I Was a POOPCUP

Not long ago, I came across a new phrase in an article from the Scary Mommy site: POOPCUP, or “Parents of One Perfect Child Under Preschool Age.” I chuckled, because it wasn’t that long ago that my husband and I fell into that category. I distinctly remember my parents-in-law declaring that our son was a perfect child when he was a baby. He seemed never to misbehave. Delightfully affectionate, quick to learn, always obedient, never throwing tantrums — at least, when they were watching. They were convinced that he was perfect, and even occasionally mentioned this conviction to Aaron’s sister, the mother of four beautiful, amazing, active, well-disciplined children (and who is an inspiration and wonderful example). We tried to explain that he wasn’t perfect, that he had occasional fits and temper tantrums and moments of disobedience, but they rarely saw that side of him, so they continued to happily believe that Niko was perfect. And, despite those little hiccups, we privately agreed that we had this parenting thing well in hand.

Yes, when Niko was a baby, Aaron and I were blissful POOPCUPs.  We didn’t know it, of course. We thought we were very hardworking, well-scheduled parents who were generally nonjudgemental of other parents whose children were sometimes less angelic. We knew that Niko was unusually mellow and easy to teach, and we knew that his manageability had more to do with his temperament than with our own skills as parents. We also knew that much of what others saw as his amazingly calm and sweet temper was a result of our knowing when he would be at his best, and taking advantage of it. We made sure he was fed and ready to take his first nap of the day in the car on the one-hour drive to see Aaron’s parents, and we made sure we left immediately after dinner so that his evening grouchiness could happen away from everyone else. On trips to the grocery store or the mall, we took a similar approach: we went out after a nap, snack in hand, and made sure we were done before it was time for the next round of eating, sleeping, and eating again.

Despite knowing that much of Niko’s sweetness was his own lovely personality, it was hard not to take some credit for it. We’d watch sympathetically as another parent attempted to wrestle a rigid or thrashing child into a shopping cart, and then when the duo was out of sight, we’d murmur, “That must be so hard. I’m sure glad we waited till after Niko’s nap to shop.” We didn’t think we were being judgmental. But deep down, we were thinking, Too bad that mom didn’t do the same thing. Scheduling is everything!

Then we had Sofia.

Long pause for effect.

By the time Sofia arrived, we’d been noticing that our little boy, still as sweet and compliant as ever, was becoming more and more… well… active. Hyper. Distracted. He was at the age that we expect a toddler to be able to follow not just one simple direction, but two or three in a row, but not Niko. “Put your clothes in the laundry, put on your jammies, and go potty,” we’d say. He would cheerfully run off to obey, only to forget what he was supposed to do. Sometimes he’d come back to ask what we’d told him to do. Other times, he’d forget entirely and become distracted by a book, or a toy, or his reflection in the mirror. Even one simple instruction was often more than he could manage, and his sometimes almost manic hyper behavior was often more than I could manage in my enormously pregnant state.

So, when Sofia arrived, we were already starting to experience a little parental adversity. But none of that was enough to prepare us for the reality of welcoming our little girl home.

Sofia was as different from her brother as a lion is from a kangaroo. While Niko had a regularly scheduled Fussy Time for a couple of hours in the evening for about two months, Sofia was fussy all the time. Niko slept through the night before three months; Sofia still woke up several times a night at nearly eighteen months. When I was pumping and freezing milk for Niko, absolutely nothing I ate bothered him. When I was nursing Sofia, a single accidental swallow of milk or bite of cheese would magnify her constant crying to unbearable levels. Niko loved being held by absolutely anyone; Sofia hated being held by anyone but me and, occasionally, certain relatives. If I put tiny Niko in a bouncy seat while I worked in the kitchen, he’d kick his legs happily while watching me. If I put Sofia down anywhere at all, even if I was right next to her, she’d scream as if she were being tortured.

When you have just one baby who takes regular naps, eats on a schedule, and has predictable times of being fussy, it’s pretty easy to plan visits and outings to maximize on his good nature. When you have a baby who cries constantly, often even while being fed, who seems to constantly want to nurse but hates bottles and reacts painfully to every formula you try, who panics when she’s set down even for a moment, it becomes a little harder. And, when you add to that mix a toddler who has outgrown morning naps, is in constant movement, can’t remember instructions no matter how badly he tries to please you, and has to be constantly monitored because his impulsiveness often causes damage… well, it’s safe to say you’re no longer POOPCUPs.

Now we had to manage two kids, with different schedules and needs. Now we were the ones being eyed by strangers as our baby shrieked and our son ran in circles. We now understood why some kids seemed a little out of control: they simply had active bodies and exhausted parents. It turns out, much to our astonishment, that not all babies can be scheduled.

Since we’ve left the happy land of POOPCUPs, we’ve learned to cope. We often split the kids between us. Niko stays much calmer when he’s on his own with an adult, and Sofia by herself isn’t very demanding. In fact, in some ways, they’ve switched roles; Sofia is now, at three, mellow, cheerful, helpful, and capable of following directions. Niko is also cheerful and helpful — he tries to be, anyway — but no one who spent more than five minutes with him would call him mellow. We’ve learned ways to help Niko remember instructions, and ways to help him stay calm. That easily-scheduled baby is now a routine-dependent boy; depart too far from the expected progression of a day, and he becomes anxious and hyper. We’ve learned to warn him in advance when something will change, and let him know what to expect when we do something new. With Sofia’s newfound cheerfulness and a better understanding of how Niko works, life is generally a bit easier now. 

Still, no matter how many coping techniques we learn or how many management methods we adopt, and no matter how successful we may appear to observers, we now have a constant awareness that we’re just one missed snack away from those hassled parents we pitied back when we were POOPCUPs. Adding a second child has been humbling and eye-opening.

So, to all you parents out there who have children who are a bit less than perfect: it’s okay. You’re in good company. There are plenty of us out there, and we’ve got your back.

And to those still happily traversing the POOPCUP road: you’ll understand. Whether it’s after you’ve had a second child, or when your single child reaches tweens or teens, at some point, you’ll understand that even the best-parented child will have moments of imperfection, usually at an inconvenient and embarrassing moment. When that happens, the rest of us will be here, ready to listen sympathetically. We’ll have your back, too. And until then, please — don’t judge us. We’re doing our best.

The Joy of Natural Consequences

I’m not a perfect parent; really no one is, but I particularly am not. How do I know that? I’ll give you the first two reasons that come to mind:

  1. When a child (especially the oldest, age five) encounters a natural consequence of poor choices, I am filled with a deep, bubbling glee. Sometimes I manage to refrain from laughing. Sometimes I don’t. Always, I make a point of quickly detailing the cause and effect involved in the situation. I’m pretty sure a perfect parent, or even a really good one, would respond with sympathy and compassion in the discussion of the action and consequence. I don’t manage this.
  2. When a child finds themself* in an uncomfortable circumstance, my first response is not rescue or assistance. My response is to pull out the phone for a picture. Only after it has been duly recorded do I smother my giggles and help them.

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    Photo first. Rescue later.

This week, my son has been particularly difficult. I could count on one hand the number of times he’s obeyed immediately this week. Dawdling, forgetting what he’s been told, not hearing what he’s been told, outright disobeying… as many parents can attest, this gets exhausting. Time outs, scoldings, loss of privileges, loss of possessions, vigorous expression of irritation (yes, I’ve been guilty of yelling) — all to no avail. He’s continued to drift through life completely unaware of the instructions of his parents.

That’s why this imperfection of mine has come up, twice in the last two days. Twice now, Niko has been brought up short by an immediate and uncomfortable consequence to his actions. And my glee has overwhelmed me.

We have a creek, a drainage ditch really, running across one end of our property. In summer it’s dry, but in winter it’s full and overflowing from the rainfall. Niko knows he’s not allowed in it. Even with not much water in it, it’s deeper than his boots. With the recent heavy rains, it could actually be dangerous, with its swift flow combined with the slippery rocks on the bottom. So I’ve explicitly told him, of course, not to go in. Multiple times.

Yesterday we had snow. Just a bit, but enough to make the kids enthusiastic about going outside. After approximately thirty minutes’ worth of donning warm clothes, we went down the hill toward the creek, where it’s open and has plenty of space for running. Niko made a beeline for the creek. “Stay out of the creek,” I called, as he raced toward it. “Don’t go into the creek,” I repeated as he continued. I was answered by a liquid plop. He had jumped in.

As I hauled him out, his boots full and his pants soaked to the thighs with icy water, I couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious. “Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the creek?”

“Yes.”

“And now you have to go inside while Sofie plays.”

“Whyyyyyyyyyyyy?”

“Because you’re soaking wet and your boots are filled with water.”

Wailing with sorrow, he trudged inside with Aaron, while Sofie and I played in the snow for another ten minutes or so. Sadly, I failed to get a photo. All I got was one of Sofie, preparing to throw a handful of snow at the house, an activity made more thrilling by her conviction that she was getting away with something.

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Enjoying the snow, minus her soggy brother.

However, this was not the most satisfying such event of the past two days. That honor falls to today’s dramatic demonstration of natural consequences. You see, I’ve been working on a new skill with Niko, one that he really should have learned by now, but which he’s been resisting on the grounds that it’s much too hard to do. What is this terribly difficult skill? Snapping his own pants. Yes, I have been asking my five-year-old to learn to fasten his own pants when getting dressed — a tyrannical demand, to be sure, but what can I say?

Efforts to teach him to snap his pants have been marked with considerable frustration from both of us. He gets floppy-arm syndrome, moaning “I can’t! It’s too hard!” while pawing ineffectually at his waistband. Neither of us have enjoyed these training sessions, but I’ve continued to nag him. “Snap your pants, please!”

Today Niko and Sofia accompanied me down our driveway and to the end of the lane to haul out the trash. They puddle-hopped their way down the road, helped me investigate the mailbox, then splashed back up. Midway up our driveway, as I urged Niko to hurry UP, because I needed him through the gate so I could close it, he obediently broke into a halfhearted jog. As he jogged, his waistband began to slip. “Wait –” I called, but I was too late. The pants plunged to his knees, and he sprawled flat on the muddy gravel.

I was immobilized with mirth. I feel a little bad for this, but I truly could not move, I was trying so hard to keep my laughter from bursting out. He also couldn’t move, bound at the knees as he was by those pants. I finally got myself under control enough to capture a couple of photos, then extended my hand to help him up.

“This is why you should snap your pants,” I pointed out. “Haven’t I been telling you to snap your pants?” Dripping with muddy water, cold and exposed, he nodded reluctantly. “Well,” I told him sternly, “this is why. If you’d snapped your pants, this wouldn’t have happened.” The sternness was spoiled just a little by a snicker I couldn’t restrain. I mean, honestly, it was pretty funny. As you can see:

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This, ladies and gentlemen, is why learning to snap your pants is worthwhile.

So, there you have it. I’m not a perfect parent. I rejoice when natural consequences remove the necessity of scolding and imposing my own mean-mom consequences. I laugh when my kids find themselves in pickles. And I take photos when I should be helping.

And then I post those photos on a public blog.

*The Washington Post‘s Bill Walsh recently wrote a piece, filed in Opinions, regarding this year’s language adaptations. One of them was the surrender to the inevitability of the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. That is to say, when a writer needs to refer to an individual, unknown or unidentified, who may be male or female, the WP is now accepting “they” to fill this need. For example, “If a student talks during a test, they will be given a zero.” As Mr. Walsh pointed out, this is a far from new development; it’s been used, he says, by Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the translators of the Bible, to name just a few cases. And it has a precedent: the word “you” was once solely plural, the singular pronouns being “thee” and “thou.” We’ve long since accepted “you” as a singular pronoun. Now that the WP accepts “they” likewise as a singular, I feel perfectly comfortable using it in my own writing. So there.**

**Yes, this addendum was mainly for my mother. You’re welcome.

 

 

“Oops!”: Time For Honesty

Lately, I’ve been considering honesty in my writing. It’s not so much that I’m concerned about a personal habit of lying. It’s more that I suspect I may be guilty of contributing to a common Facebook phenomenon: by presenting only the best of my life, my stories may make readers feel inadequate.

Let me give an example. On November 30, I posted a glowing report of writing 50,000 words of my very own novel! Some of my friends shook their heads and marveled at my accomplishment. How on earth do you do it all? they wondered. Well, it’s time for honesty. For the entire month of November, I folded laundry once. That’s right. By the end of November, I had three weeks’ worth of unfolded laundry piled in baskets, overflowing onto my washing machine. I also allowed my kids to watch far too much TV. I neglected the garden, and left the kids (and myself) in PJs for large portions of the day. I didn’t have my son write thank-you cards for his birthday gifts — a fact brought home by the arrival of a thank-you card from a friend whose birthday was a few weeks after his.

Here’s the truth: every time I accomplish something of which I’m proud, something I wish to share with the world, or even just any task outside my daily routine, something else remains undone. Yesterday I worked my way through nine months’ worth of photos, deleting 1600 of them as I went, and I also wrote a post for this blog. What that means is that I failed to accomplish the following jobs: folding this week’s clean laundry, emptying and refilling the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, vacuuming the carpet, cleaning dog-nose-slime off the window, filling out paperwork to renew the tags on our car, and watering my baby beet seedlings. Oh, and helping Niko write thank-you cards!

All of these ponderings on honesty have been simmering on the back burner of my mind for some time now, until this morning when I came across a WordPress tool I didn’t know existed: a weekly writing challenge. This week’s challenge is “Oops!” The goal is to post a story that includes a photo that is decidedly not Instagram- or Facebook-worthy. The challenge jogged my memory of a photo I took some time ago — a failure of perfection.

So, my dear readers, here is my “oops” moment. The setting is the making of a batch of cinnamon-swirled bread from my own recipe. I shared a photo of my loaves on Facebook but didn’t end up making a blog post from it, because I didn’t knead the dough enough and the odd texture shows up clearly in the photos. Also, even though I included cinnamon in this particular attempt, I didn’t use enough, so it just shows up as a faint streak in the sliced bread. I didn’t know any of this as I was making the bread, of course, and I was planning to write up the recipe for my blog, so I was taking photos as I went. In the photos, there’s no hint that anything is amiss. The counter is clean and shiny, and the bread practically glows with homemade goodness.

However, as I was photographing all this domestic bliss, I happened to step back and take a look at my kitchen. Oh. My. God. It was a disaster. The only clear space on the counter was the one I’d cleared for photographing the bread! The floor was unswept. The sink was piled with dishes. Just awful. On impulse, I snapped a picture. In fact, this is far from the worst my kitchen has been when I’m in the throes of creativity, but it’s the only photo I’ve taken of the mess.

But, honestly, that’s my life. If I’m putting extra time into writing, or cooking something special, or making an interesting project, other things are left undone. I’ve learned to accept that. I can catch up while the kids nap or after they go to bed, or I can set aside a day later in the week to focus on cleaning, or whatever it takes to recover from a day of focusing on projects.

Still, the truth is that this mess-making and catching up doesn’t show in my blog posts or Facebook status updates, and too much of that kind of omissions constitute a dishonest representation of my life. It would be easy to read the highlights of my life and see a perfect mom and housewife, gliding through life with grace and good humor. Nope. Not me. I’m the one with a disaster of a kitchen and stacks of unfolded laundry, sitting the kids in front of the TV so I can finish my project, and clearing six square inches of counter space to take a photo worthy of showing off. That, my friends, is the truth. I’m normal, human, disorganized, messy. Far, far, far from perfect.

I’m taking this opportunity to push back against the deluge of Facebook perfection. I don’t want to contribute to someone else’s sense of inadequacy. We all struggle; we all make compromises. We’re in this together, even if our social media accounts indicate otherwise.

A Novel Idea

Screenshot 2015-11-30 21.49.54.pngNaNoWriMo. Heard of it? No? Let me enlighten you. The month of November is designated National Novel Writing Month (though, in fact, it’s an international endeavor). There is an organization dedicated to NaNoWriMo. They recruit published authors, professors, publishing venues, text editing programs, et cetera, and employ them via their web site (NaNoWriMo.org) to encourage YOU, the average literature-loving human with a secret desire to write, in your quest to complete a novel. The goal is to complete 50,000 words of your novel during the month of November.

Last year was the first time I took an interest in the idea. I’d heard of it the previous year, I think, but dismissed it. A novel in a month? I thought. Insane. There’s no way I could do that. 

By last year, I had shifted in my mindset. I now found the idea tantalizing. I probably had a book in me somewhere, I realized. After all, I’d been threatening to write a book for years; surely I could translate some of that energy into some sort of book. I tossed a few ideas around tentatively. But by the time I realized NaNoWriMo had rolled around again, the month was half gone and I had yet to even begin writing. I abandoned it before I had even started.

This year was different. I was plagued by the awareness that I hadn’t yet finished a photo story book I’ve been making for Niko, entitled Niko Picks Raspberries, starring (obviously) Niko himself. I had planned it for Christmas last year — didn’t finish it. Thought I’d do it in time for his birthday this year — didn’t get it done. As I tried to buckle down and finish this little story for Niko, I got to thinking — there is a wealth of story potential in that boy. What if I turned him into a book?

And then, the inciting moment. Mid-September or so,  I was editing a paper for Aaron, who is working on his master’s degree. He is excellent at researching and analyzing and synthesizing the material for a paper, but he doesn’t have as strong a grammar sense as I do. Recognizing my delight in editing, he kindly allows me to take over once the paper is written, editing to my heart’s content. For those of you who don’t personally know me, let me assure you that I actually mean this with no snark or irony. Editing relaxes me the way running on a treadmill works for other people. It brings me to my happy place.

One evening, I was proofreading a paper, making small adjustments using Word’s “Track Changes” option. I rarely even look at the citations, since I was taught to cite sources generally using MLA, while Aaron’s courses require APA formatting, and there’s a good chance I wouldn’t recognize a citation error even if he were to make one. On this particular day, though, I noted that a citation credited “Cautionary Brown, et al.” Huh, I thought. I didn’t think APA used first names. And then, Seriously? Cautionary? Impossible. I scanned nearby lines. Above was a similar citation for “Brown, et al.” On a line below, a reference to a cautionary example of… something, I don’t remember now. Aha. A simple typo. I fixed it and moved on.

Still, the name stuck with me. Cautionary Brown. It was the perfect name for a mischievous child in days of yore. I could just picture him. In fact, I could picture him doing many of the things Niko has done. For example, running through a patch of burr-covered weeds until his clothes were completely full of them, in order to help the plants spread their seeds. It occurred to me that a boy in 1890 wouldn’t be that different from a boy in 2015.

So a spark of inspiration was lit, and when the month of November arrived, I realized I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t sit down to write Cautionary’s story.

Mind you, the story didn’t turn out quite how I expected. It moved itself to 1933 or thereabouts. Cautionary’s name will have to change — charming as it is (as I think it is, anyway), it simply doesn’t work for that time period (quite possibly not for any time period). Still, there it is. A brand-new story, created by me, and inspired — very appropriately — by a typographical error. And it came to be thanks to NaNoWriMo, which created a necessary illusion of an impending deadline and periodic goals.

It’s not done. Not by a long shot. I have perhaps 2/3 of the story actually written; the rest is rough outlines and half-written story ideas. Once the entire thing is complete, it will need a complete overhaul. It will need to be smoothed, connected, expanded, inconsistencies fixed. There’s a good chance entire sections will need to be rewritten to make it readable for my target age group. After that, the book will be about the length of three young-reader novels for that age group, so I’ll then need to work in introductions and conclusions for each section, and then ensure that each can stand alone as its own book. In short, reaching my 50,000 word goal, as tremendously satisfying and exhilarating as it is, is just the beginning. I’m not even close to finished.

But. But. But, I have written 50,000 words of a novel. And I like what I’ve written. I’m as proud and excited as a first-time pregnant mother, full of anticipation to show the world my beautiful baby. Full of terror, too, at the thought of the work that awaits me, at the thought of the process of getting the book ready to be viewed by others, at the idea of actually presenting it to a publisher. Which leads, naturally, to absolute terror at the thought of having my beautiful baby be rejected.

Want to see the cover? Of course you do. Here it is.FullSizeRender

I need hardly add that this is a working cover. I grabbed a free stock photo, added text using a phone app, and color-adjusted slightly. It’s not exactly a professionally-designed book cover. Still, it works for now.

So, there it is. This is what I’ve been doing all month. It’s occupied all my waking moments. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. The story ran through my head as I strung Christmas lights, swept floors, washed dishes, supervised bath time. It pursued me through pulling weeds and planting fall bulbs. It kept me up late and occupied me when I should have been folding laundry. It has consumed me — and, I have no doubt, will continue to do so for some time. But at least now I can rest knowing I’ve met a pretty significant goal.

A Zombie Pie Thanksgiving

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, has been filled with dinner preparations. With our home already filled with the sparkle and glimmer of Christmas decorations, I’m in the holiday spirit. Fruitcake a la Alton Brown (our family’s kitchen god) rests on the counter, sealed into a bag, awaiting its next soaking with brandy. The turkey is soaking in a salty, herbed brine, Alton Brown’s cranberry jelly is setting up in the fridge, and this year’s pumpkin pie looks perfect.Well, nearly perfect. The blank surface is evidence that I lost track of time and forgot to add a pretty leaf-shaped pastry garnish.

This quiet day of cooking in an empty kitchen is a contrast to the busy Thanksgiving preparations of times past. Having just made a trip home last month to the commune where I grew up for an Ontario Thanksgiving, the difference stands out strongly in my mind. This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my Canadian family since I left home at the age of 18 to go to college.

My husband and our two small children and I took a two-leg flight from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then drove up along the coast of Lake Superior to the three-farm commune where I grew up in Northwest Ontario. It was a long trip, especially the 45-minute flight from Portland to Seattle, which culminated in both children throwing up simultaneously as we descended after a turbulent journey through high winds.

By comparison, the four-hour flight to Minneapolis and the nine-hour drive up the coast the following day were blissful. The kids were cooperative and calm, the roads were clear of snow, the iPad fulfilled its role of providing soothing entertainment, and the scenery was breathtaking. Oh, and — no one threw up. The only drawback was that, as usual, we forgot to calculate how much longer everything takes with two small children, so we didn’t arrive at my parents’ house till 9:30 in the evening… their time… which was only 6:30 Portland time, so we weren’t as tired as we should have been.

Anyway, we arrived in the dark, and had a delightful pre-arrival welcome from a friend who was leaving the farm on her way home as we were pulling into the commune’s driveway. She recognized first an unfamiliar vehicle (the commune is part of a small town, the entire population of which — including the three communal farms — is about 300, so an unknown car is notable) and then our faces, and we slowed the vehicles to call a hello between cars. Pleased that she’d achieved the very first viewing of our family, she went on her way and we pulled on up the driveway, already feeling thoroughly welcomed.

As we stepped through the doorway of my parents’ home and into the living room, Niko skidded to a halt as his face lit up with an incandescent glow. “Awe…some!” he breathed. There, covering a good two cubic feet of the living room floor, was a magnificent tower of wooden blocks, consisting of all the blocks in the bin that my dad keeps on hand for just such occasions. Welcome complete.

The following morning was Thanksgiving, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. We took the opportunity to zip over to another of the three farms, to see a cousin and her two children who were there just for the day. They would leave before the early holiday dinner, so we abandoned my mother and the other ladies of my home farm to dinner preparations and skedaddled off for a lightning-fast visit. Niko and Sofia were in seventh heaven, playing with cousins near their age, flinging just-raked leaves at each other, and exploring the brush near my aunt and uncle’s home. Other visits had to wait for another day, but we did manage to get in the essentials before we had to return to Oregon.

 

As we visited at my aunt and uncle’s home Thanksgiving morning, the phone rang — my mother, asking if I wanted pie crust made ahead for the pie I was planning to make later. Then again, asking how many apples I needed per pie. And one more time, asking if I wanted apples peeled and cut, and if so, should they be sliced or chopped? “At this rate,” I told my aunt, “the pie will be made by the time I get there, and I’ll just take credit for it!” The machinery of a communal kitchen runs smoothly, and with an abundance of cooks bustling about, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the pie had, in fact, been finished without my lifting a finger. As it turned out, the pie — a recipe I adapted from my mother-in-law’s amazing recipe — turned out to be the very ugliest pie I’ve ever made, so perhaps I should have left it to them.

I arrived in the farm kitchen after lunch and was cheerfully greeted by half a dozen busy women, all intent on one or two tasks, all moving easily around each other without friction. This is one of the things I really, truly miss — a communal kitchen. If you grew up in a large family with a big kitchen, you might know what I’m talking about. Cooking is a social activity, a companionable endeavor. It’s rare to cook alone for any significant amount of time. Someone is always wandering in to get a snack, check the mail, help out, or just say hello. If one person is in charge of dinner, likely someone else will be baking bread for the week, another person making cheese from fresh milk, and a fourth somebody putting on the coffee for everyone else.

Thanksgiving is no exception to this rule. People drifted in and out of the kitchen and dining room, sneaking samples of the feast, sharing stories, reminiscing, and, of course, drinking coffee. Women tossed cooking questions out to the group, each one triggering a rousing discussion as five different people offered opinions. As I helped wash up some of the cooking dishes, I overheard a discussion that is more or less a requisite at a farm Thanksgiving: creamy yam casserole with marshmallows, or without, or roasted? One young woman, a relative newcomer who married into the community, was preparing a marshmallow-free casserole that was traditional in her French-Canadian family, and the women were spiritedly voicing their own favorites, without rancor. “You know,” my mother said, “this kind of thing is really what makes this farm the best place. On other farms, people would argue about which one is best forever, and then they would take a vote and choose one to make, and only about a third of the population would really be happy about it. Here, we just make them all!” Sure enough, one of the other women was cutting large yams into manageable chunks for roasting, and I’m pretty sure I saw a bag of marshmallows somewhere.

Between helping with a few dishes and making my pies, I wandered the main house, taking pictures of items I’ve seen my whole life as well as the festive decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from a nostalgic stroll down memory lane:

And a few images of the autumn decor:

 

My priority was to make the apple pies. I used my own recipe, which makes delicious pie… that is, it has every other time before this. As I added ingredients, I found myself almost falling into a familiar rhythm. I’ll find spatulas here in this drawer — Hey! What happened to the spatulas? Oh, here they are. When did you change that? And sugar — aha! Right here in this giant bin where it’s always been. (I took a precautionary taste before adding it in. It wouldn’t have been the first time salt and sugar got confused.) A bit of flour — yes, right where I thought it would be. Cinnamon… nutmeg… vanilla? Didn’t the vanilla go here with the spices? “Are you looking for vanilla? I have it over here, sorry!” (The apology made me feel right at home. This is Canada, after all.)  And no,  the vanilla didn’t belong where I was looking for it…  those 15-plus-year-old memories can only do  so much.

It felt good, working with the women who taught me to cook, in the big familiar kitchen. My pleasure was somewhat tainted, however, by my observation that the pies’ filling was a little runny. And there was too much of it.  The pies were full, very full, even though I left out a couple of cups of filling, and they sloshed menacingly when they moved. What had gone wrong? No idea. There was nothing to do but to bake them off anyway. As the ovens were full with turkey and rolls, I carried them out of the big kitchen and down the hill to my parents’ little house, where I prudently placed them each on a flat pizza pan before baking them.

I’d like to pause here to point out that my reputation was on the line here. Did I mention that this was my own recipe? Published here, on this very blog? And that it had been nearly two decades since I had cooked for a farm gathering? Did I mention that everyone knew that I was the one baking these apple pies (no hiding in anonymity)? Have I pointed out that the aforesaid “everyone” also  knew that I was using a recipe I’d published on this blog, an endeavor that has been followed with mild interest by various members of the community? Oh yes, I was very conscious of the vulnerability of my reputation, as I slid the sloshing pies into my mother’s oven.

Forty-five minutes later, I cringingly opened the oven door. My fears had come true. Let me assure you: this was the ugliest pie known to cuisine. Never before have I seen, nor do I wish ever to see again, a pie this ugly. The crumb topping had been displaced by bubbling filling, and patches of it had slid off the pie onto the pizza pans underneath, and some had dripped off the pans and onto the oven floor. The weight of the sliding filling had broken the edges of the crisp and flaky crust, destroying any chance they had of looking like ordinary pies. With the missing patches of topping, the crumbled edges, and the bubbled-over filling, my pies looked like pastries that had died violently and then been returned to a semblance of life by a misguided cook. Undead pies. Zombie pies. They were horrific. I was so ashamed, I didn’t even take a picture. This is what they were supposed to look like, although even this pie’s crust could be prettier:Featured Image -- 823

(They didn’t look like that.)

I was writhing in humiliation as I carried the pies back up to the main house and deposited them with the oher desserts, every one of which was more attractive than my sad apple pies.  I tried to sneak them in, hoping everyone would forget who was responsible for them, but in vain: one of the ladies sitting in the big dining room, working her magic on flower arrangements with preserved leaves, called out as I entered, “Hope! Are those your delicious apple pies? I can’t wait to try them!” I felt like dumping them into the trash, but instead I dutifully thunked them down next to the butter tarts and chocolate roll and cherry pies awaiting dinner.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hated seeing my dilapitated desserts next to everyone else’s lovely food.

But the thing is, this was a family Thansgiving. Nobody cared, really, what those pies looked like. They were there to visit, laugh, fill up on turkey, munch on soft, freshly-baked rolls, and sample as many desserts as possible.  Sure, my pies weren’t the first to disappear. They may even have been the last to be devoured over the next few days of leftover feasting. But nevertheless, they did get eaten, and, despite their imperfect texture, they were delicious, especially eaten alongside the homemade maple ice cream that was served with dessert.

Those pies shredded my reputation, but my sense of belonging and family wasn’t hurt one iota. As I visited with folks I haven’t seen in years, watching them valiantly attack my soggy apple pie, I felt perfectly happy. It was good to be home.

Theology for the Very Young

“Mom, what’s a haunted house?”

With Halloween approaching and ghosts popping up everywhere, I was actually prepared for this question, asked — as usual — in the car, en route to preschool. Niko, nearly five now, is a thinker, a ponderer, and a worrier, and these quiet twenty-minute excursions are fertile ground for some deep questioning sessions.

We watched Inside Out last summer, and the concepts in the story have been really useful as we dissect and examine all those complex and intertwined emotions that some kids Niko’s age experience. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful movie about emotions. I mean, literally starring the emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. I highly recommend it, though Niko’s age — 4 years old when we watched it — is borderline for being ready to handle the range of feelings and experiences the story covers.) But also in the story was Riley’s observation that her new home, empty and lonely, looked like a haunted house. Niko had mentioned this once not long ago, and I’d deflected the question in a truly skilled manner, but I knew I’d have to face a barrage of questions sooner or later. In preparation for the coming onslaught of inquiry, I did some thinking, pondering, and, yes, worrying of my own.

Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.
Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.

So when the inevitable question arrived, I had a triage of answers ready, and I began with the simplest. “A haunted house isn’t real, but in stories, it’s a house where ghosts live.” There. Simple.

“Why did Riley think her house looked haunted?”

“People sometimes think that ghosts like to live in houses where people don’t live. Riley’s new house was empty when they got there, so she thought it looked like a place a ghost might like to live. But really there weren’t any ghosts there, because ghosts aren’t real.”

“What’s a ghost?” Of course. He was going for the long route. I could tell this was not going to be a short conversation. He’s known about ghosts for awhile, naturally, but it’s recently occurred to him there must be more to them than a silly white sheet with a cheerful grin; otherwise why would people be afraid of them?

Still, even though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t satisfy him, I went for the next answer on my list. “You know what a ghost is! You’ve seen lots of pictures. They’re little white floaty guys.”

“But what’s a ghost really?” 

I moved to the next response on my mental list, finally shifting into Real Answers mode. “Ghosts aren’t real,” I said (why change a formula that works so well?), “but in stories, they are spirits of people who have died but who haven’t gone to be with God yet.”

“What’s a spirit?”

“A spirit is a special part of a person that God has made that lives forever and can always be with God. That’s the part of us that talks to God. Our bodies don’t last forever, but our spirits do.”

“Why do our spirits last forever?”

“Because that’s the way God made us.”

“But what if a bad guy comes and takes our spirit?”

“A bad guy can’t take our spirit. It’s not something you can see or hold in your hand. Nobody can take it from you. It’s just for you and God.”

By this time (oh thank you God) we were pulling into the parking lot and entering our flurry of unbuckling, collecting lunch box for snack, collecting little sister, putting that special toy back into the car, looking both directions to cross the parking lot… and the questions were cut short.

Really, I thought, I’d acquitted myself quite well. My answers were clear, concise, and to the point, each giving the information requested and no more, never overwhelming with too much. That was one paranormal/metaphysical/ theological discussion of which I could be proud. Right? Right?

Fast-forward to this morning. Aaron was working on the chicken coop; I was puttering in the garden shed, tidying away dried lavender and sweeping shelves and floors and organizing tools and doing all those odds and ends one needs to do if one wishes to actually use one’s gardening shed for gardening. Niko was running the length of the yard, now visiting Dad, now Mom, in his peregrinations.

As I organized, I caught sight of a collection of pinwheels we’d used to deter birds from eating our berry harvest, and realized I was missing one of the sturdy metal ones. I sent Niko running for it.

He returned in a few moments, his face sad and anxious, holding out the pinwheel in two pieces. Its head, made of brightly-colored flower-like spinning blades, had detached from the sturdy stake. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, “I could only bring you its spirit.”

I’m telling you, teaching theology to a preschooler is hard. 

A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?
A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?

 

Photo copyright Pixar Animation Studios, found by me via a blog post called “Mental Wellness in Movies: Inside Out,” from  Projected Realities.

Don’t Get Lost

Last week, I had a doctor’s appointment, and I left the kids home with Aaron. I came home to find drawings taped up all over the house. “They’re signs!” my 4-year-old son informed me proudly. 

On closer examination, I realized that they were, indeed, signs, and each one bore a distinct resemblance to what one might find through that door. The front door’s sign was a green tree, which makes sense, as one might see a tree were one to open it. The door to the sun room bore an image of…a door. Which had a certain logic, after all, since there is another door beyond that one. Every single door had a sign. His room:     

Sofia’s room (he must have been in a hurry, as he actually drew it a few months ago, and it’s been hanging on his wall all this time):   

Every door, and a few windows too, were labeled. He explained confidingly to me that this was to keep us from getting lost when we were walking around inside our house. 

That’s my son, keeping our family safe and on track, one sign at a time. What would we ever do without him?

 God’s Finger

I’ve mentioned it a few times, the Big Hemiplegic Migraine that sent me to the ER in a dramatic sort of full body alert that I’d never before experienced, unable to speak or fully use my right side, barely able to remember how to form words on paper, too weak to walk alone, and very very scared. Those big and obvious symptoms have long faded, and now the extreme versions of other symptoms are starting to recede a bit too, but right now those lesser, non-scary symptoms are still somewhat ramped up and extreme, and a little distracting.

My ADHD brain has taken this distraction and run with it, constantly making analogies to explain and categorize the odd sensations I’ve been experiencing. I’ve cataloged them here for your reading pleasure. I hope you enjoy them more than I do.

Nearly all the time, there’s a gentle vibrating tickle at the back of my neck, trailing down my spine. If you were raised in a church with a leaning toward Pentecostal, Apostolic, Charismatic, or some other such Holy Spirit-led group, or belonged to another fervent religious group, this may be a familiar sensation to you. You’re caught up in the heights of ecstatic praise, and a brother or sister or elder begins shouting out a prophetic message in the exact words of the Scripture you read that morning: there it is, that gentle tickle on the back of your neck. A more mundane setting for this sensation might be a struggling single mom who brings a five-dollar coat for her child to the register at a secondhand store, and happens to slip her hand into the pocket, where she finds…a five-dollar bill. I guarantee she feels a tickle on the back of her neck, a shimmer along her spine. That, dear readers, is the finger of God.

I feel the finger of God a lot these days. It’s a little disconcerting. When I was a teenager, my Aunt Gaye and her sister, my sort-of Aunt Julie, used to run their fingers down our spines (or their knuckles, if they felt like being emphatic) when their daughters and nieces were demonstrating poor posture. I grew to half-expect this from my aunts; one never quite expects God’s finger to hover permanently over one’s spine.

Most days, this tickle intensifies and spreads upwards into my scalp. My hair lifts, and my skin prickles. I can describe this one easily, in terms everyone will understand: spooky stories during a sleepover! Or… that feeling when you know you’re sharing space with a ghost.

About fifteen years ago, when I was a student at a Christian college which was part of a network of communes spread across mostly North America (with a few elsewhere worldwide, too), I was visiting friends at the home of one of the commune’s hosting families (that is, they were commune residents who hosted college students during the school year). It was just us five girls, the high-school-aged daughter of the family and four college girls. We knew we were in the house alone; we’d recently been upstairs, where we were the only ones present, and were now down in the kitchen getting a snack. During a pause in conversation, we heard footsteps. Heavy footsteps, above our heads. Five heads swiveled toward the stairs, then back toward each other. Sherri shook her head; no, she confirmed, no one else was home. We listened in utter silence as the footsteps moved back and forth from room to room. And then. The footsteps came to the top of the stairs. We clearly heard footsteps descending. Vertebrae in five necks crackled as our heads whipped toward the staircase, which was in clear view from the kitchen counter.

No one was there.

Oh yes, our scalps were prickling.

I feel that way a lot these days. I’m pursued by ghosts.

Some days, the gentle tickle and the prickling scalp intensify still more and spreads into my face and hands and sometimes my toes. It becomes a tingle punctuated with numb spots. Usually it’s merely bothersome, though occasionally, rarely, it’s enough to make my hands clumsy or make eating difficult. It concentrates around my eye sockets, temples, nostrils, mouth. Sometimes my lips, tongue, and roof of my mouth become partly numb. Is this sounding a bit familiar? Yes, indeed. It’s like a visit to the dentist.

I’m a redhead, incidentally. In addition to feeling certain types of pain differently than other people, redheads are also, weirdly, resistant to certain types of pain medication, like the lidocaine dentists use. Often this isn’t too much of an issue, but I remember one horrific incident. Really unpleasant. My childhood dentist, the wild-eyebrowed, kind-eyed, bluntly-spoken Dr. LeCoq, to whom all the commune mothers took their children, was preparing me for an extra-deep filling one day in my late teens. I’d had plenty of fillings before, and had often felt a little pain with drilling (though the good Dr. LeCoq didn’t entirely believe me), but this time was different. This time, I never went entirely numb.

Dr. LeCoq gave me a shot, told me I would soon be able to feel pressure but not pain, demonstrated by tapping my thumbnail, and left the room. He returned the appropriate amount of time later, cheerfully tapping my gum with some metal instrument of torture. “Ow,” I said. “Huh,” he said, “that’s odd,” and gave me another shot. This continued as long as was ethically allowable — at some point I’d had as much lidocaine as I could possibly have, and he simply had to either drill or let me go home. I was almost numb, really, so I told him to drill. Oh, yes. There’s a reason anesthesia is widely used in modern times.

Well. Anyway. That’s not really the point. The point is, my face often feels like that. It feels like my dentist — who felt terrible about the whole thing, by the way — has given me the first ineffective shot of lidocaine, and I haven’t gone entirely numb: I can smile with both sides of my mouth, talk clearly, eat without drooling; but it feels…funny. On those days, I’m in a perpetual visit to the dentist. But no one’s giving me free toothbrushes.

Most days, that’s as bad as it gets. I mean, there are a few days when the facial sensations are amped up to electric fly swatter levels, when I’m nearly convinced that should a fly happen to land on my face, it would be zapped to death. It’s mildly painful. Mildly, as in, there are mild electrical shocks running across my face and sometimes through my hands without stopping. It could be worse. It’s nothing like sciatica, which feels more like the sensation of running full bore into an electric livestock fence, concentrated into one area of back and hip. So, really, it’s mild. Fly swatter… electric fence… meh, I’ll take the fly swatter, thanks.

So there you have it. If you’re a family member, and a friend is asking after me, and you REALLY feel you wish to give them all the details, just remember: finger of God, ghost stories, dentist’s office, electric fly swatter.

I’m fine, by the way — energy is returning bit by bit, to the point that daily life is about back to normal; migraines have receded completely, thanks to preventative medication; I’ve recovered nearly all the normal use of my right hand, only noticing issues if I’m trying to thread a needle or write in a small space; I haven’t had trouble walking in nearly a month. The painful electrical sensation in my face is rare, usually lasting just a short time. I’m thankful that, so far, this is affecting me less than it seems to affect other people who experience hemiplegic migraines. Those symptoms I listed above? Weird; strange; distracting; sometimes amusing. Almost never painful. They don’t interfere with daily activities. So yes, really: I’m okay. 

I’ll just be even more happy when the finger of God lifts for awhile, the ghost goes off to haunt someone else, the dentist gives up and sends me away, and the batteries in the fly swatter give out.

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Why Moms Don’t Get Bathroom Breaks

Recently I came across another mom’s list of things she “can’t even…” now that she’s a parent. Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or one who works outside, if you have small children, you probably have your own litany of Things You Can’t Even. I thought I’d become resigned to mine. After all, the trade off — my two beautiful, bright, constantly learning and changing little people — is worth the loss of child-free independence.

And then, with my littlest’s weaning and subsequent champion nap-taking and nighttime sleeping, I started pushing my limits. I began questioning my biggest Can’t Even. Maybe I CAN use the bathroom alone, I thought. If I hurry. If they’re distracted. If they don’t see me leave, don’t hear the door shut. After several successes, I grew complacent. I can do this! I thought. I reveled in the freedom, at least once a day. Sometimes twice. Just me. Alone. In the bathroom.

Until today. I left them painting at the small table. I tiptoed away. In the bathroom, I kept an ear alert for suspicious sounds. Nothing. I hurried out, camera in hand, to capture the picture of colorful youthful creativity I was sure I’d find.

Creative, yes. Colorful, indeed. A living canvas, one might say:

  I can’t even. I can’t even use the bathroom alone. Ever.