Grousing, Vindicated

A story after my own heart,  from NPR's Alan Greenblatt, in which he says that there are many days when parenting just plain sucks, but we're not supposed to talk about it. As a friend of mine told me last week, about mothering, "Sometimes I hate my job and just want to quit. But I can't!"

Here's an excerpt:
Parents: Let's make a deal. Let's be honest with each other, or at least one friend, that there are times when the whole enterprise feels like a bad idea. Let's be less alone with this and maybe even laugh about it, putting aside for just a few minutes the earnest need always to say, omigod it's so great.

It seems only fair. The one thing we all do is complain about our parents.


Walk, Run, Sit.

You have to walk before you can run. At least this is the manta I kept telling myself as I tried to run for the third time since my fourth boy. This time from my house, down the Summit boulevard trail to the monument at the river. The path, a worn, dirt one, hugged by clusters of pine trees, some with large enough bases to be a fort for a 6 year old in the winter. Sun and welcomed shade graced my face, as I wove between the trees from a run, to a jaunt, to a walk back to a run again…it’s humbling to say the least as I grasp for breath. All the while I envision myself running these two short miles with breath full and bold circulating all the way into my sacrum and pelvic floor, not pausing at my neck where it seems to be stuck on a loop. 

I approached the last leg of the trail before it hit the River Road, I was stopped by a small boulder that had a plaque on it dedicated to the Junior League Women of St. Paul in 1977 for the reforestation of the city; those trees that lined my path placed by dedication to beautify. I paused with my hands cupping the rock, and behind me a bench invited me to sit on it with the morning dew still present. 

(I wrote the above paragraphs on Monday, it is now Wednesday and I am just now getting back to this, to that moment.) 

You see something happened in that moment I chose to sit in stillness with the wet dewed bench soaking my god-awful yellow running shorts. I felt my spine grow tall, my shoulders open up, my mind settle downward, and I tuned into my breath, I imagined it moving from my neck to my shoulders down to my stomach settling and circling through my sacrum and pelvic floor. An occasional car, or barking dog would punctuate my sitting meditation and I would notice them, even at times glance their direction, but then I would return to my breath. To feel the rising sun’s rays, slant cross the boulevard, and dance across my face. Gradually, with each breath I was more and more in my body and less outside of myself. I finally turned to go back on the trail I had come from instead of going the last fifty paces to the river, I realized later the importance of this, the river holds trails I walked as a child with my parents, but those old paces hold things I no longer wish to hold for myself. And, just like that I was ok with stopping short of my goal, the monument, and grateful for that small plaque on that small boulder, that invited me to sit and still myself. 

As my feet hit the trail, I was in a different place. My mind felt clearer, calmer, and I felt more in tune with my body. My shoulders down and back, my hips more open, my feet more purposeful in their walk, and my walk became a walking meditation. And while I wished for the trails of the mountains I once hiked, I settled for the plains of the Midwest and I was ok with that. 

Creatures of Habit

Every Tuesday morning I go hiking with my writer friend Natalie. We have been doing this for nearly a year now, and we have our system down to a science, or our routine down to an art. Whatever—we do the same thing each week we are both in town, which this summer hasn’t been very often. Natalie teaches and travels a lot, and I guess I’ve been gone my fair share of Tuesdays, too. 

[not this trail, but one like it]
But this morning is a hiking morning, so I pick up Natalie like I always do on the corner by her house, and she peers in the backseat window at Maisy and cooes hello, just like she always does. Then I rive us three-quarters of a mile or so up the road to the trailhead. We always hike the same trail. Every now and then we discuss hiking a different trail, but it has yet to happen. The one we like is close to both of houses, so we don’t have to waste precious walking time driving. There is a granite outcropping about halfway up where Natalie likes to stop and meditate while Maisy and I keep hiking toward the top. The trail to Picacho Peak passes through a shady canyon, then switchbacks through stubby pinon and juniper and offers plenty of distractions from the ascent in the way of western views to the city below and the Jemez Mountains on the far horizon. There is nothing not to like about this hike. It is hard to imagine improving on it. 

The first part of the trail hopscotches over the Santa Fe River (a couple feet wide, usually dry), climbs steeply to a road crossing, and then clambers over a series of rough, railroad-tie steps that are crowded by weeds and sometimes badly eroded, depending on the recent rains. Then it veers left and becomes more gradual, and prettier. Natalie and I always chitchat until we get to this point, catching up on whatever’s happened since we last saw each other. But at the place where the trail bends left, we stop talking and start walking in silence. That is the rule. This is how we’ve always done it. Most days, I feel like I could keep talking the whole way up, but it’s our ritual instead to say, “OK, see you at the ledge,” and then the only sound is the crunch of our sneakers on dirt and the breeze rustling pine needles and we fall into our own rhythms and paces. Before long, the distance between us has widened, so that Maisy and I are hiking on our own and Natalie is on her own; every now and then the trail swings wide one direction or the other, and I can see downhill through a few turns to where Natalie is, walking silently uphill, her face obscured by her nylon sun hat and her hands clasped resolutely behind her back. 

When I get to the granite ledge, I keep climbing through half a dozen or more switchbacks to my favorite tree, a regal ponderosa that shoots up out of a precipitous slope with great confidence, as though it has always been there and always will and is not phased by the thousand-foot drop below. The summit is not far, but this is where I turn around, in part because I don’t want to keep Natalie waiting too long and in part because I am excited to talk to her. When Maisy was only three weeks old, before I started hiking with Natalie, I used to turn around here, too, so that I could make it back to the car before I’d need to nurse her again. Maisy has always been a very tolerant, undemanding baby and until recently would sleep the whole way up and down, but her sister before her would, without fail, reach her limit by the time we got to our tree. So it has become tradition to turn around there. I am always pleasantly torn between wanting to keep hiking and wanting to head back, and I like that either choice is a good one. There is no bad decision. 

It’s 15 minutes back down to where Natalie is sitting, with her back arrow-straight against a ponderosa pine and she always says “Katie?” swiveling her head just a little, even though she says she can tell it’s me by my footsteps. Then we launch into all the thoughts and ideas we’ve both had in our own minds, brewing, the whole way up—food, fried eggs, writing, eating, motherhood, meditation, allergies, yoga, North Dakota—it’s all alive and fair game to us on the way down. 

This is how we hike.  We are creatures of habit, but of course things change: It was fall when we started, then winter—the driest we’ve had in years—now summer. Sometimes it is grey, but mostly it is sunny and bright. The baby is what has changed the most in the past year—she is the thing that is most different from week to week. She was 9 pounds when we started. Now she is nearly 20. That is a difference you can feel, in your hips and shoulders and the soles of your feet.

But this morning, something radical happens. Just as we get to the turn off, Natalie says, more to herself than to me, “I’m walking to write.” “What do you mean?” I ask over my shoulder, and she says, “I’m walking to prepare myself for writing.” It’s time to be silent, so I pipe down and don’t ask, though I want to, what she means, or how she will do that, or what it might feel like.  

I think about it the whole way up, this declaration of intention, and though it’s not my intention, it changes the way I walk. I am more here, less scattered, feet scuffing pine needles, eyes casting about to the view, my mind a narrow tightrope instead of its usual freeway of chaos and sprawl. I think about what I’m walking for today, and the sensation that comes to mind—it’s more a feeling than a word—is clarity. Like how I felt when I cleaned out my office threw out entire piles of junk mail and filed and tidied and made it my own again. I’m walking to prepare myself for all the mental clutter still to be cleaned, the tasks I’ve been procrastinating for no good reason, the chores I dread, the tasks I need to attend to.  

A few days ago, I picked up the September issue of Shambhala Sun on a whim at the grocery store checkout. The whole issue is devoted to love, and I thought it might give me some tips on how to stay compassionate and sane and loving in the face of our recent sleep crisis. In a short article about meditation, Pema Chödrön writes: “Each time you dare to remain where you are and do something completely fresh, unconventional, and nonhabitual, you open up new pathways in the brain. You experience that as strength and it builds your capacity to be open the next time around.” 

For the past year, Natalie and I have done the same hike twice, six times, two dozen times and have been inspired and comforted by the ritual. Natalie’s casual remark this morning cracked open the day and superimposed on our well-worn path—with its familiar landmarks, ledges, and trees—a new way of walking and thinking about walking. It was the same hike, but completely fresh. 

When I meet up with her back on the ledge, Natalie tells me that she hiked in her hips, felt her body rooted in those twin joints and felt herself settle into the walk and the day, so that when she settled at her desk later, she would ready to be there, in her bones. But you will have to hear from her how the rest turned out. Until then, I highly recommend doing your favorite thing backwards or in reverse or upside down, or in mismatched clothes like orange and purple, or simply with a purpose you say out loud. I guarantee it will crack your day open, too. 


Zen and the Art of Sleeping

I know I’ve been writing a lot about not sleeping lately, and I know if I want to sleep, I should probably write about sleeping, not about not sleeping—what you resist persists—but I need to say one more thing on this topic. Last week, I had a moment of unscheduled grace, a surprise truce in the bedtime wars. I don’t know where it came from, but I want to record it so I can remember it in case it doesn't happen again.

For most of the summer, I’ve been wrestling with Pippa’s resistance to going to bed in the evening and staying in bed during the night. We’ve tried lots of different tactics, some recommended, some not: putting her right back in bed without a word, over and over; threats; taking away her pacifier; stickers and rewards; even, in my most desperate and reactive Mommy Dearest moments, spanking. Not surprisingly, nothing has really stuck. 

So, last week: Steve helped me give the girls dinner and then left to play Ultimate like he does every Tuesday. Maisy went to bed without a peep, and then it was Pippa’s turn. We went through the whole song and dance routine—teeth brushing, PJs, book, 100 pats, one round of ABCs, and then “my favorite part of the day was _____ “(fill in blank). “Stay in your bed,” I told her right before I closed her door, cringing with dread as I did.

I parked myself in the hall. Instead of going to the kitchen or grabbing my notebook to write, I just stood there, waiting. I told myself I had nothing better to do. There was nothing I had to do but stand there and put her back in her bed ten times or 100 times, and weirdly, I was OK with it. I whittled all my normally enormous expectations down to a single, tiny sliver of purpose: Stand outside the door as long as it takes until she goes to sleep. I didn’t go into the bedtime routine planning to get all Zen on the situation, but there you have it. I’d stumbled into an uncharacteristic state of acceptance, and I was going with it.

She came out. Of course she did. Several times. Each time I spoke quietly in a unperturbed voice that did not sound like my own and put her back in her bed and because I had already written off wanting to write or read or do yoga or make dinner or anything quote-unquote productive with my evening, I was not attached to any of those scenarios. I did not get mad. I even thought, I could do this all night, and I wasn’t showing off or faking it. I actually meant it. Even better, I actually felt it. It was peaceful outside that door. Steve has lined the deep, flagstone windowsill with aloes and agaves and other succulents whose names I’ve forgotten but that glow green in the slanting light and have sharp prickly points in whose honor we have, perhaps unfairly, named it the “sill of pain” for the potential for causing inflict harm on small curious fingers. (Though in reality it is far more beautiful than dangerous.) I stood there looking at the sill of pain, and watching the natural light in the hall dim a little, and for once in the past eight weeks, feeling no attachment or gripping resentment or any discomfort whatsoever. 

At one point, I slipped into the laundry room next door and started folding laundry. I had no ambition to fold laundry, it just seemed like something calm and meditative to do, peaceful, like the waiting itself.  Click, went her door, and she appeared in my door. The sight of her did not really perturb me. I wasn’t attached to folding laundry (though when am I ever attached to folding laundry?!) and so I stopped what I was doing and put her back in bed. 

I could tell she could tell something was different, and that it made her curious, but not so curious that she would keep doing this. I could tell that was going to be the last time I heard from her that night, and it was. But I didn’t leave my post right away. I stood there feeling the night settle down on the house, and my calmness radiating out from me like a deep, still lake without a single ripple in it. 

Then I went outside, still in my three-quarter trance, and walked around the house in my bare feet. We call this “going round the world.” Our house in long and skinny like a bowling alley and Steve has laid a flagstone path the entire way around, and I walk it as often as I can in bare feet so I can feel the slightly coarse but flat, regular texture of the slabs beneath my feet and admire Steve’s garden as I go and pass by Dad’s peach tree, and in doing all this in this way, have my own little unofficial walking meditation. It’s not so different than my other evening circumnavigation ritual: When I was at Stony Lake in July, I'd put the girls to bed in the boathouse and eat dinner and double checked that they were still down, and then I’d go out in my mother’s new skiff or one of the kayaks and paddle around the island. 

Of course there’s something calming in traveling in a circle, whether by foot or by water. It’s the repetition and familiarity of the route, the fact that you can do it in opposite directions, and it will feel different even though you have memorized every inch of shoreline and every stipa grass or hollyhock along the way. Unlike paddling around Eagle Mount (which takes about half an hour give or take, depending on how many times you stop to drift idly and listen to the loons or swat at mosquitoes) when I go around the world at home, I usually make a few laps. The first one I might be somewhere else in my mind, debating whether this is a waste of time and I should be writing or doing yoga instead, but by the second lap, I am usually into the walk, feeling the ground with my feet, and hearing the gold finches and hummingbirds buzz by and just really there. I keep walking until I feel the tug of the house at me, and other demands or desires, and then I go inside and do something else. 
I went around the world that night a few times, and each time I passed the sill of pain from the outside, I peered in through the darkening window to make sure Pippa’s door was still shut, and it was. But if it hadn’t been, I’m pretty sure I would have been able to float inside the house in my little Zen trance and do the thing I needed to do, over and over if I had to. But I didn’t and it was peaceful, and I walked around a few more times and then went inside to see about dinner. 

That that night was an anomaly, and that for the following three nights I would enact scenes from Mommy Dearest as I cajoled and yelled and willed her to stay in bed doesn’t really matter. Of course I did. But for a moment I was the lake without a ripple in it, and I had shed every last prickle of ambition and impatience and resistance and was free.  


Anchoring the Monkey-Mind of Motherhood

Ok you got me. I am dusting off the keyboard and plunging in after many mental failed attempts to post…so here is a string of almost posts. A form I feel like I have written in too often as of late: as of Seamus’ impending arrival, arrival, and now post arrival. Between travel and motherhood, and boys bickering, I am fried at the end of the day too. It’s the constant refereeing I find myself in, and you are right even if it is just a phase and one I pray will pass, it sucks to be in it. I can’t figure out if they are fighting because they get my attention, albeit negative; they are coming off of a month of travel, they realize that Seamus is here to stay, or they need school and that schedule to start up again. Or all of the above. But, man, I am sick of saying, “You need to listen. You need to be nice to your brother. You need to be kind.“ Or the threatening, “That’s one, that’s two, that’s…” and before I get to three they snap-to. Not sure what I would do if I actually got to three, but I am tired of hearing myself on repeat these days. Especially after solo parenting for five days. I know I need to raise my horizon line to the far off distance and not the nearsightedness I am stuck in. 

So I sigh, and try to get back to something larger than the minutia of my children and whether they are getting along or not. This blog, my writing it helps me exhale get past my monkey mind and settle into my breath.  So what has happened in my month of blog neglect?

Well we traveled…to Boston to see friends and family and languished on the ocean drenched in sun, sand, and waves. We caught crabs and picked dead sand dollars, and played in tide pools. We bar-b-qued, and went to carnivals, and ate ice cream at Captain Dusty’s, and for the first time in years Peter took a proper vacation. No checking email or responding to work. This was not his initial intention. It never is, but when you leave you blackberry out in the rain that is the result. And after ten days, well nine, because day one he was still plugged in, he was a new man. 
The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Ann

During July I have to say my anxiety hit a peak. It hit a peak because well I don’t know if it was a hormonal shift that I didn’t see coming. The lice our neighbors accidentally shared with us that we had to rid ourselves of before departing for the east coast. Or the adjustment of being blessed with four kids six and under—it can feel at times an abundance of joy and good fortune or an abundance of needs and demands that I do not have enough hands to meet. Never would I trade it especially after going through a few years of not being able to have children. But wow sometimes the awesome responsibility hits me. 

After being out east, where it felt like I was literally bumping up against my past life of living in Cape Ann, we traversed to the high desert of Santa Fe. Seeing the browns of the desert punctuated by crisp colors of green and blooming desert flowers, I began to sink into myself more. However, Peter was back at work and my past fears of being solo parenting in the desert tapped me on my shoulder again, ever so sneakily. For the first few days I had the knack down. We went to the Children’s museum, swam at the Santa Fe Hotel pool, hit the library where we stocked up on books. Then day four hit and Peter had a sixteen hour day of work and wow anxiety spiked so strong I ran from that day like a wild animal in retreat. Instead of sinking into it I over planned and by the end of the day I was fried and crying and so were the children. You see, going places with four kids all in car seats is an undertaking much less doing it five times in one day, equals ten ins and outs of the car. It was too much. I realized that I was living life like a person without kids who has the freedom to plan a jam packed day, not one with kids who needs to listen to their rhythms and respect them. And so I once again learned the hard way, that part of parenting is mastering the art of being still while the littles dance around you in circles like a Mayflower pole; they occasionally bounce into you and ricochet back out from its center.
The calm of the desert grasses
So when we returned to Minnesota it took an act of will to just stay home and unpack. Sink into home after travel. Be an anchor after being adrift. Turn my head toward the unopened mail, the grocery shopping, the back to school preparations, the reconnecting of our friends here. I still have not done it all, but I am slowly reintegrating one step at a time and realizing our roots go both deep and wide simultaneously, like those of a dandelion, which makes them hard to pull up. And for this I remain grateful.


The Power of Now

I feel horrible. I haven’t posted in over a month. Here I am neglecting our blog about creativity and motherhood because, quite simply, motherhood has gotten in the way. It's almost impossible to carve out 20 minutes of brain time when your three year old who used to sleep through the night—7 to 7 and then some—has completely regressed and now wakes more times per night than the one year old. (Eight, at last count.) When instead of grabbing a notebook or laptop and sitting outside in the fading lovely light and feeling the words return and stories take shape after you blithely put her to bed (and expect her to stay there like she always did), you spend the next hour standing guard outside her bedroom, putting her back to bed five, ten, 28 times in a row while trying not to lose your shit. And failing, miserably. 

ahh, the old peace & quiet
Evenings used to be my time to write, a guaranteed few hours of wide-open mental space and freedom from all parental responsibility, uninterrupted writing time. I know what everyone says: It’s a phase. This too shall pass. I want it to pass now. I want my evenings back. I want to not feel like I’ve been run over by a truck every morning when I wake up, exhausted from clenching my teeth in my sleep, and putty-brained by 7:30 PM, like I am right now in a condo in Colorado while Steve's out hiking and I'm so wiped I can't even be bothered to read my book or decipher which remote control turns on the TV. I want to be able to put her to bed and write a few pages in my notebook and then eat a slice of cheese or just zone out and do a yoga pose or two and watch the cat scratch her claws on the fence post without having to play prison guard to a three-foot-tall escape artist with attitude. Is that too much to ask? Yes, apparently it is—at least right now. 

I know I’m whining and should just suck it up. But I miss my writing. I miss my freedom. I miss my time. I miss feeling the rat-tat-tat of ideas knocking around in my brain. So, a resolution, inspired by motherhoodwtf: Write anyway. Write even when it’s messy and you feel like chucking your computer out the front door, screaming at the defiant child, or running away, or all of the above. During those moments, write anyway. Don’t wait for long idyllic stretches of peace and quiet because you might be waiting a very long time. Don’t expect perfection. Don't hold out for inspiration. Write right now. Especially now. 

There, I did it. It's not pretty. But I sort of almost maybe feel a little bit better already.