Holy cow I haven’t written in a while.
I blame winter: my go-to scapegoat, my personal patsy, my fall-guy. Damn season comes around every year–despite my protestations–and doesn’t it just stay for several months?
We didn’t even get entirely dumped on with snow this winter; no crazy ice-storms and subsequent sans-electricity-for-a-week tumult; no need for a generator or trip to Bali. My family got outside, did some sledding, survived the bus-stop mornings with nary a complaint from the girls. I’m the only winter whiner, and I really do try to keep it on the down-low, but winter is a drag for me, especially as it drags on after the holidays. My college friend Jen used to say February was her least favorite month–not only the dark and the freeze, but the misery, as a young, single person, of enduring a month that also gives us Valentines Day and the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. No disrespect to TS Eliot, but February can be cruel. I like my April.
April is Easter hope and residual March Madness (Go Cats!). April is oodles of color–the eye-smacking yellow at every turn: buttercups, daffodils, forsythia. The pink and white of cherry blossoms and magnolias, hanging roadside like soft chandeliers. The red buds on our front yard Japanese maple and peony: signs of living everywhere.
It’s not that I haven’t lived this winter. But it sometimes feels as if I haven’t moved after a winter has come and finally gone. Even if I hit the gym regularly or go out for crisp walks, I can’t help but feel sedentary, stiff, uninspired.
Over Spring Break we went with friends to the Franklin Institute to see, among many other things, the Pixar Exhibit, which I loved. My favorites were the informational kiosks entitled “Working at Pixar” scattered throughout the two floors. You’d press a button and learn about the woman who’s job it was to add movement to Joy’s dress in Inside Out; press another button and see the guy who made and explains the physics behind the red of Lightning McQueen and the brown, muted rust of Mater.
Press another button and there’s this smart gentleman who developed and is attempting to describe the rendering equation. Let’s see if I got this right: a similar method, called the Monte Carlo, which simulated how atomic particles get scattered inside a bomb, was originally developed for the hydrogen bomb project. But our kind, smart friend at Pixar used his theory for how light is scattered to create awesome-looking, happiness-inducing movies. How’d I do? And how ’bout our kind, smart friend?
So we left the Pixar Exhibit and went to the Brain Exhibit where I couldn’t get over this visual of the brain of a three-year old–neurons connecting like crazy because of all of the new things this child is learning. Next to that was a visual of the brain of a twenty year old, and there were shockingly far fewer lines, A LOT more white area. What? I get that the twenty year old’s already learned to walk and talk, so she isn’t experiencing substantial newness, but dear God, she’s only twenty?! If she’s got that much space, imagine the oceans of white in my brain. Do I have any neurons left? And if so, can they find each other?
Dave and I had planned a day-trip with the girls to New York City for the following day. The recent Brussels’s bombings got me worrying that maybe we shouldn’t go. To think, now, it’s a roll of dice just to hop on a commuter train from Trenton. It kept me up a lot of the night.
But we went, and standing in line for cheap Broadway tickets, we serendipitously ran into my sister-in-law and two of my nieces. They’d chosen just that day to also drive from Philly to Trenton, take the train in, and see a show. We spent the entire day with them: Ellen’s Stardust Cafe, where our waiter, Dave, sang a beautiful “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. Rockefeller Center for a short spell before going to see Finding Neverland, which was magical and made me cry. We hit the three-story M & M store, then we all walked to and through a tiny chunk of Central Park. Caroline noticed, “Mommy, there are people kissing everywhere (icky face)” but there were also people rock climbing, children swinging, big dudes doing aerial flips over a circle drawn in dirt. All that activity made us hungry, so we of course grabbed NY slices at a pizza joint, then stopped into the Marriott Marquis for Shirley Temples before heading back to Penn Station.
Cousins nibbled on M&M’s and giggled with cousins the entire train ride back: lips chapped from the grinning, eyes puffed with exhaustion. I hadn’t seen my girls that happy for that many consecutive hours . . . I don’t think ever.
“Nothing happens until something moves.” Einstein. I saw this quotation on a wall entering Sir Isaac’s Loft at the Franklin Institute. My friend Ashley saw it as well, separately, but brought it up to me while we were watching our kids running around in this playground of chain reactions, pulleys, and prisms: Lexi lifting her own body weight; the other kids transfixed by the gigantic kinetic sculpture, watching balls travel along tracks. So this is how energy transfers.
Nothing happens until something moves. It’s a simple statement that spoke to both of us, probably for different reasons. We didn’t get into it, really. We just acknowledged its truth.
For me, it’s time to get moving and keep the balls rolling throughout next winter, too, because God-willing, it will come again. We can’t let darkness or fear immobilize us. We have to ride the train. Go somewhere. Keep learning, keep writing and creating. Strive for kind and smart. Energy will transfer and neurons will connect. At any age. In any and every one of life’s seasons.
It’s a dreary day. The kind of rain you can barely hear because it’s heading straight to the ground, no courteous play against the window panes, a rude rain. Or maybe it’s trying to be polite, not to make any fuss, just getting the job done. Whatever the motive, its effect is blah. Spring Break Day Two for the kids. Looks like we’re decorating eggs and a lot of them.
I’m reminded of my trip to Ireland years back. While there, I read a funny article comparing the many types of rains to wine variants: a light crisp one, one somewhat sparkling, a precipitation blend. This one today is a full-bodied red: a deluge of Shiraz.
When I was in Ireland, though, I didn’t mind the weather. I was there for eight weeks and it rained constantly. I guess it was the being somewhere else, a place I’d never been but felt I had: somehow innately familiar, perhaps through family stories, through distant bloodlines. I thought the Emerald Isle was aptly dressed in a grey that allowed the green to pop. Ireland could carry it off, the dark tone, and from what I’d read of Yeats, Joyce, Synge, the tone befit the stories and history. What would a ferry ride to the Aran Islands be without a little tumult, without the lift of some jarring swells? To arrive on those islands, to witness sun fighting through clouds–it’s as it was for the mothers of Synge’s fishermen, surrounded by ghosts; it’s as it was for those enclosed by Dun Aengus, the fort on the cliff, 300 feet up from the Atlantic, thick walls of stone circling, circling from the Bronze Age all the way to where I stood when I stood there. And circling still.
It’s what the Irish do with their weather, their tumult, their loads of rain–the making light of it, whatever the weight, turning the tragic into good solid storytelling–that’s what I love. I search for that quality in myself, like we American Irish search with an edge of desperation for our lineage, some connection to the beautiful place, a branch on that tree that puts us right there in County Sligo, County Clare, Kilkenny or Limerick, singing the old songs, gathering secretly at night on the edge of the pale, teaching our children Gaelic phrases, keeping our language alive, our history alive, keeping ourselves alive.
The modern Irish may scoff at the romanticizing, but I want to align myself with those who trump life’s sadness with laughter. I want to endure in just this way.
And I want my children to do the same.
I drum up a batch of pancakes for the girls and their friend who spent the night. We’re in jammies, still, as the rain continues soundlessly. The water on the stove boiling and popping with eggs makes a noise like rain. I add soft music, not much tannin, for a round, rich, late-morning, early-spring feel and sit down with the girls to eat. I feel the tug of the Cosmos, reminding me to immerse myself in whatever makes me happy, in the everyday, inarguable details: winter is over, my girls are tearing pancakes into pieces, fingers smothered in sloppily lapped-up syrup. Despite any mystical connections I may have to past and other places, this is the place. This is the time.
Before I can stop myself, though, as I’m sitting with the girls, I act the adult and pull in the weather as dreary conversation. I had just lived a moment graciously but then knee-jerked into negativity: “Oh, it’s a rainy, yucky day.”
“And a giggly one,” my youngest said.
She didn’t even look up as she lifted a sticky finger from her sticky plate, as she licked and dripped. Sweet, sweet wisdom of the ages spewing from the mouth of the map of Ireland herself: face filled with freckles, big, blue eyes, still staring downwards, taking in the magic of the circling, circling spirals of maple syrup.
Pop-Pop Regan was a chemist before he practiced law; he said he knew what alcohol did to brain cells, so he didn’t drink. He was a tee-totaling leprechaun of a man. He had shelves upon shelves of books, all annotated so universally, it looked as if he’d underlined every line he read. Squirreled-away butterscotches were his gold coins. He had his own special charm: he named each dog he owned, “Ace,” and before every dinner, he said an Irish grace.
Our family would be just about ready to dive into a holiday meal, when someone—an aunt, an uncle, my dad—would begin the blessing, and while we all sat dutifully praying, Pop-Pop would be muttering from the head of the table, something that sounded like this: “Bannashinna-hannashinna-bannashinna-hannashinna.” When I was young, I was duly impressed—my siblings and cousins were too. But doubt grew with age. Pop-Pop, you are absolutely not saying anything down there at your end of the table. Not a single thing.
As an adult, I studied (a mixture of Irish history, literature, language) for three weeks in Galway. Ireland was a country that felt right to me upon contact. The sun refused to remain through a complete 12-hour period, but though I did get a wee bit tired of the rain, the stereotypical Irish mist didn’t ruin me, not in the least (even the Irish said it was a wet summer). Everything felt good.
I lived with a family during the weeks, and then traveled with my study group or on my own on the weekends. I stayed a week after the program ended. There are the Irish who like to tell a good story, but I cannot tell the story of my Ireland as big as it needs to be: the effect it had, the impressions it made of quaint towns, beautiful scenery, friendly people.
Kerry, Tralee, Dingle, Dublin, Doolin, Cork, Glencolumbkille. I took a soggy, rough boat ride to the Aran Islands, where I toured on bike to a fort built 2000 years ago. Sligo—Yeats’ country. I saw his Isle of Innisfree, his round tower, and by his grave, I snapped a photo of a most remarkably, colorful and confident rooster. The breathtaking Burren, landscaped with rocks after rocks and wildflowers. The Cliffs of Moher—and wasn’t the sun shining just for me that day, just long enough for me to take in the remarkable view. At a Bed-and-Breakfast outside of Kinsale, I had coffee cake and chamomile tea for dinner then took a walk to the ocean.
My Ireland tale is too big with small moments and quick exchanges—I went to mail letters at the post office and the worker said, “I’ll give these all the attention they deserve!”
One of the first lines in my travel journal: “Did a tour of Galway, started at an abbey and ended at a pub.” Pub life was rich. I would fill up on Smithwick’s and toasted cheese sandwiches, then over-indulge just by watching and listening. My favorite pub night by far happened only because I met a mother and son on the program who had family living near Galway. I went with them to a cousin-owned pub where cousins upon cousins showed to meet them. Soon enough, we were all singing. 90-year-old Eddie and his younger brother (at 87 years) sang Irish tune after Irish tune. If you could have heard those two reaching, then hesitating, then going for it—reaching again for the highest note in “Danny Boy” and the laughter that followed . . . you’d have turned Irish right there and then. I don’t care who you are, you’d have turned Irish.
My Ireland trip was in 1998—I didn’t have my iPhone handy. But I got my hands on a cassette tape and recorder. On one of the final days of the program, Breen, the language teacher, sat down to recite for me in Gaelic, a dinner blessing.
I have no idea. Pop-Pop had been dead for years, so there was no way of knowing. But my story is—it was Pop-Pop’s grace. As sure as the sun didn’t shine, I brought home his prayer.
“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso
This morning I left the dishes in the sink longer than usual, in order to set up the painting table and let the girls loose on unsuspecting construction paper. Sitting side-by-side wearing only princess underwear, Caroline and Lexi painted at least 15 pictures each. I had them title their pieces (“Pictures don’t have names!” said Caroline), and after the girls got into it, works of art, including “Doggy, Froggy, Turtle, Duck” and “Funny Daddy” by Lexi; “Beautiful Stone Wall” and “Bamba!” by Caroline, lay drying on all available counter space. Our house is the Barnes Collection: pictures hang on walls above sofas, under tables, climbing stairwells. Caroline can now dispense scotch tape, so no place is safe from masterpieces. I could go upstairs to vacuum a hallway (hypothetical here) and come down to three new displays: two on the sliding glass door and one taped just below the stove’s front, left burner.
The girls love painting. I love watching them love painting. This morning I stood staring at them from the kitchen sink, grateful and happy.
The fact that Painting Pictures Day at home coincided with Picture Day at preschool was not a surprise to me. I was fully aware that the girls needed to be especially clean and presentable by 12:30, when I would drop them off. A bright orange post-it with “Picture Day!!!” had been stuck to my desk all week, like one of Caroline’s paintings. I had chosen outfits the night before— pink and brown jumpers in coordinating colors because I had paid 5 extra dollars to get a sibling shot—but what I had not anticipated was mutiny. Picasso’s Blue Period ran from autumn 1902 to spring 1904; Caroline’s Rainbow Period has been going full-tilt since March; her palette not confined to paper. At 11:45, both girls’ bodies were clear of paint, but the brown and pink of Caroline’s potential outfit was not speaking to her as loudly as the rainbow of colors on her long-sleeved striped shirt. I began to panic. I jogged down two flights in search of storage bins, rummaging for a solid-colored jumper that would match. The green just a notch next to “puke” on the color scale, was the only jumper she’d allow, so instead, I insisted she pick out a pair of pants (“NOOOOOOOO!) or a skirt to match the rainbow shirt, since the dark blue jumper that would have looked great, had constricted her breathing upon impact—I saw ribs. The blue jumper removal tousled Caroline’s hair dramatically; then a voice rang from the adjacent room. It was Lexi: “I want my poople (purple) dress! I don’t want go school!” Her cherub song skipped and repeated like a record turning, needle over scratched vinyl again, and again, and again. My girls were going to Picture Day, damn it, and they were going to look cute. This was Guernica.
At 12:10, when Lexi caught on that I could not find the car keys, she pretended that she’d hidden them. I asked, “Where are they keys, love?”
She answered, “Upstairs.”
I looked all around the upstairs and asked, “WHERE ARE THE KEYS, LOVE!”
She answered, “Downstairs.”
After searching the house twice, I wised up, grabbed the extra set of keys, and then found the initial set in the backseat of the car, where I’d left them all night. By the time I pulled out of the driveway, I was exhausted from having chased Lexi around the kitchen, a smidge concerned that new neighbors might have called Social Services as I stuffed my sobbing 3-year-old into her car seat, and ticked-off that we had not one tissue in the car, since both girls’ cheeks were tear-streaked. Caroline wore her striped shirt with grey skirt and tights. Lexi wore her purple dress with pink cardigan. We were so late, I had to walk them into their respective classrooms. One perk of car-line drop-off is that fewer people notice that you are jittery, your hair is unkempt, and your voice is hoarse from yelling.
Minutes later, when I went to Safeway to buy milk, I also picked up a couple of four-color ballpoint pens and two spiral notebooks—blue for Lexi and red for Caroline. They’d been writing a lot in Mommy’s notebook, so I thought this might be a nice time to give them their own, since I was feeling generous and completely debilitated by gnawing guilt. I happened to stand in line behind a parent I had seen minutes before in Lexi’s classroom. I introduced myself to her. She looked at me as if she’d never before seen me and then her eyes registered and she said: “Oh, you’re the one who asked if they clean faces before pictures.”
“Oh, ha…yeah. We had a little trouble getting there today.”
“For an afternoon class?” She slid her fingers through what looked to have been recently brushed hair, and then she turned slightly towards the checkout. The conveyor belt moved; the placed divider, a line drawn, separated her toilet paper from my retractable pens.
I’ve swum in the Atlantic and dipped my toes into the Pacific on the same day. I’ve sat in a movie theater, seen a two-hour film, and as credits rolled, I’ve had to think about it: “Where am I? What state am I in—Pennsylvania? Virginia? Florida?” Just this morning, soft sun slowly gathered around the colors in our kitchen. I sat in pjs squeezing light and dark blue, purple, and orange into empty egg containers. The girls and I were fresh and blending. But in the earliest turn of the afternoon, I was suddenly rabid and sweaty, dumping folded turtlenecks from storage containers onto our basement floor. What state was I in and how did I get there on that very same day?
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once she grows up.” Pablo Picasso
“Caroline, do you want strawberry or blueberry yogurt?”
“I would like strawberry yogurt and blueberry yogurt, please.”
My pediatrician suggested that I give my kids choices. Ask them if they want to leave the playground in two minutes or five—they’ll feel empowered, and I can take off whenever I like because they really don’t understand the concept of time. When someone wants to dress herself, give her options I can tolerate, and then let her make the call. She is wearing polka-dot leggings with a striped shirt, but at least she’s not naked and I can get to the gymnastics class once this session without missing the introductory bubble song. I have gotten out of a few jams by giving my girls choices, but sometimes, when I am at the supermarket negotiating for five more minutes of solid behavior, promising fruit snacks, I think with dismay that I am that mom, the one in the supermarket promising fruit snacks. Sure, my parents gave us choices, but the list was limited: You hurl a basketball through a pane of glass as your brother stands on the other side, pressing his face against the window–Belt or bare hand? You curse–Irish Spring or Cashmere Bouquet? Clean your room or get locked up in it for a week and half?
Choices. I once went on a research-vacation-adventure to British Columbia. I was teaching at a school where the administration encouraged us to spend summers broadening ourselves, in or out of our subject matter, so I played scientist, studying the migrating patterns of the grey whales. I was in a gorgeous part of the world and saw numerous whales, but I desperately wanted to see one breaching. One day out of the ten I was there, I was below the deck helping chef-up some chicken quesadillas when “Kate Moss,” one of the thinner whales, jumped high out of the water (this is second-hand storytelling), falling back on a beautiful angle, covering the observers with a wondrous wave. I heard the splash and gasps from below. It was one moment, one decision to sprinkle shredded cheddar on a sizzling tortilla. Talk about road less traveled: I was a three hour boat ride from a one hour puddle jump to Vancouver. I’d been living in a temperate rain forest: wearing knee-high rubber boots, forgoing showers, peeing from a makeshift toilet seat into a deep and narrow hole, sleeping solo in a tent, waking to the sound of sputtering whales idling by the shore. But I’d missed the breach, the big show.
Mary Anne Evans wrote, “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” I read Adam Bede in college, and it just about killed me, but it’s likely I wouldn’t have read a thing by Mary Anne Evans if she hadn’t chosen the pen name George Eliot. She changed her name in order to be taken more seriously as a writer, among other reasons, and she did well by it. We choose, and often we grow. Ask Adam (friend-of-Eve…not Bede)—it is what sets us apart from the rest of Wild Kingdom. We can make bad decisions: James Cameron probably shouldn’t have worn his hair like that at the Oscars. But also we can make what we see to be our best decisions: switching from Sony to Canon, going on an Australian lifestyle retreat, buying a 2007Volkswagen Eos, placing a child in the Education Center in Little Elm Texas; adopting a vegan diet; surrendering to Christ; retiring to Mexico. Some of us are remembered for a particular decision. Chris Webber in the 1993 NCAA match-up against North Carolina, with seconds left on the clock, University of Michigan trailing by 2, called a time-out his team didn’t have. North Carolina hit two free throws. Webber’s team lost the game, and basketball fans remember his mistake—not the 23 points and 11 rebounds he had in that same game—like political junkies remember Harold Dean’s scream in the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Most of us, though, do what we do, making decisions, living the consequences, without the world remembering, and often, without even remembering ourselves. I have no earthly idea what I made for dinner last Tuesday.
I do remember going to the gym last Friday. It was one of the best decisions I could have made because it had been a long week. I swam. I lounged in the steam room, then the hot tub. I was on that Australian retreat, minus the Gold Coast and the cattle stations. It was an hour just for me, and by the end of the hour, I missed the girls and was ready to retrieve them from the childcare room. They were both leaning on primary-colored cushions watching a show when I arrived, and right after I called their names, Caroline came towards me with arms open, a big smile. Lexi stayed put. Perhaps she hadn’t heard me? I called her sweet little nickname in my sweet mommy voice, but again, no response. Not even a head turn. Maybe we should get her hearing checked? Or maybe, just maybe, this bundle of love was completely ignoring her mother?
She was, in fact. It was the Backyardigans or me, and she had made her choice. She would not budge. She, the most obstinate of all creatures, would not allow me to put on her socks or boots without battling back with kicks and shrill, brash, guttural yawls. Her face turned flame-red; her eyes rolled to show only white. I picked her up—me Tarzan, she Jane—and tossed her over my shoulder, bracing Caroline for what was to come: “Get ready to run!” and we took off down the long hallway, past the basketball court, the bench press, the manager’s office, the water fountains, the lockers, and finally the front desk, where Denise, who usually provides a fresh towel and mildly-approving comments about the girls’ cherub faces or their matching Hello Kitty boots, looked at me in complete horror. I was sweating more at that moment than I’d ever sweat on a treadmill. I’d left the Australian retreat for the cattle station where feral pigs were devouring dead cows and man-eating ants were nibbling away at my toes. I put my screaming mass of a child down between soundproof doors and somehow talked her into putting boots on feet. We made our way home.
Lexi had made a decision and stuck to it. She does this often. Caroline calls it “independent” while her dad and I call it something altogether different. I will put Lexi in a pair of pants, and she will take them off just to put them on again. I will take her out of the car when it is pouring rain, in order to hurry the process along, and she will cry and squiggle in protest until I let her stand, and then she will crawl back into the car—those awkward Hello Kitty boots just in the way—so she can turn around and drop, dribble, or tumble out alone. My little Eve, willing and able to take the Fall all on her own.
I saw a documentary called This Emotional Life a few months back, and the segment that stuck with me had to do with making choices as it relates to happiness. There were two groups of people. One group sat in a room, looking at artwork lined on a wall. These people were told that they could each choose one poster and take it home. Members of the second group were also told they could take a poster home, but if they changed their minds, they could exchange one poster for another. The researchers found that the individuals who had only one choice—to take a poster home—were far happier with their decisions as compared to the members of the second group. A no-brainer, really. (Maybe I should be a scientist?) With choosing can come insecurity, worry, and doubt, but if you go to all of that trouble to pick one thing over another, just to turn around and trade it in, then you’re not going anywhere. I sometimes fantasize about shopping at the only supermarket in town, buying the only available brand of toothpaste. Life could be easier. But there are strip malls and walls of toothpaste. Yes, with choosing comes angst, but with a firm decision and a step in the slightest direction, comes potential growth and maybe even happiness—a brand new poster, whiter teeth, fresher breath.
I want my girls to have it all, but when I’m real, and when they are at the age when we can talk about these things, I will tell them to make a decision, as best they can, and stick with it. Lexi, do it with a yawl if you have to. Caroline, do it with manners, I don’t care. But once you make your choice, don’t waste time wondering what other life you might have led. What if you had gone to that school? Taken that job? Boarded that plane? I cannot lead you down a particular road, and as best I can, I will honor your decision-making. But whatever you do—after you have thought it through, after it’s done—I hope you choose happiness. I hope the only looking back brings you what is good about remembering.
I didn’t see the breach, but I tasted fresh salmon caught and cooked on a fire by a native fisherman. Each night a gathering of luminescent little organisms shimmered in the water as I brushed my teeth at its edge, while stars showered behind shadows of trees. Heavy morning fog sometimes broke into bright blue, sometimes not. I didn’t see the breach, but I stood on a sailboat, head-to-toe soaked with rain and sea, squinting to see what I could of the two humpback whales racing beside me. And I spent time in a kayak, waiting quietly for a grey whale to surface, holding my breath, looking around at the smooth water beneath me until—there—an echoing pop! and thundering show of water through a blow hole. Up that whale rose just inches away; I could nearly touch the scars and barnacles with my hand. My very own grey whale, slowly diving, just to resurface again and again and again.