Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Breathing is good. It gets me through the day. Occasionally, on days like today, I focus intently on breathing.

This morning I struggled with a piece due tomorrow, tried to catch up on four days' worth of backlogged submissions for the book, fit in speech therapy for Snuggler, dealt with kids' leftover emotions from Eldest's departure, edited some truly gnarly pieces, battled the piece due tomorrow again, and then... then I got an email about the book asking if the deadline is 10/1.

No. The deadline is 11/5. That's 67 days from now, and I need every one of them. 

So I breathe. In and out, in and out. Big-belly breaths, slow and focused. I cannot afford the luxury of panic; freaking out wastes time. I breathe purpose and calmness into my heart. I re-find my center, re-find my equanimity. Being a praying person, I pray as I breathe, inhaling the consolation and companionship that are as essential to me as air. Ten years from now I will not remember the details of today's stress, but I will (hopefully) still be breathing.

It helps to focus on the things that will last.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Hey Mom, I can read this now!"

Little Guy is my late reader. I guess he's not late on average, just late within our family of early-reading kids. He can read, but he doesn't. I'm not sure why, and have wondered about visual tracking problems and dyslexia. When you grow up in a house with roughly 8,000 books and six avid readers, it's a little unusual not to be a reader yourself.

For our trip to deliver Eldest to college I bought Little Guy a short book about Star Wars. He read it, happily. I guess it boosted his confidence. Tonight he was curled up with another book while I read Olive Kitteridge on the other side of the room. He looked up and smiled. "Hey Mom, I can read this now!" he said.

The Essential Calvin and Hobbes

It's a long way from Dick and Jane!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Delivering Eldest

Before we dropped Eldest off at college we took care of some important details.We blew bubbles, to recall the flyaway years of her childhood...

And (because college is a serious thing), we tested gravity...

And we made sure Eldest was prepared to construct her future...

Then we went to her dorm, and installed her in her 'shoebox single'...


We went back to visit a few times, bearing gifts of convenience (namely everything that didn't fit into her two suitcases) and pleasure. Eldest seemed glad to see us each time, though also happy to be there. She has made several friends, found out which a capella group specializes in nerdy songs, gone on a top-secret midnight tour of something I can't mention because I'm sworn to silence, and talked herself out of being nervous about tomorrow's multivariable calc placement test. We met her for church this a.m., and met a girl who's the eldest of seven, and another girl who's one of five (both in her dorm). 

Our last farewell was sudden and fleeting. Snuggler cried for 40 minutes, and then we went and bought excellent ice cream. There were more tears on the bus ride home. We arrived, distributed college t-shirts to all and sundry, and ate the Godiva chocolates I'd brought. Chocolates are a good thing to have around when a lot of people are sad and lonely.

On the Road

We're heading home today, minus Eldest. Snuggler and Little Guy and I have been staying outside Boston with my wonderful friend Kate, while Eldest adapts to her new life at college.

Miraculously, Eldest has a single room. Except for the time before Big Guy was born, she's always shared. A single is a good thing for an introvert; she can shut her door, retreat, find quiet, recover. I guess you learn how to do that without a door when you have four siblings, but at college not everyone follows the same house rules, and there's no parent to restore order when things get chaotic. The single room is a good thing.

We are meeting Eldest for church today, eating brunch, and then hopping on the bus. More later

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Big Guy was in bad shape yesterday. He was in his "the world would be better off without me" mindset: desperate, hard, sullen, feeling wronged, impenetrable to reason or love. It scares me when he's like that, and his unreachability makes me insane.

Big Guy has a mental front-wheel alignment problem. The official term for it is distorted thinking; for most people the problem is resolved with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. We've had years of that, with only modest improvement. Big Guy needs his interpretations of events and thoughts constantly corrected, because his anxiety and mood issues warp and bend reality. He is prone to impossible tautologies. Yesterday he believed no one loved him, that he was unloveable, that nothing could be done about it. I asked what evidence would be sufficient to prove he was loved. He replied, emphatically, "Nothing could prove that!" When no evidence is admissable, it's hard to make a case. It's maddening, not to mention exhausting.

I suppose if Big Guy was unrelated to me I would shrug and walk away, leaving him to his own devices. I'm his mother, though, and at night I sob, bemoaning the crippling of my beautiful son. Yesterday I became so frustrated that I did physically walk off, snapping, "Don't talk to me! I need to cool off!" Fortunately we had a solid mile to go to our destination. That was sufficient distance to burn off a goodly amount of adrenaline, and to send up a hundred little prayers.

When I am angry, I need to burn it off. At home I tend to clean house furiously; when I'm out, I tear down the sidewalk. Deep anger builds a barricade around my heart: I want to be mad, I have a right to be mad, and I'm darn well going to be mad. There is no reasoning with me at those times, and I've learned that the only legitimate course of action is to get physically busy, and keep my mouth shut.

It dawns on me today that being in the midst of real fury is probably somewhat akin to being in Big Guy's head. When I allow my anger to pass, I can look back and can see how I got stuck, how anger grew to dominate my body and brain, how easily I justified myself, how I rejected sensible input and neglected to consider all angles. I can see all this because I'm outside it. Big Guy doesn't get completely outside his distorted thinking often.

When I finally calmed down yesterday, after racing many blocks and sending up many requests for help, my brain cleared. I turned to Big Guy and asked quietly, "Out of all of you, how much is really worth hating?"

Ten minutes earlier he probably would have snarled, "All of it!" But he was able to stop and think (trying to keep up with me probably helped lower his adrenaline level), and admitted, rather surprised, "Not much."

"Then let's just work on that little piece," I said, "And we can love the rest."

Friday, August 20, 2010

The mornings are cool enough that the kids are complaining if I don't bake breakfast. They are tired of cereal and toast. I might ignore their clamoring for another week, but Dancer is in the midst of a two-week ballet intensive, dancing five or more hours a day, and I'm a bit nutrition-obsessive on her behalf. So I made cheddar biscuits today.

Once Big Guy was out the door and Dancer's hair was done, I sat down to get some work done. Except this morning I found myself browsing books on Amazon, instead. This is a bad sign. I resort to book shopping the way some women shop for shoes. When I'm hurting, footwear is irrelevant to my emotional life; what I crave is mental stimulation. I had $68.42 worth of merchandise in my cart before I realized I was trying to buy my way into a better state of mind. So I sighed, and finally got around to sending in the order for the younger kids' school curricula instead. Then I wrote up our official homeschooling plans, and mailed them off. Then I paid some overdue bills, to hammer home the need for fiscal restraint.

It didn't subdue my inner howl, but at least I got a few things checked off my to-do list. Eldest leaves for school in less than a week. She's ready, I'm ready, and everyone else bursts into sobs periodically. To make the week more interesting, we go for a placement interview for Big Guy on Monday. It's at one of the two facilities that might be able to meet his needs. We have another important meeting about him the day before we get on the bus to Boston.

Under the circumstances, buying a good book is probably a reasonably healthy coping mechanism. I'm in the mood for non-fiction. Recommendations, anyone?

Thursday, August 19, 2010


When we adults get insomnia, we immediately clue into the possibility that we're anxious about something. When kids can't get to sleep, we often think they're getting out of bed for the 26th time because they don't understand the house rules.

We've had a lot of late nights -- really late nights -- around here lately. Little Guy can't get to sleep until 11 or 12pm, and often needs to be held in order to settle down. Snuggler is up and down and in and out of bed endlessly, eventually collapsing on the sofa while listening to Bach. Big Guy tends to read until he can't possibly stay awake any more. It's anxiety.

I've often said I'm a bad mommy after 9pm. I lack the patience to soothe and snuggle; I have no energy to help my children unpack their feelings. The things I'm good at during the day -- like remembering that a kid's behavior is a form of communication -- get buried in the brain fuzz that proliferates in my head in the evening. I don't want to understand why my kids are awake. I want them to go to sleep. I want to love how adorable they look in peaceful slumber, instead of loving them by being patient and understanding of their night worries.

I know anxieties grow in the dark. Nighttime nourishes two-bit worries like mutant Miracle-Gro, causing apprehension to shoot up and threaten to swallow us. When you are six or nine or even fourteen, you do not remember that the same worries will feel smaller again in the morning. All you know is that they are big and scary now, and that nothing you do seems to make them go away. Night fears are the emotional equivalent of an earworm, singing a song of helplessness and distress.

I know this. And I still wish my kids would stay in bed and cope (or not cope) and just lie there quietly even if you can't go to sleep! Perhaps part of the reason is that I don't have a magic wand, and even when I muster the strength to be patient and comforting, it doesn't always solve the problem. Insomnia is largely irrational. Night is dark. We can't see what we need to. Sometimes, the only cure is waiting it out.

But Bach helps. "Polar bear breathing" helps. Snuggles help. Prayer helps. And being a well-rested mommy helps a lot.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I love Eldest

Eldest is a pretty spectacular big sister. She had her non-graduation party on Saturday, and turned down our offer to take her siblings elsewhere for the duration. She didn't get annoyed when 9yo Snuggler and 6yo Little Guy hung out with her friends. (To their credit, her friends didn't mind, either. They were great kids, fun and funny.)

Eldest is Big Guy's best friend, and a real lifeline for him. She is Dancer's favorite person; two years ago when Eldest went on her annual trip to Cousin Susan's, she asked if she could bring Dancer along the following year. She likes hanging out with her sibs. Snuggler adores her. Little Guy is sad that Eldest is going away to school, though he's nearly a decade younger than she is. 

I was the eldest in my family, so I have no experience with what it's like being left behind when an older sister leaves for college. I wasn't as attentive a big sister as Eldest, so perhaps my siblings didn't care that much. My kids care. Oh, how they care!

Tomorrow is Eldest's birthday, and I am infinitely honored to have been her mother all these years. I like my girl, and love her, and admire her. She makes it easy for me to feel like a good mom. People ask me if I'm worried about sending my daughter off to college so young, and my answer is no. I am confident that Eldest can make mistakes and recover from them, and that's the acid test for independence.

Besides, with Skype and cell phones and email and blogs, distance isn't quite what it used to be.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I am trying to convince myself that the reason I hand new technology over to my 11 year old is because she's so quick to get things done, not because my brain is degenerating. Yesterday someone gave us a webcam. I immediately handed it to Dancer. She figured out the hardware, downloaded the software, signed up for Skype, signed her sister up for Skype, and tonight is having a video call with a friend from around the corner.

If it were left to me, the webcam would be installed sometime next year.

We bought new cell phones a couple of months ago, and within 24 hours Dancer knew every feature of hers. I live on a need-to-know basis with my phone (which is far less sophisticated), and when I need to know I ask Dancer.

I'm not a Luddite, but I'm not a fast adopter. I like to wait and see what's truly helpful; I'm leery of adding anything that creates more interruptions or distractions. I thought Skype would be useful for when Eldest goes away to college; it will be nice to see her as well as hear her. The friend who gave us the webcam assures me his elderly father in Florida uses Skype every week to talk to him, and that even a technical twit (like me?) can manage it.

Meanwhile, I'm considering learning how to use speed dial.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Flipping the switch

Fifteen and a half years ago, Andrew's dad lay dying in the hospital. We went to visit him daily, because each day looked like it was going to be his last. Each time the phone rang, whether at work or at home, it triggered the thought, This could be it! We lived in a state of high alert, constantly poised for the next stage of bad news.

After about two weeks we were exhausted. So one night we gave ourselves permission to skip going to the hospital, forgiving ourselves in advance if it turned out that Dad chose that day to die. There's only so long you can live in a state of crisis, after all. At some point your coping-with-emergency system starts to fizzle, and it occurs to you to flip on the switch labeled "It's Gonna Happen When it Happens, And in The Meantime I've Got to Live My Life."

About a week ago I gave myself permission to move out of crisis mode with the Big Guy issue. I decided that -- even if each of us is still toting around an emotional elephant or two -- I would be stronger for the next stage of potential catastrophe if I gave myself a break. (What did you do for summer vacation? I chose not to stay in a state of red alert.) This was a good thing.

This week I scheduled all kinds of appointments that need to happen, but for obvious reasons haven't. It's refreshing to check off mundane errands and tasks. Mundane feels good.

I've worked intensely on my book. What a pleasure to have a big project to focus on! I relish reading excellent work -- I have three or four writers who are terrifically good -- and I'm learning to enjoy the mental challenge of fixing (or suggesting how to fix) mediocre pieces.

I've pared down Eldest's going-off-to-college supply list to manageable proportions. I've comforted Snuggler when she sobs and sobs about having Eldest move away. (I'd been doing that, but as the reality draws closer, the sobbing grows louder.)

I've realized the house hasn't been properly cleaned in two months, but I haven't gotten around to that. I allocate an hour or so a day to it, but my kids' rate of creative chaos (especially while I'm working) exceeds any effort to make substantive progress.

This morning we're temporarily back in the trenches, as we take Big Guy to a pivotal appointment to get an expert opinion of what's going on. I have no specific hopes or fears this morning, other than the hope that the expert is insightful... and correct in his evaluation. We won't know the results for another week, maybe two.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I took Snuggler to a doctor's appointment today, and while we were waiting I picked up a magazine. It was a women's mag, the kind that looks the same no matter what the season. There are the usual pieces on sexy hair, inexpensive fashion looks, whether your man really loves you, how to get more organized, healthy meals that won't break your budget, and how to get the raise you deserve. Oh -- and there's always a featured interview with someone I've never heard of.

As I flipped through the pages it dawned on me that a lot of people -- a lot of people -- must care about this stuff. Here's how out of sync I am:

  • I don't think I've ever, in my entire life, had a discussion with a girlfriend about sexy hair. 
  • My wardrobe comes back into fashion every ten years (and I'm annoyed if it wears out before then). 
  • I wouldn't trust a quiz written by a 25-year old assistant editor to tell me if my man loves me. What does she know about it that I don't know?
  • When I see an article on organizing my home written by a mother of more than five kids, I'll read it.
  • Inexpensive, healthy meals consist of cabbage and carrots and squash in the winter, and plenty of green stuff and fruit in the summer. Make it yourself, and there's nothing to write about.
  • If you deserve a raise, ask for it. Have Plan B in place for when they say no. 'Nuff said.
There. Now that that crankiness is out of my system, just keep me away from the parenting magazines.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The cost of letting kids entertain themselves

Snuggler and Little Guy were busy today, so absorbed in their play that I worked for almost six hours, uninterrupted. This is the living room, this evening:

The tent was a clubhouse. The paper was needed to make hats for every stuffed animal in the house. Here is a sampling of the output:

I did not take pictures of the bathroom after the kids' two-hour bathing-suit bath, because I do not own an underwater camera. I did not take pictures of Little Guy's room, because I am afraid to open the door. Some things you just don't want to know.


The other day I walked over to the bank to get money, so that I could go to the grocery store to get food. Upon arrival I discovered that Andrew still had my bank card. I called home to grouse at my spouse, forgetting that Snuggler had gone for a walk with a friend and brought along the home (cell) phone. I walked back to the house, picked up the bank card, walked back to the bank, and went to the store. Bought hamburger and corn on the cob for supper. Got home, and discovered I picked up hot dog rolls by mistake. Aggravation led to invention, and what we ate that night was


This morning's conversation

"Mom, I don't think this box is big enough to make a transmogrifier! I'll have to make a time machine, instead."

"Uhh-huh. Okay."

"But then I'll have to make the vortex goggles..."

Thanks to Calvin & Hobbes, I'm off the hook for today's activities.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I spent the morning taking Eldest and Dancer to the airport; they are flying out to visit my cousin in Vermont for six days. You know: fresh air, maple syrup, picking blueberries, making pies -- that sort of thing. This is the fourth year Eldest has gone, and the second for Dancer. They love it, and my cousin, who is mom to two grown boys, loves having a week of girls.

My two girls sat on the train en route to the plane, sharing earbuds, being silly together. Eldest is old enough that we do not have to pay an unaccompanied minor fee now; the girls will travel alone. I looked at them and thought, There isn't a word for what I feel right now. Love. Loss. Pride. Worry. All those feelings mixed into one curiously empty lump huddled somewhere above my stomach and below my heart.

We arrived at the airport, and suddenly they were heading into the line for security, and it was time to say goodbye. A moment -- too fast, and yet not quick enough to prevent a surge of emotion -- a peck on the cheek, and they were gone. I found myself a chair off to the side somewhere and settled in with my laptop, waiting for their phone call to let me know they had cleared security, waiting for the alien feeling of empty-nestiness to subside.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thinking it through

A long while back I was a moderator for our local homeschooling email list. Where we live, the range of types of homeschoolers is about a wide as it's possible to get. The challenge of the email list was to preserve a modicum of civil discourse when militant unschoolers ran up against people who believed in curriculum and lesson plans.

There was one woman on the list who was particularly difficult. I'll call her Za. She was vociferous, a wannabe anarchist, someone who hit the 'send' button every time a feeling made its way across one of her synapses. Za's way of coping with life was to say whatever came to mind, especially if it was outrageous and convoluted. It's probably unnecessary to add that she felt no compulsion to consider how she said things; she was provoking in the extreme. Otherwise sensible people jumped in to argue against her, until eventually someone untangled the mess and peace was restored.

It took me a while to realize that Za had fine-tuned a method of getting other people to do her thinking for her. But at what a cost! It appalled me that Za was willing to incense others rather than spend a while thinking through her feelings herself. Fortunately (for us, at least), Za ended up putting her kids in school, and she disappeared from our email list. 

I hadn't thought about Za in years until this morning, as I was editing an article that clearly hadn't been thought through. Did the writer mean this, or that? Was he leading toward point A or point B? Was there a point? And if there was, why was I the one who had to find it? I abandoned the effort to fix things, and wrote an email to the writer asking for clarification, instead.

Clarity is good. I like clarity. There are times in life when the fog rolls in, and there's not much we can do about it. It's far more common, though, for us to live in a fog of our own creation. We don't always take the time to figure out what we're feeling, or why. Just a tiny bit of introspection goes a long way toward making the world a better place. As I say to my kids, think through it before you do it. It helps.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Walking with my daughter

Eldest and I went for a long walk last night. For the first mile or so we didn't say much. I was grateful for that; it's wearisome when everything has to be meaningful and interactive. Sometimes the quality we seek in quality time is being rather than experiencing. Comfortable silence is very much okay. Especially with your 15-year old.

Eldest told me that she realized recently she is a quirky kid. She was pleased with that. I was pleased, too; quirky is a fine label, one that allows her to be true to herself and yet accommodate her various interests. One thing I appreciate about Eldest is that she has interests. She likes roller coasters and Facebook, but she also reads, writes, makes her siblings laugh, draws a bit. and has spent an hour or more each day this summer doing math. She thinks. I value that in anyone, and especially in my daughter.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Kid Drama

Little Guy put on a puppet show today. It was a Star Trek feature, with paper bag puppets "that were re-mastered" (he colored in the clothing). He set up chairs in the living room, with place cards and a personal bag of popcorn for each of us. Little Guy's bag was labelled 'Staff'.

The drama was called "The Shimmering Veil". One scene went something like this:
Kirk: Mwahhhhaaahhhaaahhhaaaa!
Romulan: Hey, I was supposed to be the one with the evil laugh!

Another scene:
McCoy: WHAT is it?
Kirk: That Romulan's face is blue!
McCoy: No it isn't!
Kirk: Yes it is!
McCoy: Well, whoop-de-do!

The plot development was a little thin, but there was a story line. The ad breaks were amusing. And what's parenting without an endless supply of kid-produced shows? 

Our last first lost tooth