Ten years of that life

A decade ago, today, I went to a bar I really hated. My sister was celebrating graduation from university and I wanted to support her. A blue cups bar with cheap beer and undergraduates; it was as awful as I expected, except for the company. My sister and her childhood best friend were celebrating together.

You were there because my sister’s childhood best friend is your sister.

I have known you, from afar, for about as much of my life as I can remember. Mostly I knew your family and your home, because video games were your life at age 11 and hanging out with your sister’s friends was so not cool. I remember hot dusty drives in our un-air conditioned station wagon down the long gravel road to your house in the woods. I loved that house.

I had a dream about you once and a crush on you for, like, at least two weeks in middle school. I asked you to dance to Stairway to Heaven at a middle school dance. You said yes to be polite, but you were a foot taller than me and the song was 7:58 long. You recused yourself partway through and I was mortified for at least 30 minutes.

For fifteen years I forgot about you except for some vague awareness that you grew up and did something with computers. But before the graduation party I had seen you one other time, six months before. I was out on the town with our sisters and we ran into you, out on the town with your friends.

I told your sister you were hot.

She told me you were getting married in May.

I reluctantly forgot about you again.

But on May 9, 2006 there you were, looking sweet. I laughingly told your sister so, with an eye roll in honor of your impending nuptials. She turned to me with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret and smiled. “Well you know, he’s not getting married anymore.”

I’m sure I excused myself politely. I can’t remember. I do remember the shirt you were wearing. And what a kind smile you had.

And there we were, you and I, wrapped up in conversation for the rest of the evening, all my senses on high alert. I could feel it.

Then the evening was over. I didn’t have your number. My sister was moving to Japan in a few days. I had no excuse to see you again.

Yet somehow out of a stadium full of 75,000 people we stumbled across each other two days later at graduation. That kicked off a week of unlikely, just barely possible chances. And we took every one of them and spun them into a life as fast as we could. We had both been on pause after long spells of not-quite-right with someone else. We were ready for the life we wanted. A life I still think isn’t quite possible and can’t really believe is mine.

A life back on this marvelous land, in the home I loved as a girl. A life with you. With the babies we made together. With our families. A life of commitment with one of those maturing marriages that I’d heard of but never witnessed in person. The ones where you fight less over time and help each other become better. I always thought those partnerships were some kind of gigantic hoax.

Then, not long ago, I realized I was in one. May 9th was when we began.

It’s not always pretty, but damn, it’s good.

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Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, on our honeymoon

 

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Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.

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barre off

I haven’t danced in 13 years, but today I went back to class. Not to a modern class, where I would have been more comfortable, but to ballet, where I knew I’d make a fool of myself. I didn’t want to go easy. I needed to see what all had atrophied after two babies and more than a decade away.

My younger self–the teenager who went to a boarding school for professional dancers-in-training–could never have imagined going a week without dancing, let alone a year. Or a decade. Periodically that old self peeks in and tries to ask why I quit. I have closed the door in that me’s face every time.

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In class at the American Dance Festival in 1996

There was nothing special about today, except that I opened the door when my old self came around…because I could. For a long time I couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t scary anymore.

Dance and choreography were my life. I had potential but I always had to fight for technique. I loved the fight. Ballet was my weakest area and my favorite. For years dancing made me happier than I’d ever been. It was ferociously physical and I felt strong and powerful. But eventually poor nutrition took its toll and I broke bones first in one foot, then the other a year later. It stopped being fun.

When I quit, I quit completely without looking back because it was necessary. My favorite dance teacher telling me how lovely and skinny I looked when I was at my sickest was the memory that for years floated to the surface whenever I contemplated going back. I didn’t dance because I was in some combination of mourning and withdrawal. Dancing and I didn’t deserve each other until I could go back with joy.

Later, I was traveling and focused on scholarship. Then I was focused on my marriage. Then my family. I fell in love with gardening and mothering. I make excellent exercise out of both these things, but there were long periods of pregnancy and nursing where I just felt sort of swollen all the time and that was not how I remembered feeling while dancing. I liked the idea of going back sometime when my body felt more my own again and I wouldn’t pee on myself or start leaking milk in the middle of class.

Perhaps I’ve been ready for a while, but I started noticing a new tightness in my hamstrings when I leaned over to pull weeds. I felt the urge to stretch my legs and point my toes. Rocking out with my kids in the living room was suddenly insufficient. I felt this voracious hunger. It surprised me because the feeling was so familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in such a long time. I needed to dance.

But would I have forgotten everything? Would I completely embarrass myself? Would it be miserable because I was so bad? I picked a non-professional studio with drop in classes to minimize the odds of being in a room full of teenagers. I remember what I thought of the saggy middle aged moms in my dance classes when I was that age.

Today was the day, so of course the elder child who sleeps like an angel woke up coughing at 3am and no one ever got back to sleep. I pulled on my slightly musty smelling pink tights, one of the beloved leotards that our seamstress made for us by hand at my dancing school, and my stiff slippers–none of which have seen the light of day since I was in college–and tossed back one more coffee.

And yes, it turns out I had forgotten quite a lot. I was pretty embarrassed. It would be a stretch to say it was fun. But I felt great afterward (even though I can barely walk), and I only fell once. I was almost late because…kids…so I didn’t get to set low expectations with the teacher before the start of class. Being almost late also meant I was at the end of the barre and therefore had no one to stare at when I couldn’t remember what to do every time we switched sides.

But there was some magic, too. I am not the same person that I was the last time I stood in front of a studio mirror. I spent years memorizing every line of my own body, comparing it ruthlessly with what the movement ought to look like, what the instructor looked like, what the better students looked like. I know what I used to look like. But I haven’t put on a leotard and tights in a long time. I don’t look at myself with that kind of scrutiny anymore, thankfully. But it meant I was starting out with no idea what I’d find when I stepped up to the barre.

And there I was, looking just fine. I have a more solid middle than I used to, but I find I like my new shape. I feel sturdy. My arms are stronger and have more definition from carrying heavy children around for 6 years. Those arms that used to be the first part to tire at the end of class didn’t struggle at all today. My body remembered so many little lessons, along with poignant images from amazing teachers and classmates I haven’t thought about in years.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I just didn’t look in the mirror much. I was too busy trying to dance. It was perfect, and I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

This is the year

To the boy who made us parents:

You have completed six years of life. It was a special birthday for both of us, though we couldn’t really put our finger on why. You told me “this year feels more important,” and it did.

As a scholar I’d say it was probably our completely average timing of entry into middle childhood, which is really a much more dramatic stage than its name suggests. The age when archaeologists tell us most children were finally weaned. When baby teeth begin to fall out. When, in traditional societies, children would be expected to start taking on roles with responsibility in the home and community. The precursor to the precursor of adolescence.

In our home it was just a special year, no more and no less.

This was the year that you completed the transition from wanting only me to none of me at all, if there were other children to play with. Even though you felt guilty for not wanting me, I didn’t mind. I’ve been wanted enough for several lifetimes.

This was the year you began to offer to do helpful things when you saw me struggling, and make a point of letting me know you were sorry when I didn’t get enough sleep or had a bad day.

The year you stopped napping. The year you started reading. The year you stopped being nervous at the idea of being dropped off for an activity without me. The year you started seeing your baby brother as a person and appreciating his potential as a playmate and friend.

This was the year you stopped being afraid that anyone who came to play would take All. Your. Things.

The year you started helping me in the garden, and did the work to make your own bed. And decided you wanted to make your own birthday cake (phew).

The year you learned to save your allowance. And started choosing your own clothes (unfortunately, as we’ve got you covered for the next year but now all bottoms must have belt loops).

The year you started exploring the woods alone. And I didn’t know where you were or what was happening. And it was okay. Better than okay. It was good. Really good.

This was the year you asked big questions about your big disappointments and sadnesses and then paid focused attention to my answers, knowing that I would take you seriously and that if you stayed still you’d find out what you needed to know…like why your brother gets more of my time. You sit perfectly still as I explain about the development of small humans, and how you were when you were his age, and how it won’t last forever. And you take it inside you and put it away in the places it needs to go. Figuring out what you need to be okay. A brunch date, please, a few hours just us? Yes. I can’t wait.

There will be other amazing years. Or perhaps all years will start to look amazing. Maybe the pace of change will remain fast and this will just seem like the first year of the new normal.

I don’t expect to know anymore. To have any idea what lies in store. I don’t care. This is good. You are good.

Happy birthday.

 

frugality vs. minimalism

This is a quintessential unbalancing act that I’ve struggled with over the years. Frugality is fundamentally about achieving your goals with what you have on hand and without spending a lot of money. Minimalism is about reducing the amount of stuff in your life. If you have ever tried to prioritize both of these at once you realize that there is a permanent tension between the two that simply cannot be resolved.

One might think that the shared goal of making do without having to acquire more stuff would be a point in common. There are a few neat and tidy examples of this, like making your own cleaning products. On one little shelf you have baking soda, white vinegar, castile soap, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, maybe coconut oil and olive oil. These replace a bajillion other things–in our house everything from window cleaner to toothpaste (and exploding volcanoes). A small collection of ingredients replaces many other bottles and containers, they are exponentially cheaper, and actually fast to make and use. Boom! Frugality and minimalism living in harmony.

But in most cases they only overlap well if you can make do without having exactly what you need, a lot of the time. Sometimes one can and (arguably) should, but not always.

It might seem like a first world problem, but it’s more complicated than that. Frugality is a necessity if you are poor. But if you are poor in an urban setting where you don’t have a lot of space, some frugal options simply don’t exist (buying things in bulk or in season to save money is a huge one). In addition, a lot of money saving tricks for the household take both time, research, up front resources, and sometimes even having access to particular physical resources or social networks. Minimalism, forced or chosen, can be very expensive.

In my own life I’ve wobbled back and forth. My mom cleaned things with vinegar when I was a kid. I thought she was a hippy and disregarded her methods with adolescent disdain. She bought the cheapest but most efficient new cars she could find–she commuted an hour and a half to work everyday and needed something reliable. All I noticed was the lack of AC during the blistering southern summers. She bought second hand clothes. I remember one of the few times that for some special occasion I got to buy a new outfit. I don’t remember much from way back, but boy I remember that.

She was a doctor, she could have made more money. Instead she did the worst paid job in medicine (which tells you something about our national priorities)–a county public health pediatrician. Poor kids, nobody pays for that. And 60% time, so she could be home when we got home from school. I valued all of those things and accepted the complicated feelings of wanting more, but appreciated what she stood for and the sacrifice she made. For the past decade she’s lived in an off the grid tiny house she built, doing the most amazing job of doing without and making do.

Looking back on it, I’d always struck a funky balance. In graduate school I’d keep my apartment freezing cold in the winter to save on heat, but if I was going to buy one new pair of shoes every 10 years it would be some damn nice Campers. I embraced the thrift store life; I loved feeling like I could shop guilt free.

It was culture shock when I met my husband. I’d been living on a graduate student budget forever on the oh-so-common track of perpetual higher education, while he had gone to work straight out of school. I hadn’t thought of myself as frugal or thrifty until we started living together. But this guy bought magazines at the airport when we traveled (gasp!), ate out for lunch with coworkers daily, and threw things away that could be recycled. He’d rebelled against his parents by being mainstream. Just about sent us to couples’ therapy. But he has no stuff, no squirreled away boxes of memorabilia, no crap. He’d also been a regular working adult for a lot longer than me, so had a lot more experience managing a household budget.

I was both un-frugal and un-minimalist in my new non-single life. A lot of space and money got wasted as I found my footing. I’d buy a case of 32 oz bottles of molasses and call it thrifty because buying in bulk saved me 10% on the per bottle cost. But it took me a decade to use it up and I had to store it all that time. That’s a cheap example, there were worse. We won’t talk about the chickens. Well, we might talk about the chickens, later.

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but they are so cute!

The big life shift, which got me thinking about this tension, came three years ago, today. We wanted more space. We wanted different space. But we didn’t want to take on more debt and tie ourselves to the labor market any longer than we had to. We had been on the road for my dissertation field research and loved living out of a suit case and being all together. We wanted my husband to be able to work less while he was still young.

After exploring a lot of options we went with the craziest one. His parents invited us to add on to their home–the home he grew up in–just about 15 minutes from where we were already living. There was more space. It was out in the woods. The community was incredible. We would take over a part of their house they didn’t use much anymore now that their kids were grown, and build on just a kitchen and living room. In some ways that was another example of frugality and minimalism going together. We built just what we needed and repurposed something that my in-laws had been paying to heat and cool without really needing.

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We’d be able to pool resources, work together on house maintenance, get childcare help without them having to get in the car, but still have our own space. It was much less expensive than our existing mortgage, yet we added enough space to have room for a second baby. At the same time, my husband’s sister and her husband built a tiny house and parked it across the driveway. We call it the family compound.

The property was covered in lumber. My father in law had been saving any potentially useful scrap of wood for 35 years. To me it looked cluttered (now, you should see my porch, I’m such a hypocrite). I won’t make this the incredible story of my husband’s family home, which deserves its own telling, but my father in law had built this amazing house himself. In the three years that we have lived here, he built a garden shed below the house, trimmed and paneled a room that had been unfinished, built a loft in our kid’s room, handmade super tall raised beds for his wife so she didn’t have to bend down to tend her plants, and built lovely shelves and storage spaces around the house and porches…all with leftover wood. And wood with good stories, too. Wood from old tobacco barns he’d salvaged. Wood from really old homes being torn down. Beautiful wood.

When I designed and built a chicken tractor, I dug out some old galvanized tin roofing he’d saved to cover it. When I decided I was actually going to pasture my chickens, I pulled rolls of old deer fence out from under the house and tied it all around the yard with scraps of old clothesline and other string he had neatly rolled up and saved. Between me and our 6 year old, who is a wild maker of enormous creations, we pillage Grandpa’s horde on a regular basis. We all resolve household needs on a regular basis with the materials that he has painstakingly saved over a generation. I’ve come to see it as a gold mine rather than clutter. It is the very definition of frugality. It comes from a place of not having money for replacing or buying new things, so saving anything that might be useful. It is messy. It is utterly not minimalist. It is good.

The way my father in law is about lumber, I am about containers. I save seed starting containers so I don’t have to buy them again. I save jars large and small for my salves, home remedies, and cleaning supplies. I save baskets and dishes for organizing the kid’s things, for their sorting and mine. These are all parts of what makes me who I am. It’s part of being frugal. But it all takes up space.

IMG_20150802_154409021Preserving the harvest is the same way. Right now there are three big stacked plastic organizers in the middle of the hall with sweet potatoes in them. There’s not really space for them and they look ugly. But I found these organizers under the shed and they ventilate perfectly. And this spot in the mudroom hall is the only place I can plop something dirty down and leave it for 6 months without it being in the way of life. The huge matte of tangled garlic hangs beside it. That, I think is beautiful. I’m not sure my husband feels the same way, actually I know he doesn’t. But this is how I do my part of feeding the family and he let’s go a lot of his minimalist aesthetic and anti-clutter preferences without complaint.

I have tried that “get rid of things you haven’t used in a year” routine, yet quite frequently I really needed whatever it was about every 18 months and not having it meant buying it again. Sometimes I can be all frugal and borrow it from someone. But sometimes it takes two weeks to find and acquire the loan, with a lot of gas used and a lot of time spent on coordination. I am the full time parent of two kids at home, so the economist in me tallies up the opportunity cost of arranging (sometimes paid) childcare to get the time, as well as the gas, and often buying it is actually cheaper. There you see a loss on both fronts, frugality and minimalism. If it’s some ghastly hunk of plastic crap I wish the world didn’t need more of, sometimes I do all that anyway to keep another evil widget from leaving the factory, but that hurts my economist brain (until I remember the social and environmental externalities associated with the production of said widget and feel a wee bit better).

Clothes are the perfect example. I have a reasonable closet by most standards, but adhering to a minimalist ideology would cost me a lot of money. In the past 6 years I’ve fluctuated size in extremes over two pregnancies and everything in between. I was teaching. I was doing interviews. I do serious gardening in red clay country. I have to be out with my children in all weather. I have clothes for all that in several sizes and since I may not be done having kids, I’m not tossing things. I keep maternity and baby gear in constant rotation to friends and family to keep our closet sane, but that first kid keeps growing, darn him, and the bigger they get the more space their clothes take up.

Where’s the edge? I purge until purging more would require doing laundry faster. Since I already do at least one load a day and folks still periodically run out of underwear, there’s little wiggle room. We even have a “once worn” clothes pile for items that can take another wear, which is decidedly untidy and takes up space, yet saves washing energy and money. So I look at the closet with more things in it than I’ll use in a year–or two–and call it good.

I built a chicken tractor. I designed it and paid a handy friend to construct it. All my research said that for it to function it needed real wheels. I spent $50 on two good wheels. It’s true, it needed those wheels. When our lawn mower died for good and true, I asked my husband to remove the wheels before taking it to the dump. Those are really nice wheels. That will save me $100 next time I need good wheels. Until then, they take up space.

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Children’s art supplies? Don’t get me started. Yes, it’s a privilege and a super first world problem. But yes, I have seen a huge difference in how much they explore art when the materials are decent and on hand. You have to let them waste some (this kills me, I cannot handle wasting, I die inside). And then there are the mommy art supplies you pretend are kid art supplies so that you can excuse the space they take up. This is one I will never ever feel bad about.

My elder child is an exuberant maker. I can’t put a price tag on what it’s worth to me that he can go outside and rummage through things and find cool materials that he can actually make something interesting with. I can’t count how many times I almost threw something away and thought “but he’ll make something great with that.” And he did. Sometimes six months or a year later. Sure, he’d never have known if we hadn’t had those materials on hand. But they’ve made his experience immeasurably richer.

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I am a hoarder by nature, and the minimalists in my life–my husband, his sister in the tiny house, my mother–are an important counter balance. I pay attention to the time it takes to curate The Stuff and as I get older I get better at knowing what matters and what doesn’t. We have no attic and no storage space now, which requires constant thoughtfulness about whether to bring something home to begin with and, if so, what needs to leave to make room for it. I like that. I’m inspired by the tiny house dwellers, though I’m grateful not to have to make some of their hard choices.

Holding a minimalist aesthetic as an inspiration for keeping physical spaces neat helps me keep the clutter under control. It makes my brain feel healthier and happier. But frugality as a culture to live by is more important to who I am, and at the end of the day trumps minimalism when I have to choose. The real challenge is accepting this unbalance for what it is and remembering the good reasons behind the struggle.

 

 

Leading with your head

The toddler looks like he’s been in a bar fight. He has a huge black bruise on one cheek where he fell down onto the 2×2 piece of kindling he was carrying around the yard. Then, he insisted on accompanying me to do yard work, and I accidentally hit him in the face with a dead pokeberry branch. So opposite the black bruise he has two bloody claw scratches that look like he got in a fight with a two-toed cat. Then somehow he got some scratches on top of the kindling bruise. And then when his big brother was swinging him around, per his request, his mouth somehow ran into his brother’s knee and is now bleeding. He points to it “bum.” This is what he says when he gets hurt. Unfazed, like he’s commenting on the weather. The kid is a rock. In the day it took me to tap out these lines, we’ve added a quasi-black eye. After an hour and a half running in the yard with no mishaps, he tripped on his wheel barrow on the way inside and the edge hit him under the eye.

My mother the retired pediatrician tells me no, no one will think I am abusing my kid. At least no professionals. They learn what to look for. Like that time I caught him by the arm when he was about to fall out of the carseat? That one looked like child abuse, she explains. Thanks.

This never happened with our elder child (except the time when he was 4 and tried to run and jump teeth first onto a pillow on our concrete floor and missed, which was dramatic). But the toddler leads with his head. The number of busted lips, broken glasses, and near concussions my partner and I have suffered at his hands–well head–are too many to count.

All parenting hubris comes back to bite you in the tuchus, people. I would coo in wonder at how our active (by active I mean barely-containable-nuclear-reaction level energy) first child never seemed to get injured. Well, he was so wild I always harped at him about being careful. As far as I can tell my words are now like the muted buzzing of a bee in his ear, but he had some instinct of his own for spacial awareness. Neither the toddler nor the 5 year old get parented that way much anymore. The elder because keeping the toddler alive means I’m just not paying much attention. The toddler because he’s a second child and did I really used to worry about a little blood? The human race would not survive a world of only children (and not just for the obvious reason).

I’m pretty sure my parenting makes little sense to the casual observer. I let my kids take what the American mamasphere probably considers excessive personal risk. My toddler in particular causes gasps of disapproval on a regular basis. I take my cues from him now and find he’s more aware and in control of his experience than I ever would have expected. But stray into the world of respect for the personhood of others (or the cat) or consent around physical space and I’m a regular helicopter mom of the first degree. Because I’m raising some unavoidably privileged white boys. Sure, they are just kids. But when he answers your inquiry as to why he didn’t stop whatever it was when he could tell his sibling was hurt with “I stopped once he started screaming”…well. It’s normal, yes, and it also needs to be met with a consistent message about what is and isn’t ok, and how it would feel to be on the other end of it.

My parenting makes sense to me, and seems to work pretty well most of the time. So when faced with an actual emergency situation yesterday (tornadoes, in February, in North Carolina), and having to hang out in a bathroom (with the cat litter, but no tub) with a 5 year old and 20 month old for nearly an hour, several things took me by surprise.

First, I thought I would be more together, since I’m a pretty together person and actual odds of us getting hurt seemed low. But that was before the wind was throwing down branches and the news showed actual tornadoes close to us. I am pretty good with blood and staying calm when something bad happens, but my adrenals were pumping and I did not feel ok. I started down the rabbit hole…”how can I protect them both at once? ” What if…what if…I had cushions to cover our heads, shoes to cover our feet, and blankets for shelter from breaking glass. I tried to keep it light.

But as soon as everyone was in there they were hungry. Like some visceral evolutionary response to danger. Like they thought maybe there would be no more food soon. I had to ask my elder child to hold on to the toddler while I quickly went out to get pirate’s booty and bananas as branches crashed on our roof. It’s very dramatic on a tin roof, where the daily squirrel circus sounds like machine gun fire. I hadn’t brought in food, hadn’t brought a flashlight. I called my husband who, because his office wasn’t in the warning zone had received no alerts and didn’t even know what was happening. I was even more at loose ends realizing how big the gap was between how prepared I had thought I was and the reality of the moment. And I thought being in an emergency would make me not disgusted watching my children eat sitting next to the kitty litter, but no. And then, what kind of mother is thinking about cat poop at a time like this?

Second, for some bizarre reason I thought my children would be different people in an emergency. I am betting this is a common mistake. At least I hope it’s not just me. So you think your headstrong 5 year old who never does anything you ask without questioning it and won’t do it at all if it doesn’t suit him will behave differently if you declare it an emergency? Buahahahahhahaaa. Wait, let me get my breath.

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“Honey, if your brother wants to hide under the blanket with you, this is a time where we have to share.” And doesn’t everyone need an abacus in an emergency? It’s the only toy I brought in. It just seemed right.

We read all the preparatory instructions the day before so that he’d be ready to help and cooperate when the time came. He promised he would cooperate. When the time came, we were outside playing in the yard and my sister in law’s phone bleeped an alert. Mine didn’t. Why didn’t my phone do its job? Clearly I am deficient. We headed inside to seek cover and I asked my dawdling child to please move just a tad quicker. He ignored me. He did announce that he was scared, but he still moved at a snail’s pace, while the toddler got fidgety in my arms as I waited for his older brother to catch up. It was the very first post-emergency-declaration-request I had made and I was 0 for 1. Surely it wouldn’t continue this way?

Basically, it was just like our normal life. He listens half the time but because he so thoroughly disregards me the rest, I feel like he didn’t listen at all. He was thrilled to be put in charge of his brother a couple of times, which I never do, and that went about as well as could be expected. And I tell you what, when there are no good windows and you can’t see, it’s really hard to judge outside conditions for yourself. And no, you can’t sneak out to look out the window because there is no way they will let you walk away from them.

My lesson from all this was that preparing for a natural disaster means assuming that my children will be their normal selves and I will not be. I may think I am an organized and capable mama who leads with her head, but that’s for the day to day of normal routine. My gut was in charge today and it was not nearly as well prepared as I had hoped. Luckily everyone is fine, not just here but in our community. I would kindly request that there be no more tornadoes until my children are older, thanks.

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“But why doesn’t anything happen when I swipe?” Enjoying the play by play at Grandma and Grandpa’s house while mommy decompresses.

 

winter’s magic

For two days it’s been too cold to be outdoors by choice. The thermometer read 17 degrees when I bundled up to feed the chickens and put out fresh water. The children are antsy and the noise level in the house has racheted up with each passing day. But winter is a profoundly special time. I feel the pull of my roots like no other time of year.

IMG_6478In the piedmont of North Carolina, winter is never deep by New England or Canadian standards. But it is cold. Plants go dormant. Hardwoods shed their leaves. The ground is rock hard with frost tips poking up through wet, frozen leaves. As a child, this was the time of year when I explored the forest. The copperheads were sleeping, the ticks hybernating, the mosquitoes gone. From our trailer in the woods I could walk for miles in a mix of southern yellow pine and hardwood forest, feeling the sunshine where normally the shade was so deep nothing grew but christmas fern. One year I found a near complete deer skeleton with the exposed half bleached white by the sun. It was clean and perfect.

I imagine the thick hardwood trunks sucking up the sun light that normally never reaches them in the forest. Everything looks completely different in winter and I try to imagine what it will look like again in spring and fail, despite having watched the transformation dozens of times.

Just as I become perpetually grumpy, our south facing windows really begin to do their duty. Now they are at their peak, capturing the warmth of the low, bright winter sun. We built it this way on purpose, sticking to the design my father in law used for the rest of the house. Every year I am grateful when I begin to feel cold in my bones. Only in winter does the sunlight stretch all the way across the room. The winter sun is magic and everyone notices. The cat splays out across the warmed floor. The toddler lies down on the rug and closes his eyes as dust motes dance over his upturned face.

When we begin to feel cooped up we bundle up and foray out into the yard. The big kid with a jacket on backwards and no socks and no hat. The toddler stiff with layers. We stay until the little one is too frustrated with his decreased mobility to enjoy himself. His fingers too red and numb. I gaze at the garden while performing my swing-pushing duty and daydream.

Every January I make big plans and the possibilities seem endless. I start talking to my husband about sheep. Again. He rolls his eyes. Again. Instead I clear brush, dig new garden beds, transplant perennial flowers and herbs, start seeds.

Winter has its own quiet and its own noise. There’s no dense leaf buffer to muffle the sound of cars, coyotes, and owls. But the quiet is crisp and I feel more alone when I walk outside. Perhaps it’s the lack of insect and small creature chatter that undergirds outdoor life in southern spring, summer, and fall. No spring peepers. No crickets. Though the squirrels make a ruckus in winter like nothing I’ve ever heard, throwing nuts at the tin roof to explode the quiet inside.

Winter light is my favorite. The world outside is sparse and I notice more, perhaps because of this. It’s the best time for walking in the woods. For finding fairy habitats with children.

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It’s also a time of forced domesticity that each year I embrace more easily. This was when my great grandmothers made quilts, rendered lard, and set the home back in order before planting time. This was when my great grandfathers cured meat and repaired tools. This was when people had time for visiting. When stories were invented and told. I can do this too. Accompanied by these hardy souls from a harsher, but simpler time, winter no longer feels so lonely.

My elder child has asked to be read to for hours on end these long, cold days. I finally got around to hand threshing and winnowing the sorghum I grew and dried this fall. To mending the mountain of clothes my children shred in their long days outdoors. To going through the generations of family papers stored since my father passed and only now come to light. All to the soundtrack of children playing, children fighting, the days taking a slower rhythm through the coldest months.

As I grow older, I’m no longer in any hurry for spring. I know when it gets here I’ll miss winter.

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new year’s day on my mama’s land. off the grid. sipping mint tea from her garden with honey from her bees.

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