Monday, December 26, 2011

a million tiny “no”s

On Christmas Eve, my malaise took me for a walk around town, searching for a way to fill the empty space left by the fact, incontrovertible, that my children are not at home with me baking cookies for Santa.  They were with my X and her new partner, doing whatever they do which I’d rather not think about since it doesn’t include me.  Being a middle class American, my hard-wired instinct was to fill this hole in my heart by buying more gifts for those same missing, missed kids. 

Lucky for me, I had two bits of perspective.  One: there wasn’t much money in my bank account, a common occurrence since the divorce.  Two: Facebook.  My daily checking thereof NOT usually something I like to admit to, but when it’s Christmas Eve and your little kids are making their Santa snacks at a home in which you are not welcome, Facebook really doesn’t feel like so much of a time-waster.  More like a life-saving time-filler.  You never know how long one day can be until you are missing your kids at Christmas time.

A friend had posted on Facebook that morning: “suffering pre-Christmas oscillation between anxiety about overconsumption and the desire to delight and thrill my kids. I haven't gotten my kids enough gifts! I've gotten my kids too many gifts! Aaagh!”

And remembering that post saved me.  I let my feet wander through the toy store, linger by the games shelf, and move on.  (Oh, they would love this!  But they have enough, more than enough, too much really.)  When your kids have two houses, you have to be very conscious not to compete for best Christmas, and by proxy, best parent.  Out here in the shopping frenzy of Christmas Eve, everyone was jolly, laughing, hurrying.  I had all the time in the world, not expecting my kids back until noon on the 25th, but I pretended to smile back.  My hands, seemingly disconnected from my shut-down self, browsed the bookstore shelves, allowing a few small items to pile up on a bench, but only if they seem likely to advance the progress of our slowish readers: Mad Libs for the one learning parts of speech, Hangman for the one working on simple spelling.  The honey store extracted a few more dollars as they are a local business devoted to the continued health of the honeybee population, and a few pieces of their honey taffy would fill the kids’ expectation that Santa always puts candy in stockings without adding to the corn syrup and chocolate intake that surely would have begun near dawn at their other house.

To walk through town on December 24 with a hole in your soul and emerge without an enormous sack full of crap requires an inexhaustible source of internal “no”s.  No plastic.  No made-in-far-away non-durable goods.  No non-FSC-certified paper.  No Farm Bill-subsidized corn syrup.  No clamshell cases.  No, no, no.  No pretending that “retail therapy” is anything other than just digging yourself in further, into debt, into depression, into denial that you are part of the problem.  Unless.  Unless, your profligate spending of “no”s adds up to you heading home to discover that the stockings are, in fact, just the right amount full, and the honey is sweet in a cup of tea, and your attempts to be part of the solution, however small, have made the waiting tolerable.  Because the only thing that can fill the hole, the big “yes,” will arrive.  And they will not miss for even one second any of the things you said “no” to.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Open house

“The door’s always open,” I like to say.  I like to have that kind of life, people coming and going, feeling welcome, dropping by.  Staying for a while.

But I never meant for my open door policy to be literal.

“DOOR!”  I yell, over and over, a howling refrain.  “DOOR!” as my sons run down the driveway.  “DOOR!” as my daughter heads into the bathroom. 

“I’d very much like to hear what you are saying,” I intone calmly,  “but I can’t pay attention because the door is open and all our heat is pouring out into the driveway.”  I am proud of the control in my voice since I just read a book detailing how horrific the practice of natural gas extraction by fracking is, and our furnace is fired by, you guessed it, natural gas.

“Sorry, Mom.”

And when I’m really tired of the constant, repetitive “DOOR” call, I lose it a bit:  “You guys are going to lose your privilege to go outside ever again!”  As if.

After weeks of trying, failing, and failing again to get my kids to close the door without a reminder each and every time, the kids’ annual cookie party this week came as a relief.  A million kids running in and out requires full-on surrender to a wide-open door, and the continuous baking means the house is plenty warm without having the heat on.  Open house, indeed.

Best of all, the whole house is full of laughter and sugar and mouths stuffed with pilfered M&Ms.   And I notice that on each of the gingerbread houses the kids make, the door is propped wide open, letting in the love, even if the heat is escaping.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Whoa, Nellie!

The holidays are rushing forward on a constantly accelerating intake of sugar.  My feeble attempt to counter the trend by baking cheese straws from a healthy-food-for-kids cookbook was derailed by the fact that the cheese straws, though whole grain and healthy, aren’t in the least cheesy, despite my having added more cheese than the recipe called for.  So the kids continue to chip away at the shingles of their organic gingerbread houses decked with non-organic, artificially dyed M&Ms.  And start each day with a dose of chocolate from the chocolate advent calendars (surreptitious grandparental attempt to convey the idea of advent to my non-churchgoing brood).

Yikes.  Just days away from our annual cookie party, I’m trying to figure out how to prevent a complete crash-and-burn scenario.  Spurred on my the success of my “No”vember campaign, I look to the month for inspiration, but all I’m seeing in the “Dec” of December is “decathalon.”  I gotta slow down.  Take a breath. 

And when I do that, I see it.  The “duh” of the D month.  December.  Decelerate. 

So today, maybe the kids will keep sneaking sugar, but I can drive slower.  Literally.  Just get everywhere a little later.  And while I’m at it, save gas.  Do a little thing for the earth and for our family at the same time.  Feel more relaxed.  Happy, slower, holidays.  

 (And if you live around here, see you at the cookie party!)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Winter spirals: a million tiny lights

After the excitement of a house-full-of-life Thanksgiving, my winter spiraling starts.  The reality of the long, cold nights, even longer when you work them, and the mounting dread of a prolonged, not-by-choice, no-kid period before Christmas (oh, the vagaries of the family court judges) conspire to send me sliding down, around, and down further.  The empty house during my non-custody days, as I sit holed up in the only bedroom that I heat when we are not all home, echoes with nothing.  And in that dark, shivering spot, it begins again: the easy tears, the sense of defeat, the ache in the chest, the feeling that I just can’t do this divorced lifestyle, really can’t, the harsh judgment of myself for not being grateful enough for what I have. 

The feeling of relief when, driving, I see a warning sign for high winds on the bridge ahead, and I realize that my car is small and light and might just get blown off, twisting down into unending darkness of water below.  The tears again, when I’m not expecting them.  The loss of hope that we can do anything to save this planet for our kids.  The sense of warm comfort that comes with contemplating not being alive, letting the world just spin and heat up without me on it.  This is my winter spiral, and I so don’t want to have to get back on those white pills that I spent six months getting off of this year.  Damn it.

I cross the bridge without incident, and get home safely.  For now.  And I go through the motions of adulthood: work, the hardware store, the post office, the grocery store, the bank, trudging through the to-do list.  Next up: evening holiday school event, and the start of my kid-custody half of the week.  I make sure supper is ready and warm for when we get home, and head over to the school. 

The room is dark and quiet as I take my seat, alone.  My ex has delivered my daughter to her teacher and the boys will arrive later with the sitter for their own turns (hard for boys to stay quiet for too long).  More parents filter in through the opaque doorway, babies squawk to lighten the somber mood, siblings whisper in their seats as we wait in darkness for the kindergarteners.  My ex ducks in, takes a seat a few rows back.  I relax in my chair and breathe gratitude that her new partner isn’t here too.

The teacher leads them in, singing.  Such sweet voices, timid in the darkness.  They take their places on a bench facing the center of the room, where a team of parents has created a spiral pathway out of greenery and logs cut so they stand on end at various heights within easy reach of a kindergartener.  The teacher tells a story of children and friendship and the power of love, and then the pianist starts to play, and my healing begins.

One by one, the children are given an apple with a beeswax taper in it, and each walks the spiral to the center where she lights her candle from the large pillar in the center.  As she walks back outward, she chooses a stump on which to place her apple with its light.  Over and over we sing a child to the center and then back out.  The pathway emerges from shadow into soft light. 

In the candleglow, I have lost sight of the self who could not find her heart, her will to live.  I feel only gratitude that despite the logistical complications of children and sitter and maintaining a reverent mood, I will now sit through two more consecutive spirals to watch my sons’ classes, as I have for the past five years.  In order to reach the light, you have to walk through the darkness.  How fortunate are my children that year after year, as they grow taller and taller, they enact this ritual.  How I hope they remember this somewhere deep inside, so when they face their own black winter spiral, they recall that there is a light somewhere.

Preparing for the second spiral, I am sitting in the dark with my arm across the shoulders of my little boy, suddenly a pre-teen granddaddy longlegs, skinny limbs bending every which way out of his folding chair.  We watch his brother’s class walk the spiral one by one, and when they are done, the room full of small lights, he whispers to me: “It’s hardly dark anymore.” 

I send the two younger ones home with the sitter and return to the dark room alone to watch my spidery son and his long-legged classmates light their own candles.  And he is right.  My shadow-lurking heart is watching, and letting the light in, and it is hardly dark anymore.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Farewell, lovely NOvember. Come again soon.

Don’t ask me how I was so lucky as to be the one to receive this divine revelation, but there I was, racing down the road of my overly-scheduled, hectic life, when I suddenly saw this mental billboard: November starts with N.O.  Like most great discoveries (electricity comes to mind), it’s been there all along.  No.  Nooooo-vember.  A whole month of “no,” just waiting for someone to come along and grab it.  And guess what?  That same month comes around every year.  Just when you need it most.

This year we needed it more than ever, as this is the year that I finally embraced my inner environmental activist and started running around getting arrested at the White House and hanging up big signs at community events, doing teach-ins, and generally spending too much time posting updates on the Keystone XL pipeline for all my Facebook friends.  Not to mention my usual school garden volunteering, which included the rash promise to post recipes every week on a school garden blog.  Oh, and also not to mention my full-time job as a night nurse.  And did I say I’m a single mom?  Each week this fall, I would lie down on my chiropractor’s table, finally exhale, and say the same thing: “I never stop.” 

So in late October, I declared that November would be a whole month of N.O.  Long exhale.  A whole month of freedom.  No activist events, no craft fairs, no social events that we don’t all absolutely positively want to go to.  No going to the farmer’s market where I always spend too much money, no going out to eat.  No throwing parties.  No calling the White House or my senator, no keeping petitions to sign in my inbox, no responding in any way to mass emails.  And no guilt.  I’ve been busy, and I’m taking a month off, and all these no’s mean I have some big yeses for my kids.  Not very visible ones, but we all feel them: yes, I can help you with those moccasins you started back in August, yes, we can make chow-chow and can it, yes, we can sit on the couch and read, yes, we can build a door for the hole you cut in the wall.  Yes, we can stay in our pajamas all day.

No looking through catalogs for good deals or gift ideas—straight to recycling, along with every single one of the direct-mail pleas for end-of-year donations.  I usually keep those, stack and sort them according to priority, and try to send what money I can.  But if I think about it, I know which charities I want to donate to, and I know how to donate online, and I don’t need the clutter or the attendant guilt that I haven’t sent the donation in yet.

The most radical “no” has been this: no grocery shopping.  This was not part of my original plan, but honestly, all the running around in the past few months had my bank account in scary territory.  How to recover in time to buy an organic turkey for the holidays: stop shopping!  We get a veggie box from our CSA farm each week, and  honestly, often I end up letting a few items get old and rot.  The CSA box comes with milk, half & half, and butter, and I can pick up a loaf of bread at the farm when I pick up my box.  Funny thing I noticed: when I’m not supplementing with other groceries, nothing gets old and rots.  Hmmmm.

During all the other months, when any given foodstuff runs out, I replace it.  This means that behind the front layer of dry and canned goods in my pantry there is a collection of dusty, seldom-seen items.  These got taken out and dusted off right after Halloween this year, thanks to a food drive at the kids’ school.  Unnoticed by me, most of our canned goods had collected small rust spots, past-due expiration dates, or some sticky coating resulting from a leaking, improperly preserved jar of marinated figs.  Which obviously rendered them unfit for donation to the food drive.  And once I’d noticed, I couldn’t really put them back into the pantry.  Stacking a bunch of aging cans of kidney beans, hearts of palm, and coconut milk on my counter turned out to be a powerful motivator to get out of my cooking rut, get creative, and get rid of the cans.  So for a month, we have survived on fresh vegetables and random canned food.  Surprisingly, the kids have enjoyed the more creative meals, even if there have been occasional complaints about the dearth of quesadilla ingredients in the fridge.  Plus, as a total surprising bonus, none of us got botulism (whew!).

As for the “no activities,” it’s not that we didn’t do anything all month, it’s just that any offers that came along had to be compelling enough to override the automatic “no.”  So, although we skipped many, many cool and interesting local events this month, I did go to see my friend’s lamps at a pre-holiday craft fair, and even bought one.  But I didn’t have to go.  The lamp is funky and captivating, hanging in a previously too-dark corner of my living room, its light shining out through multiple layered images of an apple with one bite taken out of it.  For the artist, the apples refer to our local apple producers and the “eat local” imperative (which is also emblazoned across the lamp), but to me, it’s more a symbol of how often we succumb to the temptation to take one more, and one more, and one more bite, until we have more than we can chew.  Furthermore, the lamp has a switch, as a reminder that anytime I want, I can turn it all off. 

Now that NO-vember is over, I am looking forward to adopting the same practice every year.  Without any further effort than the implementation of “no,” we are all rested, our house has less dust bunnies than it has since my youngest was born, we have multiple craft projects racing toward completion, my pantry is clean and spare in readiness for the holidays.  And to me, the space created by saying “no” echos with a resounding “yes.”   Yes to NO-vember.  Now that seems like a tradition worth keeping.