March 14, 2011 § 7 Comments

We started a garden. It’s weird that I am so happy about it because I am not really a gardening type. I have never been particularly interested in plants or horticulture. But I had a few freelance assignments last year about local food and farmers in San Diego. I was so inspired by those men and women, by their fierce tenacity and determination. Their desire to feed people real food and their refusal to submit to fast, easy solutions. Farmers, I am convinced, are a grounding force in our chaotic world.

I didn’t really put all that much effort into this garden. It was just an intention, a hope. There is a patch of mostly bare soil outside a basement window in the back of our house. It doesn’t get much sun in the summer and we didn’t do anything to prep the soil. But two weeks ago, I showed Scott the spot I wanted to dig up. The next day, he was out there with the boys shoveling. Gus was busy pouring dirt into a bucket and Oliver loved using his new wheelbarrow and rake to dump weeds over the steep edge of our yard. “Mommy,” he said, “I think I am going to have my own gardening company someday because I am so good with these tools.” At one point, we were all out there digging. This was new for me, this family time. Isn’t that awful? But for the last year, Scott and I have been tag-team parents on the weekends. He goes mountain biking and when he comes home, I go for a run. I go to yoga and when I come home, I’ll get Gus down for a nap. Occasionally we’ll go out to dinner or go for a walk, but not often enough.

Scott surprised me again last weekend. Last Friday after the rain, I went out with the boys for a few hours to dig up the soft ground. I thought we did a great job and even Scott was impressed. “But look at all those old tree roots,” I told Scott. He shrugged off the roots. “It should be OK,” he said. The next day, when I came home from yoga, my small efforts were totally blown away by Scott and the boys. He dug way deeper than I could have and he and Oliver and Gus got rid of every single root. “I thought that they might take too much water away from your plants,” Scott told me. I looked out into the now gorgeous patch of earth.

The next day, Scott lined the garden with bricks. He made furrows in the ground and we all made tiny holes in the surface. We brought out those awesome packs of seeds as if it were Christmas. We ripped them open after showing each other the cheesy photos on the front: lettuce and spinach, peas and nasturtium. “Can I put the seeds in?” Oliver asked while Gus threw things over the edge of our backyard. “What does that seed look like?” he asked and I handed him tiny grains of lettuce, big round peas that will hopefully become sweet, flowering plants. I read Margaret Roach’s incredible gardening blog everyday now. My mom just bought me a subscription to an organic gardening magazine.

On Saturday, after hearing the full magnitude of the earthquake in Japan, I silently dedicated our little piece of land to that beautiful country. I feel now much as I did after September 11th. I was in San Diego then and felt so horribly helpless. My brother had moved to New York, to his girlfriend’s apartment on John Street on September 10th. For most of the next day, I couldn’t get in touch with him. He was supposed to start his new job at Bank of America and I had no idea whether his office was in midtown or downtown. I didn’t know he was on a ferry to Hoboken, that he was watching the horror as it happened.

A few weeks ago, we met Scott for lunch at the Pentagon. What impressed me most were not the three intense security checks before we even got to the building, but the huge quilt hung by the entrance, each square representing a person killed there on September 11th. Tears welled up as soon as I saw it. My god, that terrible day. We ate lunch with Scott at one of the Pentagon’s many food courts and then walked through the building, over the big green lawn at the center of the Pentagon, passed the restaurant smack dab in the center of that lawn like a bull’s eye. You never know. You just never know when disaster will strike.

That fall, in 2001, I was depressed. I felt hopeless and heartsick. The innocence of our country had been shredded. I cut Billy Collins’ poem “The Names” from the New York Times and almost memorized it. Let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound ….

I feel that way now. Helpless. Powerless. Groundless. Incredulous. The only disaster I remember from my youth is Mount St. Helens. There weren’t events like this, were there? Tsunamis and earthquakes and floods. Haiti and Japan and New Orleans and Thailand. Tonight during savasana in yoga, I felt the weight of all that in my chest. It flattened me until I felt as thin as a sticker. Someone would have to peel me off the floor, from under the weight of this destruction. There is absolutely nothing to do except to click on the red cross on my computer, the one that says “Donate.”

And yet it does no good to be powerless, to be depressed. I think about the parts of my day that are hard. The hours between 3 and 6 pm. The clean-up after dinner. The bickering. The laundry. I think about a natural disaster destroying all the parts of the day I don’t like and my heart hurts thinking about how much I would mourn the loss of them. I would miss the fighting, the boredom that sets in at 4:13 pm. I would crave a kitchen to clean, clean shirts to fold. I have no emotional response to photos of the devastation in Japan because it doesn’t seem real to me. But the faces – those faces! The loss. 10,000. It almost doesn’t register.

Today I am grateful for the hard parts of my day. I am so grateful to the garden, which might be one of the most romantic gifts my husband has ever given me. I didn’t ask for it and he made it beautiful. He dug much further down than I could. He lined it with brick. He told me we can build a fence to keep out the squirrels and chipmunks and the fox that lives in our neighborhood. His face lit up as he dug a 2 inch hole with a stick and dropped in spinach seeds.

We are waiting now to see what is going to come up. We are watering and trying to be patient. We know that it might be a bust this year, that bugs and blight and that fox might steal our small harvest away. But no matter what we pull up, we will have enough. We already have abundance.

The Names – Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.


December 29, 2010 § 4 Comments

We are staying at Scott’s parents for almost two weeks this holiday. They live in Oregon, up in the mountains. It’s such a welcome break from DC. There are wide, snow-covered fields where cattle and horses nonchalantly snuff at the ground, the air is dry and still, and some days, all I can hear is the wind in the pine trees and the snow as it falls from the branches. I have been running almost every day even though at almost 5000 feet, I am out of breath almost as soon as I start.

In some ways the trip has been stressful for me. I am much like my oldest son. I love routines and out of my own cozy nest, I feel a bit not myself. I realize how tied I am to place, how quick I am to put down roots, to fill my refrigerator with familiar food and hang pictures on the walls, to get to know the running routes. And yet, being away has been good too. If it has gotten me out of my comfort zone, it has also gotten me out of my own head and out of my own way.

The other day, a bird – a dove – was trapped behind the chicken wire that was protecting a young tree from deer in my father-in-law’s yard. My husband went out to rescue it, but none of us thought the bird would come to him. Three minutes later, he walked into the house with a dove in his hands. Oh jeez, I thought, as 23-m0nth old Gus rushed to Scott and the bird. “Dat a bird daddy?” Gus asked leaping up to see what Scott was holding. “Dat a bird?” That bird is going to have a heart attack, I thought. My husband is going to get his hand pecked off. “Don’t let that bird go in the house,” my father-in-law said, “Or we’re really going to be in trouble.”

To my surprise, my husband bent down and let Gus pet the bird. Five-year old Oliver lifted his head briefly and went back to his Legos. But Gus was mesmerized. He stroked the bird’s feathers and his eyes were wide with wonder. “Want to hold the bird daddy,” Gus said.

“We have to let him go Gus. He has to go home,” Scott told him.

I watched the bird who was so calm in my husband’s hands. I would have been freaking out if I was the dove, but there he was, the very symbol of peace, a spot of irridescent purple under his eye.

“Want to hold the bird daddy,” Gus kept saying and skipped next to my husband even as he walked out onto the snow-covered deck into the cold morning air. Gus doesn’t like the cold, but there he was, waiting for my husband to place the bird in his hands. Although a lot of things happened this Christmas, the memory of that morning is tops for me. Gus stood with his feet wide apart in his red footie pajamas, his eyes on the sky and the bird clutched close to his chest as if it had been just been within his own heart, inside his own cage of bone rather than trapped behind a fence of wire. And then, without warning, Gus opened his hands and stepped back as the dove beat its wings, scrambling for purchase on Gus’ fingers and creating momentum. There was a moment of furious wing beats and then silence. The bird took flight and we all watched it go.

Gus danced into the house, his own arms outflung like the dove’s. “I held the bird? I let it go? Bird go home! Bird fly!” He danced into the living room spinning. He saw a calendar hanging on a wall with a photo of a bald eagle. “Like that bird,” he said, pointing to the photo. “My bird fly like that bird.”

This metaphor was not lost on me, how tightly I hold onto my boys and how I need to let them go. Oliver is now five and craving independence. For the first time, he is in a school that does not welcome parents in the classroom. I feel powerless most days, not knowing what is happening for the three hours when he is out of my care. When I ask about school: about the golden walnuts or the crown of yarn or the games he plays, he tells me that it’s a secret. For a while I wanted to take him out of school. It seemed too unstructured, too rough sometimes. My son needed to feel safe. He needed to be with me for just one more year.But while I was struggling with what to do and with making a decision, Oliver figured things out for himself. He made friends. He made bread and was proud to help knead it. He learned to fold the pillowcases and later to stuff them with pillows for rest time. He told me that he liked his school. While I struggled and worried, Oliver got on with the business of living his own life.

Lately, I have been reading some great posts about parenting from Bruce at Privilege of Parenting and Kristen at Motherese. They both talk about true attachment parenting and about how “attachment” does not mean “clinging.” Bruce wrote a wonderful peace about how we must know our children and keep our own issues separate from theirs, how we need to raise them as they ask to be raised by teaching them what they need to know and by honoring their unique gifts. Kristen wrote about several books that are out now. One spoke about our common fantasy of creating perfect environments for our children. How our generation of mothers share a belief that if we eliminate impurities from our kids’ diets and close their eyes and ears off to violence and buy just the right toys, our children will be perfect. And we in turn will look like perfect parents.

That rang so true to me. I have read dozens of parenting books. I have the entire Dr. Sears library on my bookshelves. I want to create a bubble for my boys and prevent anyone hurtful from entering. I don’t want them to hear a mean word or be on the receiving end of a cruel act. This in itself is not bad of course. Of course it makes sense to keep media to a minimum and to shield children from as much evil as we can. But it’s a short distance from doing our best to trying to control our children. It’s a fine line between keeping our children safe while they are in the nest, to hindering their flight. It’s a very slippery slope from trying to be a good parent to trying to look like a good parent. I am a good candidate for a helicopter parent. I love to hover. I believe that if I worry about something enough, it won’t happen. I subscribe to a cheap religion of bargaining instead of praying, of tithing anxiety in exchange for best outcomes.

This of course does not lead to happy children or secure children or peaceful children. This dove today taught me that. Gus taught me that. He showed me that I need to hold my little birds close when they need me, to snuggle their softness and revel in the way their hearts beat like crazy to get out. But I need to let go too. I need to let them fly, in small doses now, but in increasingly longer intervals. After all, that is my job. I am only here to prepare them for their own journey home, for their own precarious flights.

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