The Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 word of the year was “selfie,” which describes the now ubiquitous photos taken with one of the subject’s arms outstretched, not unlike a zombie’s, as he or she snaps his or her own photo with a cell phone camera. Selfie is a word I had not heard of before last year, but by last fall even baby Lyra was getting in on the action (with a little help from her thirteen-year-old brother).
While the year is only little more than a quarter underway, I nominate the term “polar vortex” for 2014. Sure, it’s two words that together make a phrase, but here in Ohio, it has meant only one thing—the longest and coldest winter anyone can recall. We Ohioans are used to “arctic blasts” and “dips in the Canadian jet stream” along with an occasional nor’easter stretching this far west. And sure, 1978 had more snow, but never was there a year in my memory when week after week the mercury struggled anemically to stay above zero degrees Fahrenheit. All blamed on repeated visits from polar vortices, which until 2014, were unknown to me and most people I know. As a result, my kids did not have a full five-day week of school from mid-December, when they were released for winter break, until late March. The Ohio legislature recently passed an emergency bill giving the state’s school districts four extra severe weather days on top of the five days allowed each year. Even with those nine freebie days, kids in Akron will be in classes deeper into June than had been on the school calendars last fall. This winter, which only began loosening its grip on March 31st (once again validating the aphorism I tell my children every spring: “March comes in like a lion and exits like a lamb”), seemed to mirror life around here. Difficult, yes, but when said and done, everyone was fine, if not a bit stronger and maybe even wiser.
Oh, What a January
Every December, no matter how festive, I look forward to the following month when the holiday clutter has been packed away for another year, the kids have returned to school and people mostly keep their own company. January, when the snow-muffled landscape echoes the quietude of the house, is a month in which I often make great progress on writing and submitting. This year, the first week after winter break, school was cancelled twice (on my writing days) due to the extreme cold. This meant, unlike a snow day, I couldn’t even send the kids out to sled. The following week, Jules came home early from school one day, became progressively sicker and, on the third Monday of the month, set sail on a medical odyssey. We each, in this reconstituted family, were brought to our knees as we faced the possibility of losing a son, a brother, a grandson. Jules himself found his head forced into the gaping mouth of mortality and he saw, with no small amount of terror, that time is precious and life is not as secure as he once had believed. Then came the fourth week of January, when we were dazed at our great good fortune when learning Jules had neither an acute nor a chronic illness and was as healthy, if not skinnier, as ever. We traveled from fear to awareness to gratitude, all in one harrowing week.
February or When the Poop Flew…All Over
The day after Jules was released from the hospital, issues began with my rental house, which resulted in my first eviction. Almost daily, Tenant had an ever-escalating series of demands all ending with the words “or I can’t live here any longer.” Ultimately, I called Tenant’s bluff and by mid-February Tenant had relocated elsewhere. At the end of the February, when we conducted the inspection related to Tenant’s deposit, we found cat feces in places I had not imagined I would ever see cat feces. On windows, on windowsills and, oh, look below, the side yard is covered with cat feces and litter flung from Tenant’s second story bedroom window. On the bright side, feces and clay litter can be cleaned up and with all the human and feline funk now gone, the house looks better than ever (with some fresh paint and floor work and landscaping), and I, like anyone who has had rental property for a few years, now have a “you won’t believe this” story along with a “no pets” policy.
Ongoing and Carrying On:
While Max is the love of my life, my ex-husband is perhaps my soul mate. How can that be? Quite simply my relationship with my ex-husband gives me repeated opportunities to face myself honestly, take stock and put on my big-girl britches. Last September, with three days notice, my ex-husband moved to the Middle East and I don’t mean the middle of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, I mean to a country where the economy is sustained by oil revenues. His move made undeniable what has long been the case: the boys live with me 100% of the time. In order to have child support recalculated accordingly (it is currently based upon him having the boys 50% of the time and paying for 50% of their living expenses), it was necessary for me to petition the Court.
In December, I appealed to the Court pro se, or on my own without an attorney. After all, it’s pretty cut and dried—we live on one side of the planet, he lives on the other. His income has increased, as has mine, so why not put all our numbers on the table? He is free to call the children as often as he likes, see them frequently when he is in the country, should he choose to do so and, again, should he suddenly become inclined, contribute in the raising of the children. Yet it came as no surprise that my ex-husband hired an attorney and we have had two pre-trial (yes, trial) meetings this year and hearing dates scheduled in May, July and August. As a result, thus far I have spent all of 2014 in something like a crash course on filing motions, protective orders and responding to those filed by Defendant’s attorney. As with the divorce, which took over three years, it is as though my ex-husband is careening down a bobsled course. The outcome is all but certain, yet he has strapped himself in and will ride to what is, for him, a very expensive finish line. And as I watch him, I feel the residual tickles of an unhealthy habit to which I held fast for nearly fifteen years: that of trying to save him from himself, when in truth, I only hurt both of us in the process. And in this observation of my ex-husband and my emotions, I see who we were, and who I have become, and I am washed over with relief that I got out.
“Send me more court reporters!” I told my biggest client at the end of 2013 and they did. I am proofreading all the transcripts for two court reporters and most of them for a third reporter, which means I am reading between 750-1000 pages each week. It’s good! I have work! It pays! But the work, along with the children chronically home (true confession: I could never have been a homeschooler, uh-uh, nope, no way), the rental house issues and the court case have all co-conspired to erode much of my precious time to write, submit and, yes, yes, yes, work on my book proposal.
A writer friend of mine recently posted a quote on Facebook by another writer whom I also know: By far, the thing that prevents a writer from becoming the writer they want to be is that they don’t write. […] Not writing, your most common way to not become a writer. Not finishing. Not revising what you write.
I know this with all of my being or, as another writer recently posted, “Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking of writing.” I feel the need to write daily so as to stave off the pain of not writing. Years ago, when I began my MFA coursework, a classmate read a quote from author Pat Conroy extolling the importance calling oneself a writer, but only if one is writing. Big break or not, I am a writer because I am always writing but this abundant life challenges my ability to sit and write on the computer, which is the real writing. The writing in my head is often where beginnings are found and works in progress are developed. However, essays only arise with fully formed bodies when my fingers are on the keyboard. Along with mothering, this is the work of my life. Everything else just pays the bills, but they must be paid.
3) Beautiful Girl
“We all just love it when Lyra comes in, not just because she’s so sweet but also because she always makes progress,” said Lyra’s speech therapist on the second Tuesday of April. Every other week, Lyra does an infant block of speech, occupational and physical therapies. Lyra missed her last visit in March because, for the entire week, our house was a vomitorium in which nobody was spared. Yeah, that week was a scratch for writing too. Therefore, Lyra’s therapists went a month without seeing her and, when they finally did, they could not have been more encouraging about Lyra’s development. It was not only delightful, but a relief, to hear.
As anyone who is the parent of a child with special needs can attest, it’s hard to objectively know if we are focusing enough on Lyra’s therapy “homework.” I suspect if Lyra were our only child, Max and I would spend more time on the floor with her, encouraging her to bend her knees as she sits up, to crawl on all fours, to stand with proper foot alignment as she rises from a small chair. If she were our only child, we’d really focus on that pincer grip, maybe even tape down all her fingers except the forefinger for short spells each day. And if she were our only child, we would practice all those speech exercises twice daily. Lyra does get these and other interventions, but only on a catch as catch can basis. On the other hand, with four older brothers, Lyra lives in a rich and stimulating environment both physically and verbally, and so we tell ourselves it is a wash. Still, outside confirmation is welcomed.
I used to say my favorite stage of babyhood was the week in which my babies could sit up but not yet crawl. The babies were happier because they could play with toys placed within their reach, yet I didn’t worry about them crawling toward danger like stairs or trashcans. Well little Miss Lyra first sat up on June 29, 2013, but she did not crawl (army-style) until January 12, 2014. Hypotonia, as with so many other things, is to blame for this delay. Mind you, Lyra was scooching from place to place and the scooching—sort of a sitting hop—remained the more effective means of mobility for several weeks after she began army crawling. But in March, I knew the balance had tipped when I left Lyra in the hallway and ran to the basement to quickly grab something. Perhaps less than a minute later, when I returned to the top of the stairs, I found Lyra considering a head-first tumble down the two steps that lead from the hallway to the basement landing, a good twelve feet away from the spot where I had left her. While injury was narrowly averted, I was thrilled and scooped Lyra into my arms and danced with her in the hallway. Once a baby motors on her own, it’s an “Ah-ha” moment for the child. Once the power of self-locomotion is cognitively recognized, a child only wants more and pushes ahead to pulling up, cruising furniture and, finally, walking.
“You have to come see Lyra soon,” I told my friend Vanessa, the photographer who has captured so many beautiful scenes of our whoopsie-piggled life, “She is not the baby you last saw, she such a big girl now.” Most of the year, I see Vanessa many times a week as we hike together at a nearby park, often with Lyra strapped on me in her carrier. But this winter our walks were sporadic at best. While it can be said that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, I do not own the clothing that would allow me to remain comfortable outdoors in subzero temperatures for more than a handful of minutes. Besides, my dear Vanessa is in her last full semester before obtaining her BFA in photography. And she has four children, a partner and as many dogs and cats as we have. Our walks are as much solidarity meetings as they are physical exercise.
I wrote in “Love Stories, Sexuality and Secrets” about my annual Valentine’s tradition of giving the children a movie musical (all love stories) on DVD. This year I broke tradition, but only slightly. Max and I saw the non-musical film About Time in the theaters last fall and, before we left the cinema, I had decided it would be this year’s choice. The director, Richard Curtis, also directed Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and one of the boys’ all-time favorite films, which we own and they watch seemingly every six months, Love Actually. You know, good-feeling, yet smart, romantic comedies. And so, too, begins About Time. Right after the opening credits, the father of the young protagonist (played the ever-engaging actor Bill Nighy), tells him that the men in their family can travel back in time. The son decides immediately to use his newly discovered powers to find a lover. It’s fun and funny, but only a traditional hetero-romantic comedy for the first third of the film. The rest of the movie is a love story about parents, children, siblings and friends. It borders on sentimental, but because it’s British and the Brits get awkward with gooey emotional stuff, it comes together. The film had me contemplating how we choose to spend time, both with those we love as well as complete strangers and, if we could, would we choose differently in a second go around?
So what am I getting at here? Well, it’s the problem being busy, something of an American addiction that I feel I must suffer from but cannot resolve how to quit. I hear everyone (including myself) state how busy they are as if it is a justification for mere existence. Yet more than twenty years ago, I watched my undergraduate advisor (about whom I’ve written in Whoopsie Piggle essays here and here) as she juggled teaching, researching, writing, speaking, putting together museum exhibits and having a family (it helped that her husband was a professor in the same field and they collaborated). Just watching her was exhausting and I distinctly recall telling myself I never, ever wanted to be that busy. But I am. My advisor had a full-blown career and one child. I have myriad employment activities (along with proofreading, I still work evenings at World Market and substitute at the Waldorf school when needed) and five children. I am not lazy, far from it, but it feels like the world I live in has largely lost equilibrium.
Does all this busyness add up to anything vital? Or only further a lack of being present in life?
As part of the latest court proceedings with my ex-husband, he petitioned the court to have me meet with a vocational assessor, which I did. She was easily likable and, as I have nothing to hide, we spoke amiably for two hours. The only time I was at a loss for words was when she asked, “Now what do you do for recreation?” I stumbled and stammered and finally mentioned what a fun day we all had in early March when we watched Hugo perform in a drumline competition in Toledo and then drove on to Ann Arbor, where we returned Claude to school and dined together at Zingerman’s deli. It was a fun day, but what the assessor was after was something more like a hobby or reading books or, really, I’m not sure what she expected, but she looked at me quizzically before continuing with her questions.
Last year, I read in this essay what stuck with me was the bit about the author’s friend who had moved from New York City to a small town in France and discovered, quite remarkably, that she did not have the personality she thought she had, someone who was “driven, cranky, anxious and sad.” She now finds she is happy and relaxed because she’s no longer part of the American collective of busyness. I don’t need to move to France, though I’m not saying I would turn down an offer, but if I could actually pay the bills by writing four to five hours a day, then I think I’d have it all figured out. I certainly would love to find out if that’s true.
Challenging, Yes. Bad? Well, that Depends
This year’s repeated visits from the polar vortices did not make us any less busy, yet I felt we got less done and were more frenetic than purposeful. Perhaps channeling my inner Nietzche, on the coldest days of winter, I thought, This is healthy. And as evidence of being made better by that which does not kill us, I consider the dead. Dead insects, that is. In the past decade, the pine beetle has destroyed the Rocky Mountain forests because without enough continuous days of cold weather (yes, Virginia, there is global warming), the pine beetle population has exploded. Here in Ohio, I heard several reports during those endless weeks of frigid weather that invasive insects, such as the gypsy moth and the emerald ash borer, were decimated by the epidemic of frigid temperatures (and may the same be true of fleas, ticks and mosquitoes).
From challenges of an uncommon winter we became heartier. By March, schools no longer canceled when the mercury was between zero and 10 degrees as had been the case in January and, at least at the Waldorf school, bundled youngsters went outside for all of their regularly scheduled recesses, hardly noticing the cold. We learned, yet again, the constituent ingredients of family as we shared the feeling of desperate vulnerability over Jules’ health, and later celebrated his health. That episode, along with managing my rental property in less than ideal circumstances, reminded me that with Max I truly have a partner in all things. And in petitioning for what is fair for my children, I see that I am no longer afraid of my ex-husband for he can no longer harm me and instead seems driven to harm himself.
Yet as more days invite us to peel off our layers of clothing, open the windows and walk barefoot on freshly sprouted grass that has yet to feel the blade of a mower, I feel lighter and realize this winter required a hunker-down, shoulder-in approach. Ice, snow, salt and babies dashed from cars to indoors, lest their cheeks freeze. With the slow ebb of winter (it did snow here on April 15), time no longer feels spent entirely on survival.
Here’s to spring and all the warm promise it holds with longer days, gentler weather and, quite possibly, a spell where time promenades.