River Legs

I am sitting at our kitchen table writing while the entire house naps. It is raining outside again, overcast, sky filled by cloud coverage, no sun in sight. I feel as if I live in Seattle instead of Saint Paul. This summer has been filled with rain, only punctuated by sun. The drenched squelch of the Twin Cities is such a contrast to the forest fires and aridness of Santa Fe.

Reading Katie’s post about her awesome river trip brings back that sweet day last spring when Katie and Steve took our crew down the Rio Grande. We were so stoked that anyone would give such an offer! Katie and Steve were just the couple to do it too, they have the skill, knowledge, and experience of having young kids out on the river. I was psyched and ready to have our virgin voyage be with them. Our motley crew consisted of: Kieran who was 15 mos. old, and fiercely attached to his paci, Pippa nearing two, Finn and Liam 5 and 3 respectively, Baby Maisy still in Katie’s belly, while Baby Seamus was yet to be. We launched. It felt amazing to be on the river, sun high, wind breezing over us as Steve steered us gracefully down the river with such strength.
Readying to launch...Kieran in the flag swimsuit.

We picnicked on the bank for a break since Kieran was ready to launch himself into the Rio Grande, but only managed to launch his paci.

Our panic at his paci launch! “Paci overboard!” We yelled as we scrambled to save it without tipping the boat. Novice mistake to only bring one for him. That meant we couldn’t plug his whininess.

Pippa to the rescue! She graciously gave up her paci for the common good.

Only to rediscover and reclaim Kieran’s lost paci hours later down river, nothing short of a miracle.

Exposing our boys to “adventure and fresh-air,” seemed so easy to do in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Now I grapple with finding ways to “let the kids explore and be wild, and play outside and get dirty and not have every minute scheduled with Stuff and Things to Do,” like your dad cautioned. So far this summer we have had art camp, and baseball, and soccer, and swim lessons…and when Liam pushed back and told me he didn’t want any scheduled sports, he just wants to be four and play outside I heeded to his wise lead. Finn on the other hand seems to relish his practices and games. Am I losing him to this march of the sporting world? Where are the idle arroyo explorations? The leisurely hikes, (leisurely because the littles were in tow)?

Leisure break with the littles.

Or just playing in the red dirt building short-lived dams with buckets of precious water, watching stink bugs lift up their rear ends? It seems to be such a delicate balance, and one I strive to strike again before I am out! Thanks for this sweet reminder.

The Flash playing ball.


Rubber Band Rings

They’re developing on Sweet Seamus’ wrists as he eats, sleeps, poops, eats again; the cycle of growth. He was born so lanky, so thin, so sturdy—his thigh muscles clearly defined. His long limbs going on for miles but pulled in like a wind up toy you pull out and then it recoils ever so slowly into itself. Now eight weeks later he is really growing in length and in girth with these sweet rings carving into his once dainty wrists, and his thigh muscle definition fading away.

And he is finding his thumb, talk about sweetness! Watching him suck his thumb. How ingenious! He self soothes no paci plugging, or incessant nursing. Well okay, still incessant nursing. But no paci plugging! That has caused me more sleepless nights with my other three boys than I care to count! The thumb is a revelation to me in parenting. Dr. Grady, our pediatric cardiologist who cared for our first born’s heart murmur, assured us that they needed “non-nutirtive sucking,” and therefore that we were not ruining our son with an introduction to the paci. And we didn’t, whew, but at the time it was such a new parent controversy—or so it seemed, sitting there in Dr. Grady’s office waiting for the results of Finn’s heart echo, with the palm trees swaying outside his window.

And can we talk about the sweetness of having a baby fall asleep on you? It’s really an euphoria that I can’t get enough of these days. Him asleep on me, cheek to cheek, snuggled under my chin, laxed arms draped over my shoulder, his feet curved under my forearm against my belly. Really! What amazes and saddens me is one day it just stops—they just won’t sleep on you anymore.  

In this four week small window filled with such major growth, I’ve met mothers, who recall with heart wrenching details their sons, sons that have prematurely died. As they tell their story, stories that are now part of mine, I have the Chinese proverb I once got on a fortune cookie in Santa Fe whisper in my mind: “May your children and your children’s children outlive you.” It’s become my prayer and my plea.

Two mothers, Constance and Princess lost their teenage sons to murder in Minneapolis’ north side. Another mother, Caroline, who lost her twelve year old son, Carter, to a freak accident at the park shared her story with me in the waiting room at urgent care as I clutched my feverish two year old two nights ago. She looked at me holding him, and said, “What I wouldn’t do for those snuggles again.” Her other son battles kidney failure. She wishes they had more kids as she sadly states, “My 16 year old does not want to be an only child.” Then, last night at my doula party, I sat and talked to another doula, Kelly, who shared her story of losing her 19 year old son, Tyler, last winter to carbon monoxide poisoning as he worked to install large booming speakers into his car with the engine running. With each story that I now hold, tears have filled my eyes and theirs.  Who knows what details will stick to memory? Caroline said, “I imagine Carter saying this one is really gonna be a good one as he launched the next rock. I imagine he died laughing. Happy.” Or Kelly who said, her girlfriend said “Tyler visited her and was very near God and said please tell my mom ‘I love her and that I am filled.’”

As I look at my sleeping Seamus and revel in his rubber band wrists grateful for his vitality for each of my boys lives, I accept how fragile and strong life really is, and that just like that it can snap, the band breaks and we are left to walk in those deep crevices like the ones sweetly forming, ever evolving on Seamus’ wrists.


Take Me to the River, Part I: 19 Nervous Breakdowns

dry run, carport, June 5
Tell people you're taking your 10-month old baby and almost-three-year-old toddler whitewater rafting down a remote desert river for a week, and most of them will cock their heads and look at you like you're a little nuts. But no one was more skeptical in the weeks leading up to our San Juan river trip than the shrewish, spoilsport voice in my own head. As our adventure approach, my inner Debbie Downer got louder and harder to ignore. “What?" she'd fairly scream at me. "You’re taking a 10 month old rafting? What are you thinking?” In the face of her grating scorn, I couldn't come up with a good answer, so I asked my closest friends, my mother, my sister, anyone who would listen, in an apologetic, disbelieving tone, like I half-expected myself to cancel at the last minute.

You might think that since not one person told me to pull the plug, I would have taken that as a vote of confidence and quit worrying, but deep down I thought they were too polite or nervous to say so, and I knew that the one—and only—person I had to convince was myself, and no one could do that but me. The night before we were supposed to leave, after I’d spent all day sorting an absurd amount of non-perishable kiddy snacks—more Pirate’s Booty and whole-wheat organic fig bars than a small army of kids could consume in six months—I gave up and went outside. Even if this wasn’t the most deranged and irresponsible idea ever hatched, there was absolutely no way it could ever be worth the epic preparations and logistical toil that had been required of us.

Bleary-eyed from a zillion what-ifs, I collapsed in the fading butterfly chair beside my dad’s peach tree and, feeling like the most reckless and wussiest mother on the planet, proceeded to sob out all my insecurities and doubts. What if the kids drowned? The river is as muddy as chocolate milk—anything accidentally dropped in would disappear forever. How would we keep them in the boat? What if Maisy got stung by a bee and her head blew up like a weather balloon? 

Dad’s tree just swayed a bit in the breeze, and sight of its leaves, finally unfurling now that summer had decided to stay, like hands waving back at me—calmed me a bit. At some point I realized I wasn’t talking to the tree anymore, but directly to Dad, and it seemed not unreasonable to think he might be able to hear me, and then it was not a stretch to sort of discern what he was saying back. In his deep, reassuring voice: You’re doing the right thing. You're doing a good thing. Mildly amused but never mocking. Unflappable. 100% understanding. 

packing the most important staple of all: beer
On my last visit with Dad before he died, we sat outside together in the weak, slanting November sundown. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I had decided to stay on with Dad a few extra days so I could go with him to see a new doctor. His oncologist had just told him he was no longer a candidate for chemotherapy and it was time to call Hospice. This seemed like a major fork in the road—perhaps the biggest and last decision he’d ever make—and I’d urged him to get a second opinion. 

That day as we watched Steve and Pippa and my sister drive down the long driveway, Dad turned to me and said, “You and Steve are really doing a good job with the girls.” He didn’t seem to have the strength or desire to talk much, but contained in this one comment, I knew, was unspoken admiration for our efforts to expose the girls to as much adventure and fresh-air as possible. We’d had conversations about this in the past, and it seemed enormously important to him, a validation of his own philosophy of parenthood, when as a younger father, he’d take us camping in a musty mustard tent on the Delaware River, snow-hiking on Skyline Drive, clamming in Maine, and amateur-spelunking in ticky-tacky Luray Caverns over the hump of the Shenandoah Mountains.

Two years ago, when we decided to do the same San Juan rafting trip with 10-month old Pippa, Dad had grilled me for every detail and then boasted of our bravery to his friends. Sitting there next to his peach tree, I could hear him, reminding me in his low, calming Dad voice how important it is to let kids explore and be wild and play outside and get dirty and not have every minute scheduled with Stuff and Things to Do. 

So there I sat beside the tree, blubbering to the evening breeze and to Dad wherever he was, in the midst of it all. When it seemed like I’d said my peace and he’d said his, I went back inside and finished packing the snacks. That’s when it hit me: We had done our homework and our legwork. We’d done this before and knew what we were getting into. We weren’t winging it or being reckless. We were Prepared. And all that preparation had to count for something. 

I shoved the last of the zillion packs of pureed fruit baby food into the dry bag and, heaving that mountain of snacks onto my back, felt suddenly and unexpectedly unburdened. Even better, a tingly goosebumpy anticipation began to creep over me, reminding me exactly of the way I used to feel when it was just Steve and me heading out into the unknown, when there was less at stake, and no one to plan for but ourselves. The feeling was so familiar and dear, I couldn’t remember ever not feeling it—that old rush of freedom and anticipation and possibility, the precursor to everything good to come and one of the very best reasons we go. 

And so began our adventure....

At the put-in, finally, June 7


Casual Riding

This morning I went mountain biking to try to reclaim my balance and sanity. It has been the craziest time of changes lately, and I needed to feel like my old self, spinning my wheels over familiar ground, rooted to the same, twisting, sun-baked summer trails I’ve known and loved since I was 23 and to the same girl I used to be.

I only had an hour, so I rode one of my usual loops. The scenery was familiar—winding singletrack through the pinon-juniper foothills, the blobby peak of Atalaya to the east, the unbearably hot and dry desert to the south—but the way I rode was different. I wasn't slower, exactly, just more relaxed, more deliberate. I didn’t start out this way, with the intention of being intentional. I was just riding, not rushing, which is strange and noteworthy because I am always rushing lately, even (and especially) when I ride. I was vaguely aware, as I rode, that a choice was materializing: I could spend an hour on my bike lamenting the headaches and heartaches at home, reliving them and trying to solve them, or I could just turn the pedals and watch the summer morning slide by. Very casually, it seemed, I chose the latter.

I rode the road to the trails, already sensing this weird but not unwelcome relaxation, and even when I came upon three guys on mountain bikes near the trailhead, I didn’t speed up like I normally would, trying to claim my space on the trail and put enough distance between us. I just riding very casually, as though I had all the time in the world, even stopping after I flubbed a technical section to pick up a raven’s feather in the dust by the side of the trail and stick it in my pocket for Pippa. The guys must have taken a shortcut because a little ways later, I came across them again at the bottom of a steep hill. One guy let me pass, and the other dropped me. I kept pedaling, waiting for my usual competitive fire to kick in—that antsy, frenetic compulsion to get out in front and stay out in front. Nope. Just riding. 

Farther up the trail, after I’d sweated up that steep rubbly pitch and hopped down little limestone ledges and started ascending again to the next high point, I stopped again. Not only in mid-ride, but mid-climb, which is an unspoken no-no, a major psyche-out for this mountain biker. Whatever you do, don’t stop ‘til you get to the top (but if you must stop, get back on and try to keep riding again ASAP, even if it’s too steep and futile). Somebody had built a small bench out of a slab of limestone in the meager shade of a withered piƱon. I’ve always admired this spot; there’s something just-so about the way the trail levels off and hugs the edge of a small overhang that feels both sheltered and expansive. The person who made the bench must have thought so, too. I’ve thought about stopping there many times before, but always crank right on by. Not this time. I propped my bike against the gnarled little tree and sat down on the bench and listened to the far-off hum of someone’s garden machinery, and the crickets whirring, and the otherwise silent foothills around me. I thought about things all the things I could think and worry about, but decided against it, and just tried to breathe and feel the air whoosh out of my nose and the sun cook my ankles. 

Eventually I glanced at my watch and saw that it was time to be getting home, but this didn’t annoy me like it usually might, or make me antsy or ungrateful with if-onlys. I got up and continued on my way. It all felt strangely casual. The climbs were just as steep and long and I flubbed the sections I usually do and my legs were no less tired than normal, but I was casual about it—that’s the only word I can think of to explain this surreal phenomena. 

Casual riding. Maybe that’s what they mean by lowering the bar? Whatev.


At Rest in the Nest

Trying something new over here. Resting. Yesterday morning after Maisy went down for her nap, I got back into bed with my big fat novel Freedom, and gave myself over to Patty's delicious suburban Midwestern malaise for a few pages, then dozed a few minutes, read a few pages, dozed, and so on. Outside, the magpies were cackling to each other on the roof and I could hear the neighbor kids, newly on the loose for summer, playing at the bottom of the driveway. Someone’s mother was calling, Maisy’s noise machine purred its reassuring, staticky hum, and I just rested, suspended for a few fleeting moments between relaxation and inspiration.  

Last week I found out I have perinatal mood disorder, otherwise known as postpartum depression. Now I finally have a name for this weird surging anxiety that comes and goes like storm clouds rolling in from the West, the listless blahs, the screeching impatience with a certain two-year-old, the occasional overwhelming urge to run away. I feel like I’ve spent the past few months Jell-O wrestling the giant elephant in the room, trying to pin his slippery elephantine wrinkled hugeness down but somehow always just missing. Now I know. Now I can do something. 

What I’m doing is resting. Or at least trying to. The doctor gave me strict marching orders: 9 hours of sleep a night. Stick in the earplugs, put on the eye pillow, lock the cat out of the room—do whatever it takes to get more sleep. Easier said than done with writing deadlines and two tiny girls in the house, one of who has finally figured out how to climb out of her crib and pitter-patter into our bedroom at the ungodly hour of 6 A.M. But still, it does seem more doable than the doctor’s other demand: Lower the bar. 

Lower the bar? I’m the kind of person who when someone says Jump, I ask how high. I was raised that way, hardwired to strive. My sister, six feet tall, ran the hurdles in high school. I just tried to keep up. In our house, the best antidote to every affliction was action. “Just get busy and do something,” my mother always used to say. I feel like I’ve been busy forever. Lowering the bar is going to take some work, which is of course part of the problem. 

Somewhere there’s a sweet spot between endless striving and aimless laziness. Finding this balance strikes me as the toughest nut to crack. How can I slow down enough to let the natural flow back into my life without feeling like I’m lying around on the couch watching daytime TV on the nicest day of the year? 

It’s not just me, and it’s not just PPD. Everyone’s too busy all the time. On our hike this morning, my friend, who’s also a writer, lamented about not having enough quiet time to finish her next book. The book wants to be written; it’s ready to come out. She’s not lacking inspiration or ideas, but clear, empty space and time and stillness. She’s single and doesn’t have kids, but we both feel the relentless tug of other obligations, distractions—people and responsibilities in our lives that we love and couldn’t bear to give up but still take us from ourselves. So one question is, How can we hold onto our true selves in the midst of the chaos?

A few weeks ago, in a hotel room in Vermont, Steve and I played bleary-eyed predawn referees to our daughters’ impromptu boxing match on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor while trying desperately not to wake the neighbors through the 200-hundred-year-old floral wallpapered walls. As the two-year-old won and the 10-month-old wailed, I turned to Steve and said, “Someday we’ll laugh about this.” And he, in a pitch-perfect tone of weary acceptance and cheery resilience—in a display of perfect, lovable Steve-ness—replied, “Might as well be today.”

I don’t really have an answer to our conundrum, just a faint flicker of hope that came to me this morning while I was changing Maisy’s diaper. She was kicking her pudgy legs in the air and trying to logroll off the table while I fumbled with the wipes. She wasn’t in a rush or perturbed or sad or impatient or distracted or exhausted. She was just there, grinning madly at her mother, doing her best to wiggle and squirm and strive while I did my best to hold on. For a split second, my mind emptied of everything but these two words:

I wrote them down to remind me that someday I’ll look back and remember this time as crazy and wonderful and maddening and possibly even, dare-I-hope magical. As Steve would say, might as well be today.