This Maternal Life

Mothering in the middle yeas: Never a dull moment.

Obama’s Firsts, and Ours November 12, 2008

Filed under: Barack Obama,family — jodiellen @ 3:22 am

Seldom noted in the election excitement about firsts is that President-Elect Obama will be our first president with a community organizer background.  We have finally elected a Democrat who is also a democrat!


I have been a progressive idealist my whole adult life.  I have voted on hope for the empowerment of workers, civil rights for all, expanded voices for all citizens, diplomacy instead of war, internationalism, feminism, environmentalism, and go ahead and raise my taxes for our schools, for health care for all, to end poverty, to re-build our communities.  In my work and in my limited activism, and as a parent, I have tried to be a voice for such hopes.


Up until now, in my 24 years of voting, only one candidate whose victory was due in part to my one vote truly inspired me, time and again:  Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota senator whose life was tragically cut short, along with his compassionate and active wife Sheila.  There went much of my hope for our elected leadership, even as I stayed in the trenches of teaching, working on behalf of critical thinking, exposing the power that seemed always to concede nothing, as Frederick Douglass famously said.


In 2004, I talked often, and with restrained hope, with my then 12 year old eldest child, Allie, about how things could change if John Kerry were elected.  All the way to school each day, we looked nervously at yard signs, and talked and talked.  And Sylvia, then just 8, bravely wore a t-shirt to school (her idea, not mine) asking adults to please choose more carefully in this year’s election:  “I care about clean air and water, good jobs, good schools…but I can’t vote to protect them.”


Then George W. Bush was elected, again, or more accurately, for the first time, and the girls and I seemed to run out of things to talk about on our way to school.  The first day of the election news, I couldn’t even eat, I was so depressed.  I continued for years afterwards to try to avoid the news.  I saw power, lies, and fear all hopelessly intertwined.


And then, along came someone who built a political campaign from the bottom up, who talked in every speech about the shoulders he stood on, about the workers who risked their lives for the right to a voice in the workplace, the activists who risked their lives for racial justice, the women who risked their lives to vote, and the women who taught him what he needed to know in life through their own sacrifices.  Here was someone who believed that citizenship was ours to claim, who talked truthfully about race, and who brought out our best selves.


Despite what now seems a brief struggle over whether to support Obama or Clinton, the democrat with a small “d” in me won out over my compelling interest in supporting a woman.  My gut told me that it was Barack Obama who would change our politics, if anyone could.


And so, in the last few months, my family and the nation have come into a time of firsts.   Here are a few of ours:


·        First time I canvassed and made phone calls for a candidate.


·        First time I held a bake sale for a candidate


·        First time I felt happy, inspired, and hopeful, every time I saw that candidate’s face on TV.


·        First time I became an obsessive poll checker


·        First time my older daughter became a political activist, making phone calls for two months, and canvassing too.


·        First time my 12 year old tried her hand at political activism,


·        First time I wore a political button everywhere:  “Yes we can”


·        First time my parents and I got involved in the same political cause (and the first ever political activism for them)


·        First time I helped people vote:  my mother-in-law and I took senior citizens to the polls this past election day.   


·        First time I ran through the house screaming for joy:  when I saw McCain come out to deliver a concession speech I knew was the real thing, and we had done it!


·        First time since the 1990s (and back then it was just an assumption) that our electoral system could work fairly


·        First time we had a party with 55 people, to celebrate the Obama victory


·        First time I didn’t feel deeply ambivalent about red-white-and-blue decorations at my home:   my mother-in-law’s red white and blue balloon, to mark our driveway for party guests.


·        First time in my adult life I felt the magnitude of hope triumphing over fear through the results of an election.


I’m a historian.  I know that fear will triumph over hope again in some future election.  But for now, my children will grow up knowing a new face of leadership and authority.  They know already, especially the girls, what it feels like to be part of a larger, transformative movement, to be politically active and see great results. 


If we are lucky enough to have Obama for two terms, children born today or within the past few years won’t know for quite a while that most Presidents were white, and had mundane names like Harrison, Taylor, Hoover, or Bush.


As for us adults, the many I know who have trained ourselves in cynicism, who have lamented again and again the way the particular power dynamics of race seem to change so little, who believe the last two elections were stolen, and that American democracy has been a sham, for us there needs to be a paradigm shift, a new openness to possibility.   I welcome that, and I love to think about what the generations can teach one another.


My mother-in-law is remembering Kennedy.  My white father from Chicago’s south side is ecstatic over the election of this African-American president.  My children are dreaming of brighter futures.  My curmudgeonly political self is coming alive with pride in the people who made this victory possible, and in a political system that still has some life in it, still has some gifts to give, hopefully for generations to come.




Thoughts on Writing from my Eight-Year-Old Poet November 3, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — jodiellen @ 4:20 am
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All five of us in this family love words, and we all are capable of producing expressive writing, sometimes even beautiful writing.  Not only are we capable, but we’ve all done it, if only under pressure of school assignments!  At Brad’s parent-teacher conference, our youngest writer showed us his poetry, which made me laugh and cry in the space of a few minutes.   


John, Allie, and–I learned this week– Brad, have to pull writing out of the depths, have to go down into themselves for awhile before a single word hits the page.  Allie’s essays for English class are truly labors of love—and misery.  After she’s been sitting at the computer for an hour, I’ll come in and see a couple of sentences.  The end result, though, is fabulous:  careful, insightful, expressive, and genuinely, passionately engaged with the universal subjects at hand.  She’s almost always pleased, if a little shell shocked, when she finally completes one of these essays.


In nursing school, John had to write about his ideal death. I learned some remarkable things about him from that assignment, and his instructor was blown away by both the thoughts and the writing.   I’ll treasure what he wrote forever.  As is always true, people say things when they write that wouldn’t be expressed quite the same way in speech or in action. 

Sylvia and I on the other hand, the family chatterboxes, make it up as we go along.  We just start writing, delete what we don’t like, add some more, and figure out where the thing is going as it moves forward.  Editing comes later.  My “just get started” writer girl has actually written a pretty significant chunk of a novel, in chapters that dart around, sparkle, and revel in the delights of a fantasy quest world she has created.  She keeps changing the story because she’s growing up so fast that she can’t decide if what she wrote before is too childish.  (It isn’t.)


The shared propensity for expression through writing—and the very different ways we all approach it– became more clear to me this week when I fell into this mind-expanding conversation on the topic with the family’s most junior writer.  I was sitting at the dining room table with my laptop on, doing something, and then he and I started talking.  Before I knew it, I was amazed at his insights, and asked him if I could write down what he was saying.  So he said,


“You’re going to interview me?”


I said, sure! That’s a great idea!  So here is a virtually verbatim account of our conversation.  His reflection on how much he enjoyed writing about crabs having wrestling matches on the sand just slays me.


Brad: “When I write, I just pretend like I’m talking to someone and then I write because that’s easier than thinking that you’re writing–except with poetry because people don’t casually talk when they’re reciting a poem.”


Mom: “Tell me again how the process works.”


“Usually I just sit there and think for like a half an hour, which is the whole period of poetry.  I just sit there, but once I figure out the theme I can just make a quick sketch in my head and write it all down as a rough draft”.


“Why is it that you enjoy writing more now than you used to? Say writing about the frog (earlier in the school year) compared to writing poetry?”


“I would have put a lot of detail into my writing, but they just rushed us, basically. So I didn’t have much time and then I can’t type, and we had to do our publishing on the computer so that took me like a million years.” 


“But why do you like poetry better? Or do you?”


“Well, I like them both the same, it’s just I only like poetry when I have how ever…a long amount of time to do it.”


“And do you sometimes have enough time in school?”


“Well, usually no, because…I don’t know.  Usually they’re expecting students who basically just get the work done so they can have fun.”


“But is the work of writing poetry kind of fun in itself?”


“Well, yeah I guess, if you have enough time to do it.”


“What’s your favorite poem you’ve written or your favorite piece of writing?”


“Salt Bay poem.” [about a special place in Ireland during our month there in 2007]




“Well, I just, first of all, I LOVE sea creatures, they’re my favorite living things on earth, and Salt Bay had the most interesting sea creature that I have ever seen. And we actually got to feed some of ‘em.”


“I wish we that poem here with us, but is there any particular line from that poem that you can remember that you really liked writing?”


“Well, I sometimes like to write sentences with words that you don’t really expect to hear, like one line: “crabs having wrestling matches over pieces of salmon that we threw in the water.:”  You don’t expect to hear “wrestling matches” in a sentence.”


“Is there any other favorite piece of writing that you’re really proud of?”


“Mmmmm….not really, but I like the April one.” [ about sledding with our dog—a memory he had, since April died this past spring]


“So, can you remember any particular line from that poem?”


“Well, actually not really.”


“Do you remember the process of thinking about that poem and getting it started?”


“Well, yeah, kind of.”


“So tell me about that.”


“I was…well, actually, I can’t really, no I don’t remember, but I assume it was probably something like I was thinking about winter and then I was thinking about April and then I combined those two, which turned into sledding with April.  And then I thought that would be a good theme for my next poem.”


“How did your teacher get you to start thinking about writing poetry? Did she read you poems?”


“Well, as usual the first few days of poetry class, like normal classes, they’re just like showing you examples, which is reading me poems.  And then they let us write poems, rough draft. And we had to write five of them.”


“Do you remember anything about what it was like to listen to good poetry that got you inspired to write your own?”


“Not really.  It wasn’t really that inspiring, actually.”


“You were more inspired by your real-life experiences?”



“I think you like words. They’re just fun to play around with.”


“Yeah, I, and I especially like thinking up big words that I know.”


We stopped there.  I was beaming.  It was like getting this direct insight into something that would be so easy to overlook—how this kid’s brain actually works, what moves him intellectually and emotionally and how those things are intertwined.  It was a beautiful gift.


Apparently, he received his own treasure from this conversation too.  When I read him back the transcript, he was delighted.  He did, however, ask if I could take out the “like” words that were just fillers.  He said it sounded okay when he said that, but not so good when I read it back.  So the above is an edited version in that respect.


And then, when the big sisters came home, he was eager to tell them, “Mom interviewed me!”  He was proud of his words and his thoughts in yet another way. 


So much lies beneath the surface in the way our kids grow every day.  I wish I could catch these falling stars more often.  I think I need to do more interviewing!


October’s Weekend Delights October 28, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — jodiellen @ 8:34 pm
Tags: , , ,

In so many ways October is a mean, mean month for anyone involved in the academic world.  I certainly feel it in my college prof role.  The students’ first papers are due, all the committees decide they must get busy with their work now, annual grant report is due for the grant I direct, and anything related to next year’s plans, also due in some administrator’s office.  To add to this, I always have a mandatory meeting or conference, which usually cost me two Saturdays in family time.  This month was no exception.


Oh, but there’s nothing like a real weekend in that month of nature’s golden glories to make me appreciate, well, the weekends that are two full days!  I began the weekend with a long and very companionable evening of book club, getting a nice dose of grown-up female energy before I dove fully into the high energy of my family life.


Saturday and Sunday were only nominally packed with the  parents (and Brad) follow the kids around thing, or maybe I was just so glad not to be working that I didn’t care how much running around I had to do. Saturday brought pie baking for John and Sylvia for a choir fundraiser, and canvassing for Barack for me and Allie, followed by a human rights club walk to raise awareness about Ugandan children, which garnered enthusiastic participation from both my daughters.  Brad, meanwhile, was shuffled around to Grandma’s to pie delivery sites, and finally home with Dad.


I was thrilled that Allie and her friend got me out the door canvassing, and so proud of my young enthusiasts. I begged off the walk, still recovering from my cold, and took a short but deep nap, until the phone rang and I was off to pick up the budding (exhausted) activists. 


In the meantime, Grandma was cooking up her annual Halloween House plans for that same evening—pretty much guaranteeing an excitement and sugar-induced second wind for all the kids.  She straggled, in after several hours of the kids waiting and watching for her car, with what must have been an entire Wal Mart shopping cart full of sugar in the form of frosting, sprinkles, candies and cookies, and a little Styrofoam for good measure and structure.  Even before the sugar rush began the kids were giddy with excitement, the girls each having a friend over for the occasion.

John and I escaped the first tornado-like invasion of the Wal mart bags and setting up of the Styrofoam and sugar structure.  We sat in our bedroom seating area (since we have such an open concept house, it’s the only place to go), drank wine and talked like we hadn’t had a chance to all week.  But eventually we came out and visited with Grandma, my friend and neighbor, and all the goofy kids.


The frosting was spread, the cookie gravestones were arranged, and the sprinkles were everywhere by the time John and I decided that we were ready to escape for the rest of the evening, to the treehouse.  It was cold out there, but it was insane in the house.  The girls were dancing, Brad was brandishing a frosting-covered butter knife, intent only on spreading and ingesting more sugar off the blade, but still…we didn’t want to see him and the frosting and the furniture all together.  We realized we did have a place to go to be free of the noise and chaos, and it was time to go there.


John packed a cooler and two Reeses peanut butter cups, and also lit candles out in that lovely two-story structure that he’s been laboring over since May.  I piled on the pillows and blankets.  It was a cold night, but we felt kind of free, as we kept close to each other all night to keep in the warmth, and kind of amazed—at least I was—that we were in a whole new structure on our property—and a place with an awesome view!  And here we thought John built it for the kids…It actually has a lot of potential for the members of the family who seem most fond of peace and quiet.


My Sunday projects were a pancake and scrambled egg breakfast and Halloween costume shopping day at Goodwill—mercifully brief due to a planned playdate with Brad’s friends.  In the afternoon I caught up with some of family members on the phone, drank tea, tried to read the New York Times, and just enjoyed the hum of activities as the girls caught back up with homework, and Brad and his friends built Legos.  Eventually, there was even more activity and company, as our house became Halloween costume central in the hour or so before dinner.  Hillary and Bill Clinton (Sylvia and her friend) made an appearance, and Brad and his two friends made very cute dressed-up girls, with help from the big sisters.  


As the evening wound down, Sylvia very kindly agreed to help Brad clean his room just as a favor, and stayed around while I read aloud from the one of the old Boxcar Children books.  I always thought those things were poorly written, but I was looking for something to hold Brad’s interest during the dreaded Sunday evening room cleaning.  To my surprise, he loved it–even though it’s got nothing in it that’s ironic or cynical or adult, or for that matter even realistic (as Sylvia said, “those kids get along so perfectly it’s creepy.”)  Yes, as a third child, he has been exposed to way more ironic, cynical, and otherwise inappropriate things. (The latest craze around here is re-runs of “The Office.”)


Anyway, to my delight, Sylvia stayed for the Boxcar Children story too.  I think the dog show story had her captivated.  I could tell she was forgetting about how much she wanted to be a teenager, and she was remembering all the little kid ways in which she loves dogs, everything about them, every little detail that most people wouldn’t notice.  And for the past two weeks, I’ve noticed, she’s also been making her way into Brad’s room in time for nightly read-aloud of Garfield books, mine and Brad’s laugh-before-going-to-sleep ritual, though Sylvia was the one that introduced us all to Garfield.


Sunday night was kind of like the old days (and it seems like mothers always love the old days, don’t we?)  I remembered when both my younger kids fit on my lap and both were mesmerized by the same story.  Sunday night, with all this reading, Sylvia got so comfy by the time the three of us had piled on to Brad’s bed for Garfield time that she wanted to sleep right there in Brad’s bed.  Brad said, in his usual thoughtful, measured way, “Well, we probably won’t get to sleep very fast.  (pause)…But I don’t mind.” He willingly slept on a cushion on the floor. I guess we all wanted to mix up our spaces this weekend. 


I could hear Sylvia and Brad talking softly awhile after lights were supposed to be out.  I figured I should separate them for sleep reasons, but it was just too sweet.  I don’t think it will happen very much longer, this business of Sylvia remembering she’s still mostly a little girl and wanting to have a quiet slumber party with her little brother. 


That was the bookend to a lovely weekend, set off quite distinctly from my work week, those five days when I miss my kids more and more over the course of October.  I feel sad to part with them in the morning as we all go our separate ways, even though all seven of my days are very, very full.  That’s the similarity between home and work!  But I do savor my weekends, most especially when those gifts of family togetherness seem harder and harder to find.





One More Obama Mama Watching Hope Rise October 20, 2008

Filed under: family — jodiellen @ 2:50 am
Tags: , ,

Nowadays, in those rare moments I find to fire up my computer for non-work reasons, I feel the urge to reach outward, towards the internet, especially election news, rather than inward, towards the much-neglected inner life of Jodi.  I guess there’s a time and place for everything. 


I am excited, sometimes even buoyant, yet agitated as each day sustains the good news about Obama’s place in the polls.  I remember saying a few months ago that as hard as it was to be optimistic given the nastiness out there, the bitter defeats, and my deep knowledge that “power concedes nothing without a struggle” (to quote Frederick Douglass), I felt like this Obama campaign had a feeling of inevitability about it. 


And it still does.  It is a beautiful thing to watch rise.  I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” as Obama moves forward with the grace of a swan, the hidden movements of webbed feet pushing underwater, the dark water obscuring but simultaneously representing the repressed weight of history.  Under that water is a history of oppression, our ugly history of racism, but also our history of progressivism, of people coming together to make things better, to define a broader “us.”  All this is articulated by Obama in flawlessly careful and unthreatening tones, persistent, promising cadence, with the unruffled poise of the swan.  We are listening hard and watching intently.

Under the water, the hopes are stirring. Quietly, we are reassured that even as he reaches towards the murky  “center” of American politics,  he is preparing to take care of us, the ones who care about social justice more than our taxes, even as he brings a larger group of people into that conversation, back into those hopes and visions of Americans as citizens, not just consumers.  He reminds us that we can dream, that we don’t have to sit huddled in our houses, afraid of our neighbors, fearing enemies everywhere.


I sometimes think about this election as the teeter totter on which our declining empire sits. I try to quell my emotionalism about the whole drama by stepping back as the trained historian that I am.  I think:  either our democracy will be revived, our declining empire, our waning time in the sun of history will breathe fresh air and invite the idealism and hope of another generation, here and abroad, or…it won’t.  In my view, either we’ll vote hope:  Obama, or we’ll vote fear:  McCain. If Obama loses, progressives will need to look harder to see the rise of other people’s ideals, perhaps of the next nation, or group of nations who will offer the world a hopeful vision, who will produce leaders that inspire the world’s next transformation.   If that happens, it will be the end of an era in my own intellectual and political life, the end of a certain form of patriotism I sometimes forgot I had, but perhaps the beginning of a new perspective as a citizen of the world.


My 16-year-old daughter also helps me nourish some perspective, she who has spent one night every week for the past month or so volunteering at the Democratic headquarters in our town, calling total strangers, learning to speak up, speak out, listen, and build connections between her generation and the older ones.  She’s optimistic Obama will win.  But I’m also encouraged by our conversations about what might happen if he doesn’t.  I try to encourage her with the knowledge that her environmental commitments and human rights causes can still be taken up; it’s a big world out there.  “I know,” she says, and she smiles.  And I believe she does know.


Yet now, it appears possible that the candidate who has inspired me more than any other in my lifetime might actually win!  It’s not just as a citizen (of the nation and the world) that I would rejoice in that victory, but also as a mother.  It’s been wonderful to re-discover my idealism about politics with my kids, to have faith in someone to lead us again, to be able to point to Barack Obama over and over again, even in the midst of the pandering,  late-season election shenanigans, and say, there’s a good man.  I can say honestly that I think he is an amazing man, someone who will bring out the best in anyone who will listen, someone who will help make us as a people who share this particular geographic space and political boundary the best we can be, at least for a while.  I hope his continuing story will continue to be part of our story, for me and my family, for the students I teach, for the history books yet to be written.  I hope and hope, do what I can to push it forward, and like so many others, wait and wait for that November day.


Poems to Say Goodbye to Summer August 29, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — jodiellen @ 2:46 pm
Tags: , , ,

I wrote both of these poems two years ago.  I still like them at this time of year.

Kid Salads


Kid salads can be assembled

Out of rhubarb, lemongrass, three cups of mint

To cool your breath right up to your sinuses

Add a handful of hidden blackberries that survived August

When their compatriots had already succumbed to fleeting July

All this from a garden everyone neglected this year.

If you are the youngest child,

You want to use your hands for all of it, no tools

But if your big sister is willing to lend her indomitable energy to the project

You look the other way while she uses the microwave

To thaw frozen raspberries into a cordial

To ice the salad

You are just glad she isn’t too old to make kid salads


If you are the mother,

You bring the salad to the beach

Eat it in your bathing suit

After you emerge from cool water

Encircle your child’s shoulders to feel the heat against your cool palm

He’s been playing in the hot sand while you cooled your fully baked limbs.

Serve the salad with iced tea

Fill cups with store-bought ice.

Enjoy the lovely tubular circles that fit nicely around children’s tongues.


Summer days can be assembled

Around the loosely flowing needs and whims of parent and children

Sometimes singing in harmony

Sometimes pulling and tugging with conflicting needs

until everyone is enticed and soothed

by the sensational possibilities of sun, water, and green fruit

Sprung right up from the earth on a wild whim.















First Day of School


Three backpacks at the ready

Packed weeks earlier in anticipation

Eager new markers and pencils vying for space with

Mundane, cumbersome boxes of Kleenexes and Ziploc bags

Anxious smiles struggle but

Excitement wins out

in the readable revelations

Of three expectant faces


That bittersweet month of August has passed.

Sipping tea on the front porch glider

Blonde six-year-old head on my shoulder

Welcoming the morning with our off-key singing

For as long as we wanted

No schedules

No ugly grids of paper to hem in our days.

Days of river swimming, reading, phone chatting

Planning summer birthday parties

Roasting marshmallows and long star-filled evenings

fade sweetly into the distance

chased out by the new markers and pencils

ready to color and draw the wider world

into action.


Even swimming has lost its appeal

Kids who taught one another new games

And spent hours sketching a sister’s face

Out of the sheer openness of summer days

Now tire of the close company of siblings


The excitement calls us,

teacher mother with new students awaiting,

student children with roles to try on in their new grades,

And Dad, at forty, on his way to nursing school to start something new.

September promises a routine that demands to be taken up again

And the excitement of untested waters.


How we will miss our island in time that is summer

Even though I will breathe a sigh of relief

When the school bus rolls away

Leaving me a day, and more, with my own new markers

Along with the boring stuff, the stuff that needs to be sorted in Ziploc bags.


If only we could sail to that summer island whenever we really needed one another

Whenever the world is too much with us

When friendships are rocky or colleagues unkind

When the ugly schedule grid imprisons our days

When we’d rather be sketching our sister than

Enduring the torture of an unrequited crush

Or worrying about completing math homework

With those now very used pencils.

Or when we just want to sing off-key to the morning

For as long as our voices can sing a summer song.


But the backpacks demand to be carried onto the school bus

Each child stepping up gives me a wave, more confident than nervous

Reassuring me of the balance of retreat from the world

And a return to its September possibilities.



On Not Writing Much This Summer August 27, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — jodiellen @ 7:19 pm
Tags: , ,

Do we all have exaggerated hopes for the summer, or is it more true of teachers who see stretched before them three months of what looks like it could be freedom?  Is it writers, too, planners of special two-week vacations and organizers of family reunions?  Is it all of us?


Well, like many of us, my plans for the summer proved too ambitious, and basically, too planned.  One of the best laid plans that didn’t happen was writing.  And writing about the kids and the mother’s plans with them?  Well, there were many things, not least of which the kids, conspiring against that plan.


Maybe more confident writers would say that I am making excuses, but here’s my explanation (excuse):  it proved hard, nearly impossible, to fit writing into my life this summer.  I guess none of us ever knows “where the summer went,” but I do know that there were few open spaces in the day, and few openings in my mind for a thought that I could carry to its conclusion.


The rhythm of mother days in the summer is always nearly un-rhythmic by nature, with the unpredictable demands of kids who feel their freedom co-existing uneasily with the bizarre schedules that still exist.  Kids want to stay up late, but Dad has to get up at 5:00 for work and Mom wakes up early to take care of work e-mail, pull some weeds in the garden, or just catch her breath for the day.  And summer “enrichment” activities run on entirely different schedules than school, requiring a planning marathon each day for the active month of June and well into July this year.


Art in the middle of all this?  Art lost out in its attempt to imitate life because life pulled me around by the ears a lot of this summer.   I did go, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, and found a lot of joy along the way, even as I was reminded that freedom was not mine to claim very much of this particular season and era in my life.


I went where I was needed, transporting kids to drivers’ ed, nature day camp, choir, and more, helping John with the treehouse project that took over the summer while also making something beautiful, solid, and constructed with tender care.  


We hosted John’s family from around the world for seven days at our house, requiring massive planning from the one of us adults who was still pretty much in tune with the refrigerator and its contents, which would need to feed 21 people.  I had a great time, but my life was pretty well scripted for being there for everybody, most waking hours, cooking, visiting, offering up fresh sheets for the guests.  The following weekend, at our long-planned sweet 16 party for Allie and her childhood friends, I didn’t host, but it was more of the same, visiting, chatting, tea in the morning, wine at night, and too much food.  All summer long, I spent a lot of time with people.  I helped.  I enriched, and I pointedly told my children on the last day of the last educational event this summer (intensive drawing and painting class for one ended about the same time as choir retreat #2), “I’ve enriched you.  It’s official!” 


Next line (unspoken):  it’s time for you to go back to school because I’m worn out from enriching, possibly drained of the vital minerals I need to make anything grow in my own overused soil.  And while I’m on the subject of overused, I haven’t been getting enough work done, so when school does start again, and even before that, I’ve discovered, the piles of work will be staggering, and I’ll be trying to scale them, or climb out from under them.  I’m not sure which is the better metaphor here. 


I heard a story about the famous short story writer Alice Munro on the radio not too long ago.  She claimed she wrote short stories because as a mother, she felt that short stories were all that she could finish.  It was too hard to sustain attention for any one project for one length of time.  I certainly know what she means.  For me, the most tangible completion of my summer is not any writing, though writing is the art that draws me, that animates my imagination, that calls me to it even as I often have to say no, not tonight, I am too tired and I don’t trust myself to say anything beautiful, even when my life is beautiful and the world is bursting with color, abundance, and possibility.


No, the tangible creation of the summer was not words, or at least not very many, but the garden.  Each elegant dark purple eggplant grows every day, 15 more tomatoes become red, and I go to the cherry tomato plant just to snack in the sun.  I’ve never grown cauliflower before, and it’s a joy to watch it expand in within its silvery-green wrapping.  I watch like a proud mother as my baby butternut squash grow up and turn into big-kid squash, getting ready for me to turn them into luscious curried squash soup.


Yes, I sometimes felt more in synch with the garden than with the kids, because what happened is that they quickly and in three very different ways are becoming so much their own people now.  It’s as it should be, but sometimes it all leaves me so flustered and confused.  I can’t shape their rhythms to mine the way I used to when they were babies, toddlers, and young school-agers.  I can’t just say, let’s everyone go to the beach now (even if there were lots of days where there was time to go to the beach) because they’re in the middle of their own whims, projects, even worries sometimes (drivers’ ed. test, pre-academic year homework now that August is here.)  And in the meantime,  I’ve been fighting an uphill battle trying to find some time to go get my work done back at the office.


But yesterday, I skipped out of some stuff at work, part of the beginning of the year hoopla, and I came home at lunch time and said it, “Let’s go to the beach.”  I couldn’t get total buy-in.  Allie, my eldest, couldn’t resist the opportunity for peace and quiet at home while OTHER people went to the beach.  But my two younger kids, and “my fourth child,” who sometimes practically lives here for awhile (and our kids sometimes live at her house), went to the beach with me.  We swam, ate ice cream, played catch, absorbed lots of sun and grew more freckles.


And last weekend, after a summer of hosting, driving, connecting with our far-flung families and friends, just the five of us got away, just a couple hours south to a slightly cheesy campground.  We rented a cabin.  We played badminton and mini golf.  John tossed Brad in the air in the pool over and over again.  I read a bunch of Garrison Keillor’s Pretty Good Jokes and we all laughed.  Allie read hours and hours of book of 4 of Harry Potter to her siblings.  We went to a beautiful beach and the kids swam while I went for a treacherous run, thinking of all the running I’ve done on all my little trips, always carving out a little trail for myself, always finding some space in my head.  I remember thinking, “I like where my mind is now.”  It was everywhere, seeing things I couldn’t see when sitting still, solving problems, imagining things I could write about if I ever got to focus.  If I often can’t find that mind in the midst of my summer living, I can at least find her when I run, and for that I’m thankful. It’s that distance from the people, obligations, joyous human connections that make up my life, it’s the distance that helps me see and celebrate all that.


Thankfully, sometimes, too, we celebrate together.  A couple years ago, we started doing monthly celebrations, little toasts of whatever we were drinking (even if we’re all just sipping ice water) to each family member for something we’ve noticed that s/he should be proud of.  We did that on vacation, at our favorite kitschy restaurant in that part of the state, where we go for breakfast when we’re in town, dining in the presence of many rough-hewn wooden animal sculptures.  We all found plenty to celebrate.  We had all grown this summer, and we all toasted one another, even Mom, whose accomplishments this summer mainly involved serving others.


Then on our last night of vacation, we relived the summer in one of my newly invented family rituals.  I’d found tea light candles at a huge discount the week before, so I brought them along on our trip.  We laid out all the candles on the picnic table and everyone lit a candle for a summer memory.  The wind and the over-eager eight-year-old contributed to the extinguishment of many of our first round, so we came up with more.  “For both our birthday parties”, “For visiting with the cousins”, “For choir camp”, “For doing a cannonball in the pool”, “For every long, beautiful summer run I took”, “for time with my friends at the sweet 16 party”, “for family visits that reconnected us with our loved ones”, “for blueberry picking,”…  It went on and on. “For right here and now,” John said, “the best of the summer.” 


For the adults, I believe (speaking for myself and extrapolating for John), the hard stuff had been weighing on our minds:  the summer’s frustrations, the family tensions and arguments, the anxiety about fall (more demanding schedules and not enough money)  when we hadn’t quite recharged our batteries this summer.  But ceremony and real connections make you forget that, allow you to live in your best moments, even re-live them a little bit, and ask no more for now.


Our little lighting ceremony brought out the joys that we were almost too busy to savor these past three months, and our fond memories came together as we sat around that little picnic table and lit candles.  We created something larger than ourselves. 


Summer always seems to froth and bubble over during its intense and well-lit days, but at night, small illuminations of stars and candles and quiet breezes remind you of the riches as you let the day go.  And as it all starts to end, those three months that held out a promise of freedom but offered something a little different, a little different each year, become more clear in the diminished light, in the fading warmth and early fall chill of a late-August night.


Communal Living in July July 24, 2008

Filed under: family — jodiellen @ 3:15 am
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At some point, living with your children becomes more like living in a messy and sometimes testy commune than like “raising a family.”  The older kids set the standards of jockeying for greater autonomy, freer use of space, time, and resources, often with only token assurances that they will exercise greater responsibility.  And the younger set follows, negotiating what didn’t used to be negotiable (yes, you WILL take a shower, yes you WILL put the laundry away now…)


The cabinets are constantly raided for anything remotely resembling junk food.  When it’s hard to find, throwing your head back to ingest the powdered sweetness of hot chocolate mix will do.  Our “open concept” house has no refuge for quiet-hungry me, as kids bombard me on their four “electronics are acceptable in moderation” (big joke) days, with the noise of movies, computer games, and the few TV shows they own, with their music in the kitchen, with phone conversations carried out—on speaker phone for greater all-around intensity—while walking from one end of the house to another.


Where is a mother to go?  And when?  Bedtimes slip towards 11:00, arguments over whether chores have to be done NOW, whether lights need to be turned off NOW overwhelm me.  This is not easy.  Embracing my inner control freak was a bad idea.  I have lost control.


Everywhere is excess, abundance.  The flower garden that gave me so much joy in June is a riot of weeds, relieved, thankfully, by the sunny faces of daisies that just won’t let go of their optimism.  They’re trying to inspire me, I think.  The vegetable garden is even worse, though there was this one peaceful evening about a week ago, when I told all the kids they needed to help me weed for just 15 minutes.  It was a hiatus, a little oasis in the chaos and the tug of all of us in different directions.  Nobody counted the minutes.


“What’s this plant, Mom?”  “Look at these worms!”  “Oh, I found some raspberries.”  “Which ones are the green beans again?”  They all worked pretty hard, but in kind of an unhurried, pleasant way.  The task wasn’t that intimidating when done together.  They wouldn’t have admitted it, but they liked being outside in the garden, with each other, with me.  I’ll have to try that again.  It gets pretty lonely when you’re undertaking so much without help, a problem compounded this year by John’s focus on the never-ending treehouse.


The irony of it all makes me crazy:  though it’s true that we don’t encourage visits to the treehouse right now, since it’s still a semi-dangerous construction site, it would be fair to say the kids have shown little interest in it, at least as is.  Yet John works on.  Meanwhile, I take over the mowing of a lawn that used to have kids and dogs frolicking on it, and now just looks like a crazy waste of grass, gasoline-induced lawn mower pollution and my precious labor.


The only thing to do is to use what I have, make it work, love my family even when they make me crazy and enjoy the ride.  Last night I couldn’t sleep.  I went out to the back porch and took in a million stars, wandered through the still-smiling daisies, and looked around our spread-out country neighborhood from my quiet front porch swing perch. 


The night pared the picture of my little place on planet earth down to something manageable, since I could only see a little bit, and there were no sounds of children, husband, pets, electronics, or the phone that ties me to the daily challenge of scheduling our summer days, which are a crazy patchwork of structure and lack of structure, held together by me. 


I was comforted by my neighbor’s endearing habit of keeping lights on all the time, here in the summer evenings well-enough lit by moon and stars.  He lives in the country, but seems just a little afraid of the dark.  That light, perhaps, shows just enough, provides an anchor, reminds us that when the sun comes out everything will be back, in Technicolor, in abundance, and somehow, we’ll spin through the colors and create, or be created by, another crazy day.


There it all was:  a light against the chaos, the daisies smiling hopefully and with a luminescent white in the dark, unconcerned about the weeds, hoping to out-compete them anyway, or just share their space, the stars reminding me they’re always there, and little me, alone at last, with a ripe summer peach and pungent cheese for a midnight snack, and a sigh.