Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Perfectionism kills what might otherwise be a fairly decent time

As I lay next to my son this morning, trying to ease him into a nap, I wrestled again with the thought that I haven't written lately. Being sick for the past two weeks, I've had this thought about a thousand times as I shuffle around the house in my slippers getting tea and changing diapers. My brain of course seizes on this short-term reality and instead of comforting me with "You're sick, plus it's winter, just go with it," it taunts me with, "Well, that's it, no more writing in you, Loser. Thought you were so special for creating a blog and now look at you, just a couple of weeks into it and you're totally stalled out." It's relentless. Needless to say, I have been feeling increasingly worthless and morose.

This is why I don't like being sick. The physical symptoms are usually bearable. It's the fact that when my body needs to rest, my mind can get contemptuous. As a result, I don't get sick all that often, and rarely for this long. My sister called the other day after reading one of my last posts and wanted to see if I was feeling better. I told her, "I don't really do anything." She replied, "That's okay, I do a lot, and none of it means anything." We laughed. She was feeling equally emotionally stricken, and I instantly felt better. If there was some external thing out there oppressing us all, it couldn't just be that I am a total failure, right?

So, back to bed this morning. I was listening to the stream in my head that I'd heard many times already in the past several days: "I wonder if I'll ever have another good idea to write about. Why haven't I been able to write? Is the only good writing I ever do about conflict and negativity? If I give up sarcasm for Lent will I have anything at all left to say? Real writers wouldn't go through this..." Then another thought came to mind, so abruptly that I lifted my head. "You're worried about writing something complete, a neat brown package of a piece. You're feeling pressure to make it good, whatever it is. Write about that." Everything was moving again then. Noah went to sleep, and I almost ran to my computer. I wanted desperately to write something clever, and I knew I could do it. Maybe I would end the last paragraph in the middle of a sentence, to emphasize that things don't always have to be perfect, tied with a bow, and that I was okay with this. Maybe, maybe, I felt the possibilities...But ten minutes into it, Noah woke up. I had barely gotten online because my dial-up is so freaking slow, and the tide turned again.

For a moment I was frustrated because I needed to write, to be a writer again, but it dissipated quickly. This was still a much better place to be - ready to write, but needing to tend to my dear babe. This position was a million times better than me with time on my hands but nary an insight in sight.

So we went through the next many hours of our day, welcoming two consecutive visitors at the house, Noah doing great even though he was cranky and needed sleep. Finally a half hour ago he let go to the quiet of the afternoon, and I was able to come back to the computer with less urgency and more curiosity as to what might happen next. And lookie here, I got out of the way enough that a post has worked itself out. As will my cold, and hopefully this drive I have to always be pushing forward in a straight line.

A mentor of mine once said, "Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good." I need to be even more forgiving with myself - the perfect needs to stand aside for the hideous, because at least then I'd keep writing, and it's the process of writing that keeps me alive, not the stack of finished copy. Another person said, and I wish I could remember who, "You have to write a lot of sad clown poems." Perhaps if I'd written more of those poems in the past two weeks, I'd have a masterpiece today. But starting again right now is what I have, and hopefully will have again, the next time I think it's really over for good.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sick Poem

A slurry several days:
cancelled plans
hot showers to clear my head
and soup to ease
the sickness.

How could anything flow
when time
and lying in bed
is the common denominator
of the days?

Was I ever creative?
Did I ever have anything to say?
Will words ever leap forward
from my mind again?
My muse drools
and drifts, frozen
like the deep cold snow.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Stuffy Nose Blues

don't take breathin' for granted
you gotta realize you got somethin' to lose
no don't take that clear winter air for granted
you might catch the stuffy nose blues

now i had me a husban'
who baked me sweet chocolate cake
filled the house with lovin' air, that husban'
but i cried "there gotta be a mistake!"

cause i had the stuffy nose blues
yeah, daddy, i had the stuffy nose blues

it makes life leaner
and people meaner
when they're sick, and lonely, and blue

take that walk
cruise by that park
and live all day out in the snow
'cause when you can't you wish
you could ditch yo' bed and you miss

those days without
the sleepy, tissue-box huggin', stuffy nose blues

Thursday, February 15, 2007


This blog will be a lovely place for me to practice restraint. While my poems have always been on the shorter side, I tend to talk fast and furious when I'm really fired up about something, so I wish for this to be a happy medium. If I can get to the point with just a few juicy examples, I'll sleep better at night. I remember in a first group therapy session many years ago, the facilitator asked us each to introduce ourselves and say a bit about why we were there. He noted that we should not try to offer our full laundry list of issues, as experiences would emerge through the weeks as they became relevant. Some other time I may comment on the spectacular assistance I received from those years of processing life with other people, but I'm practicing restraint here, remember?

Another reason I'm concerned with being concise comes from a rejection letter I received from a Maine literary journal oh, a hundred years ago, and still remember, word for word. Handwritten on the bottom of the form letter was the following comment about my poems: "These are quite skillful, but not pithy enough for Puckerbrush." I thought about omitting the name of the journal in that quote, but it really makes the sentence, and truly, as anyone knows who submits poems for publication, a handwritten rejection is still great.

I also want to practice being less restrained in some ways. One of my biggest concerns lately as a new mother is wanting to model Good Expression of My Emotions. In a previous post I mentioned that anger needs some work in this department. My ability to express anger in a positive way seems fundamentally connected to my sense of humor. This is unfortunate, because when I'm ticked off I am usually not laughing. In fact I often become Very Serious, because I think I quickly focus on restraining the emotion raining down inside me, instead of letting it rise. So, sometimes restraint good, sometimes restraint bad. This the kind I want to avoid, because it doesn't work at all and I usually leak out poison in the form of wretched sarcasm that creates more problems, instead of just saying "I'm ticked off" and moving on with my life.

I don't kid myself that making any progress at all will be easy. In the movie Pretty Woman, Richard Gere plays a rich businessman whose corporation frequently takes over and dismantles financially weaker companies. Because he is truly miserable, he meets the unlikely prostitute Julia Roberts, who helps him see the error in his ways as he falls in love with her. To sum up the ending, his grinchly heart grows multiple sizes. Anyway, at one point in the movie, they are talking about Gere's father and what a difficult relationship the two had, and Gere says something like, "It took me ten years of therapy to be able to say, 'I am very angry at my father.' I'll say it again, 'I am very angry at him.' " The writing is great, the delivery is great, and the reality is great.

What I am practicing trying to remember, is that when I do recognize my anger directly and outloud, my true sense of humor returns to help out. Not the dark, sarcastic humor, but the kind that is really funny and makes me feel lighter. Recent examples are proving this out:

1. The other day, I was extremely annoyed at myself for breaking a glass right when I needed to leave for work. I said to myself, "I want to destroy this whole kitchen by taking off my own head, adding a fuse, and flinging it full force just to watch the whole mess explode." I instantly felt better, because extreme thinking can be hilarious to me, and put things right back into perspective. I swept up the glass, and left the house.

2. Last week I decided that whenever I clenched my teeth because my boy was complaining loudly about something - like not wanting to lie down to sleep even though he can't see straight anymore - I would try and notice it, loosen my jaw, and think something like "Save your teeth. Forget the whales." So far this has been working, and instead of quietly bursting a blood vessel in my forehead, I realize I'm frustrated, and release it. I can go much more peacefully about the business of easing Noah to a sitting position and handing him his wind-up giraffe Andy for a few minutes until he rubs his eyes and starts to let go.

3. In January at a staff meeting at my office we began strategic planning. I went into the three-hour session with some grouchy anticipation, because there wasn't much planned structure for the session which worried me, and I'd also been tired from recent nights o' teething. I was certain that with needing to help Noah withstand this long meeting at the end of an already long work day, I would show myself to be the humorless wretch I was feeling. But then something wonderful happened. The facilitator asked us to go around the room and each briefly introduce ourselves and she mentioned that she felt sure she knew some of us already from another strategic planning process she had done with the organization several years ago. I piped up and said loudly "Do you ever really know anyone?" The room broke out in surprised and delighted laughter. My own grinchly attitude dissipated, and I was ready to go on with whatever happened next.

Humor can be a big help in releasing anger. Of course, not everything that makes me angry has a funny side. But most things at least have humanity written all over them, and taking time to notice this usually allows my anger to loosen up and come free from the restraints that bind it to me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day

brings a blizzard
outside and
a cold in my head.
Napping away the day
seems the prudent
no, loving
thing to do
for everyone involved.

Lolling on the bed next to me
in a milk-drunk haze,
my son rubs his fists in his eyes
and tries to keep playing.
He pulls his stuffed monkey close to his face
and growls into its fur.
He shakes his bumble bee rattle.

He rubs his eyes again
and energy spent,
he turns away from me, arches his back
and is gone.

His back
a stack of pancakes.
Cherubim got nothin'
on him.

My husband drapes a blanket over us
and throws an arm over his son.
Falling asleep
I think how
thick the love feels today
like sweet red jam
on a warm slice of bread.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Teething. I'd prefer locusts.

My baby boy is seven months old today. In the past three weeks, he has been cutting teeth. One sharp little nugget has already broken through his bottom gums, and one next to it looks to be close to the surface. He is restless and thrashy at night, mewling for milk almost every hour, and for the first time since his birth, I am sleep-deprived.

I love to sleep. It strikes me as a little odd that I am afraid of death, and yet have no issues with completely shutting my body down for half or more of every day. When I was a girl it was known among my friends that I could konk out in ten seconds, because during sleepovers they would count it down once the lights went out. Fast forward to my first weeks as a student at Bates College, and I remember being the only one of the four of us in my dorm room who went to bed at 11:00 p.m. I'd lie in bed watching a tiny television and say to myself, "I'm not going to lose who I am, and I like to go to bed early." So there. While I quickly gave up that pattern in favor of all-night card games and of course, My Studies, my overall commitment to sleep remained constant as I began the fine art of napping. I've never taken so many naps as I did on those Friday afternoons before meeting friends for dinner at Commons.

When I was pregnant last year, being exhausted was one of the new-mothery things I was most worried about, because I know I get testy when I don't have the full complement of shuteye hours that I need. I also can feel nauseous, panicky, and downright hopeless. Not the best shape to be in when caring for a newborn, I felt sure. More than one woman during that time told me to ignore all impulses to get things done when the baby is napping, and instead "sleep when baby sleeps."

Lo and behold, when Noah came home with us, he slept well. No, he was a Great Sleeper. We would all go to bed at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. in our big bed, and sleep until 6:00 or 7:00 the next morning. He would wake partially to nurse several times in the night, but there was no midnight rocking or pacing the rug with him at 4:00 a.m. He was a sleeper in the great tradition of his mother! On his six-month birthday, I felt sure that his sleeping patterns would only deepen, and we had it made.

Now...Well, I call him my Wild Bandicoot at night. I wake every morning not sure if I have caught the flu, or whether exhaustion has just caused a total failure of my sinuses. From the time we lay him in bed in the evening, Noah kicks his legs until they are on top of the blankets, pulls at his socks until he gets them off so he can stuff them in his mouth, then he arches his back and inches his way up the bed until his head is pressed against the wall and I'm sure he's going to compress his spine. I get up on one elbow, lift him up which is no small feat because he is now 25 pounds, move him down, feed him, and cover him. Over the next hour the same things happen again. Blankets off, kick, squirm, and up, up, up he goes. The same thing the next hour, and the next, and the next. It's alright in the light of day to write about it, it's really pretty funny, but at night when all my reason is gone and I get that queasy "I'm supposed to be sleeping" feeling, it's discouraging.

It's more than that. It's enraging. Interestingly, all of the motherly reading materials that have come my way recently have been hilarious accounts of the rage usually unspoken by mothers. It's been freeing to read, in the way watching every episode of "Sex and the City" on DVD was freeing. For those of you who haven't seen this now-over HBO television series, it involved four women who loved hard and lived to talk about it. Or was it lived hard and loved to talk about it? In any event, for this girl who has never had a girlfriend with whom I shared those kinds of secrets or experiences with, it was a watershed. In a similar way, reading about mothers who harbor dark desires to throw their children in the woods when they do that thing they always do, is a refreshing invitation to get real.

I don't do anger well. I like the way I think about anger - as an emotion that usually hides some deeper vulnerability. Isn't that nice? Sweet, really. But I am not nearly as sweet as that sounds. For example, I haven't said lately during these long nights, "It's late. I'm so tired. I don't have the patience to be the mother I wish I could be right now. I need someone to take care of me like I'm taking care of this baby. Gosh this is so hard for me." It doesn't happen like that, a touching sharing of deeper vulnerability. Instead, I really try to say nothing but of course something comes out and it's usually a hissed, "This is ridiculous. This is crazy." And then I throw the covers back in a melodramatic gesture of how put out I feel, and I move Noah down, feed him, cover him, and off we go again. It's not good. It's anger.

The A-word. I have never had good practice saying "I am angry." After 37 years, while I can surely recognize it, I have not yet turned toward it and befriended it. And what better time than the present, to take this part of me by the hand, or by the throat, and drag it close to my face so I can get a good look at it? A few nights ago Matthew and I were in bed, and Noah was lying between us playing with one of his bedtime toys. Matthew and I were talking about something, and I don't even remember what it was now, but I started to get angry and get that tone in my voice, and Matthew said he didn't want to talk about it any more because he was sure that Noah could tell I was angry. That silenced me, and I knew then and there it was time for some real change to take place. The tone went away, and in a calm voice I said that I didn't want Noah growing up thinking that it isn't okay to get angry and to show anger. As long as it is respectful. No hissing allowed. Even as I said the words, it was as though they had an echo, or they were getting cut into a stone tablet or something. This was my lesson to learn, this was my own painful new tooth.

Thursday, February 8, 2007


I am a person who tends to see, and sometimes create, connections between things. An object or experience often takes on symbolic meaning for me. What surprised me today is the stubbornness with which I cling to the thing even when I think I've let that meaning go. Even more surprising is that I can appreciate new meaning.

My husband and I have been cleaning out the basement. However, a clean basement is not the goal in itself. Rather, we have been looking for things to sell. For the past eighteen months, we have been on a financial journey together and last month we hit a milestone. With the help of financial guru Dave Ramsey, we went debt-free except for our mortgage. That's a big "except," but we celebrate that we are out from under my student loan, four credit cards, and a bank loan for my husband's Harley-Davidson. One of the ways we achieved this was to sell some of our things. We have said good-bye to an old bicycle, some leftover wood flooring, a bamboo papasan chair, and a pair of winter boots, among other things. It has been easy to relieve ourselves of all of this stuff, largely because we thought these things either had something wrong with them or were somehow used up.

Then we dug deeper into the piles, and I saw the neatly stacked boxes of law school textbooks that have been sitting there quietly since I moved into this house after Matthew and I got married. I have carried these boxes with me from apartment to apartment for ten years. In reality, these books have gone from storage unit to basement to garage to basement, as I have never wanted to live with them out in the open in my home or in my office. They were an important reminder of who I was once, and of something big I felt I had done by going to law school. I knew now that it was a perfect time to finally part with them, because I don't need that particular reminder that I am someone anymore. So I decided to sell them. I placed an ad in Uncle Henry's, our local swap and sell magazine. The first week, no calls. I lowered the price and ran the ad again. This week, I got the call. I felt so excited to free up space downstairs, and to get the books off their slow path to moldy destruction. I was going to set the albatross free, and myself too in the process!

I brought the books upstairs to load into my car, and then it happened. I decided to take a quick look through the boxes one last time. Instantly, they protested, "But you loved Criminal Law - that's what made you go to law school!" "What if you need me when you write your own will!" "You've always wanted to go into mediation and you'll be sorry you kicked me to the curb!" The chatter was loud and took me by surprise. I felt a small panic, because I'd already agreed on a price with the buyer, I knew I didn't want the books, but I suddenly felt I had to keep them - what was going on? If I cared so much about them, why have I always relegated them to the basement? I closed the boxes and stacked them by the basement steps, neither here nor there.

I let the books sit a day, and then went back down the stairs. I looked at each one of them and asked them to help me with my confusion - to tell me why they were so special and why I should still care. They individually made their arguments, and I quickly noticed they all started with "You might..." and "What if..." all except for one. This was a bound packet of course materials created by my most admired professor, Professor Gregory.

Professor Gregory was the one whose thought process was like the system of roads in Washington, DC. Take a wrong turn and you could end up on a dangerous street, a place where no one should go alone. His classes were the reason I persevered through law school. He held a class rapt, some students out of fear or confusion, but not me. I was excited, thrilled by intellectual discovery, which always came as a surprise in his classroom. He walked with us in that he acted the part of the student himself, wild with humor and dry wit and the mannerisms of someone living centuries ago. I loved him and felt he was kindred. He loved the law and all of its strange ways, and he made me unafraid to try and tame the beast too. We stayed in touch after I graduated, and when the news of his death came a few years later, I cried for the loss to the planet of this special man. I did not attend his memorial service, but instead prayed and thanked him when I went to Mass that week.

Flipping through the collection of his materials, I said outloud, "They aren't making books like this any more." They aren't making people like him either. The other old textbooks now showed themselves to be ballast, a layer of nothingness around this thing that is still worth keeping. And it's coming upstairs with me.

Monday, February 5, 2007


Hundreds of small, white slips
some faded, some new
document all the wrong details of my life.

I've shopped at the worst stores -
the ones that pay pennies
to sell all the plastic things.
Each time I went in the automatic doors
for a bargain
my dear values stayed outside
breathing quietly on the glass,

It's easy to ask
"What are the choices?"
and harder to make the right ones.

Big Oil lurks in my lip balm
and Chinese factory workers
hum at me through the reeds
in the basket on the basement steps.
Evil came in disguise
as all my favorite things
and I bought it,
so cheaply I almost thought
I was the one with the upper hand.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Wee Hours

My husband sleeps on
while Noah and I lie awake
listening to the eager plow drive by.
Lights and rumbling in the dark
draw my young son's eyes to the window
then to me,
"It's snowing," I whisper,
"Let's get up and see."
I point up while I say this,
and he smiles.

I pat my hip
and ask if he needs a diaper.
He smiles again.
This time it's just a diaper
and not a whole new set of pajamas.

In the wee hours
Noah plays on the patchwork
on the floor
with a ball and a tambourine.
I feed the cat
then sit nearby - writing, watching, listening.
He breathes through his mouth,
the plow makes another pass,
and Noah grows.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Early Worries about Later Relationships

So as a new mother, one of the dawning uncomfortable realizations I have had is this: while my son now smiles infectiously at me when he wakes up from a nap and I am there, or when I walk into a room and he looks up from his toys and sees me, at some foreseeable point in his life his skin may actually crawl when he is in the same room with me. I most likely will embarrass him if not outright offend him. Can this really be true?

Yesterday this idea became downright shockingly real to me as my husband and I took a walk down the street we live on and talked about our own relationships with our parents. "Interesting" might be a good public way to describe them. At times very supportive and loving, at other times somewhat estranged, often very electric on one end of the continuum or other. I said to Matthew, "Surely not everyone has such eventful relationships with their parents, surely there are people who enjoy a relationship that tends more toward the middle?" He first said that he thought that is rare. When I started to argue with him, he laughed and asked me to "Name some people, no in fact name just one person [who has a relatively smooth time relating to their parents]." I fell silent as I quickly inventoried my friends and co-workers. A heavier silence fell on me like a large tree limb when I couldn't think of anyone. Not one person.

I recovered quickly and tried to walk the perimeter of the issue and create an exception for us. "Maybe that's because most people have their children when they are younger, in their 20s, so they don't really know themselves all that well, so when kids come along everyone in the picture is growing up and into themselves at the same time? Maybe because we are older new parents we have more identity stability and can let our child's identity be his own? Not get so enmeshed?" Even as I floated this, I realized it was against probability. Not get enmeshed in your children's lives? And we're just all done growing our identities at 37 and 41 years of age, are we?

In the first few months that Noah was with us, it hit me hard one day that he would not remember these days. These blissful first months of his life. We have not been sleep-deprived, and he has not been colicky. He has not been sick, not even with a runny nose. It's been absolutely joyous. My journal chronicles the fun of bathtime, the long days of napping and nursing, laughing back and forth at each other, him discovering his hands, babbling, learning baby sign language, and just last week getting his toes into his mouth for the first time. These six months have been the best of my life, and yet these times are not shared memories that Noah and I will reminisce about together when he is older. This reality is harsh.

I said to Matthew last night with no small amount of despair in my voice, "I didn't really start getting angry at my mother until I was in my 30s, so maybe by the time Noah has problems with me I'll be dead." My husband is very patient with me, and said nothing.

This morning, the sun rose and I woke thinking of a close friend who has a good relationship with her parents. I've known them all for many years, and they have not had any negatively dramatic episodes to the best of my knowledge. They live nearby each other, and talk or get together regularly. This made me feel much better, because with one example there must be others. Of course there is hope for me.

I also suddenly remembered that my dear son is not the only one changing and growing around here. Someone said to me last spring that the nine months of pregnancy are not just for making a baby, they're also for making the parents. And these first months of Noah's life have not just been full of his firsts, they are mine as well. So for now, I am this kind of mother to him, raising this young creature who would certainly perish in short order if I did not care for all of his needs - feeding, clothing, diapering, holding. And while his body grows I can see and appreciate that trust and security is also blossoming inside him. Later, I will still be the person who did these things for him. In addition, I will most likely be someone new - including, hopefully, the mother he will need then. I can only hope that I will show up in those moments, for him and for myself, like I am now.