for years until I learned that he also subscribed to a horrifying theory of why kids become autistic that had to do with the "frigidity" of the mother.

And, looking at the fairy tales from my current perspective, I do have to say that they did a number on me. The fairy tales are cultural myths--reflections of the social order of our times as well as containing iconic truths––but the ones I loved the most (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) reflect a decidedly sexist paradigm. The prince has the power to choose his partner; Cinderella is only able to show up for her opportunities as they appear (the fairy godmother, the ball, the kitchen where she is reunited with her shoe). Life is about paying attention to the opportunities, I deduced, not (as it was for my male counterparts in the Jack and Beanstalks of the world) about walking through fear or using cleverness to overcome brute force. And if you had the curse of being a selfish, vain, envious older sister, you were doomed. (Rats.)

Yet Lila loves princesses, and I loved princesses, and I don't want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. How can I as her mother and chief storyteller rework Cinderella? This is my challenge. After all, I wrote a whole album of reworked folk songs (myths). I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Photo by Katryna Nields

Today as I was getting into my car in the Whole Foods parking lot, a woman pulled in next to me, so close that I was afraid she was going to nick my bumper. I frowned and sighed; now I would have to wait for her to get out before I could leave. I was anxious to get home and see my kids and have some lunch and play with Tom who was off for Patriot's Day (what a sweet little holiday!). As she was getting out of her car, the woman caught my eye and gave me an apologetic look. Then I heard a familiar sound: a far off, determined wail. She opened her door which abutted my passenger side and squeezed her way to the door in back of her to reveal a one-year old who had that sort of stunned and dazed look I often see in second children. Over the one-year-old's shoulder was her three-year-old sister, red-faced, tear-stained and screaming. The woman unbuckled the younger child from her seatbelt; somehow the older child had already unbuckled herself and broken free (how on EARTH did that happen? This too is in my future? I didn't know that was possible! Oh, woe betide! There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!) The mother remained calm; she turned back to me and waved me along kindly. I felt like I should have jumped out of my car and lent a hand. When does a mother of two NOT need a lent hand?

But instead I carried on with my mission of the morning; I was on my way to Marshall's to buy Lila (drum roll, please....) BIG GIRL UNDERPANTS!!!!!

I think I am more excited about the underpants than even Lila is, so I was disappointed in the limited selection. I was assuming that if I were willing to forego my no-sweat-shop standards and shop in a Big Box store, I would be rewarded by a vastness of choice unsurpassed in the known universe. I had in mind aisles and aisles of choices with everyone's face from Elmo to cartoon Beatles plastered on the bums of tiny panties. Instead there was Dora the Explorer (in size 8 only), a series of Disney princesses, and Barbie.

Most of you know how I feel about Barbie. I wrote this in 1998:

I think that I shall never see
A woman as lovely as Barbie.
Barbie with her ski jump nose
Standing tall on tiny toes
Impossible boobs that will not droop
(To conquer Ken, she need not stoop)
If she were mortal she would be
Six foot five and a hundred and three
She's so tall I could not feel shorter
Small wonder I have an eating disorder
She sleeps in her camper next to my bed
With visions of traveling filling her head
She wishes she could sing like me
But she can't
Her mouth is painted on
And her eyes won't shut
And she never bleeds
And she never cuts
And she cannot read or count or cry
And she'll never age
And she'll never die
And I think that I don't want to be
Staring straight ahead for all eternity.

I adored Barbie dolls when I was a little girl Lila's age. (OK until I was about 12, and even then, I still adored them; I just knew they were super uncool and pretended not to, though secretly Katryna and I would play with them.) They were so tall and pretty. Looking back, I think girls like me liked Barbies because they were just plain better dolls than Raggedy Anns and those cheap dollhouse dolls whose legs wouldn't move from their hips. Everyone appreciates a good tool, and Barbies were good tools. My mother thought they were horrible and refused to buy me one, but I managed to fill my shelves with Barbies traded in sketchy backyard deals for stuffed animals and 10¢ fake diamond rings from the gum-ball machine. I had a Malibu Barbie, a Ballerina Barbie, a Skipper and a PJ doll, each of whom seemed distinguished from one another by the size of their breasts (Barbie's= biggest; Skipper's=nonexistent; PJ's=modest little bumps that weren't nearly as severe and intimidating as Barbie's.)

I know I can't keep Lila from loving Disney princesses or Hannah Montana or Barbie or monster trucks or anything else I find to be outside of my own aesthetic comfort zone. More importantly, and more seriously, I know I can't keep her from the kind of discomfort with one's body that so many women in my generation share. Does my own distorted sense of what's normal for a woman come from playing with Barbies? Maybe, maybe not. Did my mother try to protect me from both Barbies and from the kind of self-hatred that leads to an eating disorder? Absolutely. And it didn't work.

I am well today. I am a healthy weight and I love food, and I love my body. I am careful never to criticize it or any other woman's in front of Lila (or at all). I am even careful about looking at myself in a full-length mirror in front of her. But I am not her whole world, and with each year that goes by, I expect to become less and less influential to her experience. I will do my best to keep her from images on TV and in magazines that might feed the madness that makes girls think they have to go on diets before they're eighteen. And I will do my best to feed her abundant nutritious whole foods and keep the junk to a minimum without being a food nazi. I want her to know from the inside when her body is hungry and when she's had enough.

But today she is still two (barely) and today I bought her some pink and green Carter's undies with frogs and hearts on them. When I brought them home and presented them to her, she gasped, and without a word stripped off her pants and plain cotton pull-ups and tried on one of her new pairs. She runs around our backyard with her own characteristic high-stepping gait that speaks of a pure unaffected joy, and I wish for her, almost more than anything, to keep that confidence for the rest of her life. If there is anything I can do in service of this wish, you can be sure I will. And to that mom in the parking lot: bless you. Thank you for reminding me that there are so many of us in this juggling act, and I hope you noticed the great deal on avocados in the produce section.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dar!

Even if today weren’t my friend Dar’s birthday, I would be thinking about her anyway. She has taught me more than almost anyone else about what it means to be an artist. One of her many gifts was introducing me to Julia Cameron’s wonderful book called The Artist’s Way which I read and “did” from 1995 up until Lila was born.

Cameron’s main thesis is that as writers and artists, our worst enemy is the inner critic we all have to some extent in our heads when we sit down to write or paint or play guitar or whatever. “That’s been done before,” the critic says. “Oh my God, how BORING! No one’s going to want to read that.” “Can’t you draw inside the lines?” “Anyone can write a song with just three chords! Spice it up!” “Wow, you really haven’t gotten any better on the guitar in twenty years. Should you really be exposing yourself to an audience?” Just for instance.

To bypass the inner critic, Cameron suggests, firstly, a practice of daily pages. Write three pages a day no matter what, she teaches. What you write can be, to paraphrase her friend and colleague Natalie Goldberg, “the worst crap in America.” Think of it as brain drain. You need to get it out before you can get to the good stuff. And sometimes you will surprise yourself by coming up with little gems, or even full poems, letters, ideas, character sketches. But that's never the point. The point is to write, and to let yourself and your inner writer (and inner critic) know that you mean business.

I took Three Pages on as my daily practice during my years living in a 16 passenger Dodge Ram Van with six other people, traveling around the country playing rock rooms four nights a week. My routine: wake up around 8, run for a half-hour no matter where we were, no matter what the weather, shower, pack, climb into the first bench seat in the van by 10am, and while Katryna or Dave or our guitar player drove, I would sink into my composition book and write my three pages. No matter where we were, no matter what the weather (in fact, on the top of each entry, I wrote the date on the right and the city we were in on the left).

After a few years, I began to think I wanted to write a novel. A few years after that, I started it, writing, as I had conditioned myself to do, at the same time every day (10am). A year later, out of the blue, a publisher from Scholastic Books called our manager, Patty, and asked if I would like to write a novel for them, based on one of my songs. By that time I had joined a weekly writing group and began writing in the evening as well. I wrote the novel at the workshop and at 10am, along with whatever songs I was working on. But I continued, through it all, to write first thing in the morning (whenever that happened to be) with my three pages of brain drain.

All this stopped when Lila was born. "First thing in the morning" became more and more vague. Sometimes it was 5am, sometimes 7, but it always consisted of Lila waking us up to nurse and be played with, and not of writing. I tried to fit my three pages in at other times, and did pretty well with that off and on. By the time I was pregnant with Johnny, Lila was in a more clearly delineated sleeping routine and I began my practice again, but since he was born, it’s all I can do to write five lines in my five-year diary (which Dar gave me as a birthday present a few years ago; I took it as tacit permission to give up the Julia Cameron method, as well as an initiation into motherhood.) And, as I have written here, I made the decision to spend my discretionary time running for 20 minutes in the morning instead of writing (no matter the weather, etc).

Which brings me back to this blog. When I started this in 2004, I had no idea what a blog was. So I just wrote what was going on with me, which at the time was an intense spiritual search and the decision to become a life coach. I posted frequently, though not daily, and I posted long (2000+words) pieces that were more like editorials or essays than diary entries. My sister Katryna said they were too long for her to read (which I now understand: she had a three year old and a newborn) and that I should make them shorter. But I just couldn’t. The perfectionist in me wanted them polished and ready to send off to the editorial page of the New York Times at a moment’s notice.

And then I came to the decision which I wrote about here, the decision to take part of the two daily precious babysitter hours––hours which are mine, hours during which I used to be coaching clients––to connect with the part of me that is an artist, and to that end, to write about the experience in a public way. And I wanted to write to other mothers out there: mothers who were also artists and musicians; mothers who weren’t, but who could relate to the feeling of losing oneself to the art of mothering; mothers who wanted to retain a foothold on their past life. Moreover, I knew at the outset that there was no way I could write a daily polished five-page essay, and I also didn’t want to. I now do read other’s blogs, and I have to say, I prefer the short little pieces, the photos, the links. I am way too busy to read a five-page essay, so why should my readers?

So yesterday, someone commented (anonymously) on a previous post that my blog has devolved into a bad diary or collection of Twitter updates. They also said they were sick of hearing about how I sniff my kids’ necks. The comment, in fact, eerily echoed my own inner critic. When I first read it, my whole body flushed with shame and I felt sick and miserable, because there's almost nothing I hate more than being criticized. I felt the way I used to feel in school when a teacher would give me a grade lower than an A. I immediately hit "reject" after reading the comment once, and said to myself, "That's it. I'm not writing the blog anymore. I have too many other projects anyway." Which is true. I am supposed to be writing this proposal for the family music book Katryna and I want to publish, and I have songs to write for HooteNanny 9, and I am in the middle of writing another song for our adult show. I have kids to raise, taxes to pay, diapers to wash, seedlings to grow, etc. etc. as you all know. Also, of course, I figure if one person is annoyed with the quality of my writing, I should stop immediately, because surely that person is voicing everyone's opinion. And then a part of me wanted to title my next piece:
“I Sniff My Kids' Necks And Defy You, Anonymous Critic! I Will Post Everyday, Even If All I Post Is: I SNIFFED MY KIDS' NECKS TODAY! TAKE THAT!”

Fortunately, I am running a writing retreat today. I have twelve women in my house, and it's my job to show them why it's important to battle that inner critic who says everything we write is trash. Writing a blog is about being willing to listen to that inner critic personified outside of our own heads in the form of "comments." So through the magic of the internet and the serendipitous fact that I'd kept another window open on my browser, the comment was not lost and I decided to publish it. You can read it for yourself here.

The truth is, part of me thinks that the critic is right: it's true that I've been skimping on this blog, just like it’s true that I’ve been taking shortcuts in almost every area of my life now that I have kids. But when I made the commitment in March to post daily, it was with the understanding that this would mean the quality might go down, in much the same way that NaNoWriMo and FAWM are all about quantity over quality (or at least that's always been my interpretation of it.) I wanted to walk my walk and not just talk my talk, and so I have tried my best to show up every single day with some kind of a post, even if it meant that some of the posts really were bullet points of my day. And because I have done this, I have reconnected with my muse in a deeply satisfying way. I remember, daily, that I am a writer, even if an occasionally Twitterish one.

But another part of me doesn't care what anyone thinks and just loves my blog the way it is. In fact, just now I went back and read the offending post and enjoyed it tremendously. I love looking back on past posts and seeing the photos I took or the clips I found. Self-indulgent? You bet. Don't like it? That’s fabulous! There’s a whole blogosphere out there, and you will absolutely find another voice you love. To be true to my work, I have to write for myself. If it reaches another person, that’s beautiful. If it doesn’t, at least I will have kept my writing muscles exercised another day.

And isn't that the deal with parenthood too? Aren't there days when we are absolutely trying our best and our best isn't good enough? And I really mean "not good enough." Many of us have spent years looking back resentfully at some aspect of parenting that was inflicted upon us as a result of our own parent's exhaustion which we interpreted as a lack of love. I don't like the fact that there are days when my daughter watches more than 2 hours of TV, and I don't think that's great parenting, and I want to do better. But on some days, that's just all I can do for her. Other days, I am present and loving, and usually I notice a correlation between my state and the state of my children. But not always.

It is similar with writing. Some days, I show up to the page full of inspiration, dancing with the muse; other days, no matter how well-rested I am, how full my well, nothing "good" comes out. So far, as I have written, my experience with parenting––if you are going to compare parenting to any other activity we do in the world that invites comparison––is that all the things I used to do well, I now do...less well. I have learned that I have to accept that I will disappoint people, or my perfectionism will kill me. It will kill me, it will kill my writing and it will steal away my attention from the miracles that are occurring in my house on a daily basis.

I am a thin-skinned person. I take criticism very poorly. To combat this, I practice Tonglen, and I try to ask, when I am smarting, “How can this piece of criticism be my teacher right now?” As I said, when I first took in the anonymous critic's words, I felt immediate, physical shame. But now, 24 hours later and some serious Tonglen practice, I feel grateful. Thank you, anonymous critic, for challenging me. Thank you for caring enough to read my blog in the first place. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have dug in and written this piece, which is probably 2000+ words, and which I got to read aloud to my retreatants and which I will use in the future in writing workshops as an example of how not to let anonymous critics stop you from writing daily. I am sorry for disappointing you, and I wish you well, whether you continue to visit this blog or not. And now, I have to stop writing so I can sniff my kids’ necks.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sing Along

I'm in the middle of the writing retreat. One would think now would be the time for a nice long juicy posting, but instead, I'm trying to finish a song and also trying to plug away at this book proposal about music and family, so this will be a super shortie.

Two things: one is that I feel happier than I've ever felt before in my whole life right this minute. Tonight after a chicken dinner with Tom's famous crack brownies for dessert, we writers hung around in the living room talking as if we'd known each other all our lives. As you might recall, one of the writers there was someone I really had known my whole life, and what a delicious gift it was to catch up. Then someone called for guitars. Lila sat on my lap and sang "Sidewalks of New York" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" while I played. We sang other songs, too: "Homeward Bound," "Sweet Baby James" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It." We sang the "Garden Song" which we'll be learning in HooteNanny 9, and as we sang a song so familiar to me but still unfamiliar to Lila, and as I watched her begin to absorb it, sitting there in the middle of a group of people she had only just met but who were already intimate with each other, I had the wonderfully strange sensation of all the parts of my world coming together. Since I was a child who was blessed with parents who sang in this communal way, I have always wanted to provide that for my own children. Johnny crawled around as Lila sang, absorbing it in his own way. They have music. My work feels aligned.

The second: at some point this afternoon, my eye caught a scene out the window. At first I thought what I was seeing was some kind of cult leader with some of his followers. The cult leader was wearing long white robes and seemed to have one of his arms raised in a peculiar fashion. Then I realized he was attached to an IV. He was a hospital patient out for a walk with two friends. Looking more closely, they appeared to be in high school. One of the friends had his hand on the patient's back. I was glad it was warm for them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Blasts From The Past

"It's like watching a fireplace," said Tom tonight, pointing at Lila who was prancing around the center of the room, surrounded by writers. They had just arrived, from as far away as New York City and as nearby as Easthampton, MA. Some were veterans of my writing retreats; some had never been here before. I had been scurrying around all afternoon prepping dinner and cleaning the house and juggling the kids' nap schedules. I overheard the writers introducing themselves to each other, and I was once again so grateful that the people who tend to come to this house are engaged, kind, talented people. One of them happens to be one of my oldest friends, someone I met when I was about four or five. We went to the same music school back then. I remember learning the difference between 3/4 time and 4/4 time, and also I remember dancing around in a circle. Good times.

The house is lighter than it was six weeks ago when I started this daily writing practice and stopped my coaching practice. Slowly, I have been following through on my vow to rid the house of 10% of its contents. One of the retreatants, one who comes here a lot, commented on the lack of clutter, which made me even happier than when people ask if I've lost weight.

"Go slowly," a Feng Shui practitioner warned me once, ten years ago, in an airport. "Don't make changes too quickly and don't throw things out too fast. You need some time to adjust to the process." So honestly, lots of stuff is in my basement and attic, in boxes that are more or (mostly) less organized. I will get rid of the boxes one by one.

I wrote a new version of Hush Little Baby last night for HooteNanny:

Hush little baby, don't you cry
Mama's gonna catch you a firefly
And if that firefly won't light
Mama's gonna show you a moonlit night
And if that moonlit night is dark
Mama's gonna take you for a walk in the park
And if that walk in the park is too short
Mama's gonna build you a cozy fort
And if that fort's not cozy and warm
Mama's gonna hold you like a shelter in the storm
And if that shelter in the storm holds tight
Mama's gonna give yo a kiss goodnight
A kiss goodnight and a lullaby
Hush, little baby, don't you cry
A lullaby and a story to tell
My little baby, may you sleep well.

I watched my kids today. Even though there was a part of me trying to get ready for the retreat, I ended up not being that busy. The house has been kept pretty tidy since we did the big clean up for Johnny's baptism. I spent most of the day in the music room watching Johnny crawl over the instruments which are by far his favorite toys (though honestly, he loves anything that is long and stick-like, especially if ink comes out of it). Lila played her ukulele and sang the Good Morning song from HooteNanny. We drew together and she rode her tricycle outside. During her nap, I struggled through some more of my taxes while Johnny tried to eat the documents. It was a wonderful day. At three o'clock, Johnny went down for his nap and LIla woke up from hers. Because of my experience yesterday watching that other mom encourage her child to help her in the kitchen, I gave Lila a plastic knife and she "helped" me chop peppers. And yes, it took a lot more time, and yes, it was fun and felt really good. But she had much more fun when I dropped a handful of sugar snap peas on the floor and asked her if she would pick them up for me.

"Sure, Mom," she said and went to work scurrying around just like her mom, gathering them all up and bringing them to the counter.

On my run today, I heard a Victoria Williams song called "Psalms" on my iPod. I want to learn it and sing it at my church. Her CD Loose was one of the most foundational for my adult understanding of how good a record can be. In fact, because of Loose, we asked her producer Paul Fox to work with us on what was supposed to be our smash hit back in 1997: "Taxi Girl."
Here's Victoria on Jay Leno, probably around 1994 or 95.

Speaking of the past, I had the huge luxury of eating my lunch by myself today, which meant I got to watch a TED video. I chose Amy Tan on Creativity in order to prep for this retreat, and in the sidebar was a five minute speech by Stefan Sagmeister, the artist we worked with for the cover of Gotta Get Over Greta.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

And Now...Pink Eye!!

Lila woke up with two watery oozing pink eyes. She was easily persuaded to go back to the doctor's office because #1. I promised her no shots and #2. she knew she would get to write on the chalkboard and ride on the rocking horse. Now I have two children who need medicines on a daily basis. To help me remember who got his/her dose and when, I made some charts. I love me a chart.

Katryna came over and we went through a bunch of songs for Hoot 9. I forgot to ask for her help on the Pillow Face I am knitting for Lila's 3rd birthday. Perhaps she would be so kind as to post a photo of the pillow face she made for her soon to be born niece.

Lila said today, "When I am a big girl Johnny's going to drink my milk." She loves Johnny. He is quite independent these days, crawling out of her grasp. She tried to catch him and make him cuddle with her in her "nest" which is her largest, softest blue blanket.

While Lila napped, I sat on the music room floor and did my taxes while Johnny crawled all over me and the papers, the guitar, the drums, etc. Most of all he loves pens.

Lila wore dry underpants all day long and at the end of the day sang all the words to the song from the potty video we've been watching for nigh on a year: "No more diapers for me/Gonna use the potty gonna give it a try/No more diapers for me/So come on, Mom, put the diapers away/I'm a big kid and I can say/No more diapers for me/So goodbye to diapers bye bye."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Years ago, a friend from college brought us back an amazing shaker from Namibia. It was shaped like a large book, covered with thin reeds and held together by two pieces of leather, and made the most wonderful rattly sound. Over the weekend, one of the kids broke it and the insides spilled all over the music room floor. Katryna quickly picked them up so that Johnny wouldn't swallow them (he's in the process of perfecting his pincer grip). Today I poured them out into a cup, thinking to throw them away, since the outer casing is damaged beyond repair. But look at how pretty they are! There seem to be bits of metal mixed in with small hard black beads. And they still make a wonderful rattly sound. So I think I will save them in the hopes of coming upon another casing for them. Suggestions would be appreciated!

We are planning our big DVD taping for Saturday May 2 in West Hartford. Today we had a phone meeting and talked about making umbrellas into Mardi Gras-style parasols for our last song, "When the Saints Go Marching In." Can't you see the scene? Kids exiting the premises twirling a ribbon bedecked parasol? What could be more festive?

I played Katryna my new garden song and she made some suggestions. We are going to record the last new HooteNanny CD next Thursday and I am hard at work finishing the songs I have written while Katryna is hard at work finding traditional songs and covers. Every session we need a mix of songs so that there are varying tempos, modes, moods. We try to include at least one song in a minor key (Katryna says it's good for kids to get a minor key song here and there in the same way it's good for them to eat their vegetables!). We usually have one throwback from the 60's or 70's like "Country Roads" or "If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out." We have a spiritual or two; we have some really traditional kids songs, and we always have two lullabyes. We usually have a chant, a round, a big movement song (whole body), a small movement song (hands) and a song that involves bouncing a kid on one's lap. I always like to find a Dan Zanes cover, and then there are my originals. Perhaps because this is the ninth out of nine curricula, we are both feeling extra perfectionistic about it all. I am glad we have another week to make our final decisions.

We went to a birthday party today. It was warm, mild, gentle weather, and I felt my whole body sigh in relief. As I have written previously, I hate schlepping, but I don't mind it so much when the weather is sweet and I'm not juggling multiple woolen things with my own frozen fingers. I still feel like some aspects of motherhood are completely baffling to me––some very basic ones like feeding kids what kids like to eat–– so I sat with Johnny on my lap and kept the mother of the birthday child company and watched her carefully while she spooned whipped cream onto angel food cupcakes and invited Lila and her own pre-schooler to help. I forget how pleasant and also important it is to invite your child to participate in the small household tasks, especially when they are fun tasks like frosting cakes. She was endlessly patient with the girls, explaining multiple times that if they licked their serving spoons they could not then dip them back into the whipped cream. (We had to get up and wash the spoons many times.) The end result was so perfect: big dollops of white cream with a single blackberry atop a cupcake just the right size for a child's hand.

Our minster, Steve Philbrick tells a story about how he used to take his two young sons with him to do chores when he made his living as a shepherd. By himself, it would take an hour to care for the sheep and the lambs; with his sons, it took two. But as they grew up into boys and young men, the time got shorter and shorter until the three of them cleaned stalls, fed and brushed the animals in 20 minutes flat.

But of course that's not the only reason one might want to invite one's children to help with chores.

Lila took this photo of me while I was writing this blog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

iPhone Resistance Resisted!

Today, Lila squeezed Johnny's cheeks gently between her hands and cooed, "Ooooo, Johnny! You are the most beautiful most stinky baby in the whole world!"

Johnny is much much better. He stood up in his crib for the first time ever and was on nap strike all day long, I guess to make up for the fact that he spent most of the last week asleep. I am beyond grateful. I have everything I need.

I mean, I really have everything I need. Especially because I dealt with the stress with a little of what Anne Lamott calls "retail therapy": I caved in and bought an iPhone. I know I'm supposed to be all spiritual and anti-materialistic and all, but OH MY GOD! I LOVE THIS THING! And it does inspire creativity, and yes, I think it's a tool for art. Its wallpaper is a photo it took of Lila, Johnny and George Harrison, all cuddled together on the kitchen floor.

Yesterday I wrote two songs. One is a four-part gardening song for HooteNanny and the other is a co-write with Katryna. Today I bought a tripod so I can videotape us singing and being goofballs together so we can post on YouTube.

My little music corner is a huge success! Lila practically lives there and is experimenting with all the different household items which can be used as mallets, and likewise all the different household items which can be used as drums. Mostly we are OK with it.

Lila is very excited about wearing big girl underpants. I spent $8.50 on one pair of organic sustainably created wholistic locally sold girls underpants and $6.50 on a six-pack of Hanes. I say to her, "Oh, I hope today you pee and poop in your diaper, because if you use the potty, I'm going to have to give you M&M's and you had SO much Easter candy! So please use your diaper today." She then runs straight for the bathroom.

I managed to hear half a podcast of This American Life: the episode was called The Giant Pool of Money and I now almost understand the housing bubble/crisis. Thanks to my sisters for alerting me to this wonderful way of getting taught complicated information! Here's the link.

Lila insisted on coming with me on my run today, so I popped her into the jogging stroller and together we took in the sunshine and the flowers and the dogs we passed in the park. She fell asleep halfway through. I generally don't use the stroller for running--just for walking--but it was pleasantly surprising having a small companion along for what is usually a solitary event.

Monday, April 13, 2009


“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Johnny has run a fever above 101 every day since last Wednesday (it's Monday afternoon, as I write this).He seems to be suffering no injuries from his fall, but he is lethargic and congested and not his usual cheery, smiling self. We went ahead with his baptism on Sunday, and it was lovely, but my poor boy was sort of hang-dog throughout the whole event and slept all afternoon. When he woke up at 4pm, his fever was back up to 103. At Katryna's urging, I called the pediatrician and the nurse initially said to bring him in Monday. Then five minutes later, she called back and said, "I have a weird feeling about this. Bring him in. Now."

So on Easter Sunday, my wonderful pediatrician found a grade 3 ear infection that hadn't been there on Friday when his ears were last checked. We have him on amoxicillan, but he still spikes a fever every twelve hours or so. I am holding him and telling him that Mama is here, telling him that he will feel better soon.

Nothing else matters when your child is sick. And I think I understand why parenting can be so discomfiting. It's because the love we feel for our kids is so much bigger than we are; it's too much for this container of a human body. The love comes from God, or from some source that is much greater than our mortal selves. The love is unconditional, universal, huge; as big as the sky. Yet I am a small human who needs eight hours of sleep and proper nutrition in order to function. I have limits, while my love is limitless. And I have two kids! So I go around all day feeling like I'm inadequate for each of them. (On good days, I remember that it's not all about me, and that the best gift I ever gave each of them is each other. But on days when I am worried silly about my son's fever, all I can see is how I am not tending to Lila, and on days when I'm focused on Lila and her dazzlingly growing world, all I can see is how I'm not paying enough attention to that sweet baby crawling across the room.)

But let me linger for one moment on that baptism. At our church, we baptize babies with water from the local river. The minister's wife is a potter, and the bowl used is the color of water: blue green, with three feet to hold it off the table. We pass it around during the service, and each of the congregants places his or her hand in the water and blesses it, or asks for a blessing for the baby. I asked my seven-year-old niece, Amelia (who is also my goddaughter) to bring the bowl from pew to pew, which she did with such grace and reverence. At one point, right after I had blessed the water, she spilled a tiny bit, then simply resumed collecting blessings from the bowl. The superstitious part of me jumped a little in my seat, worrying that those specific blessings I'd asked for my son were spilled along with the bit of water. Then I remembered my insight about the divine love being stuck inside a human meat suit. The blessings were not spilled any more than the love will be lost on the days when I am tired and cranky or busy or being a less-than-perfect mother. And I'm not the only one who loves these kids. It's not all up to me, and it never was. So I nuzzled my nose into the necks of my two beautiful children and took it all in.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I called through your door,
“The mystics are gathering
in the street. Come out!”

“Leave me alone.
I’m sick.”

“I don’t care if you’re dead!”
Jesus is here, and he wants
to resurrect somebody!”

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Strange Birthday for Tom

Johnny fell down the stairs tonight. It was Tom's birthday, and we'd canceled our plans to go out for dinner because of Johnny's fever. Instead, we'd had a lovely dinner together, complete with gifts, candles and cupcakes. I'd just given Lila a new Kleen Kanteen, but the top was missing. I'd figured it was in my attic office, so Tom had volunteered to look for it and happened to have Johnny in his arms. Finding the lid, he started back down our precarious nefarious attic stairs, tripped and fell, and while falling, Johnny tumbled out of his arms. I heard the noise from the kitchen, where Lila and I were still eating our dinner. It was one of the worst sounds I'd ever heard--the worst part was Tom's howl of terror which told me everything I needed to know. I took the stairs two at a time and met Tom on the second floor landing. Johnny was pale and dazed-looking, and at first it seemed he couldn't move his neck. Slowly he turned toward the sound of my voice. Tom was shouting about how sorry he was and how scared he was and I begged to hold the baby until Tom handed him to me. Then we all took off, with Lila in Tom's arms, and ran across the street to the ER. (I was even more grateful to live near that hospital than I had been when in labor.)

"My baby fell," I screamed. "Please please please let us in!"

"Calm down, Miss!" one of the nurses said, but another nurse, grim-faced, reached through the glass and grabbed Johnny out of my arms and beckoned us to follow her. They put the four of us in a room and took Johnny's vitals. He was spookily quiet. He held on to my shoulder firmly but silently. When he'd first fallen, Tom said he'd cried a little, but from the moment I saw him, he'd been mute. He gazed at me as if in a dream.

It had been a hard day anyway; I'd taken him to the pediatrician first thing this morning because he'd had a high fever. At midday, his temp was 104 under his arm. I'd been worrying about my boy all day. Now I'd give anything for just a fever to worry about. He didn't want to do anything except lie silently on my chest while I wept and my mind went to horrible eventualities. Tom kept berating himself. Lila kept saying, "Johnny's okay. Johnny's fine! See? He's fine."

They brought us to the X-Ray room, and as we were walking down the hall, I felt a calm come over me, a knowing that no matter what was "wrong" with Johnny, he was right. He was all right. That he was still Johnny no matter what, and that my love for him could never be broken, even if––God forbid––his body or his mind were.

We put on lead aprons, lay him on the X-Ray table. Meanwhile, Tem and Lila were waiting for us outside the door so as not to be exposed. Lila said, "Are you sad, Dada?"

"Yes," said Tom. "I'm sad. I'm worried about Johnny, Lila."

Lila scrutinized his face. "I don't see any tears, Dada."

"They're on the inside still, Sweetie."

From outside the door, Tom heard Johnny whimpering a little bit on the X-Ray table. He burst into tears as soon as he heard the crying, and said to Lila, "Now the tears are on the outside! But it's because I'm happy, Lila. The sound of Johnny crying, do you hear that? That's a good thing!"

The X-Rays revealed no damage. The nurse who had taken Johnny through the the window led us to the CT-Scan room. She noted Johnny seemed to be more with it, and said, "It's not often I bring an infant through triage. You were right to be afraid."

This did not make us feel better.

When I'd dropped Johnny in November and brought him to this same CT Scan situation, he had wriggled and protested the whole time. I'd had to sing to him to get him to keep still so they could take their pictures. Now, he was eerily still. But his eyes stayed on me the whole time. I sang him "Babar the Elephant," and "Tender Shepherd." For the first time since he fell, he made some of his typical vocalizations: "Ga!" and "Da!" as if he wanted to sing with me.

We waited for an hour for the results, during which he seemed to revive a bit. Finally, I poked my head out the door to see if the nursing ban was off yet (they'd wanted me to hold off on feeding him so that he wouldn't throw up). The good doctor saw me, and said that the CT Scan had come back normal too.

How many ways can I say how grateful I am, how when one is face-to-face with real fear, the worst kind (because I can't think of anything worse than losing a child, or watching your child suffer) the gift is being right in the moment, right with that little angel from heaven staring up at you, looking to you for relief or comfort?

The very oddest of birthday presents, but there you have it: a sharp-as-a-knife gratitude for how very rich we are, how very blessed we are. "When you have your health, you have everything," my friend said to me when I called her to tell her what had happened. I've been writing gratitudes down in my bedside journal every night, trying not to repeat any, but how can I not repeat this, write it into a refrain that I sing every single morning?

Thank you for Tom.
Thank you for Lila.
Thank you for Johnny.
Thank you for our health.
Keep me awake and grateful. Thank you.

Apocalyptic Mom

by Katryna

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert on "Genius"

My friend Melissa emailed me this link, knowing that I love both Elizabeth Gilbert and any ideas about that elusive thing we artists call "the muse." Watch it! It's well worth your 20 minutes, and you can do something else while you're watching, like, say, your taxes; because it's mostly an audio experience.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote one of my favorite recent books, Eat, Pray, Love. She has such a warm, wise, self-deprecating voice; I feel like she's my friend, or as my fellow writer Karen J. would say, my "same." In this talk, she reminds us that in Ancient Greece and Rome, there was no concept of being a genius; instead they believed some people had a genius, which was rather like a genie: a capricious little muse that hung around with the artist and sometimes gave you good bits and sometimes gave you the classical equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Gilbert argues that if we re-adopted this way of seeing the artistic process, we (artists) would be a lot more mentally healthy. Instead of going around fretting that we will never write another great song/story/poem, we relax and leave it up to our genius. If the genius produces, so much the better, but it's not really in our hands.

What we DO need to do––and those who have written with me in my writing groups and retreats know this––is show up for the genius on a regular basis. Because if you hang out a shingle stating that you are a writer, and loudly proclaim when your office hours are, the genius will still mostly ignore them and show up at 2am when you may or may not have a pen, but there's a better than average chance that once in awhile, during office hours, you will be in the right place at the right time to receive some divine prose or lines.

Today as I was running with iPod, I heard a great This American Life podcast (thanks to Katryna who turned me on to the greatness of that combination). I can't even remember what it was about now––oh, yeah, Bernard Epton who ran for mayor of Chicago against Harold Washington in 1984––but what grabbed me was the incidental music in between segments. Have you ever noticed it? It's always really cool, and usually kind of bassy. I love bassy sounds, and I have always wished to play the cello or bass guitar, but I am a small person with not a ton of body or finger strength, so I get discouraged by the heaviness of the strings. I have about 10 minutes right now where I could either finish emptying the dishwasher or I could take out my guitar and try to compose something on the bass strings. If I do, I will post it.

Music Room

One of my favorite mother/writer friends sent me this link. It's to a new independent film called Who Does She Think She Is? and it's about artists who are mothers/mothers who are artists. I can't wait to see the whole film! Watch the preview here.

Johnny has a fever today. His nose is running, and he hates it when I wipe his upper lip clean for him, twisting his head back and forth and shouting in protest. He was so sick today that when he was awake, all he wanted to do was put his head on my shoulder and doze. I have to say, it was really sweet, and I was more than glad to just sit on the couch with a weighty baby on my chest.

Today was one of those days where I planned a million things to do (write a song with Lila! Make Easter eggs! Draw! Buy mallets for her drums! Buy her big girl underpants (yes, folks, I think we're there!) Go to the library! Oh, um, figure out my tax deductions) and felt like I did almost none of them. I did finish Tom's scarf, though. This is the diamond scarf I promised to make him after he gave me a diamond ring when we got engaged. In 2004. Tomorrow is his birthday, and I figure better late than never, and maybe giving him a heavy wool scarf in early April will guarantee future spring weather, the way carrying an umbrella with you keeps it from raining.

The Easter eggs were not nearly as wacko-great as I'd wanted, but here they are for your amusement. I sort of overdid it with the dye, leaving them in for several hours. Like I said before, I'm a fearful type, so everything has to be REALLY INTENSE!

Katryna suggested that I color with crayons before dipping:

I'd promised Lila a trip to the library which got postponed this morning after I realized Johnny was running a temp. So when the babysitter came at 3, I left my pile of bank statements up in the attic office and grabbed my girl. We managed to get her hair cut and a quick trip to the supermarket for pastel M&Ms (potty bribery) and one of those ear thermometers for Johnny. The one I got cost $25 and measured both my and Johnny's temperature at 94.3. Grrrr.

But the library visit was great, albeit sad because one of the big fish had "passed on," according to a six year old boy standing next to the tank when we ventured over. The other big fish, Paco, is alive and well, but still only hanging out in his corner of the aquarium. I'd asked my Facebook friends to recommend some good kids' books last week, so armed with my gigantic list, I got three for starters: "Toot and Puddle" by Holly Hobbie, "Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy," and Kevin Henkes' "Julius Baby of the World." She's gotten obsessed recently with "One Morning In Maine," "Blueberries for Sal" and "Make Way for Ducklings," which thrills me to no end, but today she refused to try "Lentil."

We did set up a music space in our music room. The whole room, of course, is dedicated to music; it's where the piano is; it's where I tend to play the guitar (though I actually play guitar all over the house); it's where the stereo and CDs are. But this area is for kids:

And yesterday, we made a shaker out of a tube of toilet paper and tin foil.

It didn't last long. Lila is fascinated by the black beans that we put into the tubes to make the shaky sound, so as soon as my back was turned, she ripped off the tin foil to get at them. Then they fell on the floor, and I scrambled around trying to clean them up so that Johnny wouldn't put them in his mouth. Still, it made a very satisfying shaky sound. Experiment with other grains and amounts to see what you like best.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Lila loves to draw, and I love to draw, and I love that Lila loves to draw. So much so, that I didn't care at all when she took a purple crayon to her bedroom wall and created this:

But I felt flummoxed about my response. Shouldn't I tell her it's not a great idea to draw on walls? What if she drew on someone else's wall, like one of her grandmother's? What if she thinks it's okay to draw on her pre-school wall and the teachers yell at her and then call me up and yell at me? What if she draws on the walls when she's at a play date?

I come up against this question of when to put on the tough parent act a lot. I had dogs for years before I had kids, and I always imagined that parenting would be somewhat similar to dog training. "No! Bad kid!" Or "Lila, come!" You give them treats when they do what you want and you ignore them when they don't.

Not so easy. (And I'm certainly not claiming that I was a dog whisperer either.) By the way, George, though a therapy dog, is actually not that well-trained, or else he has lost some of his training. Or perhaps his training has holes in it. Like for example, he doesn't come when he's called. Also, when you take him out, he pulls and yanks and sniffs and growls at other dogs. He does sit, give you his paw and lie down for short periods of time, but then again, so did every dog I ever had. But he is really nice and as I have said before, his very presence seems to lower our blood pressure. And he is an excellent listener. He plays his role as family therapist with much humility and grace.

Tonight, Lila and I were coloring together before the writers came over for our writing group. Lila and I were making a card for her grandparents, thanking them for their hospitality over the weekend in Virginia. We had spent Saturday outdoors in the beautiful new spring, with the forsythia glowing like torches in the midday sun. My mother and Lila were planting sunflower seeds and my father was pruning a butterfly bush. I was nursing Johnny and letting him crawl around, trying to prevent him from eating too much dirt. Johnny is so delicious right now that I swoon whenever I see or smell him. He put his chubby little arm around my neck and with his other hand picked up the mother-of-pearl on my necklace and put it in his mouth. I had sniffed his head and taken in the whole glorious moment. There is nothing I love more than watching my parents interact with my kids.

Anyway, we were drawing together tonight, Lila and I. She was asking me when she could draw with Sharpies like Mama as opposed to the washable Crayola markers she was using.

"When you're a big girl," I said.

"Yeah," she said. "But when I'm a big big girl and can draw with markers like Mama, I will still be Lila."

"Yes, you will," I said. "You will always be Lila."

We kept drawing quietly. As with George's presence, the act of drawing and coloring calms me down more predictably than almost anything else. I have been thinking a lot lately of the Brama Viharas. They are: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These days, like never before, I view them as worthy ideals--perhaps the most worthy ideals--to strive for. When I was a little girl, I had a grandmother (Lila's namesake) who never, ever lost her temper. She was a walking demonstration of the Brama Viharas. People called her a saint. Every morning, I would wake up and think, "Today I am going to be like Grandmother. Today I will be nice no matter what! I will not lose my temper or be mean to Katryna!" and by 10am I would find myself in a fist fight with my sister, or a grouchfest where I was off somewhere sulking. Why was it so hard to be like Grandmother?

Over time, it became easier to be nice, and I'm sure in my thirties--my single thirties--I blew through many days being a calm, loving/kind, sympathetically joyful compassionate person. It's not so hard when most of your relationships take place on the phone or on-line. But try sharing refrigerator space (or yogurt) or attention from the various family members (like your husband), and pretty soon, my teetering toehold on the mountain of enlightenment slips and tumbles before I am even aware I am falling.

Nevertheless, today I set my intention not to lose my cool all day, and so far, it's worked. I got many pieces of advice recently, from several sources all saying the similar things:
1. Be well rested. You are almost doomed to parent poorly when you are too tired.
2. Don't try to get the kid on your schedule. If you schedule yourself too tightly, you are asking for disaster.
3. Your kid needs to use you as if you are his or her nervous system. His/her own nervous system is too immature to regulate itself, so you are it. Therefore, when your kid is really wired and up, even in a cute, fun, great way, balance it out with mellowness. And likewise, if your child is down, that's the time to pick up the energy, have a kiss-fest, send in the clowns.
4. If your kid really loses it, empathize. Say, "You seem so sad/angry. I know this must be very hard. I am here." And put your arms around the child and hold him/her.
5. Tantrums are totally natural and normal and most kids have them at this stage. Your kid is not a tantrumming kid. Your kid is a kid. Period. Treat him or her as normal and don't get freaked out.

And perhaps because I've been more aware and awake, and perhaps just because of some developmental quirk, Lila hasn't had a tantrum in a week. I know I haven't seen the last tantrum, but it's been wonderful to have my sweet girl back so consistently.

Tonight, Lila stopped coloring suddenly and looked up.

"I like that picture in my room, Mama."

"What picture in your room?"

"The one above my bed."

"The one you did with the crayon?"

"Yeah." She looked a little confused. "Let's not erase it, okay, Mama?"

"Well," I said. "It's not really a great idea to draw on the wall, Lila. People don't always like that. But I have to say, your picture was really great." And I leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. "I say we keep it."

"I say we keep it," she agreed. Then she squinted her eyes and pointed with her index finger, her fist scrunched up next to her cheek. "The picture in the kitchen is not very pretty, so we can erase that. But the one in my bedroom is pretty so we keep it."

"You got it!" I beamed at her.

"Shhh!" she whispered, her finger to her mouth now. "It's a secret, Mama! Don't tell!"

"Okay, my love," I whispered back, kissing her cute little artistic face. "I won't."

In five years, maybe I will redecorate. (Maybe. I kind of like having a house full of messy kids' art projects.) In the meantime, I'm going to see the crayon drawings that appear around the house as gifts; as teachers to remind me to practice equanimity in the face of the creative force that can't be reigned in. Also, I will make sure my kids use washable markers and keep my Sharpies in a box on the highest shelf.

And if you ever need a spontaneous smile, watch this: