The grocery store song

The other day, which was maybe last week and maybe last month (time has lost almost all meaning), R brought home a papaya. I’m still off fruit and almost all sugars — more on that in a later post, but short version: I feel so much better now — so I did not partake, but it was interesting to see the inside of a papaya after hearing about them my whole life. The seeds are gray and squashy and look vaguely insectile. I didn’t hear any calls for buying a second papaya, so I’m thinking it wasn’t a favorite. Or maybe they just need to eat it two or three times.

Anyway. It triggered a memory, long faded, of how my mom and I would sing “Lone Palm” by Jimmy Buffett in the grocery store. The first line is “My garden is filled with papayas and mangoes,” and as we walked by the produce, one of us would start humming. We’d usually get to the chorus by the time we reached the canned goods, singing in harmony while getting side-eye from other shoppers. Over time, we began to refer to it as “the grocery store song.” I had to Google the lyrics to find the title just now, because I’d forgotten what it was really called.

It feels like another life, me and mom singing in a store. Those years were overall not happy ones for me, but there were good moments. In-jokes and routines and silliness. Singing about fruit we’d never eaten, without a care about who was listening.

On the heels of this memory was the realization that, some day all too soon, I will be the only person left who knows what the grocery store song is, and it was such a lonely feeling. So I decided to share it here, so someone else will remember with me.

“It’s okay to cry. You’re still a good mom.”

I’ve heard that the best way to support a child through rough feelings is to name and make space for those feelings, but I admit it always felt a little hokey to me. “Aw, you feel sad. You wanted [blank], and you are super disappointed. It’s okay to feel bad. You are still a good kid. Just let the bad feelings out.” I say these things, sure, but I was skeptical of how much good I was doing.

A nurse in a drive-through COVID testing center showed me just how effective it is.

It was a busy work day for me. A busier week. I had a rush project, the house was a wreck, the kids had done precious little homeschooling, and Anya had been feeling bad for a few days. Most likely allergies, because we don’t go anywhere and no one else was sick — the family that cosleeps shares allll the germs — but she’d been complaining of ear pain and yellow sinus drainage, so I had to rule out an infection. For added fun: When her sinuses drain into her stomach, it causes GI distress; i.e., vomiting and diarrhea. The only bright side in all of this: She’s now old enough to barf in the toilet.

It took two days to get her in to the doctor because COVID is burning through our schools. We can usually get in within a couple of hours.

The doctor was concerned about the GI issues and sent us for a COVID test. Just as a precaution, she said. She assured Anya that even if she did have COVID, she’d almost certainly be okay. She’s a healthy girl. She’d just feel a little sick.

Yeah, but there’s a little girl in our area who had no symptoms at all, and she’s in the ICU on life support. Also, we saw Mom the previous weekend, two days before Anya got sick. Mom absolutely would not survive COVID. My mind started racing, trying to figure out what we did wrong, how she could possibly have been exposed. Speech therapy? They keep their masks on the whole time, but it’s the only place we ever go inside. Could R have brought it home from work? Was it on the pizza boxes? The groceries?

After I struck out several places trying to find a drive-up testing center that would administer a rapid test that day, my parents hooked me up with a local drive-through center. I called and made the arrangements while driving home from the doctor. (It’s an hour drive. I was on hold with them for 20 minutes of that, listening to a couple warbly snatches of Enya mixed with plugs for their services. Which didn’t help my fraying nerves.) By now I was several hours behind on my work day, and taking the afternoon off was not an option, so I snagged my tablet in case we were there for a while. Plus the cord and the AC adapter because of course it wasn’t charged.

Forgot to grab the insurance cards, though. Starving (we missed lunch), sweating (half stress, half being dressed for a cool morning on a hot afternoon), and with a throbbing finger (I mashed it between the AC adapter and the gear shift), I found the place and got in line, mowing down some orange cones to do so; the entrance was not clearly marked, and my patience was at that point completely gone. That’s when I saw the signs asking for insurance info. By this point it was mid afternoon. I didn’t have time to go home and get them. I’ll just pay cash, I told myself.

I had that much cash on me, but good lord! When R had the test, it was free. I started crumbling around the edges.

The nurse saw this.

“It’s okay to cry,” she said. “This is so hard. Just let it all out. You are doing so well.”

My eyes overflowed, as if they were waiting on permission to do so. “I…I have done everything right!” I blurted out. “I am just so tired!” I then proceeded to blubber all over myself.

“You are such a good mom,” she said. “This is so scary and so hard, but you are doing a great job. We will find her info. We’ll get this taken care of. Don’t you worry. I will do anything I can to help. Do you need to cry for a little bit? I can always come back to you. Take all the time you need.”

“No, thank you” I said, sobbing. “Just give me the forms.”

I thought about that nurse all evening. How just that little bit of compassion helped me deal with one of the scariest days I’ve had in a while. How much it helped hearing from someone else that it was okay to feel whatever I was feeling. How much better I felt letting some of it out. How much I needed someone to tell me I am a good mom, that I am doing a good job.

Anya’s test was negative. You don’t want to know how long I had to sit on hold to find that out. I can’t be mad about it, though. I got the assurance I needed, both in the test results and in the emotional support I received from the testing center nurse.

Now that I know the power of naming and making space for feelings, I’m going to work harder at doing so with the kids. With everyone. We all need a little empathy. Especially these days.

An ode to my garden

When I was a child, I had a working mother. It was the 80s, so this was still a novel concept. While other moms baked and cleaned and did cross-stitch, mine put on a dress, heels, blush, and a spritz of Lauren and went to an office.

I loved seeing her all dressed up, and she was much happier as a working mom than she was as a stay-at-home mom, but Mom was not my role model. Our neighbor was. The one with five kids and a beauty shop off her family room, who had a kitchen garden and made her own ketchup and baked her own bread. After admiring the handiwork of a different neighbor, who made elaborate Precious Moments cross-stitch pictures while watching Days, I taught myself embroidery. Around this same time, Little House on the Prairie — both the show (which I’m barely old enough to remember) and the books — lit a fire of self-reliance in my soul. I was fascinated with handwashing clothes, churning butter, grinding grain. I used to entertain this fantasy of marrying a farmer and grinding the wheat with which I’d make our bread. Which of course would be buttered with butter I churned myself.

My mom, who baked, sewed, crocheted, and knitted, but who was equally fond of shopping in big cities and dining out, was both amused and bemused by my pioneer obsession.

For years I lived in apartments. I could have, and did have, a windowsill herb garden, but growing veggies was out of the question. During these years, I learned to make more and more foods from scratch. I loved the challenge of it. I went from being a TV dinner nuker to someone who could and did make elaborate dishes from raw ingredients. Food that was as tasty as it was healthy. (Okay, some of it was healthy.) But how great would it be, I asked myself, if my ingredients came from my own yard?

I had this vision of myself as a SAHM who grew our food, sewed our clothes, cut everyone’s hair, and made everything from scratch, from the embroidered dining chair cushions to the condiments in our fridge to the herbal remedies I was going to make to cure all that ailed us. I was going to hang our laundry on a clothesline. I was going to knit and/or crochet all our sweaters. I was going to decorate our home with my own paintings, make my own skin care and hair care products, wash my face in morning dew that I collected in a bowl on my back porch. (This oddly specific idea came from my mornings on the school playground, running my fingers along the dew-damp grass, then rubbing the water on my skin.) I was going to be admired among those in my inner circle for my baking skills. I was going to give handcrafted gifts, build furniture, take care of all our home renovations. Everything we wanted or needed, I would make with my own two hands.

Friends, it didn’t happen.

The shift started when I realized I was going to have to change the S to SAHM to a W. Fine, I thought. My neighbor had a successful salon in her house. I began to aspire to whatever would let me work from home. Maybe I would make and sell jewelry or something. Or write after the kids went to sleep. I’d find a way to make some extra cash. I’m resourceful like that.

Another cog slipped when I had a kid, downshifted my career, and realized how unhappy losing that W made me. Okay, so I’ll have to work full time at an actual job, not something that merely brings in cash. I can do that. It meant I wouldn’t have as much free time, but I figured I’d find a way to fit it all in. I’m a hard worker.

It came as a blow when I realized I really don’t have the patience to sew clothes. (When the pandemic hit, I found a simple pattern, dusted off my sewing machine, and made a mask. One. It took days, and it’s terrible. I would much rather give Uniqlo $25 for 3 masks. It’s cheaper.) But I rallied. Whatevs; I’ll just buy those.

I did, if you’ve been following me for a bit, try my hand at homemade laundry soap, cleaning products, and hair/skin care products. Then I found commercially available products that don’t irritate my allergies and also, y’know, work. Similarly, I discovered that herbal remedies only tend to work if you’re not all that sick. (That dew thing went out the window when I realized what all might be in that dew.

Finally — don’t laugh — I severely underestimated just how much work kids are. I had these sugar-coated visions of bathtime and tantrums and flung food. Parenthood as a montage. I did not anticipate flopping into bed after an 18-hour day being so tired I ached, day after day, year after year. I had no idea I would be in survival mode long after the newborn days.

What was I thinking? I barely have time to do laundry and wipe the fur off the furniture. I have a grocery store five miles from my home, and it’s full of boxes of food that just require water and heat. To hell with this garden thing.

Still, I tried to garden. It was a challenge at that point: I just wanted one time to fix a meal with ingredients I grew myself. Just to see what it felt like. We rented a house two weeks after Anya was born, and for the first time in my adult life I had a yard. Year after year I planted seeds, and year after year they grew, then died. I think I salvaged a handful of peas once. The rest of the plants died from neglect. I just didn’t have time to garden. But I didn’t have time to cook, either, so it worked out. Back to fixing food from packages that are ready in 30 minutes or less.

Then my digestive system revolted, and I found myself once again making all the food from scratch. Scouring labels for triggers. Learning to make things myself when I couldn’t find it ready made. The more foods I eliminated, the more I had to learn to make.

As if that didn’t complicate things enough, we threw a pandemic in the mix. I began looking at the kitchen garden as less of a science experiment for the kids and more of a necessity. Cooking homegrown food is tasty, yes, but it also ensures there is food.

This year is the first time I’ve had anything resembling success in the garden. (Not gonna lie; it’s all R. I have no idea what I am doing.) We have made a couple of batches of tomato sauce with our harvest, seasoned with herbs I grew myself, and have the makings for more in the freezer — plus we gave some tomatoes to my parents. We have a stash of lima beans. R made two batches of pickles with the cucumbers we’ve harvested. We have a watermelon in the fridge, and more on the vines. And the part I’m most excited about: Butternut squash. Two beauties out there finishing off, and flowers galore. Each morning I check excitedly to see if more baby squash have popped up.

We also have proper flower gardens now. The previous owners had planted hydrangea and hosta in the front of the house, and they’re pretty much plug and play. We water them on occasion, but otherwise they don’t need us. So I’ve been working on the back of the house. I dropped a couple hundred bucks at the botanic garden’s plant sale this year and picked up a butterfly bush, shamrocks, hens and chicks, petunias, mint, and rosemary, plus a bunch of other plants I can’t name. R bought these red fluffy plants that looked like flames. We dug and edged and planted and filled with rock two flower bed and a pollinator garden. Then the yard guy sprayed for weeds and much of it died. The butterfly bush — Kai’s pick — rallied, at least, and the pink flowers I bought even grew into mini bushes. My bare patio now has flower beds flanking a morning glory-covered arch. The pollinator garden failed to grow, but the sunflowers on the side of the house are taller than Kai.

The garden has enthralled me. My parents didn’t garden, so I have no experience with it, and I’m slightly amused with how emotional I get about everything. Each fertilized blossom fills me with the same excitement I felt when I detected the first pregnancy symptoms. I mourn the loss of baby fruits and vegetables — not at the level of my own losses, of course, but they still make me sad. I feel a connection to these plants that I never anticipated. And they bring me joy beyond my wildest dreams.

My backyard is a haven for cardinals, robins, doves, hummingbirds, and countless other birds I cannot name yet. We have butterflies, hummingbird moths (Google them — they’re super cool), frogs, lizards, ladybugs, and cute little inchworms. Plus a squirrel that my daughter terrorizes, but that’s a story for another post.

For my birthday this year, my parents gave me a check and told me to buy some nice patio furniture. So I have a proper table and padded chairs, and an umbrella that tilts and even lights up. It’s too hot to go out there right now, but in the next month or so I see me spending lots of time out there, drinking tea and admiring my view.

I’m already planning next year’s garden. The food part and the flower part. I want a lush haven that gives us food to eat and wildlife to watch. I want to put plants in the ground, nurture them, and watch them grow. I want to feed my family with food that I grew. I want to sit on the patio on a cool spring day with my mom and watch butterflies.

I never wanted to be a SAHM, I realize now. Or the homesteader I once imagined I would become. But I do enjoy being a gardener. I feel more connected with nature as I nurture foods and flowers. I feel more connected with my loved ones when I feed them dishes I prepared from food I grew myself. I haven’t given up on making stuff for the house — Anya and I are plotting a garage workshop so we can make furniture, or at least refinish furniture. And one of these days I’m going to crochet again. For right now, though, gardening is good enough for me.

Ghosts in the water

CW: Sexual assault, trauma

I’ve been working on this a while. Poetry doesn’t come as easily to me at 47 as it did at 17. It requires down time and time to think, things I have almost none of these days.

I’m working on that, too.

.

The other morning, I told my 9-year-old I was raped.
I hadn’t meant to; it slipped out
as I was explaining why the dirty dishes upset me.
It’s not the messy counter, I said,
but that his trailer was alive with roaches.
They meandered along the walls and the ceiling
while he ripped away the last of my innocence.
I remember clearly watching one crawling directly above us,
hoping it didn’t drop as I was trapped beneath him,
because that small weight just might break me.

He refused to wash dishes, I told her.
Every flat surface was covered in used plates, cups,
forks and knives, sticky with ketchup smears
and soda residue. He would use the same cup for a week,
then rinse it out and use it for one more.
The dishwasher was broken,
so I would fill the sink with scalding, sudsy water
and gummy, crusty, reeking dishes,
in hopes that he would rinse them off later.

Days later, in defeat, I would pull on rubber gloves,
plunge my hands into the icy, slimy water,
fish out the dishes, and scrub them clean.
At the bottom of the sink
were handfuls of drowned roaches.
Decades have passed, I told her, but the smell of dirty dishes,
the feel of cold dishwater against my gloved hands,
brings feelings long since buried swirling to the surface,
like those soggy roach corpses in the sink.

A few days after our talk, a book appeared on my office chair.
Folded between its pages was a drawing:
“The man who raped my mom”
(I refused to speak his name)
bleeding profusely from the head,
while my fiercely loving baby girl
glared at him with red-rage eyes.

I haven’t mentioned it to her.
I don’t really know what to say.
I don’t need vengeance; not after all these years.
I don’t need you to hate him.
I don’t, not anymore.
Rage burns at both ends.

I just need you to do the dishes.

That whimpering you hear is from my checkbook

Hi. It’s been a while. I’m writing, still; it’s just that what I am writing is long, and I’m trying to make sure I get the words just right.

Also, life got in the way. It’s been expensive.

Kai shut his finger in the car door. It was bad; the door latched and locked, so I had to unlock the door and go around to open it for him. The tip of his poor little finger was hamburger by the time I got to him. He didn’t break any bones, but his finger was pretty gnarly for a week, and the nail is in the process of falling off. Ortho gave us the tiniest, cutest little splint I’ve ever seen, meaning no handwriting homework for a week; that took a considerable amount of sting out of the injury for him. A week later, he was cleared for normal activities. Kids are almost magically resilient.

Anya is in puberty. Full-on zits and mood swings puberty. A few weeks ago, she went through roughly a week of excruciating abdominal pain. She’s an early bloomer, so the doctor ordered an abdominal ultrasound to make sure she didn’t have a cyst. (She doesn’t.) Anya is…tense. As am I, but I usually internalize my stress and she blows it out in a flurry of punches and tears. So despite the fact that the doctor and I both assured her that ultrasounds in no way hurt, and my reminders that she watched me have one when I was pregnant with Kai, it was still a physical struggle to get her into the hospital and onto the exam table. Then she felt silly for her overreaction.

Did I mention that the ultrasound and Kai’s second ortho visit were on the same day? Basically I spent a full day soothing, reassuring, and bodily restraining each of my children in turn as they prepared to endure quick, painless exams, which I’m counting as the day’s cardio.

I got my first and second COVID shots. The first one just gave me a sore arm. The second had me bedbound for nearly three days. The lymph nodes on my neck and shoulder swelled to the size of ping-pong balls for over a week; I could feel the nodes across my shoulders throbbing that second night. I also went from extreme fatigue to insomnia. I slept long and hard on shot day, but barely slept the next two days. Three weeks later, I’m still dealing with dizziness, fatigue, and loss of appetite. I tend to have a laundry list of side effects to medications, so I’m not really surprised by my reaction — I’m just ready to get back to my baseline level of tired. (The loss of appetite has been a bonus, though; my digestive problems are much improved.)

R slipped while cutting an apple and gashed his hand. The knife set I gave him for Christmas is much nicer than the cheapo one we were using before, which I bought from Macy’s in 2000 for $20, and with good knives comes greater danger. The cut took six stitches, but he healed up quickly. The kids ask me for sliced apples now.

We found the kids a new pediatric dentist. One that did not require general anesthesia and $1500 to pull one of Anya’s teeth and put in a few fillings and sealants, thank you. It was a process, and more than a few tears were shed along the way, but the story at least had a happy ending. The new dentist had her laughing as he pulled the tooth (which I didn’t even notice him doing until he was done), and did the first batch of fillings and sealants without novocaine. She adores him, and is excited to go back for her next visit. Hell, I’d go if he’d let me. My dentist doesn’t have cotton candy-scented laughing gas and Netflix.

We’ve spent almost enough money to buy a new car. Since January. In addition to all the above, we got a new roof, had our ductwork cleaned, bought a new washer and dryer, and finally straightened out billing for Anya’s speech therapy. I also had a checkup with my nutritionist, complete with a new round of bloodwork. They’ve met their deductible, I’m halfway to mine, and our stimulus and tax return are gone, plus some extra. I’d planned on spending the stimulus paying off a credit card, but…oh, well. I have, however, pared down my expenses a bit and embarked on my Grand Debt Payoff. It’s going to take a while, and some discipline, but if everyone can just stay away from the doctor for a bit and nothing else breaks, I think I can pull it off.

Please let everyone and everything stay well/unhurt/unbroken. For a few months, at least. I’m so tired.

“I love myself too much!”

CW: suicide

I have been thinking a lot about suicide (not like that — don’t worry!) since reading about Olympian Kelly Catlin. In college, I wrote many papers on suicide, mostly because I was trying to answer the questions I’d been wrestling with since my attempt:

Why?

Why me?

Why anybody?

Why then?

What drives a person to go to such extremes?

Nowhere in my studies did I see my personality mirrored back to me as I did reading about Kelly Catlin. Not that I’m capable of Olympic-level greatness in…well, anything. But the rest of it — the methodical planning, the ruthless self-imposed structure, the frustration with each small failure, the awkwardness around peers. The self-loathing. While my attempt was impulsive, I too had a notebook of plans, plans I had not realized because I kept getting stuck on logistics. I am glad I didn’t have access to the internet back then; with a bit more knowledge than I had available to me at the time, I may not be here.

Now, decades separated from the hopelessness that can and does often befall adolescents who cannot picture a future past age 18, I feel safe from The Bull, as Robert Fulghum described the desire to escape emotional anguish through death. But I have been increasingly concerned about Anya’s mental health. Not only has she begun puberty quite early, but thanks to the pandemic she’s dealing with a double whammy of homeschooling with dyslexia taught by an overworked, stressed-to-the-max mother plus social isolation at a point in her development when socialization is crucial. Anya is also extremely extroverted; her main complaint about our current situation is how very lonely she is. I’m working to set up as many social Zooms as I can, but online chats are not the same as in-person friends.

Adolescent hormones, check. Extreme emotional trauma, check. Academic struggles, check. Social isolation, check. It’s textbook.

The articles I read, day in and day out, for my journalism job haunt me. Children dying by suicide because they can’t see the other side. They believe that the terrible now will always be. They cannot picture a future beyond tomorrow, next week, next month.

I remember.

As this pandemic drags on, I have, odd as it may sound, derived a small measure of comfort from realizing that Anya decidedly does not fit the pattern of some people who have contemplated suicide, such as Kelly Catlin and I. But not only obsessive, self-isolated overachievers give in to despair and end their lives.

I’ve gone out of my way to work social-emotional learning into our daily schoolwork. We meditate. We do yoga. I check in with both kids throughout the day, asking about their emotions, accepting their feelings as valid (one of the most damaging things you can do to someone is tell them they are not entitled to feel however they feel) and offering suggestions to help get through rough moments. I speak openly about my own struggles, and acknowledge the cause when I am upset so they don’t think it’s them. If I am upset with one of them, which is pretty rare, I try to spell out why I am upset so we can perhaps resolve the issue together. I prioritize time each day just to cuddle them and tell them how loved they are. For Anya, coping with the maelstrom that is early puberty on top of all this, I set aside time for daily mother-daughter chats, private time away from the boys so I can give her my full attention. We talk about what she’s going through. I share my experiences as a tween, a teen, even a young adult — whatever she wants to know. But I have always stopped short of discussing depression and suicide. Out of fear.

It’s stupid, this fear. Superstitious thinking. If I don’t say it, they won’t know it exists. That never works — not with death, not with sex, not with drugs, or anything else parents try to shelter children from. Kids know. Often half-truths, because the adults in their lives tiptoe around the subject. I have always been a firm believer that honesty is best, always, and the younger the better. Dispel those rumors and half-truths before they can take hold. I have spoken openly to her about a host of topics, both in the abstract and my own specific experiences with them. Sex, drugs, depression, toxic relationships, loss, death.

But not suicide. That’s one of the few doors I have always hesitated to open. Not yet, I’d think. She’s so little. Maybe next year.

Finally, it came up. We were driving to the botanic garden. Kai was asleep; the car always knocks him out. Anya and I were discussing how kids are not simply short adults, how their brains are still developing, which is part of the reason why they act differently than adults would in the same situation. (Child psych, my first major, was not the field for me, but I find it endlessly fascinating — and it’s really informed my parenting.) The opening presented itself, and for once I dove in.

“Some kids have felt really hopeless during this pandemic,” I told her. “And when you’re a kid, it feels like whatever you’re feeling is how you will always feel. So it’s been even harder on them than it has been on us adults. Some kids have even killed themselves.”

“Oh, how awful!” she replied. “I would never! I love myself too much!”

It was all I could do not to collapse in a sobbing heap over the steering wheel. To say I was relieved does not begin to cover it. Though it had nothing to do with me, hearing her say those words will remain one of the greatest gifts of my life.

Once more, I stopped short of telling her about my own experiences. Not that I think she’s too young; I just can’t bring myself to relive those feelings right now. But I will, eventually. I have to. Just in case she ever does begin to lose hope. One thing that further isolates people in these feelings is the realization that others don’t feel that desperately alone. For some, death begins to look like the answer. I have walked that road so many times, I can navigate it with my eyes closed. I’m proof that there is indeed life on the other side. That’s not something I can keep to myself.

For now, it’s enough that the subject is out in the open. To have the comfort of her response. On more than one occasion, she has shocked me with her beautifully simple strength. How she asks for help when she needs it. How confident she in every situation. How she has never once doubted her place in this world. It all goes back to those five beautiful words: I love myself too much!

I don’t feel like I can take credit for her loving herself; that’s just how she is. But I feel that it is my duty to ensure that she continues to love herself through the rocky years to come.

In the meantime, I’m going to try like hell to figure out how to become more like her.

Reading lessons

Remember how I swore up and down that I didn’t want to teach? Turns out I was wrong.

Your first assignment, without which this post will still be understandable (and hopefully enjoyable) but won’t be as clear:

  1. Watch The Willoughbys on Netflix.
  2. Read The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.

We love the movie. It’s a bit dark, but it’s colorfully animated, quirky, and features an adorable baby, Maya Rudolph (I love that woman), and Ricky Gervais as a snarky blue cat. When I learned that it started life as a chapter book by the author of some of my favorite childhood books, I had to pick up a copy. The kids are really getting into chapter books as of late, and I’d rather read children’s books than no books. (Books, I miss you. I’m coming back, I swear.)

The book is almost entirely different from the movie. The basic premise is still there — bad parents, mistreated kids, orphaned baby, eccentric candy-making millionaire, lovable nanny, cat. But it’s very much like what they’ve been doing with Stephen King adaptations as of late: Putting plot elements on scraps of paper, dumping the paper into a wind machine, and stringing together a plot based on the order in which the scraps fly out. Okay, I know that’s not what they’re doing. (Maybe a raffle tumbler, though.) And the Willoughby movie isn’t as drastically different from the source material as, say, The Stand reboot (about which I Have Opinions); it’s more streamlined and simplified, with the major plot deviations serving mostly to reinforce the black-and-white depiction of several moral issues. The book is just a huge gray moral gradient, and the kids had loads of questions along the way about differences between the two. Much as I have questions about the way TS2020 treated Mother Abigail and Nick Andros.

So, so many questions.

Anyway. We finished the book last night, and today I asked Anya what she thought about it. I explained some of the connections and differences to her and we talked about why they made those choices. It hit me, as we were talking, that this is a wonderful way for her to dip her toes into the lit crit waters without struggling with words on a page: Listen to an audiobook (either on Audible or AudiMama), watch the movie, and compare. Ideas for assignments flooded in, and I had to zip it lest I overwhelm her at 7:30 in the morning. It hit me then: I am a teacher. I may not have the credentials, or the classroom, or the paycheck, or even a shred of respect as an educator in the eyes of the profession, but I am a teacher. I love to teach. Maybe not as a job — dealing with a room full of people who for the most part could care less about what I’m saying, navigating the pitfalls of academia. But teaching this child, finding ways to bring learning to her, is endlessly fascinating to me.

I don’t know about horses and water, but I will find a way to bring the wonders of language to my baby girl. No matter what it takes.

Finite resources

My daughter, as I’ve mentioned, has been in speech therapy off and on since the age of 3. She is not in speech therapy now because her school insists homeschoolers attend in person. In a group. If I’m not sending her to in-person class, why in the world would I send her to in-person group speech therapy? And because her dyslexia diagnosis came in too late to be included in her IEP, no services for that this year. Sorry.

I’m not mad about the dyslexia services. She has a wonderful language therapist, and as a homeschool teacher, I can modify exercises as needed around her challenge areas. Her language therapist suggested that I press the school for speech therapy, though. So did her doctor.

Google gave me page upon page of links to even longer documents telling me how to advocate for myself, for my child. Documents I don’t have time to read, detailing steps I don’t have time to take. One of the links I found is to an organization that safeguards the rights of people like my daughter. I messaged back and forth with them for a few days. They told me they don’t have the resources to help me. Instead, they sent me those same PDF documents I found on Google.

Any other year, I would double down and learn the ins and outs of disability law and pester the heck out of anyone and everyone until my daughter got what she needs. But this…this is not that year.

From another angle, it looks like this: My child is handling her education almost entirely on her own. Yes, I am here to answer questions. Her father helps her on his days off. I scour the internet for books and videos and printables to supplement her online curriculum when she needs a little extra help. I modify the exercises and limit her workload, but she is still essentially attending a full school day every day. Plus two 45-minute language therapy sessions a week. Two hour-long social Zooms each week. Also, while I haven’t settled on a source yet, she desperately needs math tutoring. Speech therapy would add at least another hour to her week, if not two or three. She’s 9. Her calendar should not look like mine.

So I asked her what she thought we should do. She said she didn’t feel that she needs speech therapy right now. She’s tired. Burning out. So I’m letting it go at that. Personally, I think her time would be better spent meditating, or drawing, or playing. Something that refills her soul.

I’m flowing back to a state of calm since the beginning of last month. Paring down what I can pare down. Setting my sights on things that will recharge my batteries instead of things that will check off my to-do list. I’m drying my hair instead of wearing it curly so I don’t have to wash and style it every day. I bought 5 of my new favorite hoodie to make deciding what to wear easier. I’m meal prepping and going to bed earlier and reducing the amount of time I spend on social media. We’re eating meals together at the table — no electronics allowed. I have scheduled, and am honoring, a monthly at-home spa day with the kids; next I’m going to work on scheduling and enforcing a family game night and family movie night. On weekends, I’m focusing on the things that actually will make my weeks easier, rather than the things I feel I need to do. Yes, this means that my floors are gross and my office is covered in dusty piles of paper. But after the loads we carry all week, I feel like the kids and I need a little time to just…be.

We have finite resources, too.

Yesterday

Yesterday, Joe Biden was sworn into office. I voted for him. I believe in him. I use him as an example when my daughter loses faith in herself, because I suspect they have similar learning issues and look at how far he’s come. But yesterday I was unable to share in the joy. I did not watch the inauguration. I did not participate in the celebration on social media. Mostly I cried all day.

Yes, there is hope. Yes, things will change. But my reality is still 16-hour days. My reality is still spending weekends/holidays/days off compiling homeschooling materials, reward systems, science experiments, and other learning activities, only to have my kids fight learning at every turn. Anya does try, but her dyslexia gets in the way and I don’t know how to help her. She gets frustrated and gives up, and I don’t know what to do about it. Kai just doesn’t care, and I can’t make him care. Yes — I suck so bad, I can’t teach kindergarten. The last fun year of school he has. He hates anything that he even suspects might be educational. I did this to him.

My morning job is K-12 education journalism. I’ve read alllll the articles. How I’m ruining my children’s lives by keeping them out of school. How some kids are contemplating or committing suicide from the strain. How my daughter will most likely be made to repeat the 3rd grade if I send her back (just one of the many reasons I despise our governor), and the large percentage of kids who are held back that end up dropping out of school. How these learning losses are going to affect them the rest of their lives.

I also read the articles about climbing infection rates from the coronavirus. I read about the long haulers, who have sustained possibly lifelong damage from a virus that the idiots around me are comparing to a cold. I read about loved ones having to say goodbye by phone. I think about my babies dying. Me dying. Not being able to kiss them goodbye.

This is an impossible fucking decision, okay?

I’m drowning. I’m working two jobs and teaching two grades and maintaining a house and a family, and I’m doing it all so very badly. Our outdoor Christmas decorations are still up. And our Halloween pumpkin. I haven’t dusted or vacuumed my office in 6 months, and the bathroom is disgusting. My kids are subsisting on snack food and juice pouches. You can’t see any carpet in either of their rooms, and the playroom’s worse. I have hundreds of emails, texts, and messages hanging over my head. Half-finished projects all over the house. My to-do list goes back to before the holidays, and includes stuff like trying to get paid for some freelance work I did over Thanksgiving. Most days I don’t set foot outside the house at all, not even to the mailbox. Yesterday, all I ate was almonds and marshmallows, and I went to bed at 6:30 p.m. I say I’ll catch up over the weekend, but by the time the weekend rolls around, I’m exhausted.

I told myself it’s just one year, but the longer this goes on, the more I think it’s not just going to be one year. And of course I will do a second year if I have to, but how? How can I do this for another year?

So yes. There is hope. It is a new day, a new year, and things are going to get better. But not for us, not right now, not fast enough. I’m tired of being told I’m amazing, that this is so hard, that it’s okay to stumble. I’m tired of being told to be grateful for what I have. I AM grateful. So, so grateful. Things could be so much worse, and are for so many people. But that doesn’t mean this doesn’t suck. That doesn’t mean that I don’t need help. And it doesn’t mean I’m getting help anytime soon.

Start as you mean to go on

Recently, it’s come to my attention that I’m a workaholic.

Not in a jokey “oh, look at me, so busy and important” way, but in a quite serious, “I can’t stop” way.

It’s one thing for someone to tell you that you are addicted to something, and another to realize that you are. The distinction has made me re-examine everything I ever thought about addiction.

Here’s the thing: I don’t love my job(s). I like what I do. I am good at it. But if I had enough money to never work again, odds are slim that I’d still be doing what I’m doing. There are aspects of my work that I’d do for fun, sure. But there are parts I’d happily walk away from without a backward glance.

Therein lies the root of my confusion, and the reason why I had such a hard time realizing that there is even a problem with my behavior. I smoked for 20 years. I struggled for 10 with caffeine (and anyone who thinks caffeine is not a serious addiction has never awakened after 2 hours of sleep each night for months on end). My understanding of addiction was that you really like to do something harmful, or at the very least your body really likes to do it, and you have to struggle to stop doing that thing. It never dawned on me — and it should have, because addiction runs in my family — that you could be addicted to something for other reasons.

But here I am, terrified to turn down work, to drop a job. Thanksgiving week I worked more hours than the weeks preceding or following, and that’s with taking two days off. Partly because I’m afraid of not having a backup job. Partly because I want to achieve a certain degree of financial freedom. But mostly because I don’t have a sense of self-worth outside of my job. My value in my own eyes is and has always been equivalent to what I can accomplish and produce, and the destructive behaviors that go along with this belief go back to my college days.

Recently, someone in an editing group I’m in posted this image:

I’ve gotten better about the first one because of my kids; modeling for them that it is more important to know where to find an answer than to know all the answers taught me the same. But the other four are constant battles. And it all comes down to me not having anything in myself that I value outside what I am able to accomplish.

So many of my current issues stem back to this one problem. My inability to take care of myself for the sake of taking care of myself is chief among them.

Tomorrow I return to work after two solid weeks off. I had big plans for how to spend this break — baking, watching movies with the kids, doing all the arts and crafts projects I was too busy to do with them while I worked, reorganizing the pantry and the playroom, meditating/exercising daily, crocheting covers for the couch pillows, helping the kids clean their rooms, creating a menu plan for January, putting together a list of celebrations and fun activities for the kids, reading books to them and to myself, cleaning up my office, setting up a homeschooling curriculum for the coming semester, planning this year’s garden, washing the walls.

See what I mean? I don’t even know how to take a vacation.

My body does, though. I utterly crashed. I did some of the things on that list, sure — I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. But I spent most of my vacation sitting on the couch, barely able to pry myself up to get a cup of tea. My sleep schedule went off the rails; I’ve been staying up later and rising later every day. I subsisted on cookies and party mix for the first week. Each day I arose with the intention of knocking things off my to-do list, and each night I went to bed exhausted though I accomplished little.

I don’t resent this crash. I did watch a lot of movies with the kids, and logged lots of snuggle time. I also did a lot of thinking. I see now the vicious cycle I’ve been putting myself in starts with me not taking care of myself. When I don’t take care of myself, I am more apt to fall into an anxiety spiral, and that anxiety is what lies at the heart of my work obsession.

So today, I’m starting as I mean to go on. I am up early, though I stayed up too late (again), in hopes of resetting my sleep schedule. I’m taking some time at the beginning of the day to blog, to meditate, to stretch. I’m not looking at email, social media, or games in this space; this is a time for me. It is my intention to start every day this year in peaceful, quiet reflection.

Instead of my usual lofty list of goals and resolutions, I’ve put together a list of intentions for the coming year, which all fall under the umbrella of taking better care of me. Not so I can do more work, or so I can be a better wife/mother/daughter/friend, but because I deserve it.

It feels incredibly weird to type that. Which is the point.