Aug 17 2009

New World Order

We didn’t get in the car until nearly 10 pm. Because it had been such a beautiful day, because it was harder to concentrate on the chores that must be done to close up the country house and leave it in good order, because deep down we really didn’t want to leave – all these reasons why we didn’t manage to get the car packed as early as we’d hoped. That meant a night drive, good because it’d be cooler than a daytime highway trip. Good
fridge_magnets because the kids would sleep through most of the drive. Good because we’d miss the heavy traffic returning to Paris at the mid-August vacation switch. It was all good, once we were en route. A little U2, Counting Crows, and Springsteen for the drive home. Iced coffee in a thermos. A string of red tail lights driving ahead of us into the night. A route that was fluide all the way to Paris. De-facto and I hardly spoke; both of us looking forward through the windshield, thinking separate thoughts, together.

Rousing sleeping children is like waking the dead-drunk, but ours are now too big to be carried. When they were toddlers, we’d hoist them over our shoulders, their lifeless limbs dangling as we climbed the stairs and delicately placed them in beds for uninterrupted sleep. But now driving dreams get disrupted and big girls carry their own backpacks up four flights of stairs.

De-facto was parking the car. I commanded bathroom visits and promised bedside kisses to good girls who put on their pajamas. I made a quick run down to the courtyard to get the bags I’d left. When I returned, I heard the girls in their bedrooms, shrieking.

“But that doesn’t go there,” said Short-pants, between sobs.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo screamed, “Everything’s put away wrong!”

I hadn’t thought to warn them. We’ve rented and loaned our apartment to people with children before, while we’re out of town. Things get a little mixed up, that’s normal. Though I’d never seen anything like this. But then, we’d never had twin boys staying in our home before.

At first glance, the room appeared to be in order. The drawers were shut and the baskets and trays all tucked neatly in their cubbyholes. But a closer inspection revealed the complete disorder that was hidden. The girls’ toys had been put away, but in a totally random fashion. Not that it’s ever in perfect order, but – more or less – each toy has its general place and its associated little pieces are usually found not far away. There was nothing logical about how the toys had been stowed. Pieces of plastic food here, there and over there, too. A dollhouse separated from its furniture, puppets stuffed in the wooden block box, wooden blocks in the plastic food bin. The Pet Shop house, petless. I made the mistake of opening the large wicker toy box, which was filled to the brim with any loose toy that apparently couldn’t find its natural home.

I could only imagine what these rooms must have looked like at the height of play. Every single ball, stuffed animal, doll and toy must have been strewn about, and then, when it was time to leave, stuffed into the closest available container.

The girls looked panicked. They were both wailing. “But this is not how we like it.”

I did my best to reassure them, explaining that this was not a 2:00 am kind of problem; this was the sort of thing that could be more effectively addressed in the morning light after a good night’s sleep. Already they were handling the toys, trying to put them in their rightful positions. I had to square off their shoulders and point them toward their mattresses. They climbed under the covers reluctantly, the both of them still sniffing final tears.
This could be a good thing, I thought, shutting the light behind me after goodnight kisses. They’re starting to appreciate the value of a little organization, how it’s easier to find things if you put them back where they go, how your things stay in better condition when they are put away nicely rather than stuffed in a toy box. All that logic I’ve been trying to cram down their throats must be seeping in.

Or have I saddled them with the anxious ball-and-chain phobia of needing things always in order? Am I burdening their up-until-now unfettered imagination? Stealing the last creative impulses of their childhood? Have I created two more neurotic people for the world, checking and double-checking that their post-it notes are at right angles on their perfectly ordered desks?

Laying in bed I could hear Buddy-roo’s tears winding down into a whimper, soon replaced by the even breathing of her slumber.

My last, smiling thoughts before drifting off to sleep: Welcome to my world, little girls.

Apr 7 2009

Paying the Price

I got a break. I should not complain.

I had a week off from mothering. A vacation from rushing about to get two little people from task to task. Seven straight days of being me, not being mama. By the end of it all, I missed those little girls something fierce. But I took full advantage of having a stretch of time to myself.
The conference was a success. The program I led (about arts and creative process) finished on a high note, filled with color and gratitude. I grew fond of my co-facilitators, made real bonds with some of the participants. Italy gifted me with its vibrant shades and textures. And though the departure could be likened to a breech birth – the confusion of trains or taxis, a mix-up of number of bags vs. number of kilos – I made it out, and made it home.

But then I had to pay the price.

It appears that while I was gone our apartment was hit by a fantastic tornado. The girls’ room was especially devastated; I hardly recognized it with all the debris. Books and blocks and doll clothes and little confetti-like pieces of paper and pens were everywhere. Loops of long hair in bunches had fallen to the floor in every part of the room. (Each doll had been coiffed and now wears a mullet.) The girls’ dirty clothes were rolled into balls and stuffed behind shelves and in the spaces between furniture. It was a sight to behold.

Returning from a trip like this, I must always steel myself before making that first step into the apartment. It never looks as I left it. You can’t really expect it to; nobody keeps your house the same way you do. But still, it’s stunning how completely anarchic things can get in my absence.

De-facto astutely anticipated the potential fall-out and invited our neighbors and their visiting family for dinner. One cannot throw a fit before such an audience. This is why there are doors on bathrooms, and why taps have cold hand_sestriwater for splashing on your face. They’d finished dinner, but saved plates for weary travelers (my mother-in-love returned with me). Another bottle was opened. My temperature descended. The banter and laughter around the table worked its magic. The wine helped too. By the time our friends left, I was too tired to care.

The next morning I surveyed the apartment with fresh eyes. You could tell those girls had a lot of fun while I was gone. They also had a lot to do later when they got home from school. Everybody paid the price for that week off, one way or another.

Mar 20 2009

Ungovernable Pleasure

After visiting the void – at the Centre Pompidou the other day – I strolled by another exhibit that bears mention, a cluttered and eclectic assemblage of found objects donated to the museum by the artist Daniel Cordier. Its position, immediately adjacent to the nine empty rooms of The Void, was striking. These two contrary exhibits, side by side, must have been a deliberate act.

Oh, there was stuff! An odd collection of things, natural and man-made, primitive and contemporary, cast all around, laid out on the floor and set up on musuem-ish stands. Large carved-out tree trunks, actual sugar silos from India, stood like statues on the floor. It was all very woody; I think there were even pieces of driftwood, reminding me of those silly corkscrews we made in Girl Scouts. Mounted on the wall, an array of objects of curiosity, amongst more pictures and drawings of objects of curiosity. Cordier chose to ignore the functionality of these objects and focused instead on their form, making art out of otherwise everyday items. Art that, it could be said, resembles a tag sale.

It was all a bit too interesting to take in, after digesting nine rooms of nothing.

So I turned and quietly walked out. Not in protest, just in preference.

A single sentence, buried in the middle of a text the artist had written to describe the exhibit, mounted just outside of the rooms that hosted his collection is what got my attention. Addressing the haphazard quality of his work, he wrote: “It reflects the ungovernable disorder of pleasure.”
On my way out of the museum, I tried to keep my head in those first empty rooms with their poignant memories and limitless possibility. But thoughts of the other exhibit kept encroaching, stalking me, insisting I consider this notion of pleasure and its chaotic and uncontrollable nature.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds, I realized, is the paradox of my life with children, in a nutshell.

Feb 28 2009

Ordered to Read

“Pick-up!” This was one of the mantras my mother was forced to repeat throughout my childhood. She spent a fair amount of her valuable time and breath telling us to put things away. It seemed ridiculous to me, when clearly it was just going to get messy again. Tomorrow toys would be pulled off of their shelves, shoes pulled from the closet, blankets unfolded and draped over the TV-trays to recreate the same cave I’d played in today. But she was insistent.

On Fridays, when the cleaning woman came, I found this request to be especially futile. Why would we hire someone to clean our house, and then clean it ourselves before she comes? When I shared this rationale with my mother, she dished out some mumbo-jumbo about how picking up is different than cleaning. Two tasks that, to me, seemed indistinguishable from each other. I did as she asked, but not without shrugging, grumbling, and promising myself I would never terrorize my children with this prodding to pick up all the time.

This promise I have broken, again and again, since my children could understand the spoken word. Not only do I ask them to pick up, I use the exact same language as my mother. Yesterday, before our cleaning guy arrived, I found a big mess upstairs. Then I heard these words coming out of my very own mouth: “I pay him to clean the house, not to pick up after you.”

Oh, fate laughs so cruelly at me.

But, it turns out, as much as I may be annoying my children (and planting seeds for the further annoyance of their children), all this business about picking up could be helping them learn to read! Researchers at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Ohio State University conducted a study to measure the associations between household chaos and early childhood reading skills. (Who thought this up?) The results are noted in an article called “Order in the House!”

If you think that once my house is all picked up I spend my spare time reading academic journals, guess again. I stumbled upon this via Slate columnist Emily Bazelon, who does a nice job of condensing the results of the research in her recent article, “Messy House, Messy Minds.”

The researchers created two groups based on the mothers’ reading skills: above-average and average. The participants in each group were asked about their reading habits with their children, and then the mothers were also asked about how ordered things are at home, probing for responses to statements like “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

Bazelon notes:

A shout-out to all my endearingly, creatively messy friends (but not to my husband, who still shouldn’t leave his shoes in the middle of the front hall): It’s clear that by an “ordered home,” [the researchers] do not mean a spotlessly neat and clean one.

I appreciate her important clarification, and I second the comment (are you reading, De-facto?) about leaving shoes in the middle of the hall.

The take-away from this research:

Results suggest that the degree of household order is significantly and positively associated with early reading skills among children whose mothers are of above-average reading ability. These results suggest the potential for new approaches to encouraging literacy development in the home.

Aha! A point for merging the desired aesthetics of my adult life with the vigorous imagination of my children. Now I’ve got a new angle. The longer I can keep the new couch in clean condition, the more they’ll read, and the better their chances of going to Harvard Brown.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer