Archive for September, 2011


Use your words

September 30, 2011

This morning was what I’ve come to see as a typical morning. It had all the usual hustling and scurrying and how-fast-can-I-down-this-caffeine craziness that’s been part of our lives since Dot was born.

N was helping Dot into a fresh diaper and reading her a story as I popped my contact lenses in, and, from the bathroom, I heard her say, “Shoes!” This made sense. I’d left her little white tennis shoes on top of the pile of books next to the rocking chair, aka, the “read it” chair in her room. It was earlier than usual to get her into her clothes, but after some negotiating, I managed to get her socks on, and then a pair of pants. The pants, however, were upsetting for some reason.

This is one piece of knowledge that came with parenthood that still sometimes surprises me, that pants, or socks, or a certain color of shirt, can be deeply emotional. Anyway, these were clearly upsetting pants, and Dot didn’t want the shoes on after the trauma of being forced to wear pants. Not unusual, any of this.

What was new, is this. After we’d pointed to the shoes and she’d said, “No!” several times, Dot looked at us and in her most seriously husky tone of voice said, “Sad. Be-bop. Be-bop sad.” (Be-bop is the nickname she uses to refer to herself most often these days.)

This is the first time she’s clearly connected an expression of emotion to herself, through words. It didn’t break my heart, but I felt it crack just a little.

I know that it’s good to express your feelings, and I know that learning to describe and express feelings is a big deal, and I’m happy that Dot is learning to do it. I also know that sadness is part of life and that one of the worst things I can do as a parent is shelter Dot so much that she doesn’t end up with tools to deal with sadness.

But I don’t want her to be sad. Not ever. Not even over something like having to wear pants. Not even when I think that it’s kind of funny that she feels so sad about having to wear pants.

Why oh why couldn’t I have picked out happy pants?

My heart trembles for our future, for her future. As we start thinking of how to talk to her about her brother (and by we, I mean mostly me, since N would, I think, prefer that we wait until Dot is much older before we talk to her about Teddy), I hurt for the fact that she was born into this particular sadness, into the loss of a brother, and that I can’t protect her from it. I can try to help her come to an understanding that works for her, and I can be honest, and I can try to create a sense of safety so that she can tell me how she feels and can ask questions as she has them. I can show her that life is an amazing gift, and that she’s surrounded by love, and that we love her and her brother forever.

But I can’t bring him back for her, can’t erase what his loss has done to us or the fact that it’s helped shape who we are as a family. The ways that Teddy’s death have shaped us haven’t been all bad – it’s definitely a mixed bag – but we are different than we were, different than we would have been, and that is one of the things that is hard to talk about.

I worry that I won’t have the right words, won’t know how to tell this story, which is her story, too.

We spend so much time encouraging the development of language skills with very young persons; we encourage talking about anger, sadness, and fear instead of acting them out. “Use your words,” say the teachers and care givers, “Use your words.” In spite of all this, as we turn into adults, something happens to most of us. Talking about feelings becomes harder. The need to appear positive becomes stronger. We start using our words to gloss over such unimportant things as how we are feeling and to move onto more palatable topics, like the weather, or the next work project. And all of a sudden, I realize I’m an adult woman who has trouble saying, “Sad. Erica. Erica is sad.”

And it’s not just me. I see so many students every year who are clearly confused and yet who are so obviously terrified that something terrible will happen if they can’t make it look like they know what they’re doing. I see so many people apologize for asking a question at the library’s public reference desk that exists precisely so that there is a place to come with questions. We treat emotions, even common everyday ones like uncertainty, as things that need to be ignored or set aside in order to get on with what is important, and sometimes this makes a lot of sense, but sometimes the emotions are a big part of what’s important.

I worry about those words. I worry that if I say them when I am sad, people will think that all I am is sad, or that I’m sad forever, or that I’m selfishly calling attention to myself. I worry that I need to couch them in other words so that they aren’t so stark and plain, that I need to qualify them, draw attention away from them, deny them.

I spend so much time thinking of the best way to put things, of the prettiest words, or the words calculated to get the most support for a project, or the most professional words. My life is full of working with words and awareness of the power of words. Maybe this is a small part of why it is hard to say, baldly, “I am sad.”

But if I can re-learn to say this, as my daughter has only now learned to do, with honesty and the belief that these words are important, without the fear that they’ll be used to describe me forever, I’ll be better able to tell Dot about her brother, better able to help her feel safe and understood, better at letting her know that it’s okay to be sad, better at a lot of things, really.

I believe that. I’ll work on it. You know, while I look for some happier pants.


What do you have to lose?

September 21, 2011

A man is standing on the campus mall with a microphone, right now, right as I type this.

When I walked by on my way to work, this is what I heard: “You’re twenty years old with your whole life in front of you. What do you have to lose? God is real: don’t go to a man, go to God. And if God isn’t real, what do you have to lose?”

This strikes me as awful on many levels – one of the reasons I struggle so with my faith is that I don’t believe that faith should be shallow or entirely self-interested. I’d love to believe that there is a god who cares about the minutia of my life, who sorrows with me, who notices even the smallest and most personal of tragedies. I’d get a lot of comfort out of that if I could believe in it. If I could believe in it again. But I can’t base my belief on whether or not it would be comforting to believe a certain way. That shortchanges me, God (if there is a god), faith, and belief. It doesn’t have truth at the heart of it, and faith, to be worth having, should have truth at the heart of it.

I miss my faith, but I won’t settle for a new faith that’s based on my need for comfort. Not that comfort is a bad thing – very much the opposite, in fact – but I want mine to come from a place of truth and strength.

Hearing what amounts to, “So what if you live a lie, so long as it brings you happiness,” makes me want to howl. It’s a terrible, horrible argument, and one, I suspect, more geared toward getting bodies into church than toward helping people find faith. (It’s no coincidence that these evangelists show up at this point in the year, when our newer students are starting to feel overwhelmed by coursework and homesickness really begins to set in.)

And, well, what if one of these college kids buys what he’s selling. What if she takes on a faith and that faith doesn’t stand up to what her life brings to her – questions, sickness, natural disasters, or a dead baby? What if she’s left bereft of, not only a loved one who died too soon, but of her belief that there is meaning to the universe and that there is a god who cares for her? She’s lost a lot, to answer your question, Mr. Microphone Man. She’s lost a lot.

I much prefer, “Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.”* At least it doesn’t ask for belief on the one hand and then on the other say, if you live your whole life as a lie, what does it matter?

So please, man with a microphone, stop trying to sell what shouldn’t be sold. If you can’t talk about faith and truth and belief meaningfully, shut the fuck up. Just because these kids are young doesn’t mean they don’t deserve something true.

Rant over.


*Attributed to Ernest Renan


Go, Cubs

September 19, 2011

N and I probably would have fallen in love without baseball, but it so happened that we began dating in the magic summer of 2003. The Cubs were brilliant that year. Prior, Wood and Zambrano were on the mound and our big bats were swinging away. Northsiders held their breath as the loveable losers claimed the wildcard spot in the playoffs and proceeded to work their way toward the world series. In Dusty we trusty, we chanted, hoping that the end to decades of dashed hopes and big losses were in sight. A dear friend and her mother watched each playoff game together, holding onto a little plush goat.

And N taught me about baseball. One of the reasons I knew he was the one for me was the way he answered my questions without laughing at me, the way he’d say, “You know, that’s a good question,” and then proceed to explain to me one of the finer points of the game. After years of being laughed at when I asked sports questions at home (admittedly they were often naive questions, but still), it was wonderful and welcoming to feel so comfortable asking about they mysteries of baseball, to not feel like an outsider when faced with a sport. I got to know the players, to see the beauty in a group of very different individuals coming together as a team. I learned about pitching and curve balls and sliders and forced outs and the kind of crazy hope that is known to all baseball fans, but that is particularly strong in Cubs fans. I learned that some beautiful, amazing, and incredibly unlikely things can happen at key moments in baseball, and came to appreciate the beauty of statistics. And I accomplished a lot of this in the midst of afterglow, which I highly recommend, if you can arrange it.

Also, the fact that N loves both Jane Austen and baseball? I still find that sexy as hell.

When I was living in Champaign, I’d drive up to see him in Chicago on weekends, and we’d order a pizza and eat it on his bed, cheering on our Cubbies. We listened to the games on the radio when driving back & forth to see each other, and one magical afternoon as we were driving to Chicago together, we stopped at a chain burger place, asked if the game was on their television, and it was. It was a magical summer, a magical autumn, a magical year. And the Cubs were a part of all that.

They didn’t win the World Series, of course. Baseball can be brutal and ruthless and random. Much like, well, life. Any pitcher can have a bad day, or even a slightly off day, while the batters he faces down all seem to be having their best day ever. A fan can reach over the side of the bleachers and grab a ball that is still in play. A rival team can suddenly cohere in ways that are beautiful to see unless you are on the side of the other team. The magic of a season can fade.

They say that Cubs fans deal better with disappointment than non-Cubs fans, that the annual experiences of dealing with disappointment somehow prepare you to face other disappointments in your life. If that’s the case, I wonder if being a Cubs fan has helped my grieving process along in ways I don’t even know. I know it’s been a part of the grief – the piece of Teddy’s clothing I cried over the most was his infant-sized Cubs hat. That hat signifies so much – the ache of a lost son who would have been another Cubs fan, who would have played catch with his father and seen baseball parks, and played little league, and had favorite players. Who knows, maybe he would have been able to see them win someday.

His sister has just stopped wearing that hat. Her head is finally too big for it and she’s moved on to a new favorite – a denim newsboy cap with a flowered band above the brim. It looks adorable on her, but I miss her wearing her brother’s hat. It hurts to think of packing that hat away again. Not as much as it hurt the first time I packed it away. Still.

Oh, little hat. I wish you had twice the amount of wear and tear on you. I wish Teddy had been able to wear you. I wish he’d been the one to teach Dot to say, “Go, Cubbies!”

But here’s another gift baseball gave to me: just because the magic of a season is over doesn’t mean that there isn’t still magic. Disappointment, even grief – they aren’t the whole story though sometimes it feels like they are. I would have loved you forever if you’d been born to a long life of wearing baseball hats, Teddy, even if you decided to become a Yankees fan as an act of teenage rebellion (though I might not have laundered your Yankees cap very carefully), but I will love you forever now, too.

And, who knows, maybe where you are the Cubs always win. Save us a seat, my love.


More on Knuffle Duckling and Attachment

September 9, 2011

First, a book plug:

In my last post I referenced Mo Willems’ tremendously good childrens’ book, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.

For me, one of the greatest joys of parenting a living child is sharing books and reading. I say this even though Dot is very active and busy and I’ve had to become something of an expert on reading abridged versions of many of her favorite books. It’s fascinating to see how powerful illustrations are to her right now. She isn’t very interested in lyrical language unless she’s tired enough to relax into it. While rhythm is appreciated, she’s much more into the meat of things – “Cat. Black. Mee-ow!” is a typical comment right now. But she loves Knuffle Bunny‘s illustrations and language, and seems to have a keen understanding of what is going on in that story. Knuffle Bunny is about a lost toy, about communication and language, about parent-child relationships, and it’s one of those magical books that is both meaningful and fun to read for adults as well. I remember one of my best mentors from my Library program talking about the importance of this when I took a class on children’s literature, and it’s true that if you’re going to end up reading a book over and over and over, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor if you pick out something really good.

Now, onto some deeper reflections about Dot’s Knuffle Duckling (also known as KD):

I was probably more upset that her toy had been left behind during their trip to the park than she would have been. I was, seriously, ready to cry. And, even though I am now in the process of finding some duckling replicas, I know in my heart that if KD is lost, permanently lost, a replacement won’t be the same, even if it satisfies Dot.

I have always been this way. I cling to things – old email messages, old shoes, clothes I’ll never wear again, old letters. When I was very young and my mom helped me rearrange my bedroom furniture I was unable to sleep until we moved it all back. I took my security blanket with me to college. I’m a clinger. I’m attached. I’m the opposite, I think, of an enlightened Buddhist. I imbue material objects with meaning and then I clutch them to me until they crumble away.

I think in some cases, this has gotten worse since Teddy died. I couldn’t hold onto him, but I still try. I hold onto every memory and even onto a lot of the pain because that is what I have left to hold on to. I’ve relaxed my grip some as the years passed, but that’s never been intentional, and I think I’ve tightened my grip at times, too. We will probably never scatter Teddy’s ashes because I will probably always need to know that I can clutch that little urn to my chest like some melodramatic maternal character from a Dickens novel.

When we had cable, I would watch Hoarders and, of course, be horrified by the mess and the dirt and the way that belongings can take over a person’s life in such debilitating ways, but I felt real and deep sympathy for the hoarders themselves. I understand the attachment to things, and how things can be more than just things. And while I could see that the people helping to clean the sagging, overflowing houses were being helpful and caring and sensible, I hated them a little for the ruthlessness it takes to look at something that is precious and meaningful to another human being, and call it junk, even when that junk is harmful.

What saves me from becoming a hoarder, besides a husband who is vehemently opposed to clutter (and who already puts up with a lot of it out of love for me) is the fact that I give so much emotional energy to selected objects that I don’t have enough energy to spare to engage with the quantity of objects that would turn my home into material for reality television.

I’m pretty nonchalant about most of Dot’s toys, but the ones she has started to favor are a different case. To me, KD is now a sort of person. A small, yellow person with orange feet that Dot will move back and forth while she says, “Wiggle, wiggle.” A small, slightly dirty little person that Dot has “taught” to give high fives. If I could install a locator chip in KD, I would do it in a heartbeat. When I think of KD getting lost, I get a strange hollow feeling in the bottom of my stomach.

I’m pretty sure I’m over-reacting, in addition to anthropomorphizing and projecting. After all,¬† we don’t know if KD is a passing crush or a long-term love for Dot; it’s impossible to tell right now.

This may all be a long-winded way of saying, I hope that losing Teddy doesn’t exacerbate some inherent, lurking craziness of mine into full-blown craziness, making me a crazy mother. Making me a bad mother. I worry to see my grief sneaking so insidiously into such small daily aspects of, not just my life, but Dot’s life. I do know, after all, that toys (and hats – we’ve lost three this summer) come and go and get lost and that the only reason for me to be truly upset about this is if Dot is upset; it’s my job to sympathize and provide a safe place for her to express her feelings. If KD becomes her true toy love and traditional object, and becomes lost, I can’t be the principal mourner because I will need to comfort the principal mourner.

I guess I should feel¬† lucky she didn’t fall in love with a teddy bear. That would just be too damned Freudian.




Welcome, September

September 6, 2011

Autumn touches my cheek with her cool fingers. “It’s not going to be easy,” she tells me, “but it will be easier.”

The Labor Day Weekend was lovely and also a test of endurance. Saturday was fun, Sunday was nice, and yesterday was, well, a little much, actually. Dot learned to climb on the bookshelves, and her favorite new activities seem to be pulling all the books off the shelves and toys out of her toy bucket and then strewing them (rather merrily, grant you) across the floor. She found an old bottle of baby lotion, got the cap off, and smeared it all over the butcher block kitchen island so that our kitchen now smells of baby powder. She went on a walk to the park with her daddy and lost her favorite toy duckling and I pushed Daddy to go back and look for it even though he was hot and tired. It’s not the hard-hearted woman you need to beware; it’s the soft-hearted one, who is pushed to hard-heartedness at need.

Duckling was found. Duckling, who is now known as Knuffle Duckling, slept in our bed last night, with Dot, who woke up in tears at 4:00 a.m. and needed many stories and my nipples to chew on before she could settle back down. She only bites a little, and only when she’s very tired and uncomfortable, but she has a full set of chompers, and that place where there was a choice of whether to lie there and play the role of both comforter and comfort object or to get up and hold her till she cried herself to sleep was a very, very dark place.

We staggered out of bed this morning like zombies, N and I. Like undercaffeinated zombies who hadn’t eaten enough brains. We managed to get clothes on and Dot in her car seat and headed off to work later than we wanted to go, Dot clutching duckling in her hand with a little baby death grip. Because we were later than usual, there was more traffic than usual. If N was the sort to swear under his breath, he would have done it. Instead he just stewed, quietly.

Toys from home aren’t allowed at the childcare center, and we were afraid of losing Knuffle Duckling again, so we had to pry the little yellow thing from Dot’s grip as we took her out of the car, which led to a beautifully dramatic, “Duuuuuucky! Duuuuuuuuckling! Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucky!” all the way down the hallway. Once in the classroom, I thought, one of the teachers could help us. Dot loves her teachers. Unfortunately, the room was full, breakfast was being served, and one of Dot’s classmates had just thrown up all over the floor by one of the breakfast tables, so there weren’t any arms to spare. We finally left her, tear-stained but contentedly picking strawberries out of her oatmeal, and N drove me to a drop-off spot near my building.

Except the combination of foot and vehicle traffic was especially thick by then and it took longer to drive than it would’ve for me to walk. A fucking garbage truck was blocking our lane (with the help of two buses, several cars, and lots of pedestrians) and N was looking very stoic and simmering when he dropped me off and we could feel each other trying not to say, “This is all your fault!”

I arrived to find an email message from someone who’d like me to teach a class at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, which I will probably do even though it’s nice if I have some advanced notice to prep the family for this sort of thing, and now I’m sitting in my office, taking my lunch hour very early in order to gather my thoughts. I think that it’s very possible that Dot has the beginnings of another ear infection, which would explain last night. This morning. Whatever. Also, the family across the street moved away, with all their worldly possessions in a big trailer. All their worldly possessions that is, except for their sweet black and white kitten, the sole survivor of the cat family they half-assedly took care of, so she is now ours by default which would be lovely if we didn’t have two elderly set-in-their-ways felines living with us already. But this kitten was my favorite, and I can at least make sure she gets spayed and vaccinated and then try to find her a decent home before winter sets in.

Also, I have a cold.

And you know what? Still better than most of August.