On Painting With Toddlers and Post Traumatic Art School Disorder

“No, I’m interested in the reason we, the reason you and me need to make things.”

Jessica and I were sitting at a long picnic table on the patio of a neighborhood bar. We hadn’t seen each other in ages, and we’d chosen this spot hoping for a quiet place to share a drink and catch up. But it happened to be the bar’s one-year-anniversary, so we leaned close to listen over uneaten cubes of free birthday cake and strained our voices over the band.

“For me it was a coping mechanism. It was a means to escape. I didn’t just draw pictures of horses running in the jungle, I was with horses running in the jungle.”

“Ah, yea, but what about before that? There’s a reason we learned to draw, when other kids didn’t.”

Last week was my mom’s birthday. The day before we were to go out for a birthday dinner with her, my not-quite-two-year-old son and I sat down on the porch with a grey flower pot and a small jar of white paint. He watched impatiently while I outlined a small heart with masking tape on the grey surface of the pot. Then I handed him a paintbrush with a long red handle and set the shallow lid of the paint jar on the table.

He gripped the handle as best he could with his puffy baby hand, carefully plopped the bristles into the paint, and after a moment of study, lowered the brush to the surface of the pot. It made a bright mark on the smooth dark grey. He gasped in delight and looked up at me, asking with his look, “Ah! Did you see?”

“Yea, I saw that bub. That was great. Do you want to do it again?”

Time stretched in the sun as he painted, occasionally instructing me in his babble to rotate the pot one way or another, experimenting with different patterns and ways of making marks, all the while completely absorbed in the experiment and enamored with his results.

Leaning across the table to Jessica, still shouting over the band and with a half-empty glass tying my tongue, I said, “We love making art as kids because there’s joy in just making a mark on a blank page, you know…” [I gestured mark-making] “You know…putting the thing on the thing.”

“Ah….putting the thing on the thing. You’re so right! That is it. But what happens when we grow up?”

“We go to art school.”

We both laughed. Jessica and I both went to school for Art – she earned a degree in Graphic Design shortly before I earned mine in Painting and Drawing, and we both experience symptoms of what we’ve dubbed Post Traumatic Art School Disorder, including but not limited to: severe nausea while overhearing bystander discussions during gallery openings, excessive eye-rolling when the Institutions of Art come up in conversation, especial avoidance of any intellectual propositions tangential or directly connecting to Art, making things but specifically refusing to discuss their meaning, context, or implications, and crippling ennui.

The world was an overwhelming and unwelcoming place for the sensitive and shy little girl that I was. Drawing was the way I made it through Elementary school, though I didn’t know it at the time: in conversation with the doodles in the margins of my worksheets, safe in the alternate world I could create and continually remake.

Mostly by happenstance I developed skill at drawing. That I was able to draw became the fact that proceeded me into a room, and while I rarely had someone to play with at recess, my classmates began to commission drawings and were always pleased with the results. While I wasn’t often included socially, I began to see my drawings hung in the back of cubbies or slipped under the plastic of my classmates’ binders. In this way, by the time I left Sequoyah Elementary School I understood that drawing was both my way to create a refuge from society and also the safest way to interact with it.

After quitting twice and changing majors at least as many times, I re-enrolled at UT as Studio Art/Art Education double major. While my time engaged with the institutions of higher education was transformative in many ways and catalyzed magnitudes of positive growth, I also found myself watching helplessly while, as my level of critical and intellectual engagement with the work increased, the simple and joyful experience of making a mark on a page slipped farther and farther from my grasp.

This is not an argument against Art School, Art Theory, Art Professors, Art Museums, or any of the rest of it. But it is an argument against anything that stops us from making, and it can’t be named the number of ideas that have not been allowed to take form for fear that they would not stand up under critical inspection.

I’m grateful that at any moment I can sit down with my toddler, the best teacher of joyful, expressive, uninhibited making that there is. When I watch him draw I feel both the safety of the un-self-conscious process that he loses himself in, as well a sense of mourning because I know that it can’t last forever for him, either.

But we learn together. It’s been two years since I finished the degree, and some nights now I can sit down at my desk and draw without adverse effect. We’ve started a gallery in our house where Joseph’s paintings hang for admiration, and bit by bit my drawings gain their own ground.

A few days after our conversation, Jessica texted me: “Ok, I’m over it. Graphic design can be fun too.”

And I wrote back, only: “Yesssssss!”

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The Story of How Eye Sparkles and an MRI Machine Kindled a Brand-New Friendship

I’m so sorry I haven’t called, I’ve been dealing with some health stuff.

I’m so sorry I haven’t gotten to that yet, I’ve been dealing with some health stuff.

I’m so sorry I haven’t been around, I’ve been dealing with some health stuff.

I’m so sorry I haven’t written lately, I’ve been dealing with some health stuff.

About a month ago, I realized that there was a spot in my vision, and that had been there for days. It’s just a little spot, shaped like a teardrop turned sideways, and inside it sparkles, or shimmers, or – to use the medical term – scintillates.

The next day I left work on my lunch break to go to the doctor. The doctor ordered me down to UT Hospital that afternoon for a CT scan and an appointment with the eye specialist. A month and a slew of tests later, there’s still no viable theory. And the spot persists.

It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t interfere with my ability to read or drive or work or care for my child, but there it is – my own personal “eye sparkles” as my best friend has named them.

My body and I don’t talk much. A few days ago I was even surprised by its reflection in the window. What was that? An image made on darkened glass – a hip, a pocket in blue denim wrapped across it, the hem of an old T-shirt. In a moment the pane is dark again. What was that? Oh! That was me, that’s my body, walking past the window.

Even if we’ve never been on great terms, my body has always functioned about as well as I could hope it to and has borne my neglect and disdain with surprising resilience. For the most part we have lived our parallel lives without too much conflict, and by this I mean that my body has silently withstood my treatment of it and I have steadfastly ignored its occasional requests.

The morning I first went to see my doctor, I sat in the exam room listening through the door to the nurse on the phone scheduling me appointments for a CT Scan and to see an Eye Specialist at UT Hospital that afternoon. She wrote them down in ball point pen on a green post-it note, handed it to me, and sent me back to work.

A few hours later I wandered the endless unmarked hallways at UT, clutching my green post-it note. Find the office door, push it open, first one waiting room, then another, a nurse, another nurse, What letter do you see? Look at the yellow dot. Click the cursor. Blink. Look up. A lot more winding hallways. Another waiting room. Lie down on the bench. This might be loud. Just a few more seconds.

When I opened my eyes, they informed me cheerily that the Radiologist had already read the CT Scan, that it was normal, and that I was free to go. They already read it? Who are they? They aren’t going to talk to me? I just leave? I got up and walked out of the room, out of the office, and out of the hospital where my dilated pupils struggled against the full springtime sun.

 

A few weeks later at a different hospital I showed up for an MRI appointment after deciphering another slalom of unmarked hallways and cryptically labeled maps. A man in scrubs called my name and I followed him through several sets of doors and rooms, each with its own caution sign on the door, each door giving a stronger warning than the last. The man in scrubs gave me a hospital gown and motioned to a closet with a curtain. Then he left. I sensed the expansiveness of the complex I was in, several layers deep in the center of the hospital without the chance of light getting in. There was no one else, and no sounds but the hum of large machines resting. I took off all my clothes but my socks, and folded them neatly on top of my boots. I tied the hospital gown as tight as I could.

Eventually the man in scrubs came back for me and led me through yet another set of warning signs into a small room with a huge machine in the middle, sleeping like a hungry dog. I understood my body was going to be closely restrained and pushed into the middle of that big machine. I started asking a lot of questions:

The form I filled out asked if I have any tattoos, is that going to be a problem?

No.

Are you going to restrain my head?

Yes.

How long is this going to take?

About forty-five minutes, once we get started (he glanced in irritation at his watch).

Are you going to give me contrast?

Yes.

What’s that like? Don’t some people get nauseous?

Some people do. Most people are fine.

He tried to start an IV in my right arm, but after a while said only,

“That vein blew, so we’re going to have to try the other side.

What do you mean my vein blew? What does that mean?

Sometimes it gets puffed up, and then you can’t get the IV in it.

He pushed earplugs into my ears, covered my eyes with a wash cloth, and screwed a restraint down over my head. At the last second he pushed something rubber into my hand. “If you need anything while you’re in there just squeeze this.” The bench raised up and I sensed the closeness of the machine.

I climbed deep into a rarely accessed chamber, where I wrapped a blanket around myself and waited for a sign that it was safe to come out.

After seeing four doctors and close to 20 medical professionals of varying titles, we still don’t know anything, no one has any ideas, and no one is calling to check on me. At some point in the middle of all of this, I started talking to my body. The dehumanizing experience that is inherent in the current Healthcare System put us on the same side of the struggle for the right to be cared for. It looks like we might end up being friends after all.

Ironically, the only test that’s returned any helpful information was an allergy panel that I requested myself on a hunch. The nurse who called with the test results told me that I “have multiple allergies” and that the doctor recommended that I “see an allergist, because you have so many allergies,” but refused to read me the list because “it’s like six pages and all I do all day long is make phone calls.” She agreed to mail me my results, but warned that it could take up to two weeks.

The list included a number of things I ate almost every day: Wheat, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, soy. Plus a bunch of things I rarely eat, like scallops.

So this morning I had to have a little talk my new friend, my body. It’s not that I don’t want to take care of you, or that I don’t want to work together, it’s just that we’ve never really had that kind of relationship before and I’m just afraid of commitment.

I’m three weeks into my new wheat-nut-soy-seafood-free diet, and while my eye-sparkles are not gone, they are sparkling at a much lower frequency. There’s still no conclusion – or even any ideas – from The Doctors about what it could be. But this is not a case study. Nor is it an essay about the many failings of American Healthcare. This is a story about how I finally, timidly, just maybe, am tip-toe-ing into friendship with my body.

 

 

 

Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind

IMG_1144As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I started digging through bookshelves, reading lists, cardboard boxes, anywhere I might find a book about motherhood or parenting or birth that included my experience. I have been digging for 18 months now. As a young person with radical politics, who has made alternative lifestyle choices, who came of age in the punk scene as an artist and an organizer, whose path to motherhood and immediately single-motherhood was ‘bumpy’ at best: when I performed the ritualistic anxious reading of What to Expect When You’re Expecting I couldn’t help feeling like they were talking about someone else. Someone with a husband and a house and a steady job and a 401K, someone who probably has a lawn and a reliable car that was made after 1983. Someone who is supposed to have kids.

Where was the book for mothers with non-traditional family structures? Where was the book for mothers who ride bikes and hang out at punk houses, who grow gardens and organize and spend their spare time seam ripping Goodwill dresses? What about mothers who still want to fuck shit up, who want to raise our kids and stay in the movement? Stay in the community? Stay who we are?

As equally as I couldn’t locate myself within the narrative of “motherhood” that’s most affirmed in our society, I also couldn’t locate myself as a mother in the scene I’d come of age in. I’d fallen into a crack between the worlds.

A few weeks ago I found the book I’ve been looking for. One of my oldest friends, Jonathan – who does not have kids himself- asked if I wanted to be part of a book club to read Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (Published 2012 by PM Press, compiled and edited by Victoria Law and China Martens).

It’s a collection of short essays, stories & lists, written by parents of varying identities who are part of radical movements & communities. Reading, I felt how one does when your experience is affirmed – Oh, it’s not just me – that’s a real thing. In a very candid voice, the essays convey the mixed experiences of becoming a parent as a member of a radical community – the unique challenges and misunderstandings, specific concerns and difficulties, the ways they asked for and received support, built structures of mutual aid, and kept on living their lives and doing their work. The crack between the worlds all-but closed in my mind.

In the convening of our book club we focused our conversation primarily on how we could better support the parents & children in our community. The book itself provided a lot of concrete ideas for supporting families, and we brainstormed some specific adaptations for our place, time, and needs – a kid corner at our local community space, baby proofing at punk houses, non-parents offering regular childcare help, parents taking turns having sleepovers giving each other a night off.

One thing I hear from non-parents is, Wow, I had no idea. I never would have thought of that – I don’t have kids. It is the nature of humans that empathy only extends so far beyond what we have experienced ourselves. And so I share this list – it is incomplete, but it is a list of ideas affirmed both by the stories in Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, and stories told in conversations between the parents in my life.

Concrete ways you can support families in your community:

  1. Affirm, affirm, affirm – Anyone who falls outside the mainstream narrative of what parents should be will have their parenting questioned and criticized with a regularity that parents closer to the center won’t experience. For myself, as a single mom, there are huge swaths of my parenting that no one even sees (like on the nights I only sleep 4 hours because my kid is getting a tooth, or how I have read the same bedtime story 31 days in a row with enthusiasm and creativity). Affirm the parents around you: I see how hard you are working. You’re doing a great job with your child. We are glad you are part of our community. I think it’s so cool that you do _________.
  1. Build relationships with the kids around you. We want our children to be welcomed as valued members of the community, just like the rest of us. Not comfortable with kids yet? Engage with them just like you would anyone else: What’s your name? What are you interested in? What games do you like to play? Be who you are. When you have a good relationship with a kid in your community, you are more able to step in and support parents in organic ways – like taking a rambunctious toddler for a walk outside to look at birds, or playing with a child at a potluck so their parent can sit and eat.
  1. Baby & toddler-proof your house. We promise we still want to come hang out with you, but if your floor is too filthy to put our baby down or we have to spend the whole visit keeping our kid from choking on bike parts or pulling rickety bookshelves over on themselves, we’re probably going to start declining invitations. If baby-proofing the whole house is too much work (which it may well be), just choose one room. Don’t know how? Ask for tips. Keeping it tidy all the time won’t work? Just sweep before the next house show! We appreciate even small gestures.
  1. Organize childcare. Any event or meeting where it is not appropriate to have children in the room needs to have childcare. If you can’t organize childcare, or your event is intentionally intergenerational, an organizer should make an announcement at the beginning of the meeting that is something like this: Children are welcome here, and we are fine with their noise and movement. Better yet, integrate children into the event – give them a job to do, plan workshops in a way that will engage children as well, make space for their voices and ideas to be heard.
  1. Ask questions. We want to talk about being parents, we want you to be interested in our lives – especially the mundane details that can feel so harrowingly isolating, like exactly how many times my baby woke up between 1:00 and 5:00 last night, or how long it took me to scrub the oatmeal off the wall, or why I think his bedtime routine isn’t taking hold. Make sure you ask if it’s wanted before you offer advice.
  1. Make concrete offers of support. While it’s great to hear, Hey, if you ever need any help just let me know! I’m down! open-ended offers still leave the burden of asking on the parent. Asking for help is guilt-inducing and often we won’t do it without having a “good” reason. It’s even better to hear, Hey, next Thursday night I’m free. Can I come hang out with your kid while you go out and do whatever you want? Because the answer is yes.
  1. Read. Read Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, or find another rad book about supporting parents. Organize a book club or a workshop or a community discussion. Ask parents how they feel and what they need. Just like anything else, educate yourself.

 

All my love and solidarity to the parents and families doing the improbable work of raising healthy beings in this crazy world, and to all the folks who hold us up and share the labor.

 

Seeing Robins, Part II

Ahead of me a man stepped off the sidewalk but his feet didn’t catch him. I heard the wet sound of his flesh and then the heavy knock of bone hitting the cold pavement of the road. He didn’t get up.

I had walked to the library, and I was now returning. The day was cold, the wind unrelenting, finding it’s way to bite at your most tender places. I hunched my shoulders against it inside my coat.

A man in a black suit had seen him fall, he snorted and said to no one in particular: You can’t drink and walk at the same time, before opening the glass door of a marble building and stepping out of the wind.

A woman with short grey hair looked down off the sidewalk at the man laying there in the road. She took out her phone. Does he need an ambulance? She asked. I stopped walking. Men were all around him, having risen from the shelter of the bus stop. Four men’s rough hands gripped his jacket to lift him. Their hands were bare to the winter day. They were cracked and raw. I never saw his face.

One of them looked at me: I don’t want to involve you with this situation, ma’am. His eyes were blue, glazed blue, as if un-seeing, but he looked at me. To the other woman he said: Yes. Go ahead and call. You had better. He put his arm around the man’s body like they were just going for a good long walk, but the feet never took ground.
Then I walked away.

Walking again into the wind all I could hear was the sound of his face hitting the concrete and myself just standing there. For days my visions had been full of robins, robins stepping off from the branches, as – I had observed – as one steps off the sidewalk: casually and perhaps with pleasure to float across the open space of sky as the sun settles behind the ridge. I had named myself saved by these robins and their stepping off, called by them to live again in the world of the numinous and the ordinary, to be a creature in the world of creatures.
And just as quickly I am shown the smallness of my sight. To be a creature among creatures means to stand at the edge of the water at sunset and watch the robins flying for sheer joy in the last light, and next to watch helplessly the slow stumble towards death.

It means to hold hands with suffering, to be revealed to your own inadequacy, to know always that once you walked away. Should I have stayed? Perhaps. But they told me to leave, and my son needed picked up from school, and any number of other things that draw us along self-centeredly preserving our own lives.

Now when I walk past that place on the sidewalk I look down into the road, looking for a stain of blood or some sign that a man’s body had lain there, unmoving, that it was grasped by four bare hands and lifted. I look for the man with the blue eyes, I want to ask him – is he alive? Where is he now?

But who am I to know these things? I, who walked away.

 

Seeing Robins

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For a time when I was a child I carried an imaginary bird in my cupped hands.

One year, during this time, we visited my mother’s family in Cleveland, Ohio. I carried my bird into the living room. My cousin of the same age, Emma, peered down into my empty hands.

“There’s no bird.” She said it matter of factly.

“It’s a pretend bird, it’s imaginary,” the adults scrambled to explain.

“There’s no bird.”

The adults quickly diverted us to a new game, wary of Emma’s ruthless disbelief shattering my fragile and sensitive imagination, but I wasn’t bothered if she couldn’t see my bird. That meant it was just mine.

Last year I inherited a book about birds from my grandfather. Or, rather, I chose it from a cardboard box my aunt set on the beige carpet.

The National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America. The first page is inscribed in blue ball point pen “Merry Christmas to Ron from George,” in the small, neat cursive of a different time and offering a window into my now-gone grandfather. He must’ve had an interest in birds to have received this gift from Aunt George.

I kept the book because of the drawings. On each page is an arrangement of perfectly rendered birds: the male, the female, the juvenile, winter and summer variations, as seen from below or above, wings outstretched. I was surprised to find I could identify a number already: the Red-tailed Hawk, the Northern Bobwhite, the Mourning Dove, the Whip-poor-will, Black-capped Chickadee. But how many birds I had never heard of, and what wonderful names! The Olive-tree Pipit, the Loggerhead Shrike. I pored over the index marveling at all the ways a bird can be differentiated from it’s cousin: tufted, ruddy, ring-necked, masked, spectacled, brown-capped, gray-crowned, rosy, red-shafted, yellow-shafted, spot-billed, tufted, bristle-thighed, common.

When we got home, I put the book on my shelf and returned to the demands of life as I knew it.

Years later, I took the baby – now a toddler – to the woods to walk in the afternoon. He had been sick, and I had been feeling awfully sad, trapped alone at home caring for him. This day was no exception. I dragged us out of the house with force, parked the car on the gravel, set down the hand-me-down baby back pack on the bright crushed-limestone.

But my son didn’t want to get in the backpack. He wailed, arching his back, kicking his feet and clinging to my jacket shoulders with tears streaming down his face. I sighed and sat down on a rock. Peaceful couples strolled by with well-behaved dogs, casting glances.

“We’re just gonna try it, okay? We can’t go into the woods if you don’t ride in the backpack,” I explained to him. Eventually I just wrestled him into the backpack, strapped him in crying, and swung him onto my back.

“We’re just gonna try it, okay?” I needed this walk. If he kept crying, I’d turn back, but we had to try.

Eventually the tears settled down to intermittent protests. I pointed out what we could see as we walked towards the edge of the woods: “Look! do you see the dried grasses? There, do you see the sycamore?” Each time he paused, and looked, and went back to crying. I kept walking.

Not far under the cover of the trees, we came upon the robins.

What a miracle are robins flying in the last light of the day, the light caught only in the bones of the sycamore branches and the wire-y tree-tops.

“Look, baby. Do you see the birds?” I pointed again. We stood and watched them.

I don’t know what the miracle of the robins is, but I do know that as I stood watching them I was all at once able to feel the trees just there and the wind in them. I felt me leave myself standing there, and the safeness of being a creature among creatures wrapped me up. I let all the breath out of my lungs for the first time in weeks.

Later we stood on the edge of the cliff, in a spot where the earth is packed flat by so many feet and only the hardiest of small green leaves dare to bud out. From here the square walls of the marble quarry curve around to hold the green pool and the wind rushes across unbroken and emboldened by the vastness.

“The robins are here, too – look!” I pointed at the sky as it faded to gold. They were crossing joyfully the space above the bowl of water, above even Joseph and I standing there on the cliff.

Birds do not rise from the branches, they simply step off – as one steps off the side-walk into the street – with wings outstretched, and we watched them stepping from spindly branches into the sky. Their red breasts were amber in the last light and as we stood watching the sun sank into the whiskery black trees and then slipped silently behind the ridge.

Overnight, Joseph’s runny nose bloomed into a fever. The next day we stayed home again, and I staved off my sadness busying myself with the tidying of our three room apartment. Joseph had been babbling for some time before it finally slipped through and caught my attention. He was in the window, balancing on his tip toes on the sill and jabbing his finger into the glass pointing wildly at something outside. He looked back at me, pointed again, “That!”

“What do you see, bub?” I knelt behind him and we looked out together. From here you can see the asphalt shingles of the roof of the downstairs apartment, the roof of the neighbor’s house, the trunk of the maple tree, and in between a small patch of the quiet street below. And there, where our roof ends in a gutter, was a robin. She was drinking, dipping her whole body down to submerge her beak in the melted snow of the gutter and then tipping it back – the way one drinks the last swallow from a deep glass – bobbing her throat in and out all while keeping one wild black eye trained on us.

“Oh, you see a robin.” I knew then that we had done it. I sat down beside him and we watched, first this robin drink the water, then fly to a branch in the maple tree, and then out of sight. We kept vigil at the window, watching the robins as they came in and out of our sight, pausing to arrange their feathers in the branches or drink the cold water from our gutter.

I had shown Joseph the robins, and he in turn had taught me how to see them again.

For days I let myself wonder what all these robins are up to. Must I embark on this divergence? I thought. Already I have too many threads and I am always dropping one or another or letting them get all tied up in knots. The last thing I needed was to be called to the distraction of researching robins. Still, they wouldn’t leave me alone – in my thoughts and at the window, in the yard of the church as I push Joseph in the stroller, filling the limbs of trees everywhere we go.

I was driving when I remembered the bird book. Back at home, Joseph asleep for the night, I searched in the index for Robin. There it was, between Greater Roadrunner and Common Rosefinch: Robin, American, Clay-colored, Rufous-backed, 330.

American Robin

“Gray-brown above, with darker head and tail; bill yellow; underparts brick red; lower belly white […] Common and widespread, the Robin brightens both forest and suburb with its loud, liquid song, a variable cheerily cheer-up cheerio.

When a curious thought won’t let you go, you might give it a little nod. You might take the book from the shelf and run your finger down the pages of the index. You might give it your attention, and ask this question: Where are we going?

All this time, I have been asking myself Where has the poetry gone? I have worried my fingers, wondering how – subsumed under the weight of the tedious and mundane tasks of motherhood – how I would ever access that transcendent place, the feeling of being a creature among creatures. Simply the feeling when you remember that you are alive, and so is everything else.

I have looked everywhere for this feeling, and it turns out I only needed to remember how to see birds.

Each morning, after I’ve risen and dressed and gotten Joseph dressed and made us both breakfast and fed him and eaten something myself and had a few sips of coffee and packed our lunches and our bags and gotten our shoes and coats and hats and mittens on and finally carried Joseph and my mug of cold coffee and my backpack and his basket out and loaded everything in the car and buckled him into his carseat, I kiss him on the forehead and then I shut the car door.

Joseph peers out the window and up into the maple tree that leans across our neighbors fence. He points to the branches, and then waves, holding his puffy little hand close to his mouth saying over and over, “Bye-ah, bye-ah.” When I turn to look, the silhouette of a bird steps off the black line of a branch into the grey air.

 

 

Madonna and Child

Day

I spent the morning running errands in the cold morning, and all morning I missed my son. I missed him tangibly, with my whole body. I went back to our apartment, lay down in my bed and slept restlessly, unsatisfied. In a time not so distant this feeling came in the absence of a partner – the familiar weight of a hand resting on my skin or the intimacy of common experience. Now my loyalty rises to this: my only son and the imperfect family that we are. This apartment does not comfort me as a home does without his chubby fingers pulling open the cabinet doors, without the sound of small feet running unevenly, the questioning “Dhaa?” as he lifts a book to me.

I picked Joseph up from school and we went home to eat apple slices together at the kitchen table. We sat on the couch under a green army blanket and read the same two books again and again and I started to feel better. I had just wanted to be near him – separated I felt un-anchored, in danger of drifting off.
When I say it is time to go to bed he takes my first two knobby fingers in his little puffy red ones and waves goodnight to the kitchen table, to his bicycle and his books still lying open on the couch. He climbs into his bed and I kiss his cheek and then his head behind his ear. I read aloud as he drifts off beside me, his eyes blinking, and then closed, then his breathing slow and deep. I close the book and watch him breathe before returning to the other work that must be done.

This is the dream of motherhood, the world of magic we inhabit somewhere between the myth and this moment, where the love lifts us up as sparks from the bonfire reach up into the night.

Night

I wake to a wailing cry and the hard knot in my stomach. He must be hurting but how can I know where? I sit impotently at his bedside, pushing my fingers through hair quickly matting dark with tears and sweat and snot. I lift him into my lap and he arranges himself in perfect symmetry, one little foot on either side of my hips, his ear pressed to the center of my chest where the bones push out against the skin. He sighs into quiet and then sleep.

Dawn

When I wake again it is to excited babbling. He is talking quickly, “The sun is almost here, mama! Wake up! Let me tell you about my dream,” he seems to say. “Good morning bub,” I grab his head and kiss it. He flops on top of me, then picks his head up laughing. The windows are not yet light. We rise, boil water in a copper kettle, eat our breakfast of oatmeal from a blue bowl.

It is beginning to snow. I dress Joseph for school wondering if they will go outside, if he will be warm enough, if the other children are kind to him. I wondered how the mothers of this valley might have labored on a morning such as this, before there were windows out of which to watch the snow and all our artifices of security.

What work belonged to the native women of this valley? How did they carry their babies? Close to their bodies, under blankets and furs? I am driving us across the river, just downstream of the place where the Holston meets the French Broad. What if the bridges were gone? What if I couldn’t reach him? I see myself placing boots side by side on the frozen mud. I might not survive swimming the river, I think, but I would have to.

Love is at once mythological and ordinary. Today it is dressed in the trappings of school lunches, zipped jackets, bedtime rituals, but I know myself to be in the company of the Gods. Who was the first mother? I see Eve in the garden, eating an apple, waking up and remember the apple tossed into my backpack this morning – the one that was on sale last weekend when Joseph pushed the grocery cart between my feet.

Once, very pregnant, I squatted on a river bank and lifted the water to my face. I knew the geometry of that moment was sacred. In such a gesture I felt the strength of every woman squatted by the river, heavy with the weight of life, and in it also the strength of every apple tree whose gnarled branches have borne the hard round fruit through the turning of the season.

I brought Joseph home for the first time in the afternoon. I struggled to keep up with the nurse as she led me out the winding passageways of the hospital (a new mother couldn’t be expected to find her way out on her own). That night I lay with him on the mattress on the floor in my bedroom, his head on my chest and my face bent to his, smelling his yet-unwashed hair. In the stillness of that moment holiness washed over us as a tide claims the shore.

I took a photograph of us, and later people would tell me: You look like the Madonna and child. And we are, each of us, at least as monumental, at least as sacred. Motherhood ties us irrevocably to the ground: having participated in bearing life we become the kind of love that keeps us tethered to the work of survival and that is as sublime as Creation itself. We are forever to be both the holy icon and the aching mundane. Sitting on a footstool by the child’s bed not knowing what hurts, rising in the morning to serve oatmeal in a blue bowl, kneeling by the river.

mamababy-copy the-madonna-and-child-il-sassoferrato

Thoughts on Self-care from Someone Who Doesn’t Know Anything About Self-care

It’s interesting to find myself writing an article about Self-care, because frankly I loathe articles about Self-care. This is because I have deplorable Self-care practices, and even the most well-intentioned article leaves me feeling worse than when I started. Not only do I feel lousy because I’m not taking care of myself, I now have one more reason to beat myself up in my head: Why can’t I just meditate every once and a while, or do yoga, or manage to keep a regular exercise routine, or eat a balanced diet full of whole foods? The irony of the fact that I regularly harangue myself – for not taking better care of myself – does not escape me.

In reality, I figure I’m doing pretty good if it’s been less than five days since I last took a shower, or if I’ve slept more than six hours consecutively any night in the last week.

A child of our productivity-centric culture, I have always prioritized what I can achieve over maintaining the self that makes the achievements. Since becoming a single parent, my priorities schema has transformed into something more like a triage situation. I can only tend to the part of my life that is [most] gushing blood. This metaphor took on so much weight that recently when I explained the feeling to a friend, he responded with Yeah, I get the feeling. You know there’s whole different theories of triage out there. And I thought, Theories of Triage? Gee, I should really look into that. As though I could find valuable life maintenance advice in Triage Theory [and maybe you can, but I decided against pursuing that research].

So it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I came down with a stomach bug (the equivalent of myself being the [most] gushing blood), and was forced to sleep for a night and a day- calling in Grandparent-support to get Joseph to school in the morning – that I realized it was time to think about Self-care.

Recently a friend shared a great article with me dealing with Self-care after trauma called Kaleidoscopes of Chaos – How Traumatic Boundary Violations Destroy The Capacity for Self-Care by Heidi Hanson on her site The Art of Healing Trauma.

The most helpful part of this article was her metaphor of the swimming pool.

“It’s like this. Imagine you set up a nice swimming pool in your yard, the kind with the tall circular wall and blue lining. Then suddenly a car runs into your swimming pool and the walls break and all the water falls out all over the lawn. Then someone comes up to you and asks, ‘Do you want this swimming pool lining patch? It’s a really nice one. When my rose bush dropped a branch into my pool and it scratched the lining, I patched it right up with this! It’s a great way to take care of yourself. It feels so nice to take a little time for self-care. And the pool lining will be so beautiful, too!’

The problem is, at that level of boundary violation there really is no swimming pool lining anymore. It’s irrelevant. The car needs to be towed. And that life needs rebuilding.”

In this metaphor, the water is the self, and the pool lining is your boundaries. As a Nice Southern Woman who likes to take care of people and generally doesn’t say No, my swimming pool has been like one big pool party for most of my life. Every once and a while someone else will saunter up and ask to get in, and I’ll think Well, gee, there’s not much more space, but they look like they could use a nice swim. And so they climb in too, and pretty soon the water is splashing over the edge and the lining is bulging at the seams. I might feel a little scattered and a little worn thin, but mostly it feels okay because this is how it’s always been.

In this way, my understanding of Self has been me + everyone I’m taking care of. Which explains why, when my counselor says “You need to work on saying No (and get people out of your swimming pool),” it’s hard to understand. But that’s my Self. Who will I be? Won’t I be lonely?

This metaphor also helps me understand how it can be easy for someone dangerous to slip in and start poking little holes. They might throw everyone else out and it might feel good for a time to just have that one person floating around – you might even feel grateful to them. And then after a time all it takes is one good kick and your swimming pool lining goes out and the water spills all over the lawn in one big gush. This is when normalized boundary violations become traumatic boundary violations and loss of Self. Sometimes the trauma might be external and out of your control, like Hanson’s car crashing into the swimming pool.

Self-care Post Trauma means building a new swimming pool liner, and filling it up with new water. It might look exactly the same, and be in the same place, but it’s a different swimming pool. When I came home pregnant from Idaho, the first thing I did was start making a quilt. I didn’t exactly want to make a quilt – my Self was so destroyed that I couldn’t access any active interests – but I remembered that I used to like making quilts, and so I made a quilt: following the process like a map back to who I am.

It’s been two years since that winter that I came home, and I’m starting to feel impatient about this whole building a new swimming pool thing. But when I’m honest with myself I’m still far from finished with this work. The thing is, I want to build myself up with something sturdier this time. I’ve never done this before, and I am needing to do a lot of experimenting with new materials. I’m collecting drops of rainfall as I can, but I am continually unsatisfied – moving what water I have to temporary holding pools while I begin construction again and again – this time with clay, the next with brick and again with river stones.

I am getting closer and closer, but until that time when I have a safe and strong place for my waters to be held, I need realistic Self-care goals. I need Not One More Thing to Feel Discouraged Because I Can’t Accomplish It Self-care goals, I need Not One More Thing On My To-Do List Self-care goals.

Knowing that I need to start small and because it is sometimes still difficult for me to remember what makes me feel good, I wrote a list of things I can do in less than ten minutes when I realize I need some Self-care. Here are some of the things I wrote:

– Call a friend to say hi

– Put on clothes that feel good

– Take a dance break

– Mark one thing off your To-Do list, even if you don’t finish it

– Choose one room and tidy it

– Write a list of 10 things you enjoy doing

– Write a list of 10 things you are proud of yourself for

– Put on clean socks

– Make the bed

The list goes on. If this idea sounds like it might help you, please borrow it. If you’re killing it at Self-care, I’m so happy for you. If you have a similar story, or this resonates with you in some other way, I’d love to hear it. As they say, we walk this path together, and I am buoyed by your tales of struggle and reclamation.

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Artist In Residence in Motherhood, Part II: Process

Christmas was hard this year, harder than usual. My son was out of school for two weeks, all our routines got off, we both stopped sleeping, I pieced together childcare for one week and traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and back the next, with no one but me to provide structure for my emerging toddler and myself.

Before it all began, I knew this wasn’t going to be good for my writing practice. When Joseph is in school I spend one day a week at a desk with my work. But when there is no school and only just barely enough willing and loyal friends to piece together childcare for my responsibilities to my employer, the luxury of sitting at a desk and following a train of thought all the way to its end was simply not a possibility.

At the beginning of my Artist In Residence In Motherhood (AIRIM), I adapted the manifesto of Lenka Clayton, founder of AIRIM:

Like all new mothers, the birth of my child ignited a process of transformation – both internal in my person and external in the structures of my life – that is ongoing still even as my son has crossed into his second year. Among the tectonic shifts has been in the way that I myself and others see my career as an artist. It is a commonly held perception that the serious artist and the good mother are mutually exclusive endeavors. I actively reject this notion and choose to instead present the idea that my work as an artist strengthens my capacities as a mother and my life as a mother deepens my work: that they inform one another. I undergo this self-imposed Artist Residency in order to fully experience the unique challenges and structures of being both a Working Artist and a Single Mother, to make the best use of the material and resources at hand, and to allow these circumstances to shape the direction of my work rather than doggedly attempting to work “despite” them.

As I gazed into the expanse of holiday mess devoid of the structure that allows for my so precious working time, something drew me back to this manifesto. I was reminded that at the center of this residency is an aspiration to allow my understanding of being a working artist and being a mother to be transformed from mutually exclusive to mutually beneficial. My goal is an acceptance of ‘what is’ and to allow inventive new ways of working to emerge from the various limitations of motherhood instead of resisting those limitations and attempting to work in the same old ways despite them.

I realized that I hadn’t allowed this transformation to happen at all. To me, writing has meant sitting down and typing or scribbling, undistracted, at a desk for as long as it takes to get the thought out. Up to this point, the residency had been helpful in that it validated my creative life and helped me to make space for it, but I had simply claimed time to work in the same way I always have: long interrupted stretches at the coffee shop while my child is being otherwise cared for.

Unwilling to abandon my writing for two weeks, I was going to have to be a little more inventive. So I made a plan in two parts:

  1. I would keep an almanac, and
  2. I would continue a documentary photo series through my Instagram feed.

The goal of the Almanac was simply to document in short entries the facts of our days. For example:

December 23, 2016

“Spent all morning cleaning the apartment. Carried 14 lbs of diapers to the trash. After living here two months, finally assembled the spray mop and attempted to clean the floor. Immediately after putting the mop away I stepped on a chunk of Joseph’s lunch, and kicked it under the table.”

The photo series was a continuation of an exploration I began Mid-December which looks at the boundaries of self through images of windows and what obscures them.

(You can check out the photographs on Instagram @lwhulse)

Both were uncomplicated assignments I could achieve simply in moments between caring for my son and socializing with family, but remarkably both produced significant effect. The almanac was like holding a mirror up to my face, showing me where my internal processes in a way that on multiple accounts allowed me to shift the narrative or make discoveries that had previously been obscured. The photo series kept me engaged in thinking through image and through metaphor, and allowed me to continue to reckon with what it means to have boundaries even through my most fragmented and distracted days.

But the most important thing that happened is that when I (again) stopped resisting the limitations of motherhood and seeing them in opposition to my creative work, my resentment evaporated and the depression and weariness that dogged me lightened. This transformation mirrors the one that has in a broader way been in process since Joseph’s conception – the more I resist my new life as a mother, the more resentful I feel of all it’s limitations, the choices that led me here, and my experiences in the relationship with Joseph’s father.

On the other hand, when I accept the inevitable transformation I am able to see what is good in me and my life that I would have never found or created otherwise, I am able to see the change as growth and the limitations as creative. I say that this has been in process for a long time because I have resisted more often than I have accepted and I have resented more often than I have been able to see growth. Surrounded by single child-less friends, I often externalize my resentment, casting it at all those who have opportunities that are now closed to me. I am often angry at myself, for not being able to maintain my old self while simply adding on “good mother” to the hats I wear each day.

But on the best days I know that motherhood has catalyzed growth that could have otherwise consumed the rest of my twenties, and which obviously benefits my work. I know that it has drawn out my dedication, my gumption, and my strength. It has given me cause to fight for my ability to create, shown me the sacredness of the pursuit, and transformed the lens I look out through. I can only hope that all this inevitably shows up in the work, but I know for certain it shows up in my approach to making it.

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Merry Christmas Mess

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A few weeks ago I sat at a big table for a committee meeting, and we went around the table from person to person for “Check-in” before the meeting began.

One woman said: Things have just been so crazy. I’m accepting the fact that there aren’t going to be any Christmas letters this year, and that’s okay. They tell a lie anyways, right? [we all break up laughing] Like, ‘Everything’s greeeeeaaaaat! Except it’s not, I’m freakin’ out over here, but I hope you’re having a good time…’

We are all familiar with the uncommon pressure that the Holiday Season puts on us: to be happy, to make nice, to at least appear as though we have our sh*t together even though nobody ever does.

Christmas letters are one of the most tangible ways we are pressured to put a perfect foot forward for the Holidays. There are certainly wonderful things about the Christmas letter. They provide a chance to celebrate together, even across great distances, our successes of the year. It is an opportunity to check in, to stay in touch and maintain our loving relationships. But when I read a Christmas letter, I cannot help but see between the lines and wonder what all was left out and why.

Last year about this time, a friend and I started joking about what our Christmas letters that year would say if we wrote them. We had both had uniquely difficult years, filled with struggles and failures, and we just about peed our pants laughing over the parody Christmas letters. I liked the thought so much I went home and actually wrote one:

This year, Lauren left her abusive partner after she discovered she was pregnant and moved back in with her mom. Her ex, after following her back to her hometown and stalking her for several months, finally left and stopped calling. To date, he has sent her $43 in child support, and it doesn’t look like there’s any more coming.

It’s less painful to write about the failures of that year because they are further away, and easier now to laugh about.

This year, there are plenty of joyous things to share: Like getting a job that I love and then and then a second job; like moving into this really wonderful little apartment in a neighborhood where I have always wanted to live; like celebrating my son’s first birthday, first steps, first teeth, first day at school, his budding beautiful personality; like my growth into writing, starting a blog, publishing my first piece and then my second; the brilliant and loving community I have here and the new friendships that have been born, the old friendships that are still steady and strong.

But there’s plenty of things I’d want to leave out: Like how we’re still not quite making ends meet, or how my jaw is always sore because I’m having nightmares again and grinding my teeth in my sleep, or how lonely I am in this little apartment by myself or how I have been hurt by people I love and how I have hurt them, or how futile it feels to try to build a barrier, however temporary, between my child and the world we live in, or how I do not always have hope. Even the little things, like how I still can’t make a decent pancake and I never put the laundry away without letting it sit for a few or five days, or how sometimes I look at the dishes in the sink and just can’t bear to wash them, or how many cups of coffee it takes to get me through from dawn to bedtime, or the fact that even as I am writing this I am eating chocolate cookie dough directly out of the refrigerator with a spoon.

Even as I write the list of things I would leave out of my Christmas letter, I am leaving things out. Things that are too shameful and disappointing to write down, even in a post about sharing the shameful and disappointing parts of life.

A Christmas letter is something like the rest of social media, it is a chance to share a carefully curated version of your life. But if we only ever show the perfect parts, we create a false and destructive reality for ourselves and for everyone else. What I have been asking myself is, what am I leaving out and why?

There are many good reasons to leave things out. We have boundaries, we have parts of our lives that are personal and private. It is as though we know that not every part of us will be safe with everyone, and so we show only the parts that have been burnished to a hard and shining surface. It’s okay to protect yourself this way. It’s also okay to admit that everything is not always great, even at Christmas.

This is the closest thing to a Christmas letter I’ll write this year, and if you must know the truth: this year has been a mess. It has been a beautiful, terrible, mixed-up, full, lovely, awful mess. I have grown, and I have just barely survived. I have loved mothering, and I have hated it. I have been filled with hope, and I have been filled with the emptiness of despair. I have learned patience and I have learned where it ends. I have felt surrounded by love and support, and I have felt the ultimacy of my isolation. I have not been certain that I could do it, I have been certain that I could not do it anymore, and I have done it, somehow, anyways.

Perhaps my greatest achievement this year (and it is a tenuous grasp I have on this knowledge) is the acceptance of the fact that we will always have both, that the hope and the despair run right alongside each other and are mixed up all together, and that if we are to have a full life we will just have to accept the mess.