Helplessness feels terrible.  Like flailing arms and legs, smacking against  anything close by and bruising the skin without knowing how to stop.  Watching coverage of the Waldo Canyon fires this summer was heart-breaking.  I have many friends in Colorado Springs, and I worried for their homes, as well as their lives, as the flames jumped Queens Canyon and shot down the mountain.  Witnessing devastation on such a large scale, when it’s impossible to help, hurts the heart.
          Feeling helpless yourself is awful, too.  I had an abscessed tooth in the fall and I felt more helpless than any time I can remember since being a kid..  There was no way to breathe through the pain as I had done in childbirth.  No way to get away from it at all.  It was in my head, throbbing and constant and exponentially worsening every twenty minutes.  Waiting until morning when the dentist’s office opened was torture, and it shook my nerves to feel so fragile.  But that’s still not the worst.
          The worst kind of helpless is for someone you love. Someone right in front of you, close enough to touch but who feels miles away when you can’t do anything to help the pain.  My four-year-old daughter Lily had mono last winter, and along with it, hives which recurred for two and a half months.  Not every day, but most, and it was a sad thing to watch.  I remember once lying with her in the middle of the night while she cried inconsolably from the itching.  I had woken up to her cries and gone to see what was wrong.  It was too dark to see the state of her skin, and I didn’t want to wake up my son who shares her room, so I got a flashlight to assess the damage.  When I shone the light on her little leg I gasped at the sight.  Big, red welts all over.  As I moved the light across her body – to her other leg, her arms, her neck and face, her feet – every bit was covered in itchy blotches.  She looked diseased.  My heart broke for her and I wanted to cry, too.
          I ran downstairs and looked up home remedies for hives online.  There wasn’t much.  A cool washcloth, Benadryl (which hadn’t helped before), some herbs I didn’t have.  I tried the washcloth, but cold and wet on top of itchy was not what she wanted; she only cried harder.  As she tossed and flailed her arms and legs around I recognized the same feeling within myself.  Knowing that there was nothing I could do to help, no remedy available that I could administer, made my heart flail.  My mind raced, grasping for some way to make it better.  My little girl who during the day can make me crazy with the number of times I have to ask her to put on her shoes, who causes me to employ deep breathing just to get through her tantrums, who’s favorite word is “actually,” meaning she has changed her mind about what she wants for lunch once again – this little being had my heart.  The sight of her pain rocked me.  It wasn’t life-threatening and really only had immediate consequences – no long-term problems would occur from this bout of hives – but knowing I couldn’t do a thing to help my baby girl made me ache.
          And it was good for me.
          We need to feel helpless sometimes.  It makes us humble.  Makes us realize our smallness in the wide universe.  Gets rid of our western self-centeredness.  It frees us up from trying to control everything and gives us open hands, even pleading ones – for help.  From clenched fist to open palm.  This is a lesson I have to be reminded of repeatedly, as I’m a fist-clencher by nature.  Which is why when Lily had hives and I couldn’t fix them it was good for my soul.
          Even the mom, the one in charge, the one with band-aids, and wipes, and snacks in her purse at all times, couldn’t make this one better.  It hurt, as many good-for-the-soul things do.  Pain is unavoidable in this experience we call being human.  It’s just part of the deal.  It’s our job to give it breathing room to do its thing and move on.
          That’s hard for me; I want to push pain away, to block it out, to hold on tight to my delusion of control.  But when there’s nothing to be done, helplessness is healing.  It didn’t make the hives go away (zinc pills and acupressure did that) but it made my clenched fists open up and I focused on holding my little girl, stroking her face, letting her pain breathe until it moved on.  We were helpless together, just as it should be.



Sleep or Lack Thereof

          I heard a great line on Modern Family last season.  In response to her brother Mitchell’s desire to go home early in the evening instead of going out on the town, on her one night without kids, Clare quipped, “I have three kids.  I’ve been tired since 2005.”  The staff writer who came up with that nugget of truth must be a parent.  I read online that parents of newborns lose up to 700 hours of sleep the first year of their child’s life.  Add two more infants, and all the hours of wakefulness due to kids being sick, getting cold in the night and needing to be re-covered, night terrors, and my own insomnia during three pregnancies, and DANG that’s a lot of sleep lost.  And lost cognitive ability.  The worst part is I’ve been told I won’t every fully recover.  I’m at risk for long-term sleep problems, even a change in my brain chemistry, says NPR.  That sucks.  So I suppose I’d better not wait to re-enter the world until I feel rested enough to awaken my brain from it’s hiatus.
          Actually, it’s not been turned off or out of commission, just being used differently.  The part that’s used for multitasking has been working overtime, turning my hair grey and my mood sour.  I’m watching the 2012 Olympics wondering how these people can manage working out every day, let alone hours on end each day.  I can manage gentle yoga on Mondays and Zumba on Thursdays, and that’s a good week.  I suppose if I got up earlier I could do more, but then I’m back to the lack of sleep issue.  No thank you.
          I remember when my brain was a well-oiled machine – in college all the synapses were firing.  I could write an essay, take a biology test, speak in French, retain dates and details of the Chinese Cultural Revolution all in one week, without asking a special favor of myself to kick it into high gear.  Three kids later my brain is focused on nap times, school pick-up, and how to talk Lily down from temper tantrums.  A very different lobe at work.  Flashes of the old me, the college-brained me, are starting to reoccur from time to time, and that gives me hope.  But trying to take a biology test now would take a month of prep and leave me weak and weary.
          My husband and I went out two weekends ago with some college friends and stayed up entirely too late for our oldish bodies to handle.  At 1:30 in the morning, which long ago would have been the middling hour of hanging out, but now is the I’m-about-to-die hour, we pulled into the driveway and sat motionless for a time, half sleeping, trying to gain the energy for the walk inside.  One late night and we’d had it.  That is how old we are.  That is the cost of life with three kids.  Sometimes it’s a downer.
          In a perfect world I would get enough sleep every night, I wouldn’t see new wrinkles after a day with seven tantrums, and my body and brain would regain their pre-pregnancy status.  But, and this is a big, life-encompassing BUT, if I had to choose between all that and having my kids, I’d choose them.  Without hesitation.  I’m sure almost all parents would, but it’s good to remind myself how very besotted I am with those three little people.  It’s therapeutic to recognize the stress of parenting, and comforting to commiserate with others about it, but in the end, it’s the best thing since…anything.  My son’s humor and kindness, my middle daughter’s spunk and determination, my baby girl’s utter sweetness and love of snuggling: they are worth wrinkles and brain fog and being tired all the time.  These creatures who walk and toddle around my house, who eat my food and wake me up at night, are worth every bit of energy I’ve lost.  They are better than sleep, but I recommend not reminding me I wrote that when one of them wakes me at 3 AM.
          Maybe someday, as my kids get older, I’ll regain some of the sleep I’ve lost the last eight years.  Or maybe not.  Either way, I’m glad I gave them birth.  Clare Dunphy is right.  Sometimes you need a night out to remember what it’s like to be out, denying your years-long fatigue, enjoying yourself as much as your old body will let you.  But sometimes it’s just as fun to stay in, watching a DVD, knowing the little people you love are upstairs asleep, and heading that way soon yourself.


     Looking back at E.B. White’s collection of essays the other night I was reminded of his genius, inspired by his simple yet profound style, and once again brought to my writing knees with the connection I feel to this man who is gone from the earth but still alive to me in his writing.  E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little, but I only realized this after reading his personal essays and feeling like I’d come home.
Here’s a bit from one of my favorites, about moving from his apartment in New York City:
…As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.  I look out onto Forty-eighth Street; one out of every ten passers-by is familiar to me.  After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.  They are the nameless actors who have a daily walk-on part in my play – the greatest of dramas.  I shall miss them all, them and their dogs.  Even more, I think, I shall miss the garden out back – the wolf whistle of the starling, the summer-night murmur of the fountain; the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow.  And the visiting birds of spring and fall – the small, shy birds that drop in for one drink and stay for two weeks.  Over a period of thirty years, I have occupied eight caves in New York, eight digs – four in the Village, one in Murray Hill, three in Turtle Bay.  In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation according to fortune, whim, and need.  And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.  (Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street)
     I feel it, I see it, I am completely taken into that world by his words.  And I don’t want to leave.
     There is a theme among White’s essays of his delight in familiar things.  Coming home felt good, leaving it was hard.  He rejoiced in the comfort of a recognizable landscape, a worn-in rocking chair, animals he knew well and those he merely viewed often from a window.  I have the same affinity toward the familiar.  When I moved from Kansas to L.A. after I got married, it took years to shake off the longing for home.  For the recognizable landscape of Pin Oaks and Sugar Maples, the rolling, rocky Flint Hills that offer a grassy view for miles, the older-than-the-sixties architecture, the seasons.  And in fact, the longing never left.  It calmed down and laid low, allowing me to learn to enjoy my new home for what it was, but it never died.  The Flint Hills called to me from the middle of the country, tempting me with room to breathe, and think, and write.  So when we moved back eight years after I left, there was a sigh of relief in my gut when I sat on the porch, silently watching the Sycamore’s swaying leaves shimmer in the sunlight, seeing the Cottonwood tufts float past in summer, or the fat snowflakes fall in winter.  Being back home made me calm.  Made me happy.  Made me sit still for a bit.
     But E.B. White had two “homes,” one New York City, one rural Maine.  He loved them both.  Saw the goodness and beauty in each place.  They became familiar over time.  After living in L.A. for nearly a decade it also became a part of me.  I was happy to move back to the midwest as I raised my children, but there are parts of that city which became players in my story, and I am happy to see them again at our semi-annual reunions.  The Magnolia and Palm trees lining Orange Grove Ave, the wild parrots that nested outside my bedroom window, the birds of paradise and poppies that bloomed year-round, the dependable sunshine, the absence of bugs.  I learned from living in such a different place that change is hard, but in the end it’s good.  It expands your repertoire of normal, which makes you more at home in the world.  It helps me know that wherever I live, if given time it can become home, or a home.  Perhaps no place will ever be as much a part of me as Kansas, but it’s ok to leave, to be reminded of why I love it so very much.  And then I can return and give a sigh of relief at the place I know so well.
     White writes about returning to Maine at Christmastime:
What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at the cost of seventy-five cents in tolls?  I cannot describe it.  I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three french hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.  And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spires of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do.  It was the Narramissic that once received as fine a lyrical tribute as was ever paid to a river – a line in a poem by a schoolboy, who wrote of it, “It flows through Orland every day.”  I never cross that mild stream without thinking of his testimonial to the consistency, the dependability of small, familiar rivers.  (Coming Home)
      I once took the StrengthsFinder personality test, and one of my top five strengths was Past.  In their terms that means I “like to think about the past” and I “learn by studying and researching the past”.  No surprise there.  One of my two majors in college was history, and I have always appreciated a look backward to see the present more clearly.  My love of the familiar fits right in with this Past strength – until something has a past with me, it is not familiar and therefore not as precious.
     That isn’t to say that I don’t love exploring the new – I love to travel to new places, for a chance to unwrap a different culture and see what the world holds.  I lived in Taiwan for a summer just after college, and it was a crash course in all-new-all-the-time, even though I had studied East Asian culture quite a bit in school.  It was short, but there were elements of it that became normal as I lived in Taichung.  I latched on to anything that became commonplace: the route I walked to work, the scooter ride to the village for fried rice, the nightly boba I bought in broken Mandarin.  I instinctively held tight to anything that felt typical.  Living in such a different place than I had known was exhilarating, and hard, and fascinating, and lonely and so very good for me.  It was a summer of exploration, of Taiwan and of myself.  I’m glad for the experience.  But the return, even just walking off the plane into the United States, which looked, and felt and smelled familiar, made my shoulders drop from their two-month hike up to my ears.  My body physically reacted to what I knew so well.  I was home.
     Before I moved to L.A. I could never imagine living anywhere else but Kansas (northeast Kansas to be specific), but now when I go someplace new I picture myself living there, wondering if I would enjoy it, thinking about whether this place could be another home to me.  In many places it’s possible.  (Syria, Siberia, and Branson, Missouri are a few it’s not.)  E.B. White had more than one place he called home.  He valued those places like a member of his family, or more so, the solid base beneath it.  So far I have two as well, but I imagine someday I will have more.  And perhaps, dream of dreams, someday I will write as eloquently of them as E.B. White did of his.


Long View

     Real Simple Magazine is having an essay contest, asking readers to write about their biggest regrets in life.  This got me thinking about the subject in some depth.  I know that it’s a popular view to believe in “no regrets” – that it is what it is, and you wouldn’t be the person you are now without the mistakes you’ve made in the past.  In and of itself this is true.  However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look back and evaluate.  That you can’t have insight into your past and weigh it against what you know now.
     My biggest regret is made up of a thousand tiny regrets, a thousand tiny choices I made as a child and adolescent, to not try new things, to not try hard enough.  I look back and see the experiences I missed, the things I could have done that would have made me happy, or more well-rounded, or more involved with life.  I missed so many opportunities because I let fear hold me back.  I wish I had stayed with dance as I grew up.  I took ballet for six years, and was about to start pointe.  And then I quit.  I was bored and lazy and didn’t know to try another form.  I wish I had tried out for basketball and volleyball, but out of fear I didn’t.  I refused to take piano lessons as a kid.  My parents tried to tell me I’d regret it, but I was sure they knew nothing.  I, on the other hand, knew that Who’s The Boss reruns were totally essential.  Good thing I listened to me.
     When you’re a kid, you don’t take the long view.  You take the right now view of things.  I looked ahead a day or two and saw the fun I wanted to have, or the boring things I wanted to avoid.  I didn’t want braces because in the short run it would be ugly.  Now I wish I had put up with metal mouth for a year or two to have straight teeth forever.  In the long run, that’s a pretty good deal.  So many little regrets, when added up, equal one big wish-I-woulda.  One big life lesson: take the long view.  I’m not sure I could have done that as a kid, but maybe?
     My seven year old son, Luke, and I share many of the same fears.  Trying new things, especially things that go really fast, is at the top of the list.  We talk about our fears sometimes – what they are and how to tackle them; he knows this is going to be one of his challenges in life.
     Last summer we made a trip to Silver Dollar City.  He was scared to go on the ubiquitous log ride, so I made him a deal.  If he would ride that, I’d ride the biggest roller coaster they had.  And he’d get a treat.  He rode it, saying “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this”  the whole time.  He got Dippin’ Dots for his act of bravery.  I went on Wildfire with five loop-de-loops and got a stomach ache for an hour.  But he saw me taking on something new and scary (I hid the sick feeling afterward) and he later told me he was glad he tried the American Plunge.  “Next time I bet I won’t be as scared of it,” he said with hope in his voice.  We worked on our fear together, as a team.  Because I regret mine and I’d like to help him overcome his.  It’s that simple.  He doesn’t see the long view, but I do now.  I’m trying to give him a glimpse.
     As an adult I decided to try modern dance.  But my body wasn’t as bendy as before.  I’d had a baby, my balance was wonky, and I could only go once a week.  By the time I realized life is short, it was too late.  A professional dancer I would never be, but I enjoyed my class for what it was – a chance to do something I loved while I was still able.  I played basketball as a grown up, too.  On a team of women of all ages with all sorts of reasons for playing.  Again, I wasn’t amazing, but I felt the adrenaline of blocking a shot.  In. Your. Face.
     I had learned my lesson.  I took the long view.
     Regret is a gift.  Wishing you could take back the insult, the lost opportunity, the time you threw up in your shoe after a high school party (I admit nothing) spurs you on to better things.  But you can’t stay there.  It does no good to sit and wallow in the mistakes you’ve made.  Regret is a teacher; It is a useful tool, but it is not a way of living.  The wisdom that it gives brings promise for tomorrow, if you can use it for your good and for others’.  That’s the blessing of regret.  The hope in the middle of the sadness.  So until the long view is no longer possible, I’ll be looking back, taking stock, and being thankful for second chances.

Early Morning

     On an early-morning walk with my kids, I was scrolling through my playlist for something to shake off the sleep, and Lily said “Why are you listening to music?  Don’t you want to hear the birds singing?”  Well then.  Of course I did.  I took the headphones off, put the ipod in the cup holder of the stroller and listened to the birds.  And to Luke and Lily talking the entire time.
     I should know by now that trying to listen to music while on a walk with my kids only ends in frustration, on my part and theirs.  Because as soon as Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ makes me happy to be awake,  I will begin the every-other minute routine of taking off the headphones to hear what they are asking or telling me.  About what the neighbors are doing in their back yard, why there are cracks in the sidewalk, how the rainwater drainage system works.  Until I take the headphones off one last time, with a huff, and give up.  It never ends well.
     As is normal of late, Mae pooped at the break of dawn, so she and I went on a long walk to let the others sleep.  I popped the headphones on, knowing that this time I would actually be able to listen since my third child knows the virtue of peace and quiet.  I know I’ve played a part in this, and in the fact that the other two are chatty at all times.  When Luke and Lily were babies I would have felt the need to treat the walk as a lesson in nature, or sing songs, or just comment on the weather to stimulate their brains.  Thus the constant question asking of my older two now.  But I’ve learned my lesson and just let Mae think about whatever her baby brain wishes.  She knows how to simply take things in, without commenting on it all.  She only says twelve words, so that helps.
     I started off with some Mindy Smith to ease into the morning, then switched to Jonsi to get things moving, and by the time I got to his third song I saw a bird.  I thought of Lily.  I was missing everything.
     I took the headphones off, put the ipod in the cup holder and listened.  Instantly, everything opened up.  It was as if I had been in a tunnel of noise (great noise, but…) and was suddenly let loose into the open expanse of the day.  I noticed things.  Crickets chirping, dogs’ chains jingling and their toenails clicking on the pavement.  The cool breeze.  How had I not noticed that before?  It has been 100 degrees for two weeks, so a breeze after ten in the morning is like a blow dryer.  But this was lovely.  Lovely, I tell you, and I had missed it altogether.
     For the rest of the walk I took it in.  The early risers jogging, the bunnies hopping in the grass, the dude with hair in his face who walked in slow motion and creeped me out.  It was great.  I was alive and here and part of it.  Of course I also noticed the dog poop, the old shirt left in the park, the small animal guts next to the sidewalk covered in flies.  Those things were there too, and taking it in meant including them in my day, but that’s reality.  The bad with the good.  The guts with the bunnies.  The real right now.
     My walk today hasn’t made me swear off music when I exercise.  Sometimes the music is what gets you going, or keeps you going, or helps you forget about the real right now for a bit.  Sometimes you need that.  And sometimes it’s good to go on a walk with your kids, fully knowing that they will be talking the entire way.  To give them that time, your brain, your responses as a gift of engagement in their lives.  That’s necessary, and even fun.  But there are also times that you need to be quiet and notice the world around you.  When I saw that bird, I knew today was one of them.  And my sweet baby didn’t make a peep.  Just sucked her thumb and drank her milk and enjoyed the day right along with me.

Worth It

      It’s an age-old truism, but love is hard.  Love bites, as Def Leppard would say.  And it doesn’t matter to which kind of love you refer – it’s all painful at some point.  Because for love to be real you must give your heart, fully, to someone else. You release it into someone else’s hands, give up control.  So if he leaves, or you leave, even when you know you’re coming back, you ache for that bit of your heart that’s moving in the opposite direction. That person who carries it along.  Giving yourself to someone else is risky business.
     I remember driving away from my boyfriend when I was in college.  He lived in L.A., I lived in Kansas, and the drive or flight home was always brutal.  I don’t think we were engaged yet on the particular trip I’m remembering, but I knew he was The One, so it was painful to leave.  It felt wrong, like “Hello, you’re going the wrong way!  He’s back there!”  It made me nearly hyperventilate with fear that I wasn’t going to see him for months, or maybe ever.  You never know.  Passion breeds unrealistic fears.  Panic – that’s the right word.  It was panic.
     I cried through parts of Arizona, with it’s billowy clouds and wide expanses of red sand and towering bluffs.  It was the perfect landscape for feeling my feelings – it gave my mind room to expand and breathe and think.  It rained for part of the time, too.  I composed a few love-struck poems in the span of time it took to cross that state.  And they’re good.  Thank you, Arizona.
     Last week I left my baby girl for the first time in her life.  She is just over a year old, and we had never been apart for more than a few hours, and then I left for five days.  Flying away from her I felt the same sort of pain in my chest I felt driving away from the man who is now my husband.  I have the same passion for my baby, with her bright blue eyes, her sweet smile, the darling freckle on her lower back that peeks out of her diaper when she crawls.  I’m totally in love.  It is a different kind of love, obviously, but no less real.  No less deep.  No less panic-inducing when I have to leave her behind thinking “You’re going the wrong way!  She’s back there!”
     But now I’m on my way home, and I cannot wait to see her dimpled cheek smiling at me, panting breathlessly and crawling toward me when I come in the door.   This is the part where love is wonderful.  Love lifts us up where we belong, as Joe Cocker and Ewan McGregor would say.  Where would we be without it?  In a dull, passionless, heart-numbing place of which I want no part.  Yuck.  Thank goodness for the mess and muck of love, even with the pain it can cause.  When I think of my baby girl, and the man I still adore all these years later, I know that the risk of giving your heart to someone else is absolutely worth it.



Here We Go

Welcome to my weekly column.  “What the heck is up with the name?” you may ask.  Let me explain.  I chose the name Plumb for several reasons:

1. I like the word itself, the way it sounds – the pl blend, the short u, the humming m, the silent b.  And` how it looks – lots of curved shapes with a few straight lines to balance them out.

2. Plums (minus the b) are juicy and sweet.  This might seem cliche or trite, but I don’t care: life is too.  You just have to look for the sweetness amidst the daily routine.

3. I like the idea of plumbing the depths of life as a theme for my writing here.  I want to take off the top layer of the day-to-day and discover what lies beneath, to measure the depth of the water below.  I have a husband and three children – one seven, one four and one 15 months, so my ship is fairly large and unwieldy.  The paint is chipping, the decks haven’t been swabbed in a while, and often it seems like the captain has left the thing to steer itself.  But underneath there is a whole ocean carrying it along.  It stays afloat and rides the waves whether my family pays attention or not.  I’d like to pay attention.  The waters are murky sometimes, but it’s worth doing the work to see what’s down there.  That’s where the interesting, and the funny, and the why come in – underneath.

I’ve spent the last seven years just riding along, looking over my shoulder at what we’ve sped past or gearing up for what lies ahead.  I haven’t stopped long enough to look up, out over the edge, or down below the waters at the present tense.  Now that I’ve had my third and (as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not selling my bouncy seat yet) final child, I feel the urge to take a look at what’s going on.  I feel like the fog has somewhat cleared from my mama-brain and I’d like to take advantage of the opportunity to use it.  I want to plumb the depths of life – the things that we all experience on our own, separate-but-similar ships.  The things that make us human: Beauty.  Joy.  Pain.  Humor.  Struggle.  Love of Trader Joe’s vanilla cookies and milk.  Wait, maybe that’s just me.

If taking a look at the deeper meaning of everyday life – the stuff that usually slips by unnoticed.  The juicy, sweet stuff.  If that sounds like a good way to spend a few minutes on a Monday, check out my blog each week and let’s plumb the depths.