Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.

Oct 29 2011

That Part

“Is this the marriage part?” Buddy-roo asked. We were congregated on the beach, greenish hills in front of us, the Pacific ocean at our backs. A few white folding chairs created a half moon, upon these chairs sat the elder family and friends while the rest of us stood behind them, making a tight circle in the sand before the couple. The vows were completely customized, except for an occasional dearly beloved and by the power vested in me, inserted for charm and humor rather than tradition. The barefoot bride, my sister-in-love, wore a dark pumpkin orange dress, her groom sported a similarly orange tie with a black suit, the trousers of which would later be folded up as he trampled around the surf with their two little boys, tow-headed like their uncles had been, tow-headed like my daughters once were, still young enough to have no clear idea about the meaning of the ceremony their parents had just constructed, more interested in the piles of sand than the people assembled.

The weekend was filled with wedding party and extended wedding party activities, dinners and picnic lunches, family football challenges on the beach, informal gatherings of cousins and friends of the bride and groom. Each occasion prompted the question from Buddy-roo, who was eager to witness the marriage part and didn’t quite understand all of the other moments of revelry leading up to it.

These are always a bit sticky, these wedding moments, as the nature of our non-wedded status becomes a topic of conversation that has its tender touch points. I brace myself for the inevitable and impertinent question, “so when will the two of you tie the knot?” It’s posed by loving and curious family or friends who aren’t privy to the quiet discussions that De-facto and I have had about the subject. We have morphed in and out of agreement and disagreement on our status, a negotiation which is moot given the inextricable intertwining that results naturally from having children while engaged in pre-marital coitus.

There’s an argument in favor of maintaining this unmarried position, railing against the conspiracy of marriage. Allegedly we are not lulled into the convenient malaise that comes with the “security” of a legal union. When there is no official agreement to rely upon to hold you together, there is no relaxing of the vigilance to the relationship. No lazy couples survive; we’re here facing each other every day, on purpose.

Still, some days I ache because we have not crossed a threshold of ritualizing our feelings for each other. It’s not the big wedding or the formal doo-dah, I know the headaches that accompany the planning and production of such an affair. It’s about stating deliberately to each other: I am here, on purpose, and I mean it, and doing so with a few family and friends not only to witness such proclamations, but to celebrate them, too.

Standing in the sand with the sun upon my back I recalled my failed marriage and the mild embarrassment I carry for having entered into such a public contract only to break it four years later. I take some pride in the amicability of that parting, not that there weren’t arguments and angry words launched between us during the height of its unraveling, but that ultimately, once the threads of our couple were untangled, my ex-husband and I were civil and caring toward each other. Elegant is how I’ve often described my divorce but I’m probably framing it with an aura of revisionist history. But okay, if that makes it easier, so be it: elegant.

There are a number of reasons De-facto and I aren’t married, most of them a defense against some fear that each of us harbors. Me, perhaps, that I will fail again and be twice divorced. Him, that such a traditional label of wife will push me away rather than draw me to him, that the formalization of our commitment would serve only to eat way at the commitment which has organically taken shape as our initial attraction and affection led to a couple in residence, which created one child and then another. Not by accident, the children part: we deliberately pulled the goalie for Short-pants and though Buddy-roo was a surprise, it was only the timing of her arrival and not the fact of it. We knew we wanted to parent together, although I can not for the life of me imagine why he would want me to mother his children as I surely exhibited no maternal finesse whatsoever while we were courting.

What cycles we have been through: one of us resisting, both of us inclined, then more resistance, or apathy. It should not be taken as a sign of rejection that we are not united in holy matrimony, but more an ambivalence about the institution itself and by whom we are given permission to be official. Having said that, the disappointment of having not chosen that path seems to rise out of its invisible resting place from time to time, usually when there is somebody else’s wedding to attend, and it falls upon me like an soft, worn blanket, that old throw that ought to be given away to the good will but for some reason it stays draped on the armchair. Why do we keep that old ratty thing around? Familiarity, perhaps. It wraps around me as I stand there in the sand, with all the others who celebrate the beautiful union of these two awesomely lovely, in-love-with-each-other people face to face before us, poignantly itemizing their life promises to each other. The tears that tip-toe down my cheeks are tears of joy for their happiness, and also tears of disappointment at my own, that I have everything they have – indeed – except the marriage part.

(The last image in this post is artwork by RubySpam.)

Jul 31 2010

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday morning we made pink pancakes, played with the doll house and drew mandalas with colored pencils before I sat the girls down and explained. “Mama leaves tomorrow and she has a lot to do to get ready to go.” They nodded. They know it’s serious when I speak about myself in the third person. De-facto‘s out of town for a few days, so I needed a strategy to get some work done. I offered a barter: if they’d leave me uninterrupted until lunch time, then I’d take them to the pool at the Paris Plage in the afternoon. The prospect of swimming provoked whooping and hollering and they ran upstairs to the small attic rooms we call their universe and started to play. I installed myself at the kitchen table with my computer – that’s my universe I suppose – and dove in.

Today the alarm sounded just as the light filled my bedroom. I was sandwiched between my two girls, one of them snoring lightly and the other one burrowed deep beneath the covers. I maneuvered my way out of the sheets, over their little bodies and out of bed. I hated to pull myself out of their sleepy embrace, but my packed suitcase waited for me by the door. I had only to shower quickly and dress and wait for the babysitter to relieve me of my responsibilities.

Yesterday, despite our agreement, Short-pants and Buddy-roo both interrupted me no less than 2-dozen occasions, breaking my concentration and cutting my productivity in half. At first I responded politely but firmly: “Not now sweet.” Once again in the third person, “Mama’s working now.” Each interruption progressively more annoying, I found myself running my hands through my hair, the thing I do when I’m agitated.
I cursed my decision to keep them home. Had I insisted they go to the centre de loisir, I’d have had the whole apartment to myself for the whole day. But I didn’t want them to be gone all day, not on the eve a 2-week trip, and there is no half-day option at this French version of day-camp. So they stayed at home with me. There were more than a few moments when I regretted this decision.

Today I spent hours alone, navigating airport security lanes and the world of duty free. The long flight was nearly wordless, but for choosing pasta or chicken, or white or red, or coffee or tea. I read the IHT cover to cover, and further nourished myself with issues of The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
I watched two bad movies and accomplished a dozen little things: tallying my expenses, writing a letter, cleaning my computer desktop, reviewing important files. There was something satisfying about the silence, except I wasn’t entirely at ease. I missed my little girls. I wished they were close.

Yesterday I snapped, “What is it you don’t understand about the phrase leave mama alone so she can work?” Short-pants ran out of the room in tears and I felt like shit. I went to find her and apologize, not for my request but for my tone, and Buddy-roo cornered me. “Can I watch a movie?” “Non,” I said, curtly, which provoked pouting and crying and stomping out of the room after exaggerated proclamations about what I never let her do. The day wasn’t turning out as I’d planned.

Today a family with two wailing toddlers, a few rows ahead, put the entire cabin ill at ease. Passengers tossed uncomfortable glances at each other, wondering if this would continue through the whole flight. A steward tried to distract the children, but only heightened their cries. The mother visibly panicked and struggling to quiet her disruptive offspring. I took a deep breath and sent her vibes of patience and composure. Hang on, I told her silently, they’ll calm down once we take off. I closed my eyes and fell into a taxiing-on-the-tarmac sleep, very conscious of the fact that she could not enjoy the luxury of this little runway nap. I thanked the gods of air controllers that I was alone, and had no children with me who were thirsty, hungry, bored, needing to pee or puke or needing a stitch of my attention.

Yesterday they kicked and splashed in the pool, screeching with the glee that only children know. I’d grab Short-pants and spin her around several turns before lifting and throwing her up and out so she’d plunge back into the water. “My turn!” from Buddy-roo and she’d get the same treatment. We bobbed around together in our swimming caps, mother and daughters in sync and in step. Show me how you can swim. Throw me mama! Again! Our commands (both ways) asking not for obedience but for playfulness. After our swim, we strolled down the boardwalk that is the Paris Plage, eating ice-cream, telling corny knock-knock jokes and watching the boats in the Seine.

Today, waiting for my luggage by a carousel, I thought about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and what an interesting pair they make. One sweet, the other sly, they get on marvelously when they are not trying to bite each other. They weave in and out of my days, sometimes with ease and laughter, an hour later needing firm words and reprimands. They are a blast to be with or they are brutally banal. They are remarkably poised and independent, until they are clamoring for my attention and I can’t wait to extract myself from the never-ending-needing-of-me in stereo.

Last night, they resisted bedtime, knowing I would be leaving early this morning. I was looking down the barrel at at least four more hours of work and prep and packing, so I cut another deal: “Go to bed now without a peep, and when I’m done I’ll come get you both and you can sleep with me.” They bounded up the stairs and this time, I did not hear another word. At two a.m. when I’d done all I could do, I moved my suitcase into the hall, turned out the lights, turned down the sheets and fetched my girls, their long limbs hanging heavy as I carried each one down the stairs. Sleeping with them was a bit of a nightmare; they kicked and snored until dawn. Sleeping with them was a little slice of heaven; two angels curled on either side, nestling up to me in the night.

This is the paradox of motherhood. Yesterday they drove me nuts as much as they delighted me. Today I am restored by the lack of interruptions, but aching for their quirky humor and unbridled affection. It’s maddening. But the boundary between maternal bliss and discontent is not a straight line. It’s up and down and crooked with tricky hairpin turns. It’s a wild ride, and it’s the one I get to take every day.

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.

Mar 7 2009

What was I thinking?

In (what’s left of) my mind, I have an idea about what I want this blog to be. While I’ve hung my shingle on the hook of motherhood and its resulting mindlessness, it is my hope not to be limited to that.

The paradox – that I love these children of mine, but I don’t love the train-wreck they’ve made of my life – spills over into my writing. I don’t want it to be all about them. But somehow, it ends up being all about them. Any mother can sing you this song.

Each day, groping about at my quotidian tasks, little patchworks of prose – on all manner of topics – miraculously assemble themselves in my mind and I say to myself (oddly, in the voice of Toad, from Frog & Toad), “I will write a post about that someday.” And I duly make a note of it.

Yet what has the strongest pull, what ultimately draws me to the keyboard and overrides that ever present resistance that all writers wrestle, is usually some silly (or painful) reflective anecdote about being a mom. I suppose that’s my branding, whether I like it or not, and I seem to respond naturally to the memes that have to do with mothering.
I do believe that I can (and should) occasionally veer from the core subject matter, as long as I circle around and find my way to home territory for grounding. Most of the thoughtful blogs I read do just that. I need only give myself permission.

I am a woman with a private and professional life that spans beyond the subject of coping with children. I have other things to say. And I would say them, if I could only remember what they are.