Archive for August, 2010

when I take my boots off

This is probably as good a time as any to admit that I am just not a Camping Person. I used to be, in fact I was quite the outdoorsy tomboy in my day, spending most of my childhood up a tree or in a mudhole, but now, it seems, I am most emphatically Not. This week we took the kids to the mountains for a couple nights, and I was forcibly cheery about the whole thing, probably more for my sake than theirs.

We arrived at our campsite in late afternoon, which, some of you may know, is not ideal. We pitched the tent and I cooked dinner (so proud of myself for surviving the many propane explosions required to get the campstove working properly) as dusk fell and the children whined, and then did the washing up by lantern light, pleased I’d packed both a basin and a sponge. And a lantern. I tried not to think about the bear I’d seen ransacking another site just a few hundred yards away, stowed everything edible in the anti-ursine locker, tucked the children into their sleeping bags, and sat by the fire taking victorious sips of Successful Camping Grownup Beverage out of the cunning little plexi wineglasses my husband had procured. I had dirty feet and ashes stuck to my teeth but by golly I was camping up a storm!

It wasn’t until my pre-bed visit to the bathroom that things got ugly. As I stood contemplating the two stalls, one’s seat smeared with excrement and the other coiffed in a nest-like arrangement of shredded toilet tissue, wondering if this is how raccoons recreated, I felt something soft and almost sticky patter across my foot. Looking down (which required a certain degree of mental coaxing) I saw a centipede languidly wriggling across my flip-flopped foot, pausing briefly on my third toe before I gave a mighty yelp and punted it into the wall. I can put up with putrid restrooms, and large clawed mammals, and dirty marshmallowy children farting sonorously in the tent, but I cannot abide centipedes. Actually, I abhor centipedes. I died a little inside, then did my reluctant business and marched by feathery moonlight back to our tent where I proceeded to remain awake all night, listening to the ominous rustlings of field mice and beetles, shuddering anew at each remembrance of The Thing With One Hundred Feet.

The next day I’d recovered somewhat — hurrah for the Coleman stove, the teakettle, the French Press, and Peet’s — and we had a lovely hike and then several hours on the rocky shore of an alpine lake. The children splashed and collected rocks and I read Alexa’s book and my husband captured it all (including my extra chin! who knew?) brilliantly in living pixel.

Speaking of Alexa’s book, I’d intended to save it for our upcoming fancy getaway, but once acquired (but acquired only after I’d met her, o how I still rue my horrible lapse in consumerist joy) I could not put it down. Now I realize the un-put-downableness of any given book is a terrible cliché, but must insist that in this case? It is more than true, it’s like, PLATO-TRUE. Her story is wrenching, but her gallows humor is wicked funny, and it was personally vindicating to see how hypochondriac neurotic tendencies actually come in handy sometimes. I adore her quirky vocabulary and her tapdancy delivery, but the best part was knowing that when the book came to an end, I could continue following the story on her blog. With pictures, even.

And speaking of fancy getaways, oh how tomorrow cannot arrive quickly enough! For a while there we almost canceled it altogether, what with the expense and the joblessness and all. But then a polite conversation evolved into a pretty serious calling of spades, and we decided to forge ahead, to reward ourselves for sticking out ten years together and possibly stake a claim on another decade. Divorce or inDulge, that’s our motto!

I’m looking forward to crisp white sheets and the noticeable absence of children. My idea of a proper vacation is to situate myself lounge-like in a peaceful locale, a stack of books to one hand and a refreshing cocktail to the other, for hours at a stretch. Of course my husband will want to DO things, and, you know, do THINGS. I will, in my relentless optimism, bring several kilos of reading material, but it remains to be seen how much will be actually consumed and how much merely lugged home again, untouched.

At least there won’t be centipedes!

(Yeah, famous last words, I know.)

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away into the other world

When Alexa sedately tweeted this morning about sitting in a Berkeley cafe, I zinged immediately into hyper-spazz mode. Still devastated over having missed her reading in San Francisco the previous evening, I tweeted back and asked if I could descend upon her like the rabid fangirl that I am, and she (perhaps unwittingly) agreed. After frantic phone calls to local shops turned up nary a copy of her book, I did something vaguely sweepy and product-ish to my bedheaded hair, made sure my teeth were clean and that I was attired in actual clothing, and leapt into the car in a flurry of “omigods”, flooring it all the way downtown. An auspicious start to the day, yes?

So I showed up, breathlessly agog, no book in hand for her to sign, late, and with nothing to say because I was trying so hard not to gush idiotically. She put on such a brave face, though, and chatted pleasantly about what passes for summer around here and even showed me her office supplies* while my brain disassembled itself into a useless pile of clattering nerves. I think at one point I forgot where she lived and then once my memory had been jogged I nattered on about… oh my GOD, Garrison Keillor and Minnesotans in general. Blushing as I type. Oh, cringe!

Anyway I do think at some point I managed to have an actual conversation with her and I hope she was left with the impression that I have at least a couple-few-some firing synapses as well as a great admiration for her and her work.

Upon returning to home, the familiar comforts therein rendering me slightly less hypoxic, it was decided I should take the children out so that my husband could accomplish something in the way of securing employment. I figured I may as well drag them hither and yon in search of Alexa’s book, so down to the station we went, children in absolute thrall of a! train! trip! on! a! train!

That is, until a train pulled in, making noise, loud noise which flipped my kid out so hard he almost left the earth’s gravitational pull then and there. I lugged him aboard as he clamped his hands resolutely over his ears and proceeded to moan as my other child read cheerily aloud every single sign, placard, notice and advertisement to the entire car. We actually blended in quite well with the crowd.

Once emerged into the city we had a much lovelier time, eating burritos and gelato and making wishes in fountains and debating the stickiness of various chewing gum repositories and shooing those pesky pigeons away (“does THAT one want to drive the bus? what about THAT one?” thankyouverymuch Mo Willems). We walked and walked, admired sculpture, found hidden playgrounds, secret messages, dimestore trinkets, and voluptuous restrooms at the eerily empty top floors of fancy hotels.

They behaved so nicely, and were so well-mannered I started to wonder if there was something to all those alien abduction theories after all. Were these my children actually listening and cooperating and not snipping or snapping or whining or yapping? And then I realized: get someone out of their usual, comfortable habitat and they will come out of themselves. Whether it’s a woman summoning up the courage to go meet someone she’s long held in the highest regard, or a child free of quotidian expectations, newness itself has a positive effect: it engages the mind fully and leaves little room for old, bad habits. And thus I’ve decided we need more of it. Much more.

*Not at all a euphemism of any sort!

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a small armoury of daggers

There’s this poem I’ve known for years, possibly decades. It’s by Sharon Olds, called The Clasp, and when I first encountered it long ago, it stunned me, sickeningly, in its acknowledgment of maternal brutality. And I don’t mean force — though she did use some — I mean more an emotional brutality, of a mother toward her child, a vicious rage that wells up suddenly, out of the silence and the love, out of the place she thought was sacred and immutable.

But now as a mother myself, I’m no longer shocked. I’ve felt it spring out of that dark limbic place with an almost quantum suddenness. I’ve found myself ugly-faced and hissing through gritted teeth, grasping a little body by the arms and sitting it down hard for a time out, throwing an armful of toys across the room in helpless fury. The rage comes of its own accord, preceded by an almost audible snap, even as my conscious mind is thinking, No. Don’t.

I’ve been wrestling with it, this strange demon that unseats my well-intentioned heart and replaces it with petty, explosive intolerance. This wrestling has taken many forms: pledges, vows, late-night whispered apologies over their sleeping bodies, self-help books, tears, more tears, and still more. And always, the question, Why?

The more I circle it, the more I see it for what it is.

A mirror.

Yes. My trigger is when my kids exhibit those aspects of myself I hate. Narcissism. Incompetence. Selfishness. Dishonesty. Impatience.

And of course these things present in ways that are developmentally appropriate. My children are seven and four, so of course they are going to be selfish and dishonest and not good at everything. And I know this, and I am ok with this, in the way we all accept that children are learning and we are their teachers.

But what I’m talking about is when I see something that resonates appallingly closely with my own secret shame and I am struck with this loudly ringing fear that my child is becoming the worst of me. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is like an arrow between the eyes. Do you know what I mean?

And this leads me to thinking about all the ways I hate myself. My crooked teeth. My fat — but more than that, my apparent lack of the necessary self-discipline to lose it. My social anxieties — skipping kid functions because I can’t bear the thought of interacting with parents, borderline agoraphobia, spending more time with online virtual friends than nurturing the relationships I have in the physical world. My depression, my hypochondria, my hesitation. My laziness. My mean streak. My missing libido.

And it’s not like I manufacture this all on my own: our culture promotes self-hatred because it is profitable. It’s what gets us to buy mints and mousse, deodorant and doritos, beer and bikini waxes, ice cream and insurance, therapy and thigh masters, pharmaceuticals and fish oil, and on and on. And in my own little circuit of the inferno, the fact that the only response to a resumé I’ve gotten in more than a year is from someone who wanted to pay me half of what the industry says I’m worth. That my hairstylist asked if I wanted to start coloring over the gray. That my husband even mentioned he’s “tired of looking at it” — my overweight body. The self-hatred reinforcements, they are everywhere.

I think of my grandmother, who was a blessing to me but a terror to my dad: abusive, reclusive, tormented by demons of her own that eventually returned to rule her completely as she slipped into the black, grasping fingers of dementia. I wonder if there is a genetic danger, if I am more prone to the darkness because I have her blood beating in my heart.

And what keeps ringing in my mind is this bit from the closing line of the poem: near the source of love / was this. I suppose we must all learn the yin and yang of it eventually, the binary nature of our souls. It’s why all our literature, our religions and philosophies are so preoccupied with good and evil. We manufacture complicated fictions that go to great lengths to explore, explain and contextualize it. But when the darkness wells up unexpectedly in ourselves, we who work so hard at becoming light, it completely unhinges our sense of identity.

And because my primary identity right now is as a mother, a good mother, the sudden springs of rage make me go all vertiginous; I almost leave my body because it’s completely alien to feel so wrathful, so hateful. Even worse is that it is directed at my children, that I am working out my own issues on the unmarred surfaces of their souls. I have to stop, before the toxicity eats into their very beings, if it hasn’t already. But to stop, I have to start loving myself first. And that seems an impossibly tall order.

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