hurry up and stay present

Today my son awoke with a croupy-sounding cough and flushed cheeks – the sickness, presumably, that’s been going around his preschool. I decided to keep him close and subject him to my crazy “wisdom” in treating the common virus: fresh air, a wee bit of exercise, hot food, lots of fluids, and lots of rest. Having a sick child – especially my youngest – means I must put aside, as much as I can, my vast list of things I’d like to do in the day and be there for the Boy instead. Indeed as we go about our day I wonder that I’ve let myself be as busy with outside interests as I have.

Homeschooling is hard for me in one or two respects. When I had my daughter in public school last year I could wait to be told how she was performing or behaving – or I could ask the teacher myself (this happened often enough since I volunteered twice a week). Now on my own I have to figure it out with only occasional outside commentary. I’m well aware my children are ahead of the curve in their reading, writing, and math acumen (Yesterday in the library I was interrupted at my computer by the head librarian cackling and signaling my son. She’d tried to help him at the self-checkout terminal – unnecessary, as he knows how to operate it – and had said, “OK, click the blue button!” to which Nels responded, “You mean the one that says, ‘Continue’?” This tickled her. “I was just schooled by a four year old!” she crowed). If your children are doing well academically, for the moment anyway, what then do you do for “schooling”?

There’s a lot of newness in all this for me. As a youngster I did well in school and thought that was the be-all end-all “job” as a child – to perform well, to get A’s. This simply isn’t how I see it any more. For instance, I see Sophie’s self-directed interest and pursuit in embroidery as a pursuit as valid as any school curriculum: perhaps more so, since she herself sets the goals and decides how to execute them. I have discovered I am not an academic-success-at-all-cost kind of mommy, yet I still don’t know what kind of mommy I am vis-a-vis school. Sometimes I can’t decide how much work I should put in to finding them things to occupy their minds and bodies, and how much should be self-directed. Most days, like today, there is a happy medium: to know my children and know what they’re ready for, then to suggest it (or bike them to the event or set them up with paints) and get out of the way.

This afternoon we finish swimming (a blissful, calm 1.5 hours in the pool sans throngs of post-school kiddos) and sit down to eat a bit before heading home. My son eats. And eats and eats. “You going to finish that, Sophie?” he asks his sister (who is silently weeping, distraught the sandwich I brought along includes lettuce). After devouring the sandwich he has juice and string cheese, then a short car ride home and I tuck him upstairs in bed. Sophie is enthralled in her new book so I tuck Nels next to me and queue up On The Waterfront on Netflix. I am nearly instantly misty-eyed at what is one of my alltime favorite movies. My son asks questions and maintains his interest until we are interrupted by Ralph’s arrival home. I feel only a tiny bit claustrophobic – wishing to be out, itching to fold my tons of laundry, longing for an hour in the sewing room. I’ll get to those things again, and soon enough.

And as if on cue, my son slides off the bed and next to me here on the floor. He says, “I’m crying.” I ask, “Why?” And he tells me, “Because I love you. It’s happy crying.” His forehead is hot, his eyes are bright, he’s full of love, and I’m just hoping I don’t catch whatever it is he has.

tienes siete anos hoy

This Morning, At Seven Years
Sometimes I think your brother got the better deal. By the time I had him I was over a few things: namely, the identity crisis of giving up career and status, the need to have things entirely my way, and an irrational fear of infanthood. I’d like to believe I am a work in progress. I am doing my dutiful best to improve as your mother, leader, and mentor.

Sadly, though, while I have been doing all this self-discovery you are growing up. You benefit from my unadulterated, fierce love and the energy you bring to me – but you are also the recipient of my many mistakes.

I know you. You love to sing and you love to hear me sing. You love many of the things I love: sewing, listening to music at top volume, taking baths (together!), watching B movies. You like many things I don’t: Disney princesses, jokes about bodily functions, Regina Spektor.

You love swimming more than anything else I can think of right now. Any time your head emerges from the water you are smiling. Your skin tends toward dryness so I’m always lotioning you up after you swim. Last time I pulled out the Gold Bond – very effective but with an unappealing medicinal scent – and you groaned, “Oh no!” I laughed because I should just throw it out and buy you something new – it’s so “mom” of me to continue slathering it on you until it’s run out and it’s so “you” that you complain but allow it.

You love reading, especially graphic novels. Sweet ones, quirky ones, violent ones – anything you can get your hands on.

You are kind to animals. I was looking through our many photographs of you and your love for animal life is remarkable. You carried our new kitty home the summer day we picked him up, you attempted surgery on our traumatized chicken, and you are completely at ease with creatures large and small – knowing our pets’ many moods and proclivities better than the rest of us. You’ve told me you want to be a veterinarian someday. I can see if that’s the path you choose that you will be well-suited.

Just these last few weeks you’ve taken to sleeping in your own bunkbed. You’ve also not always been willing to cuddle or sit on my lap when I want. I’ve decided to look forward to and absolutely treasure the moments. Luckily, they still happen often. This morning when you woke you came and found me and climbed into my arms while I sang you “Happy Birthday”.

Why don’t you be a little blonder and cuter? Because it’s NOT POSSIBLE.

Punkin + Punkin
Having children means the revival of the punkin-patch. Thanks for being a constant source of renewed joy in life’s little pleasures.

Summer Babies
Is now a good time to mention you not only cuddled your brother a lot but helped out with the cloth diapering tons, too? I owe you back-pay, I admit it.

Surly Fish
Marine Science Center; I had Nels in the Didymos on my back and I was enthralled with the both of you.

Tiniest Little Undershirt
The way your lip is pooched out in this picture reminds me: you used to suck your thumb! For four-point-five years.

Fort Worden, Again:  Peace Portrait
You and your friend C.; you were wonderfully suited to one another. Your daddy has always been awesome at fixing up your hair.

Of "Muffin"
I bought you this mattress, and all the bedding, and you loved it. Name of the little creature you’re holding (that you crafted in church camp): “Muffin”.

Fort Worden
Up at the Fort, ready for action.

He's Going To Outweigh You Soon
On yet another hike. Don’t tell anyone there’s like, a six foot drop under your feet. You guys were fine.

"Of The Forest"
I found this coat abandoned on some playground; you wore it for years. The hat you still have; it actually fits now.

Last Day, Port Townsend
Port Townsend, our last day. You were both ready for (more) adventure. Nels was getting over pinkeye.

Helping In The New House
“Is there a ghost in my house?” You helped us pick and move into the place on Eklund. You approved of the purple house across the street.

We ride public transit a lot more now that we’re in HQX. You and your brother are experts!

Bagel Hunter!
Cooking in the Eklund kitchen; well, I cooked, and you’re about to eat. I loved the sunlight during the spring.

Que bonita! Remember when we went tree-trimming for swags, and had lunch at Galway Bay after? You probably don’t, but your father and I do. That’s pizza on your face, by the way.

Sophie Swimminz
Doing what you love: swimming. These days you can swim the width of the pool and are learning back- and breastroke. You go off the diving board rarely and reluctantly. You enjoy doing headstands and having me throw goggles for you to hunt and retrieve.

Lake Quinault Explorers
Out at Lake Quinault. You and Nels, a precisely-tuned engine of play.

eyes on the prize
Soccer! We never missed a game this summer. You are an excellent defender.

Morning Love
This speaks for itself.

Tonight’s birthday dinner choice: Alexander’s Restaurant.

Thank you for being a true inspiration. You are the smartest little thing in our house. I look forward to many more days with you; as many as you have to spare.

the sun is in the sky oh why oh why

It felt like I kept running into beautiful people today. First, there was the trip to work with my kids:

Precious Cargo
Nels is all smiles about ten minutes before he and I had a huge throwdown involving taffy. Photo by Sophie.

Cat Wants In
Did I mention the cat rode on the trunk of my car a city block yesterday when I left? Here he has just been rebuffed in his efforts to join us. Packed in the bike: swimgear for three, embroidery project of Sophie’s, spices for today’s soup, my purse, various warm hats.

After I took this picture I pulled into the neighbor’s back driveway to get out of the way of the alley. The neighbor soon emerged and eyed me askance as I packed. I explained I’d be on my way in a minute but she looked unfriendly and unconvinced. Sometimes I think people are really boggled by the amount of kid-age on the bike; I get a lot of stares. 90% of them are friendly, but not always. I look forward to the day when many, many more people carry many more things on bikes on many more of our roads.

Kelly + Coffee + X = Heaven!
Ralph bought me a new coat; I’ve had the same outdoor coat since my marriage, given as a gift. I like this one much more. It certainly makes me visible! Photo by Sophie.

Riverside, HQX
We’ve had a series of lovely sunny days for much of winter. And here I’d been bracing for rain. Sophie again operating the camera.

Docs + Fishnets + Bike
Our footgear. We borrow a digital camera; I look forward to one day owning one, especially in light of what great fun the kids seem to have in clicking away.

Today's Destination!
About to embark on a very busy shift at work. This is another rare smile of Nels’ this morning as we had yet another fight inside. After work I took my boss’ boy K. to the YMCA; lugging even more weight on the bike. Ralph brought Nels over from school and the three kids swam and swam and swam. We got home well after five.

"a nice eel who lost his mommy" – nels, on his swimming persona

Two years ago when we first moved here we threw our kids right into swimming lessons (after my mother repeatedly hounded us to join our Y; she even said she’d pay our monthly fee if necessary, although we did not take her up on this). At first our daughter was only a wee bit more proficient than our son, but that has changed over time. This seemed in large part due to a setback for Nels: the ritual for kid water-readiness in the early swimming program is to dunk the kids (involuntarily and repeatedly). I don’t have much of an opinion on dunking except to say it seemed to work well enough for 80% of children, who got over the surprise and accepted the new sensation. The other 20% or so, like my son, disliked it very much. Nels cried and protested intensely. I felt for him. We didn’t return him to lessons at his vociferous request. He has been water-clingy ever since, and only reluctantly tolerates his face being wet in the bath.

My mother has always been earnest in the endeavor to teach my children to swim. Nothing makes her happier where her grandchildren are concerned than to see them make headway in this. I wish she could have seen Sophie’s recent foray across the pool; however, my daughter will be an expert when my mom returns in two months time and I know that old lady will just about burst with excitement. I’ve watched my mom with my kids and, like many other things, she is a “pusher” – often coaching or bribing the children to do the thing she imagines she must “teach”. This is just Grandma’s way and the kids seem to be fine with that.

I love swimming with the kids because our schedule (or non-schedule, as homeschoolers) means we often have the pool almost entirely to ourselves. This creates a very peaceful, serene experience. In swimming with Nels today (Sophie is off on her own, diving, hand-standing, cannonballing) I listen to what he wants to do. I notice he already grips me less than he grips his father. I don’t know if it’s the more peaceful swim hour or something unique between my son and I.

Something magical begins to happen. Nels begins to enjoy the water, rather than enjoy it reservedly. He begins to tell me to go here, or there, or leave him along the side to hand-walk his way around the pool. He lets me put him on his back to float. He requests water-wings and delights in being able to “stand” in the water, his legs free floating. Within about a half hour his hands are touching mine only lightly (as opposed to his arms around my neck). I move him over on tummy, or back, holding him only lightly. I repeat to him I will not let him go unless he wants me to. Soon, he wants me to.

But his face – it’s hard to describe. His face simply opens up, his chin the bottom of a happy triangle, his mouth open and laughing, snub nose, his eyes wide and smiling. It’s an expression I often see when he tells a “joke” and makes me laugh unexpectedly. He is the master and author of the swimming experience. We’d had good times in the pool before today, but even I am surprised with how wonderful this feels.

About halfway through our (almost two-hour) swimming adventure I start to feel very emotional and out of time. I realize I am having a visceral body flashback to my son’s waterbirth. The way his body stretches out before me, the gentleness of the experience, his arms are just so, and of course although he had no voice those years ago, it was still him. “Mama,” he says, peering at my face. “You have a little red in your eyes.” “Nels, I’m crying,” I tell him. In the small benched water oasis in the center of the current river the two kids move close to me, their hands gently encircling me, and ask me why. “I’m remembering Nels, when he was born in the water.” This is a story the kids know very well, so they nod. It makes sense.

Nels and I move back out, he updating his waterwings to include two on his shins. “My foot is being carried!” he smiles. Thirty minutes of doing this and the lifeguard staff changes; the next lifeguard tells us the water floats aren’t allowed on kids’ legs. By the time we are done swimming he is no longer gripping me and his body is relaxed. He has put on the new goggles I bought him and used them to look underwater a few times. And bittersweet for me: he looks older somehow, unfolding like a bloom. We leave the pool early again while his sister enjoys more time in the pool; we shower together and he washes his own hair. I move slowly, enjoying the rhythm of our conversation, watching him carefully dress in his methodical way. I was a good enough mother to babies and toddlers but I always felt I was bending over and helping them along. Today feels more like a dance.

of swimming pools and young hellions

Last night, messaging with a friend who was recounting a babysitting “adventure” involving my then very-wee son drinking rubbing alcohol, I found myself relating:

The same child that stole the rubbing alcohol keeps his parents busy to this day: attempting to smoke cigarette butts off the ground, running down the block to enter a scary bar, going around the neighborhood asking for food and water and getting CPS called on me, and emerging from a bathroom at my restaurant workplace – pants down – to yell at my mom, “Grandma, GUESS what I found in my foreskin?”

Here’s the thing: these example of Nels’ behavior were just a few I could think of off the top of my head. This is Nels. Classic Nels. My father once looked at my son at twelve months old, just beginning walking, and said, “He’s going to be Hell On Wheels”. At the time I thought there’s no way my father could intuit this at such an early age; I also am relatively resistant to “labeling” a child – setting in stone some aspect of their nature can serve as a way to be lazy and not see who they really are.

Labeling is one thing. Beginning to know one’s child is another. And yes, Nels is Hell On Wheels to me sometimes.

Even a small thing like today – one incident of so many! – as the Boy and I exit the pool (preceding Sophie, who can stay in for a solid two hours at a stretch). As we approach the showers Nels walks with one foot in the grate of the large, cold lap pool. Nels can’t yet swim. He is also not supposed to enter this pool. By walking with ONE foot in the grate he is technically not doing anything “illegal” but he is causing me a minor headache. I am a tiny bit worried he’ll fall in (especially when, at the last possible step, he actually dips the foot and ankle into the water, unable to resist I suppose). I am also waiting for the lifeguard to bitch at me (always at me; not at him). I let him do it, though.

See, I would be okay allowing him to do this, even okay with him falling in the pool as well. And even though Nels would be frightened by a sudden submerging, he would also enjoy it (the look on his face of excitement, nervousness, and exhilaration at the tipping point of the balancing ankle experiment confirms this). His nature informs my interactions with him, often to my discomfort; he makes me see the world differently. I see many people expect kids to behave like “adults” – that is, observe rules that are boring and make little sense, do what authority tells you simply because they’re authority, and if you’re a child, trust other people’s arbitrary limits, not your own sense of capability.

This is why, when Nels runs away (which he managed to do before we left the Y) – or drinks my coffee or pisses in the playground at school or plants every seed he can get his hands on before we’re ready – there’s a right and a wrong way to handle it. Sometimes I screw up and get mad, yeah. Most times I patiently, patiently make the request: “Nels, would you please not use all of my spices to make a tea? They are expensive” (last week). He always listens to me when I make the request, and because he is not a sociopath (no, really – he’s not) I can see he considers my feelings. He won’t be a twelve year old pissing in a playground, I know that much.

Sometimes it’s like parenting a wee tornado. Like owning a monkey. Like attempting to order entropy. But I’ll tell you, I’m so glad I don’t hear myself speaking unkindly about him, the way I remember my parents doing so about me (selfish, asshole). “Oh, she was a brat at this age,” or, “You have one of each, boy and girl – which is worse?” (the latter examples I have heard in the last few days from parents I know). It’s not that I don’t think I have a right to being angry. It’s that I remember these slights, character attacks, and labels as a kid; they always felt indistinguishable from the removal of love.

i felt sad to be there although i would have had to read about it anyway

I brought Sophie with me to the hospital very late last night. Our time there (for a medical issue that looked scary but ended up less so) is incredibly sweet; while we await the physician my daughter reads National Geographic and travels to the bathroom and then the vending machine (where she reads my mind and purchases evil, evil Chee-tos) and when she returns we cuddle (tired) on the narrow exam bed and somehow we get to talking about my lone previous surgery: gallbladder removal. She wants to hear every detail of the process, the anatomical ins and outs. I can’t believe what good company she is, a child but in some ways invested with more clarity than any adult I’ve met. She asks after other family members, other surgeries. She listens to the account of my mother’s hysterectomy. She is putting it all together.

The emergency room is an odd place; at night (which seems to be the only time I visit) the atmosphere pulses with an inexplicable mix of contradictory emotions and activity; some would-be patients or family huddled in bruised exhaustion and some, conversely, pacing in revved-up displays of energy, eyes active, their bloodstreams racing with “fight or flight”. There was something different last night, though. Something worse in the air; as it turned out, two men admitted for gunshot wounds (very rare here). It was a family I knew; long ago I dated the cousin of the admitted.

And when we left I knew the boy had died, just knew by the aura of everyone who was there.

I’ve taken my daughter swimming a bit over the last few days. Her official “lessons” resume tomorrow. Sophie likes swimming more than anything else; I know this because she will consistently eschew other activities she loves – video games, reading Bone comics, or watching LOLcat vids on YouTube – if only to get a few minutes in the pool. She grew out of her last swimsuit and is now in a bikini I found in the Free Clothing Exchange, her belly long beneath the comically-unneeded tiny top. Tonight I watch her dive and stroke under the surface, flip over and glide backwards, splash, look up every now and then in goggles and her little perfect mouth to find me and wave. Afterwards as she gets dressed two older girls clamor around me, wanting to know my name and where we live. She’s made friends just by her time in the pool and her good nature. She flips her slick wet ponytails out of her longsleeved shirt and pulls the duffelbag over her head. She looks skater-chic, completely at ease hugging and saying farewell to these new friends and then pushing her way out the door to run ahead and greet another family friend. But her hand slips into mine down the hallway and my heart leaps with gratitude for her displays of tenderness.

My hair is now green, but in a subtle way that people stare and say, “Is your hair green?” thinking it’s a trick of the eyes. Today I realize that I wear that color quite a bit, which may contribute to the illusion; a sartorial reflection, like mountains visible in a lake.

Ralph received his new and long-deserved latest music toy today (an Epiphone Valve Jr tube amp) and he plays as I type here.

Life goes on. For us.