The pandemic and resultant quarantine – as Washington state residents, we’re early adopters – would be scary enough in any case, but it sucks when you’ve got children, even presumably healthy ones. Small children always seem so vulnerable; my teenagers, however, can have grownup-sized anxieties with a tad bit less historical perspective than might otherwise give them comfort.
Today, coincidentally, was the first day of the year I felt the heat of spring when I opened the door. My first thought: the planet will survive. We human beings have made some big messes and stand to make more. The planet utterly doesn’t give a fuck.
Phoenix and I went on a neighborhood walk, carefully observing distancing practices of course. Just a simple walk – after only a week of quarantine – felt invigorating, sacred. I asked how his friends were doing. I asked how he was holding up. In is social circle, Phoenix occupies a similar role as I do in mine – expected to support, expected to listen and empathize, expected to be that emotional buffer for others. I tell him to be cautious about this. I tell him, “the day before yesterday I fielded a lot of calls. I felt just fine all day long, listening to others and helping them. But then that night I was beset by anxiety and couldn’t fall asleep until six A.M.”
It isn’t summer according to the calendar, but the weather has turned. It’s gorgeous outside; sunshine most days, warming the driveway where kitty Pip regally lolls as he surveys the neighborhood. A warm rain other days; the absolute greenery of trees a fresh, indescribably rich scent as we travel inside with our groceries.
The quiet in the evenings, after dinner is done and the teens have settled into their companionable laughter with friends online. I open the windows and put a few drops of essential oils in the diffuser and take a hot shower and pad through the house in bare feet and a soft t-shirt and knickers. My body is tired and spent from yoga and hard work. My bed is made and I await my husband. Family life is a paradise, when it’s not a hell. But it’s a paradise most every day and has been for years.
My work, I have had so much work. I am glad for it, but I have had to focus diligently as to not lose myself. Focus too, to schedule a two-week sabbatical in July. This engineered break has taken every bit of discipline and ingenuity for me to plan. Obviously I am grateful to have the kind of steady clientele I can take a break; too much work is a good problem to have. The kids and I will be swimming and sunning and beach-ing and iced coffee-ing like goodballs.
And meanwhile, in between client work a break to sew myself new chonies. I’ve got a concert in the park coming up with the kids, in Portland, OR and by then it will be hot as balls. Gotta make myself a dress that weighs nothing, and a big ol’ sunhat. These are the preoccupations my mind runs to, when I’m in bed and retiring for the day.
Tonight I carefully slice into a red bell pepper, then a green one, and finally a cheerful purple onion. I cut a quarter wedge from each of these and slice as thinly as my patience will allow. I am exhausted, and I am trying to prepare a new dish. So I move slowly; but I do move. I heat up two types of tortillas (microwave under a damp cloth napkin) and wrap them in heavy foil packets into the warmed oven. Having pickled a jalapeño (while the others roast in oil and salt), I dice it finely and add to the marinade hosting thick tempeh slices. I halve cherry tomatoes into a bowl and gently combine them with a little oil, salt, sugar: set aside. I fry up the seitan chick’n strips – having pre-baked them dry and chewy in the oven – and add the peppers and onions and more pickled jalapeño. The kitchen warms brilliantly with the fragrance of peppers and onions and the family cheers a little. Finally: I slice avocado, bring out the lime cashew cream, and the purple slaw, my husband prepared earlier. We don’t set the table as my work is spilled across it, but join one another convivially on the couch to watch a quaint baking show before we go our separate ways again for the evening.
I have these waves of beyond-exhaustion that come and go. Life is not easy at the moment, but it there is much to be grateful. I am bone-tired but also exhilarated; a nearly bottomless fount of creative energy, and a lot of wonderful support from my community. We have our health. Ralph’s job is going well, and the kids are thriving. We’ve got Christmas handled but that said, it’s always a challenge for me to pace myself during such an intense time of the year.
I have decided a huge amount of conventional wisdom about teenagers is utter bollocks, as they say. Teenagers are not ridiculous or less-than; they do not deserve our smart-aleck comments and eye rolls. They do not warrant our smug and authoritarian parenting. My teens are not rude, entitled, “crazy”, “hormonal”, non-sensical. They are not especially loud or dirty. They are exactly as I would have predicted from my incredibly extensive and intensive experience unschooling them through childhood: they are whip-smart, kind, funny, sensitive, and joyful. They are genuinely interested in other people, not just themselves. They are interested in the whole of life, not just work. They do not have the martyred energy, the passive aggressive forms of communication, the entitled and inflexible attitudes of adults. They respond to criticism or correction with open-mindedness and they change their behaviors if their behaviors are deemed problematic.
If the citizens of this country were anything like my teenagers, the world would be a much better place.
We are in for several months of absolutely stunning, perfect weather. We’ve had nothing but sunshine and warmth, and delicious soft rains. The daylight lasts well past nine PM and I’m taken back to my childhood and how much I loved those late twilights. During the blue and white, perfect daylight the life springs from the soil and everywhere the scent of green grass and blooms; the peonies we brought in to fill a vase are startlingly redolent with a heady scent. Everything is in bloom and the hot earth is panting and giving forth greenery. It’s beautiful here; I live by the mountains and by the sea. I may travel but I would have such a difficult time living anywhere else.
My youngest son has become irascible and peevish in this last half a year. I’ve parented long enough to not worry too much, But I don’t ignore those kinds of things either: children need interventions when things aren’t going well, when they are struggling. Tonight I made an offhand comment and he took offense; this is happening with relative frequency of late. He comes in the bedroom and lays down next to me I do not say all the things the adults in my life used to say to me. I don’t tell him he has a bad attitude or he’s snotty or selfish. I do not make condescending remarks about puberty or “teen attitude”. It’s a little damned depressing these thoughts even come to mind but, that’s how I was raised. Still, It is ending with me, I won’t parent that way. I won’t treat mine the way I myself was treated. My son holds me and I put my head on his chest. Both kids’ voices are deepening, and they are getting broader through the shoulders and they are taller than I and although we laugh about it, it puts me off track a bit. Impending old age and death, a ways off perhaps but sometimes it doesn’t seem so.
The older child soon creeps in and I hold him a while too. The two children seek me out several times a day. This is why, exciting as my career is, I can’t and won’t work fulltime as long as there are kids that need this. All kids need this. To think when I was pregnant with my first, I worried I wouldn’t have enough love, wouldn’t have what it takes. Well. I have what it takes. Turns out. What surprises me is that every day I can return to that intention, that not one day goes by I’m on autopilot all day. Sometimes I think parenting taught me mindfulness more than any other practice, or tradition, or lecture, or book.
The windows are open and I can feel the sea air and I can hear the trainyard; a sole candle burns on the dresser. The house is quieting although the younglings stay up late; they too are comforted by the long summer evenings, I think. Children of their mother.
Last night at a gathering I turned to one of my sons and I told him that for as long as I lived I hoped we had as close a relationship as we do today. And I add “If you ever want something less, if you don’t want to see me, I intend to respect that.”
People love to hear stories of addiction, as long as they are in the proper format and carry the correct message. The addict must describe the wretched circumstances of active use, at length. We should leave no unsavory detail undisclosed. We must emphasize the severity of our condition, our terrible mishaps and regrettable decisions, so the listener can assure herself that we were really bad, that they themselves do not have a problem. We become in their imaginings a caricature they can pity. Next: we must then perform an attitude of the chastened miscreant. Yes, but also of plucky hero, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. “I can do it! I love myself enough! Go me!” Our role is that of social scapegoat, a tidy morality tale. A fable of debasement and then squeaky-clean self-sufficiency. We satisfy the listener’s need for sentimentality and for Othering; the next thieving addict they see on the street will receive their righteous wrath.
And so it goes.
Wouldn’t it be a lovely fiction, then, if I were to say that it was my children who brought me to sobriety, if I could tell that inspirational story. It might go something like this: that after some horrible mishap or sloppy misadventure, one of my little tots said something especially piquant and I broke down on my kitchen floor, say, and had a cry. Et cetera. I realized I wasn’t doing my best and I decided to kick this thing, to stop drinking. I owe it to them. They need their mother at her best. That sort of thing.
Of course, that wasn’t the story at all. Back then my drinking seemed a minor footnote in a life that was a damned struggle. I remember nothing of note on the morning of my first day sober, especially not some pithy remonstrance from my partner or child. That day was business as usual until it wasn’t, and I got a good (figurative) slap and it took me a few days to even comprehend what had happened.
Because shit doesn’t go down like those Lifetime films, not usually anyway. Life comes at you fast, as they are wont to say. Live long enough and something will kick my ass pretty good and if I’m smart I won’t try to find a way to explain it away or sweep it under the rug.
Lasting sobriety brought me a toughness; more importantly, a clarity. What my children know, today, is that I carry it as my responsibility to sort my mess out. My job not to make excuses. My job to process my feelings with the appropriate parties (who are often not my children). For Christ’s sake, what do we have counselors, and sponsors, and peers, and partners for?
One of my enduring legacies as a mother is that my children can criticize me and they know that I will listen, and I will correct my behavior. This is a disciplined, grounding practice that is precisely easy once one gives into it, once I know I love my practice of mothering more than I love my egoic attachment to Self. This practice delivers me a great deal of self-respect as a parent. I have discovered I cannot “make” my children love or esteem or honor me and that it is inappropriate to try. Maybe most importantly, I do not explain away the hurts I have caused them. I don’t want to ever tell them it was okay that I hurt them. Not then, not today. I don’t want to hurt them and I don’t want to justify it if I do.
Being a mother has been, for me, a tremendous amount of work. I dislike the word “sacrifice” in this context, but I will say that on a daily basis and as the weeks and months and years have passed I have stood in a place and weighed one choice against the other, and if I found it at all possible I made the best choice for my child and I have done this when I didn’t know how I could possibly carry it off. I have done this hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of times. Maybe what has helped the most is to have that moment of footing to commit to something that frightened me, even if it hurled me into grief or was built upon the shakiest premise or if I received considerable adversity from others. Choosing my child over and over and soon it became choosing myself because it was my best self doing the choosing.
I did not know I had it within me to be a wonderful mother, but it has been a significant source of joy to find no small measure of competency in this vocation.
It’s 11 PM but my husband makes me blueberry pancakes from scratch. They are perfect: three identical, steaming hot and delectable confections. Vegan butter and hot maple syrup. There is a little extra batter so he makes a few more, doling out between each teen. Hot food; sleepy belly.
I have been craving the comfort of foods off and on lately. I am in a constant state of creativity and mourning. My marriage is, for me, opening into a beautiful phase and I love spending time with my husband, I love how he smells, I love how he feels, I love hearing about his day.
I am still rather gutted my children are growing up. They are never again going to be the small children I cared for, for so many years. They are still so sweet, funny, and affectionate – and for this I am glad. Beeps had a wretched cold for a day; during that time they asked me pointedly for more attention and more TLC, and this is something I could grant. We put on the 1978 classic animated film Watership Down and felt the powerful, dramatic score clutch at our hearts. Nels, who was not exposed to the film or music as a young one, scoffed at us and we shouted him away.
Today, a footnote: we drove out to Westport into a gloomy, oppressive cloud cover, to meet with a friend and secure a small kitten for babysitting. Our friend is out of the country for about eight days and during this time we are stewards to this very tiny, very fluffy grey kitten who is now attempting to run our household. We introduce him to so many firsts: hot pancakes, and four stodgy adults kitties, and of course the best kitten-minder of all: Hutch.
And maybe – well there’s no “maybe” about it – my desire to secure a little kitten ward for a few days is that desire to do something fun for the children, something rather superfluous and silly, something that brings us together. Much like the foster kittens of (exactly) two years ago, little J. here will sneak behind the stove and into the warming pan – there’s just something about that spot.