happiness is the color red

marinated-dehydrated-tomatoes
Not my tomatoes, but those of the lovely Marisa of Food in Jars

I just sat down to a plate of sliced tomatoes in my dining room. I say ‘sat down,’ but it was more of a plop, the kind that starts with a crack in the knees and ends with the jelly legs I typically reserve for after a road race. And because I was seating myself on one of the folding chairs that go with our card table (I’ll get back to that in a minute), my Cosmo Kramer-style sideways slam into the chair nearly launched my plate off the table. This is how it is this month; when I am done for the day, I am DONE.

Tomato season is barely in full swing, but I cannot inhale enough of them to get ahead of the anxiety I already feel about the tomato season ending, someday. I recall that the first year we were in Arlington, I planted cherry tomatoes at our rental house and could not believe how early those little suckers stopped ripening. Thanks to my friend Emily’s advice, I had a nice experience making my first batch of pickled green tomatoes, but I’ve still never quite gotten over the shock. Maybe that’s why I do so much canning of tomatoes now.

My current favorite heirloom is something I believe is titled ‘Sweet and Juicy.’ I also like another called ‘Red Defenders.’ Or something like that. I swear they have more names for tomatoes at Verrill Farm in Concord than there are children’s names in all of Boston—a typical class will have three Ryans, three Sophies, and, who am I kidding, at least a Charlotte or five. When I am at Verrill, I love the browsing ritual my canning comrades and I participate in together, heads down scrutinizing labels but occasionally also side-eyeing each other’s selections. I imagine our slow silent march around the table like a game of musical chairs at the old folks’ home.

Tonight I salted, oiled, and basiled my tomato slices while the girls were still playing outside. I didn’t quite plan on them staying out so long, either the girls or the tomatoes, but it ended up being a blessing, as the salt and oil and acid and herbs had somehow made its own translucent sauce that was out of this world. The girls had been playing outside with the plethora of neighbor children until nearly dark before I finally called them in to shower and eat. We now live (temporarily, in a rental) on a street with an actual official road sign that reads, just, “CHILDREN,” and that doesn’t tell you the half of it. And I had been feeling pretty satisfied about my life choice to let them keep playing—until, that is, I was standing next to a too tired, too hungry, wailing Charlie outside the shower that I had just let her older sister jump into first before her even though I had a few minutes prior said that she could go first. I tried to give myself a knowing look in the mirror, but it was too fogged up.

But then, luckily, Charlie was in very quick succession scrubbed, patted dry, jammied, detangled, fed, and tucked into bed, and the fire was thusly put out before it could get to full blaze. Tomorrow I’ll make spicy tomato chutney and sweet tomato jam, both from the best book there is, Food in Jars. Then maybe Saturday we’ll be off to look for a real dining table to replace the one we left at the Goodwill back in Atlanta, which is the reason I am sitting at this card table. But for now, it is just me and my tomatoes, and I can almost hear the tiny creak of the life choices scale tipping back to balanced again.

the beat goes on

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 I like routines. Call them rituals, if you’re feeling fancy. Call them predictably mundane, if you’re feeling twenty-two. I love rituals and especially writing rituals. When my bloggy friends cover the same topic again and again, I find it as comforting as soup. Ordinary, yes, but still damn good. Besides, it is downright tradition to become boring with age—probably also to love soup more too, come to think of it.

Let’s all slow down and have a bowl of soup! I will someday happily exclaim to my eye-rolling grandtweens.

thirtysixWhether because of motherhood or just plain aging, I’ve grown increasingly fond of writing and reading about the commonplace. There are writers who have elevated this practice to a fine art. Take, for instance, David Sedaris’ New Yorker articles on topics such as: shopping trips to Tokyo with his sisters, the turtle he watched being fed pizza, and his adventures in fitbit-induced garbage clean-up [See also: Commonplace by Dina Relles]. I am not quite so clever in how I write about my experiences. I am always telling, rarely showing. But before you think I’m digging for compliments, you should know I’m okay with that truth about myself. I’ll get to that in a moment.

When I turned thirty-six, I felt an itch again to write about my age, an age that pulls me closer to forty than thirty. Though only a year had passed since I last wrote about age, I’d begun to feel a persistent shift that, imperceptible as it may have been to the outside, was monumental in my head. But it felt a little too indulgent to travel that road again so soon, even for a self-obsessed navel-gazer like me (I’m paraphrasing from one of my favorite blog comments of all time. Thanks for setting me straight, Anonymous Troll!).

Then again, screw it. Life is short. Let’s talk about me again.

Now seems like a good time because I just celebrated my half-birthday. Yes, I still mark the passage of these milestones, if only in my mind, but an Eeyore’s sigh has replaced an exclamation point at the end of the thought, “Closer to my next birthday than my last.” Timing is also good because Vivi just turned eight, and I have been wanting to write her a letter on her birthday.

When Vivi turned six, I stopped my tradition of writing the girls birthday letters on my blog to give them some privacy back. In this era of oversharing, I’m still glad I did that. But one thing I miss is being able to pull up the letters to reread at any time. Although I may have written the girls private letters for their recent birthdays, Lord knows where I put them. The greatest thing about blogging about my family, as I’ve often repeated, is that it keeps my memories in a place where I can find them later.

Inspired by my friend Kristen, who wrote a series of real and poignant letters to her daughter called “If you ask me…,” I’m sharing some changes I’ve experienced lately in the form of a letter to my daughter. I hope that by charting my growth, my girls might learn these lessons earlier than I did, but I don’t pin all my hopes on that possibility. I recognize people change throughout their lives as part of normal growth. As Auden pointed out:

“Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

-W.H. Auden, found on an archive post on Gretchen Rubin’s blog

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Some references I make below will be way past their expiration date by the time Vivi reads this letter, but “you,” the Other Reader, might be interested in them, so here they are:

And as for the bomb I drop mid-letter about moving to Boston, I realize I’m burying that lede. But it’s a story for another day, and if you read on to the end, you’ll get the gist of why.

Dear Genevieve,

Eight is an age I recall well. You are so like me in so many ways: your tendency toward organization and planning, your passion for recording everyday life in a journal, your love of letter writing, and your desire to make everyone happy. These traits will serve you well; though your sensitivity and openness will certainly lead to being hurt, I do not worry about whether you’ll come out strong from those situations. Here’s where our likenesses diverge. I know you’ll stand up for yourself because a braver girl has never lived than you. Thanks to Glennon Doyle Melton, I have learned to tell you that your only jobs are to be brave and kind, and I hope you believe it. You already live up to the task.

Because I know it will please your organized heart, I tried to pool my thoughts below into categories. But enough explaining. Let the navel-gazing start!

1. acceptance

I don’t want to give you the impression that I obtained confidence suddenly in my mid-thirties and that, “you will too if you just hang in there long enough!” Rather, I had to make a conscious effort to build up the courage to accept my flaws, realize that I deserve love and support, and stop saying ‘I’m sorry’ unnecessarily. You say you’re sorry a lot right now. I try to undo that need for you, even though I realize I’m likely the person who put it in your mind to begin with, since it’s what I do. Call it a product of being raised in the genteel south.

It’s not that we should never apologize, just that sometimes we do it so much that it becomes burdensome to other people, like a tic, a need to be reassured that everything is okay. Sometimes it is better to say thank you instead of apologizing. Like yesterday, when I was late picking you up. I looked your teacher in the eye and instead of apologizing profusely, I said, “Thank you for staying late with them. I appreciate it.” An apology would have required him to say something like, “No worries!” In this case, my thanks gave him recognition he deserved for the good deed without forcing him to make me feel better about myself.

Acceptance, to me, means acknowledging you aren’t perfect and forgiving yourself for those imperfections, even embracing them. Your quirks are what make you, you! I learned this lesson from Gretchen Rubin when reading The Happiness Project and Better than Before. A big part of her message is to accept your quirks as part of who you are.

Here’s a quirk of mine that I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. I talk and talk way past the point that the other person has understood my meaning, and then I keep on talking: I am a teller, not a shower. Gretchen calls her rule, “Be Gretchen,” because she realized that although she was odd about certain things, it made her happier to accept those things and be different than it did to try to fit in. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one too.

Maybe the primary message to Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In was for women to build up their confidence enough to accept their flaws and stop apologizing, although I didn’t take it that way when I was reading it. She seemed to be saying, “Everywhere I go, women are doing it all wrong!”, but I couldn’t glean any specific tips from her. It was like, “Get a mentor! But don’t ask anyone to be your mentor because that’s too needy!”

But luckily, Sheryl isn’t the only source of feminism; there are far better badasses in my generation. Cheryl Strayed is my (and everyone else’s) writing guru and all-around feminist badass. Her Dear Sugar essay, “Write like a Motherfucker,” is the stuff of legend. Recently she offered a great counterpoint to the challenge to “Stop Apologizing.” She noted there are two kinds of apologies, the one we give when we’ve done something wrong, and the other that acknowledges someone else’s pain. “I’m sorry you’re hurting,” we say. It took me a few sessions of marital counseling with your dad to acknowledge the merits of such a phrase, but I’ve grown to accept it, and the more willingly I offer it, the more natural it becomes.

Feminist comedians are doing a great job of moving the conversation forward. Amy Poehler is another example I look for in a public mentor. In fact, I recall back when I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants that my favorite story wasn’t even about Tina herself, although she too is a feminist badass. It was instead the anecdote regarding Jimmy Fallon having told Amy a joke of her’s wasn’t ‘cute,’ and Amy shouting at him, “I don’t fucking care if you like it!” This is 100% Boston Badass Woman (she’s from Burlington), and it’s the primary reason I’m excited to move you back up to that area this summer. Boston has its flaws, chiefly its latent and blatant racism, and it is as cold as well digger’s ass in January. But it is also a place that raises women who stand up for themselves. I have no doubt you’ll do just that.

Last September, on my lady-friend trip to Colorado, I devoured Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. It is a feminist manifesto. Read it. But first, brush up on some of the best of Amy’s comedy, like Parks & Recreation and clips she did on SNL, like her Sarah Palin rap from Weekend Update when she was a week away from delivering a baby. PURE comedy gold. Amy’s insistence on her point of view, and her unflinching ability to look straight into anyone’s eyes and say, “I deserve to be here!” inspires me.

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2. grace

I’ve been hearing this word more often in the context of describing my actions toward others (and by ‘more often,’ what I mean is: at all). Of course my first reaction is to mimic Elaine, “You think I have GRACE?!” I’ve never been described as graceful in the physical sense, for obvious reasons, i.e., several broken bones, countless bruises, etc. But on further thought, I truly believe when I’m described as having grace it’s because of #1 on my list, the self-esteem that comes from accepting ourselves. It’s like that old adage, “You can’t forgive others until you’ve forgiven yourself.” Or maybe that’s a brand new adage I just created, and if so, you should use it. It’s a good one. You could insert other words for forgive, like love, tolerate, admire. It works!

The older I get, the less black and white the world is becoming. I think it’s by seeing most situations as gray, by admitting I can’t see all sides and that there are plenty of mysteries and complexities to any situation, that I’m able to offer others grace. Whatever grace I have to offer always comes back to me again. I still fall short so often, but the good and bad news is we never stop having chances to offer and receive grace.

3. slay

Around my birthday, my neighbor begged me to come work at the public health non-profit organization where she had just started a job because they needed so much help. I didn’t exactly saunter into that room, but I will admit I was the most nonchalant I’ve ever been in a job interview. I have to imagine it’s how many men probably approach their everyday lives, but for me it was highly unusual. The thing was, they loved me! They wanted me even though I was up front with them that I didn’t want to work full time and that I probably wouldn’t take the job for more than six months. I got the job!

I came home from that day feeling I could do anything

“The perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.” -Viktor Frankl

The hurdles that had kept me from pursuing my dream of nursing school were still there, but I decided that day to stop telling myself it was impossible and just DO IT. I sat down at my computer and immediately got to work doing the last few things I needed to apply. I registered for a microbiology class at the local community college and modified my new work schedule to allow me to attend the lab on Friday mornings. I asked my old faculty from graduate school to write me recommendation letters, again. Then I wrote a damn good essay, closed my eyes, said what the hell, and sent my applications to Northeastern and Columbia.

When the holidays came, I stuffed my face too full of food to do any real pondering, as usual, except for the time spent preparing for my annual “I need to cleanse my body of all this sugar!” elimination diet/eating disorder. When I was still emerging from that yo-yo, I got the word. It seems that Columbia could use a gal like Justine. And I was all:

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I’ll admit my reaction after elation was to wonder: why me. I mean really, why me??

A week later, I witnessed Beyoncé’s incredible Formation video and Super Bowl performance. The confidence it must have taken to dream up and enact a sea of female dancers dressed as Black Panthers, and the courage and power she demonstrated on that stage in front of thousands of white male football lovers and millions more on TV…well, it awed me. Then the negative reactions that followed such a wonderful display of powerful female art dismayed me. But in another way, I felt boosted up by the positive reactions from the girls and women between your generation and mine, whose voices rose up above the hate to say that we will not suffer the disregarded and diminished fate of the women who came before us.

Then a fog lifted from my brain, and I immediately thought, I KNOW WHY ME. Me because I worked my ass off to become a birth doula even while damn near every person within earshot of this decision would offer their unsolicited opinion of why this idea was no good. I did it anyway, not because I knew it would help my career, but just for its own sake. In discussing the success of his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said, 

“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Me because I’m the one who had to schedule middle-of-the-night sitters so I could kiss you tiny toddlers on your sleeping cheeks after I dragged my ass out of bed to attend 30-hour births. Me because I’m the one who stood by the side of fifteen brave laboring women, three of whom were LGBTQ, while they attempted to navigate a health system not always committed to giving them the evidence-based births they wanted and needed, and did not even necessarily recognize their right to be mothers. Me because I am the hen who ground every last grain to make bread. 

Even though you know by now that I turned down Columbia to go to Northeastern in Boston instead so I could bring you girls home again, I will always be able to say I AM the reason I got into Columbia.
Because I slay. We slay. You slay.

Love, Mama

hasty pudding

Vivi’s intense brown eyes are trained on me like you would stare at a mosquito about to land on your arm, unblinking, not wanting to miss the point of contact of her words. She has just reminded me she likes the white grits best. A stranger—well, let’s just say it, a Yankee—might not catch her meaning, but I do. This is a talk I usually enjoying having, at these times when she picks up on my special otherness, my Southernness, and wants to prove that she understands me.

Feeling her gaze, I glance up, my view obscured by my bare legs bent at odd angles ahead of me as I lie propped in her small bunk. Just beyond my feet is the crook of her mostly-naked body, which attempts to reach as much of the cool evening air coming through her bedroom window as possible. It is June in Boston, a month that cannot decide from day to day whether to be summer or winter. Forget about spring, we seem to have lost that season amidst the snow. Strands of her sweaty hair are stuck together and stand almost straight up, giving her brown bob a flock-of-seagulls look. At a newly seven years old, she is only beginning to see her nakedness as something to shield; she picks a private stall at the YMCA to change for swimming. But she still lets me see her, for now.

There is no mistaking her look of determination, but I pretend not to have understood the urgency of her message. I want to finish this chapter. Flipping forward a few pages, I see we’re almost there. Laura is describing preparations for the big dance at Grandpa’s house, during which Ma serves the family warm hasty pudding with maple syrup drizzled on top. Vivi’s declaration of love for white grits came just after my explanation—an answer to the latest question in her constant stream of curiosity—that hasty pudding is made from the yellow grits commonly found here in New England. This exchange set off her flash of recognition, a connection she now proudly makes to my previously elusive personhood beyond that of MOM, hand wiper and meal maker extraordinaire.

Though I long to join my husband on the couch downstairs—where a cold cocktail and a few minutes of relaxed conversation await, when I will probably tell him about this interchange—I am also keenly aware of the longing I once held for this moment. The simple act of reading The Little House in the Big Woods contains a lifetime of waiting and wanting, but as with most things in life, it was the process of getting here that merited the most excitement. Even after having prayed for this time as a hopeful mom-to-be, now that it is here, I am pained to admit I sometimes find myself wishing it away, the pale ghost of romantic desire now tinged with a colorful reality of exhaustion and impatience.

Instead of finishing the chapter, I shut the book. She sits up in anticipation of reigniting our old ritual, a time we used to refer to as “Talk about it,” our private chats unencumbered back then by the little sister who now sits on the floor in front of us, planning tomorrow’s outfit. “I like the white grits best too,” I say, finally, “but I’m learning to like the yellow ones.” She smiles, secure that whoever I might have been in the past, wherever I might rather be right now, I’m hers for a bit longer. I smile too, glad for one more day where she wants to be mine.

Update: A friend kindly pointed out that based on my love of recipes and wont of posting them here often, she assumed I’d include a recipe for hasty pudding and was a touch disappointed not to find one. How right she is! There’s only one problem: I’ve never made hasty pudding. But I reckon it’s the same as making grits, and I’m happy to tell you how I make mine. Within this recipe are the three keys to make perfect grits every time (for grit jokes, see: My Cousin Vinny): 1. milk 2. butter 3. slow. SLOW.

As for where you can buy white grits, my favorite place is Logan Turnpike (where, I might add, they DO sell yellow grits, I just don’t happen to like ’em much), which sells them online as well as at their mill close to Blairsville, Georgia. Bob’s Red Mill also sells them.

Self-Respecting Southern Creamy Grits
serves 4

Ingredients:
2 c. water
1 c. grits (yellow or white)
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1/4 c. butter (plus more for serving)
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Boil water and salt. Add grits slowly, whisking as you go, and let it return to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is incorporated.
2. Stir in milk and butter, reduce heat to very low, and cook for another 10-15 minutes until creamy and smooth.
3. Top each bowl/plate of grits with its own butter. Down south we don’t normally drizzle with maple syrup, but shoot, I can’t see that being a bad thing. Give it a shot!

cutting teeth

When life gets busy, I decide to do things that are unimportant. I’m sure my behavior proves something that Gretchen Rubin would love to analyze, but let’s get back to that later (and I still want to talk to you eventually about her new book!).

Last week’s unimportant thing was actually quite delicious—read: smitten kitchen’s key lime pie—which I happily discovered was extra delicious when atop yogurt and granola for breakfast. My discovery got me thinking—when we open our bed and breakfast some day, we should definitely serve key lime pie with yogurt and granola. So in this case, I suppose you could say my unimportant project turned out to be more important than I originally thought. Redeemed! Plus, pie.

But this week, oh, this week. Let me tell you the very unimportant things I elected to do with my time. First, I organized all the Twitter accounts I follow into lists. In case you don’t use Twitter, you should know that no one is ever going to note or appreciate I did this, nor will I probably ever use the lists I made. But then, THEN, I decided to go back to my old blog and delete some posts that were boring or otherwise not worthy of saving for posterity. I don’t know what to tell you about these activities except getting ready to move brings out odd parts of my personality.

What I can tell you is that while I was on my old blog, I came across a photo of myself that made my eyes go cartoon-buggy. It was of Nate and me, taken in Sweden in 2006, and what I could not stop looking at was my face. It was so different! Now, I would have told you I knew I had aged in the past ten years, but damn. I suppose what future me would probably say to present me about past me to make me feel better is that over the last decade, I have learned useful life skills, am more at peace with myself than I was then, am more productive as a human being, and have stronger relationships and all that. Which is true. But still, my face!

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Not that it will mean as much to you to see it, but if I were you, I would probably want to see the picture. We were babies!

Pondering my face changing over time reminds me of something else that’s been on my mind lately. Right before Vivi turned five, she lost her first tooth. Granted, it was a long time coming and happened earlier than usual because of an injury to it, but that experience must have burned in my brain that turning five equals teeth falling out. Charlie will turn five this summer, and of all the changes that have happened lately or I am anticipating will happen soon (the haircuts, kindergarten, gigantic puppy-sized feet, etc.), the change I’m looking forward to least in Charlie is the arrival of big teeth. Perhaps it’s because she’s had these cute little teeth since she was a baby, but losing teeth is the most literal shedding of babyhood I can imagine.

Putting aside my truly awful childhood haircuts for a second (but really, let’s also get back to those at a later date), have a look at the two photos below so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.

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c. 1984. Dimple!
Me_1987
c. 1987. I look like I am wearing chiclets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know, I know. We don’t have to say any more on this topic. But if you see me posting more pictures than a sane human should of their daughter’s mouth, now you’ll at least know why.

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It was after I typed the above title for this post that I recalled a few friends recommending a book with the same title, which I must have stowed away for safe keeping in my brain until now. Here’s part of the synopsis from Amazon:

Cutting Teeth is about the complex dilemmas of early midlife—the vicissitudes of friendship, of romantic and familial love, and of sex. It’s about class tension, status hunger, and the unease of being in possession of life’s greatest bounty while still wondering, is this as good as it gets?

Oh boy. I plan to buy that book soon because that just about says it all, and so much better than I could if I continued rambling on. I don’t wonder if this is as good as it gets because I know it is, and it’s always been enough for me, but I do think moving to a new city sparks a sense of unease. Or maybe unease sparks a move to a new city. Hmm. I wish I had a way to wrap this post up with a tidy ending, but the best I can do for you is say that if you’re going through complex dilemmas of early midlife, why don’t you come sit over here by me and soothe your gums with a glass of whiskey? Cutting teeth is a bitch.

carving a comfort zone

comfort zone - heirloom mothering
Thanksgiving (I think?), c. 1974ish. Mom with her mother, seven siblings, and two sibling-in-laws

Have you seen Home for the Holidays? It has become our annual tradition to watch it sometime the week of Thanksgiving. Just like the best family reunions, the film is neither totally comedy nor drama. It describes complicated family relationships with varying precision and dizzying caricature (it’s based on this essay). Though the aunt who wears a fruit loop necklace might seem on the surface too zany or improbable, I love the cheeky nod to how reunions can make you feel loved and trapped, bearing credible witness to the search for how you could be related to the people you love but might not like so much.

I believe there’s a dark thread running through the fabric of any family celebration, no matter how perfectly merry and bright it appears. If I pull the thread enough, it unravels, displaying the holes in my joy, such as my concerns over doing what is right and my insistence on making sure everyone is comfortable above all else.

I used to attempt to sew up these holes. When awkward pauses or disagreements presented themselves in conversation, I interjected. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even pinpointed how difficult it has been for me to allow others to be subjected to unpleasant experiences. The older I get, the more I see we can’t spare people from suffering, and maybe we shouldn’t try. It could be that a little suffering goes a long way to teaching a lesson, and if I intervene, I rob the sufferer of their due education.

Wise philosophers, spiritual or otherwise, point out with certainty that suffering happens because of desire. To end suffering, you must stop wanting. Whenever I am suffering, I try to pick apart why this dictum cannot be true, why my suffering must be different. Eventually I come back around to the idea that we suffer when confronted with our lack of control. But our sense of control is an illusion to begin with; when I remember the illusion, I can begin the difficult task of letting go. “Just float,” as Holly Hunter says.

These days I see the beauty in leaving our messes the way they are. I make room in my comfort zone for pain amidst the pleasure. At my best, I neither unravel nor mend. How about you? How do you feel about suffering and family relationships? Are you gearing up for a Thanksgiving gathering this week? Just remember what Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if your aunt wears a necklace made of fruit loops, I hope you’ll tell me all about it. I’ll pull up a chair and cut you a slice of heaven.

I’ll leave you last with this clip of an old McSweeney’s: “Everyone talks about the bickering relatives and the burnt yams, but few talk about taking a weekday to eat and nap and gossip with a sibling about another sibling. No one owns it. No focus group studies it. Just you and a mostly empty bowl of stuffing and no clean utensils, so use your fingers already.”

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
xoxo, j

Author’s note: Pieces of this post appeared in an earlier blog post from 2011.

practicing my hum and swoop

perfecting the hum and swoop - heirloom mothering
I have no reason to include it, but I happened upon this pic from 2012 and can’t get over the cuteness. Hug your babies, y’all.

(Note: If you saw an earlier version of this post a while back, my apologies. I had some technical difficulties with it)

My writing rituals come and go. I once got hooked on a webcam of baby hummingbirds my uncle showed me (to my dismay, it has since been taken down). When I sat down to write, I checked on those scrawny, ugly baby birds, and I came to see them as mine. What I found most mesmerizing about that webcam scene was how the mother hummingbird parented. Mama bird zoomed off in a hurry to somewhere–gathering nectar, probably. She droned back in a flash, so fast in fact, I couldn’t even see her return trip. She fed the delicate liquid into their mouths while their lazy heads with still-closed eyes flopped around. Then she’d push the babies back down with her feet as she turned in circles and made herself comfortable on top of them to keep watch. What a mom!

As if divining my recent online birdwatching, Children & Nature Network wrote about how we can parent more like hummingbirds. I shared theirs and other tips for how you can raise free-range kids in an article at Natural Parents Network last week. I appreciated one of the commenters, who wrote: “…there’s room to disagree on which specific practices are unsafe for which children, but…the bigger problem is neighbors calling police or CPS rather than asking children and parents if they need help or expressing their concerns to them.” Thank you, Crunchy Con Mom, for elucidating my point.

I spend most of my writing time in a local coffee shop now. But in a way, it’s a similar background scene to the hummingbird webcam. I love being amidst all the humming busyness of the townspeople. That din is becoming my writing soundtrack, and it doesn’t hurt that they serve a wicked awesome ginger scone there.

AND, that place is all about me; when I’m there, I can fall into a flow where things like laundry and Instagram don’t exist. Pilates is that way too, but sort of in an opposite way. At the coffee shop, I am happy and feeling quite smug for having chosen such a great location to write. When I’m in Pilates (doing Pilates? Pilates-ing?), I’m wondering what kind of an idiot chooses such a punishing activity like Pilates for a Monday morning. But it must be good because I keep coming back for more.

I hope y’all do something special this week that’s just for you, even if it hurts a little bit. And give your veterans a hug from me.
xoxo j

uncertainty

 

uncertainty - heirloom mothering
Image credit: my favorite rabbit hole, xkcd

Today, as I prepare to attend the three classes my kids are enrolled in on Tuesdays, I decided it was a good time to tell you about All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. I happened to turn right to a chapter called “Concerted Cultivation,” which seemed apropos to the moment; for all I know, any of the chapters would have felt this way.

During the first of last week’s onslaught of Tuesday classes, I settled into the bleachers to flip through the book and pretend to watch Charlie knock a bunch of orange cones over in a gym. I sat up sharply when I came across a single word: uncertainty. Somehow this one word resonates more than the other thousands I have read in books and essays on modern parenthood and cultural contradictions. Uncertainty would actually be a better title for her book, albeit less snappy. Here is her point regarding uncertainty. For millennia people viewed childhood, if not exactly the same, similarly. They saw children as a way to make extra income, to help on the family farm. They did not sentimentalize or coddle children, nor did they afford them any particular protection. Didn’t we learn in Anthropology class (or was it Environmental Sociology?) that they used children in the coal mines prior to canaries to test the air quality? Children are much better diggers than canaries, after all.

Over a wink in time, we have completely altered the thinking about parents and children; no longer their employers, we are now their protectors, and we make a career out of getting them a career. Only, we aren’t quite sure what that career should be, since the landscape of employment changes so rapidly in our time. No longer can we rely on the college education, or even graduate education, as the gold standard for our children. What seemed the symbol in America of ultimate achievement for generations is crumbling before our eyes, and we are scrambling in the rubble to rebuild; yet, we seem to be trying to build something new from the top down. Rather than watching our children develop skills and preferences and directing them toward activities that appeal to those strengths, we throw them at a myriad of activities that may or may not interest them and shuttle them onto the next thing before they can even stop and decide whether they liked the last activity.

Margaret Mead, the celebrated anthropologist, wrote about how parenthood was changing in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and observed even then, “We find new schools of education, new schools of diet, new schools of human relations, sprung up like mushrooms, new, untried, rank like skunk cabbages in early spring. And we find serious, educated people following their dictates.” In other words, we have no folkways to guide our parenting. We are anxious because we don’t know what’s coming next.

When I was 14 years old and at a slumber party with friends, we discovered cookie dough ice cream for the first time. At my inaugural tasting, I recall a feeling of incredulity that the whole time the world had been spinning, we were completely unaware this amazing flavor was out there waiting to be discovered. It was probably the first time I truly understood the value of invention. Maybe I should be embarrassed by this admission, but I’m not. Cookie dough ice cream is damn good stuff. My girlfriends and I sat around that evening passing the pint, digging for dough nuggets, and talking about how there could be other things out there that hadn’t been discovered yet. I’m sure that when I went home, I told my mom all about it and begged her to buy some. What I failed to mention to her is that my friend had gotten one of those AOL CD-ROMs in the mail, and that we had also tried out something called the world wide web that night. Or if you like Godfather references, you could say I took the cookie dough and left the Internet.

I could have lied just now and told you that my eureka moment in recognizing my own inability to judge the next big thing was something profound like reading The World is Flat. But I like this story because it’s more like real life; our capacity to comprehend and anticipate what’s coming next is just waiting to be distracted by little balls of cookie dough.

Modern motherhood is fraught with concern over doing things right. We enroll our kids in too many classes and try to control what they do in school, which friends they pick, what subjects they pursue. This shit is bananas. When schools give kids piles of homework—is this based on any evidence? Or are we just scared that they might not learn what they need to know, so we practically throw the books at them? Do we even know what they need to know?

So yeah, that whole Internet thing upended how much our lives could change in the span of a day, and month, a year—and we didn’t even realize it was happening at the time. But I think we don’t need to know what lies ahead to make decisions about our children. We don’t need, as Nora Ephron puts it, all the “Mozart CDs while…pregnant, doing without the epidural, and breast-feeding your child until it [is] old enough to unbutton your blouse.” Those things aren’t wrong or bad, but we don’t need them to be good mothers. Perhaps we can simply go back to motherhood the way it was before we began to scramble; therefore, while I will enroll my children in some extracurricular activities, I do solemnly swear this week is the last of the horror that is The Tuesday of Three Classes. I invite you to do the same.

uncertainty - heirloom mothering
My grandmother, whom I admire very much, raised these eight children without driving all over town shuttling them to classes.

I am a {Daniel} Tiger Mother

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My preschooler just turned four years old. Time again for her annual pilgrimage to the pediatrician for a well-child visit. We adore our pediatrician, so I look forward to chatting with her. That is, I was looking forward to it, until we arrived at the visit and I suddenly remembered the other hallmark of a four-year-old’s birthday: vaccines. Lots of them.

The nurse confirms my dread as he mimes a shot in the arm and mouths She’s going to get two over his shoulder on his way out of the room to get the syringes. “Honey,” I begin, clearing my throat. “Sometimes even when you’re not sick, the doctor needs to give you medicine to make sure you don’t get sick. It’s called a shot, and it only hurts for a minute.”

“I know, Mommy.” Her lips pursed in a knowing expression, she pats my hand and says, “Don’t worry, it will be okay. I’ll just close my eyes and think of something happy.”

“Oh. Well, that’s…good.” Daniel Tiger strikes again!

********

I am a {Daniel} Tiger Mother - heirloom mothering

The doc’s office isn’t the only place one of my children has recited a little life lesson from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It happens frequently. I’ll be just about to intervene or explain a situation, and one of my kids will belt out a memorized ditty from the show. Then I’m left standing there like a chump. I’m being replaced…by a PBS cartoon!

The jingles are so catchy and subliminal I even find myself humming a little earworm like Growwwwwnups Come Back while I’m getting dressed for a date. You might think we watch TV constantly, but it’s quite the opposite. They only occasionally catch one episode on the weekend via Netflix, making it all the more incredible how well they know and internalize the messages. Each time one of the kids says Everyone is big enough to do something or Find a way to play together, I think of the great Will Ferrell line in Anchorman: I’m not even mad, I’m impressed.

Truly, I am only a little bit irked that a cartoon character can continually best me at parenting. But I’m mostly happy because, hey, every time they know to go to the bathroom (When you have to go potty, stop and go right away!) instead of just standing there whining until I figure it out and tell them to go is getting the job done. Count it as one less time I have to feel 1% crazier. And that is a big win for me, which is why I’m a Daniel Tiger mother. Because like a tiger mother, I start out with all these principles and ideals. But at the end of the day, I will do whatever is required to make my life easier. I will cut corners, I will even cut crusts off, and I will definitely let them watch television.

I am a {Daniel} Tiger Mother - heirloom mothering

a poem a day

While looking for ways to spice up dinner, I found a great book called The Family Dinner. It gave me the idea to read a poem to the girls, which has become a nightly bedtime ritual. I have quite a few books of poetry, both from my childhood and others that I’ve collected over the years, and it’s the part of my evening with the kids that I’ve become most excited about. I’ve even told them that I’ll reward them with a dime for each line of poetry they memorize and recite aloud.

a poem a day keeps the remedial English teacher away - heirloom mothering

Each time I begin reading or reciting a poem, my heart swells at the memory of all the times my grandmother has recited poems with me over the years. Her mother also recited to her, and I love passing on this family tradition to the girls. It’s fun, and besides, studies show reciting even improves memory and brain function. Here’s an example of a simple, catchy poem that has passed down through the generations:

I eat my peas with honey;
I’ve done so all my life.
It makes them taste quite funny,
But it keeps them on my knife!

Lately we’ve been reading from one of my childhood books, When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne. Some of the poems include British words and colloquialisms, but the kids don’t seem to notice or care. Last night we read “The Island,” and I loved it so much I’m sharing it here:

The Island by A.A. Milne

If I had a ship,
I’d sail my ship,
I’d sail my ship
Through Eastern seas;
Down to a beach where the slow waves thunder–
The green curls over and the white falls under–
Boom! Boom! Boom!
On the sun-bright sand.
Then I’d leave my ship and I’d land,
And climb the steep white sand,
And climb to the trees,
The six dark trees,
The coco-nut trees on the cliff’s green crown–
Hands and knees
To the coco-nut trees,
Face to the cliff as the stones patter down,
Up, up, up, staggering, stumbling,
Round the corner where the rock is crumbling,
Round this shoulder,
Over this boulder,
Up to the top where the six trees stand…

And there I would rest, and lie,
My chin in my hands, and gaze
At the dazzle of the sand below,
And the green waves curling slow,
And the grey-blue distant haze
Where the sea goes up to the sky…

And I’d say to myself as I looked so lazily down at the sea:
“There’s nobody else in the world, and the world was made for me.”

The Island by AA Milne - heirloom mothering

Lena in

Are you planning to read Lena Dunham’s memoir? I’ll probably wait for the audiobook; that’s been my preferred method for witty female memoir lately. Notables over the past year include (n.b.: I included links to Audible, but to be honest I’ve been borrowing them from the library via these little loaner MP3 players.):

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Anna Quindlen)
Bossypants (Tina Fey)
Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (Jenny Lawson)
The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)
Mom & Me & Mom (Maya Angelou)
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling)
I Don’t Know What You Know Me From (Judy Greer)

I was impressed by Dunham’s film, Tiny Furniture (which you can stream on Netflix). I also like her HBO show Girls despite, or maybe because of, its flaws. But before we get into Girls, let’s talk about its obvious predecessor for comparison, Sex and the City. I devoured S&TC in almost one go in my early twenties. This was me at twenty-two: painting rooms in my mom’s old house and propping up her tiny TV/VCR combo on the nearest counter/toilet/stair so I could watch a five-season Blockbuster-rental marathon of S&TC.

Lena in - heirloom mothering
Me, right before we painted that kitchen, probably talking to my new boyfriend Nate on what is definitely my old Garfield phone. Check out those over-plucked eyebrows. As Lena says, “she is looking for it.” Or as Britney says, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”

Does S&TC lack luster in comparison to Girls? By today’s standards, S&TC is certainly less awkward and controversial than we might once have proclaimed it to be (“It’s glossy,” says every person everywhere). You could even argue it was a show by a man in his forties who mansplained a fantastical version of sex as a single woman. But let’s put aside Big’s deus ex machina in the final episode for a moment to consider the series as a whole. I contend it was controversial once, in an edgy, raw, and important way. I loved this critique in The New Yorker. Let’s just say Carrie probably paved the way for Hannah to exist as a character at all.

Whatever the pros and cons of Girls versus S&TC are, I give my own future twenty-something girls a thumb’s up to screen Girls some day (Screen on what is the question…on their phones? their watches? their contact lenses?). Maybe one reason I’m enthusiastic about Girls is I am just so ready to be over all the shows with a whiny male protagonist (Entourage, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Dawson’s Creek, I could go on but you get it) and move on to a show with an honest—albeit yes, whiny—female protagonist. Lena Dunham has just the right mix of intelligence and self-deprecation I love. I agree with Meghan Daum, who wrote in NY Times magazine that Dunham’s “combination of extreme self-reference and extreme lack of vanity feels almost like a supernatural power.” She’s a mashup of Seinfeld‘s Elaine (“You think I have GRACE?!”) and Nora Ephron.

I know, I talk about Nora Ephron, like, A LOT. But I really loved her. She was an important figure in my life, a feminist bellwether, a sharp critic, and a lady every woman I know would have liked to have as a friend. A little over two years after we lost her, I find myself going back to my favorite stories and even my favorite eulogies (NYT’s Gail Collins, and oh yes, who could forget Dunham’s very own tribute in the New Yorker).

Cup of Jo featured a bunch of advice videos Dunham made in tandem with her book’s release, and I think they’re just as splendiferous as Girls, if not more so because they’re from a real girl to other real girls everywhere. Lena Dunham promotes my kind of feminism: the stumbling, unapologetic, earnest kind. If I had to choose between Dunham’s brand of feminism and Sheryl Sandburg’s, I’d pick Lena any day. I like to think Nora would agree.