“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” ~ Michelangelo
I took the girls to the dentist yesterday, and while Lexi was shuffling through an abundant sticker supply, wondering aloud where the princess stickers were, and while Caroline was meticulously comparing from the treasure chest the colors of two tiny superballs (whichever one picked destined to be lost forever beneath our refrigerator), the account manager from behind the desk sat staring at us. I figured I owed her money, but all she said as she looked at my girls was, “They are beautiful.”
When people say something nice about what my children look like, I don’t know whether to say, “Thank you” or “I agree.”
Besides the obvious initial part played in creating a child, the rest is accidental, arbitrary, crazily out of our hands.
As my girls grow, I see similarities between them and me. Lexi has my fine hair; they both have the blue eyes. I was helping out in Caroline’s art class yesterday and watched her get the giggles like I used to—the ones that bubble up, linger, sleep somewhat restlessly, then surface again. I remember the delight and desperation of those giggles. I was staring at me in Caroline’s art class. And Lexi (lordee!)–Youngest Sibling Sass swam directly from my gene pool to hers.
We are alike but of course different. Caroline’s chocolate hair is thick, curly when it’s short. She’s organized a folder full of plans for her 7th birthday party, key distinguishing feature there is the word, “organized.” And Lexi is a scrappy little athlete, unafraid of anything, it seems. Key distinguishing feature there is the word, “unafraid.” I will not argue—my children are beautiful. But I’ve got little to do with it. I didn’t craft them out of wood or sketch them in ink.
I saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence.
I remember learning what Michelangelo said about his process: that he could see the shape of the sculpture in a slab of marble, that he only needed to chip away the walls imprisoning the form. He set David free, as he set free centaurs, Hercules, Cupid, Brutus, and a half dozen Madonnas.
The thing about David is though eventually becoming Michelangelo’s project, he was begun 25 years earlier by Agostino—and then Rossellino. After being roughly sculpted, David stayed stagnant in his slab of rock until Michelangelo convinced the Board of Works for the Cathedral of Florence that he was their guy. Michelangelo never had kids of his own, but after over two years of work, finally, he brought David to life.
I’m attempting to knit again. My mom taught me when I was a kid, and I remember liking the therapy of it: steady motion, something to distract me, the satisfaction of seeing immediate progress. My patient friend Betsy is helping me relearn, and when I get it, I am relaxed. But when I drop a stitch, I am stopped in my tracks. There is no vision. I see no potential scarf in that ball of yarn. I cannot improvise and by doing so, set the scarf free. I call Betsy.
I marvel at her skill. I do. Just like I look with complete admiration at Dave when he skis down a mountain. It’s the same with any artist—Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar, Cliff Lee from the pitcher’s mound, Marilynne Robinson as she sculpts her sentences. There’s vision and skill, and shaping and crafting. There’s so much involved, but to the artist it is natural.
A lot of parenting comes naturally but any vision I may have had about what my children would look like or be was just that–a vision, a rough sketch, an outline. As I see them now, what’s clear is that it’s not entirely my artist’s hand at work. There is a part of me that feels we were meant to be, that we came together after all of those years like Michelangelo and David. But I cannot predict what my children will do; I can hardly claim ownership even now that they are here with me. I do not think, They are mine, so Lexi will laugh like a machine gun while Caroline will speak extra slowly during nightly prayers in order to delay bedtime.
They are who they are, and much of my work is to sit back and appreciate them, like I would paintings on a museum wall. I have to just take them in, because eventually, I have to set them free. Much of my work is to spend this time, on a cushioned bench, gazing with good, long looks, as they stand before me.
“What happened!?” Dave said as he ran towards the kitchen, though the better question—and the one implied by his facial expression—upon seeing flames exploding from the toaster oven, might have been, “How the hell did you let this happen?” We could still make out the shape of the eight hard tacos, each cupped within the other, burning in effigy. It was fairly obvious what had happened. Caroline ran up to her room in search of her two favorite stuffed animals, screaming “I CAN’T FIND BLUE BEAR! I CAN’T FIND BLUE BEAR!” on her way back down. I could see her in my periphery, dancing like a boxer in a ring. Dave unplugged the toaster; I passed him a bag of flour and he doused much of the fire in seconds. As soon as possible, armored with hand mitts, Dave carried the destroyed toaster to its temporary resting place in our back yard.
I had been dicing tomatoes for Taco Tuesday, my back turned to the toaster. I had been distracted because I was going in the following day for eye surgery.
And of course I was thinking about Oedipus, who blinded himself by gouging his eyes with his mother’s brooch. I was thinking, I suppose I understand why he did that, but how could he have done that? And then I was thinking, but wait, I’m choosing to go in tomorrow so that someone whom I’ve met only twice can shoot lasers at both of my eyes. And I’m actually going to spend money in order for this to happen.
As it turned out, the most worrisome part of the day was the three-hour wait for a sixty-second procedure. The most disturbing part of the day was that I had to watch a Ricki Lake violent crimes episode while I was waiting. I was thinking, rather than the faces of my children, what if these were the last faces I would ever see. These will be my final images before I go blind or possibly die, according to the paperwork I had just signed. At the very least, I was wishing for Out of Africa or something else cinematically breathtaking to appear onto the big screen in front of me.
Valium arrived like a holiday.
And then a nice doctor shot lasers at both of my eyes.
It felt as if I were in a rocket or a racecar, my head back and strapped. There was machinery noise. My vision grayed and blackened while my eyes remained open and then reappeared to a pulsing red light. All the while, the doctor’s confident, calm voice talked me through from somewhere beyond me.
The girls were with me for several of the follow-up appointments because Dave had to drive: I wore sunglasses even inside and could faintly make out Caroline’s smile as she carried on about her “Twizzler phase” and the streak of pink hair on Lexi’s mermaid Barbie doll, Merliah. Lexi warned Dave not to hug me or he’d get “the eye.” She was two-weeks deep into her dinosaur unit at the time, but for Show and Tell that Friday, she planned to bring Merliah.
I would have brought my eye doctor.
Not only had she helped me regain my vision, but she kept telling me to “rest” and “take it easy.” After my contact bandages were removed, I was to go home and nap for four to five hours. It was luxury. And then it just became silly. I couldn’t read or write. I listened to one movie on the television. But mainly, I tuned into podcasts on Pandora–I discovered “The Dinner Party” from American Public Media, developed a crush on the handsome, humorous voices of the two hosts, Rico Gagliano and Brendan Newnam. I anticipated the segments—the “cocktails” that guest bartenders create to match a moment in history, the “eavesdrop” spot when writers read from their latest works, the celebrity visits. These are Dinner Parties I aspire to attend, I thought as I continued to lounge in my Christmas tree flannel pjs, dreaming of the future—parties without mini tater tots. We would converse; we would listen, we would enlighten.
I couldn’t read or write, but wickedly, I could clean. I was mid-way through Day Three of imposed rest, having just scrubbed every bathroom and washed and folded every shred of laundry. Girls’ closets had been rearranged by color. Kitchen Tupperware was on-deck but I decided to again rest my eyes, so I tuned into a podcast from LA Public Radio.
An essayist, Daniel Mendelshon, was reading a piece he’d written from his collection, The Ecstasy of Influence. I thought I might pick up some modern day tips, but his focus was on the Greeks, and the misconception that once someone like Sophocles had written a play, it remained unchanged and untouched, set in stone like the playwright’s bust set in marble at the Musei Capitolini. In reality, read Mendelshon, even back then, storytellers tampered with other storytellers’ stories.
And one of his examples was the Oedipus tale.
I was obviously beyond stir-crazy, because when I heard Oedipus, it was like getting a phone call from an old friend. I said excitedly through the imaginary phone line, “I was JUST thinking about you, Oedipus!”
I listened more and heard this—Sophocles’ Oedipus violently blinds himself (this I knew), but only twenty years later, Euripides writes of an Oedipus who loses his sight through injury rather than self-infliction (this I probably should have known). Euripides tweaked the story and made Sophocles’ tragedy a little less tragic.
And for reasons as unclear as my eyesight, this anecdote made me feel better.
Please, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing tragic about affording the time and cost of eye surgery. My point is that self-imposed temporary blindness has temporarily provided me with a new perspective.
I am a worrier by nature, and especially in the dead of winter, though there are moments of clarity, for me there is mainly blur. So I am attaching myself to this word, “adapt,” this notion that our stories will shift and alter. I am attaching myself to a Life Less Tragic.
My eyesight is improving, doing so in the slowest of increments—but I can see—and what an unveiling it has been: the crisp red cheeks of my daughters just home from the first sled of the season, the flash of a cardinal, the punch of a green street-sign I was never before able to read outside of my bedroom window . . . which brings to mind the final lines of one of my favorite James Joyce stories, one, by the way, that features a most famous literary Dinner Party.
Allow me to adapt:
A few light taps upon the pane made me turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. I watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. Yes, the Weather Channel was right: snow was general all over Maryland. It was falling on every part of the treeless hills, falling softly, softly falling, faintly falling too, upon the hill where the abandoned toaster lay.
“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
We just completed our first photo shoot as family. We’ve seen the sun shining on the changing leaves maybe once on a Sunday this fall, but today was the day—we finagled good weather on a weekend. The colors were stunning. Caroline posed like a professional, which was a tad alarming since she has surely acquired a relaxed relationship with the camera by celestial means. Neither Dave nor I take to cameras with anything resembling ease, but Caroline was a natural, and Lexi, naturally, had no interest in looking at anything but the pine needles blanketing the path. We wouldn’t have been out there by a dilapidated barn in the middle of a Maryland field, had it not been for baby Oliver, our painfully cute soon-to-be-one-year-old neighbor. Dave and I saw black and white photos of Oliver, and even though Oliver himself is picture perfect, we could not believe how well the shots highlighted his adorableness. “Did Liz take these?”
“Yes, she’s great,” said Mom-of-Oliver (named Corrie), which now leads me to a thoroughly researched, earth-shatteringly thought-provoking thesis: Some moms got mad skills. But, who would know it when all we talk about are these darn kids????
It could not have been raining heavier last Thursday when Caroline, Lexi and Mom-of-Caroline and Lexi (that would be me), struck out on our own, two of us donning matching Hello Kitty rain boots, and three wearing gear appropriate for the temperate rain forest in which we’re apparently now residing. After exactly 1 and ½ minutes of complete dousing, we arrived at the house of Mom-of-Hayden (named Susanne) for playgroup. She had been all worked up about hosting because some of our kids are toddlers. She worried that Hayden—a wee babe—might not have the appropriate toys to keep the three-year-olds entertained. Hanging like monkeys on newly cleaned drapery, oddly enough, kept the kids happy and the moms refilling the wine glasses. We attempted conversations, as three-year-olds pin-balled across the living room, tripping over two-year-olds with babies cushioning their falls. “So, how was New York?” Mom-of-Charlotte and Jacqueline (named Lee) screamed to me from across the room.
“Oh it was—hey, Caroline, leave Austin alone.”
“But we’re having fun!”
“Well, no, actually, I don’t think Austin is having fun. You’re cackling in his ear. Step away. Anyway, what I was saying?”
Mom-of-Hayden had baked some serious banana bread, and because fruit is good for me, I was well into my third piece when Mom-of-Owen and Cameron (named Jordan) released into the air a few words about her own pending trip to NYC. Something about a girls’ weekend and something about—well, I didn’t catch the rest as aforementioned toddlers speed-skated into the kitchen to discover that the unique spill proof system on the DrinkMoreWater water cooler was not, in fact, spill proof. Zamboni required. And a quick exit. “Sorry, Susanne. We’ve been a little cooped up.” It’s not only that I want to have a complete conversation with friends in the neighborhood, but I’d like to do so without a child pole-dancing around my legs. And that banana bread. Susanne makes a mean banana bread. What other magical foods of hers might I sample, if only we had more time?
The following Monday, I had just finished consulting the treadmill about three slices of banana bread and had then taken the girls to the playground, when Mom-of-Owen and Cameron drove by. I asked her how she did in the race she’d run over the weekend. “Did you win it?” I joked.
“Well, actually, yea, I did,” she said. “First in my age group.”
“What???!!!” I didn’t know she was a runner. “What was your time?” She told me. “That’s a 7 minute mile! I had no idea!”
“I ran track in high school,” she said as Owen began his sit-down-strike against the Subaru safety feature that prevents a complete window roll down. He couldn’t get a clear visual of Caroline and Lexi, so he gave us all a clear audio. “Gotta run!” said his mom. “Owen’s tired.”
And so am I—of sometimes feeling that I know more about my friend’s parenting strategies than I know about my friends. Jordan and I spend at least 42 hours a week together and I was pretty secure in the knowledge that she was a volleyball player. For all I know, Robyn is recognized in other circles for her translations of Petrarchan sonnets from Italian into English. Cheryl may have swum the 50 meter free in the 2000 Olympics. Though it is helpful at times to discuss potty training techniques or vent about a child’s penchant for cheap-shotting the neighbor’s Chihuahua, it is helpful also to talk about other things. That’s how I made friends in the past. That’s how, presumably, I’ll make friends in the future. I must continue to practice basic social etiquette. When I meet someone, I must avoid asking how old her child is in months.
Caroline, Lexi, and I made it to story time at the mall a few months back. The woman reading was soliciting audience participation as she paged through a cutesy animal tale. “What does a cow say?” All of the mothers looked lovingly at their little ones, saying, “Moooooooo.” There was lot of “Meowwwwwing” and “Oinking” going on between respective parents and children. Pottery Barn Kids is a bit cleaner than my house and is a short walk to Starbucks, but other than that, I might as well have been in my own home since I was only interacting with my own children. Oftentimes it really is hard to communicate with other mothers because I get worried that my kid is going to fall off a chair, disappear, or –god forbid—yell out “QUACK!” when the reader asks what an elephant says. So I was trumpeting emotively into Lexi’s face when, suddenly, beside me, a mother who’d been sitting quietly with her infant throughout most of the reading, made the most realistic elephant noise I have ever heard from a non-elephant. It was miraculous. It was exquisite. I cannot over-emphasize how remarkable this elephant sound was. All I wanted to do at that moment was congratulate her. I would have asked her, “Is there a class for that?” I would have insisted that we become friends, but in an instant, the woman reading was closing up shop and doling out stickers. In an instant, Lexi was yelling “QUACK!” while falling off of her chair, as Caroline disappeared into a sea of pink pastel kitchen utensils. In an instant, the elephant mom was gone.
Staying home with Caroline and Lexi can be lonely work. I have been known to lose my sense of humor, especially after three full days of rain. I’ve lost my sense of self on occasion during the last three years, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. People often say that this time is short—when your kids are young—and that the rest of your life will happen soon enough. Believe me, I’ve waited a long time to have these gorgeous girls, and I refuse to rush into any next stage, but I’d like to avoid pushing the pause button altogether. It’s possible to raise and love your kids, while also maintaining past friendships and creating new ones. It’s possible for a mother of three to bake muffins for a new friend when that new friend has a child in the hospital. It’s possible to hire a sitter and then spend a couple of hours talking to someone about all the cool jobs she’s had—all the wonderful places she’s traveled. It’s possible to raise two rowdy boys during the week and then win a fun run on the weekend. It’s possible to drive carpool on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, in your few free moments, take beautiful photographs. Mad Skills.