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Sunday, September 30, 2007

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The living room furniture was inherited from Patrick's parents. It is covered in a slubby fabric of gold and brown stripes, worn to a transparent mesh in places. The seat cushion is wrapped, envelope style, in yellow cotton that I bought a few years ago with the intention of sewing a new slipcover. I usually cover the back with a crazy quilt that was a gift to one of the babies from a crafty friend. The chair (and its sibling sofa) has outlived countless fabric disguises, sewn and makeshift, in the ten years since we got it to tide us over until we could afford new.

I guess there have been times since when we could afford new living room furniture. But something—trip home to Newfoundland, or bunk beds for growing boys, or a month of eating in restaurants—was deemed a higher priority. Or I looked around, but was unable to choose perfectly, and thus unable to choose at all. Or I tossed yet another destroyed slipcover into the trashcan and wondered what would be the point of having anything nice and new?

When I am stretched thin, the chair becomes a magnet for my feelings of haplessness, the throne of everything I could and should do better. Shame clings to it like dog hair.

But then I have a day like today, when I'm able to find the golden mean between inertia and overdrive; when I've unloaded the dishwasher and mopped the kitchen floor, straightened up the living room, shaken and folded the blankets and throws, and I could keep going—I could always keep going, because there's so much more that always needs doing—but I don't.

I stop. I make a steaming pot of tea. I curl up on the sofa with the Sunday paper and half-listen to the children rehearsing their magic tricks on the front porch. And then the light comes streaming in through the window above the chair and I see.

I see.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

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From time to time, you remind me of someone I once knew, in the time before you, in a place you hardly know. I was married to this someone for a short time, years before you were born. As I took this photograph of you today, I could see how much it would resemble the one photograph of him I have kept, and almost cannot bear to look at.

I don't know how to explain this to you, as I will someday need to do, because it is a crucial part of your own story; the story of how I came to be here, at the appointed place, at the appointed hour, to meet you.

Neither do I know how to explain to you why it moves me to glimpse in you the life I abandoned. Only that it is like seeing green grass coming up through ruined earth. A seed from my own soul that insists its way up through the places I set fire to, in flight. Life. Irrefutable. Constant.

Nothing is ever lost.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

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A Tale of Two Cities, Part I

When my parents came to Little Rock for our wedding in 1997 (more on that very soon), one of the first things they wanted to do was visit Central High.

In 1957, fifty years ago this week, nine black teenagers attempted to enroll at Central, opposed by a hostile mob and the National Guard. Federal troops were sent by President Eisenhower to enforce integration. My parents were also teenagers at the time, living in small towns in New Brunswick and Newfoundland. I don't know that either of them ever met a black person before they reached adulthood. There was a literal and cultural ocean of distance between their experience and what was happening in Little Rock, and across the American south. But Central High was as meaningful a landmark of their growing-up years as John F. Kennedy and Sputnik.

And they wanted to see it.

"Okay," I said, dubiously, "but it's down in the 'hood."

Central High, a magnificent art deco building of yellow brick, is planted squarely on the south side of I-630, the freeway that neatly slices this city into black and white. Or rather, the freeway was thrust to the north side of it, in the seventies. I've heard that local rappers call the 630 "the wall". It's a good name for it. The Wall runs east-west, an artery to get white collar workers from downtown offices to gated communities and big box stores in the western suburbs. For a couple of blocks to the north, the racial divide is slightly blurred (police responding to a break-in at the home of friends in that area told them they lived in the "transition zone"). But beyond that, north is white. South is black. It doesn't take a sociology degree to extrapolate on which side property values fall and crime rates rise. Steeply.

In 1997 the National Park Service opened the Central High Museum and Visitor Center. The city was still grappling with a gang crisis that had been the subject of a 1994 HBO documentary, Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock. I remember scoffing when an acquaintance warned me against driving in a certain neighborhood. He was a good white liberal, a socialist and an expatriate, and I assumed he was being faecetious. Because who better to pass judgement on racial attitudes in the south than we who had never had to dwell in proximity to a sizeable, marginalized, minority population?

"I'm deadly serious, sweetheart," Nick said, his lilting Scottish accent diluted only slightly by his years in America. He drove his point home with tales of his own close encounters with random gunfire on the streets. Streets that were a short, wrong turn away from Central High.

Nonetheless, my folks wanted to see Central, and I drove them to it. My Dad was content to look around the campus, but my mother wanted to stay and visit the museum, so we dropped her off and I picked her up later.

"Why do they call it the Hood?", she asked innocently, gazing through the passenger side window at the once-gracious, turn-of-the-century homes that surround the school. I think she thought it was the official name, like something you'd see emblazoned on banners attached to lampposts. Welcome to the Historic Hood District.

I explained that it was slang for "neighborhood", and that it was synomynous with "ghetto". As we drove past boarded up doors and broken out windows, I told her what happened after Ike's troops and the international media withdrew from Central High. After one of the nine, Ernest Green, became the first African-American to graduate from Central High, the city's public schools were shut down to prevent further integration from taking place the next academic year. One year from the day the nine entered Central, Little Rock citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration. The district's schools were closed until a newly constituted school board reopened them on August 12, 1959, a "dark day," in the words of then Governor Orval Faubus.

I explained to her what "white flight" was, and how after integration, there had been an exodus of white familes to the west, and that the establishment of most of the city's private schools coincided with this era. I told her how Patrick's mother grew up around the corner from Central High, graduating with the class of '57, but that I couldn't show her the wonderful, rambling house that Patrick so warmly remembered from his childhood, because it had been torn down after the family moved his grandmother out. The neighbourhood was well into its decline by that point. I told her about gangs, and crackhouses, and drivebys.

My mother's face was crestfallen. I might as well have told her the moon landing had been faked, and we were still in Vietnam.

"What was it all for, then?" she asked. "What's changed?" I remember her voice sounding very young and small.

I turned onto the overpass to cross the ironically-named "free" way—the Wall—and headed back north. Exit here for White, here for Safe.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't know."

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Friday, September 21, 2007

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Mother and Child Reunion: How Big

I was inspired this morning by Andrea to jump onboard the bathroom Self-Portrait challenge, not realizing that ship had sailed last Tuesday.

It's just as well, because a bathroom self-portrait would require a moment by myself in the bathroom. And that wasn't on this morning's program.

My littlest Who was especially wanting to stay close this morning, as we pulled a disappearing act on him for our tenth anniversary, with an overnight stay at a friend's lakehouse.

"Mommy," he said when I picked him up yesterday from another friends house, "I never found you." His tone wasn't so much one of reprimand as one of consternation: I thought I looked everywhere, confound it. What stone did I leave unturned?

By all reports, he did fine in our absence, but it must have been confusing for him, since I had no less than four different caretakers keeping him in shifts over a 24 hour period. This was entirely due to my congenital time-space impairment, which I wrote about last week. (Did you think it was hyperbole? The next day I nearly boiled dry a pan of eggs because I was using the egg timer in another room to help me stay on task and focused.)

I had arranged the getaway as a surprise anniversary/birthday present for Patrick. The same friend who owns the lakehouse had also offered to come and stay with the kids at our house overnight. My friend with whom we carpool would handle getting everyone to and from school, and we would be home in time to pick them up at the end of the schoolday yesterday.

The minute I unveiled my grand plan—that being the Last Possible Minute—Patrick saw the hole in it.

"The baby doesn't go to preschool on Thursdays."

[Insert expletive of choice here.]

Thus followed a mad scramble to secure care for him and save our anniversary. I sent out a S.O.S. email to all my girlfriends, and within ten minutes of our departure had set up an all day game of "pass the preschooler".

We had a nice time, especially the hour and a half drive there and back. Patrick and I have always been great road companions (planes are another story). The tension/worry meter has been off the dial around here lately, and we really needed that time to reconnect and remind each other of our real net worth.

(On the financial front, we need a very minor miracle. If any of you have a direct line with that department, put in a word for us, would you? And ask them to please hurry? Thanks!)

The boys were so happy and chatty last night. I had that feeling of contentment that sometimes washes over me; the five of us bobbing along on our little raft, complete unto ourselves. No one else I'd rather be at sea with.

At such times I am reminded of my favorite scene of one of my favorite movies, Joe vs. the Volcano. It is a wonderful fable. There's a moment where Joe, the hero, adrift at sea, dehydrated, and delirious, looks up and sees the night sky, a magnificent starry dome above the ocean. He manages to struggle to his feet, and raises both his arms to the heavens.

"Thank you for my life," he chokes out. "I'd forgotten. How big."

And thanks to many of you for the kind anniversary wishes. It was a real treat to come home and read them. I promised my mother I would write about our wonderful, boho, barn-raising of a wedding. I will try my best to make good on that over the weekend.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

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Dancing to the End

...the cover of the invitation to our wedding...

...ten years ago today.

verse by Leonard Cohen. Also, thanks, Matisse!


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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

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This morning, for no discernable reason, I remembered two funny things that came out of the mouths of my babes before I had a blog in which to quote them:

  • My firstborn, wincing, after having his nails clipped (he must have been two or three): "Mommy, you put my nails on too tight."

  • On the morning of his eagerly anticipated fourth birthday, my middle son looked down at himself in surprise and dismay, and exclaimed, "But I'm still three!"

I don't really know where they belong in this narrative. But I'm tucking them in here for safekeeping, before I lose them again. There are so many memories like these I've already lost, faded as if printed on cheap paper. Occasionally, an image or phrase falls out of the manila folder in my brain stamped "FORGOTTEN" and slips back into consciousness. They are uncaptioned snapshots, outtakes from Notes to Self: The Missing Years.

I used to tell my husband that in between the last child starting kindergarten, and me returning to full time paid work, I would need a "gap" year, just to put scrapbooks together.

I started one for my firstborn, eight years ago. I bought all kinds of colored paper, stickers, markers, and some pretty silly looking scissors. I made sure everything was labelled acid-free, archival quality, so things would be in good shape when my son's presidential library director came knocking, fifty years hence.

I got about six pages laid out before I had to choose between documenting the baby, or taking care of the baby. I let newly developed photo prints (remember those days?) pile up on my desk, and when they began to overtake my desktop, I got a couple of acid-free photo boxes as a temporary holding bin. When those were stuffed to overflowing, I just started tossing everything in a 10-gallon plastic bin. At the rate the memorabilia was growing, and I was lagging, I figured that when he graduated from college, I would hand him the key to a storage shed, and say, "Here's your scrapbook." It could double as living quarters while he looked for a job.

Of course, the 10-gallon bin never exceeded capacity, because I had a second baby, and anyone who is the second child themselves can tell you what that means. It means there was a media blackout for the next three years. My husband was the second child, and there are perhaps three photographs of him as a baby. And don't get my little sister started. She has systematically hung photographs of herself all over our mother's house, in an attempt to redress the visual inequality.

Shortly after the birth of our third child, two things happened that have been instrumental in the preservation of our family record: we got a digital camera, and I started this blog. No more desktop avalanches of slippery photographs and negatives. My approach to photography is based wholly on the law of averages, so I take literally hundreds of pictures each month. The best and most beloved of these get uploaded as illustrations for the blog, or added to my flickr sets, or to my kodak gallery for mom, or lately, get published in magazines. The entire internet would have to blow up for me to lose all my photos. And even then, I could just send the kids to the library's periodical section to read and see the highlights of their childhood.

It's so much better than a scrapbook. Because even more precious and more perishable than the photographs are the moments that no camera can capture, but writing can. Writing lets me crop and paste the things they say and do, and frame them with my own thoughts and feelings. Writing gives context. If my boys do read through this record someday (yes, I back it up all over the place, too), I hope it will give them a sense of not just the way they were, but the way we all were.

Thanks to the inimitable Schmutzie for the Rockin' Girl Blogger award. If you read her award post, you will see that I am in some rockin' good company. This is my second time to receive the RGB and though it is cliche to say this in an acceptance speech, I am undeserving of the honor, as the best I could do in paying it forward last time was to award one to Dutch. Truly, I have tarnished my crown.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

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General Bo-Peep

Soccer season kicked off last weekend. If you've been wondering why the posting has been a little thin around here this week, it's because it is taking all available brain power to figure out how to apportion two players, two parents, one mini-van and one uncontainable toddler over two overlapping practice times, two overlapping game times, and two fields that are not even remotely near one another, let alone overlapping.

I'm not good with space and time. Other people could probably figure all this stuff out in their heads. I need to be standing over the Lego table, pushing a Hot Wheels mini-van and five Playmobile figures around with whatever you call that stick the generals use to play with their toy soldiers. But I would probably wind up whacking someone with the stick.

I've been experimenting with an online calendar to help me know whether I'm coming or going (as it turns out, both). It's been very helpful, because not only can I see the day, week, or month at a glance, I can tell it to send text reminders to my mobile phone. I have it set up for the alerts you'd expect, like, "soccer practice, 5 p.m., field 5B." But I also have it set up to remind me to "pick up kids after school" and "make supper" and "put the kids to bed". I suppose other mothers just notice their children are not home, or hungry, or asleep in their clothes on the floor. But I'm not one to hover.

Isn't just soccer and scheduled activities that kerflumox me, either. Even hanging out at the park, I have a hard time keeping track of everyone. I've heard that ducks, or maybe it's geese, only have a set number of offspring, because that number is as high as they can count. I am definitely one over my limit. It seems to be against some law of physics for three boys to move in one direction. I took them to the playground yesterday after school and I spent the whole time running. I felt like a border collie. I was shouting, "Come back!" "Too far!" "Not in the creek!" "Where's your brother?" What they probably heard was "Yip! Yip! Yip!"

I'm still exhausted from it. And game day is tomorrow. If I survive this tour of duty, and we are still in the Middle East, I will go over there and straighten things out. It should be a piece of cake.


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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

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Feel it All

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am extremely uptight when it comes to toilet sharing, humorous, informational, or otherwise.

I can't help it. It comes handed down to me from my father's side. My mother, of the earthier branch of the family tree, says that she had two crushing disappointments almost immediately after she and Dad married. One, that they weren't going to dress up and go to mass together every Sunday (or any Sunday); and two, that shared bathroom privileges did not come under the umbrella of marital intimacy. Apparently my father nearly petitioned for annullment the first time she attempted a conjugal visit to the bathroom while he was occupying it.

In this, I am my father's daughter, through and through. A few days after I gave birth to our first child on our bedroom floor, naked, with four midwives and my husband staring on, Patrick came to me with a distinctly gleeful expression.

"I suppose now we can dispense completely with all notions of personal modesty between us?"

Not if there was only one toilet left on earth.

Now consider that I am a devoted reader of Heather Armstrong, the writer behind Dooce. At least three quarters of the content of Dooce originates in the bathroom, and it is a testament to Heather's writing that I am able to overcome my handicap for the sake of reading it.

It's almost always worth it. I don't mean to turn this post into Ode to Dooce, but I want to take a minute to defend it from those who attack or dismiss it on the basis of content*. There are oodles of people out there laying it bare in all forms of media. Very, very few do it thoughtfully or literately. Heather has earned her Artistic License (in fact, that's what the double O stands for in "Dooce").

Anyway, I wandered into Heather's bathroom the other day, and she was crying.

Now, crying in the bathroom is something I am very comfortable with. The bathroom is where I have typically gone to cry. It's where I remember my mother crying, when I was a child. Because mothers don't cry (unless they are happy tears, darling), except from behind the bathroom door, and only if her child is somewhere far away on the other side of it. I don't mean to say that this was the pattern that was consciously handed down to me by my mother or father. God knows my wires are twisted enough to have distorted the signal. But this is what I came into motherhood with: if you must cry, don't let the children see.

And then I walked through Heather's open door and she writes that she is crying right in front of her three-year-old daughter. "Bawling," as she puts it.

And it is the single most shocking, affecting image that has confronted me in the eighteen months or so I have been reading her blog.

I'm not going to attach a value judgement to it. Whether it was a good or a bad thing isn't for me to say. I was touched, and startled by it, and the image has stayed with me for days. I have been holding it, pondering it, weighing it, as if were a smoldering fragment that had landed at my feet from another planet. A clue to an alternate world from my own, one where children don't break if they experience the full range of their mother's emotions.

I put it in my pocket, this image. When I am feeling overdrawn, like I have often felt these past few weeks, like I did for an hour or so today, I curl my fingers around it, worrying it, trying to imagine: what if I looked the way I feel inside right now? What if the children saw? My husband? What then?

I don't know the answer. But I'm asking the question.

On a lighter note, Heather's portrait of herself as a messy crier made me laugh. My little sister, who has NO trouble displaying her emotions, anywhere, anytime, cries like this too. (Which goes to show how siblings can grow up in the same family with completely different experiences, perceptions and outcomes.) In the album of my first wedding there is a hilarious sequence of her face melting into snot, like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as everyone in the wedding party is finally, openly staring with mouths agape. Including me, whose—hello?—Special Day it was afterall.

And who didn't shed a tear.

*Not that she needs my defense. I believe H.A. towers four feet or more over me, and could squash me flat with her bare foot. Still. Her blog has been at the point of the plough in this field, and we owe the lady some props. Heather, if you need a blurb for the back of your book cover that says "definitely worth suspending your sense of decorum", I'm your girl.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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The Language of the Left Behind

The littlest Who starts preschool today, three days a week. Every weekday morning for the past fortnight, he has stood with his new Diego backpack at the front door, wailing "ME SCHOOL," as the storm door slams shut behind his older brothers.

"Look at my eyes," he says to me, with recrimination. This is his new way of telling me he's sad. Somehow he can make them well up on cue.

I've told you how close my eldest children, two years and four days apart, are. Peas and carrots. Since he began to speak, my youngest has referred to them in third person, singular: "La-la," he called them. Rather like the twins, Samneric, from Lord of the Flies. (I could easily carry the Lord of the Flies analogy off into a whole other direction, but it would take me away from my point, and besides, the summer holidays are now behind us and the healing can begin).

All the rest of us began to call them "La-la" as well. "Time to go pick up La-la," I'd say. The big boys used it to refer to themselves. "This is La-la's toy," one of them would say, dangling some coveted object just out of reach.

Only recently, he began to differentiate between them. The six year old remained La-La, but the eight year old has spun off into "Wo-Wo." Neither phonetically resembles their actual names, but we have all adapted to them.

I took all three for their annual physical exam last month, and the doctor noted that his language did seem a little behind. I told her I was aware of it, but that I wasn't worried, as both children born after my first have been slow to talk.

"Hm," she said. "How old are you?" she asked him.

"Three," his older brother piped up.

"Why speak," I said, "when someone can do it for you?"

"I see."

After I muzzled the big boys, she had a minute to interview the baby directly, free of interference from his spokespeople. It was a rare exclusive. She agreed afterwards that his language is coming along just fine, even if he doesn't get much of a chance to use it.

Since La-La and Wo-Wo have been back in school, his vocabulary has been expanding exponentially, often delightfully. He is developing his own unique patois, like people do who are cut off from the mainstream of civilization. Here he is in his favorite shirt, a vintage souvenir t from a now defunct folk festival. It is silk screened with an illustration from one of my father's children's books, One Wonderful Fine Day for a Sculpin Named Sam. A sculpin, in case you've never seen one, is a ghastly looking fish.

My guy's word for it?


Isn't that so much better? "Sculpin" sounds like the noise you make in your throat when you almost step on one, washed up dead on the beach and covered with flies. "Dragonfish" sounds ancient and mysterious, rare and collectible. Don't you wish you had one for your aquarium? The sculpins should get him for their spokesperson.

He may be a man of few words, but he makes them count. I predict he will make a brilliant spin doctor. Today, spinning for sculpins, tomorrow, presidents. And if the words don't convince you of his message?

Just look into his eyes.

Don't forget I am guest posting at Design Mom all week. Come over and say hi.


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