Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Marriage and Shorthand Arguments

Just before I got married, the women in my mother's ward--though they didn't know me all that well--were kind enough to throw me a bridal shower. Somehow the conversation turned to marriage advice, and I still remember just about everything the bishop's wife said about marriage. My impression of her prior to that shower was that she was quiet and smiley and not particularly "real"--if you know what I mean. But she was more than real that night, and I am still so grateful. Just about everything she said has proved true of my own experience in marriage.

Among other valuable and down-to-earth advice, she told me that eventually our arguments would whittle down to shorthand. That after awhile we'd know each other so well and we'd have had the same conversations and disagreements so many times that we'd be able to say, "Hey, could you ...?" And the other person would know instantly how we meant to finish the the sentence and be able to say, "Yeah yeah, okay. I know." And there, that would be it. A entire fight that previously would have brought tension for several days would be over in eight words. At the time, I confess, I couldn't really imagine what she meant, but now, over five years in, I think Sam and I are beginning to reach shorthand.

There's this memory I have of our first few months of marriage that can, without fail, make me feel like giggling at how cute and misguided I was as a new bride. I had decided that I wanted more help around the house, that we really could be sharing more of the burden of running a home. We were both working full-time, and it seemed there was no reason why we couldn't split the tasks more evenly. And I geared up for the conversation and prayed about it and thought about how I would say it and sat Sam down on the couch and told him how I felt. I was so earnest! And I can't really explain why this makes me feel like giggling, except that somehow I thought this would be the end of the conversation--that I just needed to communicate how I felt and Sam would surely agree and then we'd maybe make a chart of chores or something (?!) and then we'd be more equally yoked in this matter. That's not exactly how it worked. Sam was like, "Okay, sure, whatever." And then he asked what specifically I wanted help with, and I realized I didn't really know. We were so new together, and just making sense of our home and our lives, and I had no idea that it would just take time, lots and lots of time, years and years to really figure each other out.

Of course, this is a conversation we've had since then. And I confess I haven't exactly handled it better. In fact, the problem is that I usually wait until I'm good and resentful before I bring it up. And then, sadly, I'm not really praying and thinking very carefully about how I say things. It's late at night and I'm tired and I make accusations and I'm not very nice at all. Most recently, I accused Sam of ruining my opportunities to work on my writing because he didn't help around the house more.

Sometimes I'm a terrible person.

After that conversation, I was pretty much immediately sure I had been a fool, and that I had handled it all wrong. And in the middle of the night I remembered what the bishop's wife had said, and realized this conversation was probably one that would benefit from shorthand. Sam knows I'm always anxious about the house, he knows I'd love more help. And I know he's willing, but that he's not always sure exactly where to pitch in. And why fight about it, again? Why not just say--before I'm angry and resentful and before I've attached all sorts of other frustrations to this particular problem--"Could you help me a little more around the house? I'm feeling overwhelmed by it." And Sam could say, "Yeah, okay. What do you want me to do?" And hopefully I'd know. And we wouldn't have to pull out the big guns to make our points. We could carry on, sit down to dinner, put the baby to bed, and hang out on the couch--all heavy conversations accomplished--and talk about the really important stuff, like what to watch on TV.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Strange Art of Trying

I once told a woman I didn't know all that well that I was "trying" to do something. She immediately said, "You're trying, you're lying." And the rhyme was so catchy and she seemed so sure of this truth, that I thought she must be right, even as I hated her for saying it.

But motherhood has changed my sense of "trying," and now I feel sure that this woman was wrong. To me, trying--especially when divorced from concern of outcome--is a noble art. And the most difficult and important one I practice as the mother to Henrietta. For Henrietta and I, it doesn't work to force it, and it doesn't work to give up entirely. It only works to come at it from somewhere in the middle, to approach it as gently as possible, as unemotionally as possible, yet still with a great deal of persistence. 

Here's what I mean: Henrietta is not, sadly for me, an eat-everything-on-her-plate kind of girl. She's picky, and it seemed for awhile she was getting pickier, and I was worried we were going to end up with a white diet kid--the kind of kid who only eats cheese, white bread, pasta, etc. I'd offer her a strawberry, and she'd spit. I'd offer her a piece of broccoli, and she'd politely hand it back to me. I knew it would do no good to shove the broccoli down her throat or express how disappointed I was that she wouldn't eat it. I've read enough to know that adding my emotions to what she chooses to eat is a terrible idea. And for awhile, I sort of gave up. I stopped making real meals. I'd throw her a quesadilla or some Mac & Cheese--things I was pretty sure she'd eat--and call it a night. But I could feel that this wasn't the right approach. I had to try, even if she never willingly put broccoli to her lips in her life. I read somewhere that a kid has to be exposed to a food 10 times before she's comfortable with it. So I kept telling myself that--10 times, 10 times. And some days I'd feel more like trying than others. But I tried to share my own food with her, and show her what I was eating and enjoying, and not get upset when she outright refused whatever I had prepared. And last weekend, she grabbed a strawberry from my own bowl of strawberries (though she had her own on her plate) and ate the whole thing, and now she can't get enough of them. Strawberries three times a day! And she's eating peas again, and dipping crackers in peanut butter, and it seems, suddenly, like her food adventurousness is exploding. Cross my fingers, knock on wood. 

These babies, they change so quickly. And it's hard to have this job of guiding someone whose tune changes, and who can't yet communicate exactly what she wants or needs. I sometimes want so badly to enforce my sense of what's necessary--to hold her down and brush her teeth as she screams, to give her nothing but celery until she learns to love it, to shout that yesterday she seemed to love eggs, so what's wrong with her today?! But I'm learning that it's no real use, and that it's more useful to save my shouts for when things are really dangerous, like when she's standing on the chair with one leg up on the table, two seconds from cracking her skull on the tile. 

This is such a strange art of trying--to try with tenacity, but without a goal, and without a demand, and without a sense what what success might actually look like. To let her guide me, more or less. To follow her lead. 

And I'm finding this is--as so much of motherhood is--a larger lesson. I'd do well to be this gentle with myself. To try tenaciously to establish better habits as a human--eating better, exercising more, writing more often, keeping my house cleaner, living a more humble and spiritual life. But doing all I can to divorce those attempts from expectations, or a sense of shame or failure. 

I think about that woman sometimes, wishing I could find her and tell her: You are dead wrong. Trying isn't lying. It's the only real truth. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

An Icon of Fame and Beauty

Yesterday, Sam and Henrietta and I went downtown to the Tucson Museum of Art, and we found a little pocket of downtown Tucson that felt like a real downtown. It wasn't just a sad whisper of Boston, but a genuinely hip part of Tucson with green space and cool restaurants. This was exciting. We looked up at the few high-rise apartment buildings and imagined living right around there, in walking distance to interesting shops and cafes and parks.

We were walking down the block, trying to find a place we'd heard about with good reviews and good prices for dinner, and Henrietta was holding my hand. She's taken to holding my hand lately, really holding it. Her hand is so small, and she grips mine like I matter more than I sometimes suspect I do. I hold on tight, in case she decides to dart away, but she's not interested in running off (yet). She's happy to walk right with me, connected to me, seeing the world pass by on the sidewalk.

In the crook of her other arm she held her lamb by the neck--the lamb you see at the top of the last post, a gift from her dad for Valentine's Day. Henrietta had on polka dot socks and little white summer shoes she'd insisted on wearing, and I could hear her feet slap-slap-slapping along the sidewalk next to me. Now and then, a pleasant gust of wind would hit us, ruffling our clothes and hair, and Henrietta would laugh and laugh. The wind, apparently, is hilarious.

People walking the other direction, leaving work with serious faces, would see her and smile. They'd point her out to someone walking with them, they'd comment on how lovely she was. And I thought I would burst. She was lovely. She is lovely. It felt for a moment like I was walking with an icon of fame and beauty, a celebrity. And babies are sort of celebrities, aren't they? Sam sometimes asks Henrietta, "You know who loves you?" And then he answers: "Everyone who meets you."

I hope I can remember how that felt, walking down the street with her, holding her hand, prouder to be with her than anyone, grateful to feel, even in small part, beautiful and famous by association.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Habits of Babies

Contraband Pacifier + Lamb

Henrietta does these three things that I find so charming. The last of the three is charming and deeply disturbing. You'll see what I mean.

The first is that every time I change her top for any reason--to change her out of her pajamas, to put on her dress for the day, to change her dress when it warms up to 80 degrees in the afternoon--she waits until her head has popped through, and then says "Boo!" This on its own is plenty endearing, but to me what's even more endearing is when she forgets to say it right away, and then, with one arm partway through a sleeve, she says, "Boo. Boo." Quickly, almost apologetically, twice for good measure. This is so fascinating to me, as if we've signed a very serious contract that she must say "boo" while getting her shirt changed. We've signed no such contract, but it's lovely to me that this small thing matters to her. It amuses her, and she knows it amuses me because I still laugh every time she does it, so she considers it her obligation to never forget.

The same is true for saying "uh-oh" when something drops to the floor. And I know both of these things (this one especially) are fairly typical for this age, but what's fascinating, again, is how devoted she is to the practice. She does it not just when something falls, but when something is already on the floor and appears to have fallen some time previously. The other day at the grocery store she saw something on the floor, and from her perch on the cart she pointed to it and said, appropriately, "Uh-oh!"

And for this last one, I do hope you're not eating lunch as you read it. She's taken to spilling liquid--on purpose. Milk, water, applesauce in a pouch, yogurt in a squeezey tube--whatever it is gets deposited in a small puddle on the tile or the couch or the coffee table, and then she gets down really low, in her best crouch, and slurps it. She looks up at me, and says, "Mmmmm!" This happens quickly, very quickly, before I can cross the room to stop her. I try to tell her yucky, yucky, nonono, but again, she seems to simply find it amusing. I don't know where she got this behavior from. She's definitely not modeling me. But my hunch is that she gets it from the cats. She watches those guys all day, and they, of course, crouch down to eat their food or lap their water. I haven't heard them say "Mmm!" But maybe that's a Henrietta signature addition.

And even as I type these out, I'm realizing she does them less often. They change so quickly, don't they? She seems to be this particular way, this little personality with quirks and particular intentions, and almost before I can cross the room to record it, she's onto something else, changing faster than I can manage to keep up with. I must do better at trying.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Brought to You By Language Acquisition

I've been fighting some pesky depression and anxiety, hence the silence. The first thing to go are my words. I stop writing, stop blogging, stop feeling like I can articulate to Sam or anyone else what's wrong or what I think, even about the smallest things. It's a terrible, miserable way for me to live. The good news is, I got asked to teach this amazing talk at church just before things got really lousy. Having those words in my head as I entered the lowlands was a gift.

But I don't really want to say more about it. I want to talk about Henrietta, of course, who is by far my favorite creature on the planet and becomes more so daily. And while I've grown sort of silent and strange, my girl is gaining new words every day, and figuring out what they mean, and figuring out what she wants, and learning how to ask for it. It's been an absolute miracle to witness. I think I knew I would like this part--this language acquisition part. But I wasn't quite prepared for how much I would love it. When she does the sign for "baby" and says "Bay! Bee!" I usually have to will myself not to weep.

Because here is this little human I made. And when she first arrived she couldn't tell me what she needed. She could only cry. She could only cry and cry, and I could only guess what was wrong and fix it as best I could. And I got pretty good at guessing, but it was still guessing. And now, when suddenly she can tell me what she wants more of, or she can go to the pantry and open the door and pull out what she'd like to eat, my word, it's magical. I know those things seem small, but they are revolutionary when you've been trying to field a constant stream of mute longing for over a year.

And this morning, this morning we had such a sweet forty-five minutes together, maybe the most perfect forty-five minutes of my life. And I knew I needed to get up and write it out, that I would really be sorry if I didn't record it.

They were simple minutes. She woke up crying a little after five, and Sam prepped her a bottle and I went in to help her. She was standing at the corner of her crib when I came in, and I picked her up, and rocked her while she gulped down the bottle. Her eyes were sort of half-closed while she did it, so I assumed we'd all go back to sleep soon enough and I was not sorry about this. But then she took the bottle out, and started making her sounds, her words, the ones she seems to know but I don't yet, and I said, "Yes, yes, I think you're right about that."

She began to point at the big basket full of books we keep by the rocking chair, pointing and pointing, and this meant she wanted me to read one, and I find her interest in books deeply thrilling, so I picked one up and asked if she wanted me to read it, but it was obviously the wrong one, so she fussed and kept pointing. I let her down to pick her own, which it also amazes me she can do.

We read Little Fur Family. I love Little Fur Family. Do you know it? "There was a little fur family, warm as toast," is how it begins. And we particularly love it because the fur child has a small red ball on most pages, and we know the word "ball," and we really really love pointing to the book and saying "Ball!" every time we see the little red ball. In fact, when we reach pages that don't showcase the little red ball, we simply must go back and look at the other pages where it is showcased.

When that was over, we read it again. And then we read Moo, Baa, La La La! several times. And then I pointed to her changing table and asked if we might change her pants, and she pointed as to say, yes, we really ought. And then I pointed to her crib and asked if she might want to go back to sleep for a bit. And she pointed as to say, yes, yes, I'd like that. And I held her for a moment and rocked her, and told her I was going to give her a kiss before she went back to bed because I loved her very much and I would miss her while she slept. And she picked her head up off of my chest and gave me a kiss, a kiss with her pacifier in her mouth, but still, a kiss. What a word to know--kiss. And I held her some more, and then I set her down and tucked a quilt around her, and told her thank you, thank you, my sweet and darling girl. Thank you for coming to be my friend.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ten Voices Project

My friend Kathy created an awesome Kickstarter project, and asked me to be a part of it. It ends tonight, so there's not much time to contribute. But I'd really love it if you'd do so. Here's a guest post from Kathy, explaining why she created the project. She's says some honest, beautiful things here. Enjoy.

On the fear of being unheard and hurt

by: Kathy West

My greatest fear is that no one will hear me.

I face this fear in small doses: with my three-year-old who ignores my instructions, or at night when I want to stay up and talk but my husband wants to sleep, or in large groups where my stories are too long and my voice doesn’t carry. My quiet, quiet voice.

But I’ve never been unheard in a dangerous way, a violent way.

I know someone who has.

A friend shared with me vague stories that seemed full of anxiety. Average conversations felt loaded with fear. Until I realized that over months, I’d been hearing about my friend’s abusive relationship.

I didn’t witness the physical violence. But I did hear an abusive spouse mow down my friend’s voice by talking over every word, shutting down a conversation by mocking and chastising and shaming in front of everyone.

I think that’s one place violence springs from—from refusing to hear another person.

If you refuse to hear someone else, you think they’re separate from you. You can treat them as an other. You can hurt them without it hurting you. But the boundaries between us are blurrier than that. The sound waves of my voice vibrate the bones in your ear.

I couldn’t change my friend’s insistence on staying in that relationship, on staying silent.

But I wanted to do something. So I created a project called Ten Voices.

Ten writers and artists created ten pieces of art meant to inspire voice. We’re organizing a creative workshop for survivors of domestic violence. Our goal is to support and inspire the voices of those who have experienced abuse and decided to leave.

I’m becoming as committed to hearing others’ voices as I am to being heard.

(I would love you to raise your voice with us. Support the Ten Voices workshop and own the art here, only through the end of today, 2 December 2013:

Friday, November 29, 2013

Small World

Small World
The advantage of living much closer to family is that I could make a semi-spontaneous decision to go see my sister in California. Sam was desperate to finish his novel and Henrietta and I wanted to see her aunt and cousins, so off we went, the two of us making the eight hour drive together. She was remarkably well-behaved during that eight hour (okay, nine hour) drive, and once we were there we  went to the beach and ate fish tacos and went to a glorious California farmer's market and cooked good meals and stayed up late talking to my sister. And we went to Disneyland.

I'm a bit of a Disneyland skeptic, as it turns out. I loved Disney when I was a kid, but I confess I don't much understand people who still love it as adults. So I was going mostly on my sister's word that we'd have a good time.

Henrietta and I had terrible trouble actually getting to the park (long story), and it took a complicated hour getting from the parking structure to the gates, so by the time I got there I was exhausted and hungry and I sort of hated everything, including Disney. I ate a sandwich as we rushed to a big theater showing a live performance of Aladdin, and it was during that show that I started to change my mind. Henrietta loved it, for one. She loved it immediately and completely, bouncing up and down on my lap and making her happy sounds. And I was transported back to when I was a kid, playing the cassette tape soundtrack to Aladdin, rewinding and fast-forwarding so I could copy down every word of my favorite songs, going to the other room to ask my mom, again, what "nom de plume" meant. It was such a complete and perfect time machine, that music. And I was suddenly looking forward to Henrietta loving those movies all over again.

In Toon Town

But she was tired, very tired after the show. It was time for her nap, and that place was much too exciting for her to consent to one. I tried tricks that worked beautifully just weeks ago, and still she screamed and screamed, and I didn't know what else to do but force the issue until she screamed herself to sleep. It got cold as she slept in her stroller, and I was completely unprepared for it. My sister and her family were all off at rides, and my cell phone had died, and despite our pleasant experience at the Aladdin show, I thought I had probably made a mistake in coming at all. Henrietta woke up after not too long, and with her teeth chattering I tore the cardboard back off a dark chocolate bar package and dug around in my purse for a pen and wrote a note to my sister, saying we were just going home and I was sorry we were lame. She came back just as I was poised to leave it and gather our things, and she talked me out of leaving and sent me off with my nephews to Tower of Terror.

Where I waited, trying to catch my breath after the horror show of nap-avoidance.
And there, on that ride, as I screamed and laughed, I realized what else I loved. Briefly, everything about that ride was real. It was a big pretend machine, and we were all pretending, and I wasn't Henrietta's tired mom, I was exactly what they said I was, a frightened guest at an old haunted hotel. It was a marvelous feeling, to be removed so forcefully from my real life, and I loved it even more on a ride that took me Soarin' Over California, meaning I was in front of a big IMAX screen showing scenes of the state I love, and my feet were dangling and they were blowing back my hair with pretend wind and I breathed in fake orange and pine and ocean smells, and it worked so completely on me that I was weeping, tears down my cheeks and landing on my shirt, it was so beautiful and the pretending was so perfect.

I'm unlikely to ever be a grown woman wearing mouse ears (and I saw an embarrassing number of them), but it's an incredible thing, to hold a tiny someone on your lap who is experiencing that same complete transportation. My sister and I came back another day, just us with Henrietta and her four-year-old cousin, and we went on It's a Small World and Winnie the Pooh and we walked through the castle and visited the Enchanted Tikki Room and we met the Pirates of the Caribbean and toured The Haunted Mansion, and Henrietta loved them all, her eyes wide and her happy sounds abundant and her little bouncing body on my knees.