Back At It

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I passed him walking away from the classroom The Kid and I, with Little Brother in tow, were walking toward. For the first day after a break, he looked like I felt: not quite up for it. “Back at it,” I said as we passed him, the dad of one of TK’s classmates, and we both smiled upon re-entry into the routine established now over half a school year, the chaotic mornings and often-emotional drop-offs, the lunches made and belongings lost, the rushing and tension. An old shoe that fits but takes some struggling to get into.

I was swimming in the South Pacific two weeks ago.

You wouldn’t know it, though, in these moments of non-holiday real life, when it’s so easy to forget and painful to remember the lazy days and long sunsets of vacation. And here, with year-round school and more frequent breaks, there is ample opportunity to revisit the difference between monotony and its opposite, to separate and come back.

When we reached the classroom, that classmate held out a batch of stickers she had told her mum she wanted to get for TK because they were cars. And he loves cars. And his people here, our people now, know this. She shyly handed them over and I tried to take a mental picture, to make note of this moment to add it to the list: all the ways we’ve been cared for. Being back isn’t so bad, sometimes.

“Reality is an ally of God,” says Richard Rohr, and sometimes I think if they’re friends then maybe I don’t want to play with either of them. Reality can be so…real. Like the weekend days that should be sunshine and ease, and I end them in a puddle of regret, ingratitude and frustration marking my movements and making it easier to believe the hiss in my ear, that maybe I’m the poison of negativity in this family? Maybe I’m bringing the rest of them down? It’s gotten to where people are checking on me, after all, and rather than the gift this is–that I am known–it makes me wonder just how thin the line is between anxious and calm, insanity and sanity, and if I’m about to fall off it.

Then friends tell me that they, too, have imagined other lives. Guiltily, or alongside jokes, or flippantly, the real voices I hear, they are struggling ones. And triumphant ones. And defeated ones. They know all the descriptors, all the words, because they live them in between each sunset.

I had never been fully submerged in the Pacific Ocean before. I had wanted it to be a sort of baptism, a washing clean of the old me. I’d return to our regularly scheduled life with greater patience, more clarity, a more durable fuse. That lasted about half the shuttle ride to the airport.

But there was this: that the three of them were waiting on the shore for me. That they never seem to leave, and funny how that can feel like both a threat and a promise. Like a life raft, to be known. I emerged from that water the same person. I emerged from that water, and I walked toward my family. I seem to keep doing that, too.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my ovaries. They might see forty approaching and be frantically pumping out hormones, trying to remain relevant. Maybe it’s an anxiety/depression dip. Or maybe it’s just hard, being one of those people who inconveniently feels and thinks about all the stuff. All of it. No matter how many times I take a break, it always comes back, this whole thing of being…myself.

But there is this: TK was without his usual therapist these first two weeks back, and wouldn’t you know that that was exactly when the student teaching crew started, and he took to one of them as much as she did to him, and now…he’s covered. He always was, wasn’t he? I just didn’t know yet. There is his teacher, who celebrates every achievement, who brought his handwriting book out today just to show me all that he’s done, how he’s growing. There are the regular Friday nights with a friend, naughty laughter and rosé champagne. There are the photos TK used to avoid that he now yells “Cheese!” for.

Author Pema Chödön writes, “If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.”

Nowhere to escape? Sounds familiar.

She goes on: “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing…they come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen, room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Falling apart? I know me some that. I do it…well, every day, it seems. This endless process of falling apart and coming back together that I think will end and am now understanding is just life. I won’t improve past it. I can only make room for it. And I think about what a dear friend said before we left: “Give yourself space.” I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Space for all of it: for the crazy and sane, for the meltdowns and triumphs, for the sad and happy. There is space enough for all of it, for all of me, spread out as it is–as I am–over Sydney, and New York, and Atlanta, with even pieces of me scattered about the South Pacific now. There is room for all of it, within a grace that names me, that knows me, whether I am underwater on holiday or struggling to take deep breaths on land, its steady waves always promising that each shore is home.

I Named You

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I’ve never been a huge fan of my name. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) It’s always rung 80’s alarm bells in my ears, and I get tired of repeating “IT’S WITH A P-H” to everyone who has asked throughout my life. I remember, though, finding out that names have meanings by way of a plaque that hung in my childhood room, which told me that mine meant “crowned one.” At the time it felt as about as ironic as it does now: If I were a princess I’d surely have less child poo under my fingernails, and if I were an angel I’d manage not to say fuck so frequently.

But the idea that names had meanings imbued an awareness within me to look for the meaning in all of them. In all words. In all things. It’s exhausting, but it has its perks.

Lately the boys are having back-and-forths that play like unintended comedic sketches, invented words and gestures tossed between them resulting in furthered banter, laughter, or tears. (They love to put each other in time out no matter how often I assure them neither has such authority. It’s almost like they don’t listen…) They were thrown together–we ALL were–even more tightly than usual last week, when our family took our first South Pacific holiday to Fiji. The Husband and I (he gleefully, I with tears and reticence and, later, glee) took advantage of the nanny service and kids’ club offered at our resort for a few of the mornings we were there. The Kid and Little Brother took advantage of their parents’ absence to eat only dessert and throw sand at each other. Everybody won.

When the kids’ club closed, as it always does, we collected our genetic belongings and took them to the family pool, decidedly less serene and more urine-soaked than the adult pool, and watched them enjoy their newfound comfort in the water, the product of their recent swimming lessons. At one point I was standing between them in the shallow entry as they stomped around. LB likes to announce himself these days to anyone who will listen: “I Will. Will Phillips,” as though he’s recently acquired MI6 status, to which TK will usually reply either, “I’m James Phillips,” or the more inflammatory, “NO! You’re gossy gossy!” which makes no sense but never fails to enrage LB anyway. This particular afternoon LB was tossing out his ID even though I was the only one within earshot, so my lips, loosened by a lunchtime pinot gris, uttered back sassily, “I know that! I named you.” He looked up at me with wonder, as if such an idea had never occurred to him.

The boys have been interested in their origin stories recently (I blame Facebook memories), asking about the time they spent in my belly and how they “came out” (which has me feeling grateful for C-sections and their less, ahem, intimate form of arrivals). When LB can’t sleep I whisper to him about the late-night rush to the hospital; TK loves to hear about his kicks (which persist to this day) and how tiny he was. Meanwhile I think back to us at that time, TH and I, sweetly stupid and planning for what can never be planned for, choosing names we liked then learning how suitable they were only later: TK as the supplanter, uprooting what had come before (sleeping in, for example, and small, predictable dreams) and LB as protector, the meaning playing out like prophecy as he comforts TK when he’s troubled: “It’s okay, James, there’s nothing to be scared about.”

But the best part has been watching them stretch beyond their names and try on each others’ for size, TK patting LB in the backseat when he cries as only a two-year-old between naps and no naps can: “It’s okay, Will. I’ll make you happy.” LB reveling in the sounds he makes that entertain his older brother and distract him: “I make James laugh!”

The last few weeks have been rough. It’s seasonal, hormonal, everything I guess, anxiety dogging me even when vacation beckons, reminding me that this is a condition, not a mood. And I wonder, in the midst of it, which problem runs deeper, my anxiety or my distrust: distrust in the meaning of my name, in my identity within the realm of grace, in the promise that all will one day be made new? The answer matters little when I know the alchemy will always be there, this mixture of both pulling my eyes away from what is changeless and true. But it can be so easy to look away, to want to run even, when grace’s movements feel so aggressive, when they seem more like interruptions than rescue: TK’s constant questions after years of speechlessness, LB’s unceasing desire to be held. While we were all piled in bed one night on our trip, the kids had a hard time settling in the new environment. Suddenly I felt a piercing stab right at chest level and realised TK had, in his excitement, chomped down on my boob in a way he hadn’t since they fed him over five years ago. “WHY?!” was the question I was now asking him, the physical pain competing with the frustration of my body never feeling like my own space, not for years now.

I really do want so many answers. Some days, all I seem to have are questions.

And yet there aren’t enough answers, not often. Not reliably. There are words, though, and names, and the hardest relationships I have are with the two whom I have named, and with the one who named me. The one who calls me beloved even as I call my children that, often through gritted teeth as I’m about to crawl out of my skin if they touch me one more time. These two who protested as we dragged them down to the sand bar I’d escaped to the day before, a bed of shells and earth right there in the turquoise water. I want them to know what I know–the beauty and healing of salt water–even more than I did, the Gulf becoming the South Pacific. So we taught them how to ride the waves, and for a moment the anxiety leaked away, and yet remained, their tiny bodies bobbing along with the rhythms set in places we can’t see: the terror mixed with euphoria, the fear mixed with ecstasy, the alchemy that occurs only when life is being fully lived. Yet another question entered my mind, but it was as though from a poem written on my heart, unforgettable even when I think it’s disappeared or I’ve been lost from it–“Who is this, even the wind and the waves obey him?”–and the answer to it being the answer, the changeless and unrelenting answer, to everything.

Why Again

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Sometimes the thought of writing again, of trying to find beauty in the past week, feels like undergoing a massive turd-polishing endeavour. There are days when the walls close in and the hormones spike and the kids are screaming and I’ve snapped way too often and I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to look for the good. I want to bitch about everything.

So I do. I do it with my “Oh, You’re an Asshole? ME TOO!” contact list. And they nod their heads from across the ocean or street or table and agree that yes, we are privileged beyond measure and yes, this shit is still hard. Every. Single. Day.

She’d sent it in a voice text, this message that had me nodding my head, and messaging back YES YES YES, that she keeps being brought back to the same place, the same lessons, even though a part of her thinks she’s already mastered this basic stuff and moved on to the next level. But what we’re learning, what we already suspected and have to keep finding out, is that there is no next level. Not this side of eternity. There is this: live, screw up, get forgiven, repeat. There is no ladder, no glorious Arrival to a life less messy, less plagued by brokenness, less life-y. There are only different problems that expose the same things about us: we’re not enough. We never will be.

It’s so f-ing depressing I could jump off a bridge. There’s a big one down the street. I’M TEMPTED.

But here’s what would happen in that scenario: I would see the view. I would remember their faces, the ones that drove me to that bridge and the ones that save me from it one and the same. And I would go back to them. And I would appreciate them for five minutes before heaving another sigh and learning another lesson. GOD IT’S EXHAUSTING.

The Kid is an endless broken record of “Why”s these days. Yeah, THAT kid, the one who didn’t talk until he was four, he won’t stop now. And one of his primary modes of communication is to ask about everything. OVER AND OVER. Why does his brother do this and say that? Why did the lights turn off? Why are they on? Why were the kids loud at school? WHY about everything that happens, everything that is, all day long from waking up to drifting off to sleep, with no interruption. I’ve shifted to telling him to ask his brother or whichever person he’s wondering about; short of that, I repeat the phrase “I don’t know” almost as much as he utters his “Why”s. I don’t think I can overemphasise how insane this whole process drives me; how the endless questioning from my formerly nonverbal child sets off a fuse in me that threatens to blow me to the bridge or bottle (the bottle is closer, luckily…?). Then I remember asking my own mother, and grandmother, my own endless “why”s and being gifted something called The Big Book of Questions one Christmas in an apparently kind-hearted but firm way of getting me to shut the hell up. And so my temptation to believe in karma kicks off again, which renews afresh my impulse to be in control, which just ruins everyone’s day.

Just when all hope is lost (AGAIN), something happens. Among those things that have happened: I’ve stumbled upon a garden in the downtown park across the street from where The Husband and I spent a kid-free night while my parents were here; I’ve stumbled across a man kneeling for his morning prayers in that same park; TK tells my mom he loves her for the first time; TK’s therapist cancels their session and the two solo hours I had clung to like a life raft immediately vanish, so I spend the morning with TK and we run into one of his teachers, who greets him lovingly, then the cashier at the book shop recognises him too–“There’s the lift operator!”–and yet another person has gone from stranger to friend; TK and I eat lunch at his favourite restaurant and he smiles at me from across the table in between a million questions.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m currently writing this from the couch, where TK sits beside me emptying my wallet and asking me about each thing within it. I AM VERY CLOSE TO THE EDGE. But I’m realising, or at least choosing to believe, that just like TK has the same questions over and over, and just like I keep being brought back to the same places over and over, there are breaks in the action, in the war that life sometimes feels like in which the beauty, or a hint of it, peeks through. Sometimes it’s barely a glimpse, a whisper that gives me one more breath. But it’s enough to make me think that maybe this whole thing isn’t actually a war; maybe the war is just happening within me. And maybe what’s happening around me is actually setting me free. I keep expecting the breaks in action to be the bulk of life, but life is happening in all the moments. What a bummer; I wanted to get past the shitty ones.

I want answers for all my questions too; all my unspoken “why”s that I utter with my frustration over things not going the way I planned or being within my control. What I am being told, in the absence of a direct answer, is that I am free from having to reach a goal. Knowing I will never arrive liberates me from having to achieve anything. And so I am brought back to the same places–the questions of my childhood echoed in the questions of my son’s; gardens in the middle of cities; forgiveness after not enough-ness; friends among strangers; endless echoes of faithfulness stretching across this life, the sameness of it all somehow becoming its beauty.

It Takes (More Than) a Village

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“Why did God put me in KB?” The Kid asks me sleepily as we lie on his bed. Another question he knows the answer to, this one concerning the class he’s in at school. I may be spiritual, but I don’t like to overspiritualize things, as the shits and f-bombs in my writing will attest. This avoidance is likely a product of my geographical origins, the result of growing up in a platitude-heavy section of the Bible Belt, in which God’s name was invoked for everything from racism to football games. But years away from that buckle of the Belt, and an immersion course (called Life) in grace have shown me, undeniably in my case, that there’s a hand greater than mine writing this story. And I’ve told as much to The Kid and Little Brother, citing everything from the sunrise to boo-boos, beauty and healing, Atlanta and Sydney, and now, KB and TK’s place in it. His place here. He’s reminding me that he’s always listened; he’s also showing me his, and our, need for a context, a narrative in which to find ourselves that allows for a place prepared on our behalf. A place where his teacher had written the words on his report: “James is a gift to our class.”

So I throw it back to him: “Why do you think?”

And he echoes the answer I gave him about one hundred questions ago, the answer revealing itself to be true every day, in our every interaction: “Because he knew there would be friends for me there.” And he drifts off to sleep.

It’s the same story that LB knows as we claim our seats on the Sunday ferry and he belts it to all the passengers: “My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. THAT. IS. TRUE!” They’ll grapple with faith on their own throughout life, of this I’m sure, but they’ll have this when they enter that fray, this awareness of something, someone greater than themselves, who may now be the stuff of Sunday school and colouring books but is also author of sunsets, and them.

And how could it be any other way? When TK emerges from the classroom one afternoon, he’s telling me about the loud noises, explaining something I can’t understand, and his therapist expounds: that there was a story read, and the kids got excited and started providing background sound effects, and it startled and upset TK so that he began to cry. And immediately, the kids encircled him, arms around his shoulders, one telling the other to be more quiet, one grabbing a tissue for him and planting herself beside him protectively. And when I looked for an opportunity to find her mom to tell her how much it meant, that opportunity never seemed to come, until it did. One morning when LB and I were late to the gym because of a preschool tour, and we almost didn’t go because it felt like Too Much, but he urged me and I caved, an empty treadmill and an hour alone urging me too. And there she was, walking right past me, her first trip back after a long illness that she opened up about right there beside me, and we talked about our kids and began to know each other.

So how could it be any other way? How could it, when we arrive to school a few minutes closer to the opening bell than usual and I see them, this community of which we are now a part, and we are welcomed into it, kids running up to TK and moms greeting me? Our village, minus us until we are there.

This is all well and good in sun-dappled moments at drop-off, but then there are the ones when the village has retreated to their own homes and so have we, and everything feels stolen from me, and I am just angry. The empty spot in TK’s mouth revealed itself after a frenetic lunch out the other day, and the tooth was gone but no one knew where. In that milestone moment, I pulled him and LB up beside me and showed them the video of Peppa and the Tooth Fairy, but inside I raged. So many milestones missed or delayed, and this one too, this moment where I should have been able to take the tooth and hide it under his pillow, then transfer it to some safe spot to keep forever, a bit creepily maybe but still–the first tooth lost! And these challenges, this God-forsaken spectrum, robbing me of that as the tooth sits on the floor of some restaurant or within his stomach, no one knows, and I just wanted to hit something. It was Too Much. It was Too Much when we went to the mall the next day and he fought us between stores for another lift ride, and then the next day when we went on a God-forsaken “COMMUNITY OUTING” with his head therapist and the entire population of our suburb seemed to watch as he melted down for the lift again and all I wanted was a drink. Or an escape hatch in the floor. Or…another story? Not this one, with these challenges, with two kids clinging to me and sobbing and an audience beholding it and me, entirely unappreciative and unfit and with two more hours ahead at the therapy centre.

TOO. MUCH.

I read it here a few hours later, how we high-reactives tend to hold our torsos in tension–it’s a hallmark, how cute–and I remembered the two anaesthesiologists who commented on the tightness of my spinal cord, and the difficulty of the needle penetrating it for the epidurals, and it hits me: I have literally been trying to hold it together my whole life. It took two kids to puncture that, to break through.

After therapy is over, the three of us climb into the car and drive home in the dark. That’s when I remember the groceries I bought with them six hours earlier, sitting there in the trunk melting and going rancid, and it’s Too Much. I text a friend group and tell them so, and they counter back with truth. I text The Husband that I feel like a failure ALL THE TIME, and he writes back with a different version of the story. Then I cry, which makes me realise I haven’t done that in a while, which is really too bad because salt water, it is healing. Letting go, it’s healing. And the release opens me up to see it: that I am often so bad at this, this story of ours, but that’s okay, because it’s not just me here. And it’s not just our village. Through the cracks there is room, and I can breathe again, and I tell the boys the best part of the story: how they’re made to be just the way they are. God-forsaken? Hardly. We are having our own debrief here in the dark after the hour-long one back at the centre, post COMMUNITY OUTING, and this one? It’s less well-lit, and less organised, but it’s so much better. It is music on the radio that I downloaded just in time to hear the words my soul needed to breathe again, and at the mention of our story’s author, LB pipes up from the backseat with the part he knows–“God takes care of me”–echoing the part TK knows, the part I know, even when it’s all Too Much, even when I’m trying to be in moments that don’t exist instead of this one, where the author continues to write.

One at a Time (and All Together)

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“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” –Blaise Pascal

I keep forgetting to look at the water.

It’s all around me: on the walk to school, in pockets along streets we pass in the car, outside our bedroom window, and there, most boldly, at The Kid’s school, the harbour sitting below us in early-morning serenity. The water I’ve longed for a view of my whole life, and I continue to miss it. Because, you know, #life.

“What I want is what I’ve not got, and what I need is all around me,” Dave Matthews sang back in 1994, the heyday of my insecurity and identity-building, and I clung to the words for the wisdom I thought they provided, a message just for me in my rule-following glory: suck it up and be grateful. Well, now I’ve got both what I need and what I want, in almost dizzying measure, and here I am measuring my life in coffee spoons anyway, and complaining to anyone who will listen that my diamond shoes are too tight.

And yet…there’s grace for it all. Every moment of it.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? For me, at least. To stay in the moment.

This morning the universe seemed to be conspiring against me, which is a philosophical inconvenience when one believes in God, since “the universe” is a Person, and as such He seems to have it in for me most days before 9 am. The boys were taking their time (read: NOT) obeying my instructions, which I delivered as though we were approaching the beaches of Normandy and survival depended on our hustle; in reality, we were leaving for school drop-off with time to spare. But tell that to my high-anxiety, Type A personality (and when you do, wear a bullet-proof vest because she is packing…and bitchy). I couldn’t find the remote to the garage, which as a sentence I think may be the most #firstworldproblem ever uttered, and there was a bunch of other shit I can’t even remember but seemed pretty damn monumental at the time. Then I tried to compose a prayer out loud and just felt like the biggest joke ever. WHAT BUSINESS DO I HAVE PRAYING FOR/IN FRONT OF MY CHILDREN? What will they learn from that: calm prayers uttered from the lips of a manic freak who just rushed them through their morning as though our lives depended on it? For that matter, what business do I have praying at all, after such a display of faithlessness, living as I do like the world depends on my control of it?

Well…I’d humbly submit that I have every business, in both cases. I mean, I still need air.

So I prayed, and the air defused a bit of the tension that filled it, and these two faces that keep showing up every morning, they looked back at me in trust. And I was reminded of the night last week, when they just would NOT STOP TALKING at bedtime, and all I could picture was the cover of the book Go the F*ck to Sleep and it is possible I kept quoting it under my breath. Then I felt both their tiny bodies, one under each of my arms, and the warmth and life coming from them, these two beings, these two boys, I longed for for longer than I even know. And I breathed, which also means I prayed, and it sounded like “Thank you.” Thank you for bringing me here independent of my trying and my identity-building and my rule-keeping and -failing. Thank you for this life that sucks the life out of me and gives it right back.

Last week TK had three hours booked at his therapy centre and Little Brother’s babysitter cancelled, so I ventured out in desperation with LB away from the centre and toward the centre–of the unfamiliar suburb where we know only one spot, twice a week. We walked twenty minutes and passed a playground and landed at a bakery. At the bakery, we had a biscuit and a conversation, and we stopped at the playground on the way back. The impending sunset and just me being me brought on nudges of anxiety that threatened to become waves, but he wanted to stop and jump off some steps in front of an office complex anyway. So I breathed/prayed and let him. A woman inside, sitting at her desk, saw us and waved. LB grinned at his achievement: “Higher! I higher!” A walk with a boy, with my boy, it can change an afternoon if I just show up for it.

Yesterday I was rushing, AGAIN, with time to spare. LB moaned in the backseat about his shoes hurting his feet, which I thought was bullshit but checked on anyway after we pulled up to TK’s school. I thought of the mindfulness technique I picked up in therapy: take the time to feel the moment. UGH. But I did, taking each shoe off, then each sock, and replacing them. It took maybe…a minute? He looked up at me, trust in his eyes. “That’s better,” he said, then his eyes moved to my initial necklace. “Where’s my letter?” he asked, and it took maybe…twenty seconds? To have a moment of finding the W, holding it out to him, seeing the recognition in his face, of being mine and my being his.

We walked together to TK’s classroom, where the kids were finishing lunch. His teacher grinned at me conspiratorially, handed me a thin but firm envelope. It wasn’t a report. It wasn’t a list of goals. It was his school photo packet, and she and his therapist and I went through them together. “That’s him,” she said to me as I held up the largest photo of his beaming face. “They so got him with that shot.” TK and LB came up next, followed by the rest of the class, who giggled and grinned over the photos. “Aww, look at James!” Then the other kids left for recess, and were it not for therapy, for all our challenges, the next moment wouldn’t have happened, and what would be the good in that? Because the therapist led us over to the corner where a car park sat, constructed in wood and glue and buttons and lights and love, three floors put together just for my boy. TK’s teacher grinned, and I tried not to cry, and later TK asked me why the therapist/friend had made it for him. “Because he loves you,” I told him. “Because you are so loved.”

These moments that come because of who and where we are, and what grace is, leading us to them not by our own effort but even more incredibly, through our ceaseless failures to recognise it until we have nowhere else to turn and nothing else to do: beholding the glory in front of us and staying there, an act of worship as simple and difficult as praying, which is to say, breathing, which is to say, #life.

Will Write for Attention

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In my dreams, I can breathe underwater. In my anxiety-crippled reality, I just discovered that a thing called secondary drowning exists. Yay! NEW WAYS (FOR MY KIDS) TO DIE THAT I HADN’T HEARD OF BEFORE.

We’ve been in Sydney nearly six months and there are countless “favourites” among our crew: the local, world-class zoo; Sunday morning ferry rides into the harbour for church; the amusement park fifteen minutes from our house; water views at every turn; late-afternoon trips to the beach. But one of my greatest thrills occurs every Thursday, when the local weekly paper is delivered to our mailbox.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

You Get to See Me

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And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along, you’ll start happening too!

The Husband got me a present the other day. It was a backpack.

In the world of gifts, this choice is akin to a vacuum cleaner (actually, he got one of those recently too but I love it) or cooking lessons. Not because it wasn’t thoughtful–I mean, he texted me from the shop to ask for specifications in an effort to pick what I’d like–but because this is my life now. I carry a backpack. Like some kind of middle-aged hiker or Cheryl Strayed-in-Wild wannabe. Except I’m not hiking, unless you count the trips through the playground sand to push my kids on the swing. The backpack is representative of my life now because I’m a bit beyond diaper bags (and so OVER them) but not quite ready for designer shoulder-wear. Not with the baggage I have: extra Paw Patrol underwear, Pull-Ups, changes of little-boy clothes, water bottles and snacks and wipes. A few Legos for no apparent reason. Not exactly Gucci material. And it all weighs on me, forcing me to choose between being fashionable and lopsided or just comfortable, and I choose comfortable (see also: heels vs flats).

But this doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

My bag-centric practicality isn’t what I thought “having it all” would look like. Apparently, having it all refers more to “carrying all the stuff,” because guess who gets the side-eye when some vital accessory is left at home? “My mommy forgot my crunch and sip snack today,” The Kid announced to whoever happened to be standing around this morning in the schoolyard, and I felt my anxiety and resentment rise concurrently at being the sole proprietor of the Kids’ Shit mantle. I’m always carrying stuff, whether my own bag filled with their gear, or TK’s massive school bag filled with learning materials and lunch boxes, or Little Brother’s monkey pack-pack (his title) filled with pretty much nothing but that he demands to have on-site at all occasions because his big brother has one. I carry all this on my two arms that are at least one too few, or my shoulders that are knotted and tense, and they may as well be weighed down some days with rocks labeled bitterness and fatigue and issues with gender-specific task allocations and upended expectations.

And yes, I know this is a continuing theme. All of my themes are continuing. But I’m not alone. And that’s why I write about them.

“Marriage isn’t what I thought it would be,” came the statement over the phone from one friend, while another one and I discussed how much more understandable they are these days, the women who run out on their families. And my writing- and non-lesbian-life partner wrote this, which (a) reminded me why I love her; (b) made me feel less alone; and (c) weighed me down with the truth that sets me free. TRIFECTA ACCOMPLISHED. So I passed it along to others who are honest about their identity struggles within marriage and parenting, and with the joyous and grieving process it all is. To the rest of the members of the Backpack Club.

It’s all just so everything, isn’t it? And it appears that there is no other way but for this path to be fraught: with emotion, with difficulty, with victory, with ALL THE STUFF.

Like, there’s this: I know there was a time when I picked TK up from school and our rides were silent but for my voice, and me desperately wishing for his words. I know this was our life at some point. But now I cannot remember it. Because now, he opens his car window and yells out at the other kids, “Bye bye! I’ll see you tomorrow! COCK A DOODLE DOO!” and dissolves into a hyena laugh. I know there was a time when birthday parties left me crying and anxious, when all the other kids would so easily sit for present-opening or use a fork to eat their cake. And now, sure I’m anxious still, but the kids here either don’t use a fork, or he uses one alongside them, albeit in his own messy way.

There is still the hard part. There is the moment when he runs up to a girl in his school’s uniform on the way down the school path and points, asking, “What’s his name?” because he hasn’t quite got the knack of appropriate pronouns yet, and sometimes the kid will screw up her face or the mother will laugh nervously and I will wonder to myself if something was stolen from us; if there was some version of him out of which we were cheated, one that approached social situations easily and left me unworried over his interactions and everything else, and then I remember that there is no other version. There is no Plan B. We weren’t diverted from some other path; we were always on this one, the one we were meant and made for. And I think about how our car rides wouldn’t mean nearly as much if he had always talked through them; how LB’s own words wouldn’t feel so miraculous either. How I might not even notice it, the way TK burrows in beside me in the morning on the bed and whispers, “Mommy. See me,” because this is how his language puts it when he wants me to look at him. And LB, he prefaces every comment with “we get to”: we get to go to the shops, we get to take a bath, we get to go get James. Every single act an opportunity rather than a task.

They are changing me. They are taking me back to school with my backpack firmly in place and they are changing me. And it is hard and awful and wonderful and amazing.

On Friday night, we left them and went with our guests on a dinner cruise to see the lights of Vivid Sydney, and once we docked we waited at the other harbour–the one we don’t get to as often–and witnessed a light show we hadn’t known about. It just exploded there, right before our eyes, because that’s where we were standing. All the lights that, because of where I am, I now get to see.

There Is No Other Version

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“The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.” –Ben Platt, concluding his Tony acceptance speech

Can you become…a new version of you?” the voice sang from my screen every week throughout the end of college and the first half of dental school, and I wanted to scream back, “I HOPE SO BECAUSE I’VE BEEN WORKING ON IT MY WHOLE LIFE!” This desire to be something other than the meek, flailing twenty-something (and before that, teenager, and before that, kid) that I seemed to be, it fueled everything I did. My biting sarcasm (and other defense mechanisms), my studying, my clinging to the barest hint of relationship, my move to New York City. LIKE FELICITY! I found comfort in a narrative that appeared to glorify my own. Plus, she got the guy in the end. I mean, they cheated on each other, like, A LOT, but they ended up together.

Meanwhile, it seemed that everywhere I went, there I was. Still. Without the guy.

Now I have three guys. A trinity of males who fill my heart and my washing machine and my waking (and sleeping) hours with concern for their well-being, efforts toward their happiness, irritation at their insubordination. I am the same person I ever was, fighting my own constant inner unholy trinity of frustration, anger, and self-righteousness. I’m also more different from that kid and teenager and twenty-something than I’ve ever been, for being a wife and mother has unlocked parts of me that I never had access to before. Parts I didn’t know existed. Some of them? Damn ugly, recesses of selfishness and a need to control everything/one in my path, writ large in the daily monotony of life within a family. Some of them shocking in their gentleness or ferocity, reflecting the mystery of being a mother, soaked in ambivalent waters that run so deep.

The Kid is getting all Felicity on me, becoming a new version of himself. Or is he just becoming…more himself? I watch as he resembles some type of local celebrity: there are people crossing our path daily who see him coming, and welcome him. He stops and smiles at the mother on Spit Road whose son studies him while she grins big when he walks up, asks him what kind of car he has today. He turns to the next table at restaurants and gives his coy “Hiiiii,” flashing a smile, and when they’re lucky they get a look at that day’s vehicular choice too. He delights babies, who squeal with glee (usually) when he approaches and tickles their feet or pats their faces. His confidence is growing along with his charm. He is becoming unlocked, getting accessed. And it’s beautiful.

But not everyone likes these updated versions of ourselves. This past weekend the boys and I entered the lift at the shopping center, the glass one that we ride without destination multiple times a week, and TK set about pushing the buttons as he does, like an expert, the lights flashing beneath his fingers that are so attuned to when the door needs to open and close. It’s like a language he’s learned. But not one everyone speaks it.

An older woman got on the lift and narrowed her eyes at the injustice of a child being permitted such freedom. At the audacity of a mother who gave the permission. She watched his every move, to the point that she missed her stop and became outraged. What follows is a transcript of the ensuing conversation:

Nasty Old Bitch (NOB): He just made me miss my stop!
Me (doubtful, but willing to put it to rest quickly): Well I’m sorry about that. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t very placating after all.)
NOB (Stares at him, trying to block his hands from the buttons, growing increasingly agitated as the elevator goes the opposite direction from her destination; finally glares at me): Where are you even GOING?
Me: We’re not going anywhere. We’re riding for fun.
NOB (interrupting me, nodding so hard I’m worried her plastic surgery scars will rip): That’s what I thought. RIDING FOR FUN. You have no business doing that. And he has no business pushing buttons.
Me: Like I said, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. And if you can’t handle a kid who wants to ride the lift for a few minutes just because it makes him happy, that sounds like your problem.
NOB: HE MADE ME MISS MY STOP!
Me: Well, you must be very important if you don’t have thirty extra seconds to spare for an honest mistake!
NOB: Well he must be the most important one of all!
Me: HE IS TO ME.
NOB: NOT TO ME!
Me: AND THAT’S YOUR LOSS.
Pause; silence.
Little Brother: Mommy?
Me: Yes, buddy?
LB (Grins): Hi.
Me (laughing): Hi.
(Elevator door opens, woman exits angrily. I WIN.)

There have been other versions of this story before, I assure you. Snide remarks made under someone’s breath. My reticence, my fear of conflict leading me to stay silent. Hell, I’ve been my own version of the NOB, sneering at parents who clearly don’t discipline their children enough, rolling my eyes at crying babies on planes. I’ve been all over the wrong side of everything. But this time? This time, the anger and frustration that typically plague me, born of either self-righteousness or fear? They were gone. What I was, was oddly calm. I was defending my child against irrational ugliness, and damn it felt good. And bad, because it’s never fun to deal with bullshit (mine or others’). But mostly I felt like a warrior princess who’d be DAMNED if anyone was going to step up on her baby.

What I’m figuring out is this: we are all mixed versions of ourselves at any given time, the Me from decades ago interacting with the Me of now (hello, inner child therapy exercises). I am not becoming a new person. I am not becoming stronger, unless the kind of power you mean is the kind that often looks like weakness, the exhaustion of parenting, of life, of facing my own insufficiency driving me into the grace that answers with all its enough-ness.

A friend put it better in a message recently: “To put my allegiance to a sense of Me at any point is to say that I am immutable and unchanging. I am the created; I am a work in progress; and I am so incomplete and messy and fucked that I can’t even redeem myself. But the animating fact is the love of God, the immeasurable grace, the unchangeable holiness of who He is.”

Hell yeah. Whether I walk away from an encounter feeling like Wonder Woman or NOB, whether TK is sporting one of his wide-as-the-earth smiles of late or melting down at the rain-soaked Vivid Sydney display at the zoo, whether LB is delightfully defusing an elevator dustup or providing material for the next edition of The Strong-Willed Child…I can stop chasing alternate universes where I don’t have anxiety, where TK isn’t on the spectrum, where LB doesn’t act out to get attention. We are always in the right place, even when it sucks. My strangeness and yours and his and hers, hobbling us into the rescue of grace by what we will never and always be.

“We Get to Find Out!”

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We just talk and take in the view.

This morning, outside The Kid’s classroom, a couple of other mums and I were left behind once the two single-file lines had chaotically climbed the steps and retreated from outdoor play to begin indoor learning. “I just hate when our mornings begin like this,” one of them said, recounting the day thus far, which included a slowpoke child who wouldn’t listen to instructions and some responsive voice-raising and regret. We commiserated together over these guilt-laden moments, and pronounced gratitude for children’s short memories.

I’m having these conversations daily, it seems.

All the mothers I know are doing a bang-up job with what they’re given, which is to say imperfect kids and imperfect selves in an imperfect world, but we are, without exception, beating ourselves up at points along the way. If not the entire way, managing doubt and regret along with grocery lists and dinner prep, carrying guilt while folding the laundry, our children on our minds whether they’re with us or not. It’s a weight that’s as impossible to fully share (thanks, biology) as it is to elucidate for others, namely, the men in our lives who often try to understand but–and we love you, but it’s true–never fully will. Not without lying on the bed or operating table themselves, being cut open or squeezing out, and enduring the mind-blowing and never-ending explosion of hormones and body changes that accompany the miraculous act of giving birth. It’s an incredible gift and an isolating endeavour, and we’re trying to find unifying moments with others even as we often feel we’re doing the bulk of it alone.

So how’s everyone else’s day going?

I realised yesterday morning how much of my life operates under the thumb of fear, and how it turns me into a creature that can’t sit still but is always one moment, or hour, or day ahead, and how hard this makes parenting, and life, for me. How an afternoon stretching before us with just me and the kids (hell, an hour) looms like a spectre and that this is something I do to myself because underneath it all is the fear, the anxiety, of having to fill that time and make it matter; how NOT to populate it with my mistakes. I am afraid of myself, of hurting them by raising my voice or misinterpreting some outburst or just not being enough, and I’m so tired of the way this fear follows me around without my even seeing it. How I’ve somehow come to accept it as just the way things work. Motherhood, these moments, they should be a gift, right? So a friend asked the other day, and I counted yet another layer of guilt we’re putting on ourselves: the guilt of not enjoying every. damn. minute.

It should be a gift, and it should be magical, and also? Some of it really sucks. And I am of the firm belief that we need the space to recognise those moments, the sucky ones, just as much as the sepia-toned ones, not only because this is honest, but because it makes the magic more magical. I’ve found myself saying it lately, (hopefully) inside my head in those moments when I look at what is happening and think to myself that if this were any other job, everyone would quit: “God, this sucks right now. I mean, REALLY SUCKS.” Most of these moments involve poo, FYI. But not all.

TK won’t shut the fuck up. Isn’t it cute? Weren’t you right, whoever you were who told me for those four silent years that one day I’d long for a moment of quiet? And yes, there is value in recalling those days, those moments when I would have given my left nut for the word “Mommy,” and now he says it constantly. And I hear it now, and it both soothes my heart as it makes me want to hide in the closet with a bottle of wine, because it is a reminder of need. And I’m not so good with others’ need. WELCOME TO PARENTING, ASSHOLE! you may say, as you whisper, “I told her so” under your breath about the talking thing, and if so, sorry, I’m all out of wine but you can have a tall glass of shut the hell up because I’m WORKING ON THINGS here. Motherhood, like health care coverage, ain’t that simple and you don’t get past the hard part. So on the way to and from school, my formerly wordless boy asks a million questions as I wonder which one will turn me from Patient, Responsive Mommy, Fount of Knowledge and Wisdom and into Cruella Bitchface Mommy, on the local news at 7 tonight. Some of these questions are so brilliant and yet without answers, as while I can tell him what makes up a Happy Meal, I’m not sure I can explain an Angry Meal or a Sad one (some help, McDonald’s?). I grit my teeth as he sounds off again while lying in bed, and I’m imagining my hot bath and my own bed, both so close yet so far away, and then I realise these are the moments that are scaffolding his young childhood and AREN’T I AN ASS.

With some friends last week, I asked for encouragement. For prayers that I would just enjoy my children. Just enjoy them.

Later that day, TK and Little Brother were gabbing away in the backseat. An actual conversation, not exactly regarding nuclear physics, but interaction nonetheless, and I gave myself a moment to stop ruing the podcast I couldn’t listen to because this was a moment I had, once upon a time, dreamed for. We got to the parking lot and TK whined because we were going to the beach first instead of the playground, and I wanted to scrap the whole thing and retreat to the closet. A few minutes later we were finally on his playground and I ran between the boys, helping LB up the slide and swinging TK, and I saw a path in the distance. “Want to go on an adventure walk?” I asked them, and they giddily assented as though it was the best idea they’d ever heard. “What will be there?” asked LB, and within a second had answered himself: “We get to find out!” As the sun set, we climbed the hill that overlooked the water. “WowEEE!” TK exclaimed. “This is the view!”

This is the view. This expanse ahead of us, with the climb always there too, the falling down and skinned knees and expletives and regrets, and the view. They ask about the sunset every day, remark on its beauty, and they notice it because I showed it to them, and I am doing so many things wrong but there is this: somehow there is teaching that has occurred outside the grandiose plans I once had that now litter the wayside along with the too-small, too-easy dreams of the past, and within their death is the seed that is growing into this. The reality of what is. The view before us. They are recognising the narrative within which our lives operate, the story of a grace that walks uphill with us, that stops alongside us when we’re hurt and acknowledges the pain, that provides sunrises and sunsets and rainbows to remind us it never leaves. That teaches us, is teaching them, to see.

What’s next? We get to find out…together.

Been Here Before

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I’m passionately smashing every expectation.

We’re sitting in another classroom, with another teacher and another therapist, on another morning. It all feels very familiar.

And yet not. Because we’re in another country, on another continent, in another hemisphere, in another season. And then another thing happens.

It’s only good news.

These meetings, which have been occurring in conference rooms and classrooms and waiting rooms and exam rooms around the world now, have led to this place, this school overlooking a harbour filled with boats. The sunshine creeping in through the window and the sound of children playing outside while my own alternate their own playing with trips over to see us, their parents, sitting on tiny chairs at an undersized table, two people who love them more than they can imagine, talking to two people who love them too.

This is the same, but it’s totally different.

She pulls out James’s papers, a thin sheaf with his picture on the front–his mug shot, I joke to him, and I feel the freedom to joke, to laugh, because we’re not here to recognise red flags or discuss warning signs. We’re here to check in. We’re here to, I’m beginning to feel, celebrate.

There’s news of all the expectations he’s smashed this year, of all the goals he’s already met that need to be adjusted already. And as I hear each one, I feel it fall on my heart because I know the challenge each one is: the muscle weakness that must be overcome, the noise that must be filtered out, the sensory input that must be recognised. None of this has come easily to him, and this boy of mine playing with his brother ten feet (3 metres) away, I see him clearly for the first and millionth time. He is home.

We take turns talking about what we’ve witnessed from him: the unprompted and lingering hug he gave a classmate at the shops this weekend (overcoming social anxiety); the handwriting that’s taking off (smashing wrist weakness); the joy at the school’s fireworks night (filtering through all the stimuli). We’re all grinning, all saying how proud we are of him. And his teacher, she explains her side: “He was an unknown. All the other kids coming in, we had a chance to meet them, but he was an unknown.”

He’s not unknown now.

Everywhere we go, we hear his name. Our names. I run into friends at the park where I sit on a bench with Little Brother, and he and his buddy take off for the slide while I talk mum-to-mum. I lead The Kid across the street toward the schoolyard and older kids and their parents greet him by name.

And yeah, there are the tough revisits: the meltdown in ALDI that echoes my months-ago one in IKEA; four-letter words both; but his with the added difficulties that render him unable to cope and me, unable to deal, and by the time the three of us are sitting on his bedroom floor, LB patting his back and climbing on me, we’ve all been crying, but we are together. And we are understanding each other a bit more every day. A few minutes later I’m making dinner (peanut butter sandwiches, thank you very much; this day has been a bitch) and realise that I can manage his behaviour–manage him–or know him. Dammit. The first one would have been so much easier.

His teacher mentioned the transition program they’ll have in place to move him up next year, and one of my deepest fears is then addressed: he WILL be moving, and not only that but they assure us he’ll have some core friends in place around him. HE HAS CORE FRIENDS. And I think back to a year ago, when I was decimated by his staying put in the same class, fearful for his future. To nine months ago, when I dissolved into tears leaving a local private school here in Sydney because they were so unwelcoming. All the while, we were headed here. Were being ushered, loved all the way here. Through tears and frustration, failure and heartbreak, landing at home together.

I take LB to get his hair cut at the barbershop on a Friday morning, and he fights it, crying the whole time from my lap. Later that day, we return. Revisit. It’s the same place, but it’s different: TK sitting in the chair by himself, laughing at the process. He used to scream. I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” from the radio, and I just laugh. Home and home. God, we’re so home, all the time.

And on Saturday night, after an afternoon of successful swimming and inflated-slide climbing that takes my breath away in the best way, we head to the fireworks show. On the way I imagine bombings, of course, because that’s my brain doing its ridiculous work, but instead we sit on a blanket. I place headphones on his ears while The Husband has to cart LB away, who can’t take the noise. A friend (I HAVE CORE FRIENDS) comes to sit beside me and I pour her a glass of champagne and we laugh as TK beams with joy, literally bouncing with it, beside us. This place isn’t perfect (their milk containers could be sturdier, for instance–the one I dropped this morning exploded a gallon of dairy goodness all over the kitchen. But then I told another mum about it and she described it as one of those, “Oh, for FUCK’S SAKE!” moments and all was well). I know there will be rough spots, difficulties. There already have been. It’s called life.

But right now, as grace keeps bringing us back to the same spots to admire the different views, it’s also called home.