Will Write for Attention

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My fingers hovered over the keys, wondering whether this was the right or wrong thing to do. Forty years’ practice keep me coming back to this default: not the nuanced, winding halls of grace but the black-and-white certainty of law. I considered and weighed, and I posted.

There are three memories right off the top of my head, and who knows if more lurk beneath? Time continues to march on, though I gave it no such permit to do so, and it’s been around twenty years since the last one.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird.

Found in Translation

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“That can’t be a boat,” I told him, my back bent over the bath and the weariness brought on by a full day settling into my bones. “It has holes in it. It won’t float. A boat has to float.”

The Kid narrowed his eyes, stared at the piece of plastic, and finally stopped arguing. Stopped asking questions–the question-asking being a skill he has artfully mastered. He got it, and placed the erstwhile “boat” back in the water.

I, on the other hand, keep staring at it. And thinking. About all the things, all the people, I’ve tried to turn into boats. Into something other than what they were made to be. Which, I’m coming to understand, is the culprit behind every frustration, every harsh word, every rolled eye and sigh and expletive-laden tirade: this need for everything/one to follow my orders.

I am being broken of it, beautifully. Painfully, and beautifully.

My memory has no time for details, so I remember in sepia-toned Instagram posts now, forty years stretched out in snapshots. And I remember being on the mat at a New York Sports Club one weekday morning during my five-year tenure in the city when Tim Keller drifted through my headphones. The title of the sermon was “The Advocate,” and it changed me. The idea that Someone powerful would be on my side was so intoxicating as to be almost unbelievable. The promise that I had a defender, someone who argued my case and settled in all at once? Freeing. It made the loneliness ebb, and my world looked different. God did too.

Little did I know that I was heading toward that title myself, straight into the hurricane of grace’s primary tool for beautifully and painfully breaking me: parenthood. Specifically, parenting my first child, the one I was convinced was a boat. I kept trying to make him a boat. But neither of us could float on the ocean that life handed to us, so we held hands and sank together.

I’d like to think this part is the resurrection. The beginning of it, at least.

It takes being around him for awhile to understand him, and I’m watching that happen. I’m translating less. With strangers, I still echo him, in a voice that articulates the sounds with which he still struggles. But around the people who are knowing us here, I’m getting less sideways glances, less questioning stares, and more grins. Better, he’s getting more responses, more conversations, more back-and-forth. To know him, it turns out, is not just to love him, but to get him.

And he feels it, the understanding. His confidence is soaring. There was a dads’ breakfast at his school the other day and he marched right up to all of them, showing off his latest toy. “I want to show that guy my car,” he declared with a boldness I never had, and those who know him exclaim over a toy the likes of which they’ve seen a hundred times, and I love them for it. Being understood, having people in his corner and on his side, it’s changing him. He’s trying new things and getting, as he calls it, cheeky, following Little Brother aboard the comedy train. The other night he tried using chopsticks, for God’s sake, as I fumbled with mine, and these are the tiny, constant celebrations that are huge, and we get to have them all because he’s not a boat.

“I wish I had taken a video,” his school therapist said to me the other day, describing TK’s weekly delivery of his “news,” at which he excels now, proudly standing before his class to speak and answer questions. Won’t be long now before he’s telling his own story, before he is his own advocate. Until then, I’ve still got translating to do and asses to kick, because I’ll be damned if he walks through life being dismissed by those who are too impatient to try to understand. And for now, I’ve still got a few stories to tell him, like the one we fixated on this weekend: of another boy with a scar, a boy who was different and didn’t find the place where he fit in until he was eleven, and then discovered what he was made for. What his mother’s love did for him, left upon him, protected him from. The boy who lived, and became a wizard.

The aspirations around here are, for the time being, less lofty. LB says he wants to be a monster for Halloween–fitting. And TK, for his part, answers, “Car.” Fitting also. Neither of them were, I suspect, made to be plain old boats.

We Know the Way

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We keep our island in our mind, and when it’s time to find home…we know the way.

“Where’s James?” the voice carried from the top of the stairs down to where I was sitting, at a table, sparkling wine in front of me and friend to my right on a Friday afternoon. “There he is!” came the reply, and two pairs of legs bounded into a playroom above us, where The Kid and Little Brother were playing, in the home of the girl who found him and the boy who was with her, both classmates of TK’s. The boys and I spent the next couple of hours there, LB doted on by the sisters and egged on by the friend, TK popping onto and off of the trampoline, into and out of conversations. I had a couple of glasses and some conversation of my own, feeling more at home than I could have imagined a year ago. Feeling settled.

I’ve gone from white-knuckling the steering wheel and nearly hitting everything to my left, to relying heavily on GPS to get anywhere other than down the street, to learning backroads and shortcuts like the palm of my hand. And when I think about how I learned the routes, how I found my way, so much of it is owing to paths that came before, that I never would have chosen but that became Our Way, the roadmap for our family engraved through blood, sweat, tears, and, finally, singing.

There is a lot of singing these days. A lot of Moana, specifically.

And a lot of talking. TK did both this week at the speech therapist’s office, a new one closer to our house. New introductions used to be daggers to both of our hearts, the anxiety within each of us fueling the other until we both left the situation besides ourselves…and each other, still, somehow. Now TK walks into a room and gives the stranger The Story of His Life, heavy on the info regarding which car we have and…well, everything, come to think of it, this little fount of knowledge where once there was silence. I had collected him early from school for this appointment and caught him telling the teacher he wanted to pick up the lunch order from the canteen, grinning after a successful gymnastics class, and if you had told me a year ago this would be the scene I was walking into on a Monday afternoon, I would have demanded you sit down and drink the good stuff with me. But at the speech appointment, the therapist could barely get a word in, then as she packed up toward the end he began singing. We’re having conversations about articulation and tongue placement, not coaxing individual sounds out of him, and I am just…in awe.

Both TK and LB have been wanting to hear their birth stories on repeat, and I’ve been telling the blood-free version, though I remember this: that TK’s began with a drop of blood and LB’s with a gush of water, and there was a time between which when I didn’t understand how someone could love their children the same, could avoid having a favourite, could have anything left over once she’d already been through it once. But I think now, after the blood and the water, the therapy and lack of it, the silence and the typical speech development–I think this: what a blessing that it’s all true, that you can love differently yet the same, that the fear your heart won’t expand for the second as much as the first is unfounded and erased.

I think now about how I can lie beside each differently: TK being head to toe with the occasional digging of his hand under my torso for warmth; LB placing his head right next to mine, his breath hot on my cheek. How, after my friend and I spent two hours in a cupcake-decorating class (followed by two even better hours at a wine-tasting festival), I knew from looking at my half-dozen which LB would want and which TK would choose: the brightly-coloured chaotic one stacked high with icing for LB and the shimmery intricate one for TK.

I think about how they each call me the same thing–Mommy–and the word from each can sound so different yet exactly alike.

And these children, these brothers, these paths, are more beautiful for being exactly what they were made to be.

From one therapy appointment to another, I hustled TK into the car he loves to describe to others and consulted GPS for the fastest route. When it refused to work, I just went the way I already knew, the Monday afternoon route. I thought while we drove about last Friday, when in a moment of wine-spritzed calm and clarity I had abandoned my typical worrying and just watched him and LB playing. How LB was right in the mix, loud like a waterfall, and TK was quieter on the outskirts. True to their birth stories. True to themselves. And in the momentary ebb of the anxiety that threatens to rule me, I saw them both in the future, being some version of their now, being right where and among whom they’re meant to be, and something settled within me when I saw the similarities and differences both as beautiful.

Will Write for Attention

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In this week’s episode of Bad Theology and Good Intentions, a podcast/film/concept album I have no intention of actually creating, I read a friend’s post on social media in which she admitted grappling with her short temper around her kids. She cited having a newborn and a young toddler and not getting any sleep as contributing reasons for her blown fuse and confessed to yelling at her children and feeling horrible guilt about it. The flood of responses that followed were wholly supportive–but with an undercurrent of law. I saw verbal nudges to take a rest wrapped up by barely veiled threats–but they’re only young for a little while! I groaned over Bible verses transformed into memes with swirly writing: “Be slow to anger.” I read pep talks on the order of “chin up, you can do better tomorrow!”

I wanted to write my own comment: “Chin up! You may do worse tomorrow! You’re definitely screwing them up one way or another! And a swirly Bible verse isn’t going to save you from your worst self, which parenting totally brings out every day because we suck at it!”

But I kept silent. I’m getting more restrained in my old age.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

The End of Me

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I was headed to Isengard. ISENGARD, people.

I mean sure, my terrible memory couldn’t actually recall where in the Lord of the Rings narrative Isengard popped up, but it was epic, I was sure, and I was going to see it. In 30 kilometres or 40 minutes, whichever happened first. Or last. Or whichever–I was slightly confused, jet-lagged, and carsick. The twirling curves were getting very…twirly. The pasta from lunch was sitting very heavily. I sipped my water, The Husband manning the steering wheel beside me, while the rest of our crew hung in the rear of the van. Little Brother had dropped off to sleep, his eyes sealed shut and his head beginning to droop. He dozed through The Kid’s protests, delivered repeatedly and high-pitched in a whine that threatened, along with the curves, to break me.

Then it happened.

There’s the moment before the storm hits, the instant of quiet before an explosion. In this case, TK’s whining ceased so as to accomodate the reversal of digestion that occurred next. Before it happened, I knew it would, and then it did–all over our rental car. Yet another way he takes after me: this stomach sensitivity, all the stress of life showing up through the gut.

And so, he hurled.

I whipped around, somehow omitting the exclamatory “Oh shit” that has accompanied such eruptions (i.e., all of them) in the past. I cupped my hands and placed them in front of him, where a second later another oral waterfall began. The vomit pooled in my palms and fell through my fingers–why did I ever think they would contain it? I dove for plastic bags, wipes, yelling at TH to pull over on the non-shouldered edge of a New Zealand mountainside. He finally found a spot and we did, while LB woke up crying and TK tumbled out of the car, ripping his clothes off. Within a minute I was doused in puke beside my naked American boy overlooking stunning Kiwi scenery, wiping both of us down and wondering why we’d let him eat thirty-seven blocks of cheese at that mountaintop buffet lunch. #badideajeans.

I operate better in crisis mode than real life, the lack of time for subjective interludes and interior monologues clearing the path for forced decision-making, my biological instincts taking over: protect the children. Reach safety. CLEAN UP THE CHEESY BARF. I don’t like crises; I shun and resent them, but they bring out some essential piece of me that dispenses with nonsense and pares down to necessity. I am efficiency instead of emotion.

Luckily (?), most of life is not crisis. Which is part of the trouble, I guess.

Because earlier, we had been standing outside the hotel, our family of four, and TK had been fighting our plan to walk down to the lakefront, preferring instead the familiarity of our room. He had melted down on the steps while other guests passed us. LB was going with the flow, occasionally murmuring, “It’s okay, James,” while TH bounced between the two of them and I turned my back on the whole scene to just breathe. “I can’t do it. I’m so done,” I finally turned and said to him. “This is a nightmare.” More of a nightmare than the subsequent puke and the resulting three-day stench in our rental van. More of a nightmare than scraping regurgitated cheese from upholstery. A nightmare because I was reduced to emotion, rather than efficiency; a nightmare because it is these moments–people witnessing and judging, my patience evaporated, my own issues with shame and insecurity suddenly and forcefully tapped into–that take me to the end of myself and what I can power through, go on autopilot for.

I don’t like reaching the end of myself, the deep pits where the old secrets lie, where the truth is exposed: that there’s not enough of me for this. That I need more.

But this end, it is where so much of parenthood, so much of life, occurs: these moments between my deep regret and falling to my knees. This is where grace meets me: not in the cool efficiency of a seasoned cleaner, but in the dark emotion of a tearful mother, a broken girl, who must grieve the space between what I’d planned for and what is. The space between easy and real. The space between predictable and breathtaking.

It hurts to have my breath taken.

I sent messages later to a few of my spiritual advisers, also called friends, and lamented my reaction not to the puke but to the meltdown: my rigidity and harsh words. “Oh no,” The Sis said. “Turns out you’re human.” And then: “Don’t let this overshadow everything else.” Everything else: which is everything, really–the whispered recounting of his birth and growing up, which he’s been asking about lately; the burrowing into my body and shared moments of laughter and all the other graces that are too big to be wiped away. Another trinity of sisters texted back their own failures from that day, in their typical honesty that manages to move me while also allowing me to be still, where I am, in the grief and beauty.

There are relationships, and moments, where “I can’t do this” is not the end, but the beginning.

On the plane later, where we were so far south I swore I could see the slope of the earth from the window, we headed through the clouds. As a child I always wanted to do that: pierce the pillowy white shapes so far above me, feel the softness of them. As an adult with flights and clouds under my belt, I know that a view from the ground can be deceiving, that the journey through clouds can be fraught, that they conceal within their hazy borders bumps and frights. Turbulence. My children know that for themselves, earlier than I did. But they also know the moment we emerge, coming out the other side, together.

Ride the Wave You’re On

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I was walking through town with a friend the other day after a multiple-hour hike interrupted by a champagne lunch overlooking the beach. It was not a bad day. We had covered all major topics: family, alcoholism, holiday plans, politics, when something she said brought the following words out of my mouth: “ride the wave you’re on.” Fuelled by endorphins and one-and-a-half glasses of booze, I thought, Damn that’s good. Even though it’s one of those phrases that could be relegated to a sign in the gift shop that we had just made fun of–life’s a beach, dance like nobody’s watching, etc. But I stand by it. And also, I’m dragged under and nearly killed by it. Both true.

Another friend (I have two!) and I were recently discussing how much parenthood is like drowning. Really! Isn’t that fun? We have such great talks. Stop by for one of our back-and-forths on depression sometime! Anyway, I told her about something I’d read that compared motherhood to being caught in a riptide. You know the drill with those: the experts recommend letting the tide pull you along as you swim in its direction, parallel to the shore, rather than trying to pull yourself out of it. Eventually the tide will fade and you’ll be released naturally. Motherhood is similar: we’re pulled along by something bigger than we are in a direction we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen in any given moment. Our instinct is to try and fight the tide, pull ourselves out of it into calmer waters of our choosing. But this attempt at control will only exhaust us. We’re not meant for shore; we’re meant for more.

Seriously–where do I get this stuff? I’m on a roll.

It’s like last week, when I took the boys to the gym and afterward we headed toward the down escalator. I thought Little Brother was stepping on beside us but at the last minute, he held back. With The Kid beside me, I watched the distance between me and LB grow; I watched as his face registered what was happening and crumpled in shock and dismay and fear; I watched (and heard) as he began sobbing despite the fact that I could see him the whole time and assured him I’d be right back up for him. I watched as kind strangers attempted to comfort him and he continued to wail. There was nothing I could do until I could. And the mofo still cried the whole way out of the building as though I were a stranger nabbing him. (A muffin seemed to help.)

There are moments, so many, of waiting to find out: will this wave kill me or save me? So far, they’ve all been the latter. But I still wait, breathless, in the seemingly interminable space between not knowing and knowing, faithlessness and faith, tragedy and triumph, sorrow and joy. It’s where all of life is, I think. And I keep expecting that to end, for one final stroke to pull me from the tide and away from…life.

The moment between my children being lifted out of me and hearing their cries. The moment between when they wheeled him off to surgery and brought him back. The moment between regret and forgiveness. The moment between Atlanta and Sydney. The moment between introduction and friendship. The moment between no and yes.

Interminable moments, all of them. Especially when lived on behalf of our children.

We went to lunch on Sunday, to a place where we haven’t been in awhile, and I heard, “Hi James,” before I looked up and saw a boy from his class. A boy who has called him “Our James,” a boy who often just calls him “Jamesy.” I nudged James anxiously, as I always do, attempting to broker another social interaction: “Look, James! Say hi!”

He did, barely. Little Brother did, emphatically. Then the friend loped off to another table and I was left wondering whether to mourn a loss or let it go. Left in the moment, letting the tide move me along whether it was headed where I wanted to go or not.

I sipped my wine and waited.

A few minutes later, he came back. He was waiting for his food; we were finished with ours. He showed my boys his iPad, and a game. He invited them to his hangout underneath his table, one over from us. The three of them lay on their bellies, propped up on their elbows, and I head their laughter and conversation. I kept looking back and checking. “They’re fine!” his mom assured me.

Her words were deeper than she knew.

There’s a scene in Moana, which my children watch every day now (in between listening to the soundtrack on every car trip; #blessed) in which she is felled by a huge wave. You don’t know whether she’s going to crest it until she doesn’t. Later? She does. The waves that feel like they’re going to kill us can bring us closer to the ones that save us. The tides that pull us away? Can actually be pulling us toward.

Two Lives

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I was pushing down the crowded streets of a city, men and women in suits all around me, heels clacking on the sidewalk, sun piercing through buildings in narrow shafts of light. For an instant I was back in New York: the midday lunch crowd carrying me with it, spring in the air and with it the promise of longer and warmer days. But this wasn’t New York; there were a few dead giveaways.

There were the Australian flags waving from rooftops, the streets like “George” and “Pitt” instead of “42nd” and “5th.” There was the nearly three-year-old boy on my hip, refusing to walk despite assurances that my arm would fall off soon and groans that he was too big for this. There was the athleisure I was sporting, soaked with a layer of sweat from the gym and another from the walk from the ferry.

There was the ring I was going to retrieve: the ring I’d been given on a New York rooftop when we decided to keep saying yes to each other before we knew what it meant. The ring that had become, like me, a bit unhinged, the metal separating at a joint under the stone, which was loose. Here’s hoping vows are stronger than platinum.

I could be forgiven, I think, for transporting myself back to those American streets ten years ago, the only thing weighing me down being a knockoff designer bag and memories of bad dates. I could be forgiven, I know, for what I thought this morning: that motherhood is wonderful and beautiful and sometimes I HATE IT.

A few minutes later the ring rested around my finger. Little Brother and I sat at a cafe, where he downed two biscuits. At almost three, he’s been talking for a year, conversations indicating a vocabulary possibly more well-stocked than my own. I carried him the whole way back to the ferry while he giggled on my back. It was wonderful and beautiful and I loved and hated it.

The next day I accompanied The Kid to a birthday party down the street. A truck full of screens blasting video games sat outside the front yard. TK checked it out and quickly retreated. He checked out the playhouse, the snack table. He peeked inside the house, which was empty. I told him no, but the mom appeared beside me. “It’s okay, he can go inside,” she told me, then asked if he wanted to check out the toys. We talked for a minute before she headed back out, and I sat in a playroom with my son who didn’t speak until he was four. Recently I read something from just before the words happened–I had written about a dream I had in which he told me he loved me. And here we are, the dream having come true, but I’m still in a quiet playroom while the rest of the kids and moms (those whose kids hadn’t sent them away) mingled outside. I felt pulled toward them, the dual appeals of obligation and interest making me want to get up and walk out. TK asked me about the toys he pulled out, one by one. I imagined a life in which he was right there in the mix, playing video games and engaging in horseplay while I accepted the other moms’ invitation to go grab a cup of coffee at the beach.

I imagined that, and the thought just felt empty. It wouldn’t be him. What’s the point of that? Besides, my friend also passed on coffee and stayed with me to talk. Another life, and I would have missed so much. So many.

There is a painful beauty to what is real.

And there is “Sweet Home Alabama” blasting from the workmen’s radio as I walk to pick TK up from school. There is the city minutes away and the beach two minutes away, these two places that bring me to life. There is the working mom and the stay-at-home one, of which I’ve been both. There is the left and the right side of the road, and I’ve navigated each. There is the speechless and the never-shuts-up, the atypical and typically developing, the woman who pushed against TK getting off the ferry and the man who rushed to us, saying how rude it was and making sure we were okay. There is the New York marathon that set me running my own races and the Sydney marathon that made us miss our ferry but piled the four of us into a taxi together for yet another adventure. There is the single life I fought against, and parenthood, against which I fight too even as I try to grasp it, this slippery eel that I try to control with my promises to be kind and stay calm and DEAR GOD DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED WHATEVER YOU DO and here we are anyway, the end of each day its own mixture of pride and regret and commiseration and wine.

There are not two lives but a million I could be living, imagining myself within at any given moment. In the end, it is always this one that stays.

LB brings his letters to school and his teachers rave about his alphabet knowledge. TK fixates on cars and his head therapist wants to limit them, to broaden his interests. That’s fine. But also…he walks up to strangers now and tells them about these cars of his, connects with people he’s never met on the street and ferry. He walks up to kids and parents at school, and one mom turns to me and says, “I can see him being a car designer.” And it feels like freedom all of a sudden, this idea that I can raise the children I have, not the ones I don’t. That I can live the life I have, too.

Staying for Spring in September

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He wakes me up now with questions.

There was a time when there were no sounds, then no words, and at every stage an intervention designed to reach that next step. Once there were words, there were exercises meant to encourage questions. At first they were stilted and out of context, forced and unsure. Now, the sun comes up and he pops up beside me, grinning and filling my ear with the whys and hows and whens and wheres and I have to remind my pre-coffee, barely-conscious brain–and heart–that this is what I once dreamed of.

“We could be anywhere,” the man said as I finished my hike on the beach last week, where he was playing fetch with his dog. “The Caribbean, the South Pacific…” he trailed off. “Gorgeous weather. Beautiful water.”

It was one of those first spring days, when the sun feels brighter than it has in six months and the air holds warmth that feels like a promise, and people smile more readily, hardly believing their luck that it happened again: winter became spring. “We could be anywhere,” he said, and I thought, “But we’re here.” Which is so much of everything right now.

Last September, we boarded a plane and left Sydney on the first day of spring. This year, we’re staying, staying into our third season here, rounding the corner on our first year. We’re staying for spring this time. Staying for the removal of heat lamps outside, for the rising hems and sweatier runs, for the lengthening days. Staying for the smoke from the back-burning floating through the air, this protective measure against the brush fires of summer: burning to save. Destroying to keep.

And I feel the burn in our own lives, the hours The Kid spent in therapy now turning into words and questions. The dream I had that he was telling me “I love you”, only to awaken and find it untrue…yet. And now? As real as the sunrise, as spring following winter. His spine jutting through his skinny back, the straightness of it a function of burning–surgery–and growth, and now I feel it beneath my hand and take it for granted. The boy who fights having to dress himself, who is still inching toward being fully toilet trained, but who finishes his assignments first in computer class and waits, bored, until they can all move on because things make sense for him in that room, and within numbers and inside cars, in a way that finally makes him faster instead of lagging behind.

The burning away of all that happened before–the hospital stays, the waiting rooms, the initial scans, the lost pregnancy, the uncertainty–to get to this moment where two boys in their minion pyjamas lie pressed into each other on our bed watching Moana and singing along. All the moments I never dreamed of, never asked for, wouldn’t have chosen, being the very ones that make this one mean so much.

“You’re having a fabulous time here, aren’t you?” she asked as I dropped the kids off with her in the childcare area at the gym (creche if you’re nasty or Australian, and I’m a bit of both). I had told her about an outing the night before with friends, and we commiserated on the days that end in drinks, and we ended in laughter as usual. Last September I didn’t know her or anyone here. I was reminded of that later in the day, when TK took off his goggles during his swim lesson and popped his head above the water: “My eyes can’t see!” The only way he used to swim, goggle-less, now supplanted by a new thing and a new form of seeing. Seeing, period. All that I couldn’t see a year ago, and all that we can now, the smoke clearing and new life showing up everywhere.

Will Write for Attention

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Over here in Sydney, the eclipse didn’t occur, and a 14-hour time jump from the East Coast means I actually often receive current events updates on a delay (while lying in bed reading them on my phone at 6am). The weird FOMO/day-ahead mentality, where my daylight is your nighttime, renders me disoriented; I feel as though I’m watching the world from a distance, as a bystander to all things America. The break from that most patriotic of traditions, the 24-hour news cycle, has been healing for me: in the absence of bottom-of-the-screen news tickers, I can choose when and how I want to be informed. But who am I kidding? I have a smartphone, and Twitter (where I get most of my news now), and a bookmarked Safari page with R. Eric Thomas’ Elle articles. I’m still a slave to culture—I’m just a long-distance slave.

Luckily Entertainment Weekly (digital edition) and Rotten Tomatoes are accessible from Australia, so after I read early reviews of The Big Sick and saw that it was coming out here, I headed with a friend to see it. The next night my husband and I went to dinner with another couple and the wife was describing some health problems she’s been facing. I took in her symptoms and was struck by how they mirrored those of Emily in the movie. Feeling hopeful and more than a bit heroic, I mentioned as much to my friend, who resolved to discuss the similarities with her doctor. A few days later, she told me that there was 95% certainty she had the same disease portrayed in the film.

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

The Toe and the Tyre

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I had the thought in the middle of the chaos of the morning, as I finished shoving tiny feet into shoes and tried to make my way into the bathroom alone while voices screamed around me:

I am so unhappy.

It’s not unusual, this thought. This voice. But today, I stopped listening to it, following it down its bleak road. Instead, I questioned it.

Am I? I thought. Am I really?

Just the question was rebellious, and felt empowering. Suddenly I was suffused with possibility: the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the voice was full of shit.

I chose that road–the road of possibility–and told myself what I know: that a momentary feeling does not a life make, is not the sum of my existence. That the sight of my children can be the best part of my day, can fill me with awe and wonder. That it can also drive me mad, true, but that this madness is inextricably woven in with a fierce protection and maternal instinct and hormonal changes and biological connection beyond even my understanding. What I’m saying is, it’s complicated. And that’s okay.

What I’m saying, also, is that I’m learning to recognise the voices that would take a feeling and try to make it a definition. I’m learning which voices to listen to. It’s just that the mean ones are so loud. And total assholes.

Last week I had just broken some blinds, so I was already angry when a sharp pain came out of nowhere to land upon my big toe. I looked down and a chair was resting on my foot, while beside it stood Little Brother. Somewhere in all of this I yelled out a non-Disney-approved word, and LB scampered away. I crumpled to the floor to cradle my bleeding toe, with its now-purple nail, defying anyone to come near me with my body language. The pain was excruciating. I don’t know how we’re expected to be mothers and good citizens in moments like these, when all has fallen apart and our very bodies are just heaps upon the ground, but I waved my white flag pretty early. I’msodoneI’msodoneI’msodone, I remember thinking, the physical assaults of a day full of small children past taking its toll. Another thought entered my mind–it could have been so much worse–which I swatted away in self-pity even as I marvelled at the fact it showed up at all, a funny and misplaced-feeling gratitude gently working at the edges of my anger, another voice added to the chorus already singing “This always happens to you” and “Why is life so hard?” I allowed it to stay, on probationary status, while I continued to weep.

Later that week I was driving LB to sleep, covering the area around our house and the beach, when a kerb (Australian spelling) jumped out at my car and attacked us both. LB stayed asleep but I clenched my teeth, knowing our company-bequeathed RAV4 would not make it out of this encounter without scars. I pulled over and sure enough, the front tyre (Australian spelling) had popped. Flat. I considered just parking it there, a block from home, then imagined lugging LB and all our gear over that block and decided to take my chances. We made it home, back to our broken garage door, and I parked, texting The Husband the truth even though I wanted to feign surprise later–THIS IS SHOCKING! How ever did it happen?–while guilt ate away at my soul. Appealing, but no.

His first response was to ask if I was okay. Bastard. This kindness opened up an avenue for thoughts like “Good thing we don’t need to drive anywhere later” and “thank God it happened so close to home,” instead of my usual “why does this shit always happen to me?” (Full disclosure: this has never happened to me.)

I am an introvert with a need for solitude and quiet. Instead, I look up and am followed into the bathroom by two small people constantly in need, asking questions like “Why is it Tuesday?” and screaming about how one did something to gravely offend the other, like “He put me in time out in the shower,” as if that’s a real thing. I hear the negative, the hardest, thing the loudest: the hissing that I’m unhappy, the need that I know I’m not enough for and will never address perfectly. The worst and most confusing part is that there is an element of truth to it: there are moments when I am unhappy, when I do want to be alone. But this is not the whole story.

Because there’s the rest of it: there was the moment, between toe and tyre, when I went back to the beach that is now our beach but last year was the site of tears between school visits and home search, when all felt lost and hopeless, and now I drive by every day and say “hi water” with the two small people in the back seat. Last week I went on my own to say thank you. Thank you to the grace that changed that beach and me, that refuses to let hopeless and unhappy be the whole story. There was the moment last week when I was rushing to pick up LB because I had left TK at home with friends who had come over for a playdate, and when I got back my friend told me that he had given them a tour of the house, through every room, hadn’t stopped talking for a second so that she couldn’t get a word in. Sounds familiar, I thought, then remembered a time when it didn’t, namely the first four years of his life. How, when I had picked up LB from school, his teachers had shown me a picture of him singing to his class, performing his alphabet song while they all sat watching. How, on the way home, in the midst of my anxiety about getting to TK, a rainbow had appeared on the road ahead of LB and me then just as quickly disappeared, a gift that lasted a moment but more. How the chaotic morning routine has left me clambering for a way to not be so me during it, and so I’ve resorted to this: giving each boy a turn on my lap in which we look into each others’ eyes and I tell them how loved they are. Because people, they…we are changed when we believe we are loved. When we listen to that voice.

Unhappy? Sometimes. I mean, have you seen what’s going on in the world? But a better word may be beset. Or the one a friend and I toss back and forth with regularity, because of how all-encompassing it is: fraught. Some days I choose to add “so f-ing” in front of it, this word that means filled: with responsibilities, with voices, with burdens, with blessings, with everything.